Out There, Right Now

A Philosophical Coping Manual for Academy Students in Quarantine

Ksenia Galiaeva
Sat 9 May

Artist Ksenia Galiaeva teaches at the Willem de Kooning Academy. For her students, she has written a philosophical (coping) manual about the working process in times of isolation. In order to encourage the artist, she published the text below on Mister Motley on May the 2nd. If you prefer to read this essay in Dutch, please visit Mister Motley's page.

Take your time to adapt and let the possibilities present themselves.

As we wait for things to stabilise, or change, I have a couple of suggestions that might help to get things done without experiencing too much pressure. The focus point here is on how and not on what. It might not fit everybody’s way of working, but I hope it can offer more insight and acceptance of one’s process, awareness of whatever conditions one needs to trigger creativity. If those methods don’t work for you, use them as a reference to find out which ones will.

The situation we are in is both unsettling and quiet, familiar (that is if you are at home) and alienating. Maybe we can see this as a simulation of an artist residency, when you arrive at a place with well-made plans but cannot proceed with any of them because of …. (name your reasons). The trick is not to get frustrated by all the things you cannot do, but to be open to the often unexpected possibilities the situation can offer you. Take your time to adapt and let the possibilities present themselves.

"The more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in the invention," said Søren Kierkegaard. It is my firm belief that to be able to work productively, to use uncertainty, doubt and weakness as constructive ingredients, one needs some steady ground to stand on. Habits, daily automatisms, routines – all those comfortable familiarities can clear the space for adventures of thinking, just like a good night’s sleep. The microcosmos of familiar surroundings might offer a firm ground to recognise, accept and initiate changes.

I can imagine that the current situation seems inefficient and you yourself feel inadequate or even useless without the support of certain tools, places or people – your ‘professional’ surroundings. Please remember that this feeling of being inadequate is familiar to all of us in different professions and job positions, and especially within creative professions where the standard quality is not set in stone. It is also possible that this feeling of inadequacy escalates now during the time of home confinement and social distancing, as it does with me. Check the ‘impostor syndrome’, don’t feel guilty and park your expectations until the times become more stable.

Working with What You Have

Knowledge versus Information

In his book ‘The Scent of Time’ Han Byung-Chul, a Korean-German philosopher distinguishes between information and knowledge. If information can be stored and retrieved and is deprived of memory and therefore time, the knowledge and experience are time-intensive, deriving their force from the past and the future, open to the surprises of what is coming. If not, the subject of experience "freezes, and becomes a labourer, someone who merely works away time, without changing himself" (I will come back to that). The modern acceleration of life prevents the emergence of deviating independent forms, causes the present to shrink and duration to disappear. The acceleration processes become directionless, and through this lack of direction it becomes useless as time "tumbles on like an avalanche".

Duration

Henri Bergson introduced the term la durée, the ‘inner time’ – the duration lived by our consciousness, with its own determined rhythm, different from clock time. This psychological duration, the personal fluctuating rhythm of time flow compresses the multitude of moments of the past gliding into the future (as in ‘knowledge’). Our subjective duration is but one among the infinity of other possible durations, which sometimes can partly overlap and synchronise. In duration, immediate perception coexists with memory, as the past coexists with the present. For me, it is exactly that kind of a trippy moment when everything I see makes sense.

Autoplagiarism

Oliver Sacks, in his article "Speak, Memory" (referring to the autobiographical novel by Vladimir Nabokov), mentions auto plagiarism. He says that sometimes when he thinks of something new, he later finds the same idea in his old notes. "I discover my themes afresh each time, and they often seem to me brand-new. This type of forgetting may be necessary for creative or healthy cryptomnesia, one that allows old thoughts to be reassembled, re-transcribed, recategorised, given new and fresh implications… For creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives."

Autocommunication

The most relatable description of my own creative process I have found was the theory of autocommunication, suggested by Yuri Lotman, a cultural historian, the main figure of Russian semiotics, and a very kind person. "Autocommunication refers to the case in which the subject does not transmit information to another person but directs it back to him- or herself." This complex internal dialogue organizes the disordered associations which accumulate in the individual consciousness and builds up individual meanings. According to Lotman, it reorganises the personality that engages in autocommunication through excessive repetition that becomes a powerful creative force. This change in personality is also mentioned by Han Byung-Chul. The process of thinking in autocommunication is a contemplative, meditative state, with an outcome that is often unpredictable.

Repetition

In his most popular book "The Craftsman" Richard Sennett describes two ways of learning by repetition: one is repetition-ritual – nothing can be changed, you repeat exactly the same movements, action becomes meditation, loses meaning, purpose, sense of time, becomes mindless; the other mode is more flexible – you learn through repetition but interpretation, progress, deviation are allowed – repetition-evolution. The ability to concentrate for longer periods is important – only if a person can do so will he or she become involved emotionally or intellectually.

To Sum This up

Accept your personal time flow, your personal sense (or loss) of time – by being immersed in your surroundings or whatever activity you are doing. Rely on your knowledge – your experiences, your memories, your abilities, all the materials in your archives. Thought you might think you lack information or tools, knowledge is a part of your identity and something you already own. Find your old notes or files – they might give you just the insights that you need. Translation, as a characteristic form of autocommunication and re-coding, can be done in terms of language, medium or approach. In Sennett’s case, swap the word ‘learning’ for ‘doing’. The keyword is ‘repetition’, which can bring you in a meditative state, or a flow. Talk to yourself, stare at clouds, daydream and repeat.

Intuition and Boredom

Intuition

Gilles Deleuze offers a method of problem-solving, here in my own free arrangement:

  • Only intuition decides between the true and the false in the problems that are stated;
  • False problems are of two sorts: 'non-existent problems' and 'badly stated questions’;
  • A problem, when it is properly stated, tends to be solved on its own accord;
  • Therefore, state problems and solve them in terms of time rather than space.

It seems that by using intuition as a method one needs a certain amount of passivity and reverie, to "transport ourselves to a wider plane of consciousness, to go away from action in the direction of dream" (Bergson); to let the problems dissolve rather than to try and solve them.

From my own experience, I have noticed that most of the solutions and patterns appear to me during the dreamy and vague moments of half-consciousness, when I am taking a shower, waking up or falling asleep, taking a walk. I can come across a needed clue while reading fiction or watching a film, looking out of the window, or during any other passive activity, as long as I ignore the problem that needs to be solved. All those situations are also typical conditions of a duration experience, the inner dialogue.

Boredom

I have read the science blog by Jonah Lehrer on the virtues of daydreaming – his tricks for problem-solving are afternoon naps and long showers, or reading a Russian novel, famous for being very thick. It said that the bored brain is actually incredibly active, as it "generates daydreams and engages in mental time travel. There seems to be an elaborate electrical conversation between the front and rear parts of the mind, and the brain is busy generating new connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Instead of responding to the outside world, the cortex starts to explore its inner database, as it starts to think in a more relaxed manner". The bored brain takes care of its own entertainment, it seems. The time-lapse videos of neurons making a new connection, which can be found on YouTube, look like paintings in the process being made by invisible Jackson Pollock. This is probably what the inventive Kierkegaard meant by limiting himself, Han Byung-Chul by knowledge, or Oliver Sacks by re-transcribing – reshuffling the mind’s furniture for better interior design.

Life’s Medium

Joseph Brodsky compared the feeling of boredom to the psychological Sahara (talk of mental travel). In his 'In Praise of Boredom', a text both poetic and informative, which I would advise you to read fully, boredom is described as a product of repetition which he sees as the life’s main medium. Boredom is a window on the properties of time and ‘the lesson of your utter insignificance’: "You are insignificant because you are finite. Yet infinity is not terribly lively, not terribly emotional. Your boredom, at least, tells you that much. And the more finite a thing is, the more it is charged with life, emotions, joy, fears, compassion."

Passivity

For Kierkegaard, angst offered freedom and possibility: "An individual becomes truly aware of their potential through the experience of anxiety." – though it sounds like a cliché of a troubled artist. Pierre Bonnard, my favourite painter, often complained of his lack of energy and willpower, but it is precisely this passivity, the feeling of being completely overcome by sensation, memory and doubt – dissed by Picasso as a ‘potpourri of indecision’ – that is the basis of Bonnard’s painting and its main virtue.

Outspoken or not, vulnerability is what we all now share. Here is another method of problem-solving: facing one’s fears and phobias (but without cultivating them), using them, turning them into a reason for action and creativity makes things bearable and even pleasurable. "He who sings is not always happy" (Bonnard), but singing definitely helps.

Letting Go of Expectations, Letting Go of Content

The Possible and the Virtual

Gilles Deleuze describes the difference between the possible and the virtual as follows: the expected possibility can have two outcomes – it either ‘passes’ into the real, and the real is supposed to resemble it, or it ceases to exist if not realized, leaving us with a feeling of disappointment or relief. The problems of the possible lie in the particular psychological motives for the operations, ‘such as when a being does not correspond to our expectation and we grasp it purely as a lack, the absence of what interests us.’ Similar assumptions, or psychological projections we often have when dealing with people.
The virtual, on the other hand, already possesses its own reality; it does not have to be realised but rather actualised. ‘Evolution takes place from the virtual to actual. Evolution is actualization, actualization is creation.’

As I understand it, the more rigid yes-or-no logic of a possibility – "ready-made, preformed, pre-existent to itself" (Deleuze) – is the domain of consciousness and linearity, focused on the outcome, whereas the multiplicities of the virtual are that of intuition, the work process as actualization.

Void

In "Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese" Han Byung-Chul explains the dynamics of transformation of an artwork as a living organism:
in the West the transformation is considered to come from the inner richness and depth of the work - it changes itself from within, making it living and adaptable. By contrast, the Oriental artwork itself is empty and flat, without the soul, and thus open for transcriptions and additions. "It is not the inwardness of the essence but the outwardness of the tradition or the situation that drives the change onward". Alternative to the idea of the integrity of the work being true to itself, the essence here is seen as a void, a screen open for projections.

A Possible Practical Translation

Try many different approaches without focussing on the result. No expectation = no disappointment, and you might be surprised by what comes out. Achieving the ‘inner richness and depth of the works’ seems to me too much pressure at the moment. If you stop asking yourself ‘is it good enough?’ or ‘am I true to myself?’ (is authenticity overrated?) – it might give you a bigger field to play around. The Oriental concept of change is contextual and situation-specific, that is – the meaning is not fixed but projected depending on the situation. So, my suggestion would be – ditch the concept or the content, even if it is for a short period. You can follow the logic of the material you choose to work with, or just do something pleasant and comforting. See how the subject changes by itself after some time and if it is still relevant, as the priorities are shifting drastically.

I really wonder if we emerge from quarantine as changed as we might be in theory. But for the time being: be well and take care.

...for the time being: be well and take care.

References in order of appearance:

Han Byung-Chul, "The Scent of Time"
Henri Bergson, "Matter and Memory"
Oliver Sacks, "Speak, Memory" (The New York Review of Books)
Yuri Lotman, "Semiosphere"
Yuri Lotman, "Culture and Explosion"
Yuri Lotman, "The Unpredictable Workings of Culture"
Richard Sennett "The Craftsman"
Gilles Deleuze, "Bergsonism"
Jonah Lehrer quotes come from his articles in Wired and the New Yorker ("The Virtues of Daydreaming")
Joseph Brodsky, "In Praise of Boredom" (adapted from Dartmouth College commencement address, 1989)
Han Byung-Chul, "Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese"
Ksenia Galiaeva, "Carpets", 2014

All images in this article: Ksenia Galiaeva


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