CONABOR

A caution, dear reader, a warning from the outset that this post is a return to the characteristics of my earlier writings on this site; scenic route verbal meanderings. However, do not despair though, as I do, as always, eventually get to the point. You see, I agree with Mary Oliver’s observation that “attention without feeling is only a report.” You see, there must be an “openness”, an empathy, for me the attention must matter.

Impartiality is something I have struggled with in the academic world. Impartiality is just not me because I am certainly no removed observer. The reality is though, that none of us are. We colour everything we see and experience with…well, ourselves… and who we were and who we are and who we are to become. There must be an openness about how we affect what we report, and I’m not even talking about empathy here. Our points of view are unique and there is no impartiality. We need to admit that.

My art practice is definitely evidence of this, with my body and lived experience always being at the centre of it. Therefore my attention to even an academic field of study is coloured with feeling, not merely a point of view but my feeling! This translates into my writing, which although academia has often frowned upon it, I have pushed the limits of by embracing the personal. My Master’s dissertation is an example of this.

You see, if personal writing is telling one’s story, then academic writing analyses and evaluates that story and comments on it. “I” is at the centre of storytelling while in academic writing, the “I” is observer and commentator. I never could understand why the 2 could not live in harmony in academia. Certainly personal writing contains the writer’s experiences and personal views and feelings. But I believe academics were fooling themselves when they believed in an objective observer and writer. Hell, artists having been saying for years that art is subjective, and feminists supported this, claiming that the actual body is political.

Fortunately, academia is changing and becoming more inclusive and accepting. You see, there is very little point in writing something if nobody is going to read it. Imagine reams and reams of postgrad dissertations yellowing, gathering dust and fishmoths in every academic institution’s archives across the world, most only being read whilst being assessed and then never again.  So there is a movement now to make academic writing more readable and more relatable. So less jargon and less dense convoluted thinking and sentence structures, and more involvement, and, you guessed it…emotion! More relatable! This does not mean that as academics we cease to gather information from other sources in order to support and provide evidence of our personal points of view. We do, but now we are acknowledging the personal.

“Learn a little about the man and I guarantee you will look at his art differently,” I said that, and that is the value of writing critically about art, especially one’s own art. To quote one of my favourite authors on what he has to say about personal writing, Neil Gaiman:

Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.

Having a place the story starts and a place it’s going: that’s important.

Telling your story, as honestly as you can, and leaving out the things you don’t need, that’s vital…Because we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as humans, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.

I always hope that my writing is evidence of how to write reflexively and with emotion. Certainly my battles with my academic lecturers/mentors/assessors have left me with the self-belief that, for better or worse, I do write mostly with a pen that has been dipped into my innards. This is not to say that I do not adhere to the rigours of academia. I most certainly do, and thrill at the challenge. To be honest, the identifying of a problem and constructing a way to possibly solve it, and then arguing the hypothesis, is something I have become addicted to. In fact, having just completed my Master’s I am already contemplating my doctorate.

In the past, the study of Latin was considered the best suitable foundation and preparation for a life in academia. In fact Latin was once the universal academic language in Europe, and was even taught in middle and upper class schools to those who aimed for the highest level of education. Even today this so-called dead language continues to haunt Western academic traditions like some musty old ghostly schoolmaster. Many of our schools are emblazoned with Latin credos (even out here in Africa). Think of that movie with Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society, and the Latin phrase, carpe diem. Even the working class high school I attended, Queensburgh Boys’ High, incorporated a Latin word, conabor, in its badge. A verb, first-person singular, future active: I shall try; I shall attempt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite it being described as a dead language, Latin didn’t actually die. It changed, evolved, as languages do, in this case into the so-called Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. So why was it still taught at schools? Well, largely to instil academic rigour. Firstly, learning another language teaches one to understand one’s own language “better”. Having studied Spanish I can certainly attest to this. So learning Latin was important because it taught one to read, write and speak English “better”. Studying Latin forced one to focus on grammar, syntax and parts of speech. These are things we do without any reflection because we have learned to speak English from birth by imitating. Latin, however, is an exercise in concentrated thought. It has a rigid sentence structure and rules which must be applied: nouns are declined, verbs are conjugated, and adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in gender, number and case.  Therefore for every sentence we must consider whether a word is a subject, a predicate, a direct object, an indirect object or part of a prepositional phrase. In short, we have to learn sentence structure and parts of speech, and have to therefore use the language reflectively, with consideration and forethought, rather than intuitively. Awareness of language and how we construct and express our realities through its structures is at the centre of most modern/postmodern thinking.

Many of Western civilisation’s schools of thought originated in the cultures who spoke Latin. Philosophy, medicine, science and art as we understand them today all sprang from Latin’s users and were expressed through its structures. In this soundbite, screenshot, image-grab, social media-obsessed, contemporary society we live in, many people confuse information with knowledge. In an era where we have such easy access to vast amounts of information our attention spans have drastically shrunk, and therefore our ability to focus for any extended period of time. Knowledge is the casualty. As a lecturer I have been witness to this through my students. Believe me when I say that I do not mean to imply that they are stupid, no! But intelligence is no guarantee of wisdom, or knowledge. I hear of these matriculating high school kids receiving multiple distinctions at year-end and I am very sceptical. I believe that they are learning to regurgitate information rather than gaining any real knowledge, or in fact, instruction on how to think, to analyse, to critique. I have had to deal with what I call the cut&paste generation in my tutorial groups. Both visually (in their making) and in their writing (essays) this lack comes across, and as a result I often I struggle to see the person, the artist. It is all very superficial, surface level stuff. My immediate admonishment is always, “make it personal”! I want to see the artist/author in the making and in the writing. Reflexive, self-aware, authentic creating is what I want to see, and I don’t just talk the talk, I walk the walk because I hold myself up to that standard as well.

And here is my point, dear reader, Latin was exercise for the brain, in the same way that working out with weights exercises your muscles. Similarly I like my art to be rigorous and to provide me with a workout. If it’s not doing that, if it’s not challenging me, if it’s not taking me out of my comfort zone and transforming me as well as others, then it’s likely to be decorative and mundane, and that’s not the type of art I want to be making. Hell, I will be the first to admit that I’m not always successful, that sometimes I crash and burn! But I always try, yes, conabor (I will try), and I make wonderful mistakes, glorious in fact, because I don’t hold back! To quote that most celebrated of Latin aphorisms: Carpe Diem! Seize the freaking day indeed!

This echoes my celebrated buddy, Neil Gaiman’s exhortations:

I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful…And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

You see, making any good art, or any real art, is about a conscious ignorance. It’s about knowing that you do not know and the wonderful irony/incongruity of that. And then going out there and, more than just learning from, but growing from, glorious and fantastic mistakes!

Strange & Unusual

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One of my favourite movies of all time is Tim Burton’s cult classic 1988 movie, Beetlejuice. It is honestly a work of art. Burton’s vision is just spellbinding, Danny Elfman’s score is perfect and the wonderful ensemble cast, including a hilarious Michael Keaton as bio-exorcist and “ghost with the most”, Betelgeuse, and a young Winona Ryder as Lydia, the original emo Goth teenager, are delightful! While at the 61st Academy Awards Beetlejuice won the Academy Award for Best Makeup, I thought it should have won a lot more. It is a virtually perfect movie. I have watched the movie way more than eleventeen times and it never grows old!

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One of my favourite quotes is from Winona Ryder’s character, Lydia:

I read through that Handbook for the Recently Deceased. It says, “Live people ignore the strange and unusual”. I myself am strange and unusual.

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I suppose I find resonance with those lines because you could definitely put them on my headstone one day when I am laid to rest – He was strange and unusual.

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I was a strange kid and I am a strange adult and that is the truth. It once concerned me, however, strangeness becomes less concerning when you allow your creative output as well as your persona, both public and private, to revolve around that fact. In fact, the most interesting and creative artists, it has been my experience, border on lunacy…and, yes, I have been known to howl at the moon on occasion! I have found my peace with who I am in my pursuit of, and involvement with, art. My acceptance in the mainstream world has always been tenuous and provisional even when I was playing first team rugby or in the military or employed in corporate South Africa. I am, by all accounts, a failure by many of the standard requirements demanded of society:  unmarried and solitary, and a financial failure for most of my life. I do not say this to show you, dear reader, how magically eccentric and off-beat I am. What I am saying, using myself as an example, is that you should, to quote Molly Crabapple:

Focus in on your weirdness, your passions, and your fucked-up damage, and be yourself as truly as you can. Express that with as much craft, discipline, and rigor as you can; work as hard as you can to build a career out of that, and then you’ll create a career that you love and that’s true to yourself, as opposed to doing what you think other people want and burning yourself out when you’re older.

I wish I had done that early in life instead trying to fit in, instead of allowing people to tell me what I could and couldn’t be. But in saying that, it is never too late! I am a good example of that! So now I take all that “fucked-up damage” and I allow it to fuel my vision and drive my art. This does not mean that I am a success; being an artist in this world and in South Africa is tough. And failure in art is so very, very personal! It is a failure of self because that is what all good artists do, put themselves out there; their intellect and their passion and their vision. With this in mind how does anyone working in art ever get up in the morning? Well, it takes courage and endurance and tenacity, but most importantly, it takes a belief in what you have to say, a belief in your own, very unique artistic voice.

I want to end off with a few points from Neil Gaiman’s now-legendary speech:

  • I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something.
  • Do the stuff that only you can do.
  • The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.
  • The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.
  • Make up your own rules.
  • Be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.
  • Make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

 

Love it! If you have not watched it, do so: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikAb-NYkseI&app=desktop.

And then go and make mistakes! I have been a mistake my entire life and that, as my old friend Robert Frost says, has made all the difference.

PS. go watch Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice!

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THE OFFICIAL SWANY LIST OF AWESOMENESS

On Friday night/Saturday morning my dead cat, Champers, visited me in a dream. For those who have not kept up with my saga, Champers had to be put down by a vet as he was in the final stages of leukaemia. This on, of all days, 21st December, the Mayan end of the World!.  Champers was such a brave, gentle little soul. He was rescued from an abusive owner by the organization I volunteer at, and so came into my life. He was my companion and best friend for 8 years, that is until LA Woman came into my life. I could not take him with me to start my new life in the US as I honestly believed the move would be too cruel and traumatic for the brutalized creature. But I was so ecstatic when a fellow artist, friend, and just one of the most special people, adopted him. She is a stay-at-home parent with 2 young children, and has a beautiful home. Champers, I believe, was happy and content, and more importantly, loved to his very last day. I miss him terribly, and it was so special to see him again, even if only in a dream.

In the dream, I was viewing a flat (apartment) I was moving into. It was white, pure white, with dark wood inlays and windows that looked out onto the bluest of seas. Champers was there in the apartment waiting for me, his champagne-coloured fur made pale gold by the white of the walls. He looked at me with his huge amber eyes as though to say, “About time.” My friend, Nicole, believes he came to say hello to me, and I jokingly said that I hoped this didn’t mean I was going anywhere as I wasn’t quite ready to leave just yet. She sent me a frowny face and said she preferred her story better. [Nicole has an awesome blog at http://www.neptitudes.blogspot.com/, take a look you will not be disappointed].

Now Nicole was referencing The Life of Pi,  the movie we had seen the day before. In it the lead character presents the author, the investigators and the reader/audience with two very different versions of the same story and asks them to choose the one they like best. The movie, much like life, was a harrowing, joyful, sad, enlightening and beautiful experience. I highly recommend you see it; as I put on my fb page: Dear “Life of Pi”, you had me at: “I believe animals have souls”! And Nicole and I do, believe that animals have souls, therefore our discussion about Champers’ visit.

So while I am recommending things I thought I would do a proper job and give you, dear reader, my list of awesomeness!

 

THE OFFICIAL SWANY LIST OF AWESOMENESS

 

Book/Authors: 

1)Tom Robbins – is an American author. His novels consist of complex, wildly imaginative, totally inventive stories with strong social undercurrents, a satirical bent, and obscure detail. For example: Still Life with Woodpecker is sort of a love story, that takes place inside a pack of Camel cigarettes! I know, I told you so! It reveals the purpose of the moon, explains the difference between criminals and outlaws, examines the conflict between social activism and romantic individualism, and paints a portrait of contemporary society. Robbins has a way with words that is pure wizardry, his descriptive powers and the use of the metaphor/simile will leave you with images that are 3D in their clarity, and sniff and snort in your ear, their breath on your neck and their scent in your nose! Here are some quotes to wet your appetite.

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“The highest function of love is that it makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being.”
Jitterbug Perfume

“Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honour and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words “make” and “stay” become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.”
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“Who knows how to make love stay?

1. Tell love you are going to Junior’s Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if loves stays, it can have half. It will stay.

2. Tell love you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a moustache on your face. Find love. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.

3. Wake love up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure love that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Love will be there in the morning.”

Still Life with Woodpecker

“Love easily confuses us because it is always in flux between illusion and substance, between memory and wish, between contentment and need.”                                       Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

“In the haunted house of life, art is the only stair that doesn’t squeak.”
Skinny Legs and All

“You should never hesitate to trade your cow for a handful of magic beans.”

“There are only two mantras, yum and yuck, mine is yum.”
Tom Robbins

2) Carlos Ruiz Zafón – is a Spanish novelist born in Barcelona, which is where most of his tales take place. His Cemetery of Lost Books series (El Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados) is a book lover’s dream. Beautifully written and wonderfully translated, they tell of creepy mansions, musty libraries, dark secrets and introduce the most vivid characters, whom you will truly love or loathe as if they were real!

Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘cemetery of lost books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out LA SOMBRA DEL VIENTO by Julian Carax.

But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from LA SOMBRA DEL VIENTO, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Carax’s work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.

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3) Alice Sebold – is an American writer. She has published three books: Lucky (1999), The Lovely Bones (2002), and The Almost Moon (2007).

The Lovely Bones is the story of a family devastated by a gruesome murder – a murder recounted by the teenage victim. The details of the crime are laid out in the first few pages: from her vantage point in heaven, Susie Salmon describes how she falls prey to a predator one icy December afternoon on her way home from school. Lured into an underground hiding place, she is raped and killed. But what the reader knows, her family does not. Anxiously, we keep vigil with Susie, aching for her grieving family, desperate for the killer to be found and punished. It is truly a spellbinding and gripping story. Read it! There is also an amazing movie based on the book but my advice, take the time to read the book and then see the movie.

Lucky is what we are generally told we are after being the victim of some sort of traumatic event; car accident, armed robbery, assault…or as in this case, rape. “It could’ve been worse, you’re lucky to be alive.” In her memoir Sebold reveals how her life was utterly transformed when, as an eighteen-year-old college freshman, she was brutally raped and beaten in a park near campus. as she struggles for understanding (“After telling the hard facts to anyone, from lover to friend, I have changed in their eyes”); as her dazed family and friends sometimes bungle their efforts to provide comfort and support; and as, ultimately, she triumphs, managing through grit and coincidence to help secure her attacker’s arrest and conviction. In a narrative by turns disturbing, thrilling, and inspiring, Alice Sebold illuminates the experience of trauma victims even as she imparts wisdom profoundly hard-won: “You save yourself or you remain unsaved.” A hard and difficult read but ultimately worth it.

The Almost Moon is one the most detailed explorations of the mother/daughter relationship I have ever read.  But this is what Sebold does so extraordinarily well: she takes on those taboo, unpleasant subjects we generally skirt around with eyes averted and presents them to the reader in beautifully written, lyrical prose that will not allow you put down the novel once picked up.

 

4)Neil Gaiman – is a British writer who works in the US now across all media; graphic novels, screenplays and adult as well as children’s literature. He wrote Coraline which was made into an awesome movie but what I love him for is his masterpiece of a novel: American Gods. It is a scary, gripping and deeply unsettling in equal measures, and takes a long, hard look into the soul of America and her origins. It is extremely inventive and the details he masterfully etches will remain in your mind long after you have finished it. Highly recommended!

What’s it about?  It’s about Shadow, the hero.

What should I believe? thought Shadow, and the voice came back to him from somewhere deep beneath the world, in a bass rumble: Believe everything.

It’s about the gods we create.

It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.

Love this quote!

What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.

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So dear reader, these are some of my favourite authors. Not all by any means. I am somewhat of a voracious reader, but certainly in my top ten! I know you will also enjoy them. Keep an eye open in future posts for THE OFFICIAL SWANY LIST OF AWESOMENESS where I will present music, art, poetry, sports, hell anything and everything I rate as awesome!