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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Values

What not to do at a phenomenological art installation

[CURMUDGEON WARNING: This is going to be an angry, misanthropic post. I try to be optimistic and share the positive, but all my efforts yesterday could not save my experience at James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim from being marred by other viewers.

Turrell is one of my favorite artists. He creates spaces for one-of-a-kind perceptual experiences and transcendence. I went to his exhibition to restore my faith in why I make art, to be freed from mundane constraints; so I cleared my schedule on a weekday morning to avoid crowds, and I cleared my head to be receptive. When I got there, I tried to block out other viewers’ inane conversations (first mentally and then physically by plugging my ears) and ignore their persistent, distracting photo-taking and mobile device addictions. I even conducted positive self-talk about personal boundaries and controlling my psychic energy(1). But it was all for nought. Having enough physical and psychic space to appreciate Turrell’s subtle installations was impossible.

As an artist, I need viewers. But as a viewer, especially for phenomenological installations like Turrell’s, I could do without 90% of them. I know most viewers have good intentions and, by dint of being at the museum, want to appreciate art, however, I could not help but feel how selfish and self-sabotaging many viewers were at the Guggenheim yesterday. What follows is ranting and conservative—for the positive, come back another time.]



What not to do at a phenomenological art installation:

  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden. It’s disrespectful to the artist and the institution. If those entities seem too abstract to you, at least use your self-control to not disregard and thereby disrespect the guards as fellow human beings. They didn’t make the rules but they bear the brunt of enforcing them, thousands of times a day, week after week, when the rules are clearly stated.(2) While many institutions allow picture taking, it’s a privilege, not a right. Furthermore, picture-taking forces guards to verbally enforce the rules, which further distracts other viewers from the art.
  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden and the host institution has posted plentiful pictures on their website. It’s especially selfish and pointless.
  • Take pictures or use a mobile device when viewing a finely-calibrated light installation that utilizes the entire space. You are inside the artwork. Just as you wouldn’t add paint to a painting, do not add your screen’s light to a light installation.
  • Take pictures of a phenomenological, durational exhibition, whose very intention is for viewers to be present, slow down, quiet the mind, and free oneself from contemporary distractions.(3)
  • Make shadow puppets, or let your children make shadow puppets, in the light installations. There are endless places to play with shadows in the world, but only a handful in which to view a Turrell installation. Behave yourself for the same reasons that you wouldn’t climb on a marble statue at the Met.
  • Take one of the highly coveted seats inside the installation to read a newspaper or use your mobile device. If it’s an emergency and you must use your device, excuse yourself to a lobby or hallway. If it’s not, stop sabotaging your own experiences and be present! Further, to pass your time not engaging the artwork is especially inconsiderate when there are over a hundred people waiting in line outside due to the installation’s limited capacity.
  • Start up a conversation about how too many people are talking to fully experience the installation, and carry it on, contributing to the problem.

1. From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow:

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

2. I probably saw over a hundred people taking pictures in the hour or so I was in Aten Reign, Turrell’s once-in-a-lifetime, site-specific installation in the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda. Visitors blatantly felt that they did not have to follow the no-pictures rule—that their need to take a photo surpassed any of the artist or institution’s logic or any basic respect of the guard as a human being just doing his job.

This is how bias works: People understand that bias exists—but we believe that only other people are biased, whereas we think that we see things as they really are. The flaw, of course, is that if everyone else is biased, no one, including ourselves, is unbiased. In fact, we are all biased. (See Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006).)

No photography means no photography. It doesn’t mean that other people can’t take photos.

3. Louis CK takes down mobile phone addictions beautifully on Conan: put down the device, be present, experience art, and let yourself experience real emotions.

Addictions erode self-control and the incredibly important characteristic of being able to delay gratification. The very definition of addiction is when people continue an automatic behavior out of desire, even as pleasure diminishes (see Paul Martin, Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure). If feeding the addiction leads to selfish and self-sabotaging behaviors, self-regulation is in order. There’s a profound difference, anyway, between fleeting pleasures and lasting enjoyment.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.

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Research

Happiness Is… Research Note #9

I have  a conceptual relationship to my work—I read, write, observe, and reflect to inform the art that I want to make. I do so much research sometimes, my recent studio practice has involved organizing information:

Studio view: notes from positive psychology books, organized in a large table.

Studio view: notes from positive psychology books, organized in a 6’x6′ newsprint table.

Though I employ conceptual strategies, I still make things. I like materials, and I like working with materials. I like the challenge of finding and trying different materials that will best convey the ideas, emotions, and experiences I have in mind.

Materials are indifferent, however. They age, warp, stain, fold, bend, puncture, and undergo countless other unintended transformations. Reality, too, resists—physically, culturally, economically; I can’t always get what I want, and I can’t always make what I envision. Art objects, conventionally, aspire to timelessness—an unnatural condition.

In a recent project, I used over:

  • 700 yards of thread
  • 200 yards of twill tape
  • 17 yards of unmounted vinyl
  • dozens of pieces of aluminum tubing and wooden dowels

I also shipped a sewing machine across the country for this project.

It took two to three long work days to finally get a feel for the materials: how they sew together, what patterns would be strong and functional but visually minimal, and how to adjust the tension of the thread just so. In that sense, working is learning, gaining expertise. Doing is simultaneously gathering and applying information; hence, making is a way of thinking.

Detail, work in progress. Supported by Lucas Artists Program at the Montalvo Arts Center.

And still, materials surprise me. As I conceptualize, plan, prepare and make, visual and optical qualities emerge. They call on me to look at what I’ve made with new eyes, to see things as they are. To be honest with myself about the degrees to which they are or aren’t what I intended, physically or conceptually.

I like the opportunities for flow made possibly by working with my hands. Some people can achieve flow in activities of the mind—mathematics, writing—but for me, flow arises in the challenges and satisfactions of physical art-making.

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Research

Happiness Is… Research Note #5

Studying positive psychology doesn’t make me a happy person.

It doesn’t make me a grateful person. Like Thanksgiving Day, it can only remind me to practice gratitude.

It doesn’t make me immune to negative emotions. I’ve learned strategies for coping with adversity, but I still have to enact them.

Following 36 anxious hours, the relief of a repaired sewing machine.

Following 36 anxious hours, the relief of a repaired sewing machine.

When my sewing machine stopped working two nights ago, the uncertainty of how I’d remain productive during this residency got the better of me. I was under-slept and anxious, and when the machine came back from the repair shop with the presser foot unable to stay in the upright position, I’d had it, and lost my cool.

Thankfully, Montalvo just happens to have a sewing machine to lend me. It didn’t occur to me to even ask. (There it is, fellow artists: Have courage! It doesn’t hurt to ask!)

And when I went back to the shop, the repairman fixed the problem on the spot.

Now I’ve got two working sewing machines and am able to get back to work! For that—really, for art, which provides so many opportunities for flow and purpose—I’m grateful.

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Research

Happiness Is… Research Note #2

For my fellow artists:

For [lifelong flow] it is necessary to invest energy in goals that are so persuasive that they justify effort even when our resources are exhausted and when fate is merciless in refusing us a chance at having a comfortable life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)
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