E X P L O R I N G _ T H E _ A E S T H E T I C S
Times, shifts, curiosity about new people and new ways of thinking, and the general crisscross of emails and vague fragments of thoughts are what we write and share about in S P A C E Works are creative nonfiction short stories, co-created with members of Design Kompany’s team both in Phnom Penh and in the places where we have been, and connected meaningfully with others, through our two-year roving popup, Atelier S P A C E.
Not sure why, but it sure seemed to come up a lot in conversations. And maybe that’s why the next word I learned was ‘maybe.’ Things are always, it seems, in a kind of flux. You just have no idea what’s going to happen. You live in a countryside town, and you’re a farmer, say, and the things that evolve in the day have nothing to do with what you might have imagined, at the start of it. Staying flexible and being open to things suddenly veering is part of the everyday mindset. It’s actually kind of beautiful: you let things happen, you don’t go in there with an agenda and a list of things ‘to do.’ Summer in Finland and these things became clearer and less intense; the idea that you have to ‘produce’ is somehow out the window. For better or worse. Some of the new people I had met told me how they feel like it’s a bit of a drag, sometimes, like not having ambition could be a way you perceive this lack of momentum or the lack of some kind of urge to ‘do something.’ Thinking about things sometimes substitutes for doing things, as I learned, on my last night, talking away to the last person of the series of many, many chance encounters that informed the conversations that led to the knitting together of a new narrative. I’ll tell you more about that, tomorrow.
Meantime, let me get the final edits done.
There are a lot of people I wish to acknowledge, people who contributed to the making of this series, and I had first mentioned them at this page. Doesn’t hurt to underscore my gratitude, I think, by sharing again. So here we go. Many warm thanks for the great conversations to: Eveliina Karsikas, Asta Sinerva, Sirpa Heikura, Simo-Sakari Niemelä, Fırat Taşdemir, Johan Engström, Maria Raasakka, Sanna Upola, Rastislav Somora, Seo Jin Ahn, Ana-Maria Ovadiuc, Charles Tirkey, Saarah Choudhury, Benjamin Nwaneampeh, Joanna Ohenoja, Paavo Heinonen, Reijo Valta, Eero Österberg, and Merja Vedenjuoksu.
‘I know! It’s wonderful. I have space and time to write anything. Anything at all. And it feels good, getting better.’
‘Yes. Also, without the pressure of having to produce something for the market.’
‘The market drives things.’
‘But the market doesn’t know what a good thing is. It just knows what a thing that people want is.’
‘And a thing that people want is made up by the stories and illusions that marketers make so that people talk themselves into wanting those things. Look at sillybands!, is that what that craze was called? Look at diamond rings! Did you see that spoof of the diamond thing, on YouTube? That was so hilarious.’
‘I saw that! Ohmygod. That was so funny.’
‘What about though, the fact that we’re just so damn distarcted now. We can’t even deal with something that’s more than 200 characters long to read. It makes us tired. Overwhelmed. What about that?’
‘You want people to pay attention. To think.’
‘Well, that’s hard.’
‘You want people to notice each other. And to be able to pay attention to the beauty in the space around, and within. Right? That’s what you said? Something about gems and beauty and aura?’
‘That’s what I said, all right.’
‘And you’re in a sort of despair. Because of that stupid novel.’
‘That stupid novel! I couldn’t believe it! I opened it to study about how to you know, look at characters, set up dialogues, setting, stuff like that, see how other people do it, the bestsellers, and my gosh, it’s just pure shite. I’m gonna stick to classics, now. But you know, I was really disappointed because… It was an Irish author, so I had better expectations from the things that I got, but what I saw was a piece of crap. Made for the market. Made for people who simply want to escape from the monotony of their day to day lives.’
‘Isn’t that what novels are for? Aren’t you being overly critical of someone else’s art?’
‘No! Novels and books, short stories, poems, music of all kinds… the kind that I love is the kind that shakes it up. Makes you think about things in a new way. And you know what? It wasn’t art. It really, really wasn’t. Not according to my definition: which is where, you know, it’s more about the universal truths and relating to that which is all of ours, not just some casual throwaway cheap thrillers about suburban love trysts. Fucking boring.’
‘You want stuff that changes people’s thinking, a little. I think that’s what you’re saying. You want stuff that makes… well… Says… “look at that.”’
‘Yes! And I keep running into people who challenge me to do that, too. To look at things in new ways, around and around, from varying perspectives. This is the fun of it, the discovering and the journey.’
‘You’re talking a lot about moving around and seeing things and shaking it up. But what about practically? How do you pay for all this?’
‘That’s a good f’ing question, mate.’
‘But how do you?’
‘No, seriously. I need to know.’
‘Pay attention to the things I am saying, and I’ll start paying attention to your questions. Until you become part of my circle, I don’t know you. The invitations are there. All the time. But if you just can’t be bothered participating, what am I supposed to do? Follow up on everything? Hope that you’ll come on board? I finally shortlisted my list of contacts. I found myself realizing I simply don’t care about most of the old ones. Just don’t. Just can’t. Too many people! I can’t keep up. Do I want to keep up? No. I can’t do that, without compromising. And I don’t want to compromise. That’s why I’m not writing porn for the masses, or sci fi for the geeks, or ‘be like me’ crap for the life coach-y. I hate that stuff. I want to make art, mate. Art! Not art for the sake of art, for me, or whatever, and by the way, did you see the film Posthumous?, that, and yeah, not art for self-expression in a ditch of a hut off to the side of the woods forever or anything like that, but art because… the conversation is the art. The noticing of one another. The being-here-now. I am learning all the time, of course, but it’s time to start practicing, sharing, making S P A C E for more than just me. I can’t do this thing alone. Someone told me yesterday…’
‘You told me. That “artists are supposed to be starving.”’
‘I told you? Yeah. What a load of bollix.’
‘But didn’t you meet that marketing person who said he wanted to be a publicist for you?’
‘Oh, him. I can’t even tell you what a bunch of irritating movements I had to suppress during that short, awkward talk. I wanted to run. I didn’t want to talk about making myself into a spectacle for the internet to feel like they could relate to. My gosh. If there’s anything that I care about, it’s making spaces for real life and real conversations that are real. That means awkward, too, that means just… showing up, to see what happens, because you don’t know. And that’s okay. The point is not to be perfect! I don’t even care! You can just try, that’s what it’s about, right? Staying home and watching Netflix. That’s the biggest competition I have when it comes to S P A C E-making, that is to say, events and hosting them, for sheer learning and practice, but it’s… okay. If people want to stay home, fine! I don’t need to be cool or persuasive. I just want to find the people who are interested in being found, invited, and brought to the spaces where we can really talk. About stuff. Real stuff. I keep saying this! Why is it so hard, now? Why is real life so intense? Why is it hard to make an appointment? Why does it take six months to meet again? Why does it have to be that calling someone requires 52 emails? Why do people cancel? Why does this happen? I can’t deal. I just shut down, really. But I also know that this is a way of avoiding everything; the same exact issue I’m trying to attack. We can’t get so bored and distracted, so lonely and unhappy that we forget about the very miracle of being here. Simply just being! Think about it. All that… stuff of 50 billion years of evolution? Did you read what Einstein said about that? I could quote it here. I could! I could make something like a ‘80 ways Einstein gave us Pause to Reflect’ post and try to get clicks and stuff, but whatever. I don’t care. I don’t think clicks matter. I think people matter. People. Matter. Why is this so hard to get across, now?’
‘Hm. You’re bringing up some hard questions, now. Why do you think people don’t like you making your art?’
‘I dont care about them~!’
‘But… Don’t you think that the system wants you to starve?’
‘I think some people in the system, the ones who are joining me in S P A C E, for example, well, they recognize that if artists starve, then we all suffer, ‘cause we lose the light.’
‘You’re a poet.’
‘So what are you working on now?’
‘Editing Briefly in Sheffield for my good friend, Karin Malhotra.’
‘I know. Not famous. Writes from the heart. Not popular.’
‘How’s it all going? Isn’t editing hard??’
‘Yeah, but for goodness’ sake. I’ve been editing since the eighties. So yeah. Practice. And it’s going super. I’m really excited about keeping things short, and sweet, and a zine is a way to do that. There are three sections to it. Three… acts, kind of. So you get to discover the 1998 story in England, plus the more recent, 2016 update. It’s pretty neat, I think.’
‘Is publishing fun?’
‘Yes! Skipping over all the mainstream market and starting this S P A C E the Z I N E series has been really good, so far. Some people are truly supportive and I’m getting great feedback from S P A C E || Battambang’s story, Here Comes the Dance. Which is about the Age of Anxiety. Good to talk about. In fact, brilliant.’
‘Tell me more.’
‘Well, I’ve got some really great people helping me with getting the dialect right, for Yorkshire, and understanding the landscape of the city of Sheffield, which some of us went to visit and suss out in person in 2016, just so this would be more… real. More honest. You can’t write about something if you don’t go and see it. This is why I can’t get excited about most travel stories, they’re just concocted from bits and pieces gleaned from internet research. And we all now the internet is not the place to trust stuff. It used to be cool and fun, to connect with others, far away, about things you care about. Now it’s just… hard. But you asked about the new zine? ‘Briefly?’ I did a Q&A with Karin, it’s here.’
WHEN DESIGN KOMPANY landed in Phnom Penh in March 2014, something incredibly magical took hold of me. I still remember the photo: I’m on a tuk-tuk, looking out at what was the Independence Monument, though I didn’t know it at the time. We’re rounding the circle, I’m staring. I’ve got one hand clutching the open-air tuk-tuk’s column, it’s like a movie, or a dream. After trying to put the experience of being here into words (my best shot, in Breakfast in Cambodia), I want to share with you the pictures and drawings of the aesthetic that moved me so much, in that first week, that I pressed for our team to stay here for a while. A flat to let. That turned into one year, then two, then three. It’s now almost been four years, and it’s time for me to look for the next place.
But before I go, this is the last dance. ‘Phnom Penh || S P A C E’ is the chapbook, a visual summary of some my finds when exploring the aesthetic of Cambodia. I didn’t train fully in art and design, I was an engineering major, and I spent my time abroad in Kyoto. But coming to Cambodia made me question this. Why wasn’t Phnom Penh an option when it came to where to study art, design, the ornament, ritual, symmetry, these kinds of things? When we were students, it was all about Florence. New York. London, Tokyo. But now, you can go anywhere. You can study anything. This was my self-designed independent study. I had no idea it would last more than three years.
What is Beauty? Who gets to decide? Here, in this place, it’s quite miraculous; never taught to us in art schools, but of a quality and temperament that only by being here, in situ, for a time, and absorbing, can you really feel. It’s not easy to articulate, but the pictures, I hope, and the drawings, will tell this story to the world, from the perspective of Atelier S P A C E. Can you dig it?
Free digital copy for those who join S P A C E in September.
Guest post today: ‘OF COURSE THERE IS SUBJECTIVITY in all writing, even so-called factual writing, because writers choose which facts to include and thereby bend them to their purpose. So this implies that given a representative, well-sourced collection of facts and subjective observations, the reader is supplied with enough fuel to be intrigued, to read and form an opinion about the issue or the writing itself.’—Eric Chuk
A MATCHSTICK IS COMMONLY composed of a small piece of wood and an ignitable coating at one end. When struck against a suitable surface, heat generated by friction causes the coated end to catch afire.
This simple mechanism is actually the result of centuries of development, not counting the preceding usage of flint and steel or the later advent of portable lighters. These implements for generating sparks or flame make it easy to focus on the accomplishment — the activities that require a greater source of light or heat than a match. The substrate itself is often overlooked.
Yet ‘what is to give light must endure burning.’ If ignition can be a metaphor for all that inspire and impels, why not the kinds of things can be burned? Why praise the fire of creativity but not its fuel, intrigue?
By some considerations, artistic activity depends on creativity as the energy that sustains it, and intrigue is thought of more as the spark. But to define intrigue as a momentary thing, bright but so quickly expended, is to ignore the need to sustain attention even after the original impetus is gone.
What makes a story?
AS AN EDITOR and writer, I am especially intrigued by the following—one is a technique while the other is an open question about the nature of storytelling.
In writing, the technique of ‘showing,’ or describing using concrete facts, is known to be more effective than ‘telling,’ which is to rely heavily on adjectives and adverbs.
Of course there is subjectivity in all writing, even so-called factual writing, because writers choose which facts to include and thereby bend them to their purpose. So this implies that given a representative, well-sourced collection of facts and subjective observations, the reader is supplied with enough fuel to be intrigued, to read and form an opinion about the issue or the writing itself.
What makes a story? It is the difference between hearing that ‘the king died, and then the queen died’ versus ‘the king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ as explained by the novelist E.M. Forster. Although he calls the former a story (chronological sequence of events) and the latter a plot (causal, logical structure connecting events), the point remains–causality is intriguing, but more specifically, cases of human actions or occurrences causing a significant and relatable effect on some world-state.
I would say that grief, although a specific emotional implication in this example, can be generalized as the matchstick that begins to burn once we think about the relationship between the story characters and the people in our own lives who mirror them.But regardless of whether matches or sparks deserve further contemplation, my hope is to have outlined intrigue in terms that might lead to an even more universal definition; it is a force that focuses imaginative attention, not only on whatever is at hand but also toward vistas we have never before reached, with distant campfires waiting to be lit. —Eric Chuk