Creativity & Waste

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the weirdness of the digital universe we now inhabit. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the internet, social media, and how it relates to the creative process.

Part of my job revolves around keeping my company’s social media channels updated. So I spend a chunk of my working day monitoring Twitter and Facebook feeds, commenting on things, posting and retweeting stuff, all so that more people pay attention to us online.

It’s a bizarre state of affairs when you think about it: thousands of people are now employed to do this, almost as though social media ‘likes’ have become a de facto currency, a form of ranking in an online hierarchy (much like s3 e1 of Black Mirror – but I need to stop referring to Black Mirror now, as I’ve done it in three recent posts).

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A few months ago, I watched a video of a conversation that took place during Ableton’s Loop conference in Berlin. The speakers were discussing ways to overcome creative blocks. They talked about the importance of discipline, setting limits, creating structures, and dealing with the aspects of the creative process that are tedious and boring.

There was a comment made by composer Matthew Herbert that I’ve had rattling around in the back of my brain ever since. He said ‘we need to accept that music is now a form of waste. The same as food and clothes. We’re just sort of spewing it out and no-one’s listening any more’.

He felt that the work that artists and producers spend weeks, months or years working on, is spat out into a digital landscape that is so saturated that most of it goes unnoticed. Without a coherent philosophy underpinning the creative process, he argues, the act of making music just becomes the act of ‘plopping out waste’.

The whole conversation was confronting one of the unintended consequences of the democratisation of creativity and distribution brought by the internet: anyone can upload anything, which brings with it the unprecedented freedom for all of us to express what we think, feel, desire. But The flipside is a world of banality, short attention spans dulled by trivia, and complex ideas reduced to brief, fluttering memes.

(Paul Virilio put this another way: ‘the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck’.)

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This is a bit disheartening if you’re a musician or writer trying to find a voice, knowing full well that most of what you spend your time on (like this blog post) is basically irrelevant and will be immediately be forgotten.

But though the online world maybe awash with bullshit, what we do still have is space: space to experiment, try things out, make mistakes and try again. Even if (maybe especially if) no one is paying any attention.

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Entropy & Dread [watching the world burn through a screen]

A kind of entropy, a pressure pushing down on my consciousness has been working on me for a while now, as though there’s a dimmer light glowing in my soul, an emotional flatness filling my being. I feel less surprised, less shocked by things, even when the world looks like it’s turning to shit, and chaos and confusion lie around every corner. I’m not just talking about the election of Trump, I’m battling an overall sense that my senses are being dulled by forces inside and outside of me.

It’s a feeling that Adam Curtis seemed to be getting at in Hypernormalisation – the idea that the ‘real’ world has become such a hideous and distorted farce that we’re all in retreat from it, vanishing into cyber worlds, seeking alternate realities online, even though these are in turn controlled by corporations who can influence which narratives we click on.

Hypernormalisation took some stamina to watch, and by the time I’d got through all 2hours and 40 minutes of it, the feeling of dread had only intensified. But it touched on many things that resonated: the idea that politics is now a form of theatre, divorced from any tangible ‘facts’ in the real world. A spectacle that allows a showman, a manipulator of words and images (like Trump) to gain vast amounts of control.


It feels like reality and fiction are constantly bleeding into each other, melting and rearranging our perception. Science fiction or satire can’t really keep up anymore, because there’s no more fixed reality to satirise or parody, no dystopia that can envision things that aren’t already happening. Take Black Mirror: it’s scary as fuck, but not because it foretells some dark future that we’re slipping towards, but because everything it depicts is already coming to pass.

Social media also plays a big part in the sense of alienation, I think. Dave Egger’s The Circle, which I read over a year ago, has been playing on my mind ever since. I can’t shake his prediction that the impulse for us to ‘share’ our lives online will eventually lead to individual privacy being seen as a crime. More than that, it feels as though our entire perception of reality is being flattened: we experience a mediated reality, where murderous atrocities occupy the same amount of screen time as celebrity cooking programmes.

If there’s one TV character who embodies this state of permanent headfuck, it would have to be Eliot from Mr Robot: drug-addled, overwhelmed with neurosis and social anxiety and possibly psychotic. A hacker constantly seeking not only to bring down the monolithic power structures around him, but also to understand himself, and trying to pry apart the complexities of people around him.


I keep referring to films, books, TV to sort through my thoughts. This was one of Adam Curtis’ critiques of the radicals of the 60s: that they retreated from the harsh political reality around them to focus instead on music and art. But how do you engage with the world through the traditional political channels, when what you’re trying to engage with is a mirage and those supposedly representing you, whose twisted nature is plain to see, insult your senses in their claims to truth?

At the moment, It feels to me that it’s through these avenues – art, music, film – that the honesty of our emotions can come through, offering us a little sliver of space where we can be open about our brokenness, our sense of dislocation, the feeling of inner blankness that come from watching the world burn through a screen.

The Cave Dweller

The cave wasn’t difficult to find. Jazz and I had been walking through the woods for about two hours and we were headed back to the main road when she took me on a small detour to see it. She told me that the cave was sometimes used as a refuge by homeless people, those who had the will to escape the city for a few days, weeks, months.

We clambered down a short bit of hillside and walked in to find a small fire burning in a pit in the middle. Bundles of wood were piled up near the entrance, and scattered around were other signs of habitation: a sleeping bag against one stone wall, a small pile of books, a few cups.

He strolled in slowly a few minutes later, a brief moment of tension descending as we set eyes on each other, and evaporating just as quickly. He was bearded, dreadlocks tied back, wearing a warm jumper, torn black jeans, and work boots. He didn’t seem surprised to see us. “I saw you coming” he said, without any malevolence. Like a tracker, used to noting tiny movements in the forest. If anything, he seemed please to see some other humans.

Tea?” he asked. He filled a black kettle that had been nesting next to the fire with water from a two-litre bottle. We each picked up one of the cups that was dotted around the cave, cleaning them out with a few drops of water and rags. He talked as the water boiled.

He’d been homeless and living in and around Bristol for several years. Most recently, he’d been living in a small encampment with a few others, in a park in the east of the city. Before that, he’d been in a teepee, out in the countryside.

For a while, he’d lived in a house he’d built himself on the beach, made from bits of driftwood and discarded odds and ends. He told us that the walls were thick and the roof waterproof. He’d even had a sound system in there. It was when the local council discovered that he had electricity from a generator that they asked him to take down the building. He refused to do it but left peacefully.

As he talked it became clear that unlike many of the people sleeping rough around the city, he hadn’t just been thrown there by harsh circumstance. He talked of a time when he’d had a job and a car. But something in him had ruptured. A sense, maybe, that the forces acting upon him, acting upon us all, needed to be resisted. He was living in the cave by choice, removing himself from the logic of money, the hum of mobile phones, the clatter of people rattling against each other in the city. “We all need to take a step back from civilisation sometimes”, he said.

He’d discovered the cave a few days earlier and was determined to stay there for the winter, scavenging what he could find. He talked of foraging for mushrooms, keeping his hands busy by cleaning up the cave, using the stones by the entrance to build something. He seemed guided by his own inner need to know that he could survive, despite the threat of being blasted by rain or snow, or having his head kicked in while he slept, by night time wanderers less friendly than he.

The sky outside was darkening and our cups were almost empty. We said goodbye, telling him that we would bring him some provisions next time. He gave us a hug as we left, pleased to see that people from the city still hugged strangers.

Winter Blues

Each year I know it’s coming, and each year I try fool myself into thinking that I’ve got a handle on things, that I’m stronger now and it won’t affect me. But October rolls round and my moods start fluctuating wildly, like the needle on a seismograph, just before an earthquake is about to hit.

I blunder through hyperactive bursts of energy. I’m out three nights in a row. I’m running around, doing things, going to classes, trying to keep myself out of the encroaching doom of my bedroom. I eat shitloads. I want wine, I want sex. Or I want nothing at all but to be left alone. I crash. I struggle to crawl out of bed in the morning.

None of this is new. I’ve been through episodes of depression my whole adult life, warped by the unceasing bleakness of British winters. It’s a familiar state of affairs, like a weird and unpleasant sofa-surfer who keeps turning up at your house and crashing in your living room, leaving his crusted socks on your landing. Like: ‘Not you again, you filthy fucker…’

(In another life, I used to be the sofa-surfer).

I’ve been to the doctor before with the standard litany of symptoms: lethargy, exhaustion, , feeling flat, irritation, lack of concentration. There’s a name of for all of this: Seasonal Affective Disorder. It makes me feel a bit better in a way, knowing there’s an actual reason that this is happening to me and it’s not just that my brain is fucked in some innate way.

Maybe there’s some consolation to be found, as well, in the fact that even though we’re penned up in cities, as creatures we’re still connected to the changing of the seasons. The cycles of the elements still affect us intimately.

That doesn’t make it any easier though. Not seeing a blue sky for weeks on end does very wonky things to my brain waves. It’s as though my head is in a vice: full of compressed thoughts, unable to escape. The same ruminations keep ricocheting around my skull, circling endlessly. My failures and inadequacies, real or imagined (mostly imagined), are repeated on an endless reel, as though I’m being continually told off by some inner headteacher.

At other times, it feels like I’m underwater, trying to walk across a river bed, pushing against the current. Small things feel harder to do. My room descends into chaos. It’s harder to stay connected. It’s harder to explain myself to people. The urge to retreat and hibernate intensifies.

The bleakness of the UK seems almost comical. It’s a bad idea to watch things like Black Mirror in this state, but I do it anyway. Everything takes on a slightly dystopian tinge. Bad vibes pervade. And trying to get my head round the total mindfuck of our political situation is too much.

It’s also harder to write, what with my self-confidence struggling for air. But it’s at moments at these when writing is all the more important – a conduit for the weirdness of my emotions: get the thoughts out of my head and onto the paper, or at least onto the screen and into the internet ether.

I’ve been here enough times to know what I need to not go insane. It’s just nature sending me a little reminder that I need to remember to take care of myself. Eat well. Try and talk to people. Stay active. Get back to my body. Make music. Write. Meditate. If I do all of those things, it will probably be ok.

 

Elsewhere

Most of my adult life I’ve been haunted by a craving to be Elsewhere. Somewhere else. Somewhere other than here.

The constant stomach-churn of restlessness, wanderlust, dissatisfaction and disillusionment has led me to have 20 or more addresses over the past decade. Many times, I’ve upped sticks, quit jobs and fled, obeying inner commands to seek answers on the road.

A Sufi friend once told me that the self is hell. In seeking Elsewhere I’ve been seeking to escape myself – the inner conflicts and whirring thoughts that bedevil my consciousness.

But in spending weeks, sometimes months, in foreign lands, I’m often confronted with myself more violently then when I was at home (and where is that?).

Not feeling at home in myself, I keep trying to run. All the while knowing I’m going in the wrong direction.

I’ve been looking at the map upside down. Where I need to go is inward. What I need to learn is how to be, how to exist in the present, how to feel alright in myself, and how to remember that the self is an illusion.

Dirt and Slime

[thoughts inspired by listening to an Ital Tek mix on a Friday morning]

 

 

We’re afraid of being human. That’s why we lose ourselves in screens.

Secretly, we’re willing ourselves to be machines: we want to become beings of information, our consciousness transplanted onto microprocessors, our organs replaced by motherboards.

We want to be machines because we’re terrified of the fact that we used to be animals. Animals that fuck each other in the woods and kill each other for food.

If we become machines, we no longer have to confront the fact of death; we won’t rot and be forgotten. Once we start to fail, we’ll just reinstall our operating system.

We don’t want to be humans because to be a human means to have once crawled out of the dirt and the slime. We want to forget that we used to have coyotes and sealions as our kin.

We don’t want to be humans.

We want to be machines so that we can cast off our bodies and exit this planet.

Sound has no Form

[perspectives on sound as a healing technology]

Part 1: Buddhism

It’s been an intense few months. Despite escaping the dread of winter and landing a new job, mental fluctuations, heartaches and pervasive anxiety have all been taking their toll, while the part-time nature of my work means economic precarity is a constant. As a result, I’ve been exploring practices to help ground myself.

I’ve tried to practice meditation in some form for a number of years now, first attending guided sessions at a Buddhist centre in North London, in between shifts as a project worker in homeless hostels. It’s something I’ve dipped in and out of, and have tended to return to in moments of difficulty.

Recently, I’ve become increasingly curious about the idea of using sound as a vehicle for meditation. It seemed like a natural continuation of things I’ve been thinking about, especially given the fact that I’ve always found music and writing to be meditative in and of themselves. Both are ways of eliciting altered states, in which the ruminating and over-analytical aspects of my mind subside, and it becomes easier to access states of deep concentration, focus and flow.

That’s what led me to attend a couple of sound meditation sessions, using singing bowls, led by a former Tibetan Buddhist monk now residing in Bristol.

One of the things I remember best from the first session I went to was the idea of ‘showering the mind’: the idea that we should be taking the time to become aware of what is happening within us – psychologically and emotionally – in the same way that we generally take the time to clean our physical bodies every day.

The other thing I took a way was the idea that the sound has no form. Sound is powerful, transformative even, but it is also transient. This is reflected in the practice of meditation, which is a tool for being able to observe the passing of our thoughts, without judgement and without entering into dialogue with them. The idea of sound as a healing technology is central to the practices of both Buddhism and Hinduism, especially in the form of chanting mantras, but also in the use of singing bowls, which are tuned to different frequencies, designed to affect the body in different ways and create different emotional responses.

In practice, while meditating to the sound of the bowls, I found that my mind was sometimes caught between trying to focus on my own breath, as it is usually is during meditation, and on the timbre of the sound I was hearing. Nonetheless, the experience of focusing on one tone at a time opened up a fresh space in my head, less clouded by thoughts and the cycle of constant internal chatter.