Thursday, 25 February 2010

Space, again

I've got a friend who's an English teacher in a small village school in the Swiss mountains. His son is now at university, also training to be an English teacher. When I asked him why he wanted to do a job so involving and demanding as his father's, he said that he intended to get a smaller house so that he wouldn't need so much money.

And then he said that he'd noticed that if you work all the time you're not able to have really interesting and creative thoughts.

This brought me back to three types of creative response I've been thinking about. The first type of response is a reaction to demands and pressures from the outside. External pressures and constraints can generate responses quite intensely, and often at least partly unconsciously.

The second type of response moves in the opposite direction. Directed by will and intention, it moves outwards, consciously. It may try to 'tap into' unconscious, non-intentional elements, but there's likely to be a degree of trying involved.

The third type of response is that alluded to in the two excerpts from the Tao Te Ching I quoted earlier. This seems to be characterised by a kind of allowing, which is neither stimulated by outside pressures, nor the result of intention.

Between heaven and earth
is a space like a bellows;
empty and inexhaustible,
the more it is used, the more it produces.

This response seems to emerge, quietly, out of empty space. It isn't stimulated by pressure and constraint, and it isn't willed into being.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Creativity and academia

Academic life certainly provides multiple opportunities for creative responses. Some people might argue that the particular constraints of the academic context are conducive to their creativity - that they need those constraints to make something happen. It worked for me for years.  But in the end it stopped working.

Perhaps it just ran its course. Perhaps the intensity of the creative responses required for dealing with multiple excitements simultaneously, year after year, just tired me out. Julia Cameron, in The Artist's Way, talking about teaching aspects of the creative arts in universities, suggests that much of academic practice focusses on breaking things down, teasing things apart. By contrast, she suggests that the creative arts are concerned with making, with putting together. I think we need very much to learn to break apart, to analyse, to question the taken-for-granted. But perhaps the endlessly breaking apart can also become a negative kind of fragmentation, an eroding.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Why blog?

Why do I write this blog? It doesn't seem to bother me that no-one is actually reading it. In fact, I find the idea of the internet world, in theory, having access to it, very weird. But it's not a diary, either. There's something to do with the potential of someone finding it and reading that I like, whether or not it actually happens.

I partly write it as an affirmation. All around me, people are tired, and stressed, and rushing about. Children are causing problems, parents need care, there's not enough money. No-one seems to have time to care for themselves. I'm not talking luxury weekends away here, or expensive massages. Just basic care, of basic needs. Allowing oneself to exist in the midst of it all.

Allowing for creativity is like clearing away the dead leaves. There is death and poverty and injustice and suffering. And there's also the pale blue of sun-tinged sky, the feel of purple angora rubbing against your fingers. At the Edinburgh book festival a couple of years ago, Ben Okri said something about the world needing enchantment. I suddenly understood that it was not escapism, or selfishness, to want to use your imagination. To want to sink into the velvet complexity of a jazz chord. To find yourself breathless at the way indigo soaks into red....

Friday, 19 February 2010

Space makes form

Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub:
it is on the hole in the centre that
the use of the cart hinges.

Shape clay into a vessel:
it is the space within that makes it useful.
Carve fine doors and windows,
but the room is useful in its emptiness.

The usefulness of what is
depends on what is not.
Tao Te Ching, 11

'A composer once told me that the silence from which each note emerges is more important than the note itself. He said that it's the empty space between the notes that literally allows the music to be music - if there's no void, there's only continuous sound' (Dyer, 2007:54)

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A space like a bellows...

The Tao is empty
but inexhaustible,
the ancestor of it all.

Within it, the sharp edges become smooth;
the twisted knots loosen;
the sun is softened by a cloud;
the dust settles into place.

It is hidden but always present
I do not know who gave birth to it
It seems to be the common ancestor of all, the father all things.

(Tao Te Ching, v.4)

Between heaven and earth
is a space like a bellows;
empty and inexhaustible,
the more it is used, the more it produces.

(Tao Te Ching, v.5)

Sunday, 7 February 2010


I keep coming back to the idea of creativity as response. But what kind of response? Not all responses are helpful. If you read the Tao Te Ching, a very old Chinese text, the idea of not responding comes up continually. From a different, but related, perspective, Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that  'we routinely and unknowingly waste an enormous amount of energy in reacting automatically and unconsciously to the outside world, and to our own inner experience'. Kabat-Zinn pioneered the use of mindfulness as a technique for overcoming stress-related illnesses in the 1970s, and since then he and others have been using ideas from Buddhist psychology/ metaphysics in health care with quite dramatic results.  He suggests that mindfulness can be seen as a lens which 'takes the scattered and reactive energies of your mind and focusses them into a coherent source of energy for living, for problem-solving...'. Presumably, in a mindful state, a person still responds, but the implication is that they respond in certain ways, and not in others.

One way of seeing creativity is as a biological attribute of life itself. For human organisms, the capacity to respond creatively is an essential survival mechanism which makes it possible for the system to continually adjust to threats and opportunities in its environment. From this perspective it might be argued that the desire to create, the urge to make, is simply a basic biological function that emerges into human awareness in a variety of ways, accompanied by particular emotional colours and flavours. For those of us who no longer have to make things to simply eat or otherwise survive, those colours and flavours might only nudge occasionally, or might have faded into the smallest possible whisper.  

When you feel the inky coldness of  perylene green (1) creeping up your foot from the toe you've just dipped into the algae of your mind, what kind of responses might be positive and productive, and which might be negative and obstructive?

(1) the green of the image in this post

Saturday, 6 February 2010

A visual idea...

I'm working on a logo at the moment for a charity. Watching it evolve got me pondering on how people might think about the creation of visual ideas.

Do people perhaps imagine that a designer first creates an idea in their mind, and then 'realises it' through their technical skill? Watching myself, I see that this isn't really what's happening.

The idea itself is hazy. The charity (Pregnancy and Parents Centre) want a sense of community, connection, inclusiveness, openness, extended family. They don't want simply a baby or a pregnant woman. As I'm told this, the image I get is of a kid's paper chain of people, joined together at the hands. It's simple, not very original, but the only image I'm getting. So I cut out some people.

The materials strongly influence what happens; the way the scissors cut the card, the thickness of the card. Once I have the people, I realise I can move them around, so different kinds of grouping become possible.  I put the figures in a circle, then see I can reverse the colours and have something different again.

Then I realised that I need to make a template so that I can make adjustments to the figures and try out different colours. I've coloured in about three versions of the template before I realise that the template is a potential logo in itself.

I would never have imagined this image - it could only appear through the process of working the idea through time with the materials; interacting with ideas, with results, with material effects, with unexpected mistakes and accidents.

This makes me think about the idea of creativity as response again, because the next thing I do is look at the template and decide it's all got too stiff, and make a new version, freehand, in ink, trying to get away from something that's started to happen that I don't really like...

Working for the first time in any art medium, we tend to think that the result has to be known before we start. ...We don't realise that the experienced dancer or painter might begin by simply moving and making gestures with art materials. One movement leads to another... (McNiff,1998:13)

The point here, for me, is that you simply have to get on and just do it. All the cleaning and procrastination are avoidance tactics, trying to get away from an unconscious sense in your mind that soon you're going to have to sit down and 'come up with an idea'. In fact, you don't have to do any such thing. You have to release your mind just enough to let a single idea appear (as you hoover...), and then you simply get some materials and start to play. That's all. Ha! The problem seems to be getting out of the way, so that this actually very simply process can begin to happen....


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