Friday, October 29, 2010

No Fly Zone Friday #6

I created the idea of No Fly Zone Fridays as a way of "forced disengagement." The concept: One Friday every month, take the day off to do the things that truly inspire you. It had an obvious idealistic basis to it ("The world is full of adventure; this is why self-employment is so great!") as well as a practical tinge ("If you don't do this, you're going to burn out and lose your creative IQ, as well as your income.") Nearly a year into the experiment, keeping in mind that I've only managed to do about one out of every two months for various reasons, it has become something else. No Fly Zone Friday has become an exercise in self-discovery through non-obligation.


Let me explain.

The problem with me, with creativity, with self-employment, with the culture, with growing up Catholic, with being a bloody Midwesterner ... is that you constantly preside over and attempt to mediate an internal war between your "craftsman" side (I can't bring myself self to say "artistic" in my case) and your responsible side. Being creative absolutely requires serious self-absorption. You cannot possess a vision to express without being in touch with yourself, which requires a tremendous turning inward. Being responsible requires shutting that impulse off. Snuffing it. A lot. Most of the time. Practically all of the time.

Add a family and self-employment, and you give great momentum to the responsibility side. Top it with a volatile and precarious economic climate, and you ratchet up the stakes even more. Throw inglorious middle age into the mix, when you're at the height of mortgage paying, new patio building, retirement and college planning and, most recently, disability insurance exploration, and you have all the ingredients for a new psychosis: Obligatory Obligation Syndrome.

The primary symptom is this: the feeling that everything you do in the course of a day is an obligation. It's not martyrdom, because you chose the path and would do so again. In fact, it's a luxury that you are even able to make these choices. This actually is what you want; it's just hard.

So No Fly Zone Friday comes along, and you have to ask yourself, what would I choose to do just for the next nine hours if all of those waves of obligation were temporarily parted? This forces you to go back into craftsman mode. Really, what interests me most right now? What would I like to do right now that has nothing to do what with I should be doing?

For me, it has become downright disorienting. I got into the car this morning having no idea where I was headed. I only traveled half a block. "I want a New York Times" is all I could think of. The nearest machine is right outside the St. Clair Broiler on Snelling and St. Clair. I parked the car, grabbed two dollars in quarters and took the last available edition. I got back into the car. What now? Head to my favorite coffee shop? "Not yet." I had a responsibility relapse and called the 800 number of the insurance company that was after me for a medical interview as part of the disability insurance process. That only took 15 minutes, fairly painless. In fact, it made me feel pretty good. "Think of all the questions you were able to answer 'no' to. You're pretty un-screwed up when you think about it."

Anyone watching me would have been terribly confused, because the next thing I did was get right back out of the car and head into the Broiler for breakfast. "What the hell? Get some eggs and hashbrowns and sit there and read the paper." So I did, half a block from my house. Then I did go to that favorite coffee shop, and I read even more.

Then I drove to The Walker Art Center with no knowledge of what exhibits were showing or what I wanted to see. It hit me that these NFZ Fridays usually tend to involve coffee, the New York Times, art museums and blogging. A clue? To something? Maybe?

When I entered The Walker, I stepped down into the first exhibit that caught my eye: a photographer named Alec Soth. It was spectacular. Here was a visual artist ("one of us," to boot ... always big with Minnesotans) whose sensibility interested me. Some of his photos had a Hopper-like lonely quality, but they didn't just stop there (let's face it, lonely is easy). Some had a very Midwestern sense of irony, humor, borderline satire, but they weren't judgmental. This is an artist who walks a lot of fine lines and somehow makes it all work. Perhaps my favorite photo was of a Niagara, New York, motel room from the outside in winter. Had it been just that, it would have been interesting enough ... decay, a bygone era, cold, loneliness ... but what makes the photo a work of art is what you see when you look closely at the snow: footsteps heading to the door. This isn't just another abandoned building; there's someone inside. Or is there?

But perhaps the most interesting thing I learned about Soth had to do with the camera he uses: a rare, large-format 8x10 device. This is the opposite of your iPhone digital camera. It's huge. It's imposing. You can't just walk by and inconspicuously snap a picture of a stranger. The physical presence of the camera makes the shoot an event. Soth has to stop and talk to his subjects. He has to earn their cooperation, even when they have other things to do. Then he has to get behind what amounts to a curtain to look through the camera. The whole process takes a while, and what he likes about it is not so much the quality of print the camera's huge negatives produce, but what the process does to his subjects. It forces them to relax in a way, to turn inward even in front of this huge camera. When he captures that feeling in a print, then he knows he has something interesting. And it shows in the photos.

I left with a smile on my face, and just a tinge of jealousy. After viewing Soth's photos, as well as listening to him speak about them via my phone (a nifty system I didn't know The Walker had), I realized that I was in the presence of a true artist who seems to have no trouble with obligation. He's long been perfectly in touch with his vision, and he's done everything he needs to communicate it to a random stranger like me. His obligation is to his art.

It made me consider what my project would be if I thought in terms of having an exhibit ... with no limits, no oppressive concerns about audience and entertainment ... no time constraints, and no need for disability insurance.

I came up empty.

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