Category: Art

An artist’s manifesto

Over the past few years, I’ve been increasingly frustrated when people ask me what I do for a living, as I’ve lacked a title, a narrative to make sense of what I do. So, I’ve decided to do something that I’m not entirely comfortable doing. I’m going to declare something. I’m going to define my position:

I am an artist.

Declaring myself as an artist is very liberating, because nobody really knows what it means. Just like nobody seems to know what art is anymore. We tend to only recognise art once it’s been approved by experts, curated and included in a museum exhibit somewhere. But art is not defined by institutions that approve it. Nor is it not limited to what you can put in a museum, hang in a gallery or find in a library.

 

***

 

Art is the experience that it invokes. The imagination that it releases. The possibilities that it opens.

Art allows us to see the world anew. It creates experiences that don’t fit with our existing worldview. Art is when you least expect it. It is when you think you know what it is about, only to realise that it is something else entirely.

Art makes us reconsider the things that we have come to take for granted. It shows us the world from perspectives that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Art rips open the frictionless world that we inhabit and shows us the seams. It turns seamless into seamfull. It traces all the dirty interconnections of the systems of which we are part.

Art turns us into beginners again. It gives us that beginner’s mind where everything is possible. It opens up spaces where we can experiment and reach our own conclusions. It frees our imagination to dream of how things can be different.

Art creates the tools for change and leaves it up to each of us to decide when and how to use them. Art builds on the fundamental truth that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed.

Art doesn’t force change. It merely makes change possible. It allows us to act, learn and change for own sake, in our own time. It allows us to change our understanding of what’s possible through the act of doing it ourselves. It allows us to realise new possibilities by exploring them.

For instance, realising the amount of food that is available for free by going out dumpster diving. Or realising that other kinds of communal decisionmaking are possible by participating in a consensus democratic process. Or realising that other ways of understanding reality are possible by dropping acid. Or realising the interconnectedness of all the things we depend on to produce our food by volunteering on an organic farm. Such experiences are usually not recognised as art. But in fact, they are the most profound opportunities for change.

As an artist, I work to create such opportunities for change by disturbing the expected.

 

***

 

I’m still trying to wrap my head around how what I do can be conceived of as art. I think a big part of it is the fact that my work doesn’t really seem to fit neatly in the usual boxes and categories. Not a writer. Not an academic. Not a consultant. Not an activist. Not a teacher. But something more and in-between.

I am what Frances Whitehead calls ‘a professional dot-connector.’ A trickster living in the interstitial spaces between disciplines, sectors and organisations. A cross-pollinator of ideas who traces the patterns in the overwhelmingly complex systems of which we are part. A clown working to create disturbances and surprises — not to shock, but to challenge each of us to think for ourselves.

This sounds awfully grand, and that is a big part of why I don’t feel comfortable claiming this position. But when I consider the projects that I’ve been part of over the past 4 years, I see them very much as artistic projects in the sense that I’ve described here (even if I haven’t been very conscious of their artistic qualities before):

Borgerlyst is laboratory that creates small disturbances, questions, unexpected directions in our conversations about society and democracy. We work to point out patterns in the everyday systems of Danish society that we inhabit and challenge others to consider their implications.

For instance, through the conversation salons, we create a setting where different, deeper conversations are not only allowed but actively encouraged, pushing participants to reconsider the kind of conversations that you can have with strangers, and how.

Similarly, with our SMS campaign Folkets Valg (“The People’s Choice”) that focused on the underlying and unspoken premises that all politicians appeared to take for granted when designing their policies on. Every day during the election campaign we asked questions that challenged these assumptions and invited people to reconsider them: What do you take for granted? Which possibilities have you ruled out?

Our book project Borgerlyst — handlekraft i hverdagen is an attempt to bring together the tools and ideas that we’ve found over the past 3 years in one coherent whole. No preaching, just a humble handbook about how each of us can act and get engaged in our everyday lives.

Københavns Fødevarefællesskab is another project that generates an neverending stream of everyday disturbances. As I’ve described elsewhere, it challenges people to consider some of the things they have come to take for granted about how organisations work, about how we buy our food, about how we make decisions as a group, about what kind of future we want to live in. It is a school for everyone involved, because we don’t know how to do what we want to do. The only way is to do it ourselves. We can only try and learn.

My writings, especially the essay Choosing Restraint, has built on these themes as well, challenging the way we usually see the world, and reaching some (hopefully) unexpected conclusions. I hope to write more in a similar vein soon.

 

***

 

I guess we are all looking for a pattern in what we do. A pattern that connects us to everything else in a meaningful way. As I’ve been looking for my pattern, I have found this. But it doesn’t end here. This is not even an answer to the question “so what do you do?” It is just another starting-off point. Another beginning. Another question.

Rainer Marie Rilke advised a young poet: Don’t seek the answers, live the questions.

That’s what I intend to do.

 

 

She staggers to stay upright

Last Thursday I attended a showing of a documentary on the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf. After the film, there was a concert where Ida Bach Jensen, who composed the score for the film, performed.

It was a magic 40 minutes, and it gave me time to digest some of the themes and thoughts of Ekelöfs poetry. The following is a sort of summary of my thoughts.

Ekelöf writes:

Seeking stable ground in life.
Everything is fluid. Everything deceives us. Everything lures us into traps. To misunderstandings. Misconceptions. The only thing that does not waver is death. To think of death. To see life through death is to provide a pedal point to the dizzying uncertain melody we live.

Elsewhere he writes something along the lines of:

She staggers to stay upright

I find that intensely poetic. A condensation of a greater truth: That to be in balance you are always moving towards a disequilibrium. Always compensating to stay upright. Staggering back and forth. Like a tree in the wind. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle. Whether it is staying put or moving forward, maintaining balance requires constant work. To remain flexible.

In the same way, a major theme in Ekelöf’s work is how the good and the evil, the ugly and the beautiful are intertwined. They depend on the juxtaposition, the contradiction. They can exist only through each other.

Nothing can exist by itself. Nothing is pure and clean. Everything is raw, mixed and implacably honest. Like punk.

We may try to ignore it. Filter out the ugly and inconvenient. But it will only make us less flexible. Less in balance.

Instead, we have to see the ways in which the ugly highlights the beauty.

At the concert, the clean, clear almost crystalline spirituality of the music was deflated by the laughter, conversation and clinking of plates and cutlery from the café outside.

At first it annoyed me. But then I realized that it was the very dissonance of the ambient sounds of the café that gave the music its depth. And the ethereal spirituality of the music was underlined by the mundane chatter from which it sought to escape.

The beautiful and ugly complemented each other. It resulted in a calm sense of wholeness. Of balance.

It is the unpredictable, the unfinished, which creates the magic of the moment. We are never ready. We are always caught by surprise. It forces us to recalibrate. To stagger or fall.

On Saturday, I went to see a play that revolved around stories of the sea. As the play ended, they projected big photo of the wide open blue sea onto the stage.

I looked out at the sea. Exploring my newfound sensibility of the imperfect, I sought out the unexpected. The ugly. That which is set apart and breaks the harmony. The crack in the mirror. The matter out of place. That which is not in balance.

At first I couldn’t see it.

The sea is quiet, mirroring the sky in a plethora of blue nuance.
So beautiful. So pure.

Then I realize that the thing that doesn’t belong is me. The man. The boat. The attempt at control.

A tiny speck of intent merely tolerated in this vast aimless flow.

Art is dreaming

It is the repressed that is expressed in art. In this way, art has the same function in society that dreams have for the individual — even though we don’t always remember or understand the symbols of our dreams.

– Niels I. Meyer, K. Helveg Petersen & Villy Sørensen: “Revolt From The Center” (1978)

Roles for the 21st century artist

Recently, I’ve been fascinated with Douglas Rushkoff, and I came across this presentation, in which he does well to sum up some of the main themes of his work. His style is earnest and passionate, and though some of his arguments are very generalized for easy consumption, he does have some very good points:

Talking to a crowd of DIY artists, Rushkoff focuses on how art is changing in the 21st century. He argues that the classic male sexuality curve of narrative with which we’re so familiar (tension, climax, release), and which can be in just about any Hollywood film or thirty second tv advertisement, won’t be the only narrative in town.

Rushkoff argues that the new interactivity and active participation that the Internet and the computer offers us, will lead to new forms of narrative. And he ends his presentation highlighting 3 new roles for the artist to take on to explore these other forms of narrative:

1) Call and response
Open up your narrative for audience participation. The audience is still uncertain of their own abilities, and they don’t yet want complete freedom. Offer them some freedom to participate, but continue to lead the narrative – like classic oral storytelling or protestant preaching. Eventually, they will supply the best ideas for leading the narrative forward.

2) Make tools
Create the tools and means for the audience to tell their own story. Here, the artist’s role is more like the role of the Dungeon Master of old D&D games: He may have absolute power, but he is continually bending the rules and shaping the scenery to create those story moments where the audience, the players can interact and create their own story.
That story is not a matter of reaching the climax and going to sleep. The point of the game is to keep playing the game. To keep the game interesting. The art – the process of playing, of creating the story – is a goal unto itself.

3) Play spaces
This is the hardest part: Creating free spaces where the members of the former audience all participate on equal terms, creating play, art and magic together. Temporary Autonomous Zones without leaders, where everybody is an artist. I wonder whether story club be an example of this?

Put on your armor

I’ve found a fascinating blog on feminism and such (“ladybusiness”) called Tiger Beatdown. I’m generously fascinated by the blogger, Sady, who so clearly has found her own voice online and uses it so well. Like in a recent meta-post following some big discussions in the comments on her blog, she ends her exposition with the following salvo:

The world is fucked, kids. You know it. You’ve seen it. If you are basically anyone other than a thin able-bodied white dude who likes the ladies and makes truckloads of cash, a substantial portion of the world is convinced that you just do not matter. Wishing aloud that the world catered more specifically to your personal wishes and desires… well, that’s not how it works. It’s missing the point, actually. Because the point is not, and never has been, you. The point is everybody. So you get up every morning, and you put on your armor, and you make things change.

Yes!

More weird and wonderful web comics

A vital part of my Google Reader feeds are web comics. And from time to time I still happen upon new web comics to add to my feed collection. Here’s two which I haven’t mentioned here before.

Pictures for sad children is a quietly sad comic featuring simply drawn characters expressing very honest and simple desires that resonate deeply in a ever more complex world. There is no frustration in their contemplation of the world, only a wonderfully disarming honesty. Like this:

Atomic angst

A softer world is not really a comic at all. Sure, it presents itself through a standard layout of three panels, each containing part of a photo. Together, the three photo panels frame the sordid, candid, and poetic prose that describe unexpected situations, recall sore memories, make bold manifestos – all sparkling in their brevity:

ok?

indeed

Another thing that I enjoy immensely about both comics is the facts they use the hidden picture “alt text” to add a little secret extra dimension to the comic, often twisting the words or pointing out hidden details in the art. Just hover your mouse cursor over the images to get the text (but note that the alt text on my blog is stuff that I have put in. To get the original comic alt text, you should go to the sites themselves).

Have fun.

Unto this last

Some time ago, I happened upon a short essay by Alain de Botton in an issue of Monocle (the article isn’t online, it seems). The essay is a new year’s prediction for 2009. Based on the continuing economic crisis, de Botton argues that we will turn to new paths:

I believe 2009 will be the year when the question of how society should be arranged will cease to be an idle, abstract topic, dwelt upon by ivory-tower-intellectuals after a few glasses of wine, and will instead enter the workday mainstream with a vengeance.

These discussions, de Botton predicts, will lead to the rediscovery of thinkers such as Karl Marx and John Ruskin. Most have heard of Marx, but I knew little of Ruskin. So, inspired by de Botton’s article, I read Ruskin’s essay Unto this last.

Written in 1860, “Unto this last” reads as the foundation of many of the tenets of the welfare state we know today: minimum wage, public health care and schools, unemployment benefits, and so on. The title is a reference to Christ’s parable of the vineyard, which Ruskin uses to support his argument that all workmen should receive equal pay, as they all have the same needs, even if they haven’t worked equally hard.

And that touches upon a central part of Ruskin’s argument: That merchants, manufacturers, capitalists have a social obligation above that of merely making a profit for themselves. Soldiers, teachers, doctors, and lawyers all have an honour code integral to their profession that are easily recognized as central to the well-being of their society:

The Soldier’s profession is to defend it.
The Pastor’s to teach it.
The Physician’s to keep it in health.
The Lawyer’s to enforce justice in it.
The Merchant’s to provide for it.
And the duty of all these men is, on due occasion, to die for it.
“On due occasion,” namely: –
The Soldier, rather than leave his post in battle.
The Physician, rather than leave his post in plague.
The Pastor, rather than teach Falsehood.
The Lawyer, rather than countenance Injustice.

Similarly, the merchant is obliged to ensure both the quality of the products he provides, as well as his word in his engagements with his customers and employees.

Basically, what Ruskin is advocating is a sort of primordial Corporate Social Responsibility: That corporate entities are obliged to focus on the needs of the people it interacts with above mere profit maximisation. Acquiring material wealth in its own right is of little value, it is only the life you lead, as he concludes, forcefully: “There is no wealth but life.”

I found a great introduction to Ruskin’s work in this documentary, which also explains in greater detail how he meant the above statement to be interpreted. It is also some of the best and most compelling art history I’ve ever seen:

Ruskin, a very conservative man in many regards, saw society like an organism or a natural habitat or an eco-system: all its parts completely interdependent, constantly striving to maintain equilibrium. Wealth, then, is our ability to help those around us, as well as being helped when we need it. But whenever this mutual aid ceases and parts of the system care only for their own self-interest, that is what Ruskin calls corruption.

Ruskin saw capitalist industrialization as such corruption – a disruption of interdependent equilibrium of old, where artisans infused their work with their individual creative soul, combining home life and work life in one harmonious whole (Ruskin had some fairly romantic ideas of what medieval life was like).

What I find so compelling is Ruskin’s insistence that mutual aid ought to be a matter of honour above petty personal concerns and ambitions. All professions should mind the well-being of society as a whole as well as their individual self-interest, for we are all dependent on one another. Doctors, teachers (well, pastors at Ruskin’s time), soldiers and lawyers all have clear honour codes, ritually established through oaths, pledges and creeds defining their professional obligations to society.

But merchants, manufacturers, bankers, and the like lack such an honour code. And in the past 40 years (or more), they have embraced the neo-liberal notion that the market – and individuals’ rational economic self-interest – would provide the necessary means to maintain society.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

And now more than ever, merchants and others providing goods and services to a society should be expected to be as honourable as every other professions. Especially in a globalised world where the consequences of one’s actions – both socially, economically and environmentally – might not be immediately evident.

What might such an honour code look like? Well, Ruskin offers a rough idea:

In all buying, consider,
first, what condition of existence you cause in the producers of what you buy;
secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands;
thirdly, to how much clear use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put;
and fourthly, to whom and in what way it can be most speedily and serviceably distributed;
in all dealings whatsoever insisting on entire openness and stern fulfilment; and in all doings, on perfection and loveliness of accomplishment; especially on fineness and purity of all marketable commodity: watching at the same time for all ways of gaining, or teaching, powers of simple pleasure, and of showing in simple things which even the poor enjoy — the sum of enjoyment depending not on the quantity of things tasted, but on the vivacity and patience of taste.

Today, there several attempts at making such merchant honour codes. There is the UN Global Compact, the Fair Trade certification, even the International Co-operative Alliance’s statement of co-operative identity.

But I find that there are two problems with all of these:

One: There are very limited options for sanctions against any member who breaks the rules. They are not legally binding in any way. For such an honour code to work, it needs to have clear cultural, social and legal implications – similar to the pledges of other professions. Ideally, it would be something like a GPL license for ethical business conduct.

Two: They focus on companies, businesses or products, and not for individuals. Taking social responsibility is not something that an incorporated entity can do on behalf of its employees and shareholders. It is an ethical commitment that each individual must make and believe in. In a way, it is a return to the more spiritual meaning of Christ’s parable: Unto this last will be expected the same ethical commitment.

One way of doing this may be to return the ideas of the co-operative movement: Where each stakeholder – employee, customer, supplier – has an equal say as well as ethical commitment and responsibility for the conduct of the business as a whole. I find that the co-operative movement, anchored locally and centered around a shared code of conduct may well have a renaissance with the emergence of new digital social tools. But I’ll have to ponder this some more.

Input is welcome.

Jon alone

One of my all-time favourite comics is Calvin and Hobbes. It’s a comic strip about a six-year old boy and his friendship with his stuffed toy tiger. The strip is a celebration of the vivid imagination and playfulness of the child, to whom the tiger appears alive and talkative. While to everybody else, it’s just an inanimate stuffed toy tiger.

Now, consider Garfield. Probably the best-selling comic strip in the world. The basic premise is that you have a fat, ego-centric cat who enjoys annoying his lonely owner. The sarcastic drive of the cat dominates every other character in the strip. But what if Garfield was just a figment of poor Jon’s imagination?

Well, now, with Garfield minus Garfield, we can see what Jon’s life would be without Garfield. As the introduction reads:

Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life? Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let??s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness in a quiet American suburb.

You need to read a few pages to get the full desperation and crazed loneliness that the comic conveys. But then it’s downright startling.

The dark corners of the Internet

My friend Kristian, who really should have a blog, often sends me lovely stories and links which he digs up from the dark and musty corners of the Internet. It’s the sort of things that weblogs originally were meant log: A catalogue of surprises, of the never-ending weirdness, humour and imagination of human-kind. In a good way, mind.

Though there’s no real rhyme or rhythm to the links I receive, they’re always fascinating, and often do they expose surprising traits of modern society through what was once pop culture. Like this 1960s speculation of what USA of would be like if it was the USSA (aka the United Soviet States of America),
a comic book adaption of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment with Batman starring as Raskolnikov, or an archive of the instances of Superman being a dick to his friends:

Jimmy Olsen Kong

I really can’t imagine how any publisher can justify printing something so bizarre. Contrasting this shameless appeal for attention is the work of Henry Darger, which, much like most of Kafka’s oeuvre, was never meant to be published or even shown to anybody. I cannot help but wonder how many people like him now use the Internet to publish their innermost thoughts anonymously, in that way multiplying the dark and wonderful corners of the Internet…

A Visit to the Uffizi

Last year, I went to Italy, and had the opportunity to visit the Uffizi museum in Florence. Since then, I’ve been meaning to highlight some of the best paintings I saw there for others to enjoy and comment upon. I’ve dug out some pictures of said paintings, and though they have only a fraction of the beauty (and none of the aura) of the original, they still give a decent idea of the wondrous detail and emotion which hides in each of them.

I continue to be amazed at the way the artists have used the eyes and glances of the people in each painting to give an immense sense of depth and drama. Confining entire stories to a single bat of an eye, forever captured on the canvas. Move the cursor over each image to get the title and artist – playful guessing at both before doing so is recommended.

Botticelli's Madonna the Magnificent

Leonardo's Adorazione dei Magi

Botticelli's Young Man with Medallion

I love this one. He looks so much like a gangsta rapper flaunting his gold. Compare.

Daniele Ricciarelli da Volterra: Killing of the Innocent

Rosso Fiorentino's Angelino Musicante

Tiziano's Sick Man