Lessons Learned Among the Artists

The sun setting over the trees at the top of the hill yesterday marked the end of my second full week at Can Serrat. The first day of the third and final week has also begun to close, slowly and with a chill in the air. As night divides the day outside, I am sitting in the warm writers’ studio with headphones in and blasting some unrecognisable ambient mixtape to block out the sounds of the hungry and exhausted children squealing in the other room. It’s not working super well.

I came to Can Serrat seeking a crystalline environment in which isolation and quiet and lack of usable WiFi would focus the rampaging in my mind and force me to corral the words lost there into something focused and tangible and sell-able. Though there have been periods of pure silence and laser-like focus on the task at hand, I’ve also faced many distractions along the way. And I’m glad. If I left this country villa without having let myself drink wine ’til the early hours or wander through the garden or mumble through the streets of Barcelona or even fall sick with a horrible stomach bug and lose a day to sweaty sleep… well, I wouldn’t have been as pleased. If I’d just come here, worked on what I planned to, had a chat or two to passing artists, then left, the experience would have been pointless.

My time here among the small group of visual artists and writers in the residency (my first physical residency ever, I should add) has given me something I didn’t expect when signing up. Breathing room and perspective.

The truths that I’m about to write, or at least trying to write, here may seem so damn obvious to some, but, to me, they’ve come as a revelation, a slap across the cheek at a time when I really needed one. If they come as a slap to you as well, then great, but I’m not sure any amount of writing can truly deliver the same result. It wasn’t until I embedded myself with fellow creatives and mimicked the mystics that it really hit me.

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Truth 1: There is Enough Space

Anyone who’s ever had the ridiculous idea of trying to make a living through art has gone through the same thing. At a young age you begin to see peers and members of your age group suddenly shoot out the gate, get featured in magazines, fall into highly publicised shows or get signed to record labels, and you begin to wonder just what is broken inside of you that means you aren’t finding the same “success”. You try as hard as you can to get your name out there, to make the work that you think will shout for you, but you find it’s not enough. Not yet. Impatience. Envy. Nights of sobbing into glasses of wine at your incompetence and checking the ages of every new artist you see emerge just to make sure that they’re not younger than you.

And that is horribly draining. It’s a soul killer. It’s a work killer. It’s something I have to admit to (if I’m going to be completely honest and helpful here) and I think it’s something that’s fairly widespread across the entire artistic community.

But I want to tell you that its nothing to dwell on. It seems important, of course, it seems like the entire world when you’re in a career so built upon visibility and reputation and emergence. But what’s important is the work you’re making (or even the work you’re not making) and who you can meet and assist along the way.

Though we see a world through the Instagram cataract in which all of our peers are successful at a young age, hopelessly handsome and breaking hardly a sweat while maintaining a PR-firm level image, the truth is that the world is far wider than that. Behind every Instagram humble-brag or new show listed in a profile lies countless hours of stress, hard work and doubt equal to or even greater than our own. Every artist, writer, photographer I’ve ever met has felt the same: that their work is not on a high enough level, that others have it easier or are in a better position just out of luck. We doubt, we worry, we compare, even after we’ve “made it” and found ourselves published or exhibited.

There is enough space. The world is big, we need arts and creativity more than ever and you will find your way if you just keep practicing. There is not just one set way to success. There isn’t just the one definition of success to chase, anyway. Sometime, somewhere, somehow, you will make it, even if making it means something you didn’t imagine when you first set out. You will find the world needs you when you least expect it.

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Truth 2: Work is a “Sometimes Food”

Practice is exercise and it is brutal on the mind and body. Like any runner or lifter knows, the body needs time and nourishment to heal and rebuild. If you want to get bigger, stronger, then you’ve got to rest and eat. You can wrench and wreck your muscles at the gym day in and day out, but you’re only going to see improvement after the rest-days of inactivity and checked gluttony.

Similarly, the artist needs downtime. It’s all too easy to get lost in your work, or feel the pressure to be in your studio constantly. There’s a romantic view of writers pounding away way past midnight, with candle-flame reflecting in the deep red of a bottle of wine. But the romantic writer is going to end up with cirrhosis and a horrible visions after a while.

As much as I try to make every hour of my day productive, as the nightmare of late-capitalism demands, I find that some of the most important work is done while away from work. Sitting behind a laptop for hours and hours a day, wearing away the seat of the chair, is deadly for both body and work. When you feel your head start to slow and grind to a halt, when you feel as if your brain is a solid fossil of a once intricate and powerful machine, cogs stuck in place as rocky embossing, then I think it’s time to stop.

Remember we once had those things called weekends? And 9 to 5? While that’s not what the human body was made to deal with either, there is some certain wisdom in assigning dedicated down time. As artists, we have to impose our own weekends, no boss is going to do it for us. Without down days, the up-days simply grind on and on, un-oiled and damaging to the engines.

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Truth 3: Brutal Honesty Attracts

Here’s something you might not know: you don’t have to laugh at everyone’s joke if you don’t find it funny. It’s simple, but it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to come to realise this.

But at the same time, if you’re honest with your feeling and your approach to people you will find the right sort of energy gravitating towards you. Don’t put up with stuff you don’t have to, but don’t be scared of interaction.

More so than the location or the opportunity, the greatest thing about live-in residencies is coming to know people. Discussion is the soil from which ideas grow. You have to cross pollinate. You have to rub shoulders with people who do things that are far removed from your things. If I’d never met video artists here I never would have grown fond of the form (too much damn patience required). If I’d never spoken with creatively-blocked painters I never would have come to some of the simple understandings I have written down here. Every little interaction I’ve had has given me some idea, sparked something deep down inside that could be brought to violent life for some future work.

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Truth 4: Process Over Product

But most importantly of all, above all else that I have come to realise here, is the idea of process over product.

The last two years of mine have been absolutely focused on producing work and getting it out there. I’ve been published and paid to do so for the first time ever. I’m writing this blog again and sharing my miniature hobby work on Instagram. I’ve also been making attempts at finishing the novel that has been sitting there, beating under the floorboards, for the past few years. It’s been a period of intense drive to “finish”, to “solidify”, to make real and final.

But these two short weeks have seemingly flipped that on its head.

Getting to have a first hand, over-the-shoulder view of artists at work, in the countless forms that takes, has really opened my eyes to the very nature of work. It’s given me perspective I haven’t had before, probably because writing is such a solitary endeavour. It’s made me realise that life in art and the art of life is not all about the rush to achieve and to publish. It’s about enjoying the process of making, about feeling material within your fingers and experimenting with it in new and exciting ways. I’ve witnessed artists here go weeks without touching a canvas and smiling because they know that the eventually brushstroke is coming and that it will be perfect. I’ve seen writers sit reading all day, oblivious to deadlines but sure in their current work. If you just stick to your tried and true methods, smashing away bluntly and repetitively, your art will never move forward. It will only get smoother, more refined.

Artmaking is a rebellious, violent act. It’s breaking the chain of capital and a rejection of employee-owner relationship. Though, as I’ve said above, it also requires self control, working on art is, seemingly, one of the last pure forms of expression we have. Living in what is essentially an artists commune with more structure has given me a strange feeling of power. If we want to remain free, or break free again, we have to reject the pressure of publicity and production. We have to produce for the sake of producing (where we have the economic freedom to do so). We have to play, to be children, to be wise old wizards and witches. In a world that demands us be many things, and all of them for profit, simply taking valuable time and using it to enjoy the process of making art is the most radical thing we can do.

And so my goals have shifted. Instead of aiming to produce a small booklet/novella/zine/whatever from the history of the blog you are reading right now, I’ve instead decided to simply make my product “process”. I’ve never experimented with this artform before, but I’m finding I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’m enjoying taking the time to re-read old posts, to talk with the James that started this blog two and a half years ago. I’m making notes that no one will ever see and which will never go on a resume. I’m sitting in the sun, watching ants crawl through the dust and cats stalk through the greenery. My art, my work, my product now, is to re-orientate myself into a position where the process is magical again and product can return later as something potent and living. Because if you spend all your time working purely for the end, what do you have in the end except an end?

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I’ve also come to admit to myself that Electric Holy Road is never going to be a finalised, ticked-off, completed project, no matter how much I’d like to have something physical to show for all the countless hours I’ve spent writing here. But I think the continued life of this blog is a perfect example of my new artistic philosophy already in action. There are relatively few regular readers of Electric Holy Road and not as much traffic as you might expect. There’s no real point to it in the contemporary sense, no real way I’m making money off of it, and yet I still write.

Because the Electric Holy Road is and always has been about the journey. Whether that means a physical journey from Mannheim to Vienna to Budapest and all the fun that involves, or a reflective journey into echoes and memory, the act of travelling is the same. It’s work, it’s process and it’s worthwhile. Electric Holy Road has been my way of making the trails and adventures of life meaningful and transformative and productive.

Thank you for coming along with me. Welcome to my studio.

 

 

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