LivingArts: A World in Our Mind

“He liked the mere act of reading, the magic of turning scratches on a page into works inside his head.” — John Green

One of the goals of the Hamilton Arts Council’s Living Arts initiative is to create “a vibrant and critical dialogue around events and issues of contemporary art practices in Hamilton.” When I began writing this blog, I expected to turn inward, better understanding my own practices and processes as a writer, editor, and arts organizer. This, of course, happened, but what I didn’t expect was how quickly I found myself interested and immersed in the practises and processes of artists in other disciplines who were also sharing their stories. Their insight was invaluable in helping me recognize the similar challenges we all face working in the arts in Hamilton.

Participating in the Living Arts project also helped me recognize the many ways in which the arts intersect. In the past months, I’ve found myself more acutely aware of the the many ways the literary arts influence and inspire those in other disciplines. (Just take a look at the last two Living Arts posts by Tor and Steve. Both reference literary works).

Sure, prior to participating in the Living Arts blog, I could name dozens of songs inspired by literature (One of my favourite albums is Neutral Milk Hotel’s On an Aeroplane Over the Sea, which borrows heavily from the journals of Anne Frank), and for years I’ve been a fan of spoken word, watching how artists bring together words and performance. But for example, besides an affinity for graphic novels, I’d rarely considered how literature and the visual arts work together.

In the past few months, I’ve seen this convergence first-hand in a number of exhibits at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. In late 2015, I attended a talk with artists Hadley+Maxwell, in conversation with writers Jennifer Fisher and Jim Drobnick, who spoke about their incredible work, When That was This, which was created using cinefoil, steel, magnets, 6-channel sound, and LED light-programming. I was moved by the way they used the written word in a hugely innovative way: “The soundtrack features vocal recordings by writer Lisa Robertson, who reads a passage from Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and actor Kai Meyer, who reads a passage from Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. The sound is composed of extended processing and editing techniques to create various acoustic atmospheres and disembodied voices that, combined with the programmed LED lighting, illuminate the curiosity and anxiety common to the shifting social, political and perceptual sense of humanity of the time.”

So stunning! Just last week, I was back at the AGH for Fearful Symmetry: The Art of John Scott, which includes 28 works on paper as well as Trans AM Apocalypse No. 3, (1998-2000), "an actual car, which the artist painted matte, incising on the surface words from the Book of Revelation that refer to the apocalypse."

Reading inspires us to create a world in our mind, so it’s no surprise that artists use their craft to bring the world of books to life. Linguists and philosophers have debated the limitations of language for centuries, and I’m the first to admit there are some experiences, emotions, thoughts that words just can’t capture, and it’s music, painting, and other forms of expression that can fill in these gaps.

The whole thing reminds me of a favourite quote by French poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo:

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that cannot remain silent.”