Towards a Forward

Sunday, 11 October 2020

I am always curious whether artists feel it is important for their work to be exhibited; whether it is at all important for others to see, hear, or otherwise experience what they create. As someone interested in psychology and spirituality, I understand a core driver and human desire to be that of acknowledgement and recognition. I don’t mean recognition in the sense of ‘accolade’ or ‘reward’. I am referring to something deeper. Acknowledgement of who we ‘are’. The very right to ‘be’.

Earlier today I had the good fortune to attend the preview of ‘Towards a Foreword’, the first public exhibition by Notes on Hapticity Collective – in collaboration with Print Room, and with curatorial support from Yindi Chen and Alexandre Richardeau – presented at the Art Bar on Rijnhoutplein, Rotterdam. As an added bonus, I was the first visitor, and quite early, so I could spend a good amount of time in the space, with the artworks, and with my own thoughts and feelings. Importantly, for my passion, I also had the chance to look at the artists.

See, though I’ve attended quite a few galleries and exhibitions over the years, I’ve always found them challenging and often frustrating. There is often an expectation to ‘engage’ with the works and formulate ideas about them; to ‘have gotten something’ from certain works I ‘like’. But that never really interests me, and yet I love art. An exhibition is, in my experience, an adventure of following the creation back to its creator, so I tried to listen to what the artworks wanted to tell me about the artists, and what they wanted to tell me about myself.

Just past the entrance, the first work I spent time with was a neat, clean-cut sculpture of concrete, wood and black sand by Kees van Leeuwen. Untitled (2020). The information on the floor plan informed me that Kees is a bunker specialist, and I could feel that in his work. Not because of the elements he used, but because his sculpture has a ‘cross section’ and ‘textbook figure’ aesthetic that wants to teach you what it is. This is amplified by part of the sculpture being a table; an actual means of presentation. It is interesting that it was decided to display this work at the entrance of a building, the literal and only point of access to a real bunker. I saw ‘walls’ enclosing something, just as the outside of a building is on show, rather than the contents. Yet these walls are revealing. There was a rigidity and groundedness to his work, as if to say, ‘This is what you get; this is who I am; there it is; nothing to hide’. And yet bunkers are all about hiding.

Karolina Rupp’s work I noticed through the window even before I entered the space. Suspended in the air, an amorphous fractal of black pond-lining, electrical tape, wire and chains, her Untitled (2020) trades grounding for floating, as if to escape the mortal world of predetermined form, yet is somehow reluctantly bound to this reality. It is through the barely noticeable attachment wires I had a sense of how imperceptibly we are bound to this dimension that continuously shapes and molds us. The way her work is laid out invites you to consider it from different angles and perspectives, an investigation that Karolina’s exploration into elements of chance and the essence of things no doubt finds amusing. Something was being formed from the primordial chaos here. This was a birth, not a death. Standing there, realizing I couldn’t label anything, I felt a sense of, ‘I don’t want to be anyone specific; I can be anything I want to be.’

I hesitantly picked up a paper I at first thought was inadvertently left after someone’s visit, but, being the first one there, I cautiously decided it was ‘part of the experience’. Looking around, checking the floor plan again, I noticed another warped sheet with faint inscription partially dangling from the wall beside me. My attention then scrolled to large decorated panels of paper gently swaying from the ceiling near the exit; in the corner of the L-shaped exhibition space. It was then I had more certainty I was engaging with Inscriptions (2020), Hannah Dawn Henderson’s work. As I walked over to inspect the delicate panels, another early bird who hastily passed through quickly flung open the exit door to leave, producing a gust of wind that sent every page fluttering for balance. Looking down at the one in my hand, my eyes fell on an isolated sentence: “I was petrified”. And for a moment I truly was. Regaining my composure, I became aware of the other elements of her exhibition and noticed that, by now, these tools of the scribe had me surrounded. I was in a story that was still being written. Hannah explores the frailty of incertitude, and her work wrote me a letter that read, ‘I’m not so sure who I am; I’m contemplating; I’m figuring it out’.

Having turned a corner, I was immediately pulled in by the self-assured quality of Tomasz Skibicki’s work. There was a literal and figurative gravity to his three pieces on display. These were truly ‘materials’ I was grinding to consume. Spruce beam, wood-mesh, LCD screen, saw handles, plywood, coffin fabrics from a scrapyard… Even the titles were certain of themselves, stylised to give them a specific identity so as not to be confused with other names: póśą łęftą (2018), ghóśt (2020), and ćhąiń (2020). There was talk of kick-boxing in town, chains spoke of soon being broken, and another work’s ‘eyes’ (though unintentional) reminded me of the mixed martial arts and motocross brand, ‘Bad Boy’. Very assertive. There was no drifting off into daydream at this hour. I was being reminded that we are here to work. It takes determination and resolve to shape an identity, and protecting one will cost you blood, sweat and tears. Tomasz’s work was taking me firmly by the shoulder, looking me in the eye, and saying, ‘This is who I am, and I’m breaking free.’

Had I not seen the floor plan, I may have accidentally overlooked the last work on display. At the very back of the end wall, inconspicuous and quietly abiding, hung two prints by Elena Kostenko. Approaching the larger one, titled Watched (2020), I at first only noticed what looked like a frame of trees through a slightly hazy lens. As I got closer, I noticed what seemed like a labeled design element: a crop line within a cropped image. Mystified over the ‘pixel dimension’ numbers, I suddenly realised there was a human element in the image. It caught me completely off guard. I was looking through a window at someone who was hiding, yet was more aware of me than I was of ‘her’? In the second smaller print, Watch later (2020), my observer was now taunting me, letting me know that ‘she’ was there, but guardedly willing to reveal only chosen aspects. Was this Elena herself or another model? Even the fact that I was looking at a digital print of the original analogue piece had me feel I was only seeing ‘half the picture’. Elena’s work is influenced by her roots in the East and West, allowing her to see both sides, and choose what to present. The fact that she wasn’t yet present when I was there added layers to the riddle. I felt as if her work was whispering, ‘I know who I am, but you won’t find out’.

In our current circumstances of wearing masks and maintaining distance from each other, we are reminded of the struggle for identity; the journey of knowing ourselves. Retracing my steps in ‘Towards a Foreword’, I recalled the entrance, where I first learned how to present myself to society. I remembered the conflict, shortly after, between who I can be, who I want myself to be, and who I am. I recollected thoughts from when I turned a corner to face the uncertainty of my fragile self-discovery, which fuelled the grind to define myself; a grind which incited the rebellion of my persona. I looked back on the memory of how I tried to hide from that confusion; tried to hide from myself. I was forced to turn back and again face the grind and uncertain process of discovery.

These were my experiences, of course, but I enjoy that, to me, the word ‘art’ will always be an archaic form of the word ‘be’, which means art explores elements of who we ‘are’ through what we ‘do’. Who art thou? Who am I? I found it interesting that on the information leaflet, Elena and Tomasz wrote about themselves in the first person, while Hannah, Karolina and Kees wrote about themselves in the third (or chose to be written about, perhaps).

On my way out, reaching for the handle of the exit door, I was reminded of that gust of wind and found myself again in uncertainty. Perhaps I didn’t know who I was yet, but that was okay. In these challenging times, let us remember to acknowledge one another. Art gracefully allows us the discovery that it is only through relationship with each other we are able to learn who we ourselves are. Let our recognition of each other allow us all the right to discover who we are.

To Notes on Hapticity Collective and Print Room I say, ‘I acknowledge you’.

Social call (or, ‘I don’t really know what to say to you’)

Heeeeey brooo! What’cha upto, buddy? You busy? You wanna grab a few brews tonight? Chill out?

What I want to say:

Hey. Thank you for the invitation. I’m just doing a lot of inner work at the moment, you know? I need to rest my body from the wear of my laborious job – where I try to make ends meet – while also building a career of real value to me. I’m practicing to still my mind, so I can find reprieve from the torture of self-defeating narratives, and not criticize myself into any further despondence. I’m trying to live a healthy life. I’ve worked hard to abstain from toxic social influence; indulging in the blissful avoidance of guilt and shame. Instead, I am forced to face the painful reality of solitary change and growth, so I can strive to make my contribution to a world in need of universal service and compassion. The festival is over; the bill has arrived; most are still intoxicated. So, I’m sorry; I miss the good old times, too – sometimes very much – but I’ve raced down that road many times before, and had to walk back all the way; miles and miles. I just don’t have the strength to face my own demons, and also sate yours. I’m pretty tired already. Let me know when you’re tired.

What I end up saying:

Oh, hey man… Yeah… sorry dude… I know… I always decline… I just have a lot going on… How about a coffee? Ah, you rather gonna hook up with those other guys for drinks? Okay man. Maybe next time. Take care.

Ordinary and Kind

Take my hand, you who are unimportant and unaccomplished.
Insignificant and incomplete.

I, too, have accomplished nothing outstanding.
Nothing remarkable.
Have only grasped at the exceptional.

Walk with me, and let us achieve nothing together.
Let us breathe the free air.
Let us be still.

The Man said we’re not enough.
The Church said we’re not enough.
Society said we’re not enough.
I said we’re not enough.

Day by day I fabricate profound drivel.
Ever in search of approval.

Yet my own forgiveness this insincerity denies.
And anew I hurt inside.

The oppressor observes…
If I’m unproductive today, I’ll surely be incompetent tomorrow.

I am overburdened. Afraid.
Paralysed by own ideals…

…the pain of failure perhaps my greatest reflection.

No longer do I want to be special…
…simply honest.

Come, take my hand, and let’s be enough together.

Here we can be ordinary and kind.

Twentytwenty (a hindsight poem)

I want to give you a hand, a greeting, perhaps a warm smile
but I make up some dangers
‘never talk to strangers’
Not yet wise enough, for relationships worthwhile

I want to tell you we all make mistakes, it’s okay
but I’m not always that nice
so from my lips fall advice
Not yet wise enough, to know what to say

I want to make a contribution in a world I can assist
but I was tired after work
money my numbing perk
Not yet wise enough, to know when I resist

I want to warn you about a world no longer free
but instead I choose regret
so you won’t be upset
Not yet wise enough, to really help you see

I want to allow myself to accept the good within
but with all this insanity
a slipping faith in humanity
Not yet wise enough, so my patience runs thin

I want to share with you a greater community of life
but I rather sit with a frown
your ridicule wears me down
Not yet wise enough, to persevere in times of strife

I want to learn from those who’ve experienced all
but there’s so much left to do
hey, I have a life too
Not yet wise enough, to heed their humble call

I want to proceed on my journey, a necessary prep
but this dream is so deep
just a little more sleep
Not yet wise enough, to take the next step

I want to be still, because in silence I can hear
but I pour another wine
because ‘there’s always time’
Not yet wise enough, to face my greatest fear

I want to create one more thing before twentytwenty comes home
so even as a fool
despondence my worn tool
I pulled myself together, sat down, and wrote this poem

The Fallacy of Being Anything You Want to Be

We don’t talk about our struggles, living in this changed world. Why? Because ‘there is always someone far worse off’.

Do you know what my first memory of the word ‘gratitude’ is? Not an utterance of honest appreciation resounding after a refreshing drink of water, nourishing meal, reunion with old friends, sincere accomplishment, or a good night’s rest in a warm bed. No, my first memory of hearing about ‘gratitude’, is from the vacant reprimand: “Be grateful for your blessings”… And keep your head down while you’re at it.

Bitter gratitude…

This is not the gratitude you inherently feel for being true to yourself. No… This is the gratitude you are taught to express for being true to the ideals of the world, because, no matter the depths of emptiness in your persistent fraudulent pursuits, ‘you have it so much better than others’. You simply don’t realize how fortunate you are for your sophisticated position in society.

Ah yes… sophistication…

When I was five or six years old I disassembled my first computer. It was an IBM AT. The ‘AT’ actually stands for ‘Advanced Technology’; It still makes me chuckle. Since then I’ve built and fixed more computers and gadgets than I care to remember.

I coded a small computer program for a science fair in the early nineties as part of my involvement in the local Herpetological Association; I was twelve. There was no category for my age group, so I competed with the seniors and managed to take home a silver medal. I also milked the venom from a spitting cobra at that age; No jokes. A part of my upbringing was on a farm, so early in life I learned about plants and animals, how to ride a horse, and how to operate heavy machinery.

In my final year of secondary education I served as Deputy Head on the Student Representative Council, and I studied Visual Communication at a respected (and expensive) private school thereafter. I worked more than fifteen years across the fields of graphic design, web design, animation, branding and advertising, sometimes for big names; My first commission was at the age of sixteen.

In my late twenties, I decided to polish my music performance skills and music composition knowledge with three years of study. As a musician I played in quite a few bands, contributed to video games and other interactive media projects as a sound designer, and composed various genres of music over the years.

I’ve done volunteer work for the World Wildlife Fund, and I’ve been invited to participate in human rights workshops in The Hague. Throughout my life I’ve read as many books as I could. I especially enjoyed reading books on psychology, philosophy, religion and spirituality, and I recently started studying a Counselling diploma.

I’ve taught myself a great variety of skills like playing various instruments, building mountain bikes and baking tasty traditional sourdough bread from starters I cultivate. I speak four languages: two fluently, and two well enough to make conversation. Oh, did I mention I appreciate art galleries, museums and opera…?

Every coin has two sides, of course.

I grew up in a loving, but troubled family; Society forced its dogmas on me; I was called the ‘black sheep’; I’ve experienced abuse; I’ve lost family members to cancer; I’ve had friends try to commit suicide; I’ve watched the farm of my childhood burn, sabotaged; I’ve watched my father struggle to make ends meet; I’ve experienced prolonged poverty; I was hospitalized, very badly cut, after running through a pure glass sliding door; I’ve been in a few car accidents; I was assaulted by a doped-up gang because I tried to break up a fight; I’ve been mugged at knife-point more than once; I’ve been a victim of armed robbery, tied up and beaten up, pistol against my forehead; I’ve been addicted to alcohol, and was toying with addiction to various other drugs; I’ve suffered from trauma, crippling anxiety disorder, obsession, insomnia, depression, self-loathing, nihilism…

The world: A beautiful place; A dangerous place…

Of course, through the wealth of my life experiences (some spectacular and others terrifying), I’ve struggled to find direction or inspiration. Many times I was so despondent about my chosen career paths and prospects for meaningful work, I fell into deep depressions, gave up what I was doing, and considered living on the streets. Or worse.

I remember the year I finally gave up my graphic design career: I was sitting with my laptop at the Christmas-eve dinner table, on the verge of collapse from stress, trying to finish last-minute designs for a pharmaceutical company. All that mattered to me was meeting deadlines; And getting paid what I’m worth. The worst thing is, my family and friends also suffered, because, what little time we made for each other was often ruined by our career anxieties. We always had “so much work to do”. I started thinking about where I was spending my energy during that time.

I remember applying to almost a hundred video game companies for any available position I could launch from. I’ve been playing and modding video games since the days of Zork. I was happy to take a low salary for the opportunity to grow and apply my creative skills anywhere other than the consumer marketing and advertising sector. The companies that responded to my portfolio mostly pointed out their need for specialists, and, that there were endless lines of younger graduates waiting to take positions as interns. “Every second person and their grandmother wants to work in video games…” one response said. This was the second time I reconsidered my career path.

I remember doing volunteer work for almost two years, during which time I applied to various NGOs and companies focused on humanitarian and environmental sustainability projects. I really wanted to do something useful with my life and contribute to the world in a ‘meaningful’ way. Some were eager to employ me; Others didn’t even respond. Nobody could pay me any kind of salary, though. People who care for the environment or the rights of others don’t attract much funding. It just isn’t the right market. Sorry Earth. This was my third sobering look at the world.

Eventually I became profoundly bitter about the skills I had chosen to pursue in life. The only place willing to remunerate my time and natural abilities, was the saturated consumer market I was trying to escape. Why did I even have talents? Where there is money to be made, there is advertising, and where there is advertising, there is plunder. Things I once cherished and developed with passion became dead weight to me. I felt deceived. For a long time I blamed the world and didn’t want to live in it anymore.

What future remained for me? Finding a dead-end job on an overpopulated planet facing climate crisis, mass migrations and diminishing resources? I had tried to make my life into something respectable. I wanted my parents and friends to be proud; I wanted myself to be proud. I worked hard; I wanted to be a ‘somebody’. I wanted to stand out! I hated the self-indulgent, narcissistic, selfie-obsessed generation I was born into, but I wanted to stand out…

Maybe just in a more ethical way…

Through the struggles and reflections these phases of my life brought, I started to realize something about my upbringing, my hobbies and my career choices: Whatever I pursued, my focus was never on who I was, it was always on who I wanted to become. Why? Because, without knowing myself, I thought I knew what I wanted. I thought I knew what was best for me, but where did I learn this? I learned it from my desire to stand out; My desire to be better than others. I pursued choices based on my ambitions, not on my design.

We live in a self-help, self-promotion world of ‘no limitations’. A world where, even in organizations that pursue ‘the greater good’, people compete for the best positions and highest accolades. A world where the desired careers are the ones that lift us above others. Would I have been willing to give up any competitive advantages I earned, if I had succeeded in being ‘anything I wanted to be’? Would I ever have paused to take a sober look at my life and the world?

When I was born, there were just over four billion people on this planet. We are now almost eight billion; A doubling of the population by the time I reached mid-thirties. Currently, one hundred and thirty million babies are born every year. With more and more people competing for fewer and fewer resources, what will the next generations strive to be? What ambitions do our actions teach the world to strive for?

Do you know what I find interesting about living in a world with so many people? It is getting harder and harder for us to stand out. It is getting harder and harder for us to ignore each other. It is getting harder and harder to be ‘anything we want to be’.

Do you know why we can’t be anything we want to be? Because we are torn between the empty allure of what we desire to be, and the struggle to become who we already are. Fear drives us to our ambitions and desires; Courage drives us to become who we are. I had to be still to consider who I am becoming.

Today I get up at five in the morning to serve people coffee; I try, once again, to compose music, and I write. For the first time I have tasted the freedom of not caring about what the world thinks of my ‘success’. Expressing myself with honesty, and simply being there for others, is good enough.

We don’t talk about true gratitude, we live it, because true gratitude is expressed in our deeds, not our thoughts and words. Those of us who are truly the worst off in life are the ones too afraid to become who we are.

May I have the courage to become who I am, living in a changed world.

Take care.

Living in a Changed World

How do I begin to write about living in a changed world? What do I share? What do I leave out? Why write anything at all?

As I slump back onto the couch, laptop humming against my chest, I stare into the grey world beyond my small apartment window; pondering. It is raining softly. For now.

Awareness of living in an absurd world followed me from childhood: We pushed shopping trolleys full of groceries past people who had no food; we made the ‘less privileged’ do the work we felt too ‘fortunate’ to do, ‘rewarding’ them a pittance; and we called ourselves ‘poor’ and ‘struggling’ while the disenfranchised afforded us the comforts of our spacious homes. All the time avoiding eye contact and thanking God for our consumer ‘blessings’. We invented all the technology after all. Right?

In an absurd world, honest questions were met with open hostility: “Of course the money we donate to the Church feeds the poor!”; “God only gives people what He can trust them with!”; “We obey the law because God made the law!”; “God has enemies too, and they are our enemies!”; “We eat the animals because God gave us dominion over them!”; “Good deeds are not enough! We need to believe!”; “Who created God!? We don’t ask stupid questions nobody knows the answers to!”. Religious ‘freedom’ it’s called. Oh boy, we’re in for a treat…

An absurd world awards one person enough indulgence to develop diabetes, driving a mobility scooter through endless corridors of distraction, while elsewhere a family walks miles for water and a bowl of rice, just to stay alive. In an absurd world I can praise my sanctimonious family and friends for their extravagant wedding ceremony expenses, while blanket-reprimanding a hundred thousand refugee families for the calamities ‘they cause’ due to their ‘lack of foresight’. In an absurd world, I am so far divorced from the delicate interconnected systems of life that sustain me, I can dismiss mass extinction of biodiversity as something ‘someone else did’. And they can fix it too.

But that’s an absurd world for you… We live in a changed world now, however.

A changed world is an absurd world collapsing in on itself.

In my writings I will not be focused on sharing breaking news or ‘evidence’ for climate crisis and the collapse of society as we know it. In November of 2017 I told a few friends that these matters will be headlining mainstream news on every conceivable platform within five years anyway. Two years in, looking at current trends and affairs, it seems we’ll be having these heavy discussions around the water cooler and dinner table a bit sooner. Well, those of us who still eat around a dinner table, anyway. Those of us with a home. Those of us with a table. Those of us with food…

No… In some ways I’ve had it better than many, of course, but my life journey hasn’t been easy, and I imagine things will be getting progressively more difficult for all of us from this point forward. We’ve crossed the border into dangerous uncharted territory and 2020 will indeed be the year of hindsight for an adolescent human race.

No, I will conserve my energy writing about what living in this changed world is like, and how we can find our way in it. Together. Writing will be my mourning and inspiration. I hope you’ll walk with me. I think we can learn from each other.

There is a time in history where the depth and value of human cooperation and relationships will be tested on an unprecedented scale. We have now entered that time and the trials have begun.

Take care,

Vincent.