Not chatting up strangers, but then, doing it anyway

‘Going digital’ // Art by Dipika Kohli, 2012

AT A CAFE. In between meetings. Next to me there are two people in good conversation, in English, but occasionally Japanese. This is my other language. I am resisting, it is hard, the urge to say something to them. I have this weird and occasionally surprising knack for chatting up strangers and somehow, making solid acquaintanceships in a very compact space of time. Why this is probably has everything to do with the charm of my father, which I think has a lot to do with finding the silliness in the everyday moment (at least, when my mother allows it). Rest of the time they are both pretty serious, or pretending to be. When I think back on the most extraordinary and fulfilling times with my folks, I always feel like we were in transit somewhere, far from the social programmes and mores of the places and communities in which we were rooted. Movement became the kind of thing that set the stage for engaging. Deeply. Curious and different others were somehow very attractive; sometimes my mother would hold back and let my father fly into his own world of talking away to people he didn’t know about topics ranging from thermodynamics and entropy to the kinds of things that one talks about in the middle of a trip from Away to Home, whatever those things were. I don’t know. I would just be hanging out playing cards or something with my little brother; the topics and their content were irrelevant. What mattered was the people who were there, smiling with my father, smiling away. Being in real life. Being in the throes of it. Being noticed. Noticing. For a moment, the shared space. Which nowadays I design for in my own world, making architecture of social spaces, and remarkable human connexion, in the thing that happens online and in real life in the project that since 2016 I’m calling S P A C E. It’s nerdy. I know. So? I like that. And the mentor for this was, of course, my dad. I still remember my father trading postal addresses in the 1980s with total strangers he’d chatted up at, say, Frankfurt Airport, on our way to and fro. My mother would kind of be like, ‘What the hell?’ But, I wish she could have just noticed it. My father likes the new and different. is curious. Is open to trying new things. That is the spirit of innovation, really, isn’t it? Going to the edge, and past it, and exploring to the next-to-now. It’s actually quite in-demand, now. This business of being open to the new. It’s called ‘innovation consulting.’ You go around the world a few times and you start to find ways to make your skills work for you in weird and curious ways. Be open. Say yes. Show up. Try new things. You just have no idea where the next gig is coming from. Just around the corner, you’ll find it, if you’re open to it. The gems. Staying put is boring, for the likes of people like me. (Dad, are you reading this? I think you should go on a trip sometime, maybe with me, maybe with Mom, but really. Trips are where we flourish.)

 

Starting all over

KEEPING THINGS IN CHECK, maybe, by not getting too carried away with being too joie de vivre-y. Sure. This is more normal, I suppose. I guess that is just a self-limiting thing. You have to do what you have to do in order to maintain a kind of decorum, ‘in the eyes of society,’ Words of the pragmatists, who used to be friends, who have been slowly but confidently let to drift on a long, loose line and not quite cut from my current life but, well, yeah, I guess more or less cut.

Here’s the thing. Caring about what society thinks… you think that you have to. But what if you don’t? What if you don’t have to worry about that? What if what other people thought about you, and what you say, and what you do, and how you do it, and even more importantly, what if you yourself stopped caring about your image, what your words are perceived to be (by you perceiving the predicted perception—you see how this is a little unwieldy?), what you do, and how you do it? What if, what I’m saying is this, now, what if who cares what the reaction is to your self-driven initiative to go out into the world and see what’s there?

What I’m saying is, ‘What if you could just be yourself, the real you, the honest you, the totally unedited version of you. The one you were when you were, like, 8.’ What if? Would you find it easier to chat up strangers? Or, would you come to the realization that it’s not even that important-–the most important thing is knowing what you care about.

You don’t have to pretend like you are some kind of a big deal just because you can get into a conversation with anyone. Even E., on a crosswalk yesterday, on her way from Sydney to England via everywhere that she wants to go in between. (Hi, E.! Yes, I was listening).

Making friends in the cafe.

Making friends on the bus.

Making friends in the…. crosswalk.

Well, so?

I love that.

Let’s keep it going. Let’s keep the conversations in flow.

Let’s chat up the strangers. But not now, not today. Today I’ve got to finish some books.

Here’s to the journeys, the new, the near, the now, and the next.

***

OMG. I couldn’t help it. Chatted. They are so nice!

Break it up with subheds: the making of S P A C E

REWIND TO 2014. It’s summer. I’m in California.

Now, that doesn’t seem so strange, does it? Except, this:

I had no idea that I could be in America again, the year after leaving for ‘the practice of the known, the uncertain, and the different…’ it wasn’t a tour, it was an experience, made on the fly in south and southeast Asia with neither income, savings, nor a plan. Could it work? Yes. But I didn’t know that. How could I? Fretting, fussing, moving around because of visas coming to an end, et cetera, we found ourselves as a studio in the emerging city of Phnom Penh. Which had a kind of magic to it, an anything-can-happen sensation. Things are built, things are taken down. Stuff goes up again, wham. Fast. This is different from what I’m used to. It’s intriguing, it’s new. But… California? That wasn’t… part of the plan. Or was the plan not having a plan? And that’s how we landed in S P A C E. Okay, wait. Bangkok, Hanoi, Vientiane, Gangtok, Delhi, Amritsar, and somehow, Phnom Penh. Where we are still, almost four years later. If it was March, already, it would be 4 years. Four years in Cambodia? What?? A long story. Let me break it up with subheds.

A tree I found in California

HERE WE GO. Right before I go to California, I’m in Phnom Penh, and I don’t know a soul. What do I do? Go on twitter, of course. Put together a quick call for interest for a tweetup, #pptweetup, through which I meet VJ and GB, and soon, EC. Along with a handful of new and different others, and we are in the swing of it. Talking in real life, showing up. The magic of this moment, however, isn’t clear to me, yet. (Back then, it’s still about ‘networking.’ It’s about ‘finding gigs.’ Oddly, a gig did happen, through this, but that was just a footnote, it turned out.) Another twitter contact led to a person far away, YZ, in California, who asks me to come and join a 9-week programme to get people talking together in new ways, reflecting on their purpose. Sounds lofty, but great. I say yes. The brief is vague, but I have an open hand. So I do the thing I can’t help but do. Like the tweetup, but different. An unconference. I get us talking together. In circles. At places like this:

Make a space. Palo Alto’s S P A C E unconference.

 

On the lawn. S P A C E Palo Alto 2014

 

 

ON THE LAST DAY, one of the participants wrote a very sweet, colorful card, in which she said:

‘My favorite part was the tree place.’

‘The tree place’ became a place. You name a thing, and it has value. By noticing it, you give it something different. That was the beauty of this whole thing. Not the setting nor the discussions, but the noticing of the tree, that she had noticed it, and that was cool. I know this is already getting kinda… whooo, but you know? You know what I mean? Here is where  the bright note of conscious awakening slammed its feathery light upon us, and said, ‘Spacemaking is not about a *place*, it’s about a *feeling*.’ When you feel like you’re in a space, it’s space.

So, yeah. We did the whole thing in Palo Alto as an unconference. Let’s name it. Let’s call it S P A C E.

SUMMER, nice weather. I’m meeting people from the deep past. People I haven’t seen for five, nine and 20 years. It’s neat, it’s remarkable, and what do I do? I invite them, of course, to walks, concerts, and to S P A C E. Be part of it. See what happens. BO’K comes, magically appearing out of the aether after 20 years of not seeing one another. I follow her to the cafe where her friend, a landscape architect who’s come along just to see what this is all about, and I sit and listen to music for two hours, talking about the price of real estate and things that four and six-year-olds like to do. It’s simple, it’s life. It’s where we are at. But the noticing… did we notice it? Yes. YES. We did. I go to her house after things are done with my programme, catch brunch. I meet some more people. They give me their cards. They ask me what I do. I have no idea, really. My house and life is in Phnom Penh (did I say that, to them, out loud? Huh…) and, uh, this is a side tour from a side tour, and yet…

I say something.

For the first time, it sounds super cohesive, it strikes a note, for me, the high note.

I don’t say, ‘I’m a journalist’ or ‘I’m a writer’ or ‘I have a design studio.’

None of this is relevant to me, all of it is just the past, and incomplete, each idea. So I say this.

I say, ‘I’m a spacemaker.’

And it sticks.

 

Discovering the Art of Not Knowing

I GET BACK FROM PALO ALTO totally jazzed and then I design a mini-tour. To Bangkok to make SELF. To Singapore to see what the Singapore Writers Festival is doing, to see EC off before he goes to Los Angeles or somewhere and does some computer work far away from us in Cambodia. In Singapore, I get a press pass and pop around to Paul Muldoon‘s ‘Art of Not Knowing’ workshop, in which we are playing the game Exquisite Corpses. Then I notice it. We are in a circle. Like the tree place.

I meet people at my left elbow, my right elbow. It’s like school, but much funner. This is like the lawn, outside, in the picture above? See it? Of course I made the unconference stuff  happen outside. Why wouldn’t you? Air and light, breeze. The story to emerge, outdoors. Outside the box of stuffy academia. Man.

The sharing and the circle and the unexpected in the Art of Not Knowing reminds me of the summer, just gone. I think about the music I heard, the people I met, the space that we made, together. We go into the interstitial, and it gets dreamy and wide and vast. It’s intimate but it’s not… too much, too soon, too fast. You don’t have to be anything. You just show up, and you automatically belong. In the AONK workshop, I make a quick note about a Grecian urn, because I remember that from English Lit, even though I wish that it had had more Asian Lit in it, and not gratuitous if you know what I mean. Somehow, someone later mentions Keats. This is dialogue. This is sharing. Someone right up front suddenly falls asleep: is it narcolepsy? We don’t know. It’s kinda fun, funny, light, and relaxing. This is how I like it, too. Same vibe. As what we did in Calif., with S P A C E.

I get back to Phnom Penh and the winter passes, but it’s sunny, so I hardly realize it’s already turned 2015. What will I do in 2015? I will finish Kanishka. It will be published in a serial format in English, for the magazine that hosted me for the residency program while we were ‘out there’, on the road. Days and months and people who show up when you most are in need of encouragement, a warm bed, a hot meal: these are the people whom you will never forget, and whom you will list on every acknowledgements page you write for the next five years.

In Phnom Penh, I will go to the same cafe pretty much every day and order the same thing, I still go there and they just nod and I get the same thing, and this routine makes me write Breakfast in Cambodia in the meantime while I’m trying to ‘figure it all out.’ What am I doing in Asia, anyway? What the hell is next? Where and how will we manage to pay for all this? Meantime, DK is starting to get a little known. AM is networking, this time. Used to be me, now I’m a hermit. But so? Weirdly, it doesn’t even matter about me being in hibernation. Gigs are coming, anyway. People are asking us to do things. Think about how to think about a thing: a project, a design, a story. It’s magic, again. It’s spacemaking. I’m not sure where things are going to go, but they go to: London, Copenhagen, and Battambang. They go to Kampot, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. They go around and around in circles and I’m there, I”m listing to the ambient note, that is playing, playing very softly, but is resonant. Something is there. In the aether. Like BO’K coming out of the internet and meeting me in real life, eye to eye, smiling and laughing and talking like we’re kids again in Kyoto, and wow, it’s there. All of it. The journey is not the journey. The work is not the piece. The here, right now, is the whole of it. The infinite vastness, the big black empty, the deep and mysterious magic of just being here. How did that happen?

A new physics of space

I’M GOING HOME. I’m going home. Which is what? Which is where? Phnom Penh. Home is now a little apartment. Now it’s flat. Now we’re moving to Toul Kork. No, no. Not it. For two months, I explore Hanoi. I get to know the places. I draw, write, think. Make poems. I meet SY, she is a poet, too. We are lost in the ‘out there,’ together. In Battambang I meet Y. He is on the verge of tears. I try not to get too involved, because, to get involved is to end the journey of noticing the *magic* of *simply being*. I go esoteric again, write a website about relational aesthetics. I share essays with a very small circle of people who read what I say and respond, in something called S P A C E. Of course it’s called that. What else would it be called?

Later, much later, and nearer to now (yesterday), I will email VJ and say that business, for the writing, is slow. I’m quitting. I don’t want to quit, but I can’t do it, now. The writing into the void, without feedback, is killing me. I don’t want to do it. I much prefer the forums. I say some of this, but incoherently, because I’m just not a line-by-line, develop the story kind of a person. I know that this is how you communicate, though, and so, I’m trying to learn it. It’s slow. I’m fine with going slow. Meantime I’ve become a very different person from the one I was when I was frustrated that ‘no one understands this!’ because, hey, you have to know a thing intimately yourself, first, if you want anyone to give a damn about it.

So yeah. I accept it. Writing what I want to write in the way I want to write it isn’t going to foot the bills. But AM, my partner at DK since the 90s, reminds me not to worry about that, to push the thing, to make it better. Make what better? Make it better: solve the problem that you are designing a solution for. He sounds different. The time apart, working separately, has evolved us in different ways. He is prototyping. I am playing. We move along the diverting paths of the fork. It’s good. It’s healthy. I finish writing Breakfast in Cambodia. I do Q&As with people who talk with me about ‘starting to start’, people I meet online, or how bitcoin works, or their own take on explorations of venturing into the unfamiliar, and how we trust the process. That stuff.

 

Figuring out there’s nothing to figure out

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, I take a mini-vacation. Solo. I put all these thoughts away and sometimes take some small pages, and put them in my back pocket, and consider them, alone, for a week.  Offline. Deviceless. Then I come home. Once, I redesigned this entire website. Now it’s Atelier S P A C E. Lately, I’ve recruit people to help me share about it, spread the word, since I’m so… esoteric. Noted. Sure, I tend to get lost in the corners, go into the philosophical, stop and not think about how does this communicate? Because you know why? People want a ‘topic sentence’ and a ‘developing paragraph.’ But the world of physics that I love and adore (quantum, fuzzy logic), is not concerned with linearity. Or proving something. There is the uncertainty principle, of course. staring at us. Why don’t people respect it? Why do they insist on boxing the answer, proving it until death, submitting to academic journals ad nauseous, making us think that yes, this is a thing the we need to swallow, wholesale. But I don’t believe it just because you typed it. There are 10 dimensions, right? Or 11? What’s the latest research on that?

 

The next journey

LOTS HAS CHANGED since 2014. I’m no longer writing for the people who have the gigs to give me, because I don’t want the gigs. I want the stories, the collaborations, eye contact, the in-the-box conversations that go places, that move an intrigue. I want real life. I want a shared experience of beauty: that which we see, when we are in person, noticing one another. Together. Am going to make Atelier S P A C E because zines! Zines are light, fun, simple, tangible. You cans ee them. You can hold them. You can know where a thing is going. It’s a kind of container: what goes in it, how that happens, where we discover that which we’ll share is all an open question, but the box is there. That is the space. We already have the form. The work is in the going and discovering, now. I have to go and do that. I have to. It’s just not going to be okay to stay in one place and keep on writing into the void, in private page posts for myself, no matter how romantic the life of a recluse might appear to some (Y, I’m talking to you… remember that thing I said: find out what turns you on! Then go and offer that to people!), no matter how much I want dot hide in this box forever, I’m ready now to stop it. To get out of Phnom Penh, and make stuff, with others. Out there.

In the world. Can you dig it? Let’s do this, then. Let’s make something. In real life, together.

In the zinemaking atelier.

Next stop: Singapore.