Tuesday, 4 December 2018

'Our living networks are not places of omnibenevolent oneness'

'We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.
Because life is network, there is no “nature” or “environment,” separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with “others,” so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory. We are not, in the words of the folk hymn, wayfaring strangers traveling through this world. Nor are we the estranged creatures of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads, fallen out of Nature into a “stagnant pool” of artifice where we misshape “the beauteous forms of things.” Our bodies and minds, our “Science and Art,” are as natural and wild as they ever were.
We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.
Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.'
David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees

Friday, 25 May 2018

the rock pool

I am currently reading Twyla Tharpe, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life. I've just finished chapter 3, 'Your creative DNA', in which she talks about finding out what your patterns and inclinations are, the thing that it's right for you to do.

In that chapter there's a questionnaire. I got to number 25 no problem... no surprises... nothing I hadn't thought about before.

Then no 26: When you work, do you love the process or the result?

I wrote yesterday that everything is process; that process is all there is. I know this to be true, but the slant of this question was clever, because my response to what I love turns out to be the product.

It's my love of the product that motivates me. My excitement about what appears; lines on the page, shapes and forms. This is also what can stuff me up, because I want so much from every line, every smudge of paint. Lines and smudges are pregnant, bursting with mystery; ciphers, codes containing the world and everything in it. I can scarcely bear the fullness of them.

In the end, though, while the binary extremes of 'product' v 'process' are useful for stimulating thought or having a conversation, they're not really very helpful.

And then there's input.

I can dive into the history and present of my experience, looking for shapes and forms and codes. For ten years, I swam, picking stones up from the ocean floor, noticing where the light from the surface cast its beam through the gloom, turning over the things I found.

Now I have a vocabulary. I have a language, a means of processing. And it's no longer enough to be swimming down here alone. I'm bored of my own tropes. Well, not bored, but they need energy from beyond me to bring the language to life. They need the breath of interaction.

My language does not exist to be a conduit from the closed container of 'me'. Because there is no closed container. All of my symbols and shapes and forms, the desire of my line to flow, these things are not products of a closed system, an entity that is singular.

They flow into the vessel of me, like tidal waves eddying into a rock pool. The energy of the wave sweeps around the edges of the pool, causing deep maroon fringes of anemone to ripple, tiny green fronds of algae to wave and breathe, and then the wave is gone, sucked back out into the sea.

In the rock pool there are objects, living molluscs, things attached to the smooth stone; for moments, or months, or aeons. And there is every kind of non-attached, or partially-attached thing. Slime and weed and viscous transparent texture; visible, part visible, invisible living forms, packed in fractal layers, interlocking jigsaws of living material and tiny creatures.

Without the inflow of the waves, the pool is nothing. If the tides no longer visited, if the waves ceased their pulsing visitations, their in and out, in and out, the pool would die within a few hours.

So now I wait for the waves.

And they come. Invitations, opportunities, chance openings - invaginations from the flux, momentary involutions creating vessels for new forms, new flows. I am a vessel, but nothing that emerges was made by a me. I am a student, studying the art of holding my coat open.*

(* An old story about three men on a windy cliff top. One of them is near the edge with wads of paper money. The other two are standing further back, downwind from the man on the edge. The man with the money suddenly throws it all up into the air. The wind catches the notes, scattering them in all directions, towards to the two men. One of the men starts running around, grabbing at the air, chasing the notes, trying to catch as many as possible. The other man slow opens his coat....)

Thursday, 24 May 2018

You are the eye of the universe, looking at itself

A friend wrote to me yesterday with some questions.

How did you, or indeed did you decide what form your art would take?

I never decided. It was more like a process of elimination. Not this, no, not this. Not this portrait, not this landscape, not this oil paint, not this art game, not this bohemian posing, not this boring still life. Now I see that those rejections were the key to everything. Not accepting what the culture, the art college, the friends, the gallery, the critic, told me was art, or worthwhile art. 

By noticing tiny moments, and trying to stay true to the feeling of them. I remember staring into a tree trunk in Italy and feeling something moving, in it and in me. Some deep mystery. I had no idea what it was, but nothing else would do. Better to stop making art completely than listen to other people or continue with work that didn't move me.

How did you decide what you wanted to communicate through your work?

I didn't. I don't try to communicate anything. I make images that interest me, or that seem at least to hold a promise of interest. In some ways I think I started trying to make images that I wanted to look at, because I was so uninterested and unmoved by most of the art that came my way.

I don't know what I'm working with most of the time. Sometimes I can make sense of it with hindsight. What actually appears shows me what I'm interested in, I don't decide it. I need to remain open and interested, and just DO SOMETHING. Not care so much what comes out, move on if I don't like it.

I encounter many doubts and fears. The critic is always sitting on my shoulder ready to laugh at my efforts. That's mainly ego, trying to keep me safe, safe from being ridiculed. But if I try to make art that fits with some idea of what I think art should be my art is boring, to everyone, including myself. We don't need more repetition of old cultural tropes.

I also did a very personal piece about my family but that somehow feels self-indulgent and actually quite private.

The personal is where interesting art begins. You can decide later whether or not you want to show it to anyone, or show and explain. One way of seeing it is that your art is the wisdom and depth of all of your experience trying to talk to you, as dreams try to talk, or symptoms of chronic illness. That's interesting, to you. Your system wants this exploration, it wants you to dive into yourself, into the everything of yourself, to follow its leads, to see where it wants to take you. 

Follow your personal fascinations. So what if a thousand people have painted a rock pool? What area of the rock pool makes you catch your breath? You don't have to tell anyone, just find that response in yourself. Start with this. Work out what to show and what to tell much, much later. 

This is a conversation between you and the universe. You are its mirror, its own eye, looking at itself. Find that private ecstasy, that connection, that fascination. Follow and follow and follow. See where it takes you. Forget about anyone else.

I love the process but not sure at all about the product.

It's all process. This doesn't mean that you want to burn any product that results. Products come, you assess them, note them, then carry on. Don't linger on them, at least not at first. Later, linger on them, but as an adventure of seeing and feeling, and adventure of your most private self. What thrills you? What works here, but not here? The answer to that question is your guide. You're on an exploration into the heart of things, using your body and mind as a portal. Ultimately it's a flow, something continuous, which gradually takes over from your conscious mind with all its intentions and desires.

And the strange thing is, that though so much in the culture will tell you that this all sounds very indulgent and self-oriented, it turns out that what comes from this starting point seems to have more likelihood of touching other people as well.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018


In some traditions of Indian image-making the image-maker (shilpin or shilpini) has to purify and prepare themselves in order to make themselves into a suitable vessel for the activity they are about to perform.

Shilpa (शिल्प) refers to any art or craft in ancient Indian texts, while Shastra means science. 
Together, Shilpa Shastra means the science of art and crafts. The ancient Sanskrit texts use the term Shilpin (शिल्पिन्, male artist)[6]and Shilpini (शिल्पिनी, female artist)[7] for artists and crafts person, while Shilpani refers to works of arts of man.[1]
Shilpani, works of art of man,
imitate the divine forms,
by employing their rhythms,
they metrically reconstitute,
and interpret the limitless knowledge,
of the sacred hymns,
from the limits of being human.
— Aitareya Brahmana, Rig Veda, 6.5.27[8][9]
The meaning of Shilpa, according to Stella Kramrisch, is complex. She writes that it consists of "art, skill, craft, labor, ingenuity, rite and ritual, form and creation."[1][10] The range of crafts encompassed by the term Shilpa extends to every aspect of culture, includes sculptor, the potter, the perfumer, the wheelwright, the painter, the weaver, the architect, the dancer, the musician, the arts of love, and others.

All of the arts were/are one with each other, part of the same thing, and all of the arts were/are one with daily life and living. Indians do not, even to this day, naturally recognise a distinction between what we separate into 'secular' and 'religious'.

When you wake in the morning, you might do a ritual that makes you listen to the early morning sounds, which helps to remind you that you are breathing, and calms your mind before it starts to make lists for the day ahead.

If you're a woman in a village you might step outside your hut and make a pattern in your doorway with ground white rice, with the intention of inviting auspicious forces to come towards you for the coming day.

video link in text above image

People in India perform all kinds of alignment practices as a way of grounding themselves in their ordinary day to day lives.

Many of these practices act to intensify the sense of everything in the world (and its generative forces, however you understand these - the laws of physics or God...) being connected and embedded into everything else. The practices act to bring the relatedness of everything into the field of awareness, an awareness that includes all of the sensations of the body.  For example, a person may feel that God is everywhere and that He/She can be seen and worshipped in any form in any place, or indeed in the formless. That person may still on some days go to a temple rather than worship at the altar in their home, if they feel that they need some extra-concentrated awareness of what and where they are.

In this context, anyone can make an image. At the same time, there are people who have the specialised  task of making images, which are largely made to serve other people's 'helping you to connect up' intensification practices.

I am one of these people. This is why I think of myself as a shilpini (image maker) rather than as an artist in the 21st century AngloAmerican sense.

In order to make images that will serve my purpose, I need to be aligned.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

I will not pin myself to the ground

I can't bear to fix what appears.

I could take any of these images and formalise them with care onto canvas, or carefully worked paint on thicker paper.

But I can't.

I won't.

rainer maria rilke


Wednesday, 31 January 2018

accepting what actually appears

In conversation with some friends recently, someone expressed the idea that I seemed to be skeptical about (or distant from) my own art process, indeed my own paintings. I can only guess at what this meant for the person who said it, but I've found it a fascinating comment, and have been letting it percolate within my own frames of reference and the ideas I have about how I work.

Another word which came up in the same conversation was 'prolific'. I have a feeling all of this is connected somehow.

In letting these things percolate, I keep seeing things that at first glance seem a bit contradictory.

First pair of apparently contradictory thoughts

The first idea is that making art is the most important thing in my life (leaving aside being able to eat and breathe, and having shelter and food, and love). It's something which I'm totally committed to. This is not some mysterious god-given compulsion, but simply a recognition of what I need to do to feel right in the world, fuelled by having lost the capacity to make art completely for over 20 years. I tried to come back and lost it so many time, that this time I'm determined not to let it fade away.

The second idea is that though making the art is so important, what actually appears in front of me as I do this making thing (the image, the song, the improvisation, the movement) is almost irrelevant.  I don't mean that I don't have ideas about what I want to make, or that I don't have reactions to what appears. I have them in shippingcontainer-loads. However, I've learnt over this last decade of making that it is ideas about what I want to make, and reactions about what I actually do make, that are responsible for the annihilation of my ability to make things.

Second pair of apparently contradictory thoughts

I have to believe utterly in what I'm doing
There's no room for doubt. I can't think about whether what I'm doing is important, or whether it's living up to what I've always dreamed of doing; whether it's doing justice to my impulse and my vision, whether it's honouring the importance that making art has had for my being my whole life long. These thoughts and feelings, while important for my mind to articulate in terms of seeing what matters to me, are at the same time the enemy of my free creative spirit.

I have to not take any of it particularly seriously
I try to just make SOMETHING, or sit and look at something, or sing something, or move in some way to music. If I consider the nature or value of what I make or do, I end up stationary on the couch. My focus is on making something, ANYTHING!

This doesn't mean that I can be artistically or emotionally careless and just stab at things with a paintbrush. I tried this, and it can be freeing. But I've found it also can offend me, because, while I need to not take myself too seriously, I also can't be without care.

Some other random ideas about process

I've been working all these years on accepting what actually appears. Noticing how different what actually is is from my feeling of what I think I might make, or what I used to dream of making.

I was so disgusted at first that I could scarcely bear to pick up my pen or brush again. I hated the paintyness of paint. I did! But I had to stop walking away and come back and ask myself, well, if you don't like the paintyness of paint, but you want to use paint, what is that you want?

My whole artistic life seem seems to have been a repetition of 'not this', 'no, not this either', 'no, not this'. This is like continually failing at job interviews or having funding applications knocked back again and again. But slowly I realised that 'not this' was a communication from my underworld, the underworld that had the capacity to send parts of itself into the light, and that I was constantly blocking with my ego fantasy reactions about what 'I' thought 'I would make' as an artist.

In order for this process to have a chance of learning itself, I had to screen out any feedback from 'the world'. I had already screened out acceptance by the art world after art college. By the time I came back, I had experienced many decades of being an insider in a public institution. I had sat on the power side of interview panels, had had my writing accepted and lauded, had suddenly - after 40 years of 'the world' being completely uninterested in who I was or what I had to say - been the recipient of admiring emails and gushing praise. It was wonderful to find out what 'success' felt like, to feel accepted and to be part of a conversation. I learnt a lot, and many parts of my isolated soul were soothed. But it was also completely empty, because what I was doing was not the right work for me.

When I left and started painting again, I put everything online so that nothing was secret or hidden or a big deal for anyone to see. I didn't advertise this though, because I knew that art tutor feedback had destroyed me before. I wanted no feedback, only my own. I wanted to be my own critic, judge, admirer and cheer leader. I wanted to find out what I actually could make, what really could be there, instead of sitting frozen on the sofa with my fantasies and longings.

All through my academic career I tortured myself by comparing myself to a colleague who used to get up on holiday at 6 am to read more philosophy. Why was I not doing that? And yet my articles got written, and people even thought I was prolific. I seemed to find my own way to produce, even though I didn't get up at 6 am.

Most of my artist friends have to do paid work that they'd probably prefer not do and many of them have families. They sit on committees and support new artists and organise things for other people. A lot of the time they have to make their art in tiny interstices inbetween everything else, and when they get some time they often feel frustrated that they don't produce as they want to.

I couldn't make any work at all if I was doing what you're doing. That's why I did nothing all those years that you were applying for funding, making shows, running workshops, writing poetry and producing albums. You did all of that, even though you could scarcely get five minutes to yourself to even begin to think about art.

I can't do that. You guys are my heroes. You show me that art can get made in the small spaces. You help me to see that when nothing is happening, even though I don't now have to do other work for a living and I don't have a family, it's ok. The art will still get done, in its own way, in its own time. In the way that is befitting for who I am, and what I can do.

If I look prolific to someone who doesn't have the time that I do, please remember that I don't do anything else.

Another thing I've learnt is that so much of working and making art is invisible. It took me years to realise that I had to look at things for a long, long time, doing nothing. That I couldn't just be making endlessly. That I had to go outside and let the world and the birds and other artists feed me. That I needed to rest and do nothing at all. I even made a four part model to try to remind myself:


(in any order...)

Most of the time I'm not making images. To make what I do I have to have so much nothing time. How do the rest of you still make stuff in the midst of all that you do? I am in awe.

art form and intention

It's easy for me to look prolific. I can make some marks on paper and share what results within half an hour. A musician can practice their instrument or work on a song for two hours or two weeks, an actor can spend a day learning lines, but at the end of that period they still have nothing that they can immediately show.

I share on fb because I don't want art world or art gallery audiences. There's no performance coming up for me which you can all come and be my audience for. You, here now, reading this, you are my audience, and what I do every day and share with you, that's my show.

I have a particular intention and a particular process. It's mine, it works for me. Don't compare yourself to me.

Friday, 5 January 2018

You are not just a sponge, they say. You are a prism.

The paintings carry messages. They're communications, rather than 'things I made', because I didn't decide or concoct them. The different elements that appear in them are residues of sense impressions that arrived into the field of my awareness at some point in my historical experiencing, and now these residues are pushing and dancing and saying that they want to come out and breathe a new air. You are not just a sponge, they say. You are a prism.

A human is a point of living, breathing awareness in a vast sea of elemental forces and objects. All living creatures are this kind of point, many of them with probably exactly same kind of awareness. Awareness is not cognition. It is not thinking, concocting, analysing, deciding. These are particular functions of mind that can be interesting, and that can be tools. But they can also be distractions from the reality of awareness, the actual reality of being. We can use our minds to know the reality of being, but we are programmed away from this, for some reason.

I see the right use of my mind as being to bring my awareness into focus, my existence into awareness.

My task as a maker of images is not to invent or arrange or in any way actively seek to produce. It is a process of encouraging the intentional, willing part of my mind to give up, to stop trying, to back off, to shut up.

This has meant days and weeks and months of 'not producing'. Leaving be. Trying to form spaces into which accumulated  or accumulating image forms are free to slide out onto paper, to sneak themselves into vision through flowing ink or shades of colour. They want to live and breathe, but they can't do so if there's any kind of ego intentionality getting in their way. Ego intentionality is a dam to their pressing flow, they hit up against it and simply flow back into the darkness that contains them; as a wave of energy that has no direction or desires they are not bothered to be seen or formed or known or articulated.

But I am bothered to see them. Some part of my mind that watches everything wants them to be free to move out into the parts of the field where energies and impressions can take form, reflect light, absorb it and become colour.

The less I have any sense of the possibilities for form the better. I notice this over and over, that when I free myself from the image forms mattering, the pent up forms that want to live beyond my conscious intention are free to emerge. There's a momentary slit in the quantum experience experiment and they find their way out.

Then they speak, using symbols, dream shapes, allegories, allusions. And I cannot understand them, although I try. I never know how they will come or what language they will be speaking. Sometimes the unknowing unhinges me and I feel that I should go back and look at them all, 'do something' with them. You know... artist things.... work them into bigger images, plan something, use my mind. But very quickly when I try this, I become overwhelmed with the sheer multitude of their messages and the complexity of their talk. They speak in so many tongues, all at once, and I become paralysed.

When this happens I retreat. I give up the task of sitting with the myriad forms that have peeled their way through the slit, and try to remember to go back to the calm peace of the empty page. I give up everything and attempt to summon up just enough intentionality to remember to cut off the distractions of daily life and put a mark maker in my hand. And then I let the marker touch the empty page.

Everything seems to be trying to teach me about this moment, the return to the unborn/birthing instant as I breathe and see my hand holding the paper still. And then the hand starts to move, the ink begins to flow, and though I am empty of any kind of forming, any kind of knowing, something begins to live.

The hand of the sculptor on the rough sandstone block that forms one piece in the construction of the temple at Halebid is there; the stories that he grew up with of gods and kings and strange forces that fed his dreams and dared him to defy the rules and make an impish cat strike a yogic pose at Mahabalipuram are there;  the first sculptor becomes the second, separated by hundreds of years, moving from the North West to the South East in this merging of all time, all experience.

Chronological and cultural impositions fall away, like old lichen dropping off an overwintering tree. The tree notices nothing, only lets the sap flow from the roots up through the trunk, waiting to arrive into the branches and make leaves.