• The Secret Books
    The Secret Books
    by Jorge Luis Borges, Sean Kernan
  • Among Trees
    Among Trees
Teaching and Lecturing

About the exercise below...

When I first encountered this exercise (in a book about the Tibetan practice of Dzogchen and science) I tried it. The experience took me to a place I first thought about  years ago.

I am aware of how the eye kind of darts around and accumulates details like a groundsman picking up scraps of paper, and how the mind then looks at them all and makes something out of them.

Years ago I read a line from Paul Valery that said, "Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees."  I thought that there was something about  photography in it. Something like that one first sees, without comment or thought, and then one begins to think whatever it sees into ones framework, and in order to do that one chops pieces of it away. We  "know" the result, but it is not nearly as rich as it was that first moment. And I thought that if one could learn to float in that space between seeing and naming, one could see amazing things...and take pictures. This exercise seems a way to do just that. 

What I noticed when doing it was how inclined I was to  reflexively scramble back to looking with the center of the vision. And when I did, I noticed at once that something was missing.

And when others did the exercise I saw that some people couldn't let go of the center in the first place. They thought that concentrating was the point of the whole exercise.

As for this video cited below, I thought how much her experience showed how this division between seeing and naming works  as a function of the two hemispheres, as well as how the left brain, the "thinker", mediates the pure vision of the right. Quite necessary on the one hand, but a bit of an overtrained muscle in most of us. It has been given the impression that it has been put in charge, and it does not give that up easily.

Which was why I was so taken by the little exercise that kind of slips around behind the left brain without it noticing.  I find this photo works somewhat the same way. The CenterEye wants to accumulate it but it can't, so the whole vision stays in play. When I look at it I can feel my eye trying to pull it into focus.



The Artist's Vision: A Way You Can Get To It.

You've already got that vision already...artist or not. It can be hard to get a clear sense of it through the thought process. But here's a way to experience it  directly.

To begin, go and watch this short video: It is a talk by a neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke and had enough presence to watch the whole thing as it unfolded. (It seems to have gone viral, so you may have seen it already.)

When you’re done, come back and do this exercise:

First, find something to focus your gaze on (not your monitor, obviously). Look at for a minute or so, noticing the desire to flick your eyes around. Stay with your object until it abates a bit.

Now, without moving your eyes, shift your awareness to the right of your field of vision. Hold it there until you get used to dividing your attention from your focus .

Then shift your awareness to the left of the object of your focus. Again, don't look  with your eyes, just with attention and awareness.

After a minute or so go back to the right side with your attention.

And now place your awareness on both sides of your field of vision, still without moving your eyes. Stay with this for a bit, until the awareness of the broader view is stronger than the (habitual) impulse to keep looking around.

Now, keeping your awareness in this wide-vision mode, get up and start moving through your environment. Go outside and try it. Practice it a bit, stay in that state as long as you can and hold the awareness without thinking.

Normally at this point I might say, "At this point you should notice..." But better, I think, to ask you to try it and post your own experience in the Comments section just below this post.

I did this exercise recently with a group at Art Center in Pasadena. It was the weekend, and this huge building with its endless corridors, unexpected angles and changes of levels, its glass walls and windows, was completely empty. I felt as though I had wandered into the final  sequence of the movie 2001. The experience was eerie and transformative.

So try it once, then do it a few more times, in different places. Then come back and post a comment. We'll see what happens in this mass experiment. At that point I will talk a bit more about all this.

Addendum: in talking with people and looking at a comment below, I need to clarify that the central thing that you look at is merely an anchor for your eyes while your awareness goes out to the sides. The awareness is the place to" look." OK, try again.


"That's not Art!" : A Speech I Never Gave.

I have a good number of notebooks lying around, Moleskines and others, interesting Paris-in-the-20s distressed covers, each  bought for a project or a trip. (Or sometimes I bought them hoping to precipitate a project.) Generally they are filled up to about page 8,  with a fountain pen if I remembered to bring one. The first pages gather thoughts around a particular idea, but by the end they are a stew of phone numbers in the city where I am, train schedules, international dialing codes, museum hours, and addresses of taxidermists  antiquarian book dealers and friends-of-friends.
I found one of these under a chair this morning and opened it. It contains notes for a speech but I can’t tell at all who the speech was meant for, or if I ever gave it, which is a little embarrassing. But the notes got me thinking. You too, maybe. Here they are, unedited…well, maybe a little.

The Speech
The first impulse is not to have a career, it is to know stuff and grow. It is wired in. We have in us the genetic structure that makes possible vision and speech, and we just have to start the pendulum swinging. Don’t have to to take a class in it. It just happens when we move around, look around. It is like some kind of inverse gravity that pulls upward.
Diane Arbus: “When I make money from a photograph I assume it is not a good photograph.”
Things to learn from Diane A (but don’t do like she did if you can possibly help it.)
She didn’t like to show (sell) work, she liked to give it to people who liked it. Just as well because her first portfolio, editioned at 50, sold 3.
Commercial photogs liked to talk about her because she represented a part of them that they mostly withheld energy from. Avedon was a huge admirer and supporter. At her funeral he said, “I’d like to be an artist like Diane.” Someone replied, “No you wouldn’t, Richard.”
Speech needs to state the notion of reality as constructed , not something ultimate.
To state the true natures of art and commerce and of how one can hold those two in the mind at the same time. Simple answer: don’t ever conflate the two, or insist that commerce be artistic or art be commercial. (Second is tougher.) They do touch at their edges, but not in their ultimate natures.
In commercial work, people do what they should, and there is no bad behavior, nothing extreme. In art people wind up doing what they ought not, what they don't expect to do, and there are oddities and extremes and contradictions, and that’s what makes it fuller, truer. Writers don’t begin with grammar or coherence of structure. They begin by burning with something they need, not so much to say but to find about.
A way to stay alive? Look at pictures, not for what they’re of or how they were made, but for the Change. If you do this, you can start to get a sense of what is seen new and what just fills the requirements.
One thing that seems to announce that art is in a work is that someone says, “That’s not art!” (Thinking of Chris Burden.)
Art is a freighted term, so maybe use something else. Call it Life—or Wake Up! Call it such-ness, awareness-for-it’s-own-sake.


Rude Shock at the Church of St. Paul Strand


Actually, St. Francis of Assisi, in Ranchos de Taos, NM. I think it is one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, along with the Olson house in Cushing, Maine. Also one of the most photographed, early on by Paul Strand, followed by everyone...and his brother.

 I first did it years ago, and it was hanging on a wall of a gallery when Ansel Adams spotted it. "Who did that?" he asked, and I piped up. "That's good," he said. "I like that better than mine." It was not true, but it was generous. I'll have to find that print and post it.

I was in New Mexico last week doing a piece of theater that I will talk about when I get my head around it.

Here's another picture of the church. A bit hoaxy, don't you think?




Hard, hard work.

        A student once asked the sculptor Richard Serra, “How do you avoid your uncertainty so you can do your work?” His answer was strong and a little ferocious. He said, “You begin from your uncertainty. If you’re not feeling insecure about your work, it’s because you haven’t begun it yet.”  
        It reminded me how I naturally maneuver my working state of mind toward ease and comfort, and how seldom good work comes to me in that state.
        In fact, when we’re really working out on our front edge, we are not at all sure of what we’re doing, and that’s exactly as it should be if we’re to do something that grows us instead of repeating what  grew us some other time.
        The English stage director Peter brook did a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the late ‘60s that was radical in every way, and the upheaval it caused in theater was equivalent to that which Robert Franks’s book, The Americans, created in photography. I know people who say that seeing the play changed their lives.
        When the company was in rehearsal, someone had the foresight to hire playwright David Selbourne  to attend rehearsals and keep a diary. It was published shortly after the play opened, but it has now been out of print for many years. I was able to find a copy recently, and it was fascinating.
        Selbourne simply came home and wrote after each rehearsal. He was writing from right inside the creative process itself, and that’s what he published. He didn’t opine and revise after the play opened.
        What I found so interesting was that during rehearsal no one had the sense that they were doing something ground-breaking. In fact, there was more than the usual amount of insecurity, anxiety and squabbling. And Brook himself was not the Bold Captain, but instead withdrew from the cast’s expressions of insecurity.
        And, in spite of everyone’s discomfort, the production made history.
        Rehearsal is always a time of stretching and trying new things, and if you are feeling serene during this period it is a pretty good indication that you are heading back toward the safety of whatever worked for you in the past.
You can make your own translations of this thought to your work process. But keep it in mind that you want things to fall apart. Either they will stay in pieces, or they will come together in some new way that renews you in the process.
        At least ‘til the next time.