INTRODUCTION // searching
I remember drawing a picture of God at the prompting of my mom when I was quite young. I had no idea what the word even meant. I drew a blue circle (it was supposed to represent a sphere) with a white cloud at the center in the shape of a seahorse with a human head. I’ve only recently realized: in one way or another, I have been looking for God ever since. I had the advantage of never being taught about an omnipotent or judgmental God, which made me very curious: who made this (the world), and why? The open-ended way that the idea of God was presented to me as a child did not provide me with the structure that the budding scientific side of my mind desired, so I wrote the idea off for many years, instead going within and concerning myself with questions about the creative impulses of humans: who made this (thing, idea, object) and why?
As an adolescent, atheism was en vogue and aligned with my budding punk rock ideals, yet I always found myself seeking spiritual (at the time I would have called them existential) conversations: discussing the meaning of life, the idea of eternity, the vast unknowableness of the universe. In lieu of developing spirituality, I developed skepticism: an inner dialogue that was prone to yanking me from my mystical ideations back into the realm of the pragmatic. My skepticism is an always-lurking shadow on my spiritual path, just waiting for a vulnerable moment to inject itself, as sarcasm, paralysis, self-doubt and sabotage. I ended up spending as much time doubting the validity and meaning of the creative impulse as I did pursuing it.
As an adult, the search for meaning has manifested in a multitude of ways: through collecting and making art and objects, multiple forays into various forms of mysticism, and an obsession with self-examination by way of self-help, therapy, and self-improvement. I continue jumping from idea to idea, discipline to discipline, keeping the things that resonate and discarding the rest. I had always hoped that I would find what I refer to as the “silver bullet”—the thing that would answer all of my questions and make all of my problems go away. In her memoir Living With a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich describes a similar experience: “I was looking at the job of condensing the universe into a form compact enough to fit in my head, maybe as some kind of equation or—who knows?—an unforgettable melody or gorgeously intricate mandala. This was the great challenge before me, to make things small enough to get a grip on, while leaving nothing out.” The word God is loaded. Most atheists, many agnostics, and some “spiritual” people refuse to use the word due to it’s deeply embedded connotations about an omnipotent patriarch. When I say God, I simply mean what Ehrenreich means: the intangible, the inexpressible, the mystical, the transcendent. When I say spiritual, I mean the moments when we wonder about those things.
This project explores ways of seeking, raises questions about my own motivations as a maker and artist and attempts to shine a light on my own complicity. The motivation for this project is ultimately selfish: it’s about me wanting to be a better listener to myself, to other people, and to my community. This contextualizes the project within this specific time and place: art school, Portland, Oregon, USA, 2017. The goal is to make space for myself and others to be present, to share intimacy and to co-create. These are ideals that I believe many of us share, but rarely enact in public life, even in art school. The motivation for building opportunities for presence, intimacy and co-creation is to reveal the gaps between the different versions of self that we present to the world (and to ourselves) and approach ways to reconcile them. Through an inquiry around how we seek meaning this project is an experiment to see if that information can be experienced and processed in an art setting.
BRICOLAGE // construction
The word “bricolage” means many things to me. I first stumbled upon the word as an exchange student in France, where the French version of Home Depot, Mr. Bricolage dots the suburbs. I remember being fascinated by the word, just the sound was appealing, evoking the image of a collage made of bric-a-brac—a thing I absolutely would have made at that point in my life. Bricolage, aside from the idiomatic French translation as “DIY”, means to make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand. This idea had been a guiding principle in my life prior to having a word for it, growing up in a creative hippy family and coming of age in the DIY punk scene of Olympia WA in the 1990’s. Bricolage looked like recycling and upcycling, creative reuse and janky problem-solving.
In The Savage Mind, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used the word bricolage to describe the characteristic patterns of mythological thought. He describes modern myths as the assemblage of bits and pieces of the old: the material remains unchanged for thousands of years, the meaning shifting through reorganization. The skill of using whatever is at hand and recombining it to create something new can be applied to any discipline — from home improvement to art to intellectual discourse. According to Levi-Strauss, the bricoleur possesses “the savage mind”, in contrast to the craftsman who possesses the scientific mind, with the artistic self falling somewhere in-between. Utilizing these definitions in the context of applied craft and design has been a useful tool for organizing activities, materials, processes and decisions.
Prior to graduate school, I built a career out of making (and selling) things and teaching people to make (and sell) things. My business (established in 2010) was naturally called Bricolage. I was deeply engaged in my community, had an incredible network, and felt like I was an important part of something. And yet, to paraphrase Louis CK: everything was amazing and I wasn’t happy. The making had become tedious: focused solely on creating things that people wanted to buy, instead of the things I wanted to make.
When capitalism and commodification enter a creative practice, a certain amount of auto-pilot is required to maintain momentum in order to drone out that pesky voice that is always asking: but WHY? The teaching had also become unfulfilling: realizing that most of my students were looking for a social experience of assembling prescribed parts rather than learning a real skill of making. The community started to feel claustrophobic: the bubble we were in, filled with lovely and well-meaning people, had become an echo chamber. I sought refuge in the ways that were available to me: yoga classes, hikes in the foothills, terrible meditation apps, self-help books. The idea of God and spirituality came up constantly, but I refused to consider it. All of the modalities that were available to me seemed like watered down versions of something true, never quite reaching transcendence. Veronique Altglas describes this idea in From Yoga to Kaballah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. She describes the way that western cultures tend to “pick and mix” from exotic religions, thus constructing highly individualized yet simplified versions of complex social, cultural and spiritual systems, without ever quite reaching the ultimate depth of any single practice.
In 2010 when I created my business with bricolage as a core concept, the choice to sell locally made art and craft aligned on a community level: making use of the people, skills and talents of the people that were “at hand”. As I research and explore this principle, I realize that it is useful not only in its ability to self-organize in efficient and ethical ways, but also as a tool for illuminating complicity and privilege based on access and inclusion/exclusion. This created a moral and ethical dissonance: I confronted the limitations of bricolage every day as I turned people away who wished to sell their hemp chokers in my shop or show their landscape paintings in my gallery. I began to wonder if the idea of shared taste was what qualified for community these days.
I had imagined that I would come to school and invent or create or build a thing that would change the world. I trusted my self-help gurus when they said “leap and the net will appear” . I jumped, and instead found myself tangled in the trawl like some kind of pathetic sea turtle. The more I was asked what the work meant, the more I realized that meaning was the missing ingredient; it had been all along. Through random acts of bricolage, I had been attempting to construct meaning by cobbling together things that seemed important. Whether through cultural or spiritual significance, personal history or aesthetic associations, these attempts fell short of creating the truth that I was ultimately seeking.
THE COMPLEX FORM // fragmentation
“Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integration of the contraries.” —C.G. Jung
So what is the truth? As I deconstruct my attachment to, and appreciation and enjoyment of objects, I realize that they don’t hold truth. For the most part, the object is simply a stand-in for something else—a physical representation of an idea. The art on my walls, the books on my shelves, the dishes in my cupboards, the clothes in my closet: they are all symbols of something, and can be divided into three categories. Those that symbolize who I want to be or how I view myself (aspirational objects, things purchased and acquired on purpose), those that symbolize connections between myself and other people (gifts, things made by humans that I know or love), and things that simply perform a function, often aligned with my values (furniture, appliances, vehicles, tools). I value each type of object for different reasons, and each type also holds its own specific meaning, untranslatable beyond my own connection to it, experience of it and demands of it. If truth is a thing that can be known or understood outside of an individual’s own perception, objects ultimately fail to tell the truth. Confronting this reality in the context of the object-making-centric graduate program I chose has been a challenge, realizing that objects not only fail to tell the truth, but from a social and environmental perspective, objects for their own sake are beginning to seem downright irresponsible.
I have begun to look to more qualitative and quantitative forms of relating, namely through graphs, data, charts and diagrams: anything that visually depicts an idea in a quantifiable way. I have an app on my phone that charts my “peak brain score” through a series of games and puzzles: it determines the “shape” of my brain based on a variety of characteristics, plotted on a circular graph.