Have you thought lately about why you make art? What you’re in it for? Here’s another quote I like a lot from Olivia Laing’s book, The Lonely City.
People make things – make art or things that are akin to art – as a way of expressing their need to for contact, or their fear of it; people make objects as a way of coming to terms with shame, with grief. People make objects to strip themselves down, to survey their scars, and people make objects to resist oppression, to create a space in which they can move freely . . .
She goes on to explain that while art doesn’t have to be reparative, just like it doesn’t have to be beautiful, it very often is. I like the quote because it’s gritty. There’s an urgency to it that in-it-for-the-long-haul artists can lose touch with.
Every now and then I read a book that so wholly absorbs me I want to share it with everyone with whom I think it might connect. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing is one of those books. Part memoir, part art history, and part criticism, The Lonely City chronicles Laing’s experience living in New York after moving there from London to live with a lover who subsequently abandons her. A writer and critic, Laing trains her lens on the art that moved her most deeply, the paintings, photographs, videos and stories that comforted and pricked during her lonely stint in New York.
“Almost the only thing I found consoling was watching music videos on YouTube, curled on the sofa with my headphones on, listening again and again to the same voices finding the register for their distress . . . It was during this period that I first came across Klaus Nomi, mutant chantant, who made an art of being an alien, like no one else on earth . . . The film I liked best was of his very first appearance, at Irving Plaza on 15th Street in 1978, performing at a night called New Wave Vaudeville. He appears on stage in a see-through plastic cape, with wings painted around his eyes. A science-fiction figure, gender indeterminate, he opens his mouth and out comes ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’, my heart opens to your voice.”
Dishy and deeply researched, Laing opens each chapter with a personal anecdote that blossoms into an essay about a particular artist’s work, explaining how and why she connected with it, and making it newly relevant to contemporary viewers awash in digital culture.
“Warhol is often thought of as being completely subsumed by the glossy carapace of his own celebrity, of having successfully transformed himself into an instantly recognizable avatar . . . But one of the interesting things about his work, once you stop to look, is the way the real, vulnerable, human self remains stubbornly visible, exerting its own submerged pressure, its own mute appeal to the viewer.”
If ever a book called out for hypertext, it’s this one. Containing just a few images, mainly photographed portraits of the artists she writes about: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Klaus Nomi, and a still from a documentary about Josh Harris’ project, We Live in Public, each chapter bubbles with alluring descriptions of visual art, the people who made it and their happenings.
By blending anecdotes with insights and thoughtful writing about art, The Lonely City challenges the creepy paradox of the internet, the way it simultaneously isolates and connects, in a way that feels personal rather than analytical. While Laing cites several other excellent, recent books about how devices are changing culture, like Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, The Lonely City doesn’t follow their lead. It’s not a warning bolstered by cognitive science. Nor does it offer advice. But rather the author offers her vulnerability, her experience feeling lonely in a connected-all-the-time culture, as a gift to the reader in a fascinating read that places art and people rather than science and data at its center.
. . . is happening in the garden this week.
A post-snow flush of green pushing its way up and out.
Enjoy garden design? Check out A Little Chaos directed by Alan Rickman. It’s the only costume drama I can think of with a plot that turns on the idiosyncratic placement of a single pot. Middling performances by some terrific actors and a fascinating performance by Rickman. Beautiful shots of formal and informal gardens in various stages of completion.
“It’s not good when it’s done, it’s done when it’s good,” said Tool guitarist, Adam Jones, in this interview with Rolling Stone last November. Tool hasn’t put out a new album since 2006.
As someone months into a new project I thought would be be done by now, but that just isn’t yet, I can relate. Perfectionism? Maybe. But I prefer to think of it as meaningful restraint. Jones and Tool are under a lot of pressure from fans to produce their next work. But I’m glad they’re holding back. Because by waiting until the work meets their standards they’re saying that their art matters.
A new song from Tool?
My favorite kind of musical experience is to feel afterward that your heart is filled up and transformed, like it is pumping a whole new kind of blood in your veins. This is what it is to be a fan: curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like the art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness.
– Carrie Brownstein
Here are a few tidbits from Tapestry, a conference for people engaged in data storytelling/the art of making data comprehensible by presenting it in ways people can relate to. Participants at this year’s event, which took place at the historic and creepy, but lovely Stanley (The Shining) Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, were a mix of data people, designers, journalists and academics. I went because science communication has popped up as a theme in One Mans’ Land (working title), a documentary I am making. To my delight, most of the presentations had a strong, visual focus.
Drawing to Think
Two presenters, designer Catherine Madden and comics author/artist Nick Sousanis, put drawing at the center of their presentations. Both raised drawing up as way to deepen your understanding of an idea, organize complex thoughts, and open yourself to new connections. The type of drawing they both demonstrated is more sketchy and imaginative than the life drawing you may remember from your art education. As someone who’s already using a sketchy flavor of mind-mappy writing to organize big projects, I’m excited to see what can change by inviting more images onto the page.
When to Get Feedback?
Here’s another juicy advice-nugget from designer Catherine Madden. When seeking feedback, get it early in the process before you’ve added details to your work. In her experience, “If you build a polished prototype you open yourself to criticism, but if you build a rough prototype, people see the potential.” Financial Times editor Alan Smith was on the same page. “Exchange ideas early. Show your work to people early and often. This is why interdisciplinary teams work so well.” For visual artists in the fine arts, the issues about when, why and from whom to solicit feedback on your work are different. But one of the things I love about high tech culture is this open, collaborative mindset that stems from a sincere desire to get to clarity, to get to the good stuff quickly, by cycling through crap ideas at a rapid pace.
Have I whetted your data visualization appetite? If so, check out NYU professor Enrico Bertini’s podcast, Data Stories for more. Also, if you are a creative person with a technical bent interested in adding a new skill to your set, or know a young, creative person for whom a career in data visualization sounds like a good fit, check out Tableau. My outsiders’ ears heard the buzz. Tableau developers are enjoying a moment of demand.
“Think about giving the best thing possible and it will return back to you.
– Enrico Bertini, NYU Tandon School of Engineering