Beautiful Obsession of Indie Game Designers

Indie Game: The Movie © 2014 BLINKWORKS

Imagine that you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal disease. What would be the one thing you would want to do that would make you accept your fate? One thing, one project, one goal that would make you feel more at ease with dying because you would have accomplished it? A goal that has simply been the sense of your life? Four years ago, for a video game designer and programmer Tommy Refenes, his raison d’être was to finish the Super Meat Boy game he had been developing with Edmund McMillen for 2 years.

Tommy and Edmund are two of four main characters featured in Sundance award-winning documentary film Indie Game: The Movie, directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky. We meet them as they’re spending days and nights applying final touches and fixing bugs in a game that will be their first major release on the Xbox. Meanwhile, Montréal-based designer Phil Fish is painstakingly working on his own, much anticipated, puzzle game called FEZ, which has undergone three serious changes in its 4-year development. For him and Renaud Bédard, the game programmer, the personal pressure to finish FEZ is bigger than the outside one: “We really need to get this thing done!” (As it turns out, FEZ will need another couple of years before it gets released in 2012.) And, finally, there’s Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, one of the highest-rating games, who is talking about the process of the game’s development and release, whilst collecting ideas for a new one.

I must confess that before I watched the film, my experience of computer games was limited to Tetris, Pac-Man and Tiny Toon Adventures. Despite the enormous joy I had, playing my friend’s Gameboy, I considered video games a dangerously addictive entertainment, created by people who live in a suspended childhood and resist the obligation to grow up. (If you’re a game maker or player, please don’t shoot. I shall wear sackcloth and ashes in punishment.) Watching Indie Game: The Movie revolutionized my thinking and rectified false preconceptions. Just like comics, games suffer from the “low art” stigma, while in fact they surpass many others art forms in the sophistication of concept and complexity of skills they require to make. The depth of ideas and metaphors that go into a game cannot but expose the shallowness and self-indulgence of many works people consider fine art (while the appropriate word would be what Waldemar Januszczak used in his recent review of the “video nasties” at the recent Turner Prize exhibition.)

In reality, there really isn’t much of a difference between a painting and a video game—they’re both an artistic expression. And just like a writer writes because it is the most effective form of their self-expression, for Tommy a video game is the most effective he can express himself. “Even though it’s a game people are supposed to buy, it’s not a game I made for people. I made it for myself.”

Super Meat Boy, as Tommy and Edmund describe it, is their childhood put in a game form. Based on a Flash game, Super Meat Boy has a very distinct art style and a rather unusual narrative. The main character is a boy with no skin who is trying to rescue his bandaged-up girlfriend from an evil doctor represented by a fetus in a jar with a top hat and a tuxedo. Devoid of skin, Super Meat Boy moves within a sharp and dangerous world made up of various saws that can slash him to bits. At any point, anything can kill him, yet he has to move on and deal with it, just like Edmund had to deal with isolation and ostracism at school. The bandage girl character is also quite significant: “I wanted to play up the idea that he needs her, that she’s what completes him, like not just emotionally but physically as well. (…) She’s kind of like the outer shell over meat boy that protects him, that’s why he needs her, he needs her back.”

Indie Game: The Movie © 2014 BLINKWORKS

Edmund isn’t ashamed to admit how much of him is in that little red figure. Or that Aether, one of his earlier games, is a direct metaphor of his phobia-filled, lonely childhood. The game tells a story of a kid who travels into space on the back of a monster with the intention of exploring other planets and making friends, because he can’t connect to anyone on Earth. Having found that those other planets are inhabited with unhappy and nervous creatures, he offers to help solve their problems. Unfortunately, not only does he not manage to make the creatures happy, but each time he solves a problem, the Earth shrinks, and when he finally returns to it, the planet breaks upon his touch, and the boy is lost in space again… I will be the first to admit that I cried listening to Edmund describe Aether. A beautifully made piece which serves not only as a puzzle to solve but a platform to reflect upon—isn’t that what good art should be?

Indie Game: The Movie © 2014 BLINKWORKS

“Things that are personal have flaws, have vulnerabilities. If you don’t see a vulnerability in somebody, you’re probably not relating with them on a very personal level. So it’s the same with a game design,” says Jonathan Blow. His approach to designing Braid was to take his “deepest flaws and vulnerabilities and put them into a game.” And so Jonathan created a game that tells a love story, in which the main character is working through his memories, and effectively changing them, in search of something he had lost. The game, with its unusual time changing and rewind mechanics, is, like Aether, not just a typical puzzle, but a quirky metaphorical journey into one’s own psyche. Blow believes that “any puzzle game can give you puzzles that you have to think about and that are tricky to solve but what any particular game can give you is details, interesting insights into a particular situation, and I think that when a game realizes that and seizes that it can do some really special things.”

Indie Game: The Movie © 2014 BLINKWORKS

Like Super Meat Boy, Aether and Braid, Phil Fish’s FEZ also works on several levels. It’s a two-dimensional puzzle platform game-within-a-game, set in a three-dimensional world, which gets revealed through a fez that is given to its main character, Gomez. The main goal of the game is to restore the order to the universe when it gets destabilized. But isn’t that a metaphor of life—dealing with continuous turbulences and complications to find some peace before things get unsettled again?

Indie Game: The Movie © 2014 BLINKWORKS

Given the ambitious concept and structure of FEZ, it isn’t surprising that Fish felt closely attached to it. “It’s not just a game. It’s me, it’s my ego,” he admitted. Asked by Lisanne what would happen to him if he couldn’t finish the game, Phil responds without a moment of hesitation: “I would kill myself. That’s my incentive to finish it. That I get to not kill myself.”

Melodramatic? Perhaps to some people—yes. Not to me. The honesty with which Phil talks about his passion is no less impressive than the passion itself. Admitting that we care about something, that we have put our heart into a project and want it to succeed, is something few people can do. We put a lot of energy into building a façade of distance, creating an impression that we don’t care and so we won’t get hurt. Phil, Tommy, Edmund and Jonathan are brave to show how much they care about their game—making it perfect, delivering on time, and having people understand and appreciate it.

The power of Pajot’s and Swirsky’s film lies in the fact that it’s not just about video game designers. This superbly directed and beautifully shot documentary is a poignant study of a creative mind, the solitude of the creator, and the pain and pleasure behind a passion so big that it can take over one’s life. It shows that depression isn’t only the result of stagnation, lack of understanding or a failure. Success, though often the goal, is not easy to handle when it actually happens. “The hardest part of success if finding people who will be happy for you,” says Tommy, who is lucky to have his family’s support. But then there’s the inevitable confrontation with how the world receives one’s work. Ironically, it is almost irrelevant whether the reception is positive or negative. A hundred ravishing reviews can easily get overshadowed by one piece of harsh criticism. And, even if fans are unanimous in their praise, the act of receiving the feedback is hard in itself. When Super Meat Boy finally gets released, and words of applause from excited fans start flowing in, Tommy isn’t jumping with joy. “Positive or negative reviews, it doesn’t matter, it’s just weird that they’re there,” he says. And then he adds: “Regardless of how the game did, I would like to always remember that I am proud of it.”

The ten-out-of-ten reviews can also hurt—in the case of Jonathan’s Braid, which was an immediate commercial and critical success, it was the lack of appreciation of the more in-depth aspects of the game. What upset him most was that people “didn’t even see what I thought was most special about it. Not that many people understood. (…) I visualized that I would have some kind of connection with people through this game, and they think it’s great but the connection isn’t there.” As soon as reviews of Braid started appearing on the internet, Jonathan went on a mission to explain all aspects of the game he felt were misunderstood or neglected by the viewers. His instant comments and replies to people on blogs and forums were soon interpreted as arrogance: Blow was labelled “an opinionated ass” and “pretentious loudmouth.” And, once again, completely misunderstood.

Another aspect of creativity that is so poignantly and skillfully presented in the film, is the sacrifice.

Unlike big companies, where there might be a hundred people working on one game, in the indie world it is often 2-3 developers. These people sit days and nights in front of their computers, working on a game, bombarded by continuous “When is the game coming out?!!!” questions from impatient fans. This kind of lifestyle is not easy, and even the most introvert people need to go out and talk to others once in a while to remain sane.

Indie Game: The Movie © 2014 BLINKWORKS

Edmund was lucky to have a very supporting girlfriend (now wife), who remained patient throughout all those months, when all she saw of him was his back. But Tommy was alone. “I sacrificed having a life,” he said. “It’s kind of weird: I don’t go out, I don’t really socialize, I can’t really spend any money because I don’t have any money.” But he knew it was his choice: “You kind of have to give up something to have something great.”

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of working on such projects is that the sacrifice doesn’t bring any guarantee of success. Super Meat Boy has sold over 1,000,000 copies and Tommy and Edmund have continued working as a creative duo, but Phil Fish, whose game release kept being postponed, has had all sorts of difficult circumstances to deal with, from a legal conflict with his ex-partner to disputes with Microsoft after the product got launched, and industry harassment. As a result, he is now selling his company. You can spend a few years of your life working on a project that won’t resonate with people. Or arrives too late, after someone else had already come up with a similar idea. Would that mean that it’s not worth it? That it’s better to lower ambitions, be “reasonable,” and decide that it’s silly to waste your twenties and thirties working alone in a stuffy room?

The film doesn’t give an answer this question. Or perhaps it does, but the answer will be different for everyone. Personally, I admire that kind of passion—the one that makes you skip meals and parties, expose yourself to criticism, test your endurance and self-esteem. I sometimes envy people who are happy with simple goals, who feel emotionally rewarded for things that don’t require them to turn their lives upside down and make those big sacrifices. But just like those four guys from Indie Game: The Movie, I’ve always dreamt big and most likely won’t settle until I’ve realized the most ridiculously ambitious projects. Because these projects are the expression of me, and I’m not ashamed to admit that.

All stills and quotes come from Indie Game: The Movie © 2014 BLINKWORKS

Black Dogs, Storms & Rhapsodies

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (public domain)

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (public domain)

“(…) How very trying I was—all agog, all aquiver; and so full of storms and rhapsodies…” wrote Virginia Woolf in 1936 in a letter to Violet Dickinson, her older friend and correspondent. This and many other letters can be found at an exhibition devoted to the life of Woolf which is currently on at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Storms and rhapsodies” is a beautiful metaphor for the demon of bipolar depression that Woolf had struggled with all her life—until her suicide in 1941. It’s hard to walk around the gallery space and look at all the photographic and painted portraits of Woolf without a tremendous sense of loss. On March 28, 1941, Virginia filled the pockets of her coat with stones and drowned herself near Monk’s House at Rodmell… A great mind and a beautiful spirit lost in the depths of the Ouse River.

In a heart-breaking letter to her beloved husband Leonard, Virginia wrote:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

A few weeks ago Robin Williams, the famous comedian and the star of numerous wonderful movies, was found dead in his home in Tiburon, Calif. The cause of his death was suicide by asphyxiation.

Upon the tragic news of his death, social media were instantly buzzing with comments. A lot of people were expressing sadness and understanding but there were also voices of shocking ignorance. Comments such as “What the hell did he have to be depressed about. He had more money than I could ever earn in my lifetime. The 1% are so out of touch with the real world.” demonstrated how little understanding there is towards mental illness and how important it is to fight against the stigma surrounding it. For depression is an illness like anything else. From a medical point of view, it is the unbalance of brain chemicals, notably serotonin and norepinephrine. Severe depression can take control of the brain just like cancer can take control over the body. The amount of money in one’s bank account isn’t likely to make any difference to a person whose brain isn’t functioning properly.

Robin Williams, 2011 | Image by Eva Rinaldi (CC)

Robin Williams, 2011 | Image by Eva Rinaldi (CC)

In one of my favourite films, The Fisher King by Terry Gilliam, Robin played the role of Henry Sagan—a college professor whose wife gets shot by a psychopath. After a few years of being in coma, Sagan emerges as “Parry” and becomes a homeless outcast who often has visions of a demonic, fire-and-smoke-spewing Red Knight, who chases him with a sword. The apparition is a result of the deep trauma he experienced when the killer entered a restaurant where Henry was eating dinner with his wife, and blew her brain out with a shotgun.

Terry Gilliam recently spoke to Vulture about the challenge of shooting the final chase scene: “This scene (…) was very hard from an acting point of view, because Robin was tearing his guts out emotionally. The interesting thing about Robin in all of those scenes was that he always wanted to do another take. He felt he had even more anguish and pain to spill out of the character. And I had to really stop him. I had to say, ‘Robin, you’ve reached a point here, way beyond what we expected. We’ve got what we needed. Now you’re just hurting yourself.(…) What we have here is very good. And if we look at the rushes and it isn’t, I promise you I will reshoot it.’ And I had to hug him basically, and hold him.”

The scene is truly poignant. Not only is it a beautiful piece of cinematography (you can read about the design, creation and shooting of it on David Morgan’s website) but also a frightening visualisation of what goes on in a malfunctioning mind.

For the Red Knight isn’t just a phantom of the killer. It is a striking metaphor for an outbreak of mental illness. Just like the Knight would appear unexpectedly in front of Parry, in the middle of a busy street, depression can creep up unnoticed and attack in the full light of the day. Andrew Solomon, writer and lecturer on psychology, politics, and the arts, who also suffers from depression, called it “Noonday Demon” in his bestselling account of the disease which won several literary prizes. Solomon was hit by the demon at a time when everything was going well: he was publishing his first novel, getting along with his family, he had bought a beautiful new house and peacefully ended a two-year relationship. “It was when life was finally in order that depression came slinking in and spoiled everything,” he wrote in 1998 in the New Yorker article. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the world’s most disabling condition. According to Beyond Blue, one in six people (one in five women and one in eight men) will experience it at some point in their life, and it underscores most mental illness. The demon is very real.

The Red Knight from the Fisher King, movie still

The Red Knight from the Fisher King, movie still

I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate…

“Voices” were one the main themes in Virginia Woolf’s writing as well as life. Her books focused very much on the inner life, inner monologues and thoughts voiced by many different characters. Her twenty-four volume diary, on the other hand, is an account of the struggle to silence the other, unwanted voices in her head. “Sometimes these were identifiable,” says Steve King in his essay; “the birds she heard singing to her in Greek, King Edward swearing in the azaleas. Sometimes they were the common noise of anxiety, though loud and frightening enough to convince her that to step over the puddle in her path would be to step into unreality.”

Virginia Woolf was only 13 when she experienced the first outbreak of depression, which happened shortly after her mother passed away. The next major mental breakdown happened nine years later, in 1905. After her father Leslie Stephen died of stomach cancer, she attempted a suicide by jumping out of a window, and was briefly institutionalized as a result.

This was the beginning of a painful hide-and-seek game with the Red Knight who would regularly haunt her. When she was 31, depression became much more severe and led her to another serious suicide attempt. Luckily, she got rescued by a physician who happened to be in the neighbourhood and managed to pump out 100 grains of Veronal she took from the case that Leonard, her husband, usually kept locked.

Throughout the decades, she was observing and recording her illness, in an attempt to open “the dark cupboard.” In 1921, Virginia randomly took to her bed for next eight weeks, following a night when she stayed up after a concert. Two months later she recorded in her journal: “What a gap! How it would have astounded me to be told when I wrote the last word here, on June 7th, that within a week I [should] be in bed, and not entirely out of it till the 6th of August – two whole months rubbed out ..” A note from 1926 was more dramatic: “Woke up perhaps at 3. Oh it’s beginning it’s coming… physically like a painful wave about the heart—tossing me up…. Down—God I wish I were dead.”

In the 59 years of her life, Virginia had written nine novels, fourteen non-fiction books, numerous shorts stories, as well as diaries, letters and autobiographical writings. The voices were debilitating and painful but she withstood them for as long as she could.

What Virginia referred to as voices, Winston Churchill called  “the black dog,” which followed him like in Bly’s poem.

A light seen suddenly in the storm, snow
Coming from all sides, like flakes
Of sleep, and myself
On the road to the dark barn,
Halfway there, a black dog near me.

– Robert Bly, from “Melancholia” in The Light Around the Body (1967)

Sir Winston Churchill (public domain)

Sir Winston Churchill (public domain)

Churchill’s mental illness, which began in his youth, was haunting him throughout his long and remarkable life. According to his close friend Lord Beaverbrook, Winston was always either “at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression.” Still, not only had he managed to push through the bad, but he was using highs of the mania to his and other people’s benefit. Psychiatrist and historian Anthony Storr goes as far as attributing Churchill’s success to the bipolar disorder, and in one the essays in his Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind book, he says that: “Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgement might well have concluded that we were finished.” Churchill was not only one of the greatest wartime leaders, but also a prolific writer. He had written a novel, two biographies, three volumes of memoirs, and several histories as well as numerous newspaper articles. He is the only British Prime Minister who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”

Churchill is famous for the “black dog” metaphor, although its origins are in fact much older, and its associations with depression can be found in the poetry of the Roman poet Horace (c. 40BC) and Appollonius (c. 1st century AD), as we can read in Paul Foley’s in-depth analysis of the history of the term. Still, it was  the famous politician who popularised the image, which has become a symbol of mental health illness. Two years ago, the mental health charity SANE, celebrated the 25th anniversary, and they named 2012 the Year of the Black Dog. As part of that, they launched the Black Dog Campaign to raise awareness of depression and mental illness. Sculptures of black dogs were placed in various locations across London and the UK and later sold at an auction to raise funds for the charity. Several people, including artists and celebrities, were designing a decorative coat for the dog sculpture. Among them was a 52-year-old British artist Anthony Cleyndert, who had suffered with recurring mental illness for 30 years.

Black Dog Campaign by SANE | Image from Black Dog Tribe (CC)

Black Dog Campaign by SANE | Image from Black Dog Tribe (CC)

It seems that depression is slowly becoming less of a taboo topic, and there is an infinite number of articles about it on the internet. But it’s a tricky subject, and not all advice on how to deal with is good and helpful. Following Robin William’s death, Tom Hawking wrote an article in which he condemns using the word “battle” to describe the illness. He criticizes the narrative which implies depression is something you can fight, “that you can maybe even vanquish if you fight hard enough.” Without any training in the medical or psychological field, he advocates passiveness and enduring rather than actively trying to do something about the illness. Hawking’s message is wrong and unnecessary. This is a battle (or rather, a series of battles) that can be won—not in the sense that depression disappears forever, but in the sense that it doesn’t send someone to an early grave.

One of the people who have been successfully fighting with depression, made a very good observation under Hawking’s article: the “fight” happens outside of depression. “In the same way you wouldn’t strap on armour or sharpen your blade while in the MIDDLE of a sword fight, depression is never fought while you’re inside of it. When you’re in that pit, no amount of willpower of your own will pull you out. It’s only through everything outside of that moment that any hope can be found,” he said. Healthy lifestyle, CBT, self-development, friendships, relationships, reading other people’s accounts of their fight (i.e. Marcus Aurelius who lived and dealt with depression all his life), nurturing soul and mind, cherishing good memories, etc. are all tools to increase the chances of survival when depression strikes.

Surviving the storm and chasing away the Red Knight, however hard and painful, is a noble battle and one worth pursuing. Not only because life is worth living but also because while being on the mountaintop is easy and doesn’t teach us much, getting through the darkness and pain is a character-building experience, inspiration for other people, and in the case of artists—an inspiration to create some beautiful work.

Man and Machine

Man and Machine at Vienna Museum of Technology | Image by Mirko Tobias Schaefer (CC)

Man & Machine, Vienna Museum of Technology | Image by Mirko Tobias Schaefer (CC)

What inspired me to write this post are two seemingly unrelated things I saw recently: a friend’s website and a documentary film. The website was created using Adobe Muse. The documentary film was about sign painters, released through the Creative Bundle.

These two completely different discoveries both led me to ask the same question: a question about the role of technologies in our present and future lives, and the ongoing competition between man-made and machine-made. Why? Let me elaborate.

Adobe Muse CC is a tool for designing websites without having to write any code. It is aimed at the huge market of designers who had to make the transition from print to web production, but haven’t learned coding. After Flash and Dreamweaver, this is the very first program by Adobe that takes away the need for a skill that generations of programmers have been developing. As a matter of fact, the program provides no access to the code it generates on behalf of the designer. So the knowledge of coding is of no extra benefit to creating a website in Muse.

Sign Painters, directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, is a fantastic film exploring this unacknowledged art form and underground trade. Hand-painted signs have a long tradition; historically the craft was acquired through apprenticeship, though in the early days many sign painters were self-taught. According to one of the artists featured in the film, mastering the craft normally takes about 5-7 years. In the age of digital immediacy, this seems like a serious approach to learning a trade but that’s precisely what the interviewed painters value: a Renaissance-style mastery. All of the painters demonstrate the same level of dedication and passion for their job. They believe in solid knowledge of materials, techniques, and process; in quality, beauty, artistic vision, and durability. They came to the trade from different backgrounds and in different ways, but once they picked up a brush, they were reluctant to let go. For quite a long time, sign painting was “the” job, which brought money and a fair amount of freedom. Ira Coyne, one of the interviewed painters, mentions a book he once read, “Sign painters don’t read signs,” which is an autobiography of a sign painter from Portland written in the late 1950s who believed that the hand-painted sign industry would last forever. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

In the 80s, when first computers were introduced, and vinyl cutting machines were invented, the art of sign painting began to fade. Sean Starr from Starr Studios says: “That was a true nightmare, when that movement came, when all those little franchise things opened up. Any area that those guys came into just wiped out little guys who were doing really neat work.” The software became extremely popular among people who had no background or any knowledge of design, layout or technique but could produce signs a lot quicker and cheaper. Just like designers who don’t know the slightest thing about HTML and CSS reach for Adobe Muse to make quick, attractive and cheap websites for clients who don’t want to pay for “the real thing”—which is hand-coding. As a result, “hundreds of sign painters just threw in the towel,” and turned to a plotter, as Norma Jeanne Maloney recalls. They had to respond to customers who, according to Mack Benek, quickly developed expectations that if they order a sign now they will get it overnight. “But if it’s hand-done, it’s not going to be instant,” he says.

Adobe Muse

Adobe Muse screenshot from http://muse.adobe.com/

Thirty years after vinyl machines disturbed the peaceful existence of sign-painters, Adobe’s new release became a thorn in the side of website developers. On various computer and design-related forums, they’ve been ripping the software apart at the seams and criticizing Adobe for allowing dabblers to create websites. Many developers claim that web design should be left to somebody who understands the concept, and as such should be coded up by hand. They point at the flaws of Muse—the messy code it generates, lack of responsiveness, clunkiness, and various other bugs. Some say that it can only be used as a tool for making good-looking prototypes, and therefore its marketing is misleading. “Well written code that is efficient, powerful, and clean is an art form in and of itself,” someone said on a forum. And no-one can disagree with that, just like no-one would undermine the quality of hand-painted signs. But will people be willing to pay and wait extra for a higher quality website if presented with a cheap and fast solution? Code-savvy designers have developed the same fear that sign painters had—that the new software will put them out of business.

Technophobia—the fear or dislike of advanced technology or complex devices, especially computers—is nothing new under the sun. It started during the Industrial Revolution which brought on new machines able to do the work of skilled craftsmen using unskilled, underpaid men, women, and children. In the workers’ eyes, the machines were a threat and in 1675 got destroyed by a group of weavers who feared of the changes taking place.

Dustin Walsh, the author of “Fear not the ‘bot? As robots take jobs, experts ask if humans will keep up” article, reminds us that “robots have brought fear and paranoia to the American worker since the first robot entered the factory floor.” That first robot, a 4000 pound Unimate with a “six-axis arm attached magnetically to a steel drum, welded and moved parts weighing up to 500 pounds,” a job considered too dangerous to workers. “In March 1964, President Lyndon Johnson received a memorandum from a group of professors, technologists and activists, warning him that computers and automation would cause unemployment. However, the U.S. has added more than 74 million jobs since 1964. For their part, computers and robots have changed the skills and wages of the workforce.”

When vinyl machines became omnipresent, hand-painting became the luxurious craft that no-one was willing to pay for. It looked like the industry would die. But it didn’t. And those who remained in it despite the financial difficulties, got rewarded.

Sign Painters

Sign Painters film still | www.signpaintersfilm.com © The Sign Painter Documentary

For twenty years later things began to shift. Sean Starr, the founder of Starr Studios, talks about a massive project his company got commissioned to do by GAP. He was puzzled, wondering why the company would want to invest extra money in hand-painted store and truck signage. Surely, all companies were doing everything they could to save money? Not necessarily. GAP’s new business strategy was to try to go back to the roots and passion that launched them in 1969, and incorporating craftsmanship was part of that campaign. People were slowly becoming tired of the polished and homogenised look. They began to crave “the real thing.” And as Doc Guthrie, owner of “Doc Guthrie Signs” and a teacher, says, “there is always a demand for hand-crafter WHATEVER.” In the 80s and 90s the brush might have been going away but it’s coming back.

A hand-painted sign fades and becomes a work of art. Vinyl, on the other hand, shrinks and cracks, and has to be thrown away. It isn’t surprising then that many young people are willing to spend weeks learning to paint horizontal, vertical and diagonal strokes at Doc Guthrie’s school of sign painting. “They’re bored out of their skulls but it’s a challenge,” he says. The sign in one of his workshops says: “Through these doors pass America’s potential sign graphics designers and lettering craftsmen.” Anyone can punch letters using a vinyl machine. But the art of lettering is reserved for the hard-working, skilled, and dedicated ones.

Still from Sign Painters | http://www.signpaintersfilm.com

Sign Painters film still | www.signpaintersfilm.com © The Sign Painter Documentary

Keith Knecht, one of the sign painters featured in the film, is absolutely right when he says that “the problem with technology is that it never stands still.” Technology is indeed constantly changing, and those changes can be problematic. But they needn’t spread panic. Computers are increasingly more and more powerful, but we’re still very far from reaching true artificial intelligence. According to Frank Levy, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “robots don’t respond quickly to change, and computers are strongest when there is a repetition of a single action, so humans still have roles in the workplace; they just may be a little different in the future.” And it is true that computers have taken some jobs, but they have created jobs too. And, most importantly, they’ve given us instant access to knowledge, communication tools and shortcuts that have made a vast number of previously laborious tasks incredibly easy.

When asked whether technological change is a threat to the livelihood of humans, Dustin Walsh remains optimistic remains optimistic. In his view, the focus should be on embracing the robot and shifting human jobs “to the right parts of the manufacturing or service-providing process: programming the robots, repairing and maintaining them, and adapting work processes as the economy continues to evolve.” Given the speed at which computing power increases, and areas where that power is used (self-driving cars being a good example), people will have no choice but to use computers in the future. But they do and will “remain in control of the discovery,” to use Walsh’s words. As for hand-coding and hand-painting, I believe that while some people might be satisfied with a soulless, generic and non-durable product, there will always be people who value the skill and soul behind the hand-made.

Creative DNA: Deconstruction/Reconstruction

I was giving a lecture to students at Vassar not long ago. Working with the students’ autobiographies, I invited a dance student, a music student who brought his saxophone, and an art student to join me on stage. I asked the dancer to improvise some movement from a tuck position on the floor. I asked the saxophone player to accompany the dancer. And I asked the art student to assign colors to what they were doing. I admit I was constructing a three-ring circus in the lecture hall. But my goal was to bring the three students together by forcing them to work off the same page, and also to free them up to discover how far they could go improvising on this simple assignment.

When I asked the art student to read out his color impressions, everyone in the hall was taken aback. He droned on and on about himself, feelings he’d had, stories about friends. Not a word about color. Finally I heard “limpid blue” come out of his mouth. I waved my arms, signaling him to stop reading.

“Do you realize,” I said, “that you’ve just recited about five hundred words in an assignment about color. You’ve covered everything under the sun, and ‘limpid blue’ is the first time you’ve mentioned a color? I’m not convinced you want to be a painter.”

As far as I was concerned, this young man was in “DNA denial.”

The above quote comes from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Learn It And Use It For Life. In the second chapter of the book, she introduces the concept of “Creative DNA,” which she defines as a type of code which determines our creative needs and explorations: “the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them.” Twyla believes that certain choices, i.e. choosing to paint miniatures rather than epic battle scenes, or to write short stories as opposed to multi-volume historical sagas, are made on a subconscious level. This doesn’t limit us to one discipline; Twyla sees it more as a specific structure of work and a set of patterns we are drawn to. Of course, there are artists devoted to one form of expression but the inner creative code applies to everyone, and even in the case of a multi-disciplinary artist, there are definite strands to their work, some topics and problems they keep investigating regardless of the medium.

And Twyla is right – understanding those strands of our creative DNA can help us learn about why we do things in a certain way and learn the difference between venturing out of our comfort zone and going against our nature. The former is a necessary part of any artistic endeavour, while the latter is a recipe for becoming mediocre at something many other people will excel at because it is their real vocation.

Identifying our Creative DNA requires self-knowledge, intuition and honesty. Sometimes we want to do certain things because they seem more attractive than the ones we’re actually good at. One of the most famous contemporary Polish writers, Andrzej Stasiuk, always wanted to be a drummer. Surely, for a teenage boy, the vision of being onstage with a band, in front of an ecstatic audience, is indefinitely more appealing than sitting alone at a desk and writing. But for whatever reason, Stasiuk was able to recognize the writing skills he had and develop those instead of jamming his evenings away with friends. Which turned out to be a good choice.

I’ve met people who claim they work in a certain discipline but they either don’t seem to do much work or the work they do is preceded by hours of pain and stress. It’s as if they were consciously identifying themselves with a goal that is not part of any of their DNA strands. Somebody said to me once that if you want to do something, you will find a way. If you’re not working towards your goal that you proclaim, and you keep coming up with excuses (time, money, deadlines for other things, personal life etc.) then it’s likely that what you’ve chosen (and struggle) to do has little in common with your true creative mission. But it’s very difficult to be honest with ourselves about our goals, as we tend to emotionally cling to ideas without questioning them. A painter in “DNA denial” who doesn’t paint because of a daily job will remain upset and convinced that his lack of work is due to the lack of time, whereas another person for whom painting is the foundation of their Creative DNA will happily stay up until 3am painting, regardless of other jobs and responsibilities they have.

On the other hand, just like the biological DNA changes, so can the Creative DNA. DNA’s mutations are the raw material of genetic variation and they’re essential to evolution, while transformations of the Creative DNA are an integral part of our emotional, intellectual and cultural development. As John Updike, quoted by Twyla, said: “Each day, we wake up slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.” So it is entirely possible to alter or develop new strands of creative identity. This doesn’t mean replacing the existing DNA with something completely different, but perhaps modifying elements of the “form-story-style” structure.

I see many examples of both deconstructing and reconstructing the Creative DNA. Sometimes we succeed at identifying the way we want to tell our stories (make feature comedy films) but we realize that, as a career choice, this particular way doesn’t suit our character (we’re introverts and enjoy being alone), temper (we like working slowly) or lifestyle (we want to work from home). So we might want to explore other ways, such as making animated films. The (comic) stories might stay the same, as can style (i.e. black humour) but the form will be different.

It is easier to identify our artistic calling as well as construct/reconstruct its structure if we have one obvious talent. Things become more difficult if we excel at more than one medium, and the difficulty lies both in choosing the talent(s) we want to pursue, and constructing the frame that responds to our Creative DNA and to our life. This often happens through the process of trial and error, when by experimenting with telling our stories in different forms, we discover which ones we should most certainly abandon. I have a friend who studied theatre design with me at CSM, and all the time she was at the college she drew: people, places, urban scenes. As far as I know, she’s done some theatre and film design work but above everything else, she is now an illustrator. While Ula drew little people in her notebook, I wrote and drew storyboards. Whenever a project involved either writing or storyboarding, I would give it my full attention, sometimes neglecting other elements. When I was assisting designer Paweł Dobrzycki on the Polish première of Shrek the Musical in 2011, I was incredibly glad that my role was to create the storyboard. I’m sure that a lot of people would have wanted to assist by helping the storyboard vision come to life onstage, but I had very little interest in that. This is why I stopped acting against my Creative DNA and abandoned theatre design.

That was one of the first steps of deconstructing what my vocation is. The next one was identifying the role of writing in my life. From school cabaret plays, poems, ancient Latin poetry adaptations to BA and MA thesis, scripts, short stories, journal, blog, children’s books and most recently, a comic, I’ve been writing all my life. But it was relatively recently when I realized that I write more than paint. Painting for me is not the final product, it comes as part of a story, a book, an animation. Just like that art student from Twyla’s anecdote, I wouldn’t be able to limit myself to describing a colour, for feelings, memories, opinions and all sorts of ideas are constantly buzzing in my head and keep coming out in words.

I recently found out that a couple of friends have decided to significantly change their careers. Juliette, another friend from CSM who for the past few years has been painting, dancing, performing, writing poetry, healing and leading creative workshops, has recently announced on social media that she is going to pursue a career in acting, and has cleared her painting studio. Another friend is leaving acting for environment studies and work. Both seem happy with their choices. Being honest about what we are going and not going to do is very liberating. True dedication to our mission is the only weapon against the enemies awaiting us on our journey: fear, failure, being in a rut, the project going wrong. If we are pursuing something we seriously want to do, we will persevere and get through the dip. If not, all of these will be handy excuses not to do the work.

Re-examining what we’re built for and how much effort we’re prepared to put into it is the key to a fulfilling creative career. Procrastinating is incredibly frustrating – but it can sometimes offer some valuable information about a wrong goal choice, and an incentive to make a change. Life is a process, and there is no limit to the number of career and lifestyle changes we can make. What matters is that we’re in tune with what we’re like and where we want to get.

Dear Modern Diary. E-journals & life-logging.

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

“I find it difficult  to write each day, but if I don’t I’m swamped with guilt. Where does the compunction come from?,” wrote Derek Jarman in a diary he started after moving to the Prospect Cottage on the bleak coast of industrial Dungeness. The diary, called Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman, was first published by Century in 1991, three years before his death. I can certainly relate to Jarman’s sentiment, having been writing a journal for well over a decade. I don’t write every day but keeping a journal is a necessity I don’t question. It’s an integral part of my life. I believe that once you’ve started writing a journal, it’s hard to stop. The famous French-American writer Anaïs Nin, whose several volumes of published journals span more than 60 years, was at a time believed to have an addiction to the diary, which various people, including her mother, therapists and friends tried to cure her from. Fortunately, for all Nin’s readers, they didn’t succeed.

Apart from my own writing, I have always been interested in the diaries of other people. And there’s a lot of reading material to choose from, for people have had the urge to take notes of things that happen to them and how they feel about it for centuries. Marcus Aurelius, the famous Greek philosopher and the head of the Roman Empire (161–180 CE), used his journal not only to keep track of events but to analyse his emotional responses to all the daily challenges he had to face and to exercise his ability to defeat bouts of depression. Earlier this week I went to the V&A Museum of Childhood to see a very interesting display of diaries dating from 1813 to 1996, borrowed from The Great Diary Project archive at Bishopsgate Institute. The Project was initiated by historian Irving Finkel who has been rescuing and storing found and unwanted diaries in his British Museum office. The idea of the project, as we can read on the website, is to “collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.”

It will be indeed interesting in 100 years’ time to see the records of everyday life in the 21st century. But Finkel’s successors will have an infinitely more complicated job processing the diaries of our time because today, unlike the Victorian era, we have far more mediums and tools for documenting our lives than a notebook.

Facebook status

Thanks to a whole variety of software and apps, we are witnessing a growing interest in recording personal data, our thoughts and the environment in a digital form. Written journals have a long history and they still exist, though a hard-bound notebook with a padlock and a key has been largely replaced by a Word document and a blog with a password. I have written a little bit about Facebook and its TV-like obsession to share the most mundane things from one’s life with friends and strangers in a recent post, but what I have been thinking more about recently is not merely the sharing but the act of recording. One of the major changes that have been taking place the last decade, is that people have become more visual-oriented when documenting life. After the expansion of blogosphere, we were introduced to sites such as Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and many more, where photos, statuses, “checking in” are all part of the modern visual documentation. Even a photo-less status (“Enjoying a latte in Hyde Park”) works more as an infographic which enables people to immediately translate it into an image in their heads. And indeed, sometimes it’s not even words but a smiley face. The type of recording that goes on social media is by its nature dictated by potential viewer’s response; it’s less about an intimate account of our experiences and more about carving a mark in a cybertree. The kind of photos most people take and upload are usually non-ambiguous statements which everyone can relate to, whereas textual information remains simplified enough to conceal the complexity of the experience that goes within.

Still, there are people who escape the modern standards of online visual journals, recording things which reveal more about their personality. Needless to say, I find those a lot more interesting. But obscure and ambiguous photos and statements requiring people to engage with and process the information don’t gain popularity exactly for the same reason as Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations will never have as many readers as celebrity ghost-written autobiographies.

“Take Notice: All persons who look at this diary without my leave, are Beastly Sneaks,” wrote on January 25th 1886 Godfrey Williams, whose diary is presented as part of The Great Diary Project at the V&A Museum of Childhood exhibition. The archivist tells us though, that the Godfrey’s further diary entries suggest that he was hoping for the Beastly Sneaks to eventually look into his diary. People who write blogs often prefer to preserve anonymity, hiding under nicknames, but there are plenty of those who are happy to share facts from their lives with strangers, just like a lot of people do on Facebook and Twitter. Written diaries, though traditionally equipped with padlocks, which implies strict privacy, are often given to the next generations or published – or happily donated to Irving Finkel’s project. So is a diary ever meant to be private or isn’t there always a potential reader in mind?

Anais in Paris by Mardou

Anais in Paris by Mardou

The tension between revealing and concealing when recording one’s life is a fascinating topic and people approach this in various ways. Anaïs Nin, mentioned earlier, who wrote a journal from the age of 11 until her death, kept two different versions of journals, the expurgated (i.e. self-censored) version and one that was much more explicit. What was discovered later by one her biographers, was that she fantasised and lied in both. But it doesn’t change the fact that both versions are a fascinating read and a great insight into the writer’s character and life, which, despite the made-up adornments, remains mostly undistorted.

I can’t remember whether I had already discovered Anaïs Nin when I started writing my own journal at the age of 13, but throughout my teenage years until mid-20s, she was a major inspiration for my writing. My journals have so far been kept private but if I ever have grand-children, they will be the first readers and guardians of all the notes I’ve gathered.

In the past, my journals used to be scrap-book-like, with doodles and bits and pieces stuck on the pages, but in the past six years I’ve limited myself to words, perhaps as a counterbalance to the visual quality of my art work. However, on a few occasions I did keep visual diaries too, alongside the written journals. They were hand-drawn, cartoon-like attempts at capturing the essence of a day or the feel of it. Here, the inspiration came from Frida Kahlo, whose very expressive painted journals I read with fascination.

The Diary of Frida Kahlo

The Diary of Frida Kahlo | Image from Limitless Mindgames

But drawing takes time, and at some point I abandoned those. Yet the need for visual documentation has remained. These days, when I write not more than once or twice a week, I feel I want to record each day somehow. And while my journal entries are long and descriptive (often around a thousand words in length), I want the every-day journal to be a collection of selected moments, more or less obscure but memorable and meaningful to me. After wondering about the medium for it (I decided against a notebook for fear of abandoning it), I have finally decided to set up a Tumblr page.

From my diary

What is the point of keeping a journal? For a long time, when I restricted myself to written diaries, the agenda was clear: self-analysis. Journals help me arrange thoughts and feelings, and avoid the mistake of romanticising about the past. I don’t always remember accurately how I felt about a particular situation or experience, and going back to its record is the perfect way to check the facts against my distorted memories.

But the visual journal is something different. It’s almost like adding a significance to the day. Recently, someone I knew passed away: A lovely, cheerful and incredibly kind girl, only a year older than me, lost her battle with cancer. She had a heart-breaking goodbye on Facebook where she was describing how 18 years ago she nearly died of leukaemia and so she always felt she had been given a second life, which she tried to live as fully as she could. It is not the first young person I have known personally who have departed much too soon from this life. Experiences of this kind bring up the clichéd, yet very true memento mori/carpe diem reminders. Tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. And there is no guarantee that it will.

While in my in-depth written entries I often travel between the past and the future,  in the visual journal I want to focus on today, recording something about it without the slightest need to be descriptive.

That said, my written journals aren’t exactly detailed and exhaustive in their descriptions either, for they often focus on a particular problem. The matter-of-fact documentation of my life happens in the second time of journal – a daily log.

Daily log

This one is the most dry collection of data and figures, such as the time I got up and went to bed, activities during the day, vitamins or painkillers I took, my menstrual cycle, my mood. While written journals are quite philosophical and auto-analytical, the log is factual. This kind of recording is part of a trend called The Quantified Self that is currently gaining more and more popularity.

QS is a movement which incorporates technology into data acquisition on aspects of our daily life such as the food we eat, the medication we take, the amount of sleep we have, the emotional state we’re in, and our performance (mental and physical). Self-mentoring can include wearable sensors and computers and is known as life-logging. The aim of QS is to get to know ourselves better and improve the quality of our life through self-tracking. The process consists of two elements: collection and analysis of data.

The only issue here is that while people can be quite meticulous about recording data, they are often casual about analysing them. At Quantified Self meet-up groups I go to, I often come across people whose goal is to find or invent apps that will do the analysing for them. While that is a reasonable quest when one is tracking insulin and cortisol levels, the subjective type of data (mood, efficiency, even sleep – for there is no objective value of optimal sleep for everyone) most certainly requires manual analysis and reflection.

All the different types of modern diaries: written, visual and data-based all serve different purposes. Perhaps that’s why I recognised the need to keep them all. But everyone is different and has their own approach to recording life moments, thoughts, feelings, and facts. Notebooks, blogs, Tumblr and Instagram pages, Excel spreadsheets, smartphone apps are only tools that can be shaped into our needs. It is worth remembering though, that if we care about the ability to understand past notes, photos, and experiences, it might not be enough to just take a snapshot or write a generic one-line status. Without a more personal description and analysis, we might end up with enigmatic records such as the one from a diary at the V&A Museum of Childhood exhibition, where under 27th May 1950, a girl wrote “My unluckiest day.” Why? That we will never find out.

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

The Good Fight

MChabocka-illustration

One of the most difficult relationship in our life is the one we have with ourselves. The difficulty of it lies in the ability to accept the things about ourselves which we cannot change, whilst making the effort to change the things we can. The balance of maintaining discipline without beating ourselves up for the smallest failure is the hardest thing to get right. And so, a lot of the time, this tricky relationship oscillates between two extremes: self-deprecation/hatred and an overestimated sense of one’s own value and perpetual innocence. Both are harmful.

We are surrounded by slogans such “Be good to yourself,” “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken,” and hipster motivation posters, currently very popular on social media, which are meant to make us feel better about ourselves. Paradoxically, these messages won’t do much for a person whose inner critic is in full rage. The reason for it is that, as David Wong, the author of 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person, says: “you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything.” If “being good to yourself” means being kind, gentle and understanding towards our own weaknesses and comforting us in our state of inertia, then it can only reinforce the dissatisfaction we have with ourselves.

I’m currently devouring an excellent book by Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn it and use if for life. In a chapter dedicated to “scratching,” a term she uses to describe the first phase of every project, i.e. looking for ideas, she talks about maintaining the “White Hot Pitch”. This phrase, borrowed from office jargon, refers to the kind of temper tantrum a boss is likely to throw at a meeting to wake his employees up when a project is going badly. Interestingly, Wong’s article quotes the famous speech given by Blake (played by Alec Baldwin) in James Foley’s adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross. Blake tells a group of lousy salesmen them that they’re about to be fired unless they “close” the sales they’ve been assigned. While some people might welcome this harsh wake-up call and be grateful for a lesson, the more common reaction is resistance and bitterness. “What an a*hole!,” many would say, and begin to look for anything about the boss they can criticize.

Baldwin’s tantrum isn’t nice. He’s loud, offensive and vulgar. But that’s the sort of emotion Twyla is referring to when she says: “Throw a tantrum at yourself.” Get angry. Do something!

MChabocka-illustration

As someone, who used to struggle to control anger in their teenage years, and spent the years following puberty learning from the stoics how to approach life in a calm manner, this sort of advice was, until very recently, quite shocking to me. I used to perceive anger as a destructive force I had to break from, not something to initiate. In that process, however, I had gone one step too far because I failed to recognize and use the constructive potential of getting angry.

There are different types of anger. Getting wound-up in a situation which we have no influence over is a waste of energy. It’s the sort of anger people manifest when stuck on a bus or faced with bad weather on a long awaited holiday. But feeling angry in a situation we can change can be very beneficial. Not only does is provide an insight into how we’re actually feeling about the situation, but it gives us a motivating force to change it, despite existing and potential problems and barriers.

Artistic work and creativity are the areas which on one hand offer a great potential of action, and on the other — breed stupendous amounts of frustration. One of the reasons is that a creative self-directed job requires a lot of discipline and hard work, and involves going through failures and getting lost. When faced with stagnation, lack of progress and ideas, Twyla’s advice comes in very handy. “Art is competitive with yourself, with the past, with the future. It is a special war zone where first you make the rules, and then you test the consequences. (…) So, pick a fight – with the system, the rules, your rituals, even your everyday routines,” she says. She suggests a few exercises to generate anger, emotion, combustion, and heat, such as doing exactly the opposite of what the very first impulse tells us to or changing our workout routine to something that feels uncomfortable.

The same angry energy she recommends for waking up our brains to think creatively, can be used to push ourselves to act in other areas of our life. It’s easy to suppress the thoughts of dissatisfaction and hold onto the status quo, with a layer of bitterness underlying everything we do. Bottling up negative emotions is a bad strategy, for the bottle will explode sooner or later, possibly injuring someone. Therefore, provoking ourselves to admit that we’re angry about something, and that we should act on it, can save us a lot of time and energy. The change might be daunting, if it’s something as serious as changing a career or a relationship, but living in a state of perpetual frustration, hidden under a layer of (badly faked) calm, is destructive.

So we burst out. We admit that we’re procrastinating with the book we’re meant to be writing, that we hate our job, that we’re sick of not having enough money. And then what? The main challenge here is to make sure that action follows anger. And we need to act fast. “Remember, though, that emotions are short lived — they come and go. So, it’s imperative that you strike while the iron is (literally) hot and use the angry energy to your benefit before it evaporates,” says W. Doyle Gentry from Anger Management For Dummies. If it’s not followed by some action, the expression of anger is merely a fruitless vent.

MChabocka-illustration

The other important aspect of using anger to our own benefit is that we pick the fight with ourselves before starting a battle with the world. Unfortunately, many angry artists often address their emotion at the wrong recipient, which doesn’t lead to any constructive action. Artists get tense about lack of money, clients, attention, commissions, funding – and blame other people for it. “The world only cares about what it can get from you,” says Wong, and suggests that instead of asking “How can I get this job?”, one should ask themselves: “How can I become the type of person employers want?”. Getting frustrated because a bunch of publishers don’t want to publish my book is silly; instead of cursing the competition, I’m much better off thinking about ways to find the right readers, or self-publish, or crowd-fund the publication. We spend a lot of time concentrating on others, on what the world should be doing for us, as opposed to thinking about how we could contribute to the world and find our own place in it. People notoriously complain about the funding cuts. How about creating a project that doesn’t require a substantial budget? Or if it does, crowd-fund it or take a loan? If it’s any good and benefits people, then you’ll eventually get the money back. If you’re not sure about its value but just want money because you think that the world owes you money, perhaps it’s worth rethinking the project. And your attitude.

“The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defence mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict,” says Wong. The most powerful force of anger is stripping off those layers of self-delusion, question our own actions, and demand honest answers from our gut. It’s a strong weapon against impotence, which, as W. Doyle Gentry points out, reaches far beyond the sexual kind. It’s a weapon not only in the fight with inertia, but for general self-defence. Gentry says, “Anger is the fight component — the part that moves you to take offensive measures to defend yourself against actual or perceived threats.”

So – be good to yourself, get angry! Maybe anger is “a cheap adrenaline rush,” as Twyla says in her book, but “when you’re going nowhere and can’t get started, it will do.”

Is the grass greener across the English Channel?

MChabocka Europe map

I have recently returned from a really good holiday in Poland. So good, in fact, that I discarded the original return ticket and stayed for another week and a half.

My definition of a great holiday is one that allows me to recharge physically, emotionally and intellectually so that I come back home with new energy and ideas. This trip provided more than enough food for thought and the fact that I was in another country enabled me to get some distance and re-evaluate my UK life.

Now, Poland isn’t exactly “abroad” – it’s my second home. I feel equally connected to people there as I am to my UK friends and colleagues. After several years of travelling between the two countries (I did my foundation and BA in London, and my MA in Warsaw), I can honestly say that I feel at ease in both. There are certain cultural differences, but fundamentally people here and elsewhere really aren’t that much different. In today’s world of ever-growing technologies which allow for effortless connectivity with the rest of the world and easiness of travelling, people’s mentality, dreams, plans, interests etc. are less and less anchored in the geographical location. And similarly, location no longer dictates whether an artist can reach an audience or find a career opportunity. With Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Behance, Tumblr, and many other online platforms, one can showcase their work, present their personality and opinions to people around the globe without having to leave the house.

Of course, the process of being discovered on the internet is entirely random, and there are no guarantees it will happen (best to assume it won’t). But at the same time, the same randomness is taking place in the physical world of job-hunting and self-promotion. If the supply of services offered by creative and talented people seriously exceeds the demand, and there are often no objective criteria to use when choosing someone, the process of finding a job, commission, getting an agent, gallery, publisher is completely subjective and unpredictable. And this randomization is likely to affect artists’ careers more and more.

This is why there are lots of extremely talented people working in fields unrelated to their background, and doing creative work in the privacy of their room, in the little spare time they have. This is one strategy. Another option is juggling several different freelance jobs, an example of which you can see here. Some people spend their time writing applications to the Arts Council, determined to obtain public money, despite increasing cuts in art funding. Nothing wrong with that, except that it often results in their work being driven by the needs of ACE criteria. Another option might be looking for a place with a smaller supply of artistic services, i.e. smaller competition, though this is something people tend to rule out. Artists (myself included) remain attracted to cities which on one hand provide cultural fuel, excitement and inspiration, but on the other – have the highest rents and the highest number of fellow artists. David Bowden covered the topic nicely in a recent Ideas Tap column, wondering whether London might simply be overrated as a place for artists. At the same time, in her article about living in the country, Hazel Davis quotes writer Heidi Scrimgeour, who lives in rural Northern Ireland and says: “I’m the only freelance writer I know of for miles around and word travels fast in small towns so people come to me when they need something I can help with. It’s effortless. That would never have happened in London.”

Yet the notion of London’s superiority over life elsewhere, including other European capitals, is strongly embedded in people’s minds. As someone who grew up in Kielce, a mid-size city in the south of Poland, then spent 5 years in London and 2.5 years in Warsaw before returning to the Big Smoke in 2012, I feel lucky to be free from romanticizing about the greenness of the grass on the other side of the English Channel. ­The trip I’ve just come back from only helped me gain a more objective perspective.

CSM, King’s Cross London | Photo by Francisco Huguenin Uhlfelder

There are nearly 40 art schools in London, all of which offer numerous foundation, undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses with often hundreds of students on each one. At the same time, in Warsaw there are 3 art academies. The most reputable one is the Academy of Fine Arts, which has similarly demanding entry exams as the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford, and takes approximately 10-20 people on each full-time course. Warsaw has 1.724404 million people, while London has approx. 4.7 times more. You can do the maths.

Among my London friends and acquaintances, there are people who do interesting things, are getting some recognition or at least a foot in the right door. But unfortunately, I know many more who are struggling to find any work and are gradually losing enthusiasm to keep swimming against the stream. This is why my trip to Poland was so interesting – over there, both in Kielce and Warsaw, I talked to various people who are, by London standards, quite successful. They are interior designers, graphic designers, art directors in agencies, architects, copywriters, media and PR people; they are employed, they are freelancers, or they run their own businesses. Some are more and some are less successful but none of them work at a call-centre or Tesco. They might worry that they’re not doing exactly what they want to or feel most passionate about, and that they’re most certainly not getting enough money, but the mere fact of working creatively and getting paid for that work is a success. The trouble is, until you have tried living and working elsewhere, especially in a city as aggressively competitive as London or New York, you might always feel like an underachiever when visualizing the scintillating career one could have in that dream foreign city. I would like to say to people: the grass is exactly the same over there, and if anything, it’s more trodden on. I would like them to enjoy the fact that they have jobs, time to see friends and family, go out, spend a weekend away. These things shouldn’t be taken for granted. It is also worth stressing that working in a small city equals smaller income but also smaller expenses, something to keep in mind when comparing your income to those from a Big City who have to pay proportionally (or often disproportionally) larger rents.

Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts

Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts | Photo by Marek & Ewa Wojciechowscy

“Let’s fill this town with artists!,” says a banner outside Cass Art, one of London’s largest art shops. Every time I shop there and see that sign, I feel the bitterness of its seemingly cheerful slogan. London is already filled with artists – many of them being unemployed and unhappy. When I was studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, I loved their methods of teaching, with an emphasis on developing one’s creativity and originality, exchanging ideas with other people, collaborating and experimenting. I used to be critical of the Polish system of Academies of Fine Arts (there are seven of them in the country), due to its harsh attitude towards both applicants and students, an insane amount of lectures, workshops, classes etc., and simultaneous project deadlines with practical and theoretical exams. But now I think that perhaps there is something to an art institution which takes on very few students and puts them through an ordeal. The stubbornness and determination they need to demonstrate in order to complete the course are what they will need once they’re out of school, in order to stay in the industry. London art schools are these wonderfully friendly places where hundreds of students from all over the world are encouraged and inspired to do what they care so much about, and made to believe that others care about it too. The truth is closer to what Hugh MacLeod says in his book Ignore Everybody: “Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.” (He then adds: “Making a big deal over your creative shtick to other people is the kiss of death.” As harsh as it sounds, it is probably true.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love London and I won’t deny that this city has given me a lot, and that I enjoy living here. I’ve met some truly wonderful people and done really interesting jobs and projects. To paraphrase a song by a late 90s British indie band, Black Box Recorder, London made me. But I strongly agree with David Bowden who says that: “In an increasingly global age London cannot afford to rest on its laurels as a centre of the artistic universe. Maybe artists should look on this as an opportunity to embrace the shock of the new, rather than trudge desolately back to their parents’ doors.” The quality of life one can lead and satisfaction from one’s own work are far more important than being in a place which millions of people consider most desirable.

Recharging in the comfort zone

MChabocka-illustration
A while ago, I wrote a post on departing from a safe zone in which I stressed the importance of challenging oneself despite the temptation to stick to what we know how to do well and what the audience likes. Today I want to write about the importance of returning to the comfort zone. Sounds like a contradiction? Well, it isn’t. Not only are these two directions not mutually exclusive, but they both hold a strong place in the life of an artist.

The omnipresent slogan “Get out of your comfort zone” sits right next to “Think outside the box” and “Try something new today.” Its benefits are undisputed – taking risks is the only way to make discoveries, and pushing against our weaknesses is a vital part of self-development. In order to learn public speaking in a situation when we feel paralyzed and unable to ask a question at a Q&A session, we need to embrace the discomfort and force ourselves to speak. The same applies to creativity – merely repeating what feels easy and comfortable is not likely to expand our scope of expression while pushing ourselves to work with unfamiliar tools, subjects and methods can result in great discoveries. “An artist is the sum of his risks,” said Dorothea Tanning, whose autobiographical book I’ve just read.

On the other hand, once we’ve left the safe and comfortable zone of the “known,” it might take a long time before we reach the point of being satisfied with the experiment. It might also be that no Eureka happens on the way and we need to go back to the start. What then? The feeling of groping in the darkness and working at something that is not coming out well is pretty tough. It’s extremely easy to feel daunted, discouraged, angry and even worthless if after a day of work we have nothing that we’re proud of. This is a feeling I’ve been running into recently, whilst working on my graphic novel project. I draw, sketch, think, make notes, and sometimes I feel like tearing up the sketchbook. Coincidentally, in those last weeks, I have learned several new recipes from my Indian cookbook. I love cooking, and I cook on a regular basis, therefore I wasn’t giving much thought to why instead of defaulting to a quick stir fry I was so eager to choose complicated recipes and spend a couple of hours roasting spices and preparing three different marinades. What I was subconsciously seeking was a gratification, a sense of achievement at the end of a frustrating day. Cooking feels comfortable, and because I am confident that following even a brand new recipe which requires a lot of attention and patience will produce satisfying results, I have such an urge to do it.

“Something I realized about getting outside the comfort zone is that it really is an intense experience (..) that requires a certain amount of inner strength,” says Eben Pagan, business entrepreneur, author and speaker, best known for teaching dating advice to men (as David DeAngelo). This quote comes from a DVD set called Man Transformation which I stumbled upon a few days ago. The issues he talks about, though addressed at men who want to meet women, are relevant to everyone embarking on a new and difficult endeavour, be it an artistic project, a business startup, or any other challenge.

In the modern society, says Pagan, we often find ourselves in a state of confused mess, trying to multitask whilst staying connected to everything and everyone, and so we easily dissipate energy and lose the ability to focus on the things that are important to us. In that state, it is extremely hard to get ourselves to go beyond the comfort zone, because we may not even have the energy to keep our focus on the tasks we’re dealing with. And so, he says, in order to get to the edge of the comfort zone and go over it, we need “a base of safety and security.” This is something we don’t often think about when we have a roof over our head and some money in the bank, but the anxiety we feel when dealing with the complexities of modern life puts us in the same survival mode as our ancestors had when dealing with forces of nature. It is very important to create a foundation of safety and security, and that, according to Pagan, encompasses three areas – physical, emotional and logical.

Naturally, the understanding of safety and security in those areas is entirely subjective and so we need to ask ourselves what feels safe and secure for us. Physically, it might be a space at home, a bedroom or just a bed – any area where the stressful stimuli coming from computers, mobile phones or TV are simply cut off, enabling us to recharge. I wrote a bit about this a while ago in a couple of posts, The Art of Tidying Up and Solitude, Routine and Art where I was describing how, in order to keep my head free from unnecessary noise, I began to comply with a “10pm internet curfew” my boyfriend had introduced.

Another sphere is emotional safety. For me personally this means being able to share my feelings and emotions with people who are closest to me – my boyfriend, my mother, and my best friend. Knowing that I can tell them whenever I am failing and banging my head against the wall in frustration or fear, and get their understanding and support, is incredibly important. I’ve always believed that having even one person with whom one can share the deepest, dirtiest, most shameful feelings is far superior to having lots of friends and acquaintances who only get the censored and edited information of our life. The process of working on something difficult where there’s no sign of a successful end result on the horizon is not very “attractive” so those who are willing to engage and empathise with it are priceless.

Finally, there’s logical safety and security. Now, my interpretation of this third area differs from Pagan’s view, because for me it is directly linked to the creative process. The way I perceive it, the logical safety and security is an area where we feel confident – our comfort zone, so to speak. Having things we know we do well and can get reward from is like a boost of confidence to help us deal with the daunting project. I mentioned cooking earlier, for I believe this doesn’t have to be connected to art; jogging or learning a language can be equally ego-boosting as long as the results are visible and there’s something we can congratulate ourselves on each time we go for a run or learn new words. My other great comfort zone is writing, which is something that comes easily and naturally after a decade of writing a journal. I have recently been thinking though that I need to allocate a comfort zone within the area of my visual work. This is not an issue if I am working on a project I feel relatively safe about, but the graphic novel project is way outside of my comfort zone. And so I decided I need to set myself another little project where the goal is reachable. The first thing that popped to my head is sketching. A while ago I used to keep one-sketch-per-day books, though back then the agenda was to improve my life drawing (which is a good thing to do anyway, at any time). This time I needed to remove myself from all agendas. And so I am drawing half-realistic, half-imagined sketches of objects around me with no obligation to achieve anything in particular apart from putting down some lines and marks in a way that satisfies my subjective eye. This, combined with a plate of chicken dopiaza and tarka daal, might just about counterbalance the book-related ordeal.

Going outside of the comfort zone is crucial to learn things, make important changes to our life and work, and exciting discoveries. But it is equally important to do things we feel comfortable about, alongside the intimidating undertakings. And by “things” I mean tasks which require activity and either intellectual or physical work on our part (lying on the sofa with a book is an entirely different type of recharging.) That way, we won’t let the things happening outside of the comfort zone shake our inner balance and emotional stability. And those are the key ingredients of a happy life.

Storytelling in life, art & business

Dorothea Tanning: A Very Happy Picture, 1947

Dorothea Tanning: A Very Happy Picture, 1947 | From Dorothea Tanning Foundation

During that winter we all told our most colourful stories. Max was especially happy at this, spooking everyone with his hexes: coincidences, omens, funny, freakish happenings, all cleaving a rather sinister zigzag behind him like the path of a tornado, dogging his step from one opening to another. Curious tricks played themselves out around his pictures, and brought him up each time, laughing and yet not laughing. Hearing them, I thought of those tales of headless ghosts on wild stormy nights that make one shiver while sipping cognac before the roaring grate in the trophy room of the old castle that your host, its sole heir, has idly decided to visit. Tales within tales.

I was enchanted by this little fragment from Dorothea Tanning’s autobiographical book which I am currently reading, Between Lives. [The period she describes is the winter of 1965 in Seillans, and Max is the her husband, the artist Max Ernst.] For some reason, a memory came to my mind of childhood summers, spent with friends and cousins in the country, when I would make up some gruesome story every night after we had been put to bed, and get so immersed in them myself that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. Childhood was all about stories: told and untold, shared with friends or guarded in my imagination.

When I was reading that passage in Tanning’s book, I thought: what happened to storytelling in our lives? The bliss of instant communication in the age of the internet is also its curse: we share everything that happens to us the moment it happens to us. Experiences, adventures, funny incidents aren’t treasured and withheld to be later told over some nice food and wine with our friends. Instead, they get instantly summarized in one-sentence posts on Facebook and Twitter, and so when we finally meet up face to face, there aren’t many colours to unravel. Perhaps that’s the reason why we meet less in real life – our curiosity and thirst for stories gets satisfied with their shortened scraps and random out-of-context comments we read on the screen. Like a bag of crisps, they provide a quick snack for the brain but offer next to no nutritious value when compared to a wholesome meal.

So what happened to those long, delicious feats of storytelling? The popularity of role-playing games, book series and sagas, sequels and prequels in films, perpetually extended television series; the rise of graphic novels and cartoons shows just how much we crave listening to other people’s stories.  In the absence of regular meetings with friends, we get attached to characters from literature and film.

And so the quest for storytelling continues. In the UK there’s the Society for Storytelling which “aims to support and promote the most ancient art of oral storytelling,” as we read on their website. There are numerous storytelling clubs, workshops, and events, and there are nearly 50 registered storytellers one can hire for school events, birthday parties and other occasions. There is the annual World Storytelling Day, celebrated on the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere and the first day of autumn equinox in the southern. Originating in Sweden in the early 90s, the World Storytelling Day aims to have as many people as possible telling and listening to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night. The theme for 2014 is Monsters and Dragons.”

Storytelling is a necessary component of our psychological development. According to an article on Wikipedia which quotes F. Michael Connelly’s and D. Jean Clandinin’s Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry, we are organisms which lead storied life, both individually and socially. Our knowledge is based on stories and our brain “consists of cognitive machinery necessary to understand, remember, and tell stories.” We think in narrative structures and find it a lot easier to remember facts when they’re in the form of a story. Kumail Hemani, an SEO consultant, in his recent blog post on storytelling, emphasizes that the reason he remembers so much from his 6th grade history class is thanks to the teacher’s ability to tell facts in stories instead of asking the students to learn dates, events, names and places by heart.

Storytelling is also a powerful business tool. Lou Hoffman, CEO and founder of The Hoffman Agency, thinks that the same elements that can make a book a compelling read have a place in the business world and can enormously increase the likeability of a company among customers, journalists, job candidates etc. “Unfortunately,” he says, “this concept around storytelling is counterintuitive to many business executives, particularly those coming from engineering orientation where science rules the day. I’m not suggesting you need to lose an appendage to a large mammal before anyone will notice you but the ability to build some drama in business communication is a means to capture attention.” On his blog called Ishmael’s Corner/Storytelling Through a Business Prism, Hoffman gives advice on ways to incorporate storytelling techniques into various fields of communication: leadership, team dynamics, branding, sales & marketing, and he analyses successful and unsuccessful narratives in the business world.

Doug Stevenson, founder and president of Story Theater International, which trains thousands of professionals and executives including Microsoft, Amgen, Bayer, Caterpillar, Oracle, Volkswagen, Hewlett Packard, Maytag, Super 8 Motels and others, believes that “emotion is the fast lane to the brain,” and by learning acting, storytelling and drama techniques, company executives can connect with people at a deeper level.

Robert McKee and Bronwyn Fryer, authors of Storytelling That Moves People article on the Harvard Business Review website, say that since persuasion is the centerpiece of business activity, whether it is convincing customers to buy products or services, employees and colleagues to go along with a new strategy, or persuading investors to buy the company’s stock, creating a compelling story is the foundation of success. In order to motivate someone to do anything, a manager must “engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is story.” But it’s not about telling a “beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations,” say McKee and Fryer, “This is boring and banal. Instead, you want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness. (…) But most companies and executives sweep the dirty laundry, the difficulties, the antagonists, and the struggle under the carpet. They prefer to present a rosy—and boring—picture to the world. But as a storyteller, you want to position the problems in the foreground and then show how you’ve overcome them. When you tell the story of your struggles against real antagonists, your audience sees you as an exciting, dynamic person.”

The ability to create a compelling tale that captures the audience’s minds and hearts is a difficult art. And without undermining the growing popularity of storytelling among CEOs, people who face the challenges of creating successful tales are artists and writers. Andrew Stanton, an American filmmaker, and author of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and WALL-E, gave a great TED talk on the secrets behind telling great stories. Despite the popular notion that in order to succeed, an animated big-budget film has to include certain components like songs, a love story or “a happy village,” Stanton’s films proved that storytelling has guidelines, not hard, fast rules. Yet it is important to follow the guidelines, for there are elements that are indispensable. Stanton said:

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is “Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.

His guidelines have been nicely visualized by Karin Hueck and Rafael Quick of the Brazilian culture and science magazine Superinteressante, and besides making people care about the story, they include the following aspects: making a promise and enticing the audience to follow, giving the protagonist a clear intention, making the characters relatable, and being able to charm and fascinate the audience.

Still from Pixar's WALL-E

Still from Pixar’s WALL-E | Image from Slash Film

When listening to Stanton, I couldn’t help but think about a series I have been for the past few weeks completely obsessed with: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This series is by no means perfect. The level of supernaturalism and deus-ex-machina devices occasionally weaken the plot. The second season suffers from convoluted and clichéd narratives (which resulted from the network’s pressure to reveal the Laura Palmer murder mystery which Lynch never intended to do and later stated that by doing so, they had “killed the goose that laid the golden eggs”), some of the acting is unconvincing, but despite the flaws, it is overall a masterpiece. The complexity and variation of the characters with their motives, fears, desires, obsessions, their light and dark side, provide for hours of analysis. Every single episode entices the viewer to follow the Twin Peaks inhabitants on their journeys, and fills his mind with endless question marks. I have never been a huge TV series fan (needless to say, I haven’t had a television since I left my parents’ house over a decade ago) but Twin Peaks really grabs me and satisfies my craving for stories, as there is no shortage of them in the 29-episode show. It is a shame that when making his last film, Inland Empire, Lynch seemed to have abandoned the storytelling guidelines, and made a film which makes the viewer unable to engage, understand and be moved by anything that happens on the screen. Which only proves that storytelling is not a skill granted for life, and each new film, book, or play demands the same thorough process of studying, perfecting and applying the key components to create magic that can mesmerize people and hold their attention.

Twin Peaks: Half-Heart

Still from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series | Image from Twin Peaks Archive

Andrew Stanton says that stories “can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.” I dare say that the absence of sharing stories with our friends creates the sense of isolation. Networking services like Twitter, where interaction is limited to 140 characters, only deepen the crevice in communication. The depth and subtlety of the stories get lost, and there is not enough to see the human behind the tweet. I try to use Twitter more as a communicator of simple messages and news, not a replacement for sharing my experiences, views and beliefs.

As I am moving away from Facebook-style interaction, I am beginning to fantasize about a day, when I will gather various of my friends around the table, and, not having seen their posts and pictures for a while, I will immerse myself in their stories. In the meantime, I have Special Agent Cooper & co, and Dorothea Tanning’s book.

Twin Peaks: Laura & Special Agent Cooper in the Red Room

Still from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series | Image from Twin Peaks Archive

Imperfections in art & wabi-sabi

Vintage mirror | Photo from private collection

I recently bought myself a new sketchbook. I normally go for something very plain from Cass Art or Muji but this time, wanting a notebook with an elastic, I purchased an A6 one with creamy pages and a suede cover which, despite its low price, looks like a relative of the famous Moleskin.

As I took it out of the cellophane, I felt daunted by the crispiness of the blank pages. I was instantly taken back to my school years when, in the beginning of a new semester, I would feel trepidation when starting a new notebook. I was always terrified of writing in an ugly way, smudging the ink, staining the page or making a mistake I would need to cross out. Sometimes, if I wasn’t happy with my handwriting, I would tear out the page and rewrite all the text back at home in the evening. This was probably good for memorizing notes but not at all good for my emotional development. I didn’t see the notebook as a place for making notes and learning from, but as some sort of testimony to how good a person I was. Having a notebook with crossed out lines and shaky handwriting made me feel bad about myself. I craved perfection.

Perfectionism is something I admit to having a massive problem with. Of course, there are many times when being detailed, thorough and ruthlessly attentive brings great results and high quality. But a lot of the time I feel strangled by my obsession and paralysed by the fear of imperfection. The struggle to embrace my own imperfection sometimes puzzles me, for I have no problem with appreciating the beauty of the imperfect reality around me. In fact, I have recently discovered that I had unknowingly adopted the Japanese philosophy which is gaining more and more popularity in the Western Europe (unfortunately more for its novelty than the actual idea): the art of wabi-sabi.

Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, a Japanese translator and author of books on Buddhism, Zen and Shin, was one of the first scholars to interpret Japanese culture for Westerners including the world-view of wabi-sabi. He described it as freeing oneself from the concerns of material wealth: “Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.” The modern interpretation of the philosophy comes from the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando who said that “the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.” Wabi, which originally meant sad, desolate, and lonely, is now used to refer to simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature, while Sabi, translated as “the bloom of time,” encompasses the natural processes of ageing: tarnishing, rusting, hoariness. The catchy juxtaposition of these two words represents the idea of accepting transience and imperfection.

My 1920s compact case | Photo from private collection

In an essay on a website dedicated to the history of tea, we can read that:

In home decor, wabi-sabi inspires a minimalism that celebrates the human rather than the machine. Possessions are pared down, and pared down again, until only those that are necessary for their utility or beauty (and ideally both) are left. What makes the cut? Items that you both admire and love to use, like those hand-crank eggbeaters that still work just fine. Things that resonate with the spirit of their makers’ hands and hearts: the chair your grandfather made, your six-year-old’s lumpy pottery, an afghan you knitted yourself (out of handspun sheep’s wool, perhaps). Pieces of your own history: sepia-toned ancestral photos, baby shoes, the Nancy Drew mysteries you read over and over again as a kid.

The flat where I am currently living is an ideal representation of the wabi-sabi aesthetic (though it is important to emphasize that it is not merely a “style” of design or architecture but a mind-set.) I love the battered wooden table I got from my friend Juliette when she was moving out of her house; a set of four chairs, a chest of drawers and a wooden cabinet that came from my boyfriend’s father’s flat in Cambridge; two shabby old suitcases I got from Freecycle and used in one of my theatre projects; a bedside table made by my boyfriend’s sister when she was at school. I grew up surrounded by old furniture, porcelain, dry flowers, and I have never ceased to adore the charm of wooden cracks and faded manufacturers’ stamps underneath the fragile saucers. I shop primarily at second-hand shops, for I love buying objects with a history, be it a piece of pottery or clothing.

Old teacups | Photo from private collection

I am somewhat daunted by modern trends in interior design with their expensive straight-out-of-manufacturers materials, shiny, flawless surfaces; kitchens, where all objects are hidden behind panels of white opaque glass. Ironically, while black marks on an antique mirror are entirely acceptable, a scratch on a Philippe Starck tabletop doesn’t look as good. The sign of imperfection on an object that’s trying to make us forget about the frailty of things and the natural process of decaying, is almost like a mockery of its glorious design. Maybe that is why I prefer to surround myself with objects which have been gracefully taking the beating of time but at the same time are built well enough that they’re able to withstand more years to come.

Going back to my original statement, I keep wondering what it is that makes me so reluctant to accept a bad line or an oily stain in a sketchbook, if I can be so fond of cracks and marks on furniture. When does the noble idea of improvement and doing one’s best turn against the creator? And, more importantly, can imperfection be of any use in the creative process? We say that a threadbare leather jacket has more “character,” so I wonder whether the same idea can be applied to artwork.

Last year, Phil Hansen, an American multimedia artist, gave a very interesting TED talk on the idea of embracing the limitation, which in his case was a permanent nerve damage in his hand resulting from a “single-minded pursuit of pointillism,” to use his own words. As an art student, he used to force himself to hold the pen as tight as possible to be able to make perfect round dots. Unfortunately, not only did the dots become more and more shapeless, but he quickly became unable to hold anything as his hand was shaking so badly. And so he left art school and abandoned art. A doctor he visited a few years later asked him a question which revolutionised his thinking: “Why don’t you just embrace the shake?” Phil went home, took a pencil and started drawing scribble pictures. “And even though it wasn’t the kind of art that I was ultimately passionate about, it felt great. And more importantly, once I embraced the shake, I realized I could still make art. I just had to find a different approach to making the art that I wanted,” he said. He decided to take the idea of pointillist fragmentation and began experimenting with other ways to fragment an image where the shake wouldn’t affect the work like dipping feet in paint and walking over canvas, working in bigger scale etc.

Still from Phil Hansen's TED talk 2013

Still from Phil Hansen’s TED talk 2013

He discovered that embracing limitation can drive creativity.

But he soon faced another obstacle. Having bought himself all the supplies at the art store, he sat down at his desk, determined to create something completely outside of the box. But he sat there for hours, devoid of ideas, and gradually losing enthusiasm and courage. “As I searched around in the darkness,” he says, “I realized I was actually paralyzed by all of the choices that I never had before. And it was then that I thought back to my jittery hands. Embrace the shake.” He understood that the way to regain his creativity was to stop forcing himself to think outside of the box and “get back into it.

Ever since this experience, he has been devoted to one mission – creating art within limitations. Be it setting oneself financial or media restrictions (i.e. making a project for 80 cents), relying on other people to provide contents for the piece, or creating artwork to be destroyed rather than displayed (none of the 23 pieces from his Goodbye Art had anything left physically to display); the goal was to embrace the limitation, which soon turned into ultimate liberation: “As I destroyed each project, I was learning to let go, let go of outcomes, let go of failures, and let go of imperfections.

Stills from Phil Hansen's TED talk 2013

Stills from Phil Hansen’s TED talk 2013

Chapter 20 from a great book which I frequently refer to on this blog – Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod, talks about the same idea that Phil Hansen advocates. MacLeod says: “The really good artists, the really successful entrepreneurs, figure out how to circumvent their limitations (…) The fact that Turner couldn’t draw human beings very well left him no choice but to improve his landscape paintings, which had no equal. Had Bob Dylan been more of a technical virtuoso, he might not have felt the need to give his song lyrics such power and resonance.

An interesting take on playing with the idea of imperfection is Roy Lichtenstein’s Perfect/Imperfect series of paintings created between 1978–95. The Perfect paintings were made by drawing a line, following it along the canvas and returning to its starting point. The spaces in between were then filled with areas of dots, diagonal lines, and flat color. In the Imperfect paintings the line was taken beyond the edge of the painting, and the artist would then add triangular bits to that particular edge, which disturbed the perfect rectangle of the frame. The Imperfects therefore subverted the boundaries in a humorous way. This was by no means a philosophical statement, for Lichtenstein considered them a parody of making abstractions, yet I cannot help thinking that in a way, they demonstrate the potential of breaking with the “perfect” – in this case the perfect composition.

Roy Lichtenstein: Imperfect Diptych, 1988

Roy Lichtenstein: Imperfect Diptych, 1988 | Image from Artsy

Sitting on one of my old wooden chairs which are desperately crying to be re-varnished, at a table with numerous stains and scratches, I am thinking of ways to face the intimidating immaculateness of the notebook I bought. Overcoming perfectionism is not an easy task, especially these days, when we’re used to obsessively improving images on in Adobe Photoshop. I often ask myself where to draw the line between cleaning an accidental smudge mark on a drawing I’ve scanned and making corrections that are taking away the character of the piece. Perhaps forcing myself to make mistakes in a notebook is a good way to break from the habit of soulless over-improving.

I might christen the sketchbook with a big blot of ink then.