LivingArts: Pressure

My wife often reminds me not to be hard on myself when I leave things to the last minute, because, ‘it’s part of my process.’  And, for the most part she’s right: I do have a reasonably successful process that relies on a lion’s share of the work happening in the absolute final hours.  When I’m pessimistic, this feels part of a sad legacy of my lazy, reckless days as a student, perfecting ways to push through tasks without learning from them.  When I’m optimistic, it feels like the smartest way to work ever conceived.

If I have a few months to do a project, I spend a fair bit of that time sketching obsessively, meditating on details in bed at night, or on the toilet, or in the car.   It’s a kind of mental conditioning that allows me to spring into relatively efficient action when the time comes. When I’m optimistic, I liken this behavior to a hunting tiger, one who does a lot of sitting and staring and thinking before a final calculated burst of initiative takes over.  When I’m pessimistic, I feel like Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, i.e. a drunken hippie.

As I write this, I am days away from delivering two art projects for two different Hamilton venues—a sound installation for the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre as part of 20/20, their 20th anniversary show, and an interactive sculptural project for Supercrawl.  I’ve had all summer to get these projects moving but like any good tiger, I spent most of the time thinking and waiting, and combing over my ideas obsessively.  By mid-August I was ready to spring into action.

Just as I was about to pounce, I contracted an eight-day case of salmonella.  Salmonella by my own hand. I couldn’t even blame anyone for it.  Suddenly my excitingly small window of time became a terrifyingly impossible window of time.   During my sickness, I swung from abject despair to embarrassment to panic to dark fantasies where my illness would get so dire that it would free me of my commitments.

When I returned to health, I felt completely purged. I could see my artistic situation with a combination of heightened clarity, ruthless efficiency, sober acceptance. I started making hard choices for my projects that only seemed to improve their overall concept and make them more honest.  I began to demand help from people I would normally be too timid to ask.

Taoists have a concept of ‘wu-wei’, or non-doing that has always struck a chord with me. I interpret it as a way of working without thinking, of doing a thing with no self reflection.  This is what my last few weeks have felt like.

And in this state I have been recipient of almost unfathomable moments of serendipity.  I need oak strips of wood, and there they are; I have 24 hours to find a recording studio, and literally stumble into an available one without knowing. When I was desperate for a set of curtains for the Non-Psychic Booth I’m constructing for Supercrawl, a magician acquaintance from decades ago offers up curtains cut to the precise length I need.   A magician!!

I also don’t question the odd challenges that pop in the way.  When my brothers offered me bushels of plums and apples from their trees at precisely the time our refrigerator started to die, I knew instinctively I had to figure out a way to process apples and pit plums and repair the appliance in between what I was doing.  I make time for it all, even the errands, the blogs, the long-term projects.  These jobs that would normally feel like extraneous obstructions, somehow become essential.  One job fuels the other, they all calibrate the engine.

I don’t know what the result of my art projects will be this weekend. I do know that success or failure, I will feel deflated at the end of it.  This deflation might invoke a round of viral infection or a short depression. But then I will pull myself together again, scratch my arm and look frantically for another deadline to push against.

Right now, I am happy for the pressure. It has put me briefly into a state of grace.