swany: Revisited

My final year students are in the process of conceptualizing in order to create a body of work for an exhibition at the end of the year. One of them is dealing with social media and this resulted in me reflecting on my own troubled, ambivalent history with this post-modern form of interaction. I thought I would share with you an excerpt from my own proposal essay to my supervising lecturers and the gallery owners. I have also included some of my (never before seen) experiments for my Proof of Life (2013) exhibition:

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In November of 2011, ascribing to Jacques Lacan’s fundamental tenet, “that the self is an Imaginary construct” (Sherman 2006: 19), I created an artist persona for myself whom I named Swany. As a scholar-artist I had encountered Giorgio Vasari’s (1511-1574) Lives of Artists and Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author during the course of my theory studies. I found the conversation between the two premises when juxtaposed extremely interesting, Vasari centralised the creator while Barthes went as far as to deconstruct him. Catherine Belsey claims that Poststructuralism’s “key term is difference” (Belsey 2002: 12). In other words, meanings develop through the conflict of differences. “The language that poststructuralism advocates is useful to ask uncertain things, and not useful to give a final answer” (Belsey 2002: 107). In very simple terms this means each is illuminated by being compared to the other, their differences quantify them.

I find myself in some sort of middle ground between the two points of view. I believe that both the artist and the viewer/reader share the creative process in the creation of an artwork. It is, in my opinion, a symbiotic relationship, and it is with this collaboration in mind that I created Swany, and the www.swanyart.com site. There I placed all that drives and influences me as an artist, my states of mind and emotions. This is where the viewer/reader can be informed on the artist, to find clues and information which will further develop the creation.  I like to think of this as my own little statement to be added to the Postructuralist discourse, a reaction to the modern (or is it postmodern?) times we find ourselves in. It should be kept in mind that Modernism, expressed at its simplest, is a reaction to modernity; democracy, capitalism, industrialization, science and urbanization. Postmodernism in turn reacts against Modernism, and is anti-modernist, if you will (Barrett 1997:17). Formative of Postmodern thought are “two competing intellectual movements”, Structuralism and Poststructuralism (Barrett 1997:18). What all four disciplines share is this confrontation of the modern world, and their, our, attempts to come to terms with it by quantifying it, or merely reacting to it, or even both.

All of the above reflect my thematic concern for this year, and have informed my choice. My title, Proof of Life, is, in simplest terms, a commentary on contemporary existential angst. My personal watershed moment was when I removed myself from the modern (post?) phenomenon of the social network. I was haunted by this quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night:

 “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Essentially I committed suicide. It was a digital one, but a suicide nevertheless. I deleted myself; closed my Facebook account and took back my person, my spirit, my soul that was pinned to that social media wall. There is a certain voyeuristic-exhibitionistic hue to the way we interact in our modern society these days. It twists and maligns our relationships, both with others and ourselves, leaving ghostly, malformed, diseased essences floating in the ether and within our minds. We wail and rail, grasp at and grunt at, in lines of digital code instead of in each others’ faces and each others’ arms. The irony of the ease with which we can get in, and stay in contact with anybody anywhere is that we are no longer close. The same social constructs that we think bring us together, in fact separate us, distance us. We remain to each other, pictures in a book, catchphrases and captions…empty and shallow. I wrote this poem as a way of explaining my disappearance from Facebook, which I posted on www.swanyart.com 

zumavszuma

 

Suicide

 

 

 

                                 Today I committed

 

                                  Suicide,

 

                                  I’m no great loss.

 

 

 

                                  I left no

 

                                  Body,

 

                                  No corpse to rot.

 

 

 

                                  Veins, blue veins

 

                                   Opened,

 

                                  No bloody crimson shower.

 

 

 

                                  Throat, scarred  neck

 

                                   Snapped,

 

                                   No black tongue protruding.

 

 

 

                                   No splat of meat, no shotgun blast.

 

                                   No palour, no final medicated slumber.

 

 

 

                                   Not icky thump,

 

                                   Not pumpkin squish.

 

 

    None

 

 

 

                                    Today I committed

 

                                     Suicide,

 

                                     I won’t be missed.

 

 

 

                                    I took back

 

                                    Self,

 

                                    Pinned to social wall.

 

 

 

                                    No more comments,

 

                                     Likes,

 

                                    And status to update.

 

 

 

                                    No list of friends’ recent stories.

 

                                    No ghostly acquaintances on glowing screen.

 

 

 

                                    Not share.

 

                                    Not comment.

 

None

 

 

 

                                    I trust you see,

 

                                     Suicide,

 

                                     Digital that it was.

 

 

 

                                     I only

 

                                     hope

 

wish

 

                                     It is

 

                                     Enough

 

                                     .            

 

                         swany      2013/01/25

4 AUGUST MOVE2

 

 

 In my opinion, Facebook and other similar social network interfaces such as Instagram, certainly reflect our desperate need to quantify and define ourselves, as well as to reach out to others. I think these words of Calvin, addressing his toy tiger, Hobbes, encapsulate the essence of what I am trying to say, “I wish I had more friends, but people are such jerks. If you can just get most people to ignore you and leave you alone you’re doing good. If you can find even one person you really like, you’re lucky…and if that person can also stand you, you’re really lucky” (Watterson 1991: 16). However, and I return to where I began this essay, the cruel irony of our existence is that in order to quantify/define and position ourselves we need other people, even if only to compare and contrast ourselves with them.

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MIXTAPES

Sadly Chris Cornell (1964–2017), musician, singer, and songwriter, and member of Soundgarden and Audioslave died on 17 May. It was by his own hand: suicide by hanging.  The Grammy-winning rocker had performed that Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Perhaps indicative of his state of mind, he ended his performance with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s In My Time of Dying. His family “believes that if Chris took his life, he did not know what he was doing, and that drugs or other substances may have affected his actions”.

chris-cornell

The manner of his passing reminded me of just how unbearable being can be.  Cornell literally walked off stage and out of an auditorium full of adoring fans, went to his hotel room, spoke to his wife on the phone, and then killed himself.  Five days later some cowardly religious fundamentalist extremist idiot walked into the Manchester Arena at the end of a Ariana Grande concert and blew himself up, killing 22 and injuring 59. Amongst the dead were many children, including eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos, who was at the concert with her mother and sister. It takes a really special kind of crazy…or evil, to target a tweens and teens concert like that!

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I guess we are all trying to do our best suppress or destroy something within us, be it with drugs and alcohol, religion, or by living shallow, superficial lives of self-involved consumerism. Or perhaps desperately trying to make sense of our existence or to give it all some meaning.

Here’s a kicker, Mr Bill Gates believes the world is a better place than it used to be, and apparently he is not alone! WTF?!!! I quote from a speech he gave at a graduation:

If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be a copy of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. After several years of studying, you may not exactly be itching to read a 700-page book. But please put this one on your reading list to get to someday. It is the most inspiring book I have ever read.

Pinker makes a persuasive argument that the world is getting better—that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. This can be a hard case to make, especially now. When you tell people the world is improving, they often look at you like you’re either naïve or crazy.

But it’s true. And once you understand it, you start to see the world differently. If you think things are getting better, then you want to know what’s working, so you can accelerate the progress and spread it to more people and places.

It doesn’t mean you ignore the serious problems we face. It just means you believe they can be solved, and you’re moved to act on that belief.

This is the core of my worldview. It sustains me in tough times and is the reason I still love my philanthropic work after more than 17 years. I think it can do the same for you.

The key words he uses here for me are human history.  Perhaps for humans the world is a better place (I don’t agree about that either) than it used to be, but it is certainly not for the planet and its animals…and certainly not for Saffie Rose Roussos.

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Stephen Hawking reckons humanity has about 1000 years left on this planet before extinction. I am a little less optimistic, I reckon we will all be gone long before then. Unfortunately we will probably be taking everything along with us.

mixtape1

Anyway,  so mix tapes (or mixtapes): well, they kind of help life be a little less crappier, if only by removing you from it for a little while. I got to make one recently for a fellow lecturer at a recent university art programme workshop I facilitated.  It got me thinking about mixtapes and the ones I have made throughout my life…the girls I made them for, and the road trips I made them for, and the parties I made them for!

mixtape

These days I generally only make them for my IPOD to run or exercise too. I have to admit though, that those same running mixtapes have saved me when sitting for hours in airports or on planes or during the ubiquitous powercuts we suffer where I live. The technology might have changed drastically but the ethos of the mixtape remains unaltered. It’s something you only really get or understand while listening to it alone in your bedroom (or car), the thought that someone took the time to make a mixtape just for you, and, importantly, it rocked! Or vice versa, when you have carefully compiled music that you love and the person you made it for loves it too! The mixtape then becomes a soundtrack to your whole relationship.

OK, and here is the scenic route bit that is characteristic of my storytelling: on one of my mixtapes is Chris Cornell singing Audioslave’s Be Yourself:

 

Someone falls to pieces

Sleeping all alone

Someone kills the pain

Spinning in the silence

To finally drift away

Someone gets excited

In a chapel yard

And catches a bouquet

Another lays a dozen

White roses on a grave

 

Yeahhh…

 

And to be yourself is all that you can do

Heyyyy…

To be yourself is all that you can do

 

Someone finds salvation in everyone

Another only pain

Someone tries to hide himself

Down inside himself he prays

Someone swears his true love

Until the end of time

Another runs away

Separate or united

Healthy or insane

 

And to be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

Yeahhh…

To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

Heyyyy…

Be yourself is all that you can do

 

Even when you’ve paid enough

Been pulled apart or been held up

Every single memory of the good or bad

Faces of luck

Don’t lose any sleep tonight

I’m sure everything will end up alright

You may win or lose..

 

But to be yourself is all that you can do

Yeahhh…

To be yourself is all that you can do

 

Ohhhh…

To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

ohhhh…

To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can–

Be yourself is all that you can–

Be yourself is all that you can do

Get this song, its beautiful. It always finds its way onto my mixtapes as an anthem for individuality.

So, in the end, a mixtape is about sharing powerful words, poetry put to music, with someone special. It’s you whispering in someone else’s ears about the things you love…or hate. You sharing you with another person and if anything is going to change the world ever it will be doing things just like that.

chriscornell1

Loss

It’s been a year since I lost my mother and 4 since I lost my little furry buddy, Champers, and to be honest, the loss still weighs heavy upon me. Time, they say, heals all but heal is probably not the right word. I think it is more that one learns to deal with the loss. You suck it up and carry on because that is what life does, it continues. You get dragged along regardless. What is really bothering me at the moment is the suffering my mother endured, especially in the last years of her life. I am so sad for her. Those final months at her side, watching her die, really haunt me.

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Above: my mom (on far left) with her brother and his wife. 17, I think?

Now you should know that I am a firm believer in the idea that to live is to suffer. God does not want you to be happy, He/She wants you to be strong! Through adversity we grow and become stronger and better for that suffering. That is if we can find meaning in the suffering. Nietzsche said, “he who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW”. And I guess in a way this relates to my last post and the “So what?” question. You are alive, so what? Make it count, do something with it that is meaningful. For my mom that was her children, her family and her animals. For me it is about making a difference: animal rights and feminist rights, and of course, making art that makes a difference also. In this way you find meaning in life. Unfortunately our societies have become very much about consumerism and being consumers. Got to have the new iPhone, got to live in the right neighbourhood, go to the right school. Squeeze out more children; spoil them so that they can also become consumers. Buy huge, petrol-guzzling vehicles and tell yourself it is for safety reasons and never mind what we are doing to the environment. Connect on social media and present yourself as a commodity there too, and bitch and whine but do nothing really. For too many people that is their meaning of life and the world as it is today is the result of that. For too many the idea of being a good provider (consumer) is the meaning of life. No! Go do something meaningful! Make a difference!

Below: My Champers.

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So I guess I like Viktor Frankl’s notion of meaningful grief through the contemplation of one’s beloved. Frankl was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War where his entire family (apart from one sister) including his wife, were killed. This was how he survived he says; contemplation of one’s beloved. Suffering somehow allows for transcendence when it finds meaning. Existence or experience moves beyond the normal or physical level. Think Mandela or Mother Teresa or even Marina Abramovic. Similarly contemplation of your lost loved ones as well as imagined conversation can lift you up to a spiritual level and help you make sense of the loss. Inside you they will endure. I like that thought. In my contemplative state my mother remains that youthful, exuberant, warm nurturer who loved to have a house full of children, her own and the entire neighbourhood’s. In my contemplation Champers dozes, pressed up alongside me as I read, purring contentedly.

Below: Me lighting candles in preparation of my 40RTY (2016) performance.

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