DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt

2014/02/23

Creating a Masterpiece: Frank Moore

Frank Moore, 2011 photo by Sasha Cagen, cropped

Frank Moore, 2011 photo by Michael LaBash, cropped

One of my mentors, the California-based writer and performance artist Frank Moore, died last October at the age of 67. Frank was born with cerebral palsy and was unable to walk or talk, but he was determined to break out of his own isolation. Once he had done that, he kept on going in that direction, which led him to create a kind of initiatory performance art aimed at dissolving the artificial barriers between people, and between individuals and their own creative power. (Frank tells his own story in the classic autobiography Art of a Shaman.) I first encountered Frank’s writings in the MIT-published journal of performance studies TDR: The Drama Review, and in 1989 was privileged to experience “Journey to Lila”, one of his all-night participatory shamanic erotic ritual performances at Franklin Furnace in New York.

Frank Moore and his Chero Company at Franklin Furnace, NYC, 1989, photo by Eric Kroll

Frank Moore and his Chero Company at Franklin Furnace, NYC, 1989, photo by Eric Kroll

“Journey to Lila” was an eight-hour series of experiences, by turns silly, sexy, disconcerting, frightening, ridiculous, liberating, playful, warm, and bonding. By the end of it most of the audience was undressed and playing with each other like naked children. While some moments of it could be challenging, I never felt that I or anyone was unsafe or coerced or being exploited or laughed at.

When the World Wide Web came along in the mid-1990’s, I discovered that Frank Moore was a pioneer in using that new communication medium, with his extensive “Web of All Possibilities“. I was able to reconnect with him and his tribal extended family, got to know Frank personally, and participated in several other Frank Moore performance events over the years (I’m in the left background in the photo below). The first artwork I ever put on the web was on the Featured Artists section of Frank’s website. I consider Frank a mentor and one of the few genuine geniuses I have been privileged to know.

Frank Moore's "Free Tribal Hot Skin Passion Music/Dance Jam",  Surf Reality, New York City, 2002, photo by Michael LaBash

Frank Moore’s “Free Tribal Hot Skin Passion Music/Dance Jam”,
Surf Reality, New York City, 2002, photo by Michael LaBash

I’ve seen a lot of great performances and experienced many immersive theatrical events, but nothing has had such an enduring transformative effect on me as Frank Moore’s “Journey to Lila”. It came along at a pivotal moment in my life, and it opened my mind. I had recently moved to New York and was trying to figure out how to live my life as an artist. I was fascinated by magic and was reading about things like Tantra and alchemy, but magic remained a sort of abstraction for me. I had thought of it more as a subject matter for art, as symbolism or as fantasy, only pointing towards mystical truth. Frank showed me that magic can be the operational technique of art, that it is a completely practical approach to transforming reality or creating freedom, and that its materials can be utterly humble (a cup of water, a roll of aluminum foil, a Sonny and Cher song) and its actions very simple.

Frank Moore and dancers in the "Outrageous Beauty Revue", 1987, photographer unknown

Frank Moore and dancers in the “Outrageous Beauty Revue”, Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1987, photographer unknown

Ever since, I have understood that people deeply desire freedom, that they want to live in a world of love and joy, and that if you invite people to play with you in such a world, many of them will. It has nothing to do with the harsh things our society uses to drive and motivate people – fear, envy, guilt, competition. The magical way is the way of a pure heart – which, in Frank’s case, provides the perfect complement to a dirty mind. Frank showed me a wild but gentle way of freedom, and I still try to follow it in my own artistic career and in my own life.

Americans always talk about Freedom and Liberty as our great values, but everybody has different ideas about what these words mean. I grew up in the American West, where the icon of freedom is the lone gunslinger, and where a common notion of personal liberty understands it as autonomy, or as having your own turf where no one else can meddle, protecting yourself and your family or community with fences and guns, and if you’re rich, with dollars and lawyers. Of course, everyone needs a place to feel at home, and fiercely defending that is important, but to really feel free, to have the kind of freedom you need to make art, to make love, to nurture people, requires trust and connection, not autonomy but interdependence. That is the kind of freedom Frank Moore wanted to foster.

For a disabled person like Frank, dependency is obvious and it’s impossible to believe in the delusion of autonomy. Frank had to gather helpers around him, and he would never have been able to do all he did without the support of his larger community and his intimate tribal group, which, at the end included Mikee, Linda, Erika, Alexi and Corey. Any tribute to Frank is also a tribute to Frank’s people.

Frank was a rebel of the underground, and his use of sexuality and messiness and a deliberately crude aesthetic helped to keep him in that place below the radar where magic can be safe. I am sure that many people were transformed by his work as I was, and that the seeds he sowed will be producing nourishing fruit far into the future.

Frank Moore communicating with his head pointer, U. C. Berkeley, 1984, photo by Mary Sullivan

Frank Moore communicating with his head pointer, U. C. Berkeley, 1984, photo by Mary Sullivan

Frank Moore’s publishing company, Inter-Relations, just put out a posthumous collection of Frank’s writings called Frankly Speaking. It’s full of great stuff, but I’d like to share here a brief piece that gets at something profound about the creative process, wisdom that is often neglected by teachers. Since many of my readers are artists or art students, this should serve as a good introduction to Frank Moore’s way. I’ve interspersed the text with some of my own doodle-like abstract watercolor sketches, not as illustrations of Frank’s essay but just as my tribute to Frank Moore, examples of my own attempts to work with the kind of freedom Frank is talking about here.

Pedestrian Surge, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Pedestrian Surge, 2014, by Fred Hatt

CREATING A MASTERPIECE, by Frank Moore, published in Lummox Journal, March 2000, included in Frankly Speaking: A Collection of Essays, Writings & Rants by Frank Moore, 2014, published by Inter-Relations

An artist starts, let’s say, a painting with a set idea of what he is going to paint. Sooner or later he makes a “mistake” – a color or a line which doesn’t fit in the original idea – which “ruins” the painting. When this happens most people give up, thinking that they are not cut out to be artists, and withdraw back into the common existence. Others try to pretend that they didn’t make the mistake, that the color or line isn’t there on the canvas. They go on painting as before. When they are done, they have painted the shadow of what they wanted. Morevoer, this shadow is covered with a haze. Others keep starting over whenever they make mistakes, not accepting any mistakes. They are rewarded for their endurance with the perfect copy of the thought form which they had held for all this time. They are rewarded by what they think they want to create. Their thought form has been brought down into the material plane. The creation is perfect. But it is not a masterpiece. It is perfect within the limitations placed around it by the rigidness of the artist. The work is perfect, but not free.

Wetlands, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Wetlands, 2014, by Fred Hatt

A masterpiece is perfect and free. The master artist paints an adventure in color, words, or notes. What others see as mistakes, he sees as challenges, boxes out of which he has worked as the basis on which he creates a totally new, fresh pattern. These challenges, boxes, keystones, keep appearing as he works, demanding the artist’s flexibility. If the artist looks back, trying to hold on to what he thought the painting was or would be, he gets trapped in a box out of which he must battle or be turned into a rigid, bitter pillar of salt. The artist has to keep his whole attention on the swirling colors in front of him in order to be the creator.

Burning Bush, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Burning Bush, 2014, by Fred Hatt

To create a masterpiece, the artist has to use and risk every bit of himself. But he also has to create with God, for God is the one who creates what most people call mistakes, and that the master artists sees as his tools and materials. God does not create for the artist. God just provides the tools, the guiding bumps. It is up to the artist’s free will whether he creates or gets dragged down by the weight of the tools. When the artist is creating, he feels no weight.

Growth Spurt, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Growth Spurt, 2014, by Fred Hatt

The most important masterpiece is a lifetime. This is a statement of hard fact. Creating a masterpiece in every day living is governed by the same rules as creating a masterpiece in paint, but much harder because the artist is also the canvas. In every period of time, in every land, there are a few masterpieces of art and writing. But a masterpiece lifetime is much rarer.

Orb, 2014, by Fred Hatt

Orb, 2014, by Fred Hatt

“Creating a Masterpiece” is on pages 64-65 of Frankly Speaking: A Collection of Essays, Writings & Rants by Frank Moore.

Photos of Frank Moore and his performances were found on the web. Clicking on the photos will take you to the sites where I found the photos.

2013/05/06

Drawing (the Bow) and Releasing (the Arrow)

Filed under: Drawing,Philosophy,Reviews,Writing — Tags: , , , , , — fred @ 14:10

Archer, 2013, by Fred Hatt

Last week I reread a little book I first read around twenty years ago. This post is a look back at how that book influenced me in my art practice. (The illustrations between paragraphs are details of artwork that has appeared previously in Drawing Life, and clicking on the images will link you to the posts containing uncropped versions of the works.)

Sheen (detail), 2010, by Fred Hatt

Sheen (detail), 2010, by Fred Hatt 

Zen in the Art of Archery is German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel’s account of his experience studying archery in Japan  in the 1920’s under kyudo master Kenzo Awa. Awa taught the traditional Japanese art of the bowman as a spiritual practice aimed at transcendent mastery. Herrigel’s terse and eloquent account, which can easily be read in an afternoon, was one of the first attempts to make Eastern philosophy accessible to the nonspecialist western audience. His choice to approach the subject through practice rather than theory helps to show the roots of mystical ideas in down-to-earth realities. The accessibility of the writing has made this book a popular and often-imitated classic, though Herrigel’s own reputation has justifiably suffered because he later embraced Nazism. It reveals the limitations of Herrigel’s understanding – he never got to the supreme Buddhist virtue: compassion. The book, though, makes no moral or political claims, remaining simply an account of a particular approach to the learning of a craft.

Centered on the Feet (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

Centered on the Feet (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

In my youth and young adulthood, I read fairly extensively (for an amateur) in the literature of mysticism and esoteric philosophies. The first book that set me on that path was probably the Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing), a 2500-year-old masterpiece of aphoristic poetry that opened my eyes to a way of being in the world utterly unlike the modern Western consensus reality. Zen in the Art of Archery introduced me to the tradition of teaching these perhaps unintuitive ways of perceiving via the practice of various crafts or artforms. The movies have offered a pop version of this teaching method through their portrayal of Kung Fu masters and Jedi Knights, but the arts need not be martial – the Way is also taught through the bamboo flute, the calligraphy brush, through dance, poetry, yoga, flower arranging, sand painting, or the tea ceremony.

Drawing (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

Drawing (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

By approaching these ideas through a practice in the physical world, we understand them not as doctrines that must be taken on faith, nor as mysterious metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that relies on awe for its power. We experience them in our own bodies, interacting with tangible objects and the immutable laws of physics. The practice of a craft, no less than the practice of meditation or prayer, cultivates the spirit.

Dance of Hephaestos (detail), 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Dance of Hephaestos (detail), 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

My early encounter with Zen in the Art of Archery convinced me that I could use the practice of art to transform my own perception of the world, to transcend the illusion of the separateness of ourselves and the things of our world. Science or philosophy can reveal the oneness of reality to our reason, but only the practice of an art can make us feel it in our bones. Herrigel’s book gave me important insights into how that might work. It sets forth a particular idea of what constitutes “mastery”, but one that can apply to various disciplines of art, craft, or athleticism.

Cathexis (detail), 2002, body painting and photo by Fred Hatt

Cathexis (detail), 2002, body painting and photo by Fred Hatt

Herrigel practiced archery over about five years under Master Awa. Mostly, the study involves endless repetitions of drawing the bow and releasing the arrow. The practice of shooting goes on for a very long time before a target is introduced, and even then the Master never looks at the target, but always at the student, at the quality of his attention and breath, at the relaxation of the muscles. He allows the student to struggle and fail to the point of despair before introducing any “zen” approaches to the seemingly insoluble problems the student faces, and even when such ideas have been mentioned it often takes a great deal more practice before the student begins to grasp them.

Claudia Quick Poses (detail), 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Claudia Quick Poses (detail), 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

“You must hold the drawn bowstring,” says the Master, “like a little child holding the proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not equally true that the things are playing with the child.”

Squat (detail), 2009, by Fred Hatt

Squat (detail), 2009, by Fred Hatt

The goal of the practice is to lose all self-consciousness, to let something act through you rather than to act from the ego. The Western approach to the arts is all about the ego – expressing one’s feelings, proving one’s brilliance, selling one’s brand. Westerners encountering these Eastern ideas about transcending the ego or becoming empty of self often interpret them moralistically, as “the ego is bad”. The real idea is more about getting your “self” out of your own way, getting to that state that musicians call being in the groove, that athletes call being in the zone, that Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi described in his famous book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Ovum (detail), 2011, by Fred Hatt

Ovum (detail), 2011, by Fred Hatt

Those who practice improvisational music or dance with others know that when they are in the groove, changes and reactions happen spontaneously and without any reaction time. Suddenly the whole group modulates to a new key, simultaneously. If you were to ask them, not one of them “decided” to modulate, and no one had to notice the modulation and then react to it. Unconsciously, the “group mind” made a shift, and they were all there, together, instantaneously. Reaction or intention always has a delay, but in the groove there is no delay.

Arcs (detail), 2005, body painting and photo by Fred Hatt

Arcs (detail), 2005, body painting and photo by Fred Hatt

The state of being empty of self, as described in Zen in the Art of Archery is just such a state, except that there is no group. How can there be a group mind without a group? It works when you know that the world itself is the ultimate group mind, with which one can sometimes meld, especially while practicing actions one has repeated and repeated and repeated until they can happen without intention. On the path of mastery, one practices not to gain ultimate control, but to go beyond the need to control, to trust the natural flow of things. One practices endlessly not so that one may be fully conscious of every action one must perform, but to be able to perform the actions unconsciously.

Tropic (detail), 2008, by Fred Hatt

Tropic (detail), 2008, by Fred Hatt

This ideal of mastery as unconscious, effortless, and fully detached from the self is never perfectly attainable, but to keep moving it is important to have a goal that remains always just over the horizon.

Firesprite (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

Firesprite (detail), 2012, by Fred Hatt

“Your arrows do not carry,” observed the Master, “because they do not reach far enough spiritually. You must act as if the goal were infinitely far off. For master archers it is a fact of common experience that a good archer can shoot further with a medium-strong bow than an unspiritual archer can with the strongest. It does not depend on the bow, but on the presence of mind, on the vitality and awareness with which you shoot. In order to unleash the full force of this spiritual awareness, you must perform the ceremony differently: rather as a good dancer dances. If you do this, your movements will spring from the center, from the seat of right breathing. Instead of reeling off the ceremony like something learned by heart, it will then be as if you were creating it under the inspiration of the moment, so that dance and dancer are one and the same.”

Liquid Topology (Rereflection) (detail), 2007, photo by Fred Hatt

Rereflection (detail), 2007, photo by Fred Hatt

Zen in the Art of Archery introduced me to this ideal of mastery that has guided my practice of life drawing over the years. I am no master, but I travel on the path of mastery, trying more and more to let go and just let it happen, not to draw, but to be drawn.

Concave (detail), 2009, by Fred hatt

Concave (detail), 2009, by Fred hatt

All the images included in this post, with the exception of the first one, are details of works featured previously on Drawing Life. Click on any photo to be taken to the post where the uncropped version of the image can be found.

2012/10/14

What Will Last?

Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3000 BCE

A friend used to like to say I have a mind like a steel sieve.  My semantic memory (for general knowledge, concepts and facts) is pretty good, but my episodic memory (for my own life experiences) is weak.  My sense of my own history is vague, a collection of hazy dream images.  Perhaps this keeps me feeling young, as I don’t carry around the weight of the past, but it also gives me the sensation everything is always slipping away.  I think this sense, early on, made me interested in documenting and archiving things, collecting images, books, and recordings.  As a kid my favorite toys were the cassette recorder and the 8mm movie camera, tools for capturing fleeting moments.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the impulse to save things, and the factors that make cultural products survive or disappear.  In this post I share some of these thoughts for your consideration.  Don’t expect me to offer any good solutions!

I have a room filled with my own drawings and photographs.  I keep boxes of papers, shelves of books and discs and tapes, and several terabytes of digital files.  A few years ago I had to move twice within two years.  Those moves prompted me to get rid of a lot of stuff – I let go of two thirds of my books and most of my music and dumped tons of paper, but the archive remains vast.  If I didn’t live in the city, where space is expensive, I’m sure I’d have kept even more.

Self portrait with my books, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

I grew up in a house filled with books and records, in a family of intellectual collectors verging on hoarders.  My mother has particularly recognized the necessity of organizing and distilling things into a useable form, and has, over the last several years, assembled a series of beautiful scrapbooks documenting the family history.  Still, I know she feels overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Page from Hatt family history scrapbook, assembled by Martha Hatt

We save things to carry what we value of the past into the future.  We still find inspiration in the work of creators and thinkers long dead.  As artists, we hope that something we create may not only speak to our contemporaries, but survive to inspire future generations.  I’d like to see my work preserved after I am gone, but I’m afraid my lack of marketing efforts or serious art-world status may doom it to the dumpster.

In the art supply store, paper is labeled as acid-free and archival, and paint pigments are ranked for permanence.  But stable and durable materials won’t preserve your work after you’re gone unless those who receive it think it’s worth saving.  Cultural change, war and disaster, chance misplacements and discoveries, can doom or save artworks.  Here are a few examples:

Child-Headed Whiplash-Tail Blengins, date unknown, by Henry Darger

The reclusive artist Henry Darger’s obsessional writings and paintings on paper, work he never shared with anyone while he was alive, were preserved only because his landlord, Nathan Lerner, an established photographer/artist, recognized the creative merit of the work found in Darger’s apartment after his death.  Now Darger is much more famous than Lerner.

Pennsylvania Station, Concourse from South, 1962, photo by Cervin Robinson

New York’s Pennsylvania Station was one of the great buildings of the early 20thcentury, a magnificent temple of trains the same size as St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but in the early 60’s the interstates and the airlines were supplanting the railroads in American travel, and the vast building was razed to build Madison Square Garden.  Neither its massiveness nor its grandeur could save it.

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi, artist unknown

Antonio Vivaldi was a well-known composer in his own lifetime, but after his death his work was forgotten and was not part of the classical music canon for nearly 200 years until a boarding school, eager to sell off its dusty archives, asked music historian Alberto Gentili to assess the value of its music manuscripts.  This was in 1926.  Today, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is one of the most frequently recorded and performed baroque music compositions of all, and it’s hard to imagine that it was unknown in the time of Mozart and Beethoven, but that is the case.

Francois 1, King of France, c. 1530, by Jean Clouet

An art historian once told me a story about François 1, King of France, who was an important patron of the arts in the Renaissance era, supporting Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, and other great artists of the time.  Apparently the king was a bit of a libertine, and constructed Roman style steam baths in his palace at Fontainebleau, where he hosted parties.  He hung many of his favorite paintings in these steam baths, where they were destroyed by the moisture.  (I tried to verify this story by doing a little online research.  I did find references to the King’s having displayed paintings in his baths – nothing about any specific works having been ruined, but surely constant moisture can’t have been good for them!)

Statue of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, shown in 1997, left, and after destroyed by the Taliban, 2001, right, photographer(s) unknown

There are so many stories like this.  The painters considered the greatest in the nineteenth century are mostly forgotten today.  Herman Melville died a failure, his work appreciated by almost no one until decades after his death.  The great manuscripts of antiquity were gathered in the Library of Alexandria, which was burned down in an accident of war.  Statues have been melted down to recover the bronze, or destroyed by religious fanatics as forbidden idols.  Films thought to be forever lost have been found in garden sheds and attics.  Works of the creative spirit are always being destroyed or lost or forgotten, sometimes rediscovered or reconsidered.  It all seems incredibly random.  An artist can try to make something that has the potential to last for a long time, and can hope it will be something people will value enough to protect, but nothing is certain.  The future is a crapshoot.

Hall of Bulls, Cave of Lascaux, photo by Sisse Brimberg

The artworks that survive from the Paleolithic era, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, are carvings in stone or bone and paintings in deep, difficult-to-access caves.  Surely there were carvings or constructions in wood, paintings on bark or animal skins or fabrics, body art, and many other things, but all of that is gone now.  I doubt that the artists thought of the caves as time capsules for their art, though that’s what they became.  The caves may have been secret ritual places, known to only a few in their time, but the art our paleolithic forebears showed in public is gone, while their deep hidden art still inspires many of us today.

I grew up in an era of analog media – vinyl records, chemical photography, movies on film, books on paper.  When I was in college, we studied Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which argued that mass media had changed the function of art from something rare and precious and ritualistic into something ubiquitous and ephemeral, public and political.  The digital revolution has accelerated this alteration to the point that it’s now hard even to imagine the magical power that images once had.  Even in my youth, finding a rare book or record in a dusty old shop was still exciting, but now almost anything is available by Google search.  We need a new essayist to write a follow-up to Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Media Avalanche”.

Essayist Walter Benjamin, photographer unknown

In the analog media era, mastering a musical instrument or photographic equipment were intensive crafts, and producing and distributing books or movies or records was an expensive industrial undertaking overseen by gatekeepers.  These factors tended to draw clear lines between amateur and professional artists, and to keep the appearance of new material in any artistic field to a manageable flow that an audience could follow.  Digital tools have made the production and sharing of material so easy that we’re all swamped by mediocrities from artists who haven’t paid their dues or done serious time in the woodshed.  Even before the digital revolution, the arts had a bit of a supply/demand problem.  Suddenly there’s this eruption of material, and the gems must be somewhere in that cataract, but finding them, even recognizing them, isn’t easy.

In our digital world, most images, music, and writings increasingly exist only in digital form on hard drives or memory cards, or on servers in “the cloud”.  You sometimes hear the idea that all of this material is protected from loss by the fact that it’s widely distributed and shared.  How can the ubiquitous cease to be?  But I think digital media have striking vulnerabilities.

Fred Hatt projecting 35mm film in the Airstream trailer projection booth at the HBO/Bryant Park Film Festival, 2011

Some of you may know that besides my art and photography and filmmaking, I work as a freelance motion picture projectionist.  It’s a good trade that offers me a certain level of financial stability I’ve never found from my more creative endeavors.  I project old and new films at places like the Museum of Modern Art, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the French Institute/Alliance Française.  In the film business, sound recording, film editing, and special effects have been mostly digital for decades now, but until fairly recently most movies were still shot on film and projected on film.  That’s all changing.  Now, when you see a new film at the multiplex, it is almost certainly a digital file played on a server by a high-resolution digital projector, and probably shot with digital cameras as well.  The major film distributors have announced plans to cease production of film prints in the next year or two.

Projectionist with Super Simplex 35mm projector, Capitol Theater, New London, CT, date and photographer unknown

A good 35mm theatrical movie projector will keep working for 50 years if you take good care of it.  Cinema-quality digital projectors cost several times as much and can only be expected to last five to ten years, even if they aren’t rendered obsolete by technological developments before they reach such an advanced age.  Film projectors are 19th century technology, simple mechanical devices, and most things that can go wrong with them can be fixed or at least jerry-rigged by the operator.  The film print is a strip of pictures, 24 projected for every second of running time.  You can look at the film directly and see the pictures on it, and they can be scanned or copied by any potential future technology.  Film prints suffer from some wear and tear, but it’s a gradual deterioration.  A film that has some scratches and dust, or a little color fading, is still watchable.  Technologists use the term “robust” to describe a technology that is reliable and flexible to changing conditions – it bends but does not break, or it deteriorates slowly but still does the job, or it is simple to maintain and fix even while it is running.  35mm is the ultimate example of a robust technology.

Two frames of 35mm motion picture film. The picture is optically “squeezed” to be projected on a wide screen using an anamorphic lens. To the left of the picture area is the analog, optical sound track. A digital sound track is recorded with dots in between the perforations on the left, and another format digital sound track in blue on the edges of the film.  Twenty-four of these frames are projected every second, and the average feature film is about 2 miles or 3 kilometers in length.

The new digital cinema systems, on the other hand, are highly complex and also encumbered by copy-prevention measures that put serious limitations on testing and troubleshooting.  If something goes wrong during projection, the screening usually has to be cancelled, because there is no quick fix.  At this year’s New York Film Festival, a screening of Brian De Palma’s new movie, with the director in attendance, had to be aborted midway due to technical difficulties.  Already most of the projectionists I know have experienced these occasional devastating problems with digital screenings, problems that never happened with film.  Unlike the film print, with its visible image frames, the digital film is nothing but about 150-200 gigabytes of ones and zeroes, highly encrypted.  A small error, a little bit of corruption in such a file can render it completely unplayable, or at least unbearable to watch.

Dolby Cinema Server

All digital files are analog information encoded into binary numbers and recorded microscopically on optical or magnetic media.  Reconstructing the texts, images, or sounds they represent into a form we can use requires both the correct hardware and the correct software – if either one is unavailable, you have a problem.  These technologies are constantly changing.  Already if you have obsolete media like floppy discs, or files recorded in a ten-year-old program, you may have difficulty recovering them today.  These files have become essentially unreadable in a matter of years.  How much more will be lost this way over the course of decades or centuries?

Corrupted jpg camera image file, photo by Sokwhan Huh

Professional archivists suggest that all digital materials should be recopied every few years onto the best available current formats and media.  As long as the speed and efficiency of the technology continues to increase exponentially (as does the quantity of digital material we expect to conserve) this has been possible, but does it really seem completely unlikely that a slowing of the technology, a financial crisis cutting budgets for media archiving, or some other occurrence may erase or render unusable vast quantities of words, images and sounds?  A serious collapse of our technological civilization, even a gradual collapse, due to wars or peak oil or environmental disaster or whatever, would probably completely doom all digital files to extinction.

I envision a time in the twenty-second century when cultural historians will still have great collections of 20th century analog photographs, recordings, films, and printed matter, while much of the 21st century stuff has vanished into a technological memory hole – a digital dark age.

Jpg Corruption, photo by Codell. This is a digital camera file damaged by a loss of power while saving the file.

Perhaps the most permanent material ever discovered for information recording is the clay tablet.  Thousands of such tablets, inscribed in soft clay with a stylus over five thousand years ago, still survive in completely readable form.  Ceramics can be broken, but generally in a way that can be reassembled.  A bull in a china shop can never be as destructive as a corrupt code in a digital system.  Perhaps our creative efforts have a better shot at lasting if they stay closer to earth.

Akkadian Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3000 BCE, photographer unknown

Most of the images in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on a photo links to the site where I found it.

2012/06/08

Mastering Life: Zhuangzi’s Parables of Craft

Zhuangzi is a collection of parables and philosophical dialogues on Daoist themes, dating to the third or fourth century BCE, and attributed to a writer named Zhuang or Zhuangzi or Chuang Tzu.  Much of the material is satirical or fantastical, using wild imagery, odd turns of phrase, and absurdity to crack conventional and complacent ways of thinking.  It mocks the Confucian impulse to reform the world as well as the logician’s claims to pure reason (even though it often puts its arguments in the mouth of Confucius and other traditional sages).  It argues for radical acceptance of the world, suggesting that we should give up complaining and striving, and instead seek to discover our oneness with the mysterious forces that make and move the world.

Zhuangzi likes to find transcendent principles in humble places, and many of the stories talk about the special skills of servants and artisans.  I find these passages particularly relevant to the creative practice, though of course they are metaphors that can lend their meaning to many aspects of life.  In this post, I’ve selected four parables of craft from the Zhuangzi.  These excerpts are from Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, Columbia University Press, 1964, translated by Burton Watson, a version both scholarly and literary, rollicking and lucid.

Bell Stand, 2012, by Fred Hatt

1.

Woodworker Ch’ing carved a piece of wood and made a bell stand, and when it was finished, everyone who saw it marveled, for it seemed to be the work of gods or spirits.  When the marquis of Lu saw it, he asked, “What art is it you have?”

Ch’ing replied, “I am only a craftsman – how would I have any art?  There is one thing, however.  When I am going to make a bell stand, I never let it wear out my energy.  I always fast in order to still my mind.  When I have fasted for three days, I no longer have any thought of congratulations or rewards, of titles or stipends.  When I have fasted for five days, I no longer have any thought of praise or blame, of skill or clumsiness.  And when I have fasted for seven days, I am so still that I forget I have four limbs and a form and body.  By that time, the ruler and his court no longer exist for me.  My skill is concentrated and all outside distractions fade away.  After that, I go into the mountain forest and examine the Heavenly nature of the trees.  If I find one of superlative form, and I can see a bell stand there, I put my hand to the job of carving; if not, I let it go.  This way I am simply matching up ‘Heaven’ with ‘Heaven.’  That’s probably the reason that people wonder if the results were not made by spirits.”

Ferryman, 2012, by Fred Hatt

2.

Yen Yüan said to Confucius, “I once crossed the gulf at Goblet Deeps and the ferryman handled the boat with supernatural skill.  I asked him, ‘Can a person learn how to handle a boat?’ and he replied, ‘Certainly.  A good swimmer has acquired his ability through repeated practice.  And, if a man can swim under water, he may never have seen a boat before and still he’ll know how to handle it!’  I asked him what he meant by that, but he wouldn’t tell me.  May I venture to ask you what it means?”

Confucius said, “A good swimmer has acquired his ability through repeated practice – that means he’s forgotten the water.  If a man can swim under water, he may never have seen a boat before and still he’ll know how to handle it – that’s because he sees the water as so much dry land, and regards the capsizing of a boat as he would the overturning of a cart.  The ten thousand things may all be capsizing and turning over at the same time right in front of him and it can’t get at him and affect what’s inside – so where could he go and not be at ease?

“When you’re betting for tiles in an archery contest, you shoot with skill.  When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim.  And when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck.  Your skill is the same in all three cases – but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind.  He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside.”

Herder of Sheep, 2012, by Fred Hatt

3.

T’ien K’ai-chih said, “I have heard the Master say, ‘He who is good at nourishing life is like a herder of sheep – he watches for stragglers and whips them up.’ ”

“What does that mean?” asked Duke Wei.

T’ien K’ai-chih said, “In Lu there was Shan Pao – he lived among the cliffs, drank only water, and didn’t go after gain like other people.  He went along like that for seventy years and still had the complexion of a little child.  Unfortunately, he met a hungry tiger who killed him and ate him up.  Then there was Chang Yi – there wasn’t one of the great families and fancy mansions that he didn’t rush off to visit.  He went along like that for forty years, and then he developed an internal fever, fell ill, and died.  Shan Pao looked after what was on the inside and the tiger ate up his outside.  Chang Yi looked after what was on the outside and the sickness attacked him from the inside.  Both these men failed to give a lash to the stragglers.”

Confucius has said, “Don’t go in and hide; don’t come out and shine; stand stock-still in the middle.”  He who can follow these three rules is sure to be called the finest.  When people are worried about the safety of the roads, if they hear that one traveler in a party of ten has been murdered, then fathers and sons, elder and younger brothers will warn each other to be careful and will not venture out until they have a large escort of armed men. That’s wise of them, isn’t it?  But when it comes to what people really ought to be worried about – the time when they are lying in bed or sitting around eating and drinking – then they don’t have sense enough to take warning.  That’s a mistake!”

An Ox, 2012, by Fred Hatt

4.

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui.  At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop!  He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui.  “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill.  When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself.  After three years I no longer saw the whole ox.  And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes.  Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.  I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are.  So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year – because he cuts.  A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month – because he hacks.  I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone.  There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife really has no thickness.  If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room – more than enough for the blade to play about in.  That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground.  I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui.  “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

 

Illustrations for this post are all ink brush on paper, 18” x 24” (46 x 61 cm).

An earlier Drawing Life post, “A Useless Tree”, is based on another tale from Zhuangzi.

Note:  There are several editions of Burton Watson’s Complete Works of Chuang Tzu and Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings.  The latter is basically a selection of chapters from the former.  A newer edition of Basic Writings has been amended to use the pinyin transliteration of the Chinese names (i.e. Zhuangzi replaces Chuang Tzu) in the title as well as in the text.  Zhuang has inspired many writers, and besides the various academic translations there are selections of his stories retold by Christian mystic Thomas Merton and Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.

2012/05/03

Navigational Perception

Marshall Islands stick chart, a map of islands, ocean swells, and currents, original source of photo unknown

Synchronicity is a concept describing how seemingly unrelated things take on meaning by being experienced concurrently.  Years ago a friend gave me the Fall 1991 issue of the magazine “Whole Earth Review”.  It is 144 pages densely filled with a wide variety of articles on technology, ecology, and human potential – the promo on the inside front cover starts, “Mayans, Hawaiians, and Tibetans.  Virtual reality, psychedelic alchemy, neuro-tarot.  Youth culture and elder care.  Teaching lumber companies not to trespass.  Radio as anarchic medium.  A grandmother’s advice on childrearing.  Zines.  Independent music producers.  Lucid dreams.”  Lots of interesting thoughts and speculations there.

There were two articles within that issue that stuck with me and that have informed my thought and my creative process ever since.  The magazine draws no particular connection between the two articles – it puts them in separate sections – but both have to do with developing special perceptual skills for purposes of moving through the world.  If I hadn’t encountered these articles in the same place, they might not have made such an impression on me, but their alignment opened a door for me about how we can train and expand our perception of the world, not through drugs or mystical experiences, but through simple practice.

For me, artistic development is about learning to perceive more deeply, to notice beauty that most miss.  Mass commercial culture is all about bombarding people with sensations, pushing their buttons and pulling their strings.  By appreciating subtle things and enjoying all the fantastic phenomena the world gives us for free, we can liberate ourselves from commercial mind control.  But even if you don’t care about all that and just read this blog for the drawing tips, there’s no technique more powerful than learning to see more when you look.

So, back to “Whole Earth Review” – both of the articles I’ll be talking about are available in full online, and you’ll find a list of links at the bottom of this post.

Cover of "Whole Earth Review", Fall 1991 issue

Nightwalking: Exploring the Dark with Peripheral Vision” tells of its authors Zink and Parks’ experiments in enhancing peripheral vision.  The human eye contains two types of light sensitive receptor cells.  Cones, densely packed in the center of the visual field, see color and fine detail.  Rods predominate in the outer circle of the visual field.  They see neither color nor fine detail, but are far more sensitive than the cone cells in dark conditions.  The visual cortex uses this peripheral rod vision for orientation and to notice movement happening away from our point of focus.  (See my earlier post, “Exercising Perception”, or my guest post on Daniel Maidman’s blog for more detail on all this.)

Peripheral vision is usually a subconscious process.  Zink and Parks found that they could expand their conscious attention into the peripheral visual field by locking their central vision on the end of a stick attached to a hat and extending about a foot in front of their eyes.  When the focal point is immobilized, awareness is free to move elsewhere.  They practiced hiking in the desert, over very uneven terrain, this way, and found that they were able to move smoothly and sure-footedly, avoiding obstacles and pitfalls without looking at them.

Even before I read this article I had been doing perceptual experiments on my own.  I had often tried walking around the city with my eyes crossed, which is essentially the same thing Zink and Parks were doing, and had discovered the fascinating ability to watch things happening far away from my line of sight, even simultaneous things on opposite sides of me.

New Mexico Desert at Night, photographer unknown

Since the peripheral visual field is dominated by rod cells, noted for their high sensitivity to extremely low levels of light, Zink and Parks decided to try the technique walking in the wilderness in the moonless night.  If you’ve tried walking on a moonless (or new moon or crescent moon) night far from artificial light sources, you know how hard it can be to see where you’re stepping or what’s around you.  Zink and Parks again used the hat with a stick in front, adding a dot of phosphorescent paint to the end of the stick, and again went hiking in the New Mexico wilds.  They found they were able to see all sorts of things one would never see by normal looking in the dark – rabbits and bats moving around them, the faint bioluminescence of decaying wood.  They were able to move swiftly and safely over rocks and ravines.  (I wonder if anyone has tried this in a dense forest at night – that would be much darker than the open desert landscape, even on a moonless night.)

Nightwalking participant, from Australian site NLP Cafe Brisbane. This nightwalker's hat has a glow-in-the-dark plastic heart instead of a dot of phosphorescent paint as described in Zink's original article. Photographer unknown.

In my own practice as an artist, I’ve found the ability to move my awareness into the peripheral visual field is a vital skill.  I can look at a detail with my sharp central field and still maintain a sense of the whole of what I’m looking at because the peripheral vision is taking it all in.  Many observational artists intuitively squint at their subject – this disables the sharp vision, helping you to see the whole pattern.  A deliberate practice of developing peripheral sight can be even more powerful.

Centered on the Feet, 2012, watercolor on paper, by Fred Hatt

The second article that struck me in the Fall 1991 issue of “Whole Earth Review” was “The Soft, Warm, Wet Technology of Native Oceania,” Harriet Witt-Miller’s piece on the traditional navigation techniques of the peoples of the Pacific islands.  Eighteenth-century European explorers were astonished to find that the far-flung islands of the Pacific, widely scattered across thousands of miles of open ocean, had nearly all been settled long ago by people with outrigger canoes who had no sextants or compasses or chronometers.  How did they cross such distances, and find tiny dots of land in the vast expanse of ocean?

Micronesian Proa, still from "The Navigators", a film by Sam Low

These cultures, now tragically threatened by rising sea levels, had highly sophisticated methods of accurate maritime navigation, all based on direct observation rather than on abstract patterns such as latitude and longitude or the geometrical satellite array of the Global Positioning System.

GPS satellites, original source of illustration unknown

Traditional Pacific navigators or wayfinders learn to observe very subtle things.  They can look at the light reflecting off the bottom of a distant cloud and tell whether it is over green land or over a coral atoll’s crystalline lagoon, thus detecting islands beyond the horizon.  They know the stars and the way their arcs of movement change with the hour and the season.  They observe the behavior of sea birds and the properties of water and floating debris to determine in what direction lies land.  They have a deep understanding of the movement of wind and water currents.  They learn to distinguish the constant patterns of ocean swells from the shifting surface waves by sensing the deeper movements with their scrotums resting on the bottom of their boats.

Currents of the Pacific, warm currents in orange, cold currents in green, original source of map unknown

Currents of the Pacific, warm currents in orange, cold currents in green, original source of map unknown

The Micronesians map their world with “stick charts”, made of palm sticks.  According to the caption of the below illustration from Witt-Miller’s article, credited to “Exploratorium Quarterly”, “Curved sticks showed prevailing wave fronts, shells represented the locations of islands, and threads indicated where islands came into view.”

Micronesian stick map, illustration from "Whole Earth Review", Fall 1991 issue, page 67

Western ways of knowledge and technology have often been about superimposing an abstract pattern over the real world, and operating according to the abstraction.  For the visual artist, that traditionally means systems of linear perspective, canons of human proportion, color theories, etc.  For the contemporary artist it may also include the abstracting analyses of critical theory and semiotics.

Proportions of Man, 1557, by Albrecht Dürer

I understand and use such abstractions – well, critical theory, not so much – but in my own practice of observational figure drawing I stay much closer to the Pacific wayfinder’s method, looking at subtleties of reflected light, following the swells and hollows of the model’s body as though I am moving across a territory.  I look at the points of inflection, such as nipples or kneecaps, in terms of angular relationships and the flowing patterns that join them, as the sticks connect the shells on a Micronesian sailing chart.  My process is tactile.  I feel my way along.

Hands Reversed, 2012, black watercolor on paper, by Fred Hatt

All of these different kinds of observation are happening simultaneously, or in quick succession.  Part of my mind is aware of the peripheral view.  Part of it is looking at the colors in the shadows or the direction of hairs on the body.  Part of it is mapping the points and following the flows.  Part of it is focused on my paper, my brush, my colors.  It is impossible to coordinate all these factors into a systematic method I could describe or define.  The magic that makes it work is intuition, the power of the mind to integrate a torrent of incoming sensations, conscious and not, into a coherent experience.  Intuition is trained by practice, not by theory.  It must be rigorously exercised, and then it must be trusted.

As I have pursued my artistic discipline, I have been deeply informed by these ideas of navigational perception.  To draw or paint or sculpt from observation is to explore, to discover, to wonder.

Both the short articles cited here are full of details I haven’t mentioned, and well worth reading for themselves:

 “Nightwalking: Exploring the Dark with Peripheral Vision”, by Nelson Zink and Stephen Parks

“The Soft, Warm, Wet Technology of Native Oceania”, by Harriet Witt-Miller

Both articles were originally published in “Whole Earth Review” No. 72, Fall, 1991.

Other relevant links:

Nelson Zink’s website NavaChing

Harriet Witt’s website Passenger Planet

Exploratorium’s website “Never Lost” on Polynesian navigation

Sam Low’s article “A World of Natural Signs”

Illustrations here besides my own drawings were found on the web.  Clicking on a picture will take you to the place where I found it.

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