Tag Archives: writing

Acts of Recording (Part II)

I write/draw, therefore I am.

It takes a certain human madness to record events the way we do.

Whether events of the physical world or events of the internal mind (one has active effects on the other of course), we madly, compulsively seek ways to pin these all down in some form or another. Transcripts, minutes, words, video, every angle dreamt up by the spatial and dimension-aware mind, and it will be attempted. The nature of these documentations are as disparate as their outcomes: sometimes transient like graffiti and popular music; sometimes permanent like architecture and novels, sometimes humble and private, other times attention-seeking and explosive. Egoism of varying gradients also colour these intentions.

I suspect that part of this is born from a distrust of the human memory. Memory not only fails us at times where we most have need for lessons from the past, but it is also fickle, biased, transformative and tirelessly reflexive. You’d think that having a digital memory, a repository of permanent data, would make us happier beings. But no – ’tis not so.

As Malcolm Turnbull touchingly reflects:

For all of human history until today, the natural order of things has been to forget. We have had to make an effort to remember – whether it is painting on the walls of a cave, writing a diary, transcribing the proceedings of a parliament.

And when we remember things we often transform them. We push unhappy memories aside and remember the happy ones.

Lucy and I lived together in Oxford for nearly a year. I have no doubt the weather was as regularly grey and gloomy in 1980 as it usually is. But my memory of Oxford with Lucy is only full of sunshine. And not just the blissful sunshine of young love. Almost all of the photographs we took and dutifully pasted in our album were taken on one, the only one, blue skied, sunshining day. When I think of our time in Oxford the images that come to mind are that handful of snapshots.

So now as it is so cheap and effortless to remember and we live more and more of our lives online, how can we forget? For millions of years the frailty of human memory has deleted recollections, but the digital brain that is the Internet never forgets.

You had forgotten being drunk and stupid at a party at university – so had everyone else by the way. But someone took some pictures, put them on Facebook, tagged you and now years later they are turned up in a search by your would-be employer.

Millions of people today converse with their friends online, on Facebook or similar sites, by email, by text message. They are creating a transcript of their lives. So how can they forget the cruel slights of the year before last – the human brain defaults to delete, the digital brain defaults to remember, forever.

How can we forgive, if we cannot forget?

And also:

We document so as to carve out a source of existential comfort that lasts longer than our short-lived selves, and to share and expand the space that we occupy in the world. Andy Warhol was drawn to the TV medium because the wider the reach of your persona, the bigger the space you (metaphysically) inhabit becomes.

Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, most exclusively on the telephone and least exclusively on television.

Is this documentation rational?

Meaning, does our recording of any and all events have any lasting use other than the immediate effect of existential and social gratification? As documentation-receivers simultaneously also, do we have the attention space to take in all of these multiplex, kaleidoscopic accounts of the here and now? What happens to the intensity and duration of attention given? What happens to the collective record of human history? Who gets to choose which voices get to be included, and is it possible to include all voices in this documentation? Does the maxim ‘history is written by the victors’ still hold? Who writes history?

This is the ultimate, humorous paradox of choice.

Other questions push their way forwards. Where will be future generations look to for comprehensive records of history? Newspapers, former journals of record do not tell the full tale of humanity, nor have they ever. But while the ability to record and document of ordinary citizens has always been, unlimited access to universal readership did not. We live in a time where everyone from a housewife in Japan to a teenager in rural Victoria to an unhappy businessman in the big city now has that.

So many questions will only come to be answered as the coming changes actually arrive. This will be organic; these changes will almost all be incidental and even accidental. For now though, I would suggest more concerted attempts to curate time-series summaries, reports, reviews, of the mediums on which we record and document on a daily basis. Mosaics combining photojournalism, tweets, moving coverage, static words on a page for a momentous, historical watershed event – such as for election day, natural disasters, bombings – or even a single day – are an ideal example.

If intentionally we undertake these for each humanity-changing event, it will not only make it easier for future generations to gain a holistic glimpse of any single event, but also gives us a chance, here and now, to be more inclusive of the sheer overwhelming diversity in human experiences than ever before.

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Alternatives

It’s 2.45am, which gives me the itch to start writing again.

I tell many of my friends that I write optimally between 1 and 4 in the morning, but truthfully optimal writing hours are just another facet of established routine. I could just as easily write best at 2.45 in the afternoon. Of course, it’s nice to paint a little portrait of myself as some kind of nocturnal blogger, but there’s really nothing dramatically different about writing in the nighttime than any other time – unless it’s the quietness that almost every writer craves. Although, that’s probably just be another product of routine. So far, I’ve tried not to be explicitly self-aware in my posts, because while writing is an inherently introspective task – it requires you to reach inwardly to tell a story about the outside world – I worry that self-consciousness in writing is a sign of the nervousness of publishing. It tries too hard to explain itself, and to offer some of the personality behind the words, and most of all it doesn’t let the words speak for themselves.

Nevertheless, today (tonight) I’m going to write about, well, writing. I’ve always been interested in alternatives and I think writing should provide that. Not only creative fiction that produces imagined worlds or alternative histories, but the very nature of writing should be to offer up possibilities. A world without alternative ideas is dangerous – this is why it is of course important that we have people like Mitt Romney, the GOP, and communism. In much the same way that the threat of communism serves as the conscience of capitalism, to ensure the winners of today don’t overdo or abuse their successes, alternative ideas fight off the complacency of today’s hegemony. I don’t want to live in a world where everyone agrees on the way that taxes should be cut, or where no one will argue with me that Justin Bieber sucks balls. That would mean that 1. no one cares enough to argue anymore, or 2. we’ve reached some enlightened stage of utopia where everything is perfect and nothing hurts, in which case Justin Bieber wouldn’t exist anyway.

Of course, writing is unquestionably tied to reading. I do a lot of reading, anytime I get a chance, at almost anything I come across that seems worthwhile, and I’ve noticed some conflicting realities that are particularly important to me. I’ve realised that journalism is a lot about criticising, and done well, by which I mean impartially, it’s about criticising everything. I’m not sure I want to be like that, but at the same time I know it’s possibly the best way you can fulfil that journalistic role – to be critical. To question everything, to be the tireless crusader, for even the slightest chance that you might open up a tiny window of alternative thinking in a reader’s head, that seems like a noble dream if anything.

Or is it better to be like a camera? To be the truth teller, to let readers take what they may and be the masters of their own thinking. To be a prism through which information passes, to be as neutral as Switzerland – this seems like another noble pursuit.

Deep down I’m still hoping there’s a way to reconcile these two despairingly different journalistic approaches, and maybe there is. Some of the best reads I’ve ever had are critical, hard-hitting, biting pieces of commentary, but at the same time wonderfully objective because its authors hate everything equally.

Because what is writing if not to challenge what the norm is? If not to break down and destroy what is known and accepted and comfortable? If not to leave people with the new loneliness of knowing nothing, which then sets them free to start their own journey of information gathering and wisdom seeking? How do we ever know what is true anyway? Is it not too much to ask of journalists to make their stories true and not too leftist and not too rightist? If we don’t know what ‘truth’ is, then why should they? Should we not make our own assessments, in spite of all the criticism and bias that is thrown at us between the lines?

I want to create alternatives. I want people to think about the alternatives that exist, and to think up of new ones. When the time comes, I hope that this will happen no matter whether I am writing as a critical bitch or as a camera.

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To Be Enjoyed in Moderation

So you want to write. So you want to direct blockbuster films, and compose the best music there ever was. So you want to make good art. What do you do? Well, if you’re hardworking and have a good eye for what works and what doesn’t, you’ll find a forum on which to put yourself out there, get the word around and attract people who appreciate what you do.

Increasingly in this age of technological self-made fame, most of the artists that you and I know have followed this recipe to become the next big thing. Sites like Youtube, Thought Catalog, Flickr, DeviantART are teeming with overwhelming bundles of creativity. I say ‘bundles’ because it’s precisely that: creativity neatly organised in a single place where you can find all sorts of outlet for artistic expression. That whoever’s out there must then plough through to find those rare bursts of true talent that speak straight to the heart, and sometimes even to millions if they’re lucky. It really takes a good mix of inspiration, perspiration and sheer luck (Edison never mentioned that!)

Having said that, after trawling through sites, galleries and blogs on an almost daily basis, I can say that the price of sifting through the mundane and the uninspired is worth it a hundred fold for every time I stumble upon a rare gem: a shining diamond of truth out of the yawning gloom of the internet, something really worth telling your more artistically inclined friends about over brunch. But what does it mean when everything is concentrated in one massive hub, like a library, like a museum? It means that you have to go searching for what is really good. It means that in a community made up of self-publishing, self-critiquing individuals, we are our own audience.

Self-conscious mediums that generate huge quantities of art prime its viewers and listeners to stay guarded on quality control. We become more selective, more judgmental because we have more choice. The thing is, you aren’t supposed to go looking for good art. Good art is supposed to be there, it’s supposed to stand out singularly, not crowded in by all the mediocre art and poor art around it.

Writing that sits in a blog doesn’t have quite the same holding power that a single book has. It doesn’t yell at you like an image on a billboard does. A homemade clip can be hard to distinguish from a million others. And when you go to see an exhibition, the sheer volume of good art can keep you from enjoying each painting for itself, separate from the experience of the others.

Think back to the most moving works of art you’ve seen. I bet it was spontaneous, when you least expected it, and didn’t it enliven you to see it? Maybe it happened when you were tired from navigating a whole day in downtown Tokyo, and saw a painter sitting on the street, tiny ceramic tile in hand, painting his mind. Maybe it was a short silent film in the middle of a rowdy place, with emotions that you recognised and words you substituted for your own.

Will we always remember these lone beauties that deserve a unique place in our memories? I say yes, we will. After all, what is art if it doesn’t tie us to our experience of that time, in that place? Who wants to remember sitting at their laptop in their room when they discovered the book/song/movie that changed their life?

Like anything else, art struggles to be heard. But good art never struggles. A writer once said, ‘In art as in love, instinct is enough.’ We know this. Just that sometimes, it’s hard to get there. In other words, this is the war of finding the one.

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