Moments of Impact: Why We Can't Live Without Illusions

Moments of Impact: Why We Can’t Live Without Illusions

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“If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”

— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

We can’t live and not believe. Beliefs stem from and  live past our experiences, imprinted in us, carving out our inner lives. Some may not serve us well,  but we have just as many we can’t live without. We can’t sleep without believing we’re safe. We can’t be intimate without believing in trust. It may not be possible to live in a state where nothing is connected—the mind’s ability to make connections is what makes it human. We always believe, whether we know it or not, and regardless of how many times our beliefs change.

What distinguishes the paranoid person that Thomas Pynchon refers to is that they have too many beliefs. This person, the contemporary lunatic shouting imaginary prophecies on the street, belongs in our human history as the shamans or priests of ages passed. Today we say they don’t see, and we have to make them with prescriptions. But in smaller communities, they were a valuable set of eyes into another realm (although in the Middle Ages in Europe, it was a demonic one). Even now with our fixation on treating the mentally ill by numbing them, no one could argue that their beliefs aren’t fascinating. They forge connections we never would.

The American mind has a special inclination to believe in spite of. We love believing for its own sake. In Kurt Anderson’s new book, Fantasyland, he makes a case for why being delusional is synonymous with being American. We came to the continent from Britain in pursuit of gold, searching for thirty years with no proof of its existence other than hearsay from Native Americans trying escape our slaughter. The biblethumpers believed God caused public epileptic fits. We believed Joseph Smith. We created Scientology, the Las Vegas Strip, Disneyland, and pursue illusions above reality simply because it feels better to do so.

In fact, we take our illusions as reality. If given the choice, I’m not sure which one I’d believe. My illusions, that I’m safe, special, and my dreams will come true. Or the reality, which is unknown, constantly changing, perhaps out of my grasp. And I’ve never been one to believe two things at once.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

Moments of Impact: Discovering a Cell

Moments of Impact: Discovering a Cell

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My moment of impact this week occurred after watching The Truman Show for the second time in at least a decade. This moment occurred as Jim Carrey delivers his Oscar-worthy performance as Truman Burbank having a nervous breakdown while he hunts for truth in a fictitious world. The rolling waves and thundering night sky are a part of a television set that Truman doesn’t know he was raised on.

The movie illustrates the dystopian elements of the utopian promises of the 50’s middle class lifestyle: stability, peace, innocence, and perfection. Truman grows up surrounded by professional actors playing their parts, who smile and wave at him behind white picket fences, including his best friend and his wife. Everyone thinks he’s fooled, but Truman senses a facade, though the artificial experiences have already made their real impact. He can’t tell if the prison cell is in himself or outside, a conspiracy against him created by the people on the island, or by his own fear.

So many existential questions raised, especially for my post-university adult life. Where is the boundary of my cell? What are my inner and external obstacles? My greatest personal weakness is my belief that the world conspires against me, that I live in a cruel and sadistic labyrinth of people who lie, deceive, exploit, and use me for a means to an end. Maybe I was freer in the confines of the university, where the world revolved around me, my needs, and my growth. But the academic world seems eerily close to Truman’s, a completely controlled environment, idealistic, stable, and kind. The producer of the television assures him there are just as many lies in the real world, and he is probably right.

So, when nothing seems to match up, how do we find truth?

giphy

Truman sets off to sail the tumultuous sea to the ends of the earth, so he thinks, braving his crippling fears of the water to escape Seahaven. His boat pokes through the set, painted to look like an infinite sea, and finds the exit to the rest of the world. If only one day I could discover a wall within myself to break through to another reality, one where life wasn’t a labyrinth but an open field. It is almost too bad that our walls can’t be physical entities. What other game could our mind play to try and deceive us?

“Moments of Impact” is an original Falcon Post series dedicated to stop-in-your-track moments. It’s when the daily routine becomes jarred, experiences, knowledge, and emotions find a meeting point, producing a revelation that you could sit in your chair pondering for hours like David Bowie in the Labyrinth. I personally hope that I have at least one moment of impact a week. Indeed, this is a weekly series. 

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

(Aspiring to Be) Inspiring Writing Prompt #6

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(Aspiring to Be) Inspiring Writing Prompt #6

Jim Carrey as Truman in the “Truman Show,” escaping the television set that was his prison for his whole life. At the top of this staircase isn’t a dream, but a harsh and chaotic reality he has yet to discover.

That “upward” feeling is really what drives most of us, isn’t it? Food, yummy. Sex, good. The familiar “ups.” What about when we realize a dream? Isn’t that when we hit the sky’s ceiling?

I thought about this when revisiting the work of one of my favorite actors, Jim Carrey. Everyone knows from watching his adrenaline-charged, highly energetic performances that there’s got to be a different man who walks off the set. When he’s on, he’s on, flying above our heads, though Carrey himself has alluded to the depth of his lows in life:

There are peaks, there are valleys. But they’re all kind of carved and smoothed out, and it feels like a low level of despair you live in. Where you’re not getting any answers, but you’re living OK. And you can smile at the office. You know? But it’s a low level of despair. I was on Prozac for a long time. It may have helped me out of a jam for a little bit, but people stay on it forever. I had to get off at a certain point because I realized that, you know, everything’s just OK.

A flat landscape doesn’t make as compelling of an image as a painting with clouds high in the sky, slightly parted, with deep valleys tucked between high mountains. I am riveted. Can we only ever reach as high as we’ve been below? Do the depths of our suffering precede our ascendance? What’s intriguing to me is I can’t decide whether I’d prefer to ride it out in the desert, aware of an ever consistent beauty, or to explore the so-called peaks and valleys, both the hot and cold terrain. They do say that manic depressives are the hardest to cure because as much as they hate the lows of their depression, they love their high-energy manic phases that much more.

Write a recommended 300-900 words about a person you know who seems to be familiar with the highs and lows of life, be they yourself, friends, or relatives. Write about a moment of envy, distrust, contempt, joy, fear, or despair. Treat this like a vignette or a launch pad for a longer essay.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

Collage Compulsion: Embracing Chaos

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Collaging is one of the most subjective forms of art, a deeply psychological process, that is at once a conversation with the broader world, our “world of objects,” ridden with mysterious truths and insidious lies.

A collage may be analyzed and broken down by critics like any piece of art. But notice, the artist doesn’t lose their integrity. Nothing feels “missed” or “lost.” The interaction of the components in a collage are a psychic play that is deeply personal to the artist, even if they’re unaware of it. It’s the equivalent of children playing with toys and dolls: they look at the individual parts, customize it to the story they want to tell or aesthetic they want to show, and play. They don’t make the dolls. They don’t make the toys. Most of everything is made for them, but yet, a deeply personal journey unfolds.

Here’s what Rick Poynor, lecturer, writer, critic, and avid collage fan has to say about the accessible nature of collage:

I think we should emphasize the radically open nature of collage. To make collage you do not need expensive tools, or training, or even need the ability to draw. Collage takes the radical availability of texts and images in consumer culture and transforms that material from a demand to consume into an invitation to produce. With only a blade and some paste, absolutely anyone can enter into the practice of art and potentially produce really powerful work. This is not to say there aren’t virtuoso collage artists but rather to emphasize how open the form is.1

Not only is collage accessible to anyone, be they “artists” or “non-artists,” accessible to anyone with basic motor skills and some supplies, it is arguably the most subjectively up for grabs than any other form of art. At a theater, you can see an actor’s wincing face making forced contortions and pray that he’ll emote during his poorly executed Hamlet speech. This speech is, under scrutiniy, a poorly executed performance. When I went to a Día de Los Muertos parade at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, there were spirited dance performances, but as I nodded my head to the drums, once dancer misses a crucial step on the beat. Writing bears the brunt of expert critique, broken now and excavated for necessary components in grammar, style, content, structure, and clarity.

The collage can be presented for view, it can be similarly broken down just as any piece of visual art can. But there’s an element that persists under the intense scrutiny of the critical eye.

The collage is incredibly personal. And aren’t all the other million and one other ways we express ourselves “personal?” The collage reflects our truly uniquue and internalized relationship with our “world of objects:” newspapers, magazines, buttons, plastic remnants, broken necklaces, coupons, cardboard, staples, paper clips, soda bottle labels. These objects have lived a life outside of the artist, and the artist brings them together in a way that satisfies a unique cognitive need on the canvas. In this vein, collages make the strongest statement on the objective world while simultaneously revealing the psychological needs of the artist.

In fact, the origins of what we call a collage today began as a response to a massive shift in the objective world, inspiring a psychological need for people to interpret mass production. This process began with the Cubists who, at the beginning of the 20th century, started pasting cut-out squares onto canvasses. They began dissecting the 3-D cube that artists were intent on mastering to deceive their viewers and laid it out flat.

This came about as mass production was at an all time high and skilled artisans started going out of business. Technology made objects with a uniform production method, treating them with science instead of care, stripping them of “charm” or a sense of life the comes of making something with human hands. The Cubists who flattened the 3-D cube were rehearsing what mass production did to objects: demystifying them. Yet society seemed to compensate through advertising, creating a dogma of false promises; we’ve all seen them: the bright shiny faces beckoning us forth to try this or that new home appliance, shaving cream, radio, and the ilk. Cubists satisfied a cognitive need to dissect the lies that were poisoning society through mass consumption. In their eyes, the 3-D cube was built with product deification and the collage dismantled myth in just a cut, tear, and paste.

picasso-and-arp-landscape

It’s very possible this wasn’t their intent. Maybe they were satirizing classical art and its attempts to become stunningly real. Maybe we don’t need to look at a piece of art and be stunned by how “real” it looks. Maybe we should instead be confronted by how false it really is.

In the 21st century, and just as the Cubists did, we return to collage in its original form as a way of processing the mysterious world around and within us. We aren’t always, if almost ever, aware of what drives us to assemble objects on a page. As Carl Jung, a psychologist specializing in the matters of the subconscious, has said: “The hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” Carl Jung’s sandplay therapy is strikingly similar to the process of collage-making. For those who are unfamiliar, it’s a therapy where patients select objects off a therapist’s shelf to assemble in a small sandtray, just as one collects scraps to glue onto a canvas. At the end of this sequence, sandtray patients are then asked what these objects mean to them, revealing subconscious themes related to archetypes and early childhood experiences.

Just as the patient may stare with a dumbfound expression at the sandtray objects, when we select items for a collage, we may grasp aimlessly. Maybe that coupon book means nothing to you on the surface. But then when that coupon starts interacting on the page, we’re letting our hidden mind communicate with us, ceasing to use our intellect as a drill to unearth mysteries and allowing the mysteries to reveal themselves.

One evening, I started a collage with a picture of a young girl dawning a large eagle from the newspaper. The girl is actually the subject of the documentary Eagle Huntress and is the first female falconer in Mongolia, breaking a longstanding male-dominated tradition that’s been passed down for millennia.

I did this collage in the heat of the 2016 U.S. election between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, just two or three nights before Trump became the president elect. I didn’t know why I picked the picture until I looked at her powerful, resilient stance. This small girl raises her arm to a black eagle with a wingspan that doubles her height swooping down to land on her glove. Thinking about this image in the middle of a disenchanting election, that I viewed as a triumph misogyny, gave me profound joy, because I knew that hope still remained. Women can challenge and redefine any pressure put upon them if they want to. We can defy traditions set down for us for generations before.

And I didn’t realize this until after I put the embossing glue on.

Sometimes, we know what we’re doing with a collage very well. In the world of objects and myths, sometimes they don’t cohere, giving rise to tension and unresolved dissonance. Sometimes we’re merely ripping objects from their contexts and put them in their proper place. Take these two powerful collages that send us some signals about ads, their implicit messages, their false promises, and the cruel realities that commercialism refuses to acknowledge:

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picasso-and-arp-landscape

These models are pulled from their beach sands, sweeping views, clubs, bar stools, and pasted in the first picture, on a sweeping landscape and in the second, inside of a house with a raging war just outside the window. The model in the first lays on top of the world, her idealized and almost unattainable perfection permeating throughout the natural landscape. In the second, we see a nation of irreconciled paradoxes: glamour and luxury resting on the brutality and terror of war abroad, inextricably tied to the wealth of our America. We’ve drunk the sweet milk of ignorance, strolling on our smooth roads paved with money earned from greed, violence, and imperial control. These collages serve as a medicine for the virus of complacency, which has made us oblivious to the toxic paradoxes of living in a hyper-commercialized, money-driven society. We’ve been assaulted psychologically: so we put these objects and their lies in their proper place, restoring a soundness in ourselves.

A critic might swoop in and criticize the political undertones of these collages. They may argue for or against the messages they seem to purport. But the collage artist has discovered a truth for themselves, and who’s to argue against their subjective truth? Who’s to argue against experience?

Coming back to the Jungian sentiment of collage-making, Susan Levin comments in her work, Art from Dreams: My Jungian Journey in Collage, Assemblage and Poetry, that collages reveal truths in the way that dreams yell to our conscious mind:

Dreams, like collage, assemblage and poetry, derive their form and character from the aesthetics of juxtaposition – the placing of seemingly random images in proximity in a way that elicits a new level of meaning and understanding. In all three there is a role for intuition, a vested relationship to memory, a certainty that things are never only or entirely as they appear, and the presumption that everything carries with it a plurality of meanings. In the technique of assemblage particularly, commonplace, found, deracinated objects remain themselves even as they become something else. Like a dream, a work of art can reveal the hidden treasures of the mind and how it processes our surroundings.

These random objects enter into our psyches in any number of ways, leaving impressions as they pass through our awareness. The physical world surrounding us forms an architecture of thought that may remain unknown, hiding itself in some dark nook or cranny. In reassembling the physical, we make our own impressions, our own architecture, changing the outside as the outside changes us. We participate in the dynamic, actually listening as the dream-like symbols of the real world speak to us.

What happens when our psyche grasps at an absence in the objective world? Or a presence that can’t be perceived or felt, but just as real? Einstein referred to reality as it’s presented to us as a persistent and deceptive illusion. During our best moments, we’re just as persistent to discover what’s beyond the facade of “reality.” In the case of someone wishing to articulate this in a collage, a conundrum presents itself. How does the collage artist satisfy a need to create something that isn’t there with the materials right in front of them? Will a collage only ever be an approximation of the imagined?

For this, I turn towards the film The Truman Show for an example. For those unfortunate few who have not seen the film (make sure you do), it centers around Truman, as portrayed by Jim Carrey, who was the first person adopted at birth by a corporation. The corporation makes his life into a television show and builds a humongous set, a city called “Seahaven Island,” that he believes is his entire world. The fictitious town is full of 50’s tropes, white picket fences, and retro products and designs, and all the sleepy promises of suburbia. Everyone on the set is a paid actor and the only “real” element is Truman–until he falls in love with Sylvia, a woman who finally tries to tell him the truth only to be whisked away abruptly by a mysterious man.

Truman never lets go of her, and while she’s disappeared from his physical reality, he’s desperate to reinvent her image. Every day he buys women’s magazines for his wife, supposedly, only to rip out parts of women’s faces in hopes of reconstructing that of Sylvia’s in a collage. The part he struggles with most is finding the right set of eyes, the embodiment of truth, a truth that he’s been searching for but has been denied to him. As he pieces together her face, the result is at once realistic but distorted, the mismatching colors and skintones an aching reminder that this collage is, indeed, only an approximation at her true visage.

Although we don’t live our lives on a television set, there are many ways that our realities are deceptive, that our objective worlds aren’t so objective.When a collage artist pieces together a vision of a truth, it probably really is, at best, a clunky approximation. But our imaginations must fill in the rest, and just like Truman, inspire us to go beyond our horizons, to find a truth that we don’t just know, but more importantly, feel.

In this case, we see someone articulating a gap in reality to satisfy a psychological need to express their truth, their own looking glass perspective on that expansive reality. There are ways a collage can strip illusions that are presented as true and are not 

Hannah Hoch, a famous collage artist in post-WWI Weimar Germany did this awe-inspiring work below titled “Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany.” The collage places masculine images with the feminine, giving men’s heads female bodies, and thus strips these heavy handed men of their perceived macho powers.

Footnotes

1. Banash, David. “Collage Culture: Nostalgia and Critique. An Interview with David Banash.” Design Observer. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016

The skybox

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Consciousness creates reality

as if we were children at midnight

you could trip and fall face first

down a dark—down a neon—chasm

so hold on tight and don’t let go until

it’s something subtle like a shift in the wind

or a call of a bird you’ve never heard before

like things with spikes on the outside

a dirty old guitar string that still sounds good

when you do that one thing with your hand

and the other one taps along like a drum

never playing the same thing twice for no one

just to feel a spectrum of waves wobble

through the warmth of suncrept bones

the unknown resonant frequencies of organs

and the relaxation of a jaw they moved

with bands across a desert of my skull

to form a monument of death is watching

waiting for the koto to start plucking itself

in the corner of the skybox of time

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