The New Year: Resisting Action

As I learn to follow my own nose around the land instead of depending on Finn to set both pace and direction for my daily wander, I am coming face-to-face with some interesting lessons on the pull of inertia, and the challenge of creative thinking. I’m also finally grappling with my uncharacteristic (and to myself inexplicable) reluctance to rush headlong- into the Centers for Community Digital Exploration, the heart of my new nonprofit, Digital Explorations. I haven’t even pulled a website to its feet, yet I had imagined I would just dive right in and open the first center in my hometown as a pilot project and then see if such an idea could take off virally. The must-have-something-to-offer-every-day attitude.

In his 1966 Discourse on Thinking, Martin Heidegger wrote, “…man today is in flight from thinking;” (p.45) we spend our time in calculative rather than meditative thinking. We want to do instead of looking at the larger implications of our doing.

happy new year

I’m learning. This new aloneness –without Finn– has me interacting differently with the land, the sky and its inhabitants. No spirited dog asking if we can please please please go hunt for rocks in the stream or frogs in the pond or head to the neighbors’ to see if their dogs are out or go along this way because there are surely turkeys over in the far field today or that way because can’t you smell the deer/coyote/bobcat/fox that was here a moment ago? I have to depend on myself to go out in the frigid cold in the first place. There’s no one to remind me (by a push of the head under my arm or a paw on the knee or a drop of a bone in my lap) that it is time to leave the book I am reading, the story I am writing, the project I am planning.

How extraordinary. I hardly know where to go. It is a new awareness that I have to develop.

by the barn

I thought it was exhaustion from years of throwing myself against the Academy walls that had me lay out a year of learning and listening and exploring before action. I secretly thought –and still do– it was self-indulgent and incredibly privileged to have this time. Nonetheless I imposed on myself a bit of the Buddhist “Don’t just do something, sit there.” Moving my office from the college to my barn studio means hours daily in gorgeous solitude. Losing my cellphone over a month ago stepped me even further into silence. I could choose a silent online experience, too, and engage only when I felt compelled to reach out or to learn via my networks.

I’ve never gotten so much done. In every part of my life. And yet, it’s hard to see the results in tangible places. Yet.

In the December issue of Orion Magazine,
Anthony Doerr writes a humorous account of his dark twin “Z”:

“Information, information, information—it’s all sustenance for that rawboned, insatiable, up-to-the-second twin of mine. I can stand in a river with my little sons beside me pitching pebbles into a deep, brilliant green pool with a flight of geese flapping along overhead and the autumn sun transforming the cottonwoods into an absolute frenzy of color—each leaf a shining, blessed fountain of light—and Z will start whispering in my ear about oil prices, presidential politics, the NFL.

What, Z wants to know, are we missing right now?

Addiction, neurologists say, changes the physical shape of our brains. Each time old Z finds another text message, another headline, another update, my brain injects a little dopamine into a reward pathway.

“You’ve got mail!” squeals the computer and—whoosh!—here comes a shot of dopamine. “

Inertia can come from doing too much. This is nothing new. On blogs and Twitter, people express their yearning for balance, their desire for more time for non-work pursuits–the North American plague–addiction to must-be-doing-a million-things-all-the-time-but-bemoan-the loss-of-quiet-slow-time. We seem to find meaning (or escape from meaninglessness) by moving fast, conquering, being the first, the most, the best. Little moves forward as we twirl around and around. Addiction to online spaces and practices can lead to this same kind of spinning in place, a stunned laziness if we simply acquire more and more surface information and relationships and do not stop to analyze, to synthesize, to reflect, to apply, to question. I wonder why so many people are suddenly following me on Twitter, people who do not interact with me on blogs or at conferences. Will they also find their way into deeper conversation with me on blogs, the in-between moments at conferences? For me Twitter is a way to deepen the connections with thinkers and writers and artists I can interact with and learn from in other spaces as well–hopefully face-to-face at some point. I follow people I don’t know if I see that I can learn from them in a blogging or wiki space, too–that a Twitterer new to me is willing to push my thinking.

winterwater

I am learning to read widely yet deeply just as I have recently become a spare eater though a lover of food and a passionate cook. I am slow reader, playing attention to the how as well as the what of writing, and I am beginning to hold still with my creative works before sharing them. Moving more deliberately helps me to get more done. It’s the same with shopping–my rejection of Big Box stores (I have NEVER been in a Walmart, for example), sprawl-malls, McDonald’s (still a fast-food virgin at age 51) comes from a deep belief in the local, in the recycled, in excellence. But do I avoid such places because I can afford to do so? Because I don’t have to work two jobs to support my kids? I wonder. I’m beginning to bake our bread (following Bryan Alexander’s lead) and make our pasta out of local ingredients (the savings defrays the higher cost of other local, organic foods). But it takes more time, people argue–really? How about all that time I save not driving to the mall? Or following a gazillion people on Twitter? Or surfing the Web (or TV)? (I ingeniously let my network do much of that for me–heheheheh.) Patience Gray, writing in her marvelous 1988 Honey from a Weed wrote:
“Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality…It is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons. Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.” (p.11) I want to remember this while also wanting to help rural communities explore the communicative and creative potential of the Web. Frugality and liberality.

I am determined to sit on my hands a while longer yet, and spend the next six months working with communities on the storytelling projects, going to (un)conferences that promise to push me, and continuing to read deeply across lots of fields as preparation for this huge endeavor. I’m listening to Edward O. Wilson who writes in Consilience:

“Every college student should be able to answer the following question: ‘ What is the relationship between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare?’
Every public intellectual ad political leader should be able to answer that question as well. Already half the legislation coming before the U.S. Congress contains important scientific and technological components. Most of the issues that vex humanity daily…cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need…..A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience between them.” (1999, p. 13)

He also says that creative thinking is characterized by “knowledge, obsession, daring.” (p.64)

We so good at “obsession” and less so at “daring” and “knowledge.”
Obsession but not Addiction? Daring but not just to be daring? Knowledge across boundaries but not feverish information surfing? Creative thinking, not inertia?

Alex Reid writes about
throwing out a first-year writing course syllabus completely and starting over. That’s rich daring–the kind I would like to emulate by questioning my instincts–all of them– about setting up the centers.

Of course all this could just be me excusing an addiction to the silence, to the stillness.

I hope not.

On Taking Pictures Shifting the Way I Blog, On Blogging Changing the Way I Take Pictures

heading in

Dean Shareski’s post reflecting on his experience with the 366 Photo Project and Alan Levine’s comment back to him about using metaphor on/in both image and writing have me thinking again about the relationship between image and text in my blogging and more actively creative explorations. Like Dean, I’ve written numerous times about the power of images in my work, in my case, in the writing classroom, about how taking language away can reinvigorate one’s relationship with it, and how images extend text and vice versa rather than illustrate one another when they are at their best–or when they create, yes, metaphor. The sum should be greater than the total of its parts.

walking on the beach

I’ve been noticing something shifting in the way I blog and in the way I take pictures: how using language and taking photos often–not always but often– influence one other, intersect with one other, complicate one other as I am in the act, and not just once they are placed down into a post. In other words, I not only lug my camera with me wherever I go and take lots of pictures (except when I intentionally leave my camera behind so that I have to relate to what I am seeing with myself alone, something I do pretty often, actually, as an important exercise), and try with every click of the shutter to do so actively, mindfully, thinking of that image on its own distinct from any other image I’ve taken, so as to keep growing as a photographer, but–and this is a real change for me–I am increasingly unable to disentangle the picture-taking moment from writing, and the writing moment from picture-taking, at least the writing moments that interest me. As I frame a shot, I feel a story suggested, or a point I want to make on blog or in a digital multimedia piece or in a talk. And I don’t mean in a representational way or even in a clearly metaphorical way. Something about the color, the saturation, perhaps, or the angle, the contrast, and not necessarily the subject at all.

Photos for me are never isolated incidents or expressions, then, but part of other things, or preludes to other things. I guess that is why the 366 Project isn’t my thing–I am too messy, too discursive, a storyteller working in bursts from a center, building towards something–I usually know not what until I am well into the creating. Take how did I get here this image, for example. As soon as I started playing with shots of the koi and duck, a post about collaboration started unfolding (in process right now); and this one island prow suggested to me when I saw it before I put camera to eye, the geometry of opposition, another post-idea floating about or perhaps a part of the collaboration post, and then I sought a way to create that sense in the image. I wasn’t, in other words, just looking for an interesting image that would stand on its own. I am finding that my words need my images, and my images need my words. And thus my Flickr sets and my text-only notebooks are sketches only and not as interesting to me as my stories, my presentations, some of my blogposts.

I’m also finding the way I explore online spaces shifting. I go to Flickr as often as to Bloglines and leave comments on photos as often as I do on blogs. (I really should use images to respond to images, I suppose…will have to try that.) I follow several blogs devoted to photography, multimedia and/or vernacular creativity including Dawoud Bey,Bagnewsnotes, Exposures, Magnum, and Do You Know Clarence (thanks to Leslie Madsen-Brooks).

I’m interested in Roy Ascott’s work, in Ron Burnett’s thinking about art, in all manner of theorists, philosophers and artists who write about the visual. I’m searching for explorations, commentary, meditations on this reciprocity between online digital writing and digital picture-taking, not as ekphrasis but as part of the online writer’s process of conceiving narrative and meaning.

I wonder if others are feeling this way, though I don’t often see posts using images in interesting, provocative ways (that s not to say that the way I use images always works–au contraire; mine are often glorious failures!) Because taking images has become an act of writing for me, I almost never (except in presentations) borrow other people’s photos (not a true mash-up artist I), but I would like to do more of that. I think it would be a good exercise, and I wish I had explored mash-ups more with my students when I had students. ;-)

the world in an eggplant

Now it is time to take next steps, exploring more ways to push image up against text, to move them together and apart and see what I learn about what I am trying to say through the process of finding modes of expression new to me. I know I am hampered by my lack of skill, and so I need to become more versed at multimedia expression, the kind I am already doing, but also moving beyond the simple rotation of text and image, or of image with text written on it, or collage. Time, I think, to learn Flash. Time to get more creative, more bold, more experimental, perhaps, as a way to think about what it is we are doing in this creative/expressive/communicative/connective medium. Time to do more with audio, too.

How lucky we are to have this flexible medium that acts at once as palette and vehicle, as idea-source and expressive connector, as reflective/reflexive space and contact zone. How remarkable our students who often stun me with their creativity with this medium (oh, I will miss that!). As Janet Murray writes in Hamlet on the Holodeck: “As I watch the yearly growth in ingenuity among my students, I find myself anticipating a new kind of storyteller, one who is half hacker, half bard. The spirit of the hacker is one of great creative wellsprings of our time, causing the inanimate circuits to sing with ever more individualized and quirky voices; the spirit of the bard is eternal and irreplaceable, telling us what we are doing here and what we mean to one another.” (p.9) Is this what I struggle towards but have not the skills for?

So much to learn!

On Shaking Things Up: Art and the Role of Surprise

“Imagination, more than any other capacity, breaks through ‘the inertia of habit.’” (Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination, p.2 quoting John Dewey)

“The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense.” Pablo Picasso

“I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” Flannery O’Connor

liz in holzer

A few years after college–after following the temple route through India and a stint running a gallery in pre-cool Seattle–I turned from the visual arts back to writing. As a viewer outside the creative process, I had grown uneasy, even in galleries, even in the gallery I ran. Few people outside the art and collecting world ever stepped off of First Avenue and into our small space, and those who did enter, often seemed not deeply interested in the art at all but in being near it or being near people who liked being near it. I saw little conscious, active participation, just a drifting through.

I began to dislike museums intensely–the formality, the lack of questioning, the spectacle–in spite of my hunger for a creative world. I preferred religious art and public art because at least in Europe and Asia, you could find it on the street and in places people actually went. Art could become something new, different every time you encountered it. Of course that’s not to say that we’re awake to art as we pass it by or that there is no place for the museum and concert hall (as Joshua-Bell-busking-in-the-subway showed), –that’s ridiculous–but are we increasingly immune to the disruptiveness of art because we are not encouraged to develop our creative selves? Indeed, I would argue that we have the creative schooled right out of us. If we, as Maxine Greene argues, release our imagination, we might be ready to have our doors blown open when we encounter art. And perhaps we’ll work towards a better world.

I suppose that’s what I’m doing now as I prepare to leave formal education. I’m heading out of the museum and onto the street. I’m releasing my imagination.

Of course my discomfort hasn’t kept me from going to museums–you’ll find me seeking them out wherever I go. But I still don’t much like them. I just keep hoping I will–I like a lot of the people who work in them– and I need art to startle me and make me question what I know. So it is with interest that I watch Leslie Madsen Brooks and her cohorts trying to transform museums into relevant, inspiring places for people–all people.

jenny holzer installation

But mostly, over the years, I turned to literature, to theater, to film, to music. And I wrote. To make sense of the world, to participate fully in the world, I felt compelled to create stories, and words seemed easier to access than other materials (ha!). I turned to teaching as art–the classroom the canvas, the subject the paint, the students the collaborators, channeling experience and intelligence and imagination towards one another into creating. Classroom narratives. It was deeply satisfying.

But for the past couple of years, as classroom stories have grown pinched by curricular demands and limited by a lack of institutional imagination and the thin expectations of formal learning, I despair of this museum context. I am moving back to creative learning spaces of everyday life. I am as eager to take out my camera as I am my pen. To press the results up against one another. And okay about failing as I learn. To open a center where anyone can come to explore digital expression and connection practices–a place where creativity, imagination and connection are the focus, the raison d’etre, as people struggle to make sense of the world and “to bring better worlds into being.” (Richard Miller, Writing at the End of the World, p.x)

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with my daughter and husband at what I’d almost call an unmuseum, MASS MoCA, with its mix of conventional-looking galleries and raw former-mill spaces, meandering around the exhibitions-finding ourselves offended, amused, moved in turns, arguing, discussing, animated. Then we arrived at the huge former mill building turned gallery occupied by Jenny Holzer’s “Projections,” a work that silences you as you enter, that you become a part of: enormous lines of poetry immersing you, a work that flows words over the floor, the walls the ceiling, bending and distorting as they encounter disruptions–including the viewer–to flat surfaces. We stayed a long time, experiencing it, thinking, talking, being quiet, taking photos–she actually welcomes people playing around with her art this way.

museum

All day yesterday and today I can’t shake the feeling of being inside the artwork, part of the experience for anyone else who was there, and they part of the experience for me. Words, light, space, shapes, people, stories. Fascinating. Jarring. I kept thinking about Nabokov’s words, “Curiosity is the first step to insubordination.”

I came home inspired, surprised, eager, yes, to step out of the traditional walled-off museum once and for all, where as Garrison and Anderson (p.5) contend,”There is far more rhetoric than reality in the assertion that communities of inquiry in higher education today encourage students to approach learning in a critical manner and process information in a deep and meaningful way.” I’m ready to move into the un-museum creative spaces in the world where active participation is a given, imagination is encouraged and creativity at the center of the learning experience.

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