Saturday, October 06, 2012


The opposite of a labyrinth is a shoreless sea.  Scientists invent both in order to test poor victim white rats, in hopes that they will teach us something about ourselves.  Most of us have seen photos of rats in a maze, searching for the cheese.  Fewer have seen the tank of opaque water that has a platform just under the surface, just big enough and high enough to save a rat from drowning.  The rat must find it by swimming.  If the rat learns where one is, it can be moved.  It can be surrounded by other platforms or removed entirely.  The idea is to give the rat drugs to see what that does to performance and memory.

A labyrinth is architectural.  Right now corn farmers are teasing willing customers with “maize” labyrinths of corn rows.  A shoreless sea is sometimes present in nature itself.  Right now polar bears are in arctic seas with no ice platforms, drowning.  Both are powerful metaphors for human experience -- that which is so structured that there is only one action possible and that which is so unstructured that there is no point of attachment, no place to begin, no frame of reference.

Those who do art of any kind know about structuring experience.  I’m just beginning to type the notes of Alvina Krause for a production of “King Lear.”  She speaks of it as a symphony with the actors being instruments.  Musicians have a high consciousness of the structure of sound, which has direct access to the feelings of the listener.  Composers know about the literary introduction-rising action-climax-and resolution of stories, and the use of a script, though notes on lines look different from words.  And they know about jazz, in which there is no sheet music but a through-line melody known to all; each is free to create spontaneously -- fitting into the patterns of others.  

When I was in high school I fell in love with Balinese culture and did a lot of reading about the gamelan, a sort of xylophone, which is used to play “organic” music that twists and rises like a vine, stopping here and there to form “leaves” of small complexities.  More recently I read about John Cage who did a lot of experimenting with expectations.  For instance, since people were used to listening to composed music and resenting the coughing, scraping and radiator clonkings that interfered, he framed a piece of “music” that WAS the coughing, scraping and clonking.  It was more interesting than anyone expected.  Try YouTube for both examples.

Every art form IS an art form because of its structure, whether it is the labyrinth grid of the blocks in the Holocaust Memorial or white-on-white or black-on-black paintings in a gallery.  There is also such a thing as a “found structure,” that which has just happened by itself in the world as an “emergent” phenomena, untouched by human hands -- as the phase goes.  But detected by a human brain and point of view.

Brains, you will remember if you’ve been reading along with these thoughts, is a whole-body activity, a complex of sensations that includes awareness of where you are in space.  It is exquisitely sensitive to patterns, sometimes imposes them if there are none or if it is feeling something is incomplete.  We always want to complete the circle.   We assume what is behind facades, we are startled when we expect one pattern but are presented with another.  The pattern, the structure of experience, is our real platform under the surface that allows us to stop searching for the time being.

An artist who can see what that shoreless sea is made of and can create a platform in it, is going to attract those tiring of struggle in the water.  Religion is an art form that operates just like any other.  What I’m looking for is “performance art that is liturgy for a churchless people.”  Not dependent on dogma, buildings, or specially trained leaders.  Maybe wordless.  A structure of feeling.

The human population of the planet has only two things in common: the need to survive as individuals and the need to preserve the planet in a livable state for humans.  (The planet will go on without us.)  The immediacy of personal need too often cancels out the actions that would be good for the planet.  Indeed the immediacy of hunger can prevent the kinds of personal actions that would save the person.  (There are many kinds of hunger.  Artists, for instance, don’t just starve for food.)

So why is there always a big fuss about “being in the now”?  Because the past is gone, leaving only traces.  It morphs and self-destructs, or it has hardened and is stuck in your gut in a way that prevents you from digesting.  The future is not here.  You can only change tomorrow by changing the now.  Regardless of the art form, regardless of the purpose and goal, what is really being changed is the consciousness of the person creating and the consciousness of the receiver.  The created platform is between those two.  The “now” is the working space for creating the platform.

This is what Whitecalf said about his people in the years after the Baker Massacre, just about the time of the Starvation Winter when 600 people starved to death just north of here,  where the government confined them though there was nothing to eat.  I found the quote in Bill Farr’s article in the Summer 2012 issue of Montana, the Magazine of Western History:  “The Blackfeet were like people lost in a fog.  They wandered around, not knowing where they were going, or what they were going to do.  They could see the things close to them, but the things that were further off were hidden so they were like people who were lost.  They had nothing and they knew nothing.”  They swam in a shoreless sea.

In medieval times when one-third of the population of Europe had been killed by plague, monastics created a platform, a time labyrinth to walk, by dividing the twenty-four hour period into named three-hour intervals each marked by prayer.  One was at 3AM.  The monastics went from their dormitory down to the chapel for a period of prayer before returning to bed.  It was a performance art, a platform of meaning.  The stairs are deeply worn by many feet.  It’s not hard to imagine the cold night stone, the swish and rustle of the robes, the slap of sandals, wind cutting through the spaces. 

I usually wake up about three AM for a little while.  I’m not claiming to be a monk.  A sleep study recently claimed that humans naturally sleep in two periods, broken about three AM.  One theory is that it was an evolutionary advantage when someone had to stoke the fire about that time.  Others say there is a brain wave change between first sleep and second sleep.  First sleep is devoted to clearing the day’s vibrational and electrical debris away, sorting and storing memory.  Second sleep is the rapid eye movement sleep when mammals dream.  People can get along for quite a while on only four hours of sleep a night, probably “first sleep.”  But if they are prevented from dreaming for too long, they begin to hallucinate, drowning in a shoreless sea.  The Blackfeet were a dream-based culture.  Dreams gave them a platform.

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