Undergrid Four (of Fifty)

Undergrid Four – Pastel on paper, digitally manipulated

The abstract images I’m making for undergrids are probably a bit bland and puzzling for you, so here are a few things that might put them in context.

  • Each picture titled “Undergrid” is a visual representation of the ideas behind Undergrids (see definition.) It is a representation of the complex, fractal, grid of relationships each of us has with other people and foreign objects, a grid that determines identity and meaning. So, each “Undergrid painting is a picture of my undergrid and in that sense, a self-portrait.
  • Each picture with its overcrowded multiplicity of shapes and connections represents how I experience the world. I often feel overwhelmed and overstimulated by too many things, people, and complex systems. (In future articles, I’m planning to write about Concentration Deficit Disorder.) The world seems to generate an overwhelming surplus of objects, and I have trouble screening out the noise to get to the signal. So, the images look jam-packed with “noisy objects” and it is hard to know which one to look at.
  • Each picture is a kind of Mandala. So making them is very calming and meditative. The way some people color in mandalas with colored pencils in coloring books, I draw “Undergrids.”
Image From Mandala Coloring Book

Notice that Undergrids do not have the formal balance and geometric structure of Mandalas. Despite studying mathematics and formal geometry, my raw phenomenological experience tends to be more disorganized and chaotic.

A Hollywood Screenwriter

One of the very best things I ever received in the mail was issue 23 of n+1 Magazine.

When I opened the magazine and read the table of contents, I saw under Kristin Dombek’s Advice From The Help Desk an article titled: A Hollywood Screenwriter. Intrigued that one of my favorite contributors had written something about the entertainment industry, I turned to page 91 and began reading a letter to Kristin asking for advice. I didn’t immediately recognize the letter as my own, just an uncanny sense the words wer familiar…

“When I started reading the first installment of the Help Desk, I assumed its title and contents were ironic. Halfway through, I realized that much of what you wrote was breathtakingly sincere. By the end, I found that almost every sentence could be read as either ironic or sincere, in the same way an optical illusion can be seen as a young woman or an old hag, but not as both at once. Either way, you wrote so deeply and extensively about each question, I found myself wanting to ask for your help, perhaps just to have you think so attentively about me, too.”

“However, as I thought about a question to ask you, I felt anxious. I began to worry that my problem would seem neither cleverly ironic nor lyrically sincere. What if you brushed off my question with a dismissive remark? What if, because you have so many questions sent to you, I got no response at all? It was this fear of your indifference and my inconsequence that helped me finally settle on the right question.”

“I have shared writing credit on several relatively high-budget movies, all of which were critical and box-office failures. I’ve realized, in midlife, that despite earnest dedication to my craft, I am ashamed of the work I’ve been involved in. None of it represents what I value artistically or politically. None of it expresses anything I think or feel. Worse than that, I fear that I’ve spent most of my fifteen-year career empowering shallow and immoral people to create cruel and witless films.”

“I pine for the same wry but authentic connection you make with the people who ask for your help, and I envy your satisfaction (as I imagine it) in moving your readers the way I was moved while reading the Help Desk.”

“How, as an artist, do I shed my failures and begin again?

Sincerely, A Hollywood Screenwriter”

I had written that letter during a spell of panicked insomnia months earlier, sent it to the magazine, and promptly forgot about it.

Kristin Dombek answered my question in the form of a fifteen-page essay, one that I have read and reread at least a dozen times over the last three years. Recently, it has taken on special meaning.

She writes about a lot of things, about the novella Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanial West, about the difficulty of giving advice to depressed friends, about cruel optimism and “the place where friendship and love become acts of invention, even of art.” For me, the essay embodies an idea that inspired Undergrids, that in an age of overwhelming content, a single reader paying careful attention is more meaningful than a million views.

Kristin’s article helped me navigate that particular pit of depression, and it continues to inspire me.

You can read it here:

Hyperobject

So, since many of our children are refusing to go to school today in order to protest climate change, I’m going to invite the rest of you – ironic Gen Xers, sensitive Millennials, and stubborn Boomers back into the classroom in order to learn a new word.

Ever wonder why so many people are skeptical about global warming? Ever wonder why so many people, who understand perfectly well that humans are baking the planet, don’t do anything about it? Every wonder why it so hard for YOU to care, really care, about climate change more than say, losing weight, Game of Thrones, or what your ex just posted on Instagram? Why exactly is it that so many of us who are not in Gen Z are so complacent about the biggest calamity to hit our planet since a comet got the dinosaurs?

Well, an extremely useful word, when trying to understand the average person’s indifference to or outright denial of climate change, is HYPEROBJECT.

Ecologist-Philosopher Timothy Morton coined the word and defined it as “objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity.” What that means is that “Climate Change” has no specific place, yet it touches everything across the entire globe; it covers times at least as far back as the industrial age but perhaps as far back as the dawn of agriculture, like a spooky fog only visible at a distance. It is not “present” in a way that one can point to, like pointing to an apple, or a country, or a basketball team; we can only point to its effects, its traces, which can seem suspicious, like the footprints of Bigfoot.

Hyperobjects are just too big, too elusive, and too weird to get our heads around. They don’t behave as ordinary “objects” are supposed to behave- objects like cars, carrots, winter, or the super bowl. This is why it’s easy to get emotional about an ordinary object like the weather (it’s raining!) buts its hard to get truly emotional about climate – which seems to happen mostly in other places, to other people, someday far in the future.

In a sense, denialists and skeptics are right when they say climate change doesn’t “exist.” Rather, it weirdly haunts the weather, making it more extreme but never “causing” a specific event.  It rises in intensity slowly, boiling us like a frog in a pot, without us noticing year by year that anything is really happening. It appears in statistics about warming oceans, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers, and superstorms, but those statistics never manifest in ways that interrupt our day-to-day lives.

The human brain simply isn’t built to deal with hyperobjects. Our minds evolved to think about time scales contained by seasons and lifetimes. A hunter on the savannah only had to think about straightforward objects (that lion stalking me…) with clear temporal boundaries (…it appeared this morning…) in particular places (… here the foot of these mountains,) that are unambiguously NOT other things (A lion is not a deer. A lion does not slowly morph into a deer. The heard of deer is not partly caused by a lion.)

Hyperobjects are everywhere but also nowhere. They are so big and so withdrawn from everyday experience, the average person (like you, like me) has trouble maintaining strong emotions about them. So with climate change, we mostly just ignore it, and if we do try to get our heads around it, we become paralyzed by its terrifying and spectral immensity. In fact, Hyperobjects can seem vaguely religious in scope, which is why people talk about “believing in” global warming – as if it required a kind of leap of faith, taking science as scripture.

But Climate Change is real. It doesn’t care what you believe. And it’s unfolding right now. It is, in fact, another comet striking the earth in hyper-slow motion, over the course of decades and centuries, hyper-distributed over billions of exhaust pipes, chimneys, and industrial farms.

Other hyperobjects include things like “race” and “class” and the growing continent of human trash clumping together in the Pacific, but perhaps the biggest hurdle we have to understand climate change is the hyperobject human species. As Western democratic capitalists, we always see the world through the lens of Individualism. As an individual, “I” have essentially no effect on climate change. The exhaust from my car, the beef that I eat, and the number of times I ride on an airplane make no difference. Or rather, it all makes a difference so small, it becomes a kind of MICRO-object, so tiny that it’s just too tedious and abstract to bother with. It’s hard enough to think on the level of family, tribe or nation; it’s nearly impossible to think about ourselves on the level of species.

Nearly impossible for us, I mean.

Gen Z grew up with hyperobjects. They understand on an emotional level how vanishingly small things, like a single tweet, can blow up into something vast and global. They have an intuitive sense about how things, like a social media storm, can be distributed widely in time and space, yet can become powerful, destructive, and deeply personal.

For Millennials, Gen-X, and Boomers, climate change is a thing that’s happening to someone else, in some other place, at some future time. For Gen Z, climate change is happening right here, right now, TO THEM.

And, unsurprisingly, they are freaking out.

******

For more on hyperobjects, I think anyone interested in climate change should read Timothy Morton’s book, Hyperobjects. It’s been around for a while, but only in academic, intellectual and activist circles. Morton’s writing is inventive and entertaining, so reading it won’t feel like doing homework or eating Kale.

Takashi Murakami

Apparently, I’m drawn to old Japanese men named “Murakami.” (The writer Haruki Murakami being the other.) Last night I saw an exhibition of Takashi Murakami’s paintings and sculpture at the Gagosian gallery.

What I like about Murakami is that his ultra-flat, extremely well-crafted works resonate with a feeling I often get living in our capitalist/consumer society: a sense of being overwhelmed by a perverse, explosive over-abundance of products and messages – all of them screaming ENJOY! HAPPY! MORE! MORE! like devil-possessed Teletubbies.

Murakami’s works have a fractal element so that walking closer to them feels like zooming in on a Mandelbrot set. (e.g. this Mandelbrot Video.)

Here (above) we have a Happy Flower made of flowers holding flowers in one hand and child-Happy-Flower in the other. Even the eyes (if I were able to zoom in further) are themselves multi-colored and micro-detailed.

There is so much fractal detail in th painting below that it ultimately exhausts and overwhelms any attempt to take it all in.

As one moves closer, the details are “self similar” to wider patterns of manic bunnies, rainbow flowers, a drippy glowing fluids. This is about 4% of the entire painting.

As we go even closer on one of the tiny individual characters, we find alive with disturbingly rich micro-detail. These little skulls are about a centimeter in diameter.

All the images are “Ultra-Flat.”

By ultra-flat, I mean that all the visual cues that usually provide depth (perspective, overlap, relative size, tone, hue) are eliminated or undermined so that the entire panel asserts itself in an insistent, overwhelming foreground.

Not only is no psychotic bunny in front or behind any other; all the bunnies seem to leap forward to assault the viewer at once. ENJOY! ENJOY! LOOK AT ME!

This same ultra-flatness is in all the details …

The scale of the pieces, echoing Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, enhance the sense of being overpowered and overwhelmed by these “cute,” hyperactive demons of enjoyment.

Ultimately, I came away with a deeper interest and appreciation for his work. In the past, because I am not particularly inspired by Pop Art and I am not a big consumer of Anime, his work didn’t resonate with me on a personl level as it does now. Perhaps it’s only recently that I’ve felt so assaulted by the obscene consumer-culture imperative to ENJOY.

Looking back over his earlier paintings, there is a lot that’s intriguing and worth more study.

… And lastly, Murakami’s signature character Mr. DOB looks weirdly similar to my signature character, Little Boy Bobby.

Melancholy Baby

Now that my daughter is eighteen and making movies of her own, I’m anticipating having more time for my own filmmaking. To get an idea of the style and content of the movies I plan to make, check out this short that I wrote and directed, Melancholy Baby.

There are elements of The Weird and The Eerie, as well as the use of subjective sound that I plan to use in a feature project I’m writing, Birth Mother.

Just click PLAY and watch!