Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Dérive

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot

I recently attended a workshop given by Dr. Rebecca Duclos, titled Bibliodérive: Uncovering Non-linear and Radical Forms of Research organized by The Foreman Art Gallery. Rebecca’s experience as an artist, art historian and curator informed her research lovingly titled The Compulsive Browse. Her work delves into “what library scientists call the ‘information-seeking behaviors’ of artists.”

As student and artist, I was intrigued and then delighted to discover a new vocabulary for the type of research I am currently steeped in. My work in creativity and spirituality is influenced by pilgrimage this semester – how an intentional art practice can allow us to listen more intuitively and see with the “eyes of the heart” and how pilgrimage to the soul can bring us to that spot. The dérive is a special kind of journey into a known territory, with an allowance for and expectation of a, as yet unknown connection. The discovery of the dérive serendipitously offers a new perspective and possibly a rich layer to my work.

A Little History

Guy Debord, founder of the Situationist International (SI) first wrote The Theory of the Dérive in 1956.

ONE OF THE BASIC situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll….

 One can dérive alone, but all indications are that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness, since cross-checking these different groups’ impressions makes it possible to arrive at more objective conclusions. It is preferable for the composition of these groups to change from one dérive to another….

The average duration of a dérive is one day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep….

But more importantly, a dérive often takes place within a deliberately limited period of a few hours, or even fortuitously during fairly brief moments; or it may last for several days without interruption. In spite of the cessations imposed by the need for sleep, certain dérives of a sufficient intensity have been sustained for three or four days, or even longer….

The Workshop

Nine of us gather in the Old Library of Bishop’s University. This beautiful Old Library at Bishop's Universityroom, with a wood-paneled, vaulted ceiling is home to the university’s archives and special collections. Because the goal of the workshop is to offer an alternative, library- and archive-based investigatory strategy designed specifically to unhinge participants from reaching expected research outcomes,” the Old Library delivers a wealth of possibility.

In a dérive, participants drift through a city,those centers of possibilities and meanings” according to Dubord. Rebecca illustrates how maps of cities and floor plans of libraries share grid-like similarity. We all have our favourite city neighbourhoods and hangouts and for the student and researcher, sections of a library can engender that same sense of familiarity.  For a Bibliodérive, which “emphasizes creative practice as a form of research and is meant to generate spontaneous curiosity and encourage random connection-making,” our group of nine begins by choosing a common start-point – any spiral bound book. We all rise and drift through the library in search of the spiral bound book that will begin our own 30-minute bibliodérive. Each person wanders through the stacks picking up maps and books, old newspapers and literary journals, whatever calls their attention, to reflect upon them and intuit towards the next connection and the next.

In my life, most often in a bookstore, but also libraries, I have arrived with purpose to find a specific book only to be drawn to another unanticipated discovery that spontaneously comes into view and then informs or influences my original quest. Artists’ way of influencing their artistic practice or knowledge of a period of art, a specific artist or a method of art production or musical arrangement, is naturally inclined toward sources other than books. Librarians love the challenge artists can bring to research, says Rebecca, “like only wanting to see maps with red writing.” I have made use of documentary and mainstream film, the internet, radio interviews, workshops and gallery and museum exhibits for my study.

After 30 minutes, we reassemble to share our discoveries. The original spiral-bound book I found was on teaching and schoolhouses in the early 1900s. My grandmother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse until she married. The next book I moved to was a small paper real estate brochure, from the same period, listing farm parcels for sale and encouraging Montreal city-dwellers (men) to buy a piece of the rural countryside for their well-being and self-sufficiency. The sticker in the front of the brochure tells me that it had been donated to the library by my grandfather, P.H. Scowen, as part of a larger collection of historical books he bequeathed. Next up, a bound copy of the university newspapers from 1950s which had advertisements from businesses that were still in operation today as well as names of family and friends from my past – so my bibliodérive, turned out to be personal. All the other participants found little jewels for themselves and the evening was a glimpse into a new way of research and thinking.

In the future I wonder how I can incorporate the dérive into my life more often. What unexpected nuggets can be unearthed as I go along my regular daily path with new eyes? What are the similarities of a pilgrimage and a derive? What are the differences? How can a dérive practice influence an art practice beyond research?

Sing like nobody`s listening

You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.
William W. Purkey

Inside the Foreman Art Gallery at Bishop’s University is a black box set up in a corner of the room. This is the gallery’s Videotank. It is a small room, about the size of a large closet with a padded black bench set against the back wall and a 42” TV screen mounted on the wall ahead. On the side wall are two sets of headphones. This is the second Videotank presentation and it is by artists Tom Sherman and Jan Pottie. Tom heralds from the South Shore of Nova Scotia and is currently a professor in Transmedia at Syracuse University in New York.

Alley 9 is a 20 minute video realization of a bar lounge in Liverpool, Nova Scotia with the same name. It is has the usual décor of local town bars – sturdy warped chairs and tables, easy to mop down at the end of a long night. Garish lighting with the added sparkly touch of old Christmas lights, illuminated beer signs and bare light bulbs. The locals congregate at Alley 9 Lounge every Friday night for camaraderie, music, booze and hope. Sherman’s 20 minute film introduces us to the inner musician of local townsfolk with only music and background noise as soundtrack. There is no voice over, no explaining. Friday is Krazy Karaoke Night and the men and women of Liverpool take to the stage to sing like no one’s listening and dance like no one’s looking, “crossing over the line between audience and performer.”

“Karaoke, in retrospect and in its sustained cultural vitality, is at the very foundation of the Pro-Am (professional amateur) movement globally, marking the transition from passive consumption of industrial culture to expanding participatory interactivity through an array of social media.”  –  Tom Sherman and Jan Pottie

As I sit in this dark box, my eyes are riveted to each person. The sweat from

Videotank at Foreman Gallery

their pores, the look of loneliness and longing in their eyes as each person – some singly, others with friends – take to the stage to sing. I am transported into the bar with them. I am riveted by some performances, so full of soul and anguish – it is impossible to turn away. One performer, who plays flute and has a strong singing voice is the soul of the evening. I am less enthused by other performances, but never bored. I sit in the darkness and watch – on the screen people cut across the bar in front of my gaze, briefly blocking my view. The camera moves from the stage to the dance floor to the audience passing over sets of lonely eyes, watching, waiting, hoping… for what? I read on the Foreman Gallery website release that “we witness the joyous transformation of people attaining ownership of the music they love.” This singularly empowering possibility never entered my mind as I watched the piece. As a viewer, was I witnessing transformation of people or was I myself being transformed? This bar milieu is not generally my scene so in hindsight perhaps it was only I who felt lonely in that crowded room.

I watch and laugh and hum along. I wonder which of these people I might get close to if I lived in their town. Wonder what song I would sing if I got up on the stage? After one deeply, heartfelt performance by a man singing Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, Sherman moves the camera so we now see the singer as dancer. He is dancing with a woman but he is still so into the music that his dance partner almost seems to disappear in the moment.  The man brings me, the viewer, into his world and I know he is far, far away from the dance floor, the bar, even the town. Sherman offers his audience a multilayered experience – his  eye, to the camera’s eye, to the editing eye of the film, to the Videotank’s projection, into my eye – to a night (or many nights) at Alley 9 Lounge. The experience is riveting and I am drawn back to the installation four times. I am clearly “transported into the space of bare attention,” (Baas, 34) and “inspired by Buddhism’s deep appreciation for the way [Sherman’s] creative expression linked emptiness and form.” (35)  Alley 9 is a perfect illustration of that link.

“Who has not been deeply moved, perhaps life-changingly, by visual images or narratives of other humans?” (Baas 41)

Mike Mosher - Alley 9

Postscript: I emailed Tom Sherman to tell him how much I liked the video. Turns out the flutist/singer I mention above is the organizer of Krazy Karaoke. His name is Mike Mosher and Sherman tells me he had a bad stroke a month ago. “He is trying to make a comeback (he’s walking), but has suffered paralysis on his left side. Friends of his are keeping the show going at Alley 9, hoping he can recover enough to continue someday. He nurtured many in his 12 years of running this show,” writes Sherman. Suddenly, through Sherman’s words, in the contents of one email message, a room full of strangers is made familiar. And one is named, Mike Mosher. He has a life. He is ill. The other strangers have gathered round to help him. I have been brought into the circle of information. I say a prayer for Mike and his quick recovery, I am sending a card. “Buddhism points to the way in which deep realization of interrelatedness naturally manifests as compassion.” (Baas, 41) The loop from the space which is Alley 9 Lounge to my eye and my heart has now looped back around from my heart and eye into the space of darkness of the Videotank, into the film, the camera’s eye, Sherman’s eye, back in to Alley 9, to Mike Mosher. We are all mirrors for people who in turn become mirrors from us. What more can we learn about ourselves from the people we encounter every day?

You can see some film footage of Alley 9 and an interview with Mike Mosher about his work The Best Job in the World here.

Baas, J., & Jacob, M. J. (2004). Buddha mind in contemporary art. Berkeley:
University of California Press.

Artists and Church

The aim of art is to reveal, inspire and question.  It is a tragedy that many do not know or can not accept that belief shares these aims.
Rev. Jennie Hogan

In her article, Faith should harness art’s appeal, Rev. Jennie Hogan challenges the mainstream faith communities to consider the inclusion of contemporary art amidst their sacred art by asking the question, Is art replacing religion? “I think people are going to art galleries without realizing it may be fulfilling a spiritual need,” says Hogan.

“At the Chelsea College of Art & Design, where I work as chaplain, God is dead.” Hogan writes. Art students are historically forward thinkers; they have no reason or wish to look back unless their work encompasses the “universal themes of death, grief, suffering or delight.” To combat some of that spiritual irrelevance, Hogan, a young, stylish woman, hosts a weekly tea on campus inviting any and all to join her.  Because visually she is the antithesis of religious leaders, Hogan bemoans the reality that many of the students who come by to sip from her porcelain cups, think her clerical collar and religious garb is just Performance Art. Still, she delights in their responses when she can inspire them to look beyond the old, dusty dogma and reconsider God in their lives.

Museums are now vast exciting places that can bring the same kind of reverence shown great cathedrals. Hogan highlights the Tate Modern in London in her article, but the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Inhotim in Brazil, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art all instil the kind spiritual awe great churches once did. “The Reformation damaged the natural connection between art and faith but some places are making serious attempts to heal it,” writes Hogan. She notes that St. Paul’s Cathedral in London commissioned work from prominent contemporary artists and  I recently discovered that Phillippe Petit, the man who walked on a high wire between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974, has been the artist-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine since 1982. His Twin Tower walk was the focus of the feature documentary Man on Wire and since taking up his residency at the Cathedral he has performed there numerous times. “It is my spiritual home,” he says in a New York Times article. “My heart is in this building. My inspiration comes from the beautiful architecture and these stones, which are actually talking to me.”

This year in San Francisco, actress and playwright, Anna Deavere Smith was made the first artist-in-residence at one of my favourite places Grace Cathedral. She worked on and performed a play in February exploring meanings of grace and regularly delivers the Sunday homily. “I hope I can be useful with Grace Cathedral, make it a place where an artist can get a commission and get paid for work.”

If the great religious leaders are slow to incorporate art into their programs, others are not content to wait for change. Writer Kristen Scharold introduces readers to The Line in Chicago. Founded in 2009 by Aaron Youngren, an artist, musician and devout Christian, who had a great desire to “plant a church in an urban hub,” The Line fulfills Youngren’s dream of having a church that was inclusive and that would cease to marginalize community members (particularly artists) who didn’t fit in. “We never say ‘something is missing in my Christianity because your voice isn’t there,” says Youngren. He was not a rich man and was happy to begin the church in his apartment while he waited for his dream to play out. Youngren sought out an artist who could float between the sacred and secular on multi-planes and was a little shocked when Jon Guerra arrived at only the second gathering. Inspired by Guerra’s work and Christian faith, Youngren arranged for The Line to support Guerra with a regular pay cheque and in return, Guerra would continue to make art and be part of worship at the church. Sharold writes, “The church should foster imaginations, but they must be wise imaginations. At The Line, artistic excellence is always paired with spiritual maturity. Becoming more Christ-like, not just better artists, is its main priority.”

I love churches, the stained glass, the serenity. I love ritual and sacredness. But churches today face many challenges, not only from museums but from reality TV shows and internet and life. So entering into a benign competition with art galleries and museums could actually be a good thing. It is a place to start to make change in a constructive and sacred manner.  Churches could align themselves with artists to help inspire critical thinking and change. So how can artists work with churches to inspire faith communities to stretch? How can artists influence weekly service in their own communities? And in the absence of supportive, religious space for artists, how can we break free from our isolation and create spiritual experiences with others?

Harmanci, R. (2012) Mixing Art and Religion for a Loving Reunion. The New York Times online.
Hogan, J. (2010) Faith should harness art’s appeal. The Guardian online
Kilgannon, C. (2009) Same Man, New Wire and a Secret Midtown Venue. The New York Times online.
Scharold, K. (2010) Artists Build the Church. The Gospel Coalition Blog online.
CBC .ca Tapestry online. Art and Soul (2011, July 17) Mary Hynes talks to Rev. Jennie Hogan. http://www.cbc.ca/tapestry/episode/2011/07/17/art-and-soul-1/

Further reading: de Botton, A. (2011) Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Pantheon Books.

On the Road

What’s your road, man? — holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road, chapter 1.

I love nature and I love walking in nature but I have also spent a lot of time in my life driving a car. I have driven the 401 highway from Toronto to Quebec hundreds of times.  I have driven the 20, the 10, the 55 in Quebec, and Interstate 91 from Quebec to Connecticut over and over. I love to drive and while I understand this is a huge luxury and not necessarily an environmentally friendly one,  I have owned or had use of a car for almost 40 years. I have loved all of them. I have loved waking up before the sun and heading off onto the road; each time rejoicing as the trees and sky brighten as the morning dawns. It is magic every time.

As I continue with Soul of a Pilgrim, I realize that driving is a pilgrimage for me. I relish getting lost on unfamiliar roads, patiently awaiting a familiar signpost. I practice trusting my instincts, my heart and accepting the kindness of strangers. The views through my car windows of mountains and valleys, along rivers and lakes, and city street scenes, small towns are always inspiring and sacred.

A few years back, I did a photography project, driving and walking through Toronto streets taking pictures of objects and signs that corresponded to the chakra colours. Common fence posts, signs, storefronts, fire hydrants each held an energy source I could draw from. The last few years I have taken pictures from inside my car while driving – sometimes I’m in the passenger seat (which is handy) but sometimes not. If I’m driving, I don’t focus or even look that closely; I just aim and shoot and see what emerges when I get home. Some shots, of course are blurred beyond recognition – but the light and the texture in those photos often resonate louder than the crystal clear shots. I wear glasses, without them the world looks blurry to me. I understand that view.

As the sun rises, I love the way trees and buildings are silhouetted in stark black contrast against the glowing sky. A trip to Saskatchewan yielded some magnificent prairie shots, miles and miles of yellow, the sky and the earth touching with nothing between. Colours, textures, smells, shapes, symmetry, abstraction, tragedy, comedy, romance… it’s all there on the road; each moment can add to our experience.

There is Zen on the road.
There is God on the road.
There is Hope on the road.
There is Life on the road.
Whether you take to the road on foot or wheels, close to home or in a foreign land, it doesn’t much matter. Each experience can manifest treasure. What does your road look like? What do you see there? Where will it take you?

Only God is Perfect

For the most part, we artists like to show the works we think have turned out at best, spectacularly and at worst, wonderfully. But because “only God is perfect” is one of my favourite sayings, I thought today I’d illustrate for you A Day in the Life of an Artist as a Possible Failure. I have no problem with this. My self-esteem happens to be intact today. And I know there will be other opportunities for me to show you some stellar creations. So I would like to share a failure, because I can.

I have been creating mandalas as part of the Soul of a Pilgrim course (see previous post). And I have had in my possession for some time now, a pile of white tea towels. I had considered making prayer flags out of them but today I got an idea to put a mandala onto cloth. I also happened to have a brand new set of 24 Sharpie pens so I was kind of excited about the possibility of it all. As I was ironing the wrinkles out of the cloth it occurred to me that I would like to see what would happen if I let the pen ink bleed through to the next layer. My idea was to Symbolize how our Words and Deeds leave an imprint on the Other as they are executed or spoken and that often, that imprint is permanent. They can not be taken back or washed away.

So I folded the cloth into quarters and began drawing out the first mandala with Sharpie pens and no concern of the ink bleeding through. And for my first mandala I used shapes to Signify the Many Shapes and Sizes we All Come In. And I did not measure the spaces between so some of the shapes ran into or over one another and that was ok too. This Symbolized that We Only Have So Much Control of our Lives and Mistakes Happen. I outlined and colored in and to be honest got a little high off the Sharpie fumes. Eventually I pulled the collar of my turtleneck shirt up over my nose fearing brain damage. Fortunately I was the only one home, no one saw me.

“It takes great discipline to be a free spirit.” – Gabrielle Roth

So I carried on and when I was finished I pulled up the first layer and found that the ink had only bled through one layer and the other two were still white. And Sharpie’s are permanent and fast drying so they weren’t going to bleed any more. No Problem! I’m an Artist! I flipped the cloth over and began to create another mandala on the other side and this would bleed into the facing blank quarter. Now I would have Two Symbolic Images leaving imprints. For the second mandala I decided to move away from haphazard geometry into nature. This mandala has flowers and leaves, Symbolizing Nature’s  Sacred Impact on our Lives and how the golden moments gazing at a flower or watching a leaf fall from a tree are Moments of Grace and those moments will also imprint on our souls.

As I continued with the flowers, I decided I didn’t really love the white of the cloth and thought that dying it a different color would be fun. I’m a big tea dye lover and thought a black tea would muddy the work but a green tea would give it just a subtle shade and age the cloth a bit. This would Signify and Symbolize Nothing At All. So after I finished the flower – and was not completely satisfied with the bleed through on that side either, I brewed a cup of tea for me and a bowl for the dye bath. I scrunched up the cloth into the bowl and let it sit there for a while. I was tired now and a little spacey from the Sharpie fumes so I placed the damp tea bags over my eyes to refresh them. Artists do stuff like that.

When my eyes were refreshed I threw the tea bags out and put the mandala cloth and tea water into the washing machine and gave it a spin. Then I dried the cloth for 10 minutes in the dryer and assessed my days work as I ironed it out. Alas, it did not work as I had hoped. The colors were nice, the mandalas fair, but the bleed through was vague and the piece as a whole was not good art. It was Failed Art. It did however make a fine dish towel for our kitchen. The kind of dish towel all artists should have. So all was not lost and I am not perfect and I’m OK with that. Now it is definitely time for a nap.