20 October, 2011

Courtship and hardship: Boston

May in Boston is a glorious thing. Sunday morning, neighborhood parks warm to the first pickup basketball games of summer, and the paths along the Charles River  are thronged with joggers. Everywhere the city's brick and stone is broken by spring green - the Crayola that, as a child, i thought too garish. I'd never seen it against the stately red-brick houses of beacon street, punctuated with blooming crabapples, as late afternoon sun slants warmly in. Bound for the south shore, from I-90 i see the skyline rise, downstream, across the BU memorial bridge, reaching to meet a cloudless sky. 

Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Malmo, Istanbul, Antalya, Batumi, Suleymaniyah: with each city i saw, i wondered what it would be like to call them home.  After all that rambling, i see Boston from a new angle - a city that, though i grew up scant miles from, i've never had the chance to appreciate for what it is - a small metropolis brimming with brilliant minds and cobbled corners, ethnic groceries and elite universities. 

Today i'm walking Harvard Square, keeping an eye open for "help wanted" signs. Old men on the park benches are talking at the volume of hearing impaired, their voices ringing with a thick Bahstin accent. The classier restaurants slide their windows clear aside, opening to the spring air. I wince when i notice i'll be leaving town before Harvard Book Store hosts authors Jonas Hassan Khemiri and Elif Shafak (acclaimed authors i first heard about while in Turkey; so far Khemiri's work has not been translated to English). But i'll be back in Boston soon: now that i've got a room in Somerville, just over the Cambridge line, the People's Republic of Camber-ville will be home. 


October. There are three dollars in my wallet, less than ten to my name. I've found a job, but with the first paycheck still days away, i'm walking a tightrope. Budget shortfalls are all over the news, and they're all over my mind. When you take seventeen dollars to the grocery store knowing that's all you have until perhaps Friday, you understand austerity measures. 

My situation isn't per se a direct ripple of the global financial crisis. It's simply what happens when you move to a new place and the urgency of finding a job takes a backseat to painting your dad's house in another state and meeting your year-old goal of buying a motorcycle and learning to ride. Well, those are crossed off the to-do list and now the only "to do" left to do at the moment is climb back out of this hole. It makes you wonder the value of living in a city, without money to enjoy the urban life. 

But there are still things to do and people to meet. And one thing i have learned from all that traveling is a deeper appreciation of the relationship between person and place. The difference between denizen and explorer is not simply the difference between native and interloper, or local and tourist. It is a difference of habit. The denizen is set in patterns that the explorer does not hold; the local sees the same commute every day, and rarely finds himself in corners of town the tourist is drawn to. The native becomes, in a way, inured to place. If you take the red line across the Longfellow bridge every day, i suppose, you'll start to see the CITGO sign without feeling anything, without hearing faintly the voices of Red Sox radio announcers Jerry Trupiano and Joe Castiglione in the childhood recess of your mind. 

Getting to know a place is like getting to know a person. Sometimes you stall, and it takes finding a new approach to rekindle the passion. 

19 October, 2011

Art as collective therapy? (part 2)

This post picks up some threads from the last one, heading in a different direction. It stems from some time exploring the entwined psychological and metaphysical aspects of the question "why do i create?" and in terms of my encounter with the world, what is the result of that creative act? Do those two dimensions inform and discipline each other? 


Cleaning out my bookcase before a move, i came across a book a friend had handed me years ago. I never got around to reading "Mosquito: A natural history of man's most persistent and deadly foe", yet the title made me think. And after a little thinking, i have come to believe that the most persistent and deadly foe of Homo sapiens is, in fact, H. sapiens.*

As individuals, we grow, held back by convenient but damaging beliefs, by our myths, our defensive mechanisms, by childhood traumas and their resultant fears, rooted deeply in our subconscious. Unaware of their influence, we carelessly, subconsciously repress them - but if we are to reach our potential as individuals, we must bring them to the light. (On that thought, here's a song: take your medicine.)

So it is for societies as a whole, national or global. We possess a certain collective consciousness, a mentality, which forms to differing extents the basis for our individual mentalities. And like the individual, each collective consciousness has its convenient but damaging beliefs, myths, traumas and resultant fears. Take racism for example, or the excessive medical interventionism fueled by a stubborn unwillingness to simply accept our place in the cycle of death and physical reincarnation (better known as "compost"). 

Individuals, once aware of these blockages, can take action to dissolve them. We can use mindfulness, a  liquid-plumr of meditation and self-reflection. Our friends can hold these blockages up for us; we can consult professional counselors, therapists, inviting another person to journey with us as if holding a lamp, being a mirror. There is no shame to doing so. 

Yet for H. sapiens to reach our true potential, there is no simple corporate solution. It's not like you can take mankind and sit the whole lot of us down with a collective therapist. "So, can you tell me more about this feeling? Isn't it perhaps another manifestation of your fears?" 

It has occurred to me that you could look at different disciplines through this lens: If science is our collective problem-solving faculty, it is art and spirituality through which the collective consciousness engages in self-reflection and wrestles with our myths, with our convenient but damaging beliefs, at cultural and national scales. And it is my feeling that artists have a responsibility to consider this as an implicit basis of their work. 


*I'd hesitate to call myself a feminist, believing that men are equally oppressed by "the patriarchy" and its gender-role expectations, yada yada. Yet there is a certain smugness about most of the terms for our kind as a whole, a certain self-congratulatory connotation in words - such as "humanity", "mankind", and "man" - which i simply wish to avoid. 

To have, to be, - to document? (part 1)

Shortly after filming the "Samburis" short documentary, a question emerged in my mind. The question dredged up a recollection of Fromm's "To Have or to Be" - specifically, does the increasing permeation of our lives with documentary technology offer up yet a third mode of being, characterized neither by direct embodied experience nor possession? 

Mahmut Mutman's "Visual Technologies and Visual Narratives" course at Bilkent University offered up a heady bunch of ideas. The lectures, readings, and films explored how documentary technology, particularly film and video, changes our relationship with the world, among other things conceptualizing experience as a world-picture (Heidegger), penetrating a three-dimensional reality to open new angles of perception (Vertov), inserting itself into social relations to create a society linked by the experience of "spectacle" (Debord), and coming between an event itself and a collective "sense" of the event (Deleuze). 

All these concepts, fascinating as they were, seemed at some remove until this spring. As i engaged more fully with filmmaking i began to note how, for a documentarian, the camera eyepiece changes experience on a more personal level. Thinking back on last year's travels - Iraq, Georgia, Iceland, and Arizona in particular - i recall how the process of documenting the journey in photographs somehow diminished the journey. By contrast, between the time my camera was stolen in Diyarbakir, and the time i bought a new one in Tbilisi, the memories are somehow richer. As if i was more fully present.

For the photographer, the camera can become a barrier to full experience of the present moment; the presence of a lens between you and the subject modifies the interaction, undeniably creating a new present moment. Additionally, by recording a moment in time - as if preserving a specimen in ether - documentary technology alters one's experience of temporality. In the moment of recording, the camera becomes a rift, placing me in the future; much as later, viewing the document places me in the past. In the alleys of Ankara Citadel, the camera's presence widened the rift between low-socioeconomic inhabitant and tourist, reinforcing a dichotomy of subject and object that, surprisingly, flowed both ways. 

So it is that i ask: Is there a way to engage in documentary creative process while remaining in the present moment? The camera, the movie camera, they come between me and the unfolding moment. Is there another layer, on the other side of this experiential rift where, mindful of the technology's influence on the reality being created, the technology becomes almost a dance partner? Unlike fiction, where the auteur's objective is to create the story's "reality" from scratch, this question seems particularly important to the documentary style: how does one document an extant, authentic reality even as the documentary process is altering the context of that reality? 

In our age of world picture, youtube and iPhone, the balance of living and documenting in the moment begins to shift. As a sometimes-filmmaker, i question the more subtle internal effects of my work both on self and on my species. In the twenty-first century, will viewing come to replace doing? When we are intent on capturing the "real life" around us, do we lose our own? Does the democratization of documentary technology imply a mode of existence characterized neither by having nor being - but by documenting and passively observing?