“Spark That Says: Technological & Old School Seeds for Art Making”
Art is everywhere! If you will allow me to begin in such an exclamatory fashion. Art is everywhere! The potential that is, proviso, and if you are awake to it. DIY culture thrives on this principle: the proliferation of art materials and also, that making art doesn’t have to be costly or vetted or vetoed by some higher machine that booms – this is what the market needs versus that – cabbages never endive or uzis rather than squeegees or blockbuster pornos not indie erotica. Nothing has to be nixed if you don’t mind a tiny, mysterious audience. If you are not creating based on motives that hunger for mass assumptions or consumptions.
I will draw my structure (or lack thereof) for this talk from Dean Young’s book called The Art of Recklessness, on his poetics of rabid happenstance. In other words, a free range kind of saying that clucks about the pasture of its mind, pecking up random seeds contained inside an encompassing realm or theme. Which is – how does art making thrive within a DIY ethos or energy that proposes an aesthetic independence, a relentless entertaining of process, a scavenger’s mentality and inevitably, as much freedom as one can muster. Maybe I want to counter fragments of Kenneth Burke’s definition of humanity where we are, as a species, “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy,” “inventors of the negative,” and worst of all, “rotten with perfection.” These descriptors seem founded in a Christian, Cartesian dualism that has distanced us from the earth, rendered us competitive in a futile sense and, at the same time, bumped up our passivity.
We are trained not to look around us with reverence and awe, with the hope of collaborative equivalence. I’m definitely not trying to encourage a rank relativism that asserts everything is the same and thus standards need not apply, nor a lack of critical faculties, but a deep sense that materials are loquacious and rampant. That the quest is not always to make the thing for sale or contest or praise (in fact never truly to create for ends) but simply to make in ways that surprise oneself and sustain the art impulses first stimulated in childhood when, as Willem de Kooning writes, “life is trembling,” or as in Young’s depicted moment of poetry where “the animal bursts forth, inflamed.”
I recall my earliest days when I thought through not only words, but through my senses and their creations. The sour whiff of finger paint, dried fissures in homemade play dough, hot gritty sand at Spanish Banks and the parting in my puppet theatre’s nubbly orange curtains where Gretel & the alligator & sometimes a cardboard swashbuckler from a White Spot Pirate Pak would conjoin in a story without anxiety over cohesion or its impossibility. There was no distinction among substances, forms, materials. They all whirled out of the urge to make.
We didn’t have TV or later a cramped black & white on which we were only allowed to watch the Knowledge Network if home from school sick. And still, we were not to stare blankly like black holes but continue to keep our hands and minds active with another activity at the same time: knitting yarn into awkward scarves, stringing necklaces from my mother’s button jar, shaping plasticine ballet dancers. Synchresis began here. A drawing from all the resources that surrounded me: Vivaldi & Blondie, The Nutcracker & Escape to Witch Mountain, the Tony Only ocean scapes & the camel saddle from Egypt. I devoured them and, as a result, made things without questioning until. Until I was told at some point by various authoritative voices that my “real” talent was language and so I stopped creating anything in the visual arts, balked at my violin lessons, ceased even humming to my imaginary friends to send them to sleep at night. And a fear rooted in exclusivity and its attendant constraints began to haunt.
I was to be only a writer now, a poet. This was my gift. Every other kind of making in alternate mediums was barred, I now presumed, relegated to professionals. Which is not to emphasize that the poetic vocation remains at the core of nearly everything I undertake. Or to claim that when one only dabbles avidly one deserves acknowledged standing with an obvious master. It is solely to articulate that a multimedia, interdisciplinary, questing mind & praxis can only feed one’s central art form and offer it new breath and manifestations. And this belief means that waiting is not an option. To be discovered as it were, to be stamped with approval by the higher than thous. For such to occur is not important or even to be yearned for. Because when you are assuming a risk, handling Kafka’s axe in a sense, which exists to stir the frozen sea of the spirit and refuses to dull, there are no guarantees that, in your wielding, you will not reach blood before water, or even freeze prior to fulfilling your task at all. Not that there is an end or aim you are striving for, but the process itself implies the pursuit. You are alone & the night is growing colder, will you stop?
DIY and what we call commercial or professionalized modes of producing and distributing art are not a one or the other proposition. Many view it like this, as a chosen system and identity. If one has a trade book, then does one still produce chapbooks, appear in zines? If one does the latter then is it a capitulation, a betrayal to appear in book form? Who is the REAL artist? I believe instead in a merging of more “daylighted” kinds of disseminating art – in the case of my poetry, this has meant trade books, partially funded tours, sanctioned paths of periodical submission and reviews – and the “subterranean” if you will – where not only some of my writing but all my other arts, old-school or technological as they may be, such as earlier, primitive sculpture/mixed media painting and currently, musical recordings, experimental film and nature/portrait photographs are appearing – minor blogs, obscure Youtube channels, low-run chapbooks, handmade zines, small press fairs, liminal reading series, coffee shop galleries.
And here we arrive at Aristotle’s notion that there are two separate forms of making (though we will also resist this binarism): inspired creation or poesis and techne. These two approaches could be represented by the flash flood one is caught in and possibly whooshed away by and the tool kit which one opens, deliberately, to construct an object out of specific sources: a hammer, a drill, some ¾ inch nails. These tools could be so much wilder than we envisage though. And then too, entering by the door of techne or form or craft (something that critic Dean Young unfortunately pooh-poohs as antithetical to the recklessness of art) one can indeed still be engulfed by the torrent of a Coleridgean inspiration, instigated by opiates or no. This distinction between poesis and techne is useful only to me in defining a contrast between my primary art – poetry – and the other arts that have served to channel or prove vehicle for its force. Poetry is so rich, exuberant and profligate a practice that it cannot confine itself to any typified expectations but must ivy-climb or tentacle-glom onto other modes, not to claim, as stated, an equal standing in their making to those who have devoted whole lives to the struggle with such materials and visions, but to pay homage to the great connect among all entities and expressions, to locate unforeseen kinds of speaking that may become song. As Mary Ruefle exclaims, “Poets love possibility! They love to wonder & explore!”
But to do so fully, a DIY ethos has to be nourished, both accepted and celebrated. We have to take a stance that situates itself outside as much authority as it can, that champions the peripheral, the edgy, the unknown, that rejoices at even the absence of reception, surging onwards with its excess exuberance, inscribing a joy in the oft tedious parts of making: the stitching together of pages for a chapbook or images for a film, the painstaking listening for blips in playback. Of course this is all an act of rebellion! Though DIY creation may use corporate programs (MS Word, Photoshop, Studio One, Page Maker, VideoPad Editor) to elucidate its dreaming, these makings remain free of the market, unbound by pressures to either produce or sell. Neither do they plead to be worshipped or care excessively if derided. Without a fixed goal, they crave little recompense beyond the breathless amour of process & its wily magic.
To embrace the DIY modus to the point where it embeds itself in you is to subsume the waiting image of a Romantic lightning bolt within the active account of a techne so constant, prevalent and faithful that its very pursuit becomes indistinguishable from the apparently unbidden “zap.” In the words of Raymond Queneau, “The poet is never inspired because he is always inspired.” Or Kim Stafford on his poet-father, William: “Writer was part of a larger calling he named Seeker.”
Making DIY means living as a seeker, accepting, as in Margaret Avison’s poem, the “whirlpool” with its potential “black pit” and its also likely “ample waters” beyond, whether or not you ever attain the “silver reaches of the estuary.”