Art and the Void

When I was younger people used to say “all the great artists are crazy” and that used to scare me a little bit, because I wanted to be a great artist but I didn’t want to lose touch with reality. People say artists must suffer, and that scared me too, because I like suffering about as much as the next girl, which is to say I don’t. Give me a cozy fire and fresh sheets and tasty food and good company and I promise you I’ll be happier than naked alone in the forest. I didn’t want to sign up for the life of a pariah just to learn to speak my understanding of the truth.

Then I was around people who claimed the opposite. Madness and art were not related, I learned, when I finally met artists, including those who society would prefer to label mad. We make art despite our divergences, not because of them.

Then I realized it’s both, and different for everyone.
For some artists, and theorists, the first step is to go outside the realm of rationality into the realm of possibility. Just as importantly, the second step is to come back. The goal is describe what they have found out there, to incorporate it into our understanding of reality.

That’s the shit I’m interested in, anyway.

* * *

I’m going to try to avoid using terms like “crazy” and “madness” or even “mental illness” when I can throughout this essay, because these things are stigmatized heavily by society, and because despite my uh… quirks… I’m capable of relating with society and presenting myself as comparably “sane” so it is only partially my struggle to represent. If I use these terms in the short term, please understand that I invoke them to talk about, and critique, how society views those they label in that way. I far prefer the framework of “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” to describe whether someone’s brain is functioning similar to most people on any given axis or not. This isn’t because I desire specifically to avoid offending people—though I also desire to not offend people when I can help it, and don’t understand why people would desire the opposite—but because this framework reinforces what I’m discussing.

* * *

Imagine us all on an ice floe, floating in an infinite sea. We’re safe on that ice floe. We aren’t going to drown, most of us. Sure, holes develop here and there and sometimes there are cracks big enough to fall into and sometimes whole chunks of it break off but it’s mostly pretty safe up on this ice floe. I used to call it a raft, but it’s important to realize that the thing that is keeping us afloat is made out of the same basic stuff as the sea that threatens to swallow us.

The ice floe is reality, the sea is possibility.

We, more or less all of us, live on the ice floe. We, more or less all of us, are constantly in the process of making and fixing and expanding it. Without our continued work, the ice would break apart, or it would melt, and we would be swallowed by the sea, by the void, by the infinite possibility. That is to say, we are constantly in the process of making and remaking reality. We do not do this alone. We do this collectively.

“Reality” is therefore socially constructed. Reality includes: what roles we might consider taking in our lives; what ethics we might hold; what ideas we can express; what constitutes music; what kinds of behavior are reasonable; what color objects are—even what colors we can see; what is enjoyable, what is detestable; how one can go about “knowing” things; what metaphors we use for divinity, or if we believe in divinity at all. All socially constructed.

This might or might not extend even into things we consider the fundamental laws of the universe. I’ve read convincing arguments, including those founded in science, that claim either position. But at the very least, everything about how we interact with the material world comes from our social construction of reality.

This is easy enough to understand, if you’ve ever spent a long enough period alone, or isolated in a small group. We constantly check ourselves about what is happening by comparing notes with the people around us. From “did you hear that?” to “how does this food taste?” to “what is the best way to handle this situation?” we share our experiences and let those of others inform our own.

Small groups in particular create an echo chamber effect. When you run ideas past the same, non-diverse, group of people over and over, you end up being able to warp reality in impressive — and often horrible — ways. It’s wild what we can justify to ourselves if the other people around us are justifying those things with us too. This of course also happens in society at large — like how so much of the world supports an economic system with its origins in chattel slavery that requires constant growth in order to remain stable that funnels wealth to the people who already have wealth.

There’s no inherent value in supporting the ideas that underpin the existing reality, and no inherent value in toppling those ideas. It is the ideas themselves that determine their value, not their position as mainstream or fringe.

If reality is an ice floe, it’s is monstrously large and varied. I used to refer to reality as “consensus reality,” a reality we all more or less agree upon. I tend to call it “majoritarian reality” now to better get at the idea that, well, we don’t all more or less agree. People who don’t experience reality in quite the same way as the majority are forced to participate in the majoritarian understanding of reality or face oppression and be ostracized or worse. I’d prefer, of course, to live in a consensus reality instead, where we agree on the things we agree on and put no specific pressure on people to conform to our views, to try to force one single view of reality on the entire world.

There is not even an inherent value in participating in majoritarian reality at all. That’s an individual or collective decision to make. Personally, I aim to stay a part of reality. I aim to influence it and be influenced by it.

So here we are, on this ice floe. The ice is thickest under the ideas that we constantly reinforce and thinner out at the edges. Our goal, as people engaged consciously or subconsciously in the shaping of reality, is to pick what aspects of reality we want to reinforce and what parts we want to let melt away back into the sea of possibility.

Everyone does that, just by living and communicating. Artists, and theorists, do it intentionally. Scientists too. And priests, and magicians. Revolutionists. All in different ways. They aren’t doing the same thing as each other, and their jobs are not interchangeable, but they are all consciously attempting to rework or reinforce reality itself.

Recognizing this has helped me tremendously in my own art. Finding a framework with which to understand my actions helps me perform those actions more effectively.

Let’s divide art into mainstream art, fringe art, and experimental art. I know those terms all have meanings people usually apply to them, but try to forget those meanings for a moment, and in particular the traditional “form” each one has ascribed to it.

When I say “mainstream art” I mean art that reinforces ideas that are already fairly well established. The “form” of this art is intentionally accessible, because it is meant to appeal to the broad swathe of humanity that already supports any given idea. This could be truly mainstream pop art that reinforces the status quo — like love songs in which someone essentially claims ownership over their partner, we have plenty of those — or it could be art that supports a large and vibrant counterculture — like love songs against codependency, which god damn we need more of.

When I say “fringe art” I mean art that explores and reinforces the tenuous, thin-ice additions to the raft of reality. This is art that speaks to an audience that already exists and helps bring people to a sparsely populated corner of reality. This is art for people who practice a minority religion, or for those who participate in some subculture. The “form” of this art will almost always be something that is used to set the fringe apart from the mainstream. You know you’re in the goth section of reality because everyone is wearing black and the music is sad and slow and dark.

When I say “experimental” art, I’m talking about art made by people who strap on a diving helmet (if they have one) and tether themselves to the ice floe (if they can) and jump directly into the sea of possibility, who step into the void and explore the infinite. Who, ideally, bring what they find back to reality. Some never come back. Some drown in that sea, others build their own sense of reality that keeps them afloat, broken off from the rest of society. Practically speaking, there are a lot of ways to step outside consensus/majoritarian reality whether alone or in small groups. Isolation, ritual, dreaming, and drugs are common. Some such artists are neurodivergent in ways where they find they spend most of their time outside what others view as reality already. The form of experimental art doesn’t have to be “experimental” in the ways people commonly understand that phrase to mean — art doesn’t have to be abstract, music doesn’t have to be freeform or seemingly random. Existing forms of abstract art and experimental noise are aspects of existing fringes. The content of the work is more likely to signify experimental art than its form alone.

Experimental art creates a fringe, fringe artists create a mainstream. Mainstream artists reinforce those mainstreams.

There is room in this framework for dynamite, for arson. Bakunin says “the destructive urge is also a creative urge” and I think that’s true. We create reality not just by developing our own corners of reality with one another, but also by waging war against ideas we oppose. An artist with a torch is still an artist, reshaping reality by deconstructing some aspects in addition to constructing others.

There is no inherent value in practicing one form of art over another.

That bears repeating.

If an idea is good, and becoming mainstream, then reinforcing it is good. If an idea is fringe, but bad, reinforcing it is bad. Art, and agreed-upon conceptions of reality, should be judged irregardless of their popularity one way or the other.

One terrible idea, that we should melt away as soon as possible, is the idea that where something lies on the axis of ethics depends on whether something is mainstream or fringe, one way or the other. You see this in mainstream politics, which focus on either being “conservative” (that is, attempting to preserve existing structures and ideas) or “progressive” (that is, attempting to develop new structures and ideas). You also see this in fringe politics, in which things are often assigned a moral value based solely on whether they are “radical” or not.

Many people, in fact most people, would prefer to stand where the ice is thickest. There is no use being mad at them for this. Not everyone wants to stand on the fragile ice at the fringes of the floe of reality. Some of us do. Some of us are comfortable only where we can hear the waters of the infinite rushing under our feet and can see the gulls crying over the sea of possibility. And some people need to swim.

Honestly, I want to practice art in every form, at every level. There are some existing ideas, increasingly mainstream, that I want to put more ice underneath: we can have a society in which we take care of one another; you can have love and commitment without assuming monogamy or codependence; gender is wild and varied; white supremacy is bad; sexual consent is good. There are fringe ideas that I want to make more mainstream: prison should be abolished; we can live without the state. There are also fringe aesthetics I want to participate in that I don’t care one way or the other if become mainstream — I make sad music because I like sad music, but I don’t care if other people share this aesthetic preference or not.

Learning how I define reality gives me a framework to start with. Knowing about this ice floe gives me a sense of where I can set an anchor point to tie myself to. Being able to communicate about this kind of thing, by describing it, helps me find the people willing to haul on the line and drag me back to reality if I’m gone too long. It helps me find the people who will nurture me with hot tea and help get the cold out of my limbs once I’m home. It helps me find the people who will jump in with me. Just as importantly, it helps me find the people that I can do that all that caretaking for in return.

As I grow older, the void calls to me. The teeming sea of wild creatures calls my name. I want to know what’s in that sea. I want to know what it has to offer. I want to learn things I don’t already know. I think this is where magic lives.

I also want to come back.

If you appreciate my writing and want to help me do more of it, please consider supporting me via Patreon.

In Defense of Hope

Let’s talk about hope, for a moment, because a lot of days recently hope feels like the only thing that matters. It’s easy to let it slip away from us.

I haven’t lived through events like this before, and I’m no prophet, but I assume the world will not return to how it was before. I assume the old status quo is gone. A new one will take its place.
I hope the new status quo will be better. I hope it will be built of resilient, interwoven communities. I hope it will be kinder. I hope the horrors of capitalism that have been laid bare will live on only in history books. I hope the horrors of policing and judicial solutions to crisis stay plain for everyone to see and become dark historical footnotes. I hope we remember mutual aid. I hope that in the new status quo that we remember we can just… take care of each other.

That’s what I hope. I think it’s a long shot, but I think it’s possible. I’ll work my hardest to make it happen, and I hope you will too. If I didn’t think it were possible, if I didn’t have hope, I don’t know what I would do.
Continue reading In Defense of Hope

How to Live Like the World is Ending

The world might be ending.

* * *

There’s a commonly replicated piece of anarchist folk art that means a lot to me. I don’t know who drew it. It’s a drawing of a tree with a circle-A superimposed. The text of it reads “even if the world was to end tomorrow I would still plant a tree today.”

I grew up into anarchy around this piece of art. It was silkscreened as patches and posters and visible on the backs of hoodies and the walls of collective houses. It was graffitied through stencils and it was photocopied in the back of zines. It’s a paraphrasing of a quote misattributed to Martin Luther (the original protestant Martin Luther, not Martin Luther King, Jr., although plenty of people misattribute the quote to him as well). The original quote is something like “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” The earliest reference to it anyone can seem to find is from the German Confessing Church, a Christian movement within Nazi Germany that sought to challenge Nazi power. The quote was used to inspire hope, to inspire people to action.

That’s something I can get behind.
Continue reading How to Live Like the World is Ending

A Man Named Gray

There are, presumably, a lot of men named Gray. This is a story about one of them. His name doesn’t really have any particular metaphorical importance. He’s not subdued or subtle or medium or in-between or anything good you’d want out of a man with a name like Gray. Instead, he’s a combination of tragic and awful. Usually I go through a lot of work to anonymize people when I write memoir, but I don’t think I’m going to bother this time. I’m a little salty, even ten and fifteen years on. The reasons will become apparent.

Continue reading A Man Named Gray

Afraid of the Woman in the Mirror

When I was a kid, I was terrified of the woman in the mirror. Say her name seven times in a dark bathroom while spinning. She’ll appear. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.

I never did it.

I also, for a good chunk of my childhood, wouldn’t close the door to the bathroom.

I almost saw her, every time I passed the mirror. In my mind’s eye, she was old. Almost beautiful, almost ugly. Long dark hair framing her face. Confidence, terrifying confidence, in her eyes.

In fact, she looked a lot like me.
Continue reading Afraid of the Woman in the Mirror

What Are We Going to do About These Concentration Camps?

The first time I saw the Klan, I was ten years old. My brother and one of my sisters were in the car, and my dad was driving. We were stopped at a light and maybe five Klan members in full regalia were offering leaflets to white drivers. My father, a white man, rolled up the window, locked the doors, and grabbed the steering wheel in a death grip.

When the light turned green, we drove away.

“Those people carry guns,” he told us.

He was excusing himself for not getting out of the car and physically confronting five large men, an action which could easily have put him in the hospital or worse. He probably did the right thing. He had three children in the car. There were five of those guys. The cost/benefit analysis of starting a fight was all wrong. But the Klan, wherever it shows its hideous face, should be confronted. Should be fought, through whatever means.

Sometimes we have to fight.

Which brings us to the concentration camps in America.
Continue reading What Are We Going to do About These Concentration Camps?

Why Did You Sink the Red October?

I think this story about Finland starts in Sweden.

It was 2005, and I was twenty-two.

At ten or eleven at night my bus crossed the bridge from Copenhagen to Malmo. The border police got on, singled me out, and pulled me off the bus. I was sort of used to that by then. You could play “one of these things is not like the other” in pretty much any non-squatted space in Europe and I would have been the odd one out. I had long hair and patched-up black clothes, sometimes both a beard and a skirt, and you can sort of imagine a haze of flies around me at any given point.

“Where are you headed?” a guard asked once I was in the freezing night air outside the bus.

“Helsinki,” I said.

“Where are you staying in Helsinki?”

I wanted to say “you’re Sweden, not Finland, so it’s none of your fucking business.” Or I could have been honest: “I’m staying with the girl I loved through all of high school, who I haven’t seen in five years.”
Continue reading Why Did You Sink the Red October?

In the Shadow of Bluebeard’s Castle

“Those who make revolution half way only dig their own graves.”
—Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, 1793

“No great idea in its beginning can ever be within the law. How can it be within the law? The law is stationary. The law is fixed. The law is a chariot wheel which binds us all regardless of conditions or place or time.”
—Emma Goldman, 1910

content note: non-graphic description of misogynist violence

There’s this fairy tale, maybe you’ve heard it before. Bluebeard’s Castle. It’s sort of a feminist parable, in the old school way where a lot of traditional folklore is basically “hey women, don’t trust men. They will murder you.”

There are ways in which accountability processes and other attempts at restorative justice in radical communities just empower abusers and assaulters. Whenever I think about that, I think about Bluebeard’s Castle.
Continue reading In the Shadow of Bluebeard’s Castle

The Only Time I’ve Seen the Dead

“You poor drowned rats,” our savior told us. “You have to let me take you home.”

It was raining and it was winter and we were huddled in the dark under the awning of some convenience store somewhere on the Oregon coast. No one would pick the three of us up. My friends were Swamp Rat and Tortoise, two women who’d sat in trees and blockaded roads and hopped freight and lived free lives and they weren’t even as old as my twenty years.

Our savior was sixty, with gray pigtails. She told us she was dying of Lyme’s.

We piled into the back of her SUV and she drove us deep and deeper into the woods. She lived far away from anything, like a witch in a fairy tale. Like a witch in a fairy tale, she could have murdered us.
Continue reading The Only Time I’ve Seen the Dead

I Won’t Lie to Anyone I Wouldn’t Punch

Violence is, at its core, about controlling other people. It’s perhaps the rawest expression of control. Pacifists have done an enormous amount of work detailing all the ways that violence wrecks havoc upon our society, and they only thing they’re wrong about is claiming that violence is, therefore, never justified.

Most of society accepts the need for self-defense — that is, using force to counter force. When someone is attempting to control you, it’s reasonable to attempt to curtail that behavior on their part. Violence isn’t the only — not even the most common — form of control, however, and people sometimes forget that violence is often an acceptable response to people utilizing other methods to control our bodies and our actions. Fighting back against systems of control is a reasonable and ethical thing to do.

Lying is also, at its core, about controlling other people.
Continue reading I Won’t Lie to Anyone I Wouldn’t Punch