Naked Ears and Other Portals
Some decades ago I was in Manhattan doing the usual tourist things like waiting in line for a couple of hours to access a famous landmark. It happened to be the Empire State building. As I walked out of the elevator and approached the wall marking the perimeter of the observation deck, I heard music coming over the wall. It was the harmony of a church choir and the sound seemed to rise so that the choir appeared to be invisible, but present all around me. The sensation was so palpable that I beckoned to my companions and asked them to listen with me.
"Do you hear that music?", I asked them and just as the words left my mouth, the sound fell apart like shards of broken glass falling from a darkened window to reveal the traffic noise and horns honking on the street below. It wasn't music at all; it was just me and the ears I came in with. So I just stood in awe of this experience of hearing New York City singing to me out of the raw sounds of taxi cabs and horns honking. I felt like an impressionistic artist. Artists are, after all, tuned to their own peculiarities of perception.
list of books on all the many ways the planet and humankind was essentially doomed unless we did X, and that X never seemed very convincing, I came to the conclusion that I had reached a dead end; one that seemed to have the fingerprints of patriarchy all over it. Surely this can't be it? I kept asking myself. Surely this is not the end of my journey to save the planet and humankind? How did I manage to acquire the plotline of a comic book superhero anyway?
As I was coming to this conclusion a voice I could not see nor lay a physical claim to, much like the choir singing to me from the gutteral sounds of New York City, delivered a message to me from that same city, via e-mail. It made me stop short at its audaciousness. "Because", she said, "you realize that Henry IS the end of civilzation, even if not consciously." Henry was a code name for cluelessness, for straight men, for a one dimensional consciousness, for the partriarchy. It would take me longer to explain my connection to this young woman, than the notion that angels were serenading me from the heavens. The story is itself a journey of intertwining perceptions, overheard/seen conversations, and a shared obsession; a journey peculiar to this new and perhaps not so new ( if you are under 30) mode of human interaction taking place via the internet.
Last week at a national conference in Minneapolis that I attended, with 860 other organizers, I had an appointment to meet Claire, a colleague who was going to facilitate a panel on which I was to speak. As I joined her on the couch, in the lobby of the hotel, she introduced me to a woman who told me she had seen my shoe covers on the net.
As with the singing from an unseen place, it was my ears that got me so deeply involved in the net in the first place.
I am hard of hearing. Have been at least since fifth grade when I arrived in this technologically rich country and was routinely tested at school. No cause was found for my hearing loss, other than the hereditary example of my great Auntie Jessie who wore one of those clunky hearing aids, the size of a pack of cigarettes, strapped to her brassiere. And though my hearing loss didn't hinder me much, it did leave some lasting marks on the way I related to people.
I annoyed my friends a lot by repeating back to them what I thought they had said, usually with an absurd twist to any possible meaning. I met someone else who did this, too, only he made everything into sexual inuendos. As a result he got laid more than I did, but I was funnier.
I live in a world of fluid meaning. I often experienced two sets of responses, one for what I thought I heard and one for what was actually said. I liked the possibilities. I grew fond of ambiguity. I was also able to ignore a lot, but I could also be a "good" listener.
"You have such an open face," said a business colleague to me once, catching herself in a candid moment. "I felt compelled to tell you my whole life, just now." I was probably just staring earnestly at her as though to hang on every word, lip reading as it were. It took all my concentration.
Through my twenties, so much of my focus was taken up with discerning what was being said (plus looking for the cultural clues I needed to place myself in proper context), that I didn't bother to say much in return. Not that I didn't have plenty to say, I just kept it to myself and spent much of my life writing copiously in my journal in search of the underlying subtext and truth of the interactions I had experienced through the day.
When e-mail came along, this writing practice burst through on the keyboard and I found myself revealing things to people that I had never offered anyone before. My e-mails became essays, which led to my putting up a blog site because I was writing about my electric car and I just had to post pictures of this eye-popping visual. This I did through the photo-hosting site, flickr, because I wasn't geek enough to blog photos without the help of their interface.
Flickr, like the famous MySpace phenomena, had users who interacted with each other (a dynamic now given the term "Web 2.0", but I like my term — interbloggactic — better). Because of the photographs flickerati took of their own corner of the world, the site had a much more slice-of-life perspective that was largely free of pop culture, but full of talented photographers, subversive cartoonists, artists using salvaged materials, eclectic tool collectors, activist-bicyclists, foodies and animal lovers.
Soon I had collected contacts with similar values and interests, from all over the world. Two years rolled by and I had posted over 600 pictures all with carefully chosen titles and captions which were becoming longer and longer as the site became my behind-the-scenes studio, to test ideas out on my flickr friends who, if they were inspired, would leave appreciative comments, tips and practical solutions for projects I was undergoing.
This photo interface on flickr tapped into a creative space that was different from words. When I accidentally summoned Claire's blog while typing in another address, I found a clue to this otherness in her discussion of the book "The Alphabet and the Goddess". Written words, the book explained, developed the linear, conceptual, aggressive, patriarchal side of the brain while pictures and picture making were the realm of the goddess—the creative, intuitive, holistic side of the brain. No wonder I felt so nurtured on flickr.
I did enter other online interactions, prompted by having become smitten with a TV character, okay, a deaf, lesbian, sculptor who inspired in me a new deaf pride that I couldn't quite lay a claim to, but she was so cool (and hot), I couldn't help myself. Before her appearance, I would not have offered information about my hearing "disability" and unless you were close enough to see my hearing aids, which I don't wear all the time, anyway, you would never have known this about me, and I would never have discovered what an interesting portal my ears were. Or gotten the message from my New York based blogger (whose primary blog existence was to discuss this TV show), prompting me to realize that I had chased my superhero plotline to a patriarchal dead end, which left me repeatedly asking the question, was civilization an act of hubris?
Was literature, art and music merely an act of ego that had allowed us to justify exploiting and abusing our land base for our greater glory?
So there I was in the middle of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, thinking maybe the key to our salvation was not in techno-solutions to counter our impact on the planet, but really was (as had been suggested before) in changing the stories we told ourselves. And what better way to blow our narrative minds than with the visual arts? For it was with this boundary pushing, myth-making, questioning of authority, evocative, provocative portal of artmaking, that we had a chance to explode the old paradigm.
Christine, had taken me to see a community art project called "Rain Garden", that she and her students had created. I was dumbstruck. Holly mother of the Goddess! I was looking at a textbook, dug-into-the-ground, water-harvesting system that permaculture gardeners were now trying to revive as an eco solution to drought. And it was sculptural and visually interesting, due to the salvaged antique curbstones that had been used to shore up the swales. Here under the name of Art with a capital A, supported and funded by grants and the blessing of the University of Minnesota was a land based, irrigation system transformed into living sculpture.
"Does this project have a website?" I asked Christine because I just had to bring this concept, of art reframing eco-solutions, to the attention of well, everyone. It did not. For Christine, the finished art was the record of her artistic journey and vision. Her paintings and projects were her means of communicating her experience. That's the thing with a work of "fine" art; it is a site specific, physical manifestation usually experienced in the hallowed halls of museums. And as I spent the week visiting museum after museum in this wonderfully accessible city, I kept thinking "I need to explore more about how we/I can more readily access and use art as a means to rejuvinate my/our heroic journey".
perils of plastic littering the ocean. When I had folded down the last flap of the box, I held it up triumphantly.
"There," I said admiring it, "Organizer as Artisan". My delighted audience broke into a nice round of applause.