Letter 11.

Dear Katherine,

There’s a temptation in life when one is confronted with an event that is ego shattering (cracking, hurting or smudging) to transmute that smudge to all the other parts of your life and thus be blind to all that is valuable around you, to be ungrateful when there remains much of light and colour in your world. This human difficulty or even inability to see the world with computer eyes, that is only what is there and not what is projected, is I think, one of our more interesting qualities and well obviously creates this whole subjective vs objective situation. This is a dichotomy I find endlessly interesting, especially when considering how to make sense of oneself  both as an individual and within the field of human interrelations, where what you’re dealing with is a whole constellation of subjectivity not just your own modestly burning star. Alternately when confronted with painful feelings you could take the approach of attempting to amputate them from yourself because they hurt so and you think that if you could only cut them off or out of you, you would be rid of them. Unfortunately in my experience there isn’t a simple method of amputation available and if you take this strategy all you end up doing is denying your own experience whilst it remains smouldering beneath the rug you hid it under.

Jung describes in his memoir ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections,’ that when he was growing up he came to conceive of two different him-selves. No. 1 had dealings with the outside world and thus held all his flaws, pettiness and fear. And No.2 was the him he experienced when alone or in nature and contained his feelings of vastness and peace. No.2 was also assured in his own innate ‘rightness’. Jung writes something to the effect that ‘No.2 knew he was worthy of himself’. I was impressed how Jung at a young age had conceived so clearly these two aspects of himself, not only conceived them as distinct different identities but had even visualised them (No.2 was a man from the 15th century wearing a frock coat). No.2 was echoed in the second personality he felt emanating from his Mother. He describes it in this (I think rather lovely) passage about her;

…She was somehow rooted in deep, invisible ground, though it never appeared to me as confidence in her Christian faith. For me it was somehow connected with animals, trees, mountains, meadows and running water, all of which contrasted so strangely with her Christian surface and her conventional assertions of faith. This background corresponded so well to my own attitude that it caused me no uneasiness; on the contrary, it gave me a sense of security and the conviction that here was solid ground on which one could stand.

As you know I started studying art therapy this year. One of our first assignments was to make a box that represented our inner and outer self that we would later present to class. A box being anything really that inferred an inside and an outside. Seeing as I have a strong introspective bent and a tendency to over-share my first thought was,

‘Wonderful, I could do this assignment in my sleep!’

‘I’ve been practising for this assignment my whole life! 

My bravado did not prepare me for how difficult I actually found it. Imagine sitting down at your studio desk and asking yourself:

Hmmm what out of this general creative detritus (paint, glitter, glue, scraps of paper) in my studio most represents me?

But what is ‘me’ anyway?

There are all the things I think about myself, are they true? I’ll probably embarrass myself with mis-interpretation.

What about those things that I do know about myself but do not want to share with a group of 30 near strangers?

And so on…Making this box made me a great deal more agitated than I had expected and it opened up a whole new box of emotional worms so to speak, which just lead me to start drinking some cans of gin and tonic that I found in the studio fridge. This was an attempt to de-wire the over thinking part of my brain that was paralysing my attempted creativity. After relating this story to a friend of mine she joked that I should’ve brought the can of G&T into class and told people that the slightly crushed can was my outer self and the half drunk luke-warm gin was my inner self…  So like many things in my life the process was plagued with self doubt and like many things in life ended up just fine.

To represent my outer self I made this sculpture out of rocks and tape and twine.  This is my awkward yet cheerful outer self that is imperfect, yet taped together and carrying on.

Outer Self

Look she’s smiling, it’s not so bad! She seems to say…

To express something of my inner self I went through the many journals I’ve kept religiously over the last 10 or so years. Language is how I express difficult, painful, intense feelings that cannot be simply struck out of me, as-well as the most memorable significant experiences of my life, so it seemed fitting to include language in the piece. I placed words from my journals in fortune cookies as a small offering to others.This was nice, because upon reflection later I realised that this interactive gesture  showed how at this point in my life I have a strong drive to give/ take/ be and play with others. This came as a surprise for me , I was no longer the lonely thinker in isolation, I was taking that experience and using it to reach out to others. During the presentation I also unfolded the cardboard box I’d carried the objects in so that it was a flat plane. I then used it as a drawing surface and drew a diagram outlining five distinctive emotions that have formed the foundations of my felt experience.

  • Anger, also related to  desire – a positive clear space. (red)
  • Oceanic transcendent space, calm and blue (sometimes experienced and sometimes merely aspirational) this space is coupled with a gold shimmer.
  • The physiological layering of experience (from all those days and years and moments lived) which I visualised as brown layers as though part of the earth. Myself as simply organic matter, a being living in a body-form which is my tool to experience the world
  • A conflicted grey scratchy place with no satisfaction related to doubt, confusion and the mundane (those days when you can’t sit comfortably in a comfy chair.)
  • A deep, dark sad place that looks like a blackish, purplish bruise or the blue grey of storm clouds. This is a melancholic, sensual space that I have often in the past dwelled because there is much creativity and feeling to be found there. This space is clear like the red space because you are full with the feeling of it and there is no confusion.

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I find it helpful to envision the self as a contingent combination of temperature, textures and colours, flashing and humming in and out of each other. Carl Rogers one of the founders of the humanist psychology movement through his work came to understand that the ultimate goal of therapy was not to create a static and content state in a person. Rather the goal is to facilitate within the person a closer relationship with the flux of emotion that travels throughout oneself on a daily basis. I reproduce a long passage from him here because reading it helps me feel optimistic and excited about the human condition instead of fearful and concerned. Please excuse the use of the pronoun ‘He’, which personally makes me flinch, but you know this was written in 1961.

Through therapy…

He ceases, or at least decreases, the distortions of experience in awareness. he can be aware of what he is actually experiencing, not simply what he can permit himself to experience after a thorough screening through a conceptual filter. In this sense the person becomes for the first time the full potential of the human organism, with the enriching element of awareness freely added to the basic aspect of sensory and visceral reaction. The person comes to be what he is, as clients so frequently say in therapy. What this seems to mean is that the individual comes to be – in awareness – what he is – in experience. He is, in other words, a complete and fully functioning human organism…..

So the basic discovery of psychotherapy seems to me…that we do not need to be afraid of being “merely” homo sapiens. It is the discovery that if we can add to the sensory and visceral experiencing which is characteristic of the whole animal kingdom, the gift of a free and undistorted awareness…we have an organism which is beautifully and constructively realistic. We have then an organism which is as aware of the demands of the cultures it is of its own physiological demands for food or sex – which is just as aware of its desire for friendly relationships as it is to aggrandise itself – which is just as aware of its delicate and sensitive tenderness towards others, as it is of its hostilities toward others. When man’s unique capacity of awareness is thus functioning freely and fully, we find that we have, not an animal whom we must fear, not a beast who must be controlled, but an organism able to achieve, through remarkable integrative capacity of its central nervous system, a balanced realistic, self-enhancing, other-enhancing behaviour as a resultant of all these elements of awareness. To put it another way, when man is less than fully man – when he denies to awareness various aspects of his experience – then indeed we have all too often reason to fear him and his behaviour…But when he is most fully man, when he is his complete organism, when awareness of experience, that peculiarly human attribute, is most fully operating, then he is to be trusted, then his behaviour is constructive, it is not always conventional. It will not always be conforming. It will be individualised. But it will also be socialized.

I just finished reading Roger’s book “On Becoming a Person” and I’ve been telling friends that I really enjoy the prospect of becoming a person one day. Maybe this art therapy will assist me in becoming more person-like then I was before.

I’ve been enjoying your new internet-art-escapade itsadamjones.tumblr.com. It’s so sentimental and strange, both things that I enjoy. Perhaps you and not me can elaborate on it your next letter.

Best,

Alanna

Letter 9

Dear Katherine,

A recurring theme of our letters, which I previously labelled as ‘failure,’ but that we’ve also described as ‘a field and not a path,’ and can be likened to the undesirability of the snail, came to mind today when I read this article I Can, I Can’t, Who Cares? by Jan Verwoert.

In your previous letter you explained that contrary to Sylvia Plath’s description in her poem Tulips one cannot luxuriate in the sensation of nothingness in a psychiatric hospital because one’s behaviour is being constantly monitored. In this setting not acting can be interpreted as a sign of disturbance. You also proposed that perhaps the need to monitor or measure appropriate behaviour was a problem in itself.

In his article Verwoert explains that a characteristic feature of our society is that with the disappearance of factory work, we no longer work, we perform. This notion of performing is particularly applicable to us misc creative types who are attempting to create some traction (maybe even a career) behind their own creative output. This pressure to perform I relate to the requirement to frame ones identity and practice. The instruction by education and society to define oneself as a certain type of artist, with certain define-able, write-down-able in 200 words or less interests, or rather ‘concerns’. Then there’s the requirement  to be available and wiling to perform when opportunity knocks. In the face of the pressure of performativity Verwoert asks the question;

What silent but effective forms of unwillingness, non-compliance, uncooperativeness, reluctance or non-alignment do we find in A Precarious Existence contemporary culture when it comes to inventing ways to not perform how and when you are asked to perform? Can we ever embrace these forms of non-performance in art and thinking as forms of art and thinking?

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Recently I saw an exhibition at TCB gallery called ‘Practice’, curated by Anna Parlane. Included  were a collection of notebooks by the artist Adam Parata. These books were covered with finely rendered sketches and notes he’d made as part of his home schooling / self education project. 

In one book there was a drawing of a collections of trees, lightly drawn. I liked these pages in particular because a few years ago resting after an afternoon meditation I had an image occur in my mind of a forest its green leaves shimmering, golden light refracting. The mental image had a soft colour quality akin to 70s footage, and it was blurred as though I was seeing a bad reproduction. This image brought with it a sensation of delicate peace – something like gratitude and something like tenderness.  I was drawing a lot with lead pencil at the time, and I immediately wanted to translate this into a soft pencil on paper drawing, trying to retain some of the preciousness of this experience.

But I never did draw the picture, only a small sketch of it in my journal that I labelled ‘the forest with the finest lines’. Now, years after the acuity of the remembered feeling has faded I am much less driven to create the piece, and if I tried I’m not sure I could render it with the appropriate delicacy. But perhaps it’s not much of an issue as Adam Parata has made the work in some sense himself, and perhaps this goes for most ideas, that they are not exclusive.

photo

In Iris Murdoch’s novel ‘An Accidental Man’ one of the characters Gracie has a somewhat more dramatic tree moment:

 Before her, across a little lawn of cropped velvety grass, there was standing all by itself a single tree with a smooth shaft of light grey close textured trunk of a glowing colour between silver and pewter. Above the high shaft a thick cloud of leaves moved, though there was no wind, with intricate tiny curtsying movements and seemed to wink noiselessly, turning dark and pale side alternately in the absorbed still complex light. The dim leafy cone swelled and diminished, its fine top thinning into an extremity of pure sky. Gracie knew of the leaves, of the pencil-thin peak and of the void beyond, but she gazed at the trunk of the tree, at its perfect smoothness and roundness and she felt a shudder of urgency pin her to the earth as if an arrow from directly above her had passed through her body and her feet and pierced the earth below with a long thin electrical thrill.

She was conscious of herself with a fullness she had never known before, and yet also she was absent, there was no anxiety, no thought even, just this thrilling sense of full and absolute being. She stood quite still for a while breathing deeply and staring at the tree. There was fear but now it was inhibited, impersonal. She kicked off her shoes and stood barefoot, feeling the cool grass creasing the soles of her feet with little precious patterns. She thought, I must walk to the tree, and in doing so I shall make a vow which will dedicate me and alter my whole life, so that I will be given and will never belong to myself again ever. I have to do this. And yet at the same time I am free, I can stay here, I can run back into the wood. I can break the spell which I know I am in some way weaving myself. I can make the tree cease to glow and shimmer, make my flesh cease from trembling, unbind my eyes and disavow this vision. Or I can walk to the tree and make everything different forever.

She began to take off her clothes, her dress fell from her. She stood there white and lithe as a boy, compact and dense, an arrow, a flame. Still in the midst of fear, she began to walk springily across the grass. If she could but keep this visitation pure and whole some greatness would come to be, if she could but cover this precarious space and place her hands upon the tree she would be filled with angelic power, the world would be filled with it. She moved without sound or sensation upon the grass. She reached the tree and knelt, circling it with her arms, laying her lips upon its cool close-textured silvery bark, a little pitted and dimpled to the touch. As she knelt upright now, pressing her whole body against the shaft, she felt an agony of shame, impossibility, achievement, joy. She lost consciousness. 

I suppose, with less grandiosity and detail that’s how I felt about the image of the forest in my mind’s eye.  If (I) could but keep the visitation pure and whole some greatness would come to be. I didn’t, instead I let the image retract and be forgotten.

The importance of acting upon the imagination  is described beautifully in Lewis Hyde‘s novel  ‘The Gift’;

A work of art breeds in the imagination. In this way the imagination becomes the future. The poet ‘places’ himself where the future becomes present,’ says Whitman. He sets his writing desk in the ‘womb of shadows’ . Gifts – given or received – stand witness to meaning beyond the known , and gift exchange is therefore a transcendent commerce, the economy of recreation, conversion, or renaissance. It brings us worlds we have not seen before.

Allen Ginsberg tells the story of the time when he was a young man, out of luck and out of lovers, lying on his bed in Spanish Harlem, reading Blake. He had put the book aside. He had masturbated. He had fallen into a depression. And then, as he lay gazing at the page he heard a voice say Blake’s poem, ‘Ah sunflower, weary of time / That countest the steps of the sun…’ ‘ Almost everything I’ve done since has these moments as its motif,’ Ginsberg has said. ‘The voice I heard, the voice of Blake, the ancient saturnal voice, is the voice I have now. I was imagining my own body consciousness…’ It is Ginsberg’s use of ‘imagining’ that I wish to mark. With a poem as his seed image, the young man imagined the sonority and quiddity with which the older man has come to sing the songs of Blake.

The imagination can create the future only if the products are brought over into the real. The bestowal of the work completes the act of imagination. Ginsberg could have said, ‘O dear, now I’m hearing voices,’ and taken a sedative. But when we refuse what has been offered to the empty heart, when possible futures are given and not acted upon, then the imagination recedes. And without the imagination we can do no more than spin the future out of the logic of the present; we will never be led into a new life because  we can work only from the known. But Ginsberg responded as an artist responds. The artist completes the act of imagination by accepting the gift and laboring to give it to the real (at which point the distinction between ‘imaginary’ and ‘real’ dissolve).

 


It hadn’t occurred to me before reading Adam Phillip’s essay ‘The Helpless’ that I had unexamined prejudices towards helplessness in myself and others. Phillips draws out the idea that humans are the only animals who feel their helplessness as a lack. The only animals whose helplessness brings them so much pain and distress.

He wonders at some point in his argument;

Why, in short, does helplessness make us think of consolation rather than inspiration? Why is it so associated in our minds more with being tortured that being high-spirited, with being desperate rather than available, with sadomasochism rather than abandon?

So I’m beginning to wonder how I might embrace my own and other’s helplessness in new ways. Perhaps you could offer a practical suggestion beyond my spouting of theory?

In the last week it has hit mid-winter in Melbourne, cold enough that there are no longer any leaves attached to trees and cold enough that riding your bike home late at night is an amusing form of torture. But not cold enough to snow, and not cold enough that the house has a fireplace or sufficient heating or anything that might make winter a cosy hermetic retreat (puppies and children laughing in a carpet of warmth on the hearth).

This is the time of year (and how could I forget every year that it’s going to be like this?) that life takes on a greyer hue and in this relative dismal meteorology, that as much as one would like it not to, affects one mentally. I’m reminded that you told me how Thich Nhat Hanh says that we should treat the mind like a garden. That you can’t throw away the withering mid-winter flowers because, beyond the fact that there’s nowhere you can throw them away to, you’re gonna need them for compost to grow the as yet unsprouted Spring flowers. So, my next step in appreciating my helplessness will be acknowledging the mulchiness of the mind.

Mossed over at times.

Below is an image of the artist Julius Koller’s 1980 work “Anti-Performance”, and below that a picture of some foliage.

Anti-Performance (U.F.O) 1980 by Július Koller 1939-2007

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Best,

Alanna

Letter 7

Dear Katherine,

1.

I keep on having to remind myself that it’s OK to be a field and not a track. A collection of thoughts, point, point, point, what does it mean? The end.

I love the way you describe your experience with mental illness in Letter 6, and also in your essay ‘How Mental Illness can Improve Your Life,’ (such an audacious title, funny like a joke, except you’re dead serious, and you outline so clearly how it can, as though it’s an instruction manual). You write in relation to your aural and visual hallucinations that you were encouraged to ignore;

I take the view… that trying to ignore or overcome these perceptions is precisely the course of action that will most pain and disable me, as it invalidates my only measure of what is real and important in the world – my perceptions.

I’ve always felt that one can’t move anywhere new if one doesn’t have a sense of where one already is. For better or worse I’ve placed importance on understanding my state of mind/body at any given time, especially amongst difficulty, and I have privileged honesty as a key to understanding my place in the world. In this context I see your exploration of your hallucinations as honest and useful. Not that the term ‘honesty’ isn’t problematic, it’s not like I’m trying to talk about purity or a perfect diamond of truth or anything. Really I’m just talking about some sort of internal gaze and judgement: not saying you don’t have a headache when you do, or a situation isn’t hurting you when it is, or that you don’t see the walls breathe when they are steadily heaving out and in.

This approach could be seen to be in contrast to a theory put forward by social psychologist Amy Cuddy that “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”. In a popular 2012 TED talk she states that you “don’t fake it until you make it, you fake it until you become it”. This faking involves tricking your brain into thinking it belongs to a confident and successful human with the sneaky use of body language. Examples include: standing up tall with your shoulders back and spending two minutes with your arms in the V for Victory position before you go into job interviews. In a rather teary moment towards the end she explains how the faking it until you become it technique is responsible for her graduating from Harvard after a terrible brain injury threatened to leave her bereft or her previous scholarly talent.

I did try the technique before a recent job interview, standing for two minutes with my arms raised in a bathroom stall, but unfortunately I didn’t get the job. I’m interested in Amy Cuddy’s research because it means we can transform our identity, and I’m interested in the tension between her idea and mine. If both approaches are valid ways of being an effective Self (which I think they are) which approach do you take in which moment?


2.

As I read it , you seized your autonomy back from people who tried to tell you that your illness is not part of who you are, or something you should mark as invalid. If it’s not part of who you are then your identity is fractured, but by acknowledging and even privileging these unique perceptions, you become a functioning entity. You didn’t fake sanity until you were sane, you dug deeper into the experience to find its meaning. (Not that Cuddy’s work claims to be applicable to hallucinatory experiences, I don’t mean to say that).

Also when reading your latest letter, I have to admit to feeling a twinge of envy when I read the following words.

The more insignificant I appeared according to ordinary definitions of usefulness, the more space I had to explore the world in my own way, without having to immediately justify the ‘worth’ of my actions.

What you’ve described sounds so luxurious, this non-productivity measured lifestyle. It relates to my fantasy of “a time without tension or striving”, and the piling dust. In trying to find this freedom, there could be seen to be two major cages to liberate oneself from: brain cage and society cage. Paradoxically because of your brain cage you were free from certain societal expectations (although you were given others). I’ve often felt the desire to be free of both cages, and have thought maybe if I was sick enough (which I never have been) I could  be put in a white hospital bed and people could bring me food and I never would have to make another decision again. It’s a perverse fantasy I know. When I was about 18 I memorised these lines from the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Tulips’.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.

How free it is, you have no idea how free  

The poem describes her recovering in a hospital bed, and come to think of it reminds me of the Rumi poem that I currently have taped to my bedroom wall, This World Which is Made of Our Love of That Emptiness,

Free of who I was, free of presence, free of dangerous fear, hope,

free of mountainous wanting.

This desire to ‘be free’ is starting to sound like a death wish and reminds me of a facebook status update I saw the other day;

If you seek security in life, unknowingly you seek death. The only truly secure place is your grave.

-Sadghuru

It would be a death wish, except there have been periods in my aliveness when I have experienced this perfect dissolution of my brain cage and in turn my perceived society cage and have felt free, and this is something I always yearn to experience again. 


3.

So now I’m wondering how much we cage ourselves and how much society is responsible for caging us. Like Cuddy I do believe to an extent  in the power of positive thinking. I’ve seen tangibly how the changes in my own attitude affect my immediate environment, how people change their responses to me, and what opportunities in the human world open up as a result of my own positivity. Yet that withstanding I can’t help but notice how my state of mind is affected by greater societal structures.  This article “We are all Very Anxious” describes anxiety as a social not an individual responsibility. Anxiety is the public secret of our time, as misery or boredom has been historically. I didn’t know about this concept of a ‘public secret’ until I read this article, but it makes a lot of sense,

Public secrets are typically personalised. The problem is only visible at an individual, psychological level; the social causes of the problem are concealed. Each phase blames the system’s victims for the suffering that the system causes. And it portrays a fundamental part of its functional logic as a contingent and localised problem…

Things like perceived scarcity, surveillance and societal expectations make people anxious, but the anxiety is described within society as an individual’s problem, it’s something they’re doing wrong that’s made them that way. This issue can also be exploited by commerce;

Then there’s the self-esteem industry, the massive outpouring of media telling people how to achieve success through positive thinking – as if the sources of anxiety and frustration are simply illusory.  These are indicative of the tendency to privatise problems, both those relating to work, and those relating to psychology.

In a similar article ‘The Politics of Depression’, Mark Fisher applies a similar theory to the suffering of depression.  He uses the term ‘Magical Voluntarism’;

 The belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be…

Magical voluntarism is the ideal ideological weapon: it offers an illusory solution to feelings of helplessness, and it reinforces that helplessness by distracting from structural causes of our diminished agency…The end result of this is a chicken-and-egg problem. Magical voluntarism is “both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness,” Mark writes. “It is the flipside of depression – whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it.


4.

I’ve had an interest in depression over the years because of how it relates to a failed stance, and certain melancholic types of art. I’ve often pondered the nuanced differences between sadness and depression. I really have more of a struggle with sadness that depression, but I remember depression from my adolescence as a sort of colourless leaden weight that descends and makes every action and experience boring. Sadness has the advantage of being, in its way, emotionally satisfying. If you fell sadness you see new colours that you don’t see as a cheerful person, you can cry, which releases toxins and has the same satisfying effect as eating, exercise or sex. If it’s not acute sadness though, it’s melancholy and melancholy has a lower frequency hum that can, if listened to long enough, lead to depression, and depression is not a fun pit to descend into.

 One of my heroes Eileen Myles, doesn’t seem depressed at all, but she does speak about being a poet and its relation to  failure and melancholy. She describes being a poet as something unwanted. This is a bit from her speaking at the Atlanta Art Centre (I’ve transcribed so it’s got that awkward speech pattern to it);

One of the experiences I’ve had as a person who besides writing poems, writes about art & things in the world, the biggest problem is always the pitch.

Like you’ve got a great idea, you’re like, oh my god this is so incredible, then you run to all the magazines and journals you have a relationship with and you’re like “dehdehdehdeh”, and they’re like ‘No’ and then you go to somebody else and you’re like “dehdehdehdeh”, and they’re like ‘No’, and it’s just like this attrition thing where your excited idea just keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller …

And first it’s like you have a great idea, you’re really excited about writing it, and you wanna get paid, and you want everybody to read it. And then you’re like, you’ve got a really great idea,  you want people to read it and you wouldn’t mind getting a little money. And then it’s like, you have a really great idea… And it goes on until it gets smaller and smaller, the worst thing that can happen is that you just don’t write the piece at all, and I’ve wasted some of my very best ideas in that approach…

You know, because the jerky thing about being a journalist is really, unlike say poets, you really actually expect to get paid for your thoughts, you know, so when they pull the wallet away from you and you’re the jerk on the sidewalk reaching, you just kind of collapse, whereas a poet sort of starts off melancholy and you just keep writing because nobody wants it,  and then you’re surprised when they do, it’s like this reversal.

In the way that she describes the poet is a winner in her failure because like you, she is free to  explore the world in her own way, without having to immediately justify the ‘worth’ of her actions. It’s what I hope for us and this bog. We’re on a field not a track, let’s wander through marshland.


5.

I was thinking a little about failure and music last year when I realised that very unlike my previous self, all I wanted to listen to was Pop music, and I was talking to my friend who, like me had been a melancholy tune junky, and she told me that she didn’t know what was happening to her because these days all she wanted to listen to was Soul music. So I said – well Folk music, singer song writer stuff it’s all about melancholy & failure, about being a victim of one’s self pity, or a victim of the world, but Soul music is about resilience in the face of difficulty…and well I suppose Pop music is  just about about falling in (or out) of love and always dancing.

I love the singer, song writer stuff, I love a melancholy individual warbling about how sad they are, I found it remarkable how when Conor Oberst grew up, got famous and more emotionally stable his music concurrently became less powerful. His music had ridden on a wave of emotional energy that couldn’t be sustained, all that self flagellation must have been exhausting.

Jolie Holland has a similar fracture in her voice, which I find totally absorbing. She was a homeless teenager, she’s an untrained musician, she sings songs about her coat wearing thin as she wanders down lonely highways, she says the hardest thing in her career has been to pay her rent, which is sad because she’s so talented, and when I found her music it was like a precious discovery.

Her voice pinpoints a particular unspeakable emotion for me, like an acupressure point.

In ‘Mexican Blue’  she sets up the story up with the first line.

You’re like a Saint’s song to me, I’ll try and sing it pure and easily.

Which she continues to do, the words roll on, there’s no verse or chorus,  the song continues until it loops around at the very end where and repeats the first line.

You’re like a Saint’s song to me, I’ll try and sing it pure and easily.

Her voice is lazy, open throated, touching a place inside that she’s found by breaking herself open through pain or difficulty.  This song takes me to a place of helplessness created by adoration, being happily crippled at the feet of someone you’re in love with. As music can, it takes me to a very specific remembered feeling. It’s Art that’s like a faulty mirror, or parallel universe of emotion. You feel your thoughts have been mirrored or explained for you, but in reality the singer’s story and is likely to be entirely different from yours. The notes just catalysed a sentiment for you. In a 2012 interview Jolie describes the metaphysical effect of music;

Like, when I saw Marc Ribot play, the set that he did changed my life. And I walked out of there and felt amazing and called my best friend … Only a couple of times in my life have I felt like having kids, some moment of romantic insanity or when I watched this because, like we were saying, I just don’t like how my family raises kids… anyway, when I was watching Marc Ribot, it was so crazy, this feeling came up in me where I was like, “I could have kids.” It was so weird and I was telling my friend about that and he goes, “Well, that makes perfect sense because real good music and children come from the same place. They come from the center of your being.” If it wasn’t for him saying stuff like that a lot of things would be mysterious. But he’s so eloquent about really simple metaphysical mechanics. So I think things that bring you back to your experience, like your reaction…to some of the things that I do, that’s what it is. It’s inspiring you to be centered. That’s my metaphysical take.

If I could work my whole life and make something as pure and beautiful in my eyes as ‘Mexican Blue’, I’d like that. The thing is though, her music would cease to operate without a failed stance, because she sings with a cracked beauty, which if it was patched up would fail to have the same bittersweet resonance.


7.

This letter is becoming a little epic and I can’t stop thinking of more connections because you know the world of relation is endless and we live in a time of links and gluts of information, and that’s how my mind is kind of working at the moment, it’s buzzing, which worries me slightly because I think I do my best thinking when it slows down. Perhaps in the next letter I’ll delve deeper into something instead of skirting over the surface of other people’s words like this. Still I wanted to quickly segue from Jolie Holland to Nicolas Jaar (and how did I get here?), because I read this interview with him where he describes a shift in tone from his first album ‘Space is Only Noise’ to his second ‘Darkside’. For him,  idealism and beauty is lost by entering the ‘adult world’ depicted here as technology and politics. It’s cool that he can eloquently explore these polarities, both in his music and his words.

Is this dark perspective evident in your music now?

I was in a very idealistic place during my first two years of college before Obama was elected and when I was making my first album. You can hear it. Idealism in music can be very beautiful. But I can’t be in an idealistic mindset anymore. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I feel like we’re living in dark times right now, or if it’s because I just graduated from school and realized the world is a big, bad, cold place. Reality just hits you. Everything that I was excited about when I was making my first record were these super idealistic things like: What is love? What is the sky? It’s not like I thought of these things explicitly, but you can listen to some of these songs and think of clouds, earth, rain, or water. Now, I can’t be in that state. I have to get this next project out of me, which is based around TV static, technology failing, and intensity. It’s not a passionate, beautiful, loving intensity, but the type of intensity that you don’t know how to be rid of. The place I’m in now is a much more difficult place to make music in. What I’m interested in saying is more complex. I’m just not interested in showing you a picture of clouds anymore.

There’s so much more to say,

but,

Till next,

Alanna

Letter 5

Dear Katherine,

To quote you: ‘systems and dependable harvest were not our original goals’.

Last week at my yoga class the teacher was talking about the time it takes for something to be achieved or just to happen, a process you have to be patient with. She was using the analogy of pregnancy, standing there as she was with her protruding belly and saying that however impatient she may be to meet her child there were steps her body had to take before she could. Although the foundations of the spine are lain in week 4, the body takes much longer to build it’s little bricks.

The analogy made me think of how frustrated I get with my perceived slowness of my achievements, projects etc.  Although we agreed to write this bog every week I kept on putting off writing this letter, like I was not ready for it and perhaps my mind was building blocks quietly in preparation (or was I just giving into to my semi-permanent internal feeling of un-readiness?)

I – suppose – I – mean – When are you getting things done? When are you rushing the process? When is your seeming unproductiveness generating seedlings beneath your feet?

I’m not sure if this is what you are thinking about in terms of pointlessness and failure. Your description of the word ‘delirious’ makes failure sound more like exploration, adventure.

I really enjoyed the article you mentioned “Against the Rage Machine” . The bit when the writer said after his analysis of the way facebook makes everyone into erratic rage machines;

“We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.”

I like the idea of having freedom not to care, not to engage, because indecision and indifference (is there another word for indifference that I could use here that doesn’t suggest negligence?)  are as much a part of life as passionate direction. The article reminded me of another one called ‘Slack Time’ (just me linking words to words) about Moyra Davey in Afterall, Markus Verhagen writes about photographs she took of her unkempt home;

“Her images have no use for the immediacy of the photograph, its hold on a ‘slice of time’. In her work, nothing happens. The moment is always already over: the coffee cups are empty, the dust has already settled. The precise interruptive operation of the news photograph or snapshot gives way, in her work, to a slacker time — to a time without tension or striving.”

I think the romance of this article for me rests on this phrase “a time without tension or striving”. I feel little fists of anxiety release their hold  when I read those words, it makes me think of useful afternoons gazing out windows and the fortunate breaks in busy days such as the mindless chewing of lunch sandwiches. The article goes on to describe the presence of dust in the images, relating it to the descriptions of dust in Sebald’s ‘The Emigrants’

“Here, too, dust is a crucial metaphor. In his account of the life and ancestry
of a painter who settled in Manchester, Sebald describes the artist’s constant 
painting and scraping, drawing and erasing, and the dust and grime that carpeted his studio

…the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust […] This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure. It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continually fell and which, as he was coming to realise, he loved more than anything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well dusted house…”

This passage seduces me to the appeal of a life ineffectually lived, where all you’re left with is a house full of dust. In a BBC doco made about Quentin Crisp, the interviewer remarks;

“Your house is all a bit dusty Quentin.”

and Quentin replies;

“It’s true, unkind friends say that I have the dust sent in from Fortnum and Mason’s, but that’s not true I merely don’t clean the place. And I have a message of hope to offer to the house wives of England, it’s this: don’t lose your nerve because after the first 4 years the dirt won’t get any worse.”

Perhaps I’m not brave enough to be a dust gatherer, because I’m not really like that at all, I’m more a machine of awkward, disorganised production. Such as turning innocent letter writing between friends into a weekly blog/bog exchange.

bogs

Meanwhile, the internet describes a bog as

“An area of wet, muddy ground that is too soft to support a heavy body.”

The bog is clearly one of nature’s many metaphors. It reminds me of something I read in a self-help book  The Happiness Project “It’s easy to be heavy, hard to be light.” and also that I once had a boyfriend that told me that I was too SERIOUS, and another who told me that I was too cheerful. I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to deduce from those conflicting observations. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on failure, and also more of your thoughts in general.

Best,

Alanna

Letter 4

Hi Alanna,

I like the story of the adventurer who made his own breath-cave. I did a project for uni a few years ago where I breathed through a plastic tube into a ziplock bag, collecting the moisture of my breathing.

Regarding format: I got a new computer with Office 2013 on it, which has resulted in me discovering OneNote. I like it as a format for arranging ideas and objects, because it’s essentially just an undefined field – you can put anything anywhere, like an actual piece of paper. I like the idea of a format that becomes defined as it is used, rather than prior to use. It may not be feasible in practice, though.

The word ‘delirious’ is derived from the Indo-European root ‘leis’, which is also the root of words like ‘lore’, ‘learn’, ‘track’, ‘trail’, ‘footprint’, ‘path’, and ‘furrow’. To be delirious is to be off-track, away from a known path, unknown, untraced. On a ground that has yet to be defined, failure and pointlessness loom bigger. Without a line to follow, sometimes one notices more things than can be readily placed within a system. With no system, there is no point, but only field. Without a furrow to sow, anything could spring up anywhere. It is usual (but not necessarily correct) to assume that system and dependable harvest were the original goals. These are some thoughts I have had about failure and pointlessness.

I find talking with you helpful as well. I am glad to be discussing these things.

I will look forward to receiving your artwork. I went to the post office on my birthday to collect a package, and the post office man sang me Happy Birthday. He tried to make his colleague and the other customer join in, but they were less enthusiastic.

Katherine

serious talksSERIOUS TALKS

[click image to view]

Letter 3

Hi Katherine,

Thanks for your prompt reply. I had an idea for the title of our blog “Serious Talks” – I remembered you suggested a while back that we meet for “serious talks” and I found the phrase amusing. Do you think it would be funny? Or too ironic & self deprecating? Maybe if we wrote SERIOUS TALKS in capitals people would understand that we really do intend to have SERIOUS TALKS.

I feel that our first 2 emails could be the beginning of the blog. I’m happy to play around on wordpress – or if you have ideas you could play around – I was thinking perhaps a super simple layout – although I’d love it if the blog could become a rich archive of thoughts and references (by that I mean it would be good if the layout encouraged search by topic etc) – does that make sense?

It occurred to me also that this (as many of my projects are) is a somewhat hermetic project – a hermetic dialogue between 2 people – the most important thing is what we generate between us & we don’t have to write for anyone else but ourselves – (like the Antarctic adventurer who once lived in an ice cave that had been made from his own frozen breath) the freedom of this, to me, relates to pointlessness & failure in that this blog may or may not have any audience! I too am very interested in the ideas of pointlessness and failure & would love to discuss it further with you.

Mainly I want to say that art & life can become a confusing set of obligations and influences and that it’s important to engage with things and people that help you feel most yourself. You are one of few people I feel I can have SERIOUS and valuable talks with, as I feel that we have a mutually helpful way of thinking about the world – Our discussions will be a very valuable thing for me to extend & elaborate my thinking on a range of topics…

So next step is to make our platform!

Oh and happy birthday!

I will post your artwork

Today in honour!

Best,

A

peter-freuchen_knud-rasmussen

Letter 2

Hi Alanna,

My ideas usually come when I’m on the bus, just dissociated enough that my thoughts can become a whole and coherent world. When the physical momentum changes, often the ideas become confused, or get replaced by whatever thoughts fit in with the new speed and rhythm of my body or senses. I find the perception of futility to be helpful, sometimes. But then, I spent most of my life trying to make no mark on anything, because I could not risk any further markings being made on me.

I like your shared blog idea. I like the idea of a communication where ideas and patterns grow and proliferate into something that is neither of the physical communicators. I have this idea of talking being a person, and when you talk, it is necessary to think about what kind of verbal/non-verbal person is being made by the combined words of the talkers. So that eventually, if everyone is paying attention, it is the talking that is the talker. I’m working on devising a text adventure that will take place via the postal service, to play with these ideas.

I think it would be a good discipline, as you said. I am more willing to mark things now than I used to be. But I’m still a fan of pointlessness and apparent failure. I haven’t been paying as much attention to the news since coming to America. I think the idea that being informed makes me a good/engaged/caring citizen wasn’t helpful, because all I can do about most awful things is feel paralyzingly despairing about them. I read a good article in a magazine called n+1 entitled ‘against the rage machine’. I find if I have a focus for markings before I start with all the content, then I don’t need to pay attention to most of the content until it begins to become relevant to the broadening marks. And if I have the marks, then I have a life raft and I have a hope of not drowning in the vitriol of rich and fearful suit-wearers.

Anyway, I’d like to keep talking about this. I’ve had the flu this week – I spent today sleeping and eating liquorice – so my brain is odder than usual. It’s my birthday tomorrow. I’m sorry to hear about your driving fine.

Best,

Katherine.

Letter 1

Dear Katherine,

“Ideas are easy to come by; reduction to practice is an arduous and inspirationally rewarding matter”- Buckminster Fuller

I have these impulses, these sparks of ideas, the lit up light bulbs that bubble up & for that moment I am like;

‘yes, that’s awesome, what a great idea, it has to happen. Now.’

I have a lot of these, usually they come in the morning & are heavily connected to my coffee consumption. The flip side of this optimistic imagining is the downhill slope of the same feeling – where I think of the potential difficulties of said idea, where I begin to elaborate in my mind upon the futility of life and all my endeavours within it.

Amongst this roller coaster some ideas, due to persistence or obligation do come to fruition. Perhaps there are no good or bad ideas, just the ideas that become things & the ideas that remain ideas. Or perhaps some ideas are more beautiful as notions & thoughts inside the thinkers head. I had a friend who understood deeply the beauty and power of ideas divorced from a physical reality & he would spin stories between us making the world fuller, more colourful, he made shapes with words & pauses.

This morning I woke up strangely early for me at 6:30 – I made the mistake of checking Facebook as my first activity and while scrolling down that page of horrific stories about the behaviour of the government of this country in which I live, I felt as though my throat was being stuffed full of dirty paper, a sort of choking feeling, claustrophobia, anxiety. I thought, perhaps I should be ignoring all these words (that although important colour my waking life with a debilitating cloud of concern), I thought, do I as an attempted ethical human being have to be carrying these problems with me at all times? What about the reality of my day to day experience? The faces I see, the air that moves around me, the graduations of light, the tree. How can I think of battling a government, all their money, their strangled power? I can’t even pay the driving fine I got for a trifling affair, I’ll be paying it in instalments for months.

Buckminster Fuller sought to address issues of resource shortages in our world. Shortages that are not related to the actual abundance & scarcity but instead related to the wrangling for power by those in power & the running of the world’s government  by corporate interest. At 32 he was penniless, but through a frame of custom made self-disciplines, re-approached his life and achieved an extraordinary amount, he visioned practical solutions… Yet still we live in a world run by the principles he abhorred.

One of my ideas this morning was that we should run a blog together. One week I can write a post & the next week you. They could be letters to one another or the world. They can address immediate and not so immediate concerns. They can be a repository for all these feelings of issue. We can create something with our ideas- a conversation. It would be a good way to establish a steady dialogue – it has potential to broaden and bring in new contributors. We can use what we have, our voices, our intuitions, our reflections to create an imprint however small on the world. The project can evolve.

What do you think about such a thing? If nothing else it would be a great way to write on a regular basis and flex those particular mind muscles. Are blogs still current? I’m not even sure… This particular idea could become a flexing thing and inhabit the world.

Best,

Alanna

Bucky Fuller