Meta-Practice, Research, Thought Experiments in Agency

Ways and Means: Points of Reference

A few past notes and new points of reference related to my Ways and Means project, on view through October 15 at Kala Art Institute.

Ways and Means came out of my Inter/dependence ‘zine, a report focusing on self-organizers. I loved the way Adam Gopnik wrote about Jane Jacobs’s interest in self-organizing [emphasis added]:

[In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs] told the story of a little girl seemingly being harassed by an older man, and of how all of Hudson Street emerged from stores and stoops to protect her…. She made the still startling point that, on richer blocks, a whole class of eyes had to be hired to play the role that, on Hudson Street, locals played for nothing: “A network of doormen and superintendents, of delivery boys and nursemaids, a form of hired neighborhood, keeps residential Park Avenue supplied with eyes.” A hired neighborhood! It’s obvious once it’s said, but no one before had said it, because no one before had seen it.

The book is really a study in the miracle of self-organization, as with D’Arcy Thompson’s studies of biological growth. Without plans, beautiful shapes and systems emerge from necessity. Where before her people had seen accident or exploitation or ugliness, she saw an ecology of appetites.

Adam Gopnik, “Jane Jacobs’s Street Smarts,” New Yorker, September 26, 2016

This sense of acting out of necessity, or appetite—the agency and empowerment of creating a desired condition to exist within—is a huge inspiration to me.

Most of the activity kits in Ways and Means have two components: printed ephemera, housed in a canvas tool pocket or pouch (which can be attached to an apron, belt, or garment). The pouch is important to me, as I see a strong connection between physical agency, and social or political agency. Freedom is first and foremost about mobility. And feeling free—say, as artists—means that we don’t have to shape our lives around systems whose values we don’t believe in. In many ways, the project is about recognizing the tools, skills, and resources (read: each other) that we already carry, made physical by the tool pouches.

Activities housed in canvas pouches, displayed on a wall. Participants can attach them to garments using the snaps. Supported by a Fellowship from Kala Art Institute and an Artist-in-Residence Workspace Grant from the Center for Book Arts. Photo: Jiajun Wang

Activities housed in canvas pouches, displayed on a wall. Participants can attach them to garments using the snaps. Supported by a Fellowship from Kala Art Institute and an Artist-in-Residence Workspace Grant from the Center for Book Arts. Photo: Jiajun Wang

With that in mind, Chelsea G. Summers’ “The Politics of Pockets” (Racked, 9/19/2016) is an intriguing history of pockets from a feminist perspective. It starts with the fact that in Medieval times, men and women carried pouches attached to their waists. (The following several hundred years of gender-policing-via-pockets seem like an aberration to me.) The essay also touches upon the intersection of pockets and bicycling—again, mobility implying freedom.

One of the responses to Ways and Means has to do with the number of components involved. As there was a lot of letterpress printing, the process was particularly preparation-intensive. Here’s how I kept track of things:

Workflow spreadsheet for managing each activity kits across multiple stages.

Workflow spreadsheet for managing each activity kits across multiple stages.

I am not saying this level of nerdiness is always warranted, and I think many people would chafe at organizing creative production this way. But letterpress printing takes a special kind of detail-oriented person—hence the aphorism, “check your ‘p’s and ‘q’s.” This chart was useful for getting all the pieces—plates, type, paper, board, fabric—in place before I started printing. And getting different activities to converge at similar stages was helpful, e.g., buying paper in one trip, or binding all at once. Seeing that things were in-progress helped me stay focused; there is always something to do. And when you’re working in more than one space—such as a studio and printshop on opposite ends of a complex, or a home studio and a printshop in another borough—it’s nice to remember to pack the right materials for the day’s tasks.

A minor innovation that took a while for me to arrive at is this (it’s also a peek at a forthcoming activity):

A chart of printing passes.

A chart of printing passes.

Some activities entail multiple printing passes using different inks and media, and it could get confusing. I found that charting it this way helps me to visualize the steps, and prepare the plates and type accordingly. I may have even saved myself a fourth pass on this one. Pass 1 is done, 2 and 3 remain. To be continued…

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Sights

See: Denim @ the Museum at FIT

Three garment exhibitions.

Lately, as part of a larger project, I’ve been researching garments, especially workwear. The more I learn about sewing, the more I realize what I don’t know and can’t yet do. Though I’ve sewn flags and banners, I’m thinking about more complicated items and garments. I have a long way to go, but it’s nice that even my modest experiences help me appreciate construction better.

Front: Reproduction of Claire McCardell's "Popover" dress, circa 1942, blue denim and red cotton. Also: denim jumpsuit, as women joined manufacturing for WWII.

Front: Reproduction of Claire McCardell’s “Popover” dress, complete with a matching oven mitt, circa 1942, blue denim and red cotton. Also: denim jumpsuit from when women joined manufacturing for WWII.

Denim: Fashion’s Frontier @ the Museum at FIT
Through May 7, 2016

Though it’s less than two blocks from the Center for Book Arts (where I’m a current resident; learn more about the AIR program at the 2015 AIRs’ exhibition, which opens tonight), I first visited this museum yesterday. They have good spaces, quality shows, and strong exhibition design; I look forward to seeing more shows there. I went for their exhibition on denim—one of the workwear fabrics I’ve been printing on. Here are a few thoughts:

  • The show is composed of garments from the museum’s collection arranged in chronological order. I was most intrigued by the earliest garments. The curatorial statements insisted that denim has been used for workwear for men and women since its earliest days, exemplified by a women’s skirt-set for work from 1912-15.
  • There’s a great video (though the audio is too quiet) about a pair of cotton pants with denim patches. A conservator explains the clues in the garment’s construction that helped her deduce that they were probably made in the 1840s. I love it when invisible museum work is made visible in this way.
  • Chambray became an official union shirt in the 1940s. The blue in “blue collar” probably comes from that. (Growing up as the daughter of a car mechanic, I’d associated work with stain-resistant synthetic blends that were dyed blue.)

The rest of the exhibition reviews how jeans became symbols of rebellion, and emerged as leisure, popular, and luxury goods. The connection to work became symbolic at best. Cheers to MFIT for providing an online exhibition.

Fairy Tale Fashion @ the Museum at FIT
Through April 16, 2016

Coming from the denim exhibition, with its theme of women’s labor, I couldn’t help but see this show’s content in an unfavorable way. The fairy tales here are Eurocentric (maidens with fair skin, gold hair as symbols of gold) and hetero-orthodox. (It’s 2016. I want heroines who kick ass like Ronda Rousey or Rey, who change the game like Missy Elliot and Awkwafina. Also, what’s up with the ageism of fairy tales? Why aren’t there ever evil maidens and heroic middle-aged women?) This show is not for me.

  • If you want to see beautiful gowns, dramatic capes, and nice beadwork, have a look.
  • I was impressed by the exhibition design. The space is underground, with very high ceilings. The exhibition designers did a great job using scrims and dramatic lighting to set a slightly menacing tone.
  • I noticed the use of the word, “sculptural,” to describe functionless elements that diverged from the silhouette or body. Coming from an art/sculpture point of view, it’s interesting to think that a three-dimensional object is not inherently sculptural, but becomes so after adding superfluous parts.

"Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro," at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center,  Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery. // Source: http://www.newschool.edu/

“Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro,” at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery. // Source: newschool.edu

Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro @ The New School/Parsons
Through April 18, 2016

This was also my first visit to the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center’s Kellen Gallery. While the FIT museum had carefully calibrated the lighting to preserve the garments, this space is an airy white cube with dramatic windows and plentiful natural light. I will visit again, as they’re clearly interested in pushing boundaries (check out the concurrent exhibition on mass incarceration).

  • I was intrigued by this exhibition of “garments for hypothetical, invented, coveted, imaginary jobs.” Unfortunately I felt underwhelmed by how little creativity was on display, how the speculation sometimes only made small leaps from present reality. These garments evinced whimsy, not reinvention. I am not sure that this is a valid critique—I think it comes out of an expectation that designers are technologists, and thus futurists. But sometimes designers are just designers. (I love the name of AIGA NY’s “monthly series of provocations where practitioners and critics discuss the changing nature of design and visual culture.” It’s “We used to ____, now we ____.” It’s a worthy prompt for designers and artists to consider.)
  • I was struck by how many garments were simply garments in recognizable silhouettes and forms—size o dresses, suit-shirt-slacks-tie—that were embellished to fit a theme—’girl who picks carrots,’ ‘girl who picks strawberries,’ for example. (Maybe I shouldn’t expect fashion to be less gender-binary, but I can’t help but feel disappointed.)
  • There was an outfit for a “Post-Fordist,” comprising of ready-made vacation separates, a laptop, and a Blackberry in a vitrine. I get that the banality of immaterial labor is what makes it so insidious, but that doesn’t mean creative work about it can’t be more interesting artistically.
  • Men’s ties suggest an outfit of rags under a shabby jacket—a garment for “a migrant”—in a particularly fraught misstep.
  • OK, I liked the exhibition design. An aluminum I-beam was suspended from the ceiling at an angle. Clamps on the beam held up monofilament, which allowed the garment to spin. It signaled the work theme and avoided a static display well.

Other observations:

The Garment District

One of my favorite things about living in NYC is access to all the garment district shops. The district near Hell’s Kitchen is so vital that shops can specialize in selling only one type of thing: linen, spandex, notions, textiles for men’s wear, textiles for quilting, etc. On occasion, I’ll stumble into a building full of garment industry services. Earlier in the week, I got to peek inside a huge embroidery studio. I felt so grateful that so much industry still happens in Manhattan. I hope these small businesses—and the workers doing such skilled labor—keep going strong.

 

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Impressions

Points of Reference: Embodied Memory

Recent notes on memory, navigation, and embodiment.

I love thinking about embodied cognition (how our mental life is shaped by the physical roots of experience). Recently, a spate of articles has me thinking about where memory lives in the brain, and how the body moving through space is tied to recollection. It’s interesting to consider what impressions you’re embedding physically or mentally. Maybe you’re an art viewer noticing how your eye “moves” through a picture. Or, you’re an art handler “walking through” an exhibition design in SketchUp. Perhaps, you’re an artist envisioning how people interact with an installation or your participatory artworks. I wonder about the many ways in which aesthetic experience is one of navigation, envisioning, recording, and recall.

 

Through the DOT's Adopt-a-Highway program, artist Katarina Jerinic utilizes a parcel next to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway as land art for site-specific interventions. Katarina Jerinic, PSA for Passers-by #2 (video still), 2014, digital video, 57 seconds. // Source: KatarinaJerinic.com // HT: The Center for Book Arts' Map as Metaphor lecture series.

Through the DOT’s Adopt-a-Highway program, artist Katarina Jerinic utilizes a parcel next to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway as land art for site-specific interventions. Katarina Jerinic, PSA for Passers-by #2 (video still), 2014, digital video, 57 seconds. // Source: KatarinaJerinic.com // HT: The Center for Book Arts’ Map as Metaphor lecture series.

 

Kim Tingley’s “The Secret of the Wave Pilots” (NY Times, March 17, 2016) is a fascinating look at a Marshallese form of seafaring using knowledge of waves only. She writes beautifully about the neurological and social ties between memory and navigation, as well as the fascinating history of the Marshall Islands. I highly recommend the entire article. My favorite passages to think about for art practice follow.

On how we know where we are in space, and how that shapes who we are and our social relationships:

“[Psychologist Edward] Tolman hypothesized that humans have cognitive maps…, and that they are not just spatial but social. ‘Broad cognitive maps,’ he posited, lead to empathy, while narrow ones lead to ‘‘dangerous hates of outsiders,’ ranging from ‘discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.’ Indeed, anthropologists today, especially those working in the Western Pacific, are increasingly aware of the potential ways in which people’s physical environment — and how they habitually move through it — may shape their social relationships and how those ties may in turn influence their orienteering.”

“…our ability to navigate is inextricably tied not just to our ability to remember the past but also to learning, decision-making, imagining and planning for the future.”

Though journey and destination can be clichéd metaphors (not to mention signposts, road maps, off the beaten track, forge your own path), what Tingley seems to suggest is that these are fundamentally human concepts. It’s part of our evolutionary legacy to think and understand in terms of physical journeys, because we each have this kind of brain in this kind of bipedal body.

On the connections between mapping and memory:

The cognitive map is now understood to have its own physical location, … in the limbic system, an evolutionarily primitive region largely responsible for our emotional lives — specifically, within the hippocampus, an area where memories form. … [neuroscientists] found that our brains overlay our surroundings with a pattern of triangles. Any time we reach an apex of one, a ‘grid cell’ … delineates our position relative to the rest of the matrix… [an] ‘inner GPS’ that constantly and subconsciously computes location….”

“…a new unified theory of the hippocampus [imagines] it not as a repository for disparate memories and directions but as a constructor of scenes that incorporate both. (Try to recall a moment from your past or picture a future one without visualizing yourself in the physical space where that moment happens.)”

I’m always amazed by the peculiar concreteness of dreamed environments: the fully rendered qualities of light, the verisimilitude of prioperception. How awesome that this takes dozens of AI specialists and servers to re-create, and yet our brains achieve this when we’re literally not even thinking about it.

Exploring the world through our bodies is the root of imagination and creativity:

“[Others] hypothesized that our ability to time-travel mentally evolved directly from our ability to travel in the physical world, and that the mental processes that make navigation possible are also the ones that allow us to tell a story. ‘In the same way that an infinite number of paths can connect the origin and endpoint of a journey,’ Edvard Moser and another co-author wrote in a 2013 paper, ‘a recalled story can be told in many ways, connecting the beginning and the end through innumerable variations.’”

Nobutaka Aozaki, From Here to There, 2012–ongoing, questions, various pens and paper, 10' x 3' 2" / dimensions variable. // Source: NobutakaAozaki.com

A series of hand-drawn maps made by strangers upon request of the artist, who posed as a tourist and refused directions via app. The installation approximates a map of Manhattan. Nobutaka Aozaki, From Here to There (image as of June 15, 2012), 2012–ongoing, questions, various pens and paper, 10′ x 3′ 2″ / dimensions variable. // Source: NobutakaAozaki.com // HT: Nobu is a fellow Center for Book Arts 2016 resident

“…people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost … has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective.”

That’s a good reminder: Be where you are. Don’t worry about the fastest route. Learn about your environment and build up your mental map.

The same can be said about the creative process. I need reminders to stop over-valuing productivity, and to experiment in the studio. This is partly my nature, and partly not—as Barnaby Drabble points out, “the increasing application of time and resource management methods to our personal lives”* is symptomatic of larger forces like neoliberalism, and the conditions of immaterial labor, etc.

Furthering the connection between exploring space and imagination:

“All maps are but representations of reality: They render the physical world in symbols and highlight important relationships … that are invisible to the naked eye. If storytelling, the way we structure and make meaning from the events of our lives, arose from navigating, so, too, is the practice of navigation inherently bound up with storytelling, in all its subjectivity.”**

Maps are subjective, and could be more transparently so.

“Many of our [mapping studios] students began the semester enamored with the sublime, totalizing visions afforded by exhaustive data-sets and sleek visualizations. Yet by the end, nearly everyone’s mission and values shifted – from a pursuit of ‘accuracy’ and ‘exhaustiveness,’ to an interest in the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative. They sought to find ways to express ambiguity, to insert cartographic ‘buts,’ ‘ifs,’ ‘howevers,’ and other qualifying statements to convey the ‘interpretative nature of the mapping process.'”

—from Shannon Mattern’s excellent slide lecture at Maps as Metaphor at the Center for Book Arts. It’s posted online on her equally excellent blog, Words in Space.

 

These subjectivities can work for us. Memory palaces, for example, exploit the connection between memory and environments. It’s a memorization technique of:

“associating the ideas or objects to be memorized with memorable scenes imagined to be at well-known locations (‘loci’), like one’s house (‘palace’)”

Austin Frakt’s “An Ancient and Proven Way to Improve Memorization; Go Ahead and Try it,” (NY Times, March 24, 2016).

I’m most fascinated by how the physical and conceptual interact and influence each other. How we walk the earth shapes our cognitive metaphors, and they imbue the memories that inform our identities. At the same time, we use mental powers to traverse real and imagined spaces, even constructing new spaces to expand our abilities. These interactions blur the boundaries of what is permanent and real:

“[Es Devlin, set designer,] is an architect of temporary space, making images that can survive only in the minds of the people who see her shows. ‘I do all this work and nothing physical remains,’ she told me. ‘So what I’m really designing are mental structures, as opposed to physical ones. Memories are solid, and that’s what I’m trying to build.’”

Andrew O’Hagan, “Imaginary Spaces: Es Devlin and the psychology of the stage,”New Yorker Magazine, March 28, 2016

This resonants with the core of why I’m an artist. I make objects and exhibit them for a few weeks at a time. While a small portion exists in people’s homes, most are squirreled away or no longer exist. I continue to make objects because I believe that  art experiences “live” on as viewers’ memories of firsthand, physical experiences (and secondhand, virtual images on the Web). This speaks to my immense faith in the power of aesthetic experience—a process of viewing, thinking, and feeling—to enrich human experience.

—–

*Barnaby Drabble, “On De-Organisation” in Self-Organized, edited by Stine Hebert & Ann Szefer Karlsen, London: Open Editions / Bergen: Hordaland Art Centre, 2013

**Digression: Here’s an example of how much place and memory are tied. Brandon Brown’s “Limited Access: Art and Gentrification in the Mission” (Art in America, March 30, 2015) mentions Artist’s Television Access and The Lab, two venerable alternative art organizations a few blocks apart in San Francisco. Reading his descriptions of places—even on a small screen, in a noisy gym—flooded me with memories: my first visit to ATA, as a high school student at a Sick ‘n Twisted shorts fest; trading sketchbooks with Erik Drooker at Muddy Waters, where he drew speech bubbles making fun of my slang; as a young art student, viewing Barry McGee’s mural in the labor building; the time I was on a panel with Boots Riley at ATA (and I think Chicken John?) that got hijacked; the doc on Humboldt County tree-sitters; the palpable discomfort of a friend from out-of-town when we met him at 16th and Mission to eat at Taqueria Cancún; Intersection, and how often I’d run into Kevin Chen right in front of the building, day or night, wearing yellow glasses and having a smoke… What makes a space a place are the meanings assigned to it. Personal experiences—pleasant or not, juvenile or formative—are part of what makes San Francisco’s transformation potent.

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Impressions, Sights

See: Ebony Patterson, Gina Osterloh, Houseplants

Two shows I like, and one I’d like to see.

Through April 3, 2016
Ebony G. Patterson: DEAD TREEZ
Museum of Arts and Design, NYC

Ebony G. Patterson, Swag Swag Krew-From the Out and Bad Series // Source:  madmuseum.org

Ebony G. Patterson, Swag Swag Krew-From the Out and Bad Series // Source: madmuseum.org

A visually dense show of custom Jacquard tapestries embellished with glitter and toys, and an installation inspired by Jamaican dancehall dandies, shown in floral print-wallpapered galleries. There’s also a terrarium-like installation of the museum’s jewelry collection. [Full disclosure: I freelance here and helped install the show. And you know what? I really enjoyed meeting and working with Patterson—she was engaged, down-to-earth, and hardworking. Big points for learning the crew’s names and feeding us patties from Jamaica.] I’m excited about this show for MAD; I hope future programming reflects similar youthfulness, urgency, and color.

[This winter’s a promising time to visit. There are some amazing pots and insanely intricate minatures in the Japanese contemporary ceramics show. Takuro Kuwata’s pots are knock-outs.]

Through December 19, 2015
Gina Osterloh
Higher Pictures, NYC

Gina Osterloh, Press and Outline (still), 2014, b/w 16mm positive film, TRT 5:30 loop // Source: higherpictures.com

Gina Osterloh, Press and Outline (still), 2014, b/w 16mm positive film, TRT 5:30 loop // Source: higherpictures.com

[The solo show of a super talented and skilled friend from LA. She’s good; you don’t have to take my word for it.] Quiet, meticulously-crafted photos of paper-crafted sets exploring the body. A triptych of photos of hand-painted lines forming warped grids conjures an industrial bathroom floor or the subway; the queasiness of the distortion in the leftmost image seems to offer relief of the more rationally ordered grid in the right image. There’s a mesmerizing film of the artist tracing her own shadow on the wall—she’s framed at a distance, and the gestures are controlled, yet the experience is oddly intimate.

[Also, while you’re in the foyer at 980 Madision, take a minute to enjoy the large Ed Ruscha painting of three masted ships, courtesy of Gagosian.]

Through November 21, 2015
Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening
Sector 2337, Chicago

Sri Chowdhury, "Affected Painting," site specific installation, 2015. Wood, linen, oil paint, concrete, plants, light gels, shadows, ceramics, dimensions variable. Photo by Clare Britt. // Source: cocopicard.com.

Sri Chowdhury, “Affected Painting,” site specific installation, 2015. Wood, linen, oil paint, concrete, plants, light gels, shadows, ceramics, dimensions variable. Photo by Clare Britt. // Source: cocopicard.com.

If I were in Chicago I’d check out this show about how plants “trouble human structures.” It looks like a brainy show with a diverse array of approaches to this subject matter. While there, I’d also get to know Sector 2337, an artist-run gallery, bookstore, and press, as well as a modest studio residency program.

 

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Works

Memory of an Artwork: Thomas Demand’s Rain/Regen

A stop-motion that reappears along a river of time.

Thomas Demand, Rain/Regen, (still), 2008. // Source: dhc-art.org.

Thomas Demand, Rain/Regen, (still), 2008. // Source: dhc-art.org.

Certain art-viewing experiences stay with you over time. When they’re pleasant, they can remind you of how meaningful the act of looking can be. Recalling a work of art—like reliving any memory—strengthens its salience. It could be that a series of vital art experiences will one day form a tally of the particular arcs of my life.

I’m in a reflective mood, having just finished William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. It’s about a life shaped by a passion, and later, a passion shaped by life, including loss and aging. Along with reading a remembrance of Oliver Sacks, and a book by the late positive psychologist Chris Peterson, my thoughts keep returning to what makes a life worth living.*

One work that I’ve continued to think about is Thomas Demand’s** Rain/Regen (2008). I saw it in 2010 in The Dissolve, the moving-image focused iteration of SITE Santa Fe’s biennial. It was my first visit to SITE and Santa Fe, on my first cross-country drive. We were moving from California to New York. Marking this life change with a road trip was wise. Those two weeks stand out in high relief.

I remember stepping out of Santa Fe’s picturesque, sun-baked adobe environs into the cinematic black box of the ICA. Floating screens and scrims primed me for psychologically-loaded spaces. Teresa Hak Kyung Cha’s notion that video paralleled the cinema of the mind seemed present.

Essentially, Demand makes stop-motion animations using paper constructions that are ever-increasing feats of production value. Rain/Regen is just what it sounds like—it’s an animated image of raindrops falling in a thin, frame-filling puddle. The fact that it’s constructed by hand, frame by frame, is astonishing. In this case, the paper might be bits of thin, clear plastic torn and stretched by hand. But like rain, all you see are streaks and a momentary splash upon impact. It’s gone in a split second. It happens fast, before your eye can catch up to it. It’s startlingly reminiscent of the overall peripheral sensation of rain. The perceptiveness of perception itself seems yet even more impressive. I know crediting this work with technical wow-factor sounds hollow. But the simplicity of the shot, indeed, the everydayness of the concept, paired with the ambition of animating it, forms a curious nexus.

I was moved by many works in that show, but Rain has stuck with me. Even the physics of a seemingly trivial drop of water exceeds the abilities of the human eye. We grasp only its motion, implosion, and disappearance.

*It’s been oddly reassuring that mentions of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances keep popping up in books I’m reading: Ted Purves in Tom Finklepearl’s What We Made, Marshall Trammel in Greg Sholette’s Dark Matter, and a familiar image by Hank Willis Thomas in Jeff Chang’s Who We Be. It’s probably attributable to two truths: the inevitability that a cohort would become the archivists and subjects of our eras, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was in the right places at the right times.

**It’s safe to assume that mega-artists like Thomas Demand rely heavily on studio staff for producing artworks, so a more fitting attribution would actually be “Thomas Demand Studio.” Of course sole authorship flows more freely through the systems of capitalism and law, but it’s nice to imagine a day that we drop these pretenses.

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Impressions

Writing Waves Indeed

The many reasons why Jay Caspian Kang’s “Writing Waves”—part memoir, part book review of William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days”—in the New York Times Magazine resonated with me.

Kang starts out by researching writing about surfing and pondering its difficulty, locating at the crux one of my favorite topics:

“I concluded that writing about surfing was impossible because surfing elicited happiness, and it is impossible to write about happiness.”

I think positive psychologists would argue that the sciences and humanities can intersect productively with happiness. It’s not impossible, it’s just very hard to do without cliché. Kang says Finnegan

“was the first person I had come across who could write about surfing without schmaltz or weighty metaphors.”

Here’s Kang quoting Finnegan’s description of Ocean Beach:

“San Francisco’s ‘giant gray,’ ‘ominous’ waves”

I can picture those waves, and OB’s riptide warning signs, posted at every entrance. It’s there that I watched M surf, in the same years that Kang surfed there daily.

Kang, inspired by Finnegan, even considers intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. To find flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, one should participate in activities that are worthwhile in themselves.

On clean, January days, surfing, even badly, was enough to give me a purpose in life. But on choppy, stupid days in September, as I paddled futilely straight into the first line of white water at Ocean Beach, I would think about Peewee’s vision of silent, simple doing over Doc’s vision of daily, ritualistic heroism. I did not really believe surfing was nothing more than surfing, but I hoped I might one day get good enough at it to drop all its sentimental trappings.

He seems to be yearning for an un-self-consciousness state of engagement, where one’s skills are matched well to the challenges: flow.

He also covets Finnegan’s freedom to solely pursue surfing, not unlike my jealousy of Matisse’s lifetime of art-making:

A surfer feels an even mix of nostalgia and envy reading that passage. The boundlessness of Finnegan’s wave chasing now feels at once out of reach and dated, in the manner of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.

I’m intrigued by the humility, insight, and craftsmanship from both Kang and Finnegan. I adored Finnegan’s “Off Diamond Head” in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, and now am especially eager to read “Barbarian Days.”

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