present history

I recently finished reading The Burried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro and it has me thinking a lot about memory and my relationships to people. The book follows two elderly Britons, Axel and Beatrice, as they go in search of their son, in a period shortly after King Arthur’s death. Everywhere the land is covered in a mysterious mist that makes everyone forget the past in any concrete way. The mist, it is revealed, is a tool created by King Arthur that makes everyone forget the horrors of the war, therefore allowing peace between the Britons and Saxons. On an individual level, however, it also makes everyone forget the history of their own relationships. 

In the main two layers of the story, there is a framing of love and peace as careful balances of history and emotion. Our love for another person is created through a certain awareness of narrative as well as a desire to choose that person to be in our life. And, similarly, peace requires a certain understanding of history, with a choice to try and understand another group of people. 

There’s a lot of Big Picture thoughts around what happens when we frame peace (or war for that matter) off of purely emotional or purely historical viewpoints. That is, especially given the current political climate, something that is worth taking some time to ponder. INSTEAD, however, I’ll be talking about my parents.

This idea that love can be thought of as a balance of history and emotion has struck a chord with me at the moment. I’ve been very lucky, in that for the last couple years I’ve been able to enjoy most of my time bouncing around the world for my work. One of the things that has changed a lot because of this is how often I see my parents. The three of us have usually lived relatively close to each other, and now I see them every 6 month or a year.

And it strikes me how they have become more sculptural in this time. The way my mom’s cheeks rise and her eyes close when she smiles, or the way my dad’s fingertips look when they rest on a tabletop. And these things start to stand out more because each of their histories become more prominent in how I think about them; each of their histories become more present in the way that I love them. I say “present in the way that I love them”, because I think there is a way that some people disappear into their histories; the vibration of their character is lost to the stories of times past.

But I see in this time, as history fills the gap in emotion of these two people I know quite well, that they aren’t disappearing, but I think in actuality it just is a different balancing act between the emotion that comes in our time together and the attention I pay into how I remember them. I guess what I’m saying is that I see the multitude of ways that I remember them and how that seems to bring the present into a more textured experience.

Sculptural is not a bad way to describe the love you have for someone. I think what would be sad is if their sculptural form was only created by memory. The best sculptures are ones whose history continues to party with their emotional self.

An object: my buddy to identity.


A quick warning: I’m going to go ahead and carelessly wander through some ideas like Individuation (thanks Simondon! And a shoutout to anyone living in Tasmania!), events as something more basic than materials (Go Whitehead!), extension fields (Go Galgois! Go!), mimicry (forgot his name, will hopefully find and insert later), and just for safe measure throw in some side notes on Butoh and Deconcentration of Attention. The whole point of the mashup is to pull together some ideas that I’ve been playing with since I was working in Plymouth earlier this year, and have further been inspired by what I’ve seen since and what some friends are doing around me.

When I was in Plymouth I was working on this project “we were born in order to give birth to ourselves”, where I wanted to explore how objects took on their own personal narrative and the feedback loop that takes place in our creation of purpose in a specific object. My original plan was to make ambiguous objects that would interact with each other through a sort of haptic response and to have participants write journals and take photos documenting their experience with the objects. Then I wanted to turn around and write letters between me and the objects in a Griffin and Sabine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griffin_and_Sabine) sort of way. At the end of the project, objects, letters, journals and photos would all be collected and presented as this narrative from observer and object together. A sort of coming of age story of an object.

The project was not the most successful thing I ever did. I didn’t execute well, I think, and feel a bit regretful that I didn’t pivot the project into something more substantial instead of letting technical hurdles get in my way. Did that last sentence just sound like feedback on a performance review at a startup? Jesus. 

But what was successful, in my mind, were some ideas that I was able to collect and bring together into a narrative of their own. So maybe my objects narrative didn’t work, but an ideas narrative did take shape. And it started with a whale. Or rather From The Mouth of A Whale by Sjon.

I read this book a few years back, but there is this part in it that sticks out to me so vividly where the narrator is talking about the history of a hammer and that at one point someone looked at it and became aware that it could be a tool of violence. And what still sits with me so strongly is the thought that that hammer suddenly became a two-way street of definition. The person holding it can categorize it based on their intent with the object, however, the hammer now, being categorized as more than “tool to build things”, has the ability to change how people see the person holding it. 

Objects suddenly become a narrative device based on context; they influence the people as much as the people influence them. A man standing in a dark alley at night holding a hammer: violent. A man holding a hammer next to some lumber under a blue sky: working. But change the lighting in either situation, and maybe the roles flip. Or a more potent example being the umbrella revolution in Hong Kong in 2015, where the most ubiquitous of objects suddenly made the holder of it the voice of a political movement. 

Most objects start off with a very specific purpose. They are made — at least the mass produced ones — in order to offload some aspect of our relationship with our environment. Need to remember something? Write it down with this pencil. Tired of walking? Use this car to get to where you need to be. These are things specifically made by a human to simplify some exchange with our environment. But these objects then start to shape us in unexpected ways. Like the hammer they can take on new purpose, or alter the way we do the thing the object was originally created to intervene with. As Simondon would say, we suddenly become technicians for the human species.

And what should we make of this feedback with these objects? There seems to be an action that occurs between the object and us, and this action immediately causes a certain amount of information to be transferred between us and the object. In one direction this information results in our conscious individual intent, while the other direction is narrative that the object itself has taken on, along with undertones that culture has embedded in an object, and what that now says about us holding that particular object. And then it comes to be where does the actual object exist in this scenario?

The individuation (Simondon’s word) of self (and I think object as well) is occurring in this process. The action forces a specific realization to be made of both Self and Object. And in the math part of my brain this makes me think of algebraic field extensions (in all honesty, I thought I was going to bring Galois extensions into this, but then realized I’ve forgotten pretty much everything about them, so you can scratch his name out way up in the first paragraph. Dream big, right?) Extensions are basically a way to relate groups of numbers. The real numbers (think any decimal like 2.13124151412312312) are an extension of the rationals (think any number that can be expressed as a fraction, like 3/4), because a function using the rationals as coefficients (remember in algebra in high school when you had a something like 3x = 5y? That 3 and 5 are both coefficients) will have roots (solutions) that are inside of the reals. But as soon as we start using real numbers as coefficients we will get to a place where we need a new field to contain all the roots: complex numbers. 

I think of myself a lot like a collection of streams of information. Environmental input through my senses, internal input through a (sometimes useful) running internal dialogue, with lots of overlap between these main two categorizations: a sort of overhead view of some crazy New Jersey offramp situation, where the cars are various pieces of information, and the different highways are channels. I guess furthering the analogy rural roads are internal channels, highways are external channels. And the processing of all of these streams is what makes me, me. 

And this is where the extension ideas gives some nice ideas about the Object and Self. Because I think that I have mechanisms to deal with these information streams, functions if you will, that are created through my intentions and goals in who I think myself to be. And objects are the coefficients to my available functions, and if I choose the right objects and right functions of Self, I come to a place where the results allow me to peak into a certain extension of my reality. I actually think a lot about this in the creation of my work; making something that pulls me outside of the field I currently find myself.

I’m not really trying to make a 1-to-1 analogy of my experience to extension fields, but more the quality of the known/unknown that objects will sometimes bring into my life through my interaction with them. 

And in this continued push to extensions, it requires that we externalize more and more of ourselves into objects, which makes me feel like that the desire of humans to create objects is actually a path to mimic something very basic about our environment: entropy. Roger Caillois (found it!) has this paper on mimicry where he talks about mimicry as natures way to not to hide from predators, but to dissolve into the environment it has found itself; to disappear into nothingness. Maybe making things is a way to reach maximum entropy. It’s not that we are creating things to help create order, but emptying ourselves of of our own processes. And these objects then end up being in so many more ways in concert with us as they slowly turn to dust.

I’ve always obsessed with the idea of The Middle: a phrase I take from chess games and when they are considered to having been started being played. The Middle is the point of tension we are put under when we are between two points of realization. The beginning and end. The conscious and unconscious. The external and the internal.

The two things that are currently on my mind that seem to really be The Expressions of The Middle™ are Butoh dancing and the practice of Deconcentration of Attention. One deals with, in some ways, the place where movement is both controlled and uncontrolled, and the other deals with the place where focus is unfocused. And, I guess, this relates in my head to the Self/Object dynamic, because holding these practices to the image of Self causes this elevation of narrative of both Self and the idea being held. An object, maybe, is just an idea in process, represented with material goods.

40

The steps are hollow sounding as I leave my apartment; concrete on all sides and the sensation is something like those videos found on hungover Sundays where a cat desperately battles to escape from a paper sack. I am contained, but seem that I will at any moment fall through the ground with a misplaced step. The stairwell is bright and empty with the sounds from my feet seemingly wandering aimless from my shoes: a scratching sound made as they grind atop the most dainty dust, which is somehow scrapping against the rubber soles with the ferocity of wolves backed into corners. These are not wolves in a barn pacing or wolves with fairytale slits for eyes as they peer out from a tree-line — wolves that are understood and expected — but wolves in the corner of favorite dreams or curled around things that were supposed to be certain. And the cicadas are in concert, echoing back with a rising chorus of “don’t worry”, but their voices are too strong, and the descending stairs might as well be a sinking ship. At any moment in life if that many people are, in unison, telling me not to worry, I most definitely will be entirely concerned about my future.

The heat is oppressive and the shadows from trees that lead the way to the bus station are cracks on a glacier, articulated and dangerous; the cheek bones of severe neighbors that yell continually at children. They do not show a pattern to illustrate the playful patterns of summer, but instead delineate two areas: one where I will sweat excessively, and one where I will sweat excessively and panic that my brain is shrinking away from my skull, like those plants whose leaves fold flat and wilt when they are touched. The moments spent in these shadows make me think about how I have, for my entire life, been this plant.

(Four days ago, I’m in a garden store looking for planters and decorative waterfalls. The entrance is lined with cages of mostly cats and dogs — 3, 5, maybe 8 — to each small cage. On examining a single cage of puppies the shop keeper grabs each roughly by the neck and shakes it from a heat induced coma. I back away slowly, shaking my hands, as the dogs eyes open and they stare out in exhaustion, awaiting the world that sits outside the reused birdcage bars, that probably looks familiar, but at this point means nothing in particular at all.)

The advertising billboards that surround the bus station afford precision geometric shade; exacto knife shadows on concrete, sunlight construction paper, pulled from boxes, and thrown by kindergarten students who have not yet thought of their parents dying or skin cancer. There is a woman starring at me with unblinking eyes, so I glance down at a trash can to give myself something to focus on, and the lip of the trashcan is smeared with all things that are not related, except that they melt when enough heat is applied. I look back up and the woman is still looking at me, blankly and without emotion, and her lips are glossy and I can imagine a small boat gliding along their surface as she whispers things to the captain while he rows the abyss between us to deliver a simple message of “hello”. 

The cicadas crescendo for the half dozenth time since leaving the apartment and the bus rolls up throwing it’s own crayon shadows and loose leaf paper blocks of sun. The bus really is just a fallen building, crawling on the stream to home; a salmon peering into the murky depth of a city, convinced that, yes, this is the stream it came from; all the passengers, eggs to be left and hopefully found, but possibly forgotten. And it is from the belly of this urban fish that I see all the green. The plants springing from buildings, highway supports, and skyscrapers. A city that foliage has kindly agreed to let participate in conversation; children sitting at their parents table as the adults nod a little too pronounced, eyes too sincere, and saccharin follow-up questions leave their mouths with botoxed smiles as they listen to stories about who played most well in kickball.

And I don’t really know the last time I had a conversation that I didn’t feel the same way. The normalcy of everything that shouldn’t be normal. Whisked with a 100 people in the same direction, but me so obviously different, and yet I arrive at the same results. Just with less satisfaction. Or depth. A boy looks at me and laughs and smiles, and I point to a cloud out the window, and he quickly stops laughing and stares at me like the girl who was waiting for the bus. 

I am silently explaining my perfect kickball game to him.

We exit the bus with people jolting to the side and dramatically looking up at my height. I think about how it would feel to be old and lonely. To feel out of place in a town I grew up in, next to trees that my sister and I swung from, near a field of grass next to the old rusted boat, where Laura Wiser gave me my first kiss. 

I think about the sky overhead, and a person that might be looking at it from the 40th story of one of the many sky scrapers. My eyes drift down to dirty store canopies, and the cirrus clouds of sound that make up my surroundings; the shuffle of a 1000 feet, cars and construction equipment. And I am a barometer that feels the oncoming rain; the nature of rain; the shadow that will forever mean rain. And then I am in the air of the city and these sounds. The unfamiliar sounds of lovers talking, the unfamiliar sounds of friends knowing that they have almost shared a single space, the unfamiliar sound of my breathing.

At the entrance to the store, I squeeze through the slats of plastic holding in air-conditioning, and they tap and swipe my body like shoes in an empty stairwell, and the sound is perhaps on the side of hollow.

Strangely, the second one is a sound wave of a seagull that looks vaguely vaginal.