Tag being

“Play is a way of being that resists the instrumental, expedient mode of existence” …*

 

"Play is a way of being that resists the instrumental, expedient mode of existence" ...* | rethinked.org -Photo: Elsa Fridman

Right in time for the weekend here is a lovely meditation on the intrinsic power of active play from an opinion piece published last month on the New York Times by professor of philosophy and fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago, Stephen T. Asthma. Asthma divides play into two categories: amusements and active play, which are very much aligned with Martin Seligman’s categories of the pleasures–fast, cheap and ephermeral joys–and the gratifications, which are activities that fulfill us and build a sort of positive emotional capital. A welcome reminder that play is its own reward and a critical component of a full, engaging and meaningful human life.

p l a y   f o r   p l a y ‘ s   s a k e   &   r e t h i n k   . . .

Usually, if we see an appreciation of play, it’s an attempt to show its secret utility value — “See, it’s pragmatic after all!” See how playing music makes you smarter at other, more valued forms of thinking, like math, logic or even business strategy? See how play is adaptive for social evolution? All this is true of course, but one also wonders about the uniquely human meaning of play and leisure. Can we consider play and leisure as something with inherent value, independent of their accidental usefulness?

[ … ]

I want to suggest that we divide play into two major categories; active and passive. The passive forms — let’s call them amusements — are indeed suspicious, as they seem to anesthetize the agent and reduce creative engagement. From our “bread and circuses” television culture to Aldous Huxley’s soma culture in “Brave New World,” the passive forms of leisure are cheap pleasures that come at no effort, skill or struggle. On the other hand, active play — everything from sport to music to chess, and even some video games — energizes the agent and costs practice, skill, effort and calories. Even the exploration of conscious inner-space, through artificial or natural means, can be very active. The true cultures of meditation, for example, evidence the rigors of inner-space play.

[ … ]

The stakes for play are higher than we think. Play is a way of being that resists the instrumental, expedient mode of existence. In play, we do not measure ourselves in terms of tangible productivity (extrinsic value), but instead, our physical and mental lives have intrinsic value of their own. It provides the source from which other extrinsic goods flow and eventually return.

When we see an activity like music as merely a “key to success,” we shortchange it and ourselves. Playing a musical instrument is both the pursuit of fulfillment and the very thing itself (the actualizing of potential). Playing, or even listening, in this case, is a kind of unique, embodied contemplation that can feed both the mind and the body.

When we truly engage in such “impractical” leisure activities — with our physical and mental selves — we do so for the pleasure they bring us and others, for the inherent good that arises from that engagement, and nothing else.

Source: Reclaiming the Power of Play

The Importance of the Interval Between What We Are & What We May Become & Why Our Capacity To Fail Is Essential …*

 

“Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are. We need to preserve, cultivate, even treasure this capacity. It is crucial that we remain fundamentally imperfect, incomplete, erring creatures; in other words, that there is always a gap left between what we are and what we can be. Whatever human accomplishments there have been in history, they have been possible precisely because of this empty space. It is within this interval that people, individuals as well as communities, can accomplish anything. Not that we’ve turned suddenly into something better; we remain the same weak, faulty material. But the spectacle of our shortcomings can be so unbearable that sometimes it shames us into doing a little good. Ironically, it is the struggle with our own failings that may bring the best in us.”

In Praise of Failure by Costica Bradatan | via The New York Times, published December 15, 2013.

Rethinking…* the Value of Play & Its Potential to Transform Education

“To be at play is an experience–you feel ideas of freedom, of being able to be creative, to make choices, to try out things, to experiment, to explore. I actually think it’s a state of being that, when you’re at play, you’re in a very different state of mind. You have a kind of openness about ideas. Definitely, when you’re at play with other people, there is an openness to what does it mean to be with these people in this space. You’re communicating with them, you’re trying to understand, “well, how can I relate to them?” “How can we do something together?” You’re always kind of pushing and pushing and exploring and feeling. Rather than a really close rule-bounded space, where you’re nervous about suggesting something or trying something or taking the next step. So that openness of that space feels incredibly important to people that are collaborating and are trying to engage in ‘what-if’ questions around what they might do together, what solutions might be to things, how they feel about each other. It’s a very very human experience.” – Katie Salen

Enjoy this fantastic video on the crucial importance of play to the human experience, produced by Nic Askew and commissioned by The Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. The film centers on game designer, professor and executive director of the non-profit Institute of PlayKatie Salen. Salen highlights play as one of the fundamental human experiences and frame of mind for experiencing the world. Based on Salen’s discussion of play, the film poses several poignant questions to help us rethink…* the value we give to play in our lives and our educational system.

  • Might we have underestimated the value of ‘play’?
  • How would your life look if seen through a playful state of mind?
  • Might confidence sit at the heart of an extraordinary education?
  • Might a playful frame of mind stand to transform the experience of education?
  • Might a playful state of mind enable the strength of our true human spirit?

Play & rethink…*

Connected Learning: Playing, Creating, Making from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

Embodied Curiosity as A Framework for Being | Everything I’ve Learned About Being A Knowmad { so far }

Embodied Curiosity as A Framework for Being | Everything I’ve Learned About Being A Knowmad { so far }

This is the final article in a series of posts synthesizing my insights from the past three months spent attempting to apply concepts from Integrative Thinking to my every day life as an individual.

When I set out to explore this idea of embodied curiosity, I had grand plans of creating an entire ‘idea harvesting’ system for myself. I decided to create a process to guide my w{o|a}ndering and a system to store and display the treasures uncovered by my curiosity. I beefed up my Google Reader, bought a very large daily planner which I made into a “learning milestones” notebook and started a private blog in which to collect photographs, videos and articles that I found inspiring. The first two weeks of this big curiosity overhaul were positively thrilling–I was engaged, focused and motivated. I nearly jumped out of bed in the mornings I was so excited to get to work and at the end of the day as I lovingly flipped through my notebook or scrolled through my blog, I felt a great sense of accomplishment seeing all these nuggets of potential grouped together in an easily accessible way. I could feel the beginnings of new connections forming in my head. I was burning through Post-Its, littering my walls with reminders to “explore the relationship between z and x further” or “get the book on y mentioned by w”.

About a month into my new embodied curiosity lifestyle, I had a spectacular intellectual burnout. One morning I woke up and found that the excitement had gone and all that was left was dread. Dread at the thought of the hundreds of millions of interesting things that I wanted to but wouldn’t be able to uncover that day. Dread when I realized how long it had been since I had created rather than consumed. I started feeling massively overwhelmed by the amount of content and input surrounding me–so many books, articles, videos, photographs and people that I wanted to engage with and so little time. By sticking the word embodied in front of curiosity I had given myself free reign to let my curious nature loose, unchecked and unproductive. My life had become all input and no output. It was a bad place to be in. So I stepped away from my books, computer, phone and magazines and decided to go back to the beginning.

Embodied curiosity, to me, means translating ideas into action by infusing curiosity into every facet of my life and acting on the fruits of that curiosity as often as possible. What it comes down to is much simpler than what I had envisioned: it’s about asking questions and acting on ideas, every day, with every new opportunity that presents itself. Embodied curiosity is much more than a system or tool, it’s a mindset and way of being in the world. It’s a framework for subjectivity and experience. I decided to write down everything I knew about being curious, generating ideas and acting on them. I now carry the list everywhere I go so that I can revisit it daily during in-between moments and remind myself of the small behaviors and attitudes that I can nurture and develop on a daily basis to infuse my life with embodied curiosity. Here is what I know, so far:

 

  • Be grateful
  • Take in, but also, let go
  • Get lost ~ at least once a day
  • Look. Really, look
  • Listen (and try to hear)
  • Walk, everyday. MOVE
  • Look for patterns, but do not get lost in them
  • Play—hard & daily
  • Never give up trying to find ways to move past language
  • Ask questions & be wary of answers
  • Observe & seek connections with the mind of a beginner { shoshin }
  • Learn to zoom in & out
  • Seek wonder, banish contempt
  • Do not underestimate the potential of constraints
  • Surrender to your obsessions
  • Drop the thread
  • Never confuse the construct of linearity for reality
  • Collect moments & experiences with the fervor of the curator
  • Define things for yourself & revisit your definitions often
  • Create multiplicities
  • In all things, aim to be like the ink drop ~ fluid & bleeding through
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Let others in
  • Aim to make the ordinary unknown
  • Be aware of theviolenceofpunctuation
  • Redefine value with each new context you encounter
  • Observe, record, remix
  • Empathy is the most salient of currencies
  • Do not lose sight of the relativity of suffering
  • Delight ~ often & freely
  • Consume + produce ~ It’s a precarious balancing act, keep the equilibrium
  • Cultivate the skills to adapt & improvise
  • Imagine wildly & with abandon
  • Give back
  • Failure is in the eye of the beholder
  • Change perspectives as often as you change underwear, but hold on to your core.
  • The other exists only in relation to the self, so for the sake of all, exercise your compassion muscle daily
  • Growth hurts, accept that its part of the process
  • Travel lightly & shed along the way
  • Embrace the unknown & learn to be comfortable with uncertainty
  • Flee perfection & expertise ~ broaden & blur
  • Take chances
  • Translate everything ~ ideas into action, challenges into opportunities, problems into solutions…*
  • Know when to stop & move on
  • Show up & begin
  • Meaning is never given, you must create it for yourself
  • rethinking > inventing
  • One of the most important things you can do is surround yourself with good walking companions
  • Do not dismiss or scorn that which you do not understand
  • Look to the extremes
  • Context!
  • There are no beginnings or endings, just spectrums of intensities
  • Seek to exist within tensions
  • Wake up for sunrise

 

HMI Create a Framework for Embodied Curiosity in my Everyday Life? {rethinked * annex | Integrative Thinking}

Those of you who kept up with my rethinked*annex project in the fall, in which I attempted to translate the tools, processes and frames of reference of design thinking to my everyday life, might have been wondering what happened to the next phase of the project: integrative thinking. I had originally intended to post each week of the challenge (December-March) about various thought experiments that I would do in an attempt to assimilate the cognitive discipline into my daily life. I soon found out however, that the nature of integrative thinking did not lend itself to quick reflection, so I rethought…* my original plan, and decided instead to steep in integrative thinking, think/work it out for myself and allow some time for ‘digestion’ before trying to organize my thoughts about the experience. This is the first article in a series of posts synthesizing my insights and observations from these past three months spent attempting to assimilate integrative thinking into my everyday life.

THE ONTOLOGICAL CONSTRAINTS OF BEING HUMAN
The problem when one attempts to think about one’s own thinking, let alone try to change that thinking, is that one runs into myriad cognitive hurdles designed and implemented to keep us from questioning the equilibrium and understanding that we create for ourselves in our daily lives. I’m not talking about politics or culture but about the core ontological constraints of being human: our inability to process the constant influx of reality and our perceptual and cognitive need to parcel it into salient bits, which we craft into overarching frameworks and models through which to experience our subjectivity and every day encounters. Because of the infinite malleability of our appraisal of reality, we have the ability and the need to fashion our own understanding of it. The issue with this is that, as Roger Martin put it in his terrific book, The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking,

“this tendency makes it difficult to know what to do with opposing and seemingly incommensurable models. Our first impulse is to determine which one represents reality and which one is unreal and wrong, and then we campaign against the idea we reject. But in rejecting one model as unreal, we miss out on all the value that can be realized by holding in mind two opposing models at the same time.” (55)

INTEGRATIVE THINKING
Integrative thinking is an effective method for countering this human tendency to simplify and reduce our understanding of reality to opposing binaries. Martin offers the following working definition of integrative thinking: “The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.” (15) Integrative thinking, according to Martin, stems from our inherent capacity to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in mind, a concept he explores through the metaphor of the ‘opposable mind’, which:

“we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension. We can use that tension to think our way through to a new and superior idea. Were we able to hold only one thought or idea in our heads at a time, we wouldn’t have access to the insights that the opposable mind can produce. And just as we can develop and refine the skills with which we employ our opposable thumbs to perform tasks that once seemed impossible, I’m convinced we can also, with patient practice, develop the ability to use our opposable minds to unlock solutions to problems that seem to resist every effort to solve them.” (7)

After rereading Martin’s book, which is filled with keen observations and insights on the mental patterns of effective integrative thinkers, I decided that the first step in my attempt to practice integrative thinking on a daily basis should be to take an honest and in-depth look at my personal knowledge.

PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE | STANCE, TOOLS & EXPERIENCES

Martin defines personal knowledge as a tripartite coalition of stance, which “is your most broad-based knowledge domain in which you define who you are in your world and what you are trying to accomplish in it.” (93); tools, which, “range from formal theories to established processes to rules of thumb.” (97) And experiences that “form your most practical and tangible knowledge. The experiences you accumulate are the product of your stance and tools, which guide you toward some experiences and away from others.” (99) A thoughtful balance of the three elements of this cognitive coalition is key to effective integrative thinking.

“Operating at their best, the three elements of the personal knowledge system will reinforce each other to produce an ever-increasing capacity for integrative thinking. By the same token, though, stance, tools, and experience can conspire to trap perfectly intelligent and capable people in a world where problems seem too hard to solve and mere survival is the only goal.” (104)

Before I could start thinking about integrating components of conflicting models or ideas with my own, I had to gain a solid understanding of what my model was. But how to break past the blind spots and recognize my own assumptions to take an honest look at my stance, tools and experiences?

CREATING DISRUPTIONS

The first few weeks of December, I created all sorts of disruptive thought experiments for myself, which I hoped would allow me to experience the ordinary, common sensical and taken for granted dimensions of my life as unknown. I decided to write down 100 assumptions I had. I walked up and down my street taking pictures of each building from various angles. I went on a scavenger hunt around my apartment looking for ‘unexpected typographies.’ I tried to photograph and catalog every color and shade I could find in my home. I attempted to count how many different logos were scattered in my immediate surroundings. I was looking for a way to disrupt my perceptual routine.

Many of these little exercises proved to be fun and engaging, and the results were at times astonishing. Noticing the discrepancy between what I think I see and what I actually notice (and the vast amounts of things I don’t) was, forgive the dreadful pun, eye-opening. But at the end of the day, I found that all of these exercises provided little more than isolated disruptions and I was left frustrated, unable to understand how to take this to the next level.

If I was to assimilate integrative thinking into my everyday, I needed to find a hypodermic way of creating ongoing disruptions in my noticing and thinking practices. Tools and exercises would not be enough, what I needed was a paradigm shift. To go beyond isolated disruptions to a sustainable, adaptive and iterative process of integrative thinking, I would have to approach this challenge as a design project and consider the wider landscape of interrelated terms and concepts within which integrative thinking is embedded.

NEED FOR A PARADIGM SHIFT

Any time we talk about a paradigm shift, what we are really talking about is a moment in time and thought, in which ideas and concepts open up, become tangibly more malleable, and beg for new connections and definitions. Before I could move forward, I had to formulate in my own terms a synthesis of the drives and assumptions underlying the discipline, to refine my understanding of what it was I was after when seeking to ‘do’ integrative thinking. I had identified the constraints, which could all be summed up as ‘being human’—need for order and meaning, inability to process reality as is, uncomfortable with ambiguity, etc. Now I needed to identify the frame through which I would explore integrative thinking and make it mine.

Integrative thinking is the ability to suspend your framework—the core model through which you make sense of the world and your place within it—and to willingly place yourself in a space of unknowing, ambiguity and uncertainty. It is the ability to separate yourself from your ideas and the organizing narrative of your life, the willingness to look at all the things you have explained to yourself and admit that perhaps none of them are true. Of course, this is not the goal of integrative thinking. In its ideal form, integrative thinking is not about subtraction or substitution, it’s about remix and enhancement. But being able to entertain the notion that your model of reality is ‘wrong’ (not in an absolute sense, but in terms of it not being optimized to your life and practice) is an essential prerequisite to integrative thinking. If your ideas are too precious to you, and if you are unwilling to “kill your darlings” you will never be able to practice integrative thinking effectively.

Integrative thinking stems from our capacity for cognitive empathy, the ability to place yourself in someone else’s mental framework and view the world from their perspective. In my understanding of it, empathy starts with curiosity. The goal of my integrative design challenge, therefore, was to move past creating isolated events to creating a process by which to induce, nurture and maintain a cognitive state of hyperawareness and receptivity or ‘beginner’s mind’ in myself.

SHOSHIN | BEGINNER’S MIND

Martin alludes to the powerful possibilities of beginner’s mind and the hyperawareness it creates:

“When we learn something new, we’re acutely aware of features that more experienced practitioners take for granted. Think of your self-consciousness when you learned a new sport or took your first driving lesson. This hyperawareness of yourself and the skills you’re learning does not last long. Over time, practice transforms conscious acts into automatic habits characteristic of mastery. Think of your anxiety at stoplights when you first learned to drive using a standard shift, and the unthinking ease with which you now put the car into first and drive off. The better we get, the faster we forget about what we are doing. Our awareness of what we are doing and how we are accomplishing it quickly becomes as intuitive and inaccessible as the knowledge we use to tie our shoes or ride a bike.” (100)

Famed Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, summed this up beautifully with the remark, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist term, which translates to beginner’s mind and is characterized by a very open attitude, free of preconceptions and fueled by genuine curiosity and eagerness. Shoshin does not describe a temporal event (the first time one does something) but rather an emotional and cognitive state of openness, optimism, creativity, curiosity and zeal. Shoshin can (and should) be achieved at all levels of practice.

EMBODIED CURIOSITY

It seemed that no matter how I went about trying to break down integrative thinking for myself, I kept zeroing in and coming back to this concept of ‘embodied curiosity.’ A term that, at this stage, was little more than a vague contour overflowing with possibility. I had finally found my entry point into integrative thinking. And so, the formulation of the challenge went from the general and unhelpful “how might I practice integrative thinking” to the more focused: How Might I create a framework for embodied curiosity in my everyday life?

 

Look for part II next Thursday.

I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another ~ Celebrate Albert Camus’ Birthday Today

Then, I don’t know why, but something inside me snapped. I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me. I grabbed him by the collar of his cassock. I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger and cries of joy. He seemed so certain about everything, didn’t he? And yet none of his certainties was worth one hair of a woman’s head. He wasn’t even sure he was alive, because he was living like a dead man. Whereas it looked as if I was the one who’d come up empty-handed. But I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least I had as much of a hold on it as it had on me. I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so? It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? Couldn’t he see, couldn’t he see that? Everybody was privileged. The others would all be condemned one day. And he would be condemned, too.

-Albert Camus, The Stranger

 

Albert Camus and The Stranger ~

(via  on YouTube, published Oct 8, 2012)

 

Camus vs. Sartre ~

(via  on YouTube, published Feb 4, 2011)

So much …* love: Kelli Anderson on Disruptive Wonder & the Hidden Talents of Everyday Things

“People arrive at experiences […] with expectations and when we make things we’re actively choosing what to do with these expectations. And in my work, I want to create disruptive wonder. I want to confound these expectations because I think that everyday fundamental things and experiences frame reality in a way that we often take for granted. So the small things we make can work to reinforce our assumptions about the world. Or small things can come out of left field and jar us into reassessing our complacent expectations about reality. This doesn’t happen often but when it does, it’s awesome. Because then these small things act as a sort of humble backdoor into understanding a reality that is infinitely surprising.”

Watch this terrific TEDxPhoenix talk from 2004, given by artist, designer and tinkerer–Kelli Anderson–who aims to create disruptive wonder through design and tinkering in order to discover the hidden talents of everyday things. Kelli describes her philosophy about the power of small everyday things to jar us into rethinking the familiar and ordinary and walks us through of her own projects to

“demonstrate that by rejecting normal order, by messing things up and by rearranging the pieces, we can expand our notion of what we demand from reality. So today I want to put forth this idea that an avenue to better is for a million teeny tiny disruptions to whatever is sitting in front of you. So go mess with the complacently rational!”


 

Some of our favorite quotes from Kelli’s talk:

I get to tinker with everyday experiences and as we go through our everyday lives, visual and experiential things exert this invisible authority over our brains at all times. And they yield this power in subtle and sneaky ways. So visuals, for example, speak volumes through these teeny tiny details codified in things like type, shape, color, and texture. So these small picky things form the vocabulary that come together and make the sentences, enabling us to make tangible things like a solar powered Popsicle truck.

The world is full of order that doesn’t necessarily deserve our respect. Sometimes there’s meaning, justice and logic present in the way things are but sometimes there just isn’t. And I think that the moment we realize this, is the moment we become creative people because it prompts us to mess things up and do something better with the basic pieces of experience.

So what I’m after in my work, really, is this: the hidden talents of everyday things–all those overlooked powers bestowed on the things that surround us by the wonders of physics, the complexities of cultural associations and a gazillion other, only partially chartable, things.

Try to something better by doing something more absurd.

Ritual becoming empty gesture speaks to the fact that the more an experience repeats itself, the less it means because we begin to take it for granted and that’s why clichés are interesting and why people get in car wrecks nears their homes. When experiencing things over and over again they just lose their gravity.

‘Unknown to himself, he becomes someone else. It is a condition known as fugue’ -Ciaran Carson, Shamrock Tea

Happiest of birthdays to rethinking champion…* Ciaran Carson, Northern Ireland born poet and novelist. Join us in celebrating Carson’s 64th birthday today with some magnificent quotes from his 2001 novel, Shamrock Tea.

On the World…*

They will see the world as it really is, a world in which everything connects; where the Many is One, and the One is Many. There will be no division, for everything in the real world refers to something else, which leads to something else again, in a never-ending hymn of praise. The world is an eternal story. (236)

 

On looking into the minds of others & the specter of solipsism…*

Maeterlinck imagined seeing the world through the multi-faceted eye of the bee—a grainy world, like needlepoint, composed of dots of information, in which no red is visible but lit with ultra-violet beyond the range of human sight. Moreover, the bee’s visual system has a high flicker-fusion frequency, so that if a bee were to watch a motion picture, it would see isolated frames connected by moments of darkness, and would not be deluded into thinking that the images moved.

Of course, said Maeterlinck, as to what the bee really perceives, we can have no idea; but then, can we know at all the inner experience of our fellows when they call the colors with the same names as we do ourselves? No mans’ eye has ever looked into the mind of another. (131)

 

On the condition known as fugue…*

What do we know of ourselves? I, too, have done my time with the monks. I have cut myself off from the world, only to find myself return to it. I have climbed the glaciers of Iceland, and have stared into Norwegian fjords. I have inhabited the wilds of Connemara. I am of no fixed abode. I speak to you in a language which is not mine. Yet, I need someone to speak to.

Sometimes, I think that, for all I know, I might be someone else. In the anecdote I was about to relate to you before we entered the Arcadia, that is precisely what happens to its subject: unknown to himself, he becomes someone else. It is a condition known as fugue. (162)

 

On Memory…*

Ah, the forward-flowing tide of time! he cried. How it sweeps all before it, defying our every effort to recount past times! For behind every story lies another story, and I have found myself diverted at every turn in my attempt to give you a biography of Wittgenstein. In doing so, I am prompted by memory, which St Augustine likens to a vast field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds.

When I use my memory, he says, I ask it to produce whatever it is I wish to remember; no sooner do I say, how shall I relate this, or that, than the images of all the things whereof I wish to speak spring forward from the same great treasure house. I open the portals of my inward eye and stalk the cloisters of my memory, in which images appear at every archway, every alcove, every pillar. Statues manifest themselves at every step, pointing with their eyes or hands towards other graven images; I open another door, and dormant sounds reverberate within the chambers of my ear. Another room has niches stocked with jars made of precious stone—chrysoprase, carnelian, the milky blue of sardonyx, and many more, each memorable for its color, each holding a specific perfume, redolent of long-forgotten episodes. (167)

 

On Being What One Is…*

Is it any wonder we are the  way we are? I am grateful for parts of it. How could I not be, for how could I otherwise be? I must be who I am. I love the clarity of the world because of it. You know, the way things gleam at you, it might be a china cup, or a primrose in a hedge, or a dented aluminum wash-basin, and they seem to share with you their contentment at being just what they are. (239)

 

On Painting…*

Painting, he said, is the art of making things real, because you have looked at how things are. In order to paint a twig you must look at a twig, and to paint a tree you must look &c. Only then do you bring the two things together. But you must also remember the injunction of Cennino, that the occupation known as painting requires you to discover things not seen, and present them to the eye as if they actually exist. (50)

Source: Carson, Ciaran. Shamrock Tea. New York: Granta, 2001. Print.

…* You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish

Celebrate the freedom to read for this year’s  Banned Books Week (September 30-October 6th) with this glorious excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which used to be banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.

 

 

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

–Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

on hidden love notes

 

The last time I went to a gallery was three or four months ago when I tried to see Rammellzze’s The Letter Racers at the Susanne Geiss gallery. I say tried, because I never made it to the show. I arrived at the gallery to find the door closed. I rang the doorbell and a very sleek, slightly pissed-off girl answered. She told me they were closed for the next two hours, and when I come back to use the other door. I don’t like to wait and by then I was feeling a strange mix of intimidation and irritation. But this was Rammellzee so I decided I would stick it out, and come back in two hours. The gallery is on Grand Street, prime street art neighborhood, so I started walking around, scanning the streets as I went; getting in my ‘graffiti journey’ mode: entering a portal of love, despair, needs, dreams and obsessions that scream so loudly for attention that I make abstraction of all other things tangible: the people around me, the noises, the chaos, time, myself. When I came out of my “graffiti trance”, four and a half hours had passed and the gallery had closed. I was disappointed not to have seen the Letter Racers but I would not have changed anything about that afternoon, where I discovered myriad touching and provoking street art.

I am not trying to raise the debate over the merits of institutionalized, ‘elitist’ art versus popular, gritty, street art. I find the dispute futile, and believe both models have their place; anyway, one could not exist without the other (but this is a complex conversation for another post). An article today on how the city of Säo Paulo is lifting its five year ban on billboard advertising as long as the advertising is in the form of  “graffiti”, made me ponder the state of  co-optation of graffiti and street art as a guerilla marketing technique. But when my cat lost interest and walked away, I changed gears and started reminiscing about what street art means to me and how integral it is and has been to my education, or formation, as a rethinker.

I don’t remember when it started, maybe five or six years ago, this impulse to seek out graffiti. It had been going on for a while when it became something more than a passing hobby, evolving into a full blown mode of life. Walking around, looking at all the ‘notes’–the images, texts and other forms of imprints-from other people, who share my city and my condition of being human, has become something of an addiction for me, it’s become a necessary part of my well-being, making me feel deeply grounded in my own skin and connected to the rest of humanity. There is something about the use of the street as a medium that always communicates, to me, anyway, the “mammalian” nature (was absorbed with Christopher Hitchens’ quotes yesterday…so some of his terms and obsessions are going to come through…) of the artist behind the piece. I always think of the individual–that cauldron of dreams, needs, imagination, love, desires, obsessions, anxiety, drives and emotion, all wrapped up in our porous, puncturable and decaying skins—that cared enough to make the piece. In that sense, street art, in whatever form it takes, is a way to make “others” “people” and “humanity’ immediately accessible and tangible.

It is always a deeply empathetic experience, to seek out and find love notes to humanity left by complete stranger. It was the day that my grandmother passed away that ‘graffiti journeys’ really entered my life. I got the call early in the morning. It felt like someone had violently ripped out whatever center I had. I didnt know what I was feeling or how to deal with it, so I just left my apartment and started walking. I scanned the streets, furiously searching for every bit of paint, ink, chalk, or paper ‘calling’ to be seen, as I walked. And so I spent the entire day following one ‘love note’ after another, feeling the joy and despair of the people that had left them, making abstraction of everything within myself to exist in the immediate moment–within the organic, dirty, smelly and infinitely beautiful palimspest of humanity that is NYC. It made me feel better.

I have always been deeply moved by various forms and expressions of art, but static images (discounting photography) have only made me cry twice. Once, in the Louvre, in front of a Fragonard painting, and once on the streets of New York, in front of this anonymous tag:

I have noticed a strange paradox about New Yorkers and the vibes of the streets here. We’re often described as unfriendly, hurried, blazé, dirty and frenetic, which we are. But there is also a special atmosphere of respect for the whimsical, the authentic, and the sacred, however one chooses to define that. When I had cried in the Louvre, it had been in a moment of strong and overwhelming emotion that was quickly tempered by the stares of other tourists. But here, on Prince and Bowery, as I experienced a similar moment of being deeply touched, there were no stares. The city, with its unquenchable energy, pace and life, went on, just as it always does. It was comforting.

The term Street Art today is as broad as “Art”, which, I suppose, means gallery, or rather, institutionalized art. Street art goes far beyond the graffiti tags and throw-ups to which the term owes its roots—from urban hactivist like Florian Rivière, yarn-bomber, Agata Olek, reversed graffiti or “grime” artist  Paul Curtis (aka Moose),  Iranian stencil artists Icy & Scot, street art installation and photography artist Slinkachu, JR’s Inside Out project to Blu‘s wall-painted animations (Muto & BIG BANG BIG BOOM)—street art is everywhere, taking all sorts of existing and new forms, and more often than not, driven by the desire to jolt individuals and communities out of their routines and acceptance of the status quo to collectively rethink our human experiences.

Would love to hear about your experiences of street art/favorite artists and obsessions!

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