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.
The idea behind this type of graph is that the largest outer ring indicates the highest score, the center of the circle, the lowest. In an attempt at wholeness (or in my case at the very least, symmetry) I am working toward a balanced brain “shape”. Each day I spend a few minutes doing the puzzles and watch as the shape of my brain evolves. The shapes that these types of personality or characteristic tests produce are inevitably irregular polygons, hardly perfect circles, rarely symmetrical and far from whole.
From a Jungian perspective, the process of sorting our what “type” of person someone is (most popular in Myers-Briggs style testing) becomes the primary contents of the process of individuation—a transformation whereby the personal and collective unconscious are brought into consciousness to be assimilated into a whole personality. According to Jung, the individuated, or conscious self is the archetype of wholeness.
At first glance (and especially out of context) the shapes these types of tests produce could seem meaningless, without congruence or consistency. Reminiscent of the randomness of unrefined crystal or mineral formations, constellations, or microscopic images of neural pathways, I find the shapes beautiful in their imperfection, resonant in their asymmetry and pointing to a formal unpredictability and uncertainty that fills me with a sense—not of wholeness—but of the ossibilit of wholeness, which is infinitely more exciting.
These irregular, gemlike, distorted geometric shapes show up frequently in art and design. The irregularity, when repeated, becoming somehow cohesive. From Sol Lewitt’s Complex Form to the DIY trend of immel-inspired sculpture, hese forms demonstrate systems of line and color, pointing to the fragmented yet coherent whole. In a deeply personal way, the fragmentation of the self into parts that constitute a greater, imperfect whole is a metaphor to describe my experience both as an artist and a human being. The very post-modern bricolage aesthetic of fragmentation guides many of my design choices, and points to my commitment to finding order in chaos, beauty in the unknown, and new meaning through unexpected combinations.
MEDITATION // transcendence
In the broadest possible way, the quest for wholeness of the fragmented self—or individuation—can be defined as the achievement of self-actualization through a process of integrating the conscious and the unconscious. This is also the aim of meditation as a tool for creative inspiration, the ancient practice of milking the brain of its “good glad fluid” (thanks Kerouac). In his treatise on Transcendental Meditation Catching the Big Fish, David Lynch makes the case for meditation as a window to the unconscious, the place where creative ideas come from. He also point o meditation as a gateway to shaking free of the creativity-squashing discomfort that comes from practical pressures like deadlines and budgets—a useful device in this age of the creative entrepreneur.
The practice of TM centers around the use of a mantra, assigned to each practitioner during a 3-day training course. The course is around $1,000, but luckily there is a student discount. The mantra is a secret word that is more of a resonance, a sound that when heard within, triggers a relaxed, meditative state. Learning TM was transformative to my life and my practice, and continues to be a source of clarity and inspiration. My hope was that like Lynch and other artists who use mindfulness as a part of their creative process and practice—namely Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono and Leonard Cohen, my work would develop a deeper conversation with the unknown, pulling bits from the subconscious back into the material world.
READINGS // data collection
Participating in this modernized version of an ancient practice like TM has opened me up to other forms of mysticism, especially those packaged as an experience. A few months ago, a friend suggested I have my aura photographed. The Radiant Human project was coming to Portland, and taking reservations ($30 for a 5-minute sitting and a polaroid). I realize that aura photography is not a real thing—the creator of the project, Christina Lonsdale, is the first to admit it. After stepping into her geodesic photography dome draped in black fabric, placing your hands on silver hand-shaped sensors, and staring into the lens of a large camera, she describes the process in loose scientific terms, and gives you a quick “reading” of your photograph. My partner and I had our photo taken together, and our combined aura was all purple. A friend who had been photographed earlier in the day was primarily pink and orange.
The Barnum effect in action, the readings are so vague that any combination of colors would ring true. But it doesn’t change the fact that there is some kind of mystical element at play, with a beautiful and strange photograph as a souvenir. This experience, like many other readings I have had (astrology, chakras, tarot, etc.) gave me something other-worldly to hold onto, to put my faith in (if only for a moment) and helped me to feel a part of something bigger than myself. This experience was verging on the spiritual. I was suspicious of the process, but I was able to suspend it just long enough to feel uplifted and validated by the experience. This entered my line of inquiry in the form of questioning exactly how spiritual people define their own spirituality, and how (or if) non-spiritual people experience those types of moments.
THE PROJECT //
Through these various examples, an obvious challenge for this project has been establishing context. Situated somewhere between self-help and social practice, my research relies primarily on the idea of resonance: when things hit me in the right way, I use them. So not only do I have a bricolage approach to making and spirituality, but also to research. Using this method, the proposed project attempts to mash these things together in order to deepen my understanding of my own individual search for meaning, as well as reveal the absurdity in attempting to do so. By adopting tropes found in other new age and self-help examples, the work attempts to expose the ways in which those things fall short of their marketed claims, while at the same time presenting an opportunity for introspection, dialogue and engagement. This system will take three forms, all of which are summarized in a small takeaway workbook, and include a walking labyrinth, a conversation fort and a wall-mounted participatory radial graph.
THE LABYRINTH // illumination
The walking labyrinth is an ancient symbol of wholeness. The traditional labyrinth combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. In a talk in 2016 at Creative Mornings in Portland OR, part of a series on ethics, Jelly Helm described the meaningful nature of the walking labyrinth to his practice as a creative director. Representing the hero’s journey, the image of the labyrinth has become central to his philosophy of work, and installed on the floor of his office, is used by all as a tool for contemplation. My interpretation of the labyrinth represents the journey to our own spiritual center, and back out again into the world. Projected from above, as the body walks the path, it sometimes obscures the light, making it difficult to see which way to go, or where one has been. In the book “Learning with the Labyrinth”, the author Jan Sellers warns against the projected labyrinth, saying “...note that too many people walking a projected labyrinth at one time can result in chaos, as much of the design can be obscured by the walkers own shadows.”
The labyrinth that I have created also contains subtle animations in the projection that offer shifts in perspective meant to either propel forward with shortcuts, stunt movement, or disorient completely. It aims to illuminate not only the unstable nature of our own conceptions of self, but also the reality that there are many paths available to us at any given time. Instead of wholeness, this labyrinth asks questions about choice, about a prescribed sense of purpose, and about our own relationships with uncertainty. Like Miranda July’s 125 foot hallway art installation for the 2008 International Triennale of Contemporary Art in Yokohama, Japan, my labyrinth is a meditation about the expectations, hopes and realities of life. he piece is meant to simultaneously honor the intrinsic value of the walking labyrinth and completely dismantle it.
THE CONVERSATION FORT // dialoguing
To acknowledge the spiritual is usually seen as some sort of leap of faith, or a belief in something unknowable and unprovable. For some, however, it doesn’t require faith or belief in anything except other humans. “No, I believe in nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender; “faith” a state of willed self-delusion ... But experience—empirical experience—requires me to keep an open mind. And human solidarity ... requires that I call on others to do so also.” (Ehrenreich)
The second form is an installation representing the value of dialogue, in the spirit of human solidarity and the importance of the intimacy of meaningful conversation. Over the course of this 2-year program, I have worked part time as a driver for a gig-economy ridesharing tech company. What started as a desperate attempt to make a little money became an opportunity to begin practicing these conversations. What I found immediately in picking up strangers in my car was the willingness of most people to engage in conversation. More casual than a driver/passenger relationship, it usually felt more like giving a ride to a friend. Sitting in the front seat usually encouraged even more immediate connection. Giving people rides became opportunities for conversations, involving various approaches to conversation starting, and usually intuiting the types of questions I should ask and the amount of personal information to divulge. I had riders share intimate details about their lives including both joys and sorrows. On a few occasions I was asked to drive around longer than was needed just to continue the conversation.
I found that within about 2 minutes of speaking, I was able to find a commonality with any given person, beyond the fact that we are in the same place, in the same car, headed temporarily to the same destination. We were able to share meaning. The revelation, however, was not that we, as individual people are all connected. It was that these connections revealed themselves faster and more efficiently within the enclosed space of the car. When in the role of the ‘hired driver’, I also became acutely aware of my ability to listen intently. It occurred to me that rarely am I that close in proximity to people I don’t know, especially just the two of us. The enclosed space of the car propelled conversation into the realm of the intimate. This same phenomenon of deep sharing and listening occurs on a regular basis within the confines of the airstream trailer in the Bison building, so is not isolated to strangers or a moving vehicle. I also believe it is the thing that happens during Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, which he records within the confines of a small garage. His interviews are intimate and raw, deeply personal while also staying impressively universal. In a reflection on his podcasting career thus far, Maron says “You know, we had this need to create a connection. And the true evolution was realizing the true connection happening during intimate, empathetic conversation.”
In an attempt to duplicate this intimacy, the second part of this project is a “conversation fort”, constructed of bricolage materials and designed to seat two people comfortably and privately. As an experiment, I will be positioning myself within the fort for a set amount of time and invite others inside (one at a time) to have a conversation and be given a reading. Inspired also by the mystical quality of the radiant human dome, I will ask people questions about their own meaningful experiences, and chart their responses to a rubric of questions on a series of graphs. The graphs are created by considering the things (experiences, places, people, objects, ideas, communities) in life that hold meaning, the things looked to in times of upheaval, the things that held sacred in a world where nothing is sacred. When the thing is identified, it is then considered in seven distinct ways and plotted. The seven categories are loosely based on the seven chakras, or energy centers in the body. They are: Belonging + Connection, Power + Pleasure, Purpose + Choice, Possibility + Compassion, Truth + Understanding, Imagination + Creativity, and Joy + Transcendence.
I will graph the levels to which each of these sensations are felt when in the presence or process of their meaningful thing. The dots are connected and a shape is revealed. This shape will illuminate the areas where the participant is filled up on an energetic level as well as the areas where there is a shortage. This will provide a moment of awareness about how we might seek new meaning, how we might be in deeper gratitude for the things that we do hold meaningful, and how we might cobble together different sources of meaning in order to create a more cohesive whole. When I am not present, the fort will be available to others who wish to maintain some level of privacy and intimacy for the sake of dialogue. The motivation behind this experiment is not only to “help” others to understand the sources of their own meaning, but to determine how intimacy between two people is affected by architecture and whether creating a safe space for dialogue opens people up to talking about that which is most meaningful to them.
HOW ARE WE? // quantification
Inspired by the collaborative project Dear Data, the work of data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte and the intricate clusters and swarms of data produced by Katie Lewis, the final piece of this trifecta is a large scale radial graph installed on the wall. The data that will be depicted in this piece aims to represent the “shapes” unique to each person who wishes to contribute, and as a whole, a reflection of the overall well-being of the community. The process of physical repetition within this system transforms the materials into visual accumulations meant to be legible as a snapshot of data.
Small balls of yellow string (the color associated with the third chakra, the energy center responsible for regulating the self in relation to community) will be provided, and willing participants will apply the string to the pegs according to how they are feeling in that specific moment. The categories will be labeled, and identical to the ones graphed in the conversation fort, but it is not necessary that the two relate to one another. Over the course of the evening, I hypothesize that the accretion of the shapes will create a somewhat chaotic but balanced shape, representing the individual and their role in community based on the shared experience of being in this time and space together. The result will be photographed and removed, and the accumulation will change depending on its location, the people participating and the general context.
Of course there is always a risk to asking the viewer to complete the work: maybe they won’t want to, maybe they will break it, maybe they will be confused. I believe that these responses are just as valuable as if people were highly engaged and careful with the work through their participation. Confusion, awkwardness, self-consciousness and lack of engagement are as much a part of community as anything. The form that this piece takes ultimately provides a way for people as a community to listen to each other as a group—to see in clear visual terms the areas in which the community feels the strongest, and likewise the weakest. The process will mirror my own approach to my quest for meaning through a bricolage of ideas and avenues, will acknowledge the lack of depth to which these things inform my understanding of them (a key criticism of any bricolage activity), and will hopefully activate dialogue around the tensions between the individual and the collective.
The process of developing this project has itself been a type of healing. I have been secretly hoping it would be the silver bullet I’ve been looking for. Instead it has reoriented me toward the idea of the silver bullet entirely, casting a more critical eye toward the “answers” and becoming more immersed in the questions. When originally conceiving the form it would take, the cynical voice in my head was so loud it made its way into this very paper. Originally proposed as a type of alternative church, I feel that I have essentialized the parts of individualized meaning-making that pertain not only to people on a spiritual path, but to anyone willing to participate either through walking, talking, sharing or any combination thereof. I have begun distinguishing the difference between the study of o meaning is created, not hat meaning is.
Creating this work by way of using myself as a test subject has been a type of catharsis, with my own personal need to defend my choices through irony or cynicism slowly slipping away with each iteration. A practice that is not rooted in a specific context: part performance, part hybrid form and part community building through artistic engagement, I have become very clear about the shortcomings of my own seeking. I have become aware of the complexity of the
individual and her relationships to others, and the contrast between the ideals that I seek and the realities that exist. I have become aware of my own selfishness in approaching this type of project, and my own fear surrounding the vulnerability required to ask the kinds of questions I am interested in asking. This work will continue to be explored, refined, distilled and simplified over time.