on being uncontrollably controlled

Several weeks ago a dear friend (and Nomad in Residence to-be) Alex Kelly tagged me in a facebook post with a link to an article called Conscious computing: how to take control of your life online. Laughably (?) I was so busy (mainly online) that while I saw the tagged update I couldn’t spare the headspace to read an article about how potentially damaging being online actually was. I’ve just found the time to read that article and realise that – the smart cookie she is – Alex shared an article that has deep relevance for me.

“making a bolt for the door” what time away from the digital world and a cornflakes packet does to me – http://thesubjects.anat.org.au/2013/02/day-3-fee-we-are-cyborg/

Firstly, I never had the chance to ask Alex if she tagged me because I’m always online or because of the affect The Subjects (a sleep deprivation residency created by Vicki Sowry from ANAT, hosted by Professor Drew Dawson & his scientists at The Appleton Institute and experienced with my utterly phenomenal co-subjects Sean Williams, Thom Buchanan & Jennifer Mills) had on me earlier this year. The article mentions a thing called “paper-tweeting” – “scribbling supposedly witty wisecracks in a notebook as a substitute for the urge to share them online”. I never knew this was a thing, but it’s precisely what I did when my internet connection was taken away – as you can see! (NB this link hosts an incomplete version, somehow the full untweets including photos weren’t uploaded, i’ll have to fix that…): http://thesubjects.anat.org.au/2013/02/the-untweets.

I have talked publicly at Adelaide Writers Week about what The Subjects did to my brain, but I have yet to write it up (at least for public dissemination). Partly this is from being too busy with a stupidly complex calendar of commitments this year, but also because it’s not an easy one to untangle (especially for public dissemination!). I’ve always been a bit of a hermit – I prefer one-to-one over group activities and am always kinda freaked out by parties even though I can talk professionally to a room of thousands. Since I started playing online back in 1996 I have been about as ‘always-on’ as my access to technology and my location would allow. Last year’s crowdfunding campaign pushed my online presence to an unprecedented level. It obviously climaxed over the Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and Hugh Jackman tweet viral explosion, but has still (to my surprise) maintained a strong consistency long long afterward.

The Subjects was a research study into the affect of sleep deprivation on creativity, but for me it wasn’t vaguely about that; I am invariably sleep deprived and I have often questioned my creativity in any context. The residency to me personally was to explore the affect of complete disconnection from my online & social media community on my … well, on my everything. I really will write this up properly, honest. But for the purposes of this blog post let’s just say that being disconnected from my online world, even just for a week,

FUCKED. ME. UP.

It rewired me in every way imaginable and I’ve really struggled to get my shit back together ever since.

In some ways it’s been a really good experience; I have questioned and challenged what ‘being digitally connected’ and ‘being physically connected’ all meant to me then and what it all means now, which is healthy (if sometimes painful). But in other ways – when you are supposed to be a public voice for not just your own projects and creative path, but have contracts that require you to be actively social online for other people & events – fuck me, that’s hard. And yes, you can easily add the stress of couchsurfing (read: being homeless) and launching a new project (read: finding/renovating a bus and all the crazy that entailed) on top. Suffice to say… it’s been a huge year and it’s still only May.

As I said, I will write up my experiences with all that…another time. For now this article was really pretty bloody good and so I want to come back to that (and thank Alex for tagging me even tho I so rudely blipped her off my radar at that moment in time!).

Muscle (or any) Control

 ends his article with this: “What we need are ways of strengthening the muscle that lets you maintain control of your own attention, so that you can more frequently win the psychological arm-wrestle against the services and sites that are itching to control it for you”. He’s right, that’s a smart view and in a way reflects the ‘program or be programmed‘ advice from my old friend Doug Rushkoff (and others). But for me there’s something else that turned ‘being disconnected’ into ‘a gift’. I returned to skills I used to use every day in the physical world – I started MAKING PHYSICAL THINGS again.

In a past life, for around a decade, I worked in Theatre as a prop maker/set designer/lighting crew and stage manager. I was a jack of all trades who moved happily between departments depending on location and need. I would make things from whatever was around or I would imagine things and make tiny versions of them to try to ‘sell’ the idea of what a large-scale version might look like. That was an art (or probably more accurately, a craft) that I had grown up with and then lost (or more accurately, forgotten) because of technology. Not by choice, just by muscle memory.

The absolute disconnection afforded by The Subjects residency (combined with the dedicated time to notice that was what had happened and act on it) made me incapable of ignoring the differences between those worlds any longer. I hadn’t ever lost my love for physical making, nor the ability to actually turn a cornflakes packet into a mediaeval door bolt, apparently, but I could feel how much I had let that muscle become weak. My time ‘inside’ reminded me that making matters, making ANYTHING matters, and that while, yes, you do need to Make Good Art, you also need to allow yourself the time at a new beginning to just make anything so long as that in future your aim is to make BETTER art. One day, perhaps, with a lot of time and effort you will make GOOD art. It doesn’t matter whether what you make is digital or physical, it just matters that you MAKE IT.

For the record I have now taken control (of a sort!). I am now living fulltime in a bus that has a bed, storage, and a kitchen (although of course there will always be more work to be done). I have (more importantly) just finished or delegated ALL my pre-organised ‘service’ commitments and am now only looking ahead to projects where I actively make things or talk about making things. In case you are curious: Yes, my ego is currently shitting itself. I have spent far too long not making my own work (because I’ve been facilitating other peoples’ creativity) and I have lost both muscle memory and muscle strength; I’ve been in a creative coma and that takes time to recover from. It often feels like nothing I knew before has relevance now – all the code, platforms and hardware have changed since I last made digital things and even then I will admit to a great deal of bodgit & scarper and google copy paste. But I am learning those bits and I have an elderly teenager’s worth of experience in anecdotal references and context. So this year I might not make the art I want to make, the art I can see and desire in my mind. But I will MAKE THINGS. And then, hopefully, next year I will MAKE GOOD THINGS.

Because of how the internet has exploded in that time (and because of how my own online presence has exploded in that time) those things will be a lot more public now than anything I ever made before (erk – this just gets more terrifying the more I write!). These days I am offline more than ever because when you live in a bus you don’t always have electricity or an internet signal (and I’m paying the utterly disgusting rate of $180 per 12GB of data thanks to living in a country where Telstra are allowed to be fuckwits). I have maintained creativity both digitally and through analogue crafts, playing with projects around knitting and sewing, recently starting my first ever cross stich pattern, am about to get/build my own 3d printer, and have a few Arduino toys to play with. I don’t know that I’ll ever take control of my life online (or off!) but I do know that either way the most important thing from all this is that whatever I do, it should have ‘meaning’. For me, meaning comes from both digital and physical; people, like Alex, sharing things that matter on places like facebook that help me live a better life in the bus actively thinking about what I’m going to make and what meaning it’ll have.

Confused? Yeah, me too. Bear with me, I’m working it out and will probably post a status update when it’s ready… so I’ll see you uncontrollably controlled online sometime:)

UPDATE: After writing this post I was chatting with my old partner-in-crime Ben Jones about this creative shift and the problems therein. He mentioned he’d had this quote from Ira Glass as the homescreen of his phone for about a year saying ‘I thought it was a really useful thing to hold on to, especially when making things that i’m not entirely happy with (which is essentially all the time)’. I’d stumbled on the same quote earlier this year while thinking hard about what I was going to be making, and why. It’s helped me enormously to accept what I was saying above – that not being great now is OK and I just need to not give up. Anyway, in case you missed it, here:

ira-glass-quote