I’m getting to the point where a lot of my friends say to me, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life”. I also don’t know what I’m doing, and I recently came to the conclusion that nobody does. Or if somebody does know, they are either very focused or fooling themselves.
In late 2009 and early 2010, I was laid up and spent a lot of time reading. One of the books I read was Nicholson Baker’s “U and I“, about Baker’s relationship with John Updike. In the early section, Baker admits his confusion and jealously about his career compared to his colleagues. It was nice to see somebody as literate and as clever as Baker put into words the way I feel about my career, although the words I might have chosen are “aargh what is my life doing how did they do that I suck aargh”.
When I went to the BCA Gallery in Bedford recently, artist Jo Roberts led a group of artists through a visualisation process where she asks artists to make a map of their career – from the start, to where they want to end. It was a pretty enjoyable way of spending some time with other artists, and I made the map of my career above. I totally forgot to put in where I want to end up, because I don’t know. But I’m fine with that.
Stuart’s strip above is almost exactly what happened to me after I finished university – which was, for me, the culmination of a six-year education process! Imagine what a waste it would be if you listen to the folks around you, quit being an artist, and became (for example) an estate agent! That’s at least three years down the pan for anybody who takes that advice, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it
The times I regret most are when I stopped making things, and listened to other people about getting “a real job”, because I’m good at drawing/being creative/telling jokes. I’m not good at working in an office, or listening to boring people, and I’m even less good at those things after all my years of working in the creative sector. When I have tried to follow that “real job” advice – listening to people I love and respect – I have found myself depressed and moody. It’s only after around ten years of working in the creative world that I know why.
It’s the hardest thing to do to ignore those people saying “get a real job”, at the same time as making yourself do artistic projects. They mean well, but if they are not involved in a creative lifestyle then you can’t really take their advice. Not because they don’t know what they are talking about, but because they are trying to get you to create the same securities that worked for them. For instance, the idea of training as a teacher (or similar) is frequently suggested, but if you actually did that you probably wouldn’t be able to do any of your creative work. If that’s ok for you, do it – but I truly believe that there are some people who are forced to create.
One final thing, and something that I continually struggle with, is making sure the work you have to do around being an artist doesn’t take over being an artist. Updating a blog, looking for opportunities, emailing people are all things you might need to do – but make sure you leave enough energy to get on with doing your particular creative outlet. If you don’t make the art, why are you doing these things? You need to have something fresh to show people when they ask what you do.
Because that way, you can show them you already have a real job.
For the first time since 2009, I’m ill. This makes it sound like I have an amazing immune system; actually, I just didn’t really leave the house for about 18 months. Hence, this cold is really kicking my ass. I probably picked it up when my parents threw a party to mark their 40th wedding anniversary, and people came into our house. Alas, it is too late to screen these visitors in a Michael Jackson-style, and so I am laid up in bed, honking the contents of my nose into tissues every five minutes, rather than sitting outside doing watercolours.
I had meant to do some scanning of the more recent watercolours, but most things are beyond me. I would like to be working hard, but I keep being forced back into bed – I even resorted to watching Mission Impossible 3, in the hope that it would pummel my few working braincells into slumber.
Art-world brainiac Iris Priest was recently commissioned to work with a group of artists in the Newcastle area on a project called “Chance Find Us“, writing essays documenting their practice by studio visits. The artists concerned are all fairly successful people, and Iris ruminates on their practice in a footnote-cum-comment:
..Something I have found interesting, but haven’t addressed in this blog, about meeting Pete and the other Chance Finds Us artists is the ways in which they negotiate issues such as slowness and a rigorous adherence to the truth of their practices (“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Lao Tzu) in relation to an art market which demands fast, consistent and prolific production of (mainly sellable) work.
This fine balancing act between allowing the work to have the time and mental-space it requires to manifest (and having the time to make mistakes) and the necessity of profitability, sustainability and meeting the requirements of the gallery can sometimes be difficult and I didn’t want to write about it in a post because I didn’t want my observations to be seen as reflecting the ideas or opinions of any of the individuals interviewed, or the group as a whole. And it is a tricky subject.
But I have had along time to think about it since these meetings and, though it may not be entirely relevant to the writing as a whole, it’s something I’m interested to examine as the project progresses and I meet/ write about the work of the other (both represented and unrepresented) artists in the group. Though I’m painfully aware that we have to make money to survive as artists, writers and human beings, I also think increasingly that – perhaps contrary to that necessity – the adherence to the truth of the work has to come before the commercial concerns… even if it costs us greater public visibility or our breakfasts. Something I’ve been happy to see in the work of all these artists (though unhappily that it hasn’t always afforded all of them that dirty word ‘success’ they deserve) is the unwavering commitment to the process and to finding the truth at the heart of what they do…
Artistic practice takes time to emerge. It takes time, effort, and work, and those artists that find success with the stuff from their graduate show are never the most interesting. This idea collides with an interview I have read on my sick-bed, with television writer Dan Harmon, who says:
… there’s a lot of shit out there, and it is hard to find the good stuff. But we can’t look at that as a cause-effect relationship where if we limit the total amount of stuff, it would therefore become easier to find the good stuff. Ten years ago, if you turned on a U.S. network, you might be watching a basic cable show that was supposed to be sort of edgy, but you were really just watching something by the lowest level of Hollywood insiders who got a really cheap, shitty deal. [...] It’s the same thing that we just watched happen with music. You get more and more crap, and it seems more and more mechanical and more and more joyless in the sort-of mainstream, but then you also get hopefully more and more—I don’t know—Becks? Sure, there’s a whole bunch more crap now, but everything that makes it possible for there now to be all this crap also makes it possible for you to define yourself and pick your friends and pick your artists in a really, really specific way that you were never able to do back when there was less crap.
My communications professor, before I dropped out of college, summed up the first semester by saying, “Everybody, every year, with every new invention, always tries to decide whether its effects are good or bad, and you will find that the final answer is—there’s always more good and always more bad.”
So, there’s always going to be more stuff around, and the barrier for entry keeps getting dropped. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to make a TV program, you had to be an insider enough to get access to a TV studio. These days, you could do it on your phone and upload it to some video-hosting site. Of course, it would probably be shite, but if you kept doing it? And you kept getting your friends to watch it, and star in it, and tell their friends?
Well, you’d probably learn a lot about getting people to do things for you. Even if you never learnt how to make good TV. You’d have learnt how to get people to keep watching your awful practice-runs at making a good TV program, for starters, and that’s going to become more important according to historian Venkatesh Rao:
Attention behaves the same way. Take an average housewife, the target of much time mining early in the 20th century. It was clear where her attention was directed. Laundry, cooking, walking to the well for water, cleaning, were all obvious attention sinks. Washing machines, kitchen appliances, plumbing and vacuum cleaners helped free up a lot of that attention, which was then immediately directed (as corporate-captive attention) to magazines and television.
But as you find and capture most of the wild attention, new pockets of attention become harder to find. Worse, you now have to cannibalize your own previous uses of captive attention. Time for TV must be stolen from magazines and newspapers. Time for specialized entertainment must be stolen from time devoted to generalized entertainment.
Each new pocket of attention is harder to find: maybe your product needs to steal attention from that one TV obscure show watched by just 3% of the population between 11:30 and 12:30 AM. The next displacement will fragment the attention even more. When found, each new pocket is less valuable. There is a lot more money to be made in replacing hand-washing time with washing-machine plus magazine time, than there is to be found in replacing one hour of TV with a different hour of TV.
Rao’s whole article is worth reading, as it explores the recent history of our weird banking system by explaining the history of corporations. But his point above, which I lifted from the amazing link-blog Kottke.org, points out a truth that the television writer Dan Harmon was struggling to get out; there’s always more of everything, because there is a financial drive to get you to consume something different. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing; I would hate to live in a world where our choices of what to buy, watch, or read are constantly getting smaller.
But what I am saying, and what I take Iris Priest to be saying in her comment, is that you have to focus hard to produce something of quality. That’s just the first stage of making something you’re proud of.
In my teenage years, I had a big comic habit (graciously funded by my parents). It all started with the Silver Surfer double-issue where the Kree-Skrull war kicked off, on a holiday in Saffron Walden. I can’t remember the year it was, but it was before my reading speed kicked into the ludicrously high speed it is now, and those 60-odd pages of space battles and cosmic forces made me want to read more comics.
Fast-forward to today, where myself and Brian dragged ourselves to the Newcastle SciFi, Comic and Card Fair, run by these folks. And it kind of sucked, because there wasn’t any SciFi, just comics and cards. But it had cost a pound to get in, so I forced Brian to root around in the comic sections, and whilst he was suspiciously eyeing the covers of Witchbreed I was reminiscing about when comics used to be good.
Warren Ellis’s comics commentary column Come in Alone (also see here) laid it all out ten years ago, saying that the two party system of comics, which only produced comics that existing fans wanted to read, was a slow boat to suffocating the industry. Well, he was right, and all the interesting comics like the Silver Surfer have been culled. These days it’s all ‘dark’ heros such as Wolverine, Superman clones, and the odd offbeat black and white.
But coming across a stash of old Silver Surfer comics, I had to buy them. For starters, they were only 50p each! So I ended up buying a few comics from before the Kree-Skrull war, setting the scene on a galactic scale. We are introduced to a number of different races, such as the Celestials, a race of… really big people.
Above: He’s just standing there, and I can see right up his…
The green guys are Skrulls. I like the fact that the tubby green Marlon Brando feels he can’t stand the site of this monster anymore. Okay, I might have been thinking “monster what?”, but that’s a little crude. And how do you think talking to the enormous city-high man goes?
Oh-fecking-really, Kylor – a giant green bloke comes and stands over your city, and there’s nothing you can do? You’re lucky you don’t have a week of ‘special yellow rain’ forecast, especially after you tried to nuke him. And – point of order here – didn’t you just try and nuke him right over your own city? Kylor, you’re an asshole.
This is also a good time to point out the fantastic colour process used in late 1980′s comics. I’m not an expert, but you are seeing a really restricted palette put to a great use here, with overlaying tones of less than sympathetic colours really popping out. I actually get quite excited by this sort of print quality. Also notice that the paper is all yellowed with age; I could have auto-corrected that in with the scanning process, but I feel that it adds a little to the reading of the media.
After Kylor and his Conservative-style mismanagement of local politics, there is a few other plotlines that are in these issues of the Silver Surfer. The big one is the Surfer’s “friendship” with Mantis, a green lady who flies through space wearing an improbable suit. Why would she hang out with a shiney silver man in space, who constantly talks about his ex-boss all the time, and how his ex-boss exiled him to Earth?
Oh, she likes him.
I have to admit, on reading that frame I was thinking “my God, somebody even worse at dating than I am!” – after all, he’s got the hot green girl in the stripper outfit saying nice things to him, but he’s all “yeah, it’s been a long time, and I’ve only kissed that other girl three times…” He should probably be clear that he’s got a thing for Shalla Bal, but – hey – who knows how long it’s been for our Surfer? It could be a long time. He doesn’t have a crotch.
He’s so emo.
Surfer, she’s practically putting it on a plate for you there. Plus, catch that little Saigon reference? You might think she’s subtly trying to tell the Silver Emo that he’s got Prospects, but then she drops that next line quite casually. Well, she is dressed like a stripper, mind.
Later on in this issue, the Surfer’s courtin’ is interupted by this lunk-headed dick. His backstory is that he’s immortal because he’s the last one of his race (apparently, the universe preserves the last one of a sentient race in the world of Marvel), but he used a cheat code – he slaughtered the rest of his species.
Rather than judge his actions, the Silver Surfer uses the mighty Cosmic Power imbued in him to remove the weapons lunk-head (I can’t find his name, and I can’t be bothered to look it up) had implanted in his body. So after five billion years of killing people, he didn’t ever take some time out and grab a hobby? It was just kill kill kill? Whatever.
This is still a Marvel comic, so after having a fight they declare the issue over and move onto issue 6. This starts with a great one-page drawing of space – termed a splash page in print terminology. Here:
The thing about these splash pages is that you tend to find them at the start of the comic book. I suspect this is both for dramatic input and for the fact that they would have time to draw this stuff at the start of the monthly schedule for the comic book. But forget all that – lasers! Pew pew pew! Burning things! Explosions! Wow!
Oddly enough, for an issue titled “War”, that’s not what the Surfer gets up to in this installment. But before we find our Space Emo sitting outside Boots with his Space Goth Girlfriend, there is a slight bit of backstory to get through:
In todays world of comics, the above would be a quick dash through the plug-ins section of Photoshop, but the illustrative team of Rogers and Rubenstein have really pulled out the stops with this splash page. There’s stippling and all sorts – man, that must have taken them ages! But it’s so cool I wouldn’t really mind if the last page was just a picture of some stick men saying “we’ll be back next week”.
I’m telling you, this is the sort of stuff you don’t find in today’s comics. The combination of old-school graft and limited printing techniques means that some real special knowledge went into this image. Appreciate it, because in our realm of pixel-perfect Blue-Ray DVDs, we often lose sight of how hard it is to craft something beautiful.
Surfer also finds it hard to recognise when something beautiful is infront of him. Seriously, he has got to be the worst date ever – “But I’m pledged to somebody else!” Thankfully, our girl Mantis is a little bit more forward. Plus, to be honest, I think Surfer might be her lift home – she’s got the power of plants or something, which isn’t that nifty in the infinite void of space.
So, after the romantic kiss, what next? Why, what else but SPACE NOOKIE!
So, one things puzzling me here: are they just going off for an extended hug in the asteroid belt, because the Surfer doesn’t have any bits. He does have a Cosmic Power (or possibly a Power Cosmic) which might come in useful here. But we don’t see that – this isn’t something from the pages of Heavy Metal. It’s straight to the afterglow for us readers.
I don’t quite understand what he’s saying that’s so romantic she wants to kiss him – “hey, if you weren’t around, I’d still be pining for that girl who only kissed me three times”. Hmm. Well, maybe she has a thing for surfers.
But wait, what’s that? Does that last panel depict the sound of a cosmic voice-mail being delivered?
Oooh, mean! Mantis, he’s going to leave you with some plants and then get back to his other honey. That’s low, and don’t be making all lovey-dovey eyes behind his back – it’s quite clear that the Surfer got his oats and then just pissed off. But, y’know, he’s just so darned noble about the whole thing. “Hey babe, I’ll call you after saving all of reality. Missing you already, ciao.”
I hope this brief breeze through some of the Surfer’s classic period in the 1980′s has been interesting for you. I don’t think this period is collected anywhere, but the good news is that these comics only cost me 50p each. You could totally clean up before all the other cool kids get in on this.
Disclaimer: It’s quite obvious that I’m not claiming ownership of any of the artwork or characters above, and that I’m using them for review purposes.