Why pot?

Asked why I teach pottery, for a short film documentary by students from the local college, I found myself recounting my two or three ‘stock’ anecdotes:

‘The potter digs up the lump of inert mud, and by creating a pot, imbues it with his creative energy and gives it a ‘tension’ that holds the energy. The viewer or recipient sees the pot, immediately or long after it was made, and receives that energy. In some way, the creative energy of the recipient may also be stimulated by the experience.’

‘The new student comes to the pottery with a view that they’re not going to be any good at it and they’re not ‘creative’. I say that I will show them that they can make pots without a lot of training and that everyone is creative, they just have to find it in themselves, and I can help with that. This works, and after a few sessions, the student feels proud and uplifted by achieving a creative goal.’

‘For me, art is a form of communication, and pottery is a very immediate and ‘visceral’ language, compared to, for instance, abstract painting. It’s all about form and texture, about a sensuous process. If the potter feels something, his pots should express that. Even if they don’t know it, the feeling people get from their favourite cup has been communicated by the maker.’

Ok, but when asked about what gives me joy in making, I admitted that I don’t really feel that much joy. I had to reconsider what I’d said about communication and transfer of creative energy in light of the fact that I’m not feeling that joy. I still want to rise to the task of teaching. I still want to receive the affirmation from the fulfilled student. I still want to see the growth and development in the people I teach, but I no longer feel (or at least temporarily do not feel) joy in making, and I need to know where that went.

There must be a wider context. You can’t assess one aspect of your life when it is so greatly influenced by the other parts. So what’s going on? What’s getting in the way? There are questions which need to be answered.

Why create art if you do not feel the drive to create? Why try to communicate through it if you haven’t got something meaningful to say? Who do you want to create for? What do they want from you? But so many artists just to ‘show up at the page’ and work through it, day by day in a devoted way. Dig deeper and find the meaning.

We’re living in a world where there’s such shit going on, where the level of destructive influence overwhelms that peace we associate with the creative process. It’s tempting to succumb to fear and loathing, to be paralysed by internalising the news, swallowing the effluent. It’s tempting to drown it in drink and TV and chores.

What takes priority in a life-stage where it’s more of a struggle to maintain currency and value? Work or making? Is it indulgent to slip into the pottery and ‘play’ when there’s ‘real’ work out there to be done? Surely these negative forces which surround our ‘practice’ can be used. Surely they can be channeled. Why does it feel like defeat at the hands of…?

Time to respond to the clarion call: Just get up, get out there, and make the fucking pot. Get off the fucking pot… Stop gazing at your navel and work at it!

Trump’s War

I thought I had tired of my fascination with the dystopian future presented by globalised internet businesses and their (mis) use of behavioural tracking data.  I thought I had begun to take Trumpism with a pinch of salt, and the world’s obsession with Fake News as a media defence storm in a White House china cup.  I accept that both these phenomena are modern ‘facts of life’, in a world where fact is being re-defined, but I couldn’t handle the stress and sleepless nights associated with either of them.  Something had to shift…

But then today I read a piece in the Sunday Times by Niall Ferguson, a Fellow of the Hoover Institution in Stanford, about cyber war and the impact of the WikiLeaks CIA stash being mainly true with embedded falsehoods or mainly false with embedded truths, depending on who was behind the leak.  It may have been that the CIA’s servers were hacked by Russians and the cache sent to Julian in his Ecuadorian Embassy bunker, in order to undermine the credibility of the CIA’s position vis a vis The Donald and Vlad.   Or more likely, it was stolen from within the agency, and sent by Himself, through his lackey, Nigel (who happened to meeting his mate Julian last week), to prove the point that democratic dark forces in the CIA have produced fake news which implicates him and Vlad in a conspiracy, rather than an actual Russian plot. Hell, perhaps it was Obama who leaked it!  The issue isn’t who did what to whom, or even what is true and what is false news. We’re living in a time where things become increasingly true as more people see and believe them – what could be more democratic? The search engines supposedly offer up the ‘most popular searches’ and as we all know, people only check page one of Google when they’re looking for truth.

The issue is where this new skirmish or frontal attack (depending on how you see it) will lead.  On one level, this is only emails being leaked. After all, who got hurt?  But it does highlight the international nature of cyber insecurity, and the fact that if an institution of national security like the CIA is so leaky, what about the organs of production and the economy which are not protected by cutting edge encryption systems.  What does this sort of cyber insecurity mean for day to day life?  Werner Hertzog’s film about the future of the internet, ‘Lo and Behold’, talks about just four days of internet collapse leading to multi-billion deaths through starvation, as the food distribution chain is now completely controlled online.  The power grid is also an online managed system in most countries, and so it goes on. Enough iconoclastic paranoia!

The article ends with an ominous statement: ‘Trump’s war has begun: it is the First Cyber War. Unlike other wars, it will have no last casualty, as it is a war without end. Get used to it. Or get rid of your computer.’

There’s a thought…

Confluence

It is strange to be 20,000 words into a novel about the last week of August 1939, and Poland, and between bursts of creativity and isolated concentration, to be listening to and reading news which talks of Fascism, a coup, dictatorship and more. Two and a half minutes to midnight – closer than in 1939, I’m sure.  It is strange to drive through flood waters to the wildly windy castle ruins where the Irish defended themselves against the English, and to listen to news about hard borders and the dissolution of fragile unions which advocate freedom and human rights.  We’re all viscerally engaged, enraged, dumbfounded, disempowered, emasculated.  We don’t sleep for dreams of destruction.  We’re still shocked that others want something less fair and reasonable than our picture of democracy, and yet we, or people like us, have moved towards, if not chosen, this.  And those we chose have failed to get us to a place of greater safety.

You say he is the perfect answer to our needs.  How can we appreciate what it is to be human, humane, caring, inclusive, egalitarian without something so gross and easy to characterise to rebel against?  How can we stand up to this abuse without a groundswell, a tidal wave of reaction?  Most people seem to believe that public opinion will be enough to defend justice against the insidious manoeuvres which bring evil to power.  We’d like to believe that profit-driven enterprises with inestimable power to re-direct opinion are going to choose reason over profit and power, that we won’t be Facebooked into a corner, press-ganged into misunderstandings. Didn’t I read that Zuckerberg is considering running for election in 2024?

We can respond with peaceful protest, which might feel like punching sponge.  We can respond with violence, which will prompt that defensive aggression just waiting to be unleashed in the name of national security. We can invoke laws and treaties and pacts and watch them being dismantled and over-ruled, or just plain ignored. We can wait and hope. We can turn off the news and bury our heads in the sand, until these howling winds blow it all away, and we wake up in a different world, or we just don’t wake up at all.

Interrupted

http://www.vevo.com/watch/GB2DY1700007?utm_medium=embed_player&utm_content=song_title&syn_id=4d61b777-8023-4191-9ede-497ed6c24647

The work sometimes runs smoothly on the screen.  The Excel on one side and the Powerpoint on the other. Check data, copy it to a new worksheet, combine it with other data, represent it in a graphic, copy the graphic into the presentation.  Examine its meaning. Write a comment about it. Move on.  The time passes and the work is done.  It’s tiring, concentrating.  I might go to the gym. I might prepare some pottery for a workshop, I might make a coffee or a sandwich. I might check my emails. I might browse my Facebook. I might get punched in the gut, hit between the eyes, overwhelmed with the implications of an article, or a poem, or a video, or an image.  My work is interrupted, my concentration blown.  It has the right of place.  It says what I feel. It takes me up and drops me down. To have that power through communication is awe inspiring.

Reaching equilibrium

Three days into the yoga, and after three 90 minute classes, the tendons have eased and the core has strengthened and the movements are more fluid, the pauses less collapsed, more pensive, and the practice has become a routine so sorts.  In the shade of Kranti Yoga’s Massive stage, with its multi-coloured curtains and striped canopy, along with 30 other drop-ins, most of whom come every day, I have found a place where my body is finally listening to my mind, if not my heart, and vice versa.

That’s also three mornings of banana pancakes on the veranda of our hut, followed by an hour of digestion and the guilt-ridden process of catching up on emails and the news from RTE, then the yoga session, which would be so much better at 7.30 or 8am before the breakfast and the consciousness, then a swim in the luke-warm surf and an hour to dry off in the baking mid-day heat, before a snack lunch or a pot of coffee. We choose one of two cafes because of the staff and their sympatico approach to us. One serves an exceptional lemon and mint blended drink full of ice, and the other a cafetiere of good strong coffee, and both have good wifi. Then we consider an hour walking in the sun, either the length of the two beaches or around a block of back roads, away from the sun and the people, and then perhaps another swim, followed by showers and two hours’ siesta. That brings us to twilight and quickly darkness in the room, and time to spray the deet and step into the dark street, with its small booths of local clothing and trinkets, the money exchange shops offering sub-standard rates, and the ice cream stand that lacks all the appeal of ice-cream in the west, then onto the beach again to sit in candlelight and admire Sirius, dominating the sky, and to listen to the rhythm of the water slapping and lapping, in an infinite repetition. The kites are circling, and there are fruit bats as big as them, stretching their wings and settting off to feed. A beer or two, and we’re ready for a plate of fish or tandoori chicken or curried vegetables, before our final stroll back to the huts, then to bed in the dark box with its tiled floor, rush matting walls, ineffective ceiling fan and double bed covered in an effective mosquito net, for an hour of reading on the computer, a novel of no consequence but well written. There’s another frog in the toilet, as still as a turd but ready to jump at the first sign of urine. At this moment I can be glad I’m not a sitter…

Another day passes without plans or decisions or conflict or clock-watching tension or creative endevour. Another day of  complete relaxation which brings us to an equilibrium rarely experienced in our lives at home.  It is a re-charging process which reaches down into the core, refills cells which may lie dessiccated for months or years, and yet it cannot last, because once we feel replete, we need to begin to move forward, to create, to want again.  I love the equilibrium, but I love the see-saw of normal life more.

Goa Del Sol

Lying in the sun on the Caribbean beach it’s hard to imagine the streets of Udaipur, with their bustle and relative poverty, though this too was a tourist’s paradise. Goa is peopled by British sun-seekers and yoga aficionados choosing between Kundalini and Ashtanga based on their suppleness and ability to perform their practice in the  35 degree heat.  The beach at Patnem, to the far south of the province is chosen by older people and yoga-seekers as the most peaceful and laid-back of about twenty resorts.  Talking to a builder from Billericay, who pays his brickies £180 a day in the post-Brexit building bubble, it seems that in one resort he stayed, there were a load of Russian tourists and in another, a continuous moon party for the Club 18-30 crowd. This must be where most of the 250 Tourist Police are based. He and his two mates had made a last minute decision to come to India and as a consequence, he bemoaned the NHS queue for injections and his £550 bill for private services. He’d booked them all into a hotel, run by a Brit in North Goa for new year’s eve, at great expense, paid in full and found when they got there that it had been closed for three years and that they would have to take the last three beds in an eight bedded dormitory in the only hostel in the town which had space. They were also fined £15 each on the spot for riding hired scooters without helmets.  The policeman had apparently been wearing copious amounts of gold jewelry, and had not proffered a receipt.

Beside our sunbeds, outside the Solida Del Sol cafe, which is sandwiched between Namaste Homestay and Nirvana Lodge, two French Canadian tourists lounged for their last few days before taking the two flights to Delhi and then the 14 hour connection to Toronto.  He was heavy-set and tattooed, with nipple rings in both nipples.  She was not, as far as I could see either tattooed or pierced.  They had booked to see India, expecting to travel the length and breadth of the this massive continent of a land, but had been so phased by their arrival into Delhi – nothing changes there then – they had promptly stepped into a travel agent and hired a driver for a 12 day to tour Rajasthan.  They’d had a great trip, much like our own, but in more comfort.

The Kranti yoga centre consists of two huge ‘stages’ made of stone slabs, protected from the sun by huge canopies, and each surrounded by a series of perhaps 20-30 huts, in which retreating yoga-seekers stay for the three or five or more day retreats.  There is no catering, so each must either fast (which is possible, looking at many of them) or go to Namaste or Nirvana or even brave Round Cube, where ambient music and lemon mint tea is order of the day.  They have hammocks outside their huts, and there is plenty of saffron cloth draped around the place.  My drop-in class is not till 10.15 each morning, which is a shame as the morning muesli with fruit, curd and honey is hard to resist, but also hard to perform three legged dog after. The yogis bring their own clean mats and I choose a very soiled but perfectly serviceable one from the centre.  A sari-clad administrator (and definitely not a yogi) collects our 200 Rupee fees (€3), but as there are about 25 westerners dropping in, that’s a healthy income for the centre for the 90 minutes with Sally, the young black London yoga teacher who strides among us and describes the poses in English rather than using their proper names.  What type of yoga are we performing?  I’m fairly sure it isn’t pure Ashtanga, as I’m still alive to describe the experience, so it is really a mish-mash of Hatha and Kundalini and some Vinyasa thrown in.  While we go through the practice, a stray dog stands in front of us on the raised stage and watches.  Each establishment has its own dogs. They lie on the beach in front, or wander within the compounds, looking for scraps.  I saw the Round Cube stray sit beside a customer as she ate her lunch, refusing dry toast scraps, but happily eating them once buttered.  At night, they become tandoori experts, choosing between tables and selecting them on the basis of the occupants’ generosity, and maybe their menu choices, taking scraps.  They are fiercely territorial and never eat from next door’s customers without a riotous and noisy dog-fight.  Last time we were on the sunbeds outside Solida Del Sol, two cows wandered onto the beach and began to eat our clothing.  They are not so territorial it seems.

Goa is truly European in everything except the menus, and even then, the majority of places offer fries instead of rice or naan, and tandoori chicken tikka is probably the number one dish.  The question which keeps raising its ugly head is whether what is here is really good for anyone.  Is it benefiting anyone but the few wealthy local owners, and should one really only partake of the authentic Indian experience on a trip to India, rather than funding this Eastern version of the Costa Del Sol?  What’s the authentic India now though?  To live it, you just have to buy a Chinese mobile – preferably taking several hundred selfies with it every day, drive a Royal Enfield motorbike and learn enough Hindi to hold conversations with the locals and the tourists simultaneously, to ensure that your cut in someone else’s offering is protected when you sell the tourists a manageable version of the India they fear.

I read today that Facebook values each user at $20 per year. That may be a figure for US users, but it will do for now. The $20 is dwarfed by our value to Google, which makes about six times as much ad revenue from its users, so perhaps we average $120 per year on Google. If you search for information on something expensive (like a rare drug for your life-threatening disease) then your value to Google jumps enormously, as they sell your details to the vendors and you get deluged with ads for rare drugs.

So for Facebook, there are 1,600,000,000 users worldwide – one in six people on earth. That’s 1.6 billion people’s personality profiles, demography, geography, habits, personal history and preferences divided into the amount of advertising revenue generated, I guess. Each person is, of course, only targeted with a tiny proportion of all the advertising FB carries – after all, why would I want to see ads right wing political organisations in America, for instance? That means our value can be split among those advertisers whose suggested posts and FB Ads clutter up our news feed.  When I advertise my small business, I pay about 30-40 cents per click through to my site, and as little as about 0.01 cents per ‘impression’ – the chance to put my promotion in front of someone on their screen, albeit for the moment it takes for them to scroll past it. My moment of exposure takes place during each user’s half-hour a day spent wading thought the poo that occupies most of FB – those fatuous videos and viral platitudes. Viral refers to infectious spreading…

So, about 30 minutes per day of each person’s attention. But I assume that $20 is annual, so we’re each effectively earning 10.9 cents per hour for Facebook and in return we’re getting lots of garbage interspersed with personally useful, sometimes valuable, insights and connections.  Would you pay 5.5 cents per day to use Facebook if you didn’t EVER have your personal information stored, or used to sell you things?  If the average number of searches I make on Google is 10 per day, then I’m worth 3.2 cents per search to them in ad revenue.  Assuming they alter the results of every search I make, based on who wants to advertise to me, then for that 3.2 cents, I’m getting distortions to the ‘truth’ of what’s available on and through the internet. My searches and your searches using the same search criteria produce different results.  Would you pay 3.2 cents per search to have the results untainted? Do you really want to see the same world I see?

So let’s say we all agree that paying for the internet is better than being controlled by it. Can you reverse what has become established as a currency? Your identity in exchange for free access to a substitute for personal interaction, free access to some parody of reality?  Would you switch if you could?  After all, it’s only a matter of them offering you a choice – the advertising model or the subscription model – micro-bill me for ‘pay-as-you-go’ truth or spoon-feed me the bigoted pap for free.

Hang on.  This blog is not personal interaction – it’s a diatribe spouted in the privacy of my own head. But once I press ‘publish’, it’s linked to my social media, and FB and Twitter lead people to read it, and those people might comment, and so it becomes a social, not to say personal, interaction of sorts.  I have communicated with my Friends (not to say friends) for a fee which I haven’t paid in cash but in identity exploitation.  Let’s say the extract of this blog post is read by 100 Friends on their news feeds – that being a proportion of everyone who links to me – the rest either skip over it, or more likely don’t go onto FB at the right time of day to have it in the top eighteen inches of stuff they’re prepared to wade through in their 30 minutes.  Now suppose I boost this post, so that I am buying the exposure to a much larger audience of people whose thinking I want to influence.  Maybe they’re undecided voters in an election, or political extremists in their closets waiting for guidance.  Do the algorithms vet my intentions and assess my advertising worth?  Do they apply their own ‘political weighting’ to the import of my message?  I’m going to sway voters towards a regime that supports low corporate tax rates. I’m going to engage sufferers from expensive diseases to follow my blog – now that’s going viral!  My value to FB and Google might go up so much that they’re prepared to give me free exposure, rather than me having to pay for it… hang on, that’s what they’re already doing in listing ‘top stories’ over ‘most recent’ stories on peoples’ walls, and in manipulating the Google rankings.

Maybe I’ll de-couple from this technology and write hand-written letters which I’ll post to my friends (not to say Friends) and that will generate revenue for An Post which will ensure that the postman keeps his job and spends his hard-earned in the economy and his income taxes will underwrite the Irish infrastructure, and An Post will make profits which will attract corporation taxes within the country, rather than in the cloud which Google and FB occupy. Maybe I will re-gain my identity control. Maybe not.