Slow Education

The slow arrow of beauty. The most noble kind of beauty is that which does not carry us away suddenly, whose attacks are not violent or intoxicating (this kind easily awakens disgust), but rather the kind of beauty which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams; finally, after it has for a long time lain modestly in our heart, it takes complete possession of us, filling our eyes with tears, our hearts with longing.
What do we long for when we see beauty? To be beautiful. We think much happiness must be connected with it. But that is an error.

Nietzsche

Is this the moment?

Is this happening?
This is happening.

Right
Now

I’ve been dreading it for so long yet I’m excited, full of anticipation.
This is the moment everything begins.

But is the beginning the same as becoming?

The same as being?


I. Becoming
II. Being


I’ve written about this before. But the story is changing each time it is retold, each time I remember it anew. Really, it’s true. I read online that in 2012 a pioneering study at Northwestern University came to the conclusion that our memories degrade over time in a direct correlation to how often we recall them. This means that each time we remember a specific event, we actually remember the last time we accessed it in our memory, not the original event itself. We remember the act of remembering. Our memories are always changing and in turn, thus so are our experiences, personal
narratives, and perception of life itself.

My personal narrative began in January of 2009, nestled inside an art gallery’s circular reception desk in NYC. It was a Saturday and I was working extra weekend shifts as a docent. There was a video show going so the entire windowless space was obscured in darkness, only dust particles dancing in the conical light of the projectors and blurry moving images shined through the expanse of black. There were not many visitors that day so I was passing the time making digital drawings on an ancient copy of MS Paint, a nostalgic program that instantly recalled for me long visitation weekends spent indoors at my father’s place. This gallery was a non-profit and hadn’t changed their computers since the advent of Windows 2000. After several false starts, I ended up making an animated gif of a text describing a dream I had the previous night. It went like this:

Two and a half years later, seven years after I first arrived, I finally made my exodus out of NYC. New York isn’t really the easiest place to live as an artist unless one’s parents are rich or one has the desire and ability to turn one’s artistic output into capital. Without either of these, one’s only choice then becomes to develop the incredible stamina necessary to work regularly in the studio (or bedroom) after putting in long hours at a “real job”. My parents aren’t rich and I am understandably wary of throwing myself into an art world ruled by capitalism and discrimination. I harbor no illusions of such an entry existing without violence. Also after three years of working
various jobs — “real” or otherwise, precariously or totally unrelated to my Bachelor of Fine Art — I was just plain tired. On somewhat of a whim I applied for a two year Masters program in Oslo, putting together my application in one Sunday afternoon after an especially long week at work. I had studied abroad in Scandinavia before and the school in Oslo was one of the last free art academies in Europe, so the idea of going there was very appealing even though I knew very little about the school itself. A month later I found out I was accepted and thus began my journey back to the womb, a.k.a. art school.

Once in Norway, however, it quickly became apparent that returning to art school in a foreign country was not the easiest task. Everything was totally different — and this was wonderful actually, but it also meant I spent most of my first year struggling to navigate and find my place within (and outside of) all the obscure local structures and systems. The school itself was helplessly disorganized but ripe with unique opportunities; my peers were
eager young artists hyper-aware of government funding deadlines and savvy with putting together stipend applications. But the most striking thing about these people was that unlike the people I knew in New York who were always so unsure of their status as artists, these Scandinavians were so incredibly sure. Deciding to become and then be an artist was not a complicated process full of trepidation and doubt, but rather a personal choice one was entitled to make.

But was I sure?
I thought I was.

Yet, even in a land where being an artist is a reasonable and obtainable occupation, strict hierarchies do exist. Very early on I became aware of what appeared to be a totally arbitrary distinction between visual arts and fine art, crafts and conceptual art. Within the big government-funded conglomerate art institution, there were even two different art schools with completely different budgets, workshops, and statuses within the Norwegian art scene and grant system. Design was considered to be a different entity entirely and thus was relegated to its own third school with its own grants. As a student of the Academy, I attended critiques where other students would literally explain they fabricated something badly on purpose, as if good craftsmanship could somehow totally negate the conceptual impetus of their work or have it be mistaken as a product of the rival craft school. Sometimes I got the feeling that the general consensus was that the more cryptic or messy or esoteric something was, the more critical thought it must contain by default. This way of thinking was and still is baffling to me. Not all the work was like this of course, but the sentiment was undeniably thick in the air.

Here is where the bow and arrow returns.

For years the animated-gif-dream-image had lived dormant inside of me but as soon as the whisper of possibility made itself known, my mind became fixed on the urgent task of translating dream into reality. This time the whisper came in the unlikely form of browsing through old sports equipment with some friends at a flea market. One of these friends taught woodshop part-time at a Steiner school outside the city and was scoping out materials for new projects. He was looking for old wooden skis as a possible substitute for freshly cut wood: one of the most popular recurring projects with his pupils was making a traditional longbow and arrows. These students were twelve year old boys for the most part. Despite this, or perhaps .exactly because I was so different, my earnest interest and tenacity to also become his student eventually won my friend over. It took some time, but he made a sincere promise to help me as soon as he was able.

And then came the day whereby some magic I’m being picked up in a car from a casual barbeque in a city park and driven out to the school. It was one of the first days of summer so the place was totally, almost eerily abandoned. Though we got there at maybe eight in the evening, the sun was as high as midday. With a little help and a lot of sweat I felled my first tree that evening: a skinny straight elm just big enough for me to not quite be able to cup my hands around the trunk. After my tree kissed the forest floor with a soft whoosh, what I remember most was the feeling of peeling off the long narrow sheets of its bark to reveal the naked wood underneath. So unexpectedly white and wet it was, sticky to the touch — smooth and slick, almost translucent in the fading light. So incredibly visceral, physical. After that night I became the proud owner-creator of a rough longbow form almost larger than me, wrapped in plastic and set to dry over the summer in a corner of my apartment.

While waiting for the bow to dry I received an acceptance email for my application to have a show at One Night Only, a popular one night exhibition series in Oslo. I had applied to exhibit my bow as a work in progress but as soon as a date was set, I was faced with the difficult task of deciding exactly what to show. For the rest of the summer, the same questions paraded around in a circle over and over again in my mind:

What have I learned by doing this with my hands?
Is it still too early to know?
Will I wake up one day and feel a comforting weight in my stomach?
Or will it be a lightness?
Will it feel like anything at all?

Alternately, I waited for the perfect articulation of meaning to wash over me and felt embarrassed for even wanting such a thing to begin with.

The archetype of the bow and arrow occupies a very special place in our collective unconscious. A wooden longbow in particular is nature transformed into a tool by the human hand; it represents not only craftsmanship but also self-sufficiency and power. The bow and arrow is also a known mythological and philosophical entity. In Zeno’s paradoxes, the paradox of the arrow is the paradox of motion: at any instant an arrow in flight is neither where it came from nor where its going — rather it is still. As such, motion is impossible if time is a collection of instants. Time itself is also often described as an arrow, flowing irreversibly in one direction. The bow is a weapon, yet it is also graceful. In my dream with the shattering pane of glass, I am an archer but also the player of a large instrument, perhaps a harp. I am also simultaneously the arrow. The arrow is my will in bodily form, shot through the crisp air, motionless yet still impossibly traveling. On the way to something

For the show that fall, I ended up exhibiting the finished bow, some printed narrative texts (maybe somewhat like this one), and an arrow shot through an A3 sheet of paper, upon which a quote was printed, through a melon. The temporal sculpture of the melon and quote playfully touched upon my summer fears. Through the words of another, taken from a fiction novel that had nothing to do with art, I asked: “What is the moment when something becomes art? Will I feel it in my body as a sensual, physical thing?” Using my own meandering words in the narrative texts, I attempted to confuse the hierarchy and status of certain terms by using them frankly and interchangeably — words like passion, dreams, hobby, craft, expression. And then there was the bow itself, with its strong and palpable presence, that brought into acute focus the discrepancy between the idea of something and the physical thing: between instrument and weapon, dream and material translation.

All of these questions are still with me now as I’m practicing shooting, though with dampened urgency. Once this mild winter passes and the days are longer, it will be time to bring the project full circle. This whole affair has taken so much time that now as it is coming to a close, it’s simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. Heavy. And now there is a new fear budding within,not of my odyssey with the bow failing to fit neatly into any predetermined definition or category of art, but of the inherent loss and narrowing down that occurs when a project makes that essential leap to become a concrete, finished piece. When concepts and ideas are crystallized into specific digital or physical forms, it is only natural that they must be condensed and as a result their full expression and legibility compromised. To what extent the raw knowledge or impetus behind the work is compromised depends on the skills of the artist and perhaps the skill of the viewer who interprets the work of art as well. Context may also play a role. One might say that the qualities of a work of art are thus eternally subjective and unfixed, much like beauty..


Physicality, though concrete, can become very personal as it is both immediate and intimate. Language, though ubiquitous, is at best an imperfect translation of one’s mental or physical experience.
Relationships — whether between people, objects, spaces, ideas,
images, or attitudes — are the visible and invisible bonds that rule
everything around us.

Relationships are everything. Sometimes they are very obvious and other times they are the pane of glass floating in the forest, hidden in plain sight.

In a 2013 online interview between a young artist and the established Senegalese artist Issa Samb, an earnest appeal is made to Samb asking how to become a good artist. To which he simply replies: “You don’t need to be good. You need to create art. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. An artist produces art.” This answer is at once both straightforward and cryptic. First the young artist is warned that making something good is not the most important thing. In the realm of taste, good and bad are not necessarily diametrically opposed binaries, but rather more or less equal modifiers of a
particular subject (e.g. art). For Samb, it the production of art that is key. If an artist makes a work with the intention of creating art, he will produce art. It is as simple as that. Yet somehow it is also this production of art that makes one an artist. The more I try to break the meaning of his words down, the deeper I sink into the fray: for Samb being an artist is a constant cycle of becoming and being, a closed loop, the snake eating itself. Perhaps instead of trying to identify the exact moment that someone becomes an artist, a better question would be: how does one enter into the cycle to begin with?

At a casual dinner earlier this year an artist friend is recounting a recent trip to Denmark where her (absent) partner captivated a group of old ladies though a lecture he did at a poetry festival. He did this by playfully introducing them to John Cage’s ideas about music through Cage’s sense of humor. They were especially delighted that inspiration could come from anywhere, even through common and everyday objects. “Water Walk”, the three of us murmured in an imperfect harmony. After her anecdote, my
(non-artist) partner says something like: “That is very sweet, but I’m not sure they would think his music was so cute if they had heard it first!” We all laugh. “That is not important,” she says, “I think it’s more about the idea that art can be something one would be able to carry around everywhere, like in your pocket for example. Or the potentiality of art, at least…” I nod in agreement. My partner furrows his brow skeptically and produces from his pocket a small square of pink paper:

Is this art?
No.
But look, it has a number on it: seventy-nine.
Is that significant?
Actually, it is the same number the house where I grew up.
But how would we know that?
Does it matter?
But didn’t you just say that something is art by calling it art?
No, that was me.
Art becomes art by declaring it to be so. It’s in the declaration.
Here I am, declaring this to be art.
Hm.
Maybe you have to be an artist first?

Maybe you have to go to art school?
No!
So maybe it is art then.
Just not good art.

Right before I left New York for Oslo, I was gifted the dense brick-like compendium Art School, a collection of essays compiled by Steven Henry Madoff. Three years later I still haven’t gotten through the whole thing as it is as thick as a religious text. I have, however, read a number of the essays through the methods of picking, choosing and chance. One essay that immediately appealed to me was a piece by the New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective entitled “How to be an Artist by Night.” In this essay-artwork they begin by insisting that the contemporary art world not only requires young artists to make increasingly innovative art to fit into an accelerated capitalist model, but also to become the wage workers that keep it running smoothly. Because of this strange paradox, they increasingly must learn how to be artists by night, e.g. in their free time. After this comes a reflection on art school, followed by a series of eight tools for young artists to employ in their daily practices.

The tone of the piece is sober yet light-hearted. Near the beginning when they attempt to define art school, an argument is made that artists must “undertake to transform themselves continuously through their practices and through their working lives. For an artist, there can be no rigid separation between being someone and learning to become someone. …Being an artist is no different from learning to become an artist.” Here becoming (or learning) and being are again presented as a circular process, this time in both life and art. Because the world is in constant flux, it is only natural the artist must transform him or herself continually to keep pace. So just as Samb shot down the idea of it mattering whether art is good or bad, for Raqs it becomes trivial to distinguish between becoming or being an artist. They are two sides of the same coin.

Keeping this logic in mind, declaring something to be art or someone to be an artist is not enough to make something art or someone an artist. A declaration is not dynamic because it has no past or future; it is only capable of occupying a singular point in time. To become an artist, one must possess enough dedication and awareness to not only embark on the journey to become an artist in the first place, but to stay on it long enough to realize that the journey that will never end. So perhaps this is the entrance to the cycle of being: knowing that becoming an artist is a path with no specific end, no shining realization, and most likely no singular exhilarating confirmation. Through learning and re-learning what it is to be an artist, the power of creating artworks (good or bad) is obtained. One becomes an
artist by accepting that the status of an artist is directly linked to the temporal and that defining one’s practice is a continual process.

But how does this work out in praxis? Does the artist’s identity ever stop shifting between becoming and being? I would hazard to say yes, sometimes. But only two less than ideal circumstances really come to mind. The first would be to pass through the gates of doubt and disillusionment and never return home. I know many people in New York who have taken this route, both willingly and unwillingly. For the most part these people’s identities as artists are no longer shifting because they no longer feel like they can be artists in the art world they are up against. These people either refuse to be called artists and refer to being one as “playing the game” or they remove themselves more gradually and less vocally, choosing to either sublimate their artistic desires through other channels or abandon them completely. The second way is through stagnation: by falsely equating being an artist with a declaration, these artists lose their ability to critically reflect on their production over time. Though they may call themselves artists and go through the motions of the art world, perhaps they are something else entirely.

Suddenly it feels like we are back in the territory of good and bad art, with the eager young artist doubting that it is mere taste separating the two. So I look to Nietzsche. In his 1876 book of aphorisms Human, All Too Human, he writes of artists:

Belief in inspiration. Artists have an interest in others’ believing in sudden ideas, so-called inspirations; as if the idea of a work of art, of poetry, the fundamental thought of a philosophy shines down like a merciful light from heaven. In truth, the good artist’s or thinker’s imagination is continually producing things good, mediocre, and bad, but his power of judgment, highly sharpened and practiced, rejects, selects, joins together…

In this passage Nietzsche’s argument can be broken down into two parts. The first of which is a not very subtle attack on the idea of the artist as genius. According to him, the artist desires for others to believe that he has been gifted with divine inspiration. The divinely inspired artist-genius can do no wrong because everything he produces is a whole, perfect work of art. There are no critical faculties in play here. However, Nietzsche reminds us that this is not actually how things work, only how (he presumes) artists want others to think they do. It is all just smoke and mirrors to conceal a more problematic reality: the reality of an essential fluctuation in the
quality of what an artist produces.

For art to be good, it must first pass through the artist’s “power of judgment” that he or she has acquired and honed over time. The key here is the artist’s continual production. Before something becomes good art it is an indistinguishable part of this continual production, like living water in a primordial pool inside the artist’s own mind. Once selected, the artist will employ his or her skills to transform the amorphous into a specific work of art. Then the judgment comes in. It is very important to note that this judgement, or editing, is not just about narrowing down. Rather, it is an extensive process not unlike creation itself. And it is somewhere within this process that an artwork becomes a good one, that it suddenly arrives at that slippery epiphany of being and dissipates just as quickly.

Our subjective world is full of holes. Even the pane of glass in the forest is not as simple as it seems. Under the microscope, some scientists have posited that glass is not actually a solid, but rather a slow moving liquid. Extremely slow. Unlike solids that by definition have a regular and crystalline molecular structure, the structure of glass is irregular, unique yet recognizable. One of the unsolved problems in physics is actually the exact transition between a fluid or a regular solid into a glass. No one quite understands how it works. Strong yet fragile, glass is also a surface that can be molded into innumerable forms with varying degrees of functionality. My favorites and the most ubiquitous are surely the window and the screen (barriers between worlds), also the mirror (approximated yet reversed reality). And like any surface or choice of material that an artist utilizes, it is not without its own inherent meaning.

The image on the screen is a metaphor. It is a translation of something intangible into something concrete and back into an impression again. An arrow is shot through a pane of glass suspended in the air. Up until the moment it shatters, the glass is invisible. In the image the backdrop is inseparable from the content: foliage everywhere. Only when the glass is breaking (is broken) is it finally able to be seen as a surface, a thing. And even then, it is visible just for a second — after which it returns to invisibility.