2016 December: “Life Happens”

This journal was supposed to be an aid for my practice. But I’ve become much distracted lately, and all my established methods of organising myself have gone with the wind.

Life happens, and in this journal, I don’t want to omit that fact.

But, I am writing now. And it is because I remember that I want to understand what constitutes good practice in the arts, what kind of circumstances promote a healthy brand of making, or the kind of making I’d like to be busy with. How can I get myself into such a situation so that I can be hovering near, on the cusp of the kinds of unspoken things only art seems to be able to tease out?

I have a practice already. But I am always looking at ways to nurture it. It is like a living thing that carries on with or without me, but that would flourish with some attention.

I like this word, practice. It allows me to identify with all the martial arts masters, Jedis, saints, pilgrims, orphan heros of adventure tales, Robin Hoods, and other ascetic monklike figures whom I’ve rather revered since early childhood.

I like the modesty but also solitude implied by “practice”. I like the way it can be conceived as taking place across the span of an hour, or of a whole lifetime. Practice is a solid word that describes a system intended for consistent change; it is flexible, but robust, like a muscle.

I like to imagine myself as the bare ascetic artist, with my only possession, my sole power, to be this mysterious practice that proposes a way of looking as well as a way of doing.

I come with a host of cultural references and I am situated in the cloud they form around me. I am all the books, films, pictures, stories and conversations that orbit around me, a specific concoction of these elements, and if we keep picturing me as a hot brewing soup, then my whole lifetime pans alongside patient additions to my mix, gentle evaporations from my mass, and slow, persistent stirring.

My practice allows me to exert a certain agency within this predicament of being constituted by my surroundings, by my history. To engage a practice means to approach neighbouring cultural artefacts and people with a certain bias, a particularity. It means being nifty and mischievously resourceful, juggling bits of culture here and there and making uncomfortable unions between others. If I believe that something as complex as a being like me is so thoroughly constituted by my situation in culture, then this idea of meddling with my own ingredients is really quite provocative. The notion of repurposing cultural artefacts, each implying an intricate web of relations to their own connotations, suggests you can in principle, as a “mere” node in this network, fabricate seriously powerful hybrid stories or objects.

Whether instigated by an artist or not, all actions and events (utterances, shopping habits, weather patterns, conflicts, elections, migration patterns, family politics, market gossip, traffic jams, you name it), stretch and rearrange the network of our respective clouds of coherence. But perhaps it can be said that artists make it their vocation to become good listeners of these cultural artefacts as an object of study, only to apply interferences and deviations from these familiar concepts and thus produce new informed artefacts (i.e. cultural artefacts concocted through informed applications of their connotative ingredients, as opposed to the kinds of new artefacts that appear anyway through a steady evolution of aggregate social behaviour and other intervening events).

A cliché has a certain ring to it, for instance. You can hear a cliché sing a certain note, if at times a rather sickly one. It has a certain hue, a certain apprehendable quality. You’ve seen it appear in culture, time and again, with slight variations here and there but with definitive reiterative streaks that make this sort of scene impossible not to recognise through a filter of so many layers of historical appearances. The history of a cliché is most complex (it has become a cliché only by virtue of its inexhaustible usage in a variety of contexts), yet the great achievement of culture is that it can truncate such a magnitude of history into a tone or a hue in the present. It is a cultural feeling.

Feeling is not an dubious concept. It is one practical approach to knowledge that, like the reflexive gestures of a basketballer’s hand, makes habits of a lot of intellectual assumptions, in favour of focusing on higher level problems. I use intuition to deduce that a loved one is feeling down in the dumps without analysing how I came to that conclusion – in order to approach the problem of their mood and finding a way of helping them out of it and cheering them up. I use feeling to rapidly return potential solutions, by referring to a repertoire of cheering-up activities I have practised myself in the past. It’s clear to see how feeling is practicable, through simultaneously taking a cognitive position of ignorance.

Yes, feeling is productively ignorant. Is it not appropriate at certain times, to turn a blind eye to a whole strata of considerations, as a basketball player turns a blind eye to the problem of making a ball bounce by relying instead on a learned pattern of assumptious manual maneuvers, so that attention may be diverted to producing higher-level effects? This self inflicted blindness is empowering in certain situations.

In the arts, feeling the rhythms of cultural artefacts allows the artist to maneuver them quickly in ways such that their new fangled forms are likely to be resonant and legible to an audience thanks to the reliance on their artistic intuition. Artistic intuition here is like the basketballer’s ability to bounce a ball without giving the task a second thought, and is the knowledge of specific cultural artefacts as feelings acquired through dedicate study (watching a lot of movies, reading a lot of books, browsing a lot of web pages). The artist summons together cultural Frankensteins, using intuitive forms of action as a means of yielding quick yet coherent results. The results themselves emerge so quickly so as to surprise the artist herself, as experiments do sometimes.

So it is not difficult to see how artists can be criticised for their ignorance and anti intellectual behaviour. But it must be understood that intuitive practices can be strategically conducive to approaching certain kinds of problems. We seem to accept this in the world of sport. Athletes are not criticised for ignoring the basic mechanics of their running legs or failing to stop and consider, with each swing of the racket, where and how to grip it. Their very skillfulness depends on taking for granted a whole stack of levels of engagement with their sport. Taking these mechanics for granted opens up a whole playing field that is all the more interesting because it is supported by such a deserved string of ignorance – we watch in awe because that playing field is not accessible to us unskilled players that must still invest all our faculties of attention in the lower-level activities that support the sport’s complexity (bouncing a ball, running with good form, holding a racket properly).

That kind of ignorance is a strategic enabler of higher level practicable engagements with material. In the arts, I do use feeling to recognise narrative patterns, bodily gestures, or resonant colours and all their appended connotative meanings (“that particular kind of orange looks zesty, like a Tango advertisement, like a bursting peach, like something typically complemented by a marshmellow pink, like an EasyJet plane”). I also use feeling to inform my newfangling juxtapositions.

I could of course, later open the ingredients of my art works and follow the genealogical channels of their making, tracing their connections and why they mean what they mean in the now, and in this specific manifestation. And though this endeavour is hugely interesting (and I do practice this kind of analysis often), I don’t think it is essential for an excellent art practice, just as I don’t think it is essential for a sportist to study the mechanics of his whirring legs to beat an Olympic record and optimize his performance. The sportist’s body needs nutrition and practice, and an attention to that practice such that trial and error lead to finer nuances in movement that expand his abilities. An artist employs her savvy awareness of cultural languages to construe new notions, whether material or otherwise, that may or may not produce this or that effect in an audience. But repeated practice – attentive practice – will more likely reveal works that summon together feelings in other members of this shared culture that speak things one would have thought unspeakable, unthinkable. These works are piercing in some way. They reshuffle all the referents from which they are constituted, throwing a new light on “that kind of orange” or “that cliché” or “that historical event” within a beholder’s arsenal of understanding.

I have just written a whole lot about what practice is in general terms, or rather, trying to figure out what practice is through writing. But I want to talk more specifically about my own practice again.

What does it need?

My practice is a living organism. It does the job pretty much on its own. Art gets made.

When does art get made, in my case?

At the most unexpected times, it would seem.

  • Sometimes, it is when I am feeling rotten. That’s not to say I think I need to feel rotten in order to make art. But I suppose after I’ve felt rotten for a good while, I let go of certain anxieties and vanities. Hitting rock bottom, so to speak, I feel I have less to lose from that point, and I suspect that is an attitude that is quite helpful to my practice. Not being brave, but rather, not seeing at all what I have to be afraid of.
  • I think fear is not so good for my practice. But somehow I spend a lot of time being fearful, fearing away until I am bored or I hit rock bottom or something so exciting happens that it jostles me out of my fear.
  • Being private helps. There is a lot of embarrassment involved in practice. Until I come to terms with being so carefree so as to not feel embarrassed following practice, I am going to need my privacy.
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