Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Author: Max Melaas

Uncertainly, Dear (Art & Fear) – Max Melaas

(Put this here as there doesn’t seem to be a section for Week 9 Readings. Sorry Winter’s Bone folks!)

Max Melaas

Caryn Cline & Sam Schrager

Eye of the Story

February 28, 2016

Uncertainly, Dear (Art & Fear)

            It’s a strange work of irony that my favorite film of the quarter, John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, is arguably among the most nebulous and evasive of this program’s viewings (at least in its presentation), and that at the same time my favorite book of the quarter, David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art and Fear, is arguably among the most straightforward and unornamented of our readings. Rather than a continuous narrative or collection of introspective essays, Art and Fear is, in format and intended function, exactly what it says on the back cover: “An Artist’s Survival Guide.” Admirably, the language and tone employed by the co-authors, as well as their stance on the subject matter of artmaking, is demystifying and matter-of-fact, deftly evading the pitfalls of condescending quasi-philosophical quackery that consigns so many paperbacks to the Barnes & Noble self-help aisle; the awakening of my inner dolphin-spirit will have to wait. While the guide’s use of humor will not likely send many spilling out of their chairs in fits of lung-collapsing laughter, they are frequent and wry enough to impart some texture to the work as a whole without overstaying their welcome or feeling shoehorned-in for their own sake; they always seem to have something to do with the subject matter pertinent to any given section. If Art & Fear didn’t feel like such an appropriate capstone to the collected readings of this program, I’d have to bear it some resentment for coming along so late with advice and meditations that I really could have used earlier on in the quarter.

Bayles and Orland’s handy guide observes and explores a litany of obstacles on the path to creating a work of art, pointing out a number of hooks and snags that seem obvious to us only after reading about them but which, in the practice of artmaking, we’re all too prone to walking into. “What if we can’t finish it? What if we chose the wrong format and wasted all this time? What if no one understands, or attempts to understand? What if they compare us to so-and-so? You know, we might as well just give up.”

            The second chapter, which bears the book’s own name, ends with a section on page 19 entitled “Uncertainty”. The section details a number of struggles from a number of people in the course of creating something, from Uelsmann to Tolstoy to Lincoln, all of them wrestling with doubts about their work, whether it be their ability to properly handle it, the response that work would invoke upon the raising of the proverbial curtain, or any number of little, conspiring fears. This theme of doubt, of uncertainty, is ever-present in some form or other throughout Art & Fear, as it in many ways serves as the foundation for so many of those looming threats of failure that, for many, hang so heavy over the artmaking process as to put an stop to it. The uncertainty of your own artistic qualifications gives rise to the fear that you’re merely “pretending” to do art. The uncertainty of whether or not your work will be accepted as art by party X, Y, or Z invites the fear that it will be unceremoniously brushed off as quaint or the work of some hack. And so forth.

            It would seem at this point that uncertainty is a menace to artists the world over, and your masterpiece can only be created in its complete absence. Not so, says Art & Fear, for the same section of the text that introduces the pitfalls of uncertainty also insists upon its inexorable necessity to the creation of art. The co-authors liken it to starting a sentence without knowing exactly how it will end, asserting that while such a tactic is not advisable for public speakers, it is an excellent practice for artists, as it allows art to happen in an organic, real way that, in turn, makes a piece more believable than if it had been planned out in intricate detail. On that same page, 20 to be exact, Art & Fear spoke almost directly to me by pointing out the futility of making detailed plot outlines in writing stories, a practice I’ve held to for many years. Though I’m well aware that every artist has their methods and that if that method should produce a result then it is not invalidated, part of me always felt tethered by those plans. But I made them out of a fear that I could not write without them, born from the uncertainty of my writing abilities.

            Central as it is to many of an artist’s fears, uncertainty conceals itself behind most of the following sections throughout the book like a puppet master cycling through its many marionettes. Uncertainty itself returns for a final bow in the last paragraph of the book, on page 119, where the authors end Art & Fear by illustrating a dilemma faced by all artists: will you put all you have into your work and face the ambiguity of its outcome, or will you hedge your bets and pull your artistic punches, thereby assuring a hollow, unsatisfying work? “[C]uriously,” write the authors, “uncertainty is the comforting choice” (Bayles and Orland 119).

In a broader sense, when are you ever creating something with absolute certainty of what the finished product will be? If you empty the contents of a brand new box of LEGOs onto the floor, which comes with detailed instructions, is there complete certainty that the fruits of your hard work will be indistinguishable from the vibrant fantasy depicted on the packaging? What if the packing machines in that factory in Denmark made some sort of error and slipped a flat, smooth, red circle-y piece in where a tall, wide, beige rectangle-y piece should have been? What then, LEGOmaniac, what then? You make art, that’s what! You write a terse letter of complaint to LEGO quality assurance, then you make art.


Works Cited

Bayles, David, and Ted Orland. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Cruz, CA & Eugene, OR: Image Continuum, 2015. Print.

Max Melaas “Next Move” 2/23/2016

                Hello there, Mr. Skipping-His-Journal-Writing-Duties-For-A-Week! Heard some music playing from the roof of the science building, so decided not to walk circles around it for an hour after lunch as I tend to do, so decided to walk around the longhouse instead. More foot-traffic but nicer, nature-filled environs, too. Should maybe walk around there instead, since walking with nature is Evergreen-y and good for me and stuff. Though really, after moving to Olympia, I haven’t been going on my nature walks as I did every evening back in Coupeville. Need to get my fresh air somehow. Maybe that’s part of why I lost a lot of that motivation I had going to school up there. I had a clearer goal when going there, too; “Get good grades and credits to transfer to a four-year institution.” Well I’m here.

                Now what?

Max Melaas “Info Shock” 2/2/2016

                Morning, in Spring I believe. Class that day; I sat at the bus stop downtown staring, as I often do, at the sky, the clouds, the trees, taking in the cool sea air before cramming myself into a bus and then cramming myself into a classroom. A couple of pedestrians across the street caught my attention; a mother and son, or so I can’t but assume. The child’s feet were moving in such a way as to provide locomotion for the body as a whole, but this was the only sense in which the boy was evidently aware of his environment. Aside from this contact between his feet and the ground, he was otherwise utterly transfixed by the iPad or some such so-called “smart device” in his hands, staring unblinkingly at its screen and nothing else.

                His mother, I assume, walked apace behind him, hands on his shoulders as on the bars of a bicycle. She thus steered the hypnotized youth down a dip in the curb and across the street. Her expression seemed tired, but she made no protestations to the boy; did not bid he tear his impressionable young blue-eyed gaze away from his visual data feed, lest he wander into oncoming traffic, off a seaside cliff, into a warehouse receptacle for discarded shards of rusted metal.

                At his screen the boy stared. At the boy I stared.

                The bus arrived, I boarded, sat down, glanced to my fellow passengers; over half were engaged in communion with their “smart devices”, their faces looking so much like that of the boy who must be steered through life. “Surely this is worth it though,” thought I, “after all, we’re soaking up information and news at an unprecedented rate. We’re smarter than ever. Save for I, the bumpkin, the farm boy, the country simpleton who looks out windows admiring things as mundane as trees, hills, mountains. Perhaps it’s time I join my generation in this new age of intellectual enlightenment before I’m left insalvagably behind?”

Max Melaas “The Back Burner” 1/20/2016

                It’s I who live there now. I shall here attempt to sketch a profile of my incense burner, which is on a small table beside me.

                On three delicate, sweeping, tiny brass legs it stands, a squashed spheroid for a body capped with a tall dome for a lid, an antique teapot of copper sans handle and spout. Halfway up the body, atop a narrow striated band that encircles its midsection, are three brass loops for metal chains, equidistant from one-another as are the feet below, but staggered in such a way that, were one to connect the loops into an invisible triangle, it would oppose the triangle similarly created between the feet (and, given its larger size, most likely win). As the unit’s free-standing state precludes their necessity, the chains, hanging from their loops, are pooled nearby, with a large hook at the mass’ center. Perched atop the dome lid is a small brass flange with which one might open the top. It is molded in a semblance of a flame.

                Above the band that bears the brass rings, the body and lid both are embossed with a swirling labyrinth of lustrous spirals and crescents; waves upon a tumultuous sea, a bank of fog obscuring the horizon, smoke gliding thin upon the wind. From the darkened gaps between the tin and copper wisps, faint white tendrils rise, as ghosts, curling and looping and unfurling, dancing and joining and separating on their quiet ascent until they vanish high in the still air, whispering, suggesting memories of cinnamon and sandalwood as they go.

                What distant, half-forgotten dream is this of which the burner speaks?

                Come now.

                You must listen.

Tondichtung (The Nine Muses) – Max Melaas

Max Melaas

Caryn Cline & Sam Schrager

Eye of the Story

February 3, 2016

Tondichtung (The Nine Muses)

            I am in my mother’s room. Hushed whispers, quietly scuffling shoes on carpet, we settle into our seats. The orchestra has quietly run its scales to pitch perfection, and before it stands tonight’s composer and conductor, the esteemed John Akomfrah, dressed in his finest bright yellow coat. He taps the baton on the edge of the lectern, raises it, the recital hall holds its breath. A distant plucking of strings in a bewildering melody accompanies the first light dips of the conductor’s baton and, as an unseen woman joins with haunting vocals, we are poured from our seats into a still, quiet, cold landscape. As we try to get our bearings, the strings and vocals are joined (and promptly overpowered) by the lesser-known arm of the traditional orchestra: the heavy clanking machinery section, who are themselves slowly overtaken by a hollow, crystalline drone. Staring at the inhospitable landscape, we realize by the rushing whisper below us that we are moving across a body of water, and by the metal armature to our left that we are on the deck of a ship. The industrial din (it may well be the engine) reconvenes as the title of tonight’s concerto descends upon us in snow white letters adrift in a sea of blackness, and we know we are approaching a point from which we cannot return.

            Our first encounter with the image of a human being is an intense meeting. A man of a dark complexion works the machinery of a factory and stares unblinking at something outside the scope of our vision. We see a memory, a recollection, belonging to this very man: he is on the ship with us, yet alone, clad in a black coat, staring across a field of water at a cold, unwelcoming, and predominantly white shore. Back in the present, in the factory, we are closer to him now, having seen his past, which still overflows and spills into today, tomorrow, the next day. He is on a journey. Without looking away from the object of his attention, without moving his mouth, he speaks to us:

            Sometimes we think, ‘We shouldn’t blame the people,’ because it’s we that were come to your country. On the other hand we think, ‘If they, in the first place, had not come to our country and spread false propaganda, we would never have come to theirs. If we had not come, we would none be the wiser. We would still have the good image of England, thinking that they are what they are not, and the English would be ignorant of us. (The Nine Muses)

Again we look out across the landscape of England, as played by Alaska in a compelling, if a bit frigid, performance. The promise of opportunity brought us here, but this isn’t what we saw in the brochures.

            This opening sequence, this prelude, this overture, makes a powerful first impression in establishing the principal cast of this programme; travelers in the mass migrations to England from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, as well as introducing the audience, via the construction of a restless soundscape, to the sobering sense of estrangement and turbulence that their first glimpses of Mother Britain without her makeup must have visited upon them. Colored coats; colored people, stranded in the land of the white; a blunt instrument as metaphors go, but it’s hard to deny its effectiveness, which may in fact only be enhanced by its stark, straightforward imagery.

            Subsequent chapters, of which there are nine, segment the story, and there is a story, albeit conveyed much more through the figurative than the literal. These weary travelers, drawn by the hearsay of paradise, disembark the boat in their finest suits to the handshakes and smiles of white policemen, but when the black curtain comes down, a sneering sting on the violins kindly informs us that we might have made a terrible mistake.

            Realizing that he is now in a strange land with no ties to much of anything, the dreadlocked bespectacled man lingers in burnt-out Liverpool. We talk, “I am in my mother’s room,” says he, introducing his haunting refrain. Mother England? Certainly, says I. “I don’t know how I got there.” I know the feeling. “Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later?” You mean as she existed in your mind when you boarded the Ambulance-sorry, ship? Maybe she hasn’t been born. Then the travelers, in need of some income just to stay alive, find themselves in rooms full of machinery, molten metal, harsh noise. Our acquaintance in Liverpool speaks again, barely audible over the racket; “I am in my mother’s room. I don’t know how I got there. I was helped, I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not. He gives me money…” the rest of his sentence is scattered by a mandolin, but the situation is clear. The man who gives him money, in this factory, an employer, a plant owner. How convenient for him that he should receive boatfuls of cheap labor. Perhaps convenient enough for he or his superiors to have “suggested” this journey be taken in the first place; false propaganda.

            The grinding, rattling, shrieking of metal continues in its discordant accompaniment of the mandolin. The travelers feel their identities slipping, slowly becoming strangers to themselves. The tension continues to build as the first generation of these travelers are born in England into the slum neighborhoods, the “black unfolding town, fast and slow.” Communities, in some form at least, begin to arise between these castaways. The children grow into a strange niche, not quite African, Caribbean, South Asian, and not quite English. Two black men turn a corner and are dejected to confront “Keep Britain White” scrawled on a wall. The sea is choppy, but the spirit of these voyagers has not been fully dampened by the foul weather. Traditions of dance and music bring some splashes of color, like coats in the snow, to the gloom of their new home, and slowly come to assimilate elements of western music. This fusion’s legitimacy in expressing the travelers’ ideas and identities is not diminished by the “borrowed” elements but may, in fact, be reinforced by them. How similar that situation is to that of John Akomfrah, in his re-purposing of disparate samples from the western literary canon to compose a song of a marginalized people; of his excerpts from the Odyssey, for example, were the selected narrations not largely centered around difficult journeys to an island kingdom? As such, the ostensibly western instruments in this ensemble subtly takes on the timbres of the mbira or the sitar.

            It is by no means a literal timeline of the events of these mass immigrations to England, nor should it be assumed that it was intended to be, but stands instead as a diorama of the experiences of a hard-going journey to a place where one finds oneself unwelcome, unwanted, and tossed about on currents whose designs are unknowable. As such it becomes clear: the immigrants, the boats, England; they themselves are also actors cast in a play of allegory. For whom do they read their lines? Perhaps everyone, as their story, their struggle, their Odyssey resonates with an innate immigrant in us that, for whatever reason, has been othered and ostracized from whatever promised land in which it may have hoped to live and flourish. Though we may find ourselves at a standstill in the industrial ruin of Liverpool, the unforgiving white of Alaska, or before a brick wall bearing an unwelcoming message, and though we may feel we have nowhere to go, the journey is still so far from over.



Works Cited

The Nine Muses. Dir. John Akomfrah. Perf. Stuart Hall and Catherine Hall. Smoking Dogs Films, 2010. DVD.

Max Melaas “The Day I Lost Myself” 1/10/2018

                Due date for the first journal entry today. Really need to get into the habit of writing in here more often, and not just for class

                Elaborating here on the final memory (sounds ominous) from my previous entry. I lived in the town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island for some twenty-something years; most of my life. I developed a propensity for evening walks along a specific route some years ago, to cope with the stress a world issues class was causing me, if I remember correctly. I really liked that teacher, though.

                Went out on this walk one evening about a year and a half (-ish?) ago. It was raining, and quiet; ideal conditions. Sitting on the bench in the park, staring at the gray sky through the trees above, I was suddenly overcome by an inexplicable clarity; a lucidity of thought. I sat for a long time, timidly beginning to accept things I’d been erstwhile ashamed of. By the time I got down to the Coupeville wharf (a customary stop on my walks), I was ecstatic with this unfamiliar, cosmic perception. I ambled around the docks late into the rainy night, laughing uncontrollably, chattering quite willfully to nobody (for that is who was present), and otherwise showing every known warning sign for the onset of dementia.

                I was far from caring how crazy I must have seemed, though. Others’ perceptions of me, my perceptions of myself, and every disaster or accomplishment in my life seemed so blissfully, perfectly small; so distant and unreal. Nothing mattered and it was so beautiful!

                I should note that I was not abusing any substances prior to this experience, nor did I receive any good news or even have an abnormally pleasant day. Part of why it is so strong in my memory is that it’s the happiest and freest I felt in many years and I have no idea why.

                Nearly every walk I took after that night, I looked back upon [that night], wondering, questioning. This, I think, will be the starting point for my project this quarter.

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The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

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