Camera Lucida Gave Me an Anxiety Attack (Or How I Always Have My Artistic and Personal Revelations at Inappropriate Moments)

I’m going to give a disclaimer right here, right now:  This post might very well go to the dark side of incoherent ramble and there’s a possibility that no one will follow my train of thought.  But that’s OK, what’s important here is that I follow my train of thought.  Toot toot!

Not mine.  From a website featuring brain related comics.  Still funny... Or punny, whichever.
Not mine. From a website featuring brain related comics. Still funny… Or punny, whichever.

A few weeks ago, the grad photo seminar I’m taking was required to read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.  I wasn’t so concerned with this, as the book is super short, and I had read bits and pieces of it as an undergrad.  I was looking forward to revisiting it actually because  I remembered loving what Barthes discussed when I read it at UT… This idea that photography is a reminder of our own mortality, and his concepts of the studium and the punctum.  For realz.  It was a very… romantic… discussion of photography, and when I was first exposed (Ha!  Unintentional photo pun) to Barthes it just made so much sense.  But upon reading it again, I found myself increasingly  irritated by what he wrote and by the way he presents (presented? since he’s dead?) photography.  Now granted the book was written in 1980 before digital gained it’s foothold, and before photography became so completely accessible to everyone, but I just wanted to throw up all over the book.  Or punch Mr. Roland Barthes in the face.  Something.  I know, totally inappropriate reaction, but I was disappointed and frustrated.  It no longer made any sense, and instead of rediscovering something I thought I loved, I realized I hated something that I thought I loved.

I don’t know why I was so surprised and taken aback by this.  I have been struggling for the last two years with photography (before I even started grad school!), trying to figure out why it wasn’t working for me anymore, trying to understand why I love it but am so flummoxed by it.  Coming into this current semester, one of my goals had been to re-introduce photography into my practice on some level, beyond documentation of my performances, because I really missed it, and because it seemed stupid to me that something I had once loved so much, and was such an integral part of my practice, was something from which I had completely walked away.  And this goal was part of the reason I enrolled myself in the grad photo seminar.  I thought it would give me some space to address this goal.  In certain ways, it has allowed that, and has given me a lot of food for thought on the relationship between photography and performance art.  So that’s good…

But then we read Camera Lucida.

And then we discussed it in class.

And I had an all encompassing anxiety attack during that class discussion….

I’m not even sure how to plot the trajectory of this attack in order to explain it, suffice to say I came to class prepared to discuss this, and see how others had interpreted Barthes romantic vomit.  But then, as we began the discussion, I started to wonder about my own reaction and interpretation of this text.  I mean, somewhere, down underneath all the crazy, behind the performance art, I’m supposed to be a photographer, or a tiny part of me was at one point, right?  Shouldn’t that mean that while I may not agree with what the author had to say, I should on some level appreciate it?  That I could at least see it from a different perspective than my own.  But I couldn’t.  I just straight up hated it.  And that got me thinking about a) wether or not I really loved photography the way that I thought I did, or even at all, and b) if I should even be an artist if I hated a theory so much.  I mean, I felt like a fraud in so many ways.  I keep talking about why I love photo, I made a point to teach photography here, I’m going to the SPE conference in March… But I wanted to run screaming from one of the books on photo theory.  It was a big, hot mess.  I worked myself up to the point where I could barely follow the conversation, let alone participate in it.

Voila, anxiety attack.

I’m so good at that.

Anyway.  I was really upset over this.  And I actually cried on my way home.  I was that impacted.  So, I’ve been thinking this over a lot in the two weeks or so since it happened, without much progress.

In the intervening time, I had reviews, and several studio visits.  Each of those caused me more and more frustration and anguish, because not only was I questioning the entire foundation for my artistic career (photography), I was seeing this widening disconnect between my ideas and my actual work.  I had developed all of this work that visually and emotionally had no connection to the ideas and stories that were supposedly their basis.  “Cool” art as one of my professors dubbed it.  A clean, slick, pretty aesthetic, and yet nothing I am trying to address is anything but hot and messy.  The two are most certainly not jiving, if you’re picking up what I’m laying down.

I wanted to leave school.  I wanted to stop being an artist.  To be clear though, it wasn’t the faculty’s fault I was in this mind set.  The studio visits and reviews I had were actually very helpful to me in terms of clarifying and understanding the disconnect that I intuitively understood to be there, but could not quite grasp in reason or put into words.  It was me, feeling very much inadequate to the task I had set myself.  In short I was feeling like a failure to myself.  Ah… my old friend, we meet again.  Hold this thought because it’s important…

Well, so that’s how everything was sitting for the last few weeks of my life.  I was pretty much at loose ends.  I didn’t really touch anything in my studio, instead I just sat and stared at it a lot.  I dragged my feet on teaching related things.  I avoided people in general.  It sucked.  I’m sure I was a peach to be around.  And yet I kept having these strange moments of serendipity and deja vu.  Which had to mean I was somehow on the right path…

I’m sure if anyone ever reads this blog more than one time, they’ll figure out I’ve got a few psychological and emotional problems.  No, I’m not just “crazy” because artists are supposed to be crazy.  I actually hate that I’m “crazy” and that I’m an artist, what bad luck to be a stereotype!  I actually hate the word crazy, it’s a far to unsubtle and general a descriptor.  But that’s my issue…  What I’m trying to say here is that clearly I have a lot of things that need working on, and work on them I do.  I do both individual and group counseling, and it’s really helpful for me.  For instance, in my individual sessions, we talk a lot about how my psychological and emotional behaviors often play out in my art work, often times with out my realizing it.  I point this out, because I had this huge, amazing moment of understanding (which is where the subtitle for this post comes into play) that relates to my art work.

In my session yesterday, my counselor pointed out to me that people who struggle with expectations tend to deal with them in one of two ways; either become a perfectionist (which in some ways I fall into this category), or they develop avoidance issues (which I had never considered in relation to my own behavior before).  She suggested that I might want to think about how I avoid things when I feel that I can’t achieve my own expectations or goals.  I agreed and then went on about my day.

Several hours later, I was sitting in a lecture hall, listening to one of the many job candidates that FSU has been bringing in recently (FSU has something like 4 job searches going on in the art department), and I found my mind wandering.  I started thinking about situations in which I don’t deal with things, and I was trying to determine the reasons why I may not have dealt with whatever it was.  In most cases it’s because I feel like I can’t succeed in my aim, or that I assume the worst  case scenario in terms of outcome and I just gave up…if that makes any sense.  Then suddenly it hit me.  THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I DID WITH PHOTOGRAPHY.  I started a series about a year before I went back to school, around the same time that my work started to shift toward more interior, psychological and emotional issues, and I got frustrated with it because it wasn’t conveying my intent.  I was failing in my aim.  And then when this failure (in my perception) continued when I came to FSU, I completely walked away from photography.

Holy Crap.

Giant. Fucking.  Exclamation Point.

So right in the middle of this job talk, I have this moment of clarity.  And of course I’m freaking out, and can barely sit still, which I have to do for another 45 minutes.  Terrible.  I felt like I was going to explode or something, because once my mind started racing along about this, there was no stopping it.  Almost right away I realized how this idea impacted the rest of my work too.  This “cool” art I had started making.  I was avoiding the emotional content because I had been unable to incorporate the visual and emotional in previous experiments.  This was why I had stopped halfway through so many projects…  My mind was blown.    This is what my notebook page looked like:

See how insanely disorganized this page is?  Terrible handwriting...
See how insanely disorganized this page is? Terrible handwriting…

So this is a good thing I think.  I went into my studio and cleaned it, took everything off the walls, and put all of my stuff away.  Time to recalibrate and reconsider.  It’s a good point in the semester for me to do that too, because I’m headed to Chicago in a week for SPE, but I’m staying a week so I can go to museums and galleries and just look at some flipping art that isn’t my own.  I feel much more focused now for some reason, it’s strange.

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So now I’m culling through my ideas and the projects I started this semester in order to get some perspective on them.  Writing notes to myself and deciding which I will continue in the wake of this epiphany and which I can discard as a means of avoidance….

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The pink ones are my ideas, the blue ones are my questions or considerations. I’m slowly considering each one. I have a feeling this will turn into an explosion of neon colored pieces of paper soon. Color always happens.
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Grad School 1, Courtney 1/2

Well, it’s that time again.  Re.Views.  Friday morning.  10:30

Despite my stress level the last few weeks, I’ve been kicking grad school’s ass, and I’m totally ready for this.  For serious.  I’m on a roll.  I’m focused, I’m getting things done, I’m constantly having ideas, making connections, researching.  I’ve also been working my butt off for the gallery, submitting work to shows, and just generally feeling pretty good about stuff.  So I’m not so worried about how my reviews will go.  I finished everything I wanted to finish for them, plus a little, and I know that I worked as hard as I could.  All I want to do before Friday is relax a little and get my thoughts together so I have good questions for my committee and good answers about my work for reviews.

These are the first, official reviews for the year, the ones that actually go into the binder of doom with my name on it, that resides in the department head’s office.  Ok, so it’s not so dramatic as that… But there really is a binder with each grad’s name on it, into which all of our review pages go.  And they do live in the head of the department’s office.  According to those pages the score lies as thus:  Grad School: 1, Courtney:  1/2.  Yeah… I didn’t do so well in most of my reviews last year, and I think I’ve covered what a hot mess I was…  I pretty much kicked it in the last review, but there were 3 others that I sucked it hard.  After Friday, I fully intend for that score board to read Grad School:  1, Courtney:  2 (at least)!  This is the face I will give to my committee:

This is my “Bitch, please” look. I will not be intimidated dammit!

Also, I had a deja vu moment today.  That’s always a good sign!

Expectations, Monica Cook, Serendipity, & James Elkins…

Sorry I’ve been MIA for so long now…  I’m not joking when I say I barely had time to sleep the last few weeks.

So where did I leave off?  Ah yes.  The performance I am temporarily titling “…expectations lie…”.  You can view a 10 minute video clip of the performance here. The over all performance was about 45 minutes, and I’ve edited the video to reflect that time lapse a little bit. I’m not totally happy with the documentation, but that’s OK.  I plan on recreating this as a video piece in it’s own right.

Anyway, as I discussed before it was my intent for this piece to center around the idea of expectations versus reality and some what self destructive behaviors.  Now that I think back about it, the reason the 500 Days of Summer sequence was sticking in my mind was because it was an example of an internal or mental set up of expectations. Many of my pieces thus far have focused on external physical actions, that didn’t necessarily portray the psychological aspect of what I was attempting to address.  And subconsciously I must  have realized this because as I brainstormed, I began trying to find ways to impede or damage myself mentally.  Well, I came up with the idea to attempt to recite something, flawlessly of course, and for each mistake that I made, I would be forced to take a shot (of vodka).  For me, it was the perfect representation of frustration in action.  Trying to do something, over and over again, but failing each time, and chastising yourself each time, makes it harder and harder to live up to you own expectations.  So I ran with it…even though it seemed like a really bad idea for my liver.  But then again, I didn’t really expect to drink as much as I wound up drinking…

 
I won’t bore you with the exact details, but it took me almost a week to come up with something appropriate for the recitation…I finally settled on an excerpt from a book entitled Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

It’s the tiny bit at the bottom of page 34 through to the second full paragraph on page 35.  To be completely honest, I’m still not 100% happy with what I chose, as it’s a bit too theoretical and screams “Art!”  I am still looking for something more subtle and applicable to all types of expectations, not just the ones that relate to art making.  But it served it’s purpose well.

I also developed this idea about having an on going internal monologue calling out my mistakes and generally telling me how worthless I am.  It worked pretty well… You can see/hear the results for yourself on the video.  Here’s a few stills if your too lazy to watch or you’re like me and your internet is too slow.

Over all, I’m really pleased with the way the performance turned out.  My anxiety level was pretty high as I planned this, and it reached extreme levels as I started the performance (You can totally tell at the beginning of the video…It’s pretty funny actually).

The fantastic thing for me however, was that a few days before the performance occurred, and I was lucky enough to have a studio visit with an amazing artist named Monica Cook.  In much of her work she has this play between chaos and control going on, so I was looking forward to talking with her about that.  My visit with her was completely beyond my wildest dreams!  She was really supportive of the ideas I was using, and liked the performance I had planned.  Her encouragement really helped me get over some of that anxiety and just do the darn thing.  It was fan-tastic.  I wish I would have remembered to record it… I totally forgot to turn on the audio record app thingy on my phone.  😦

I also had this really great conversation with her about serendipity and deja vu.  Just the day prior, all my notebooks that I keep my research, brainstorming, and notes for teaching in got soaking wet somehow and the pens I use are most decidedly not water safe…

I really kind of freaked out.  To say that I was distraught would be an understatement, and I had actually gotten so upset I threw away my notebooks.  I didn’t even know what to do.  But then as the night progressed and I thought about it, there was something to these notebooks.  Even Eric thought I should do something with them.  So I went the next morning and rescued the notebooks from the trash can in the photo lab.  I showed them to Monica during my studio visit and she agreed that I needed to use them to create.  We discussed how water keeps popping up in my work, and this so called destruction was actually serendipity pointing me on my way.  We both look at serendipity and deja vu the same way… that it means you are on the right track and things are good.  Its funny to me though, that water is somehow finding it’s way into my work.  It may sound odd, but I’ve always felt a very definite connection to water, even as a child.  I loved hearing it rain, and being on beaches, things like that.  To go all astrological on you, I’m sure it’s somehow related to the fact that I am a Sagittarius, which is a fire sign.

In any event, I’ve been playing around with these pages for a few weeks now.  But I’m still not sure what they will become.  I’ve shot some photos, and I’m also working on a related video.  Both are still in an awkward, undefined stage, but I’ll share the photos, as the video is completely incoherent right now.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with these, as just photographing these objects seems too easy… I also think I just like the original object more.  But that might be my own biases.

I’ll talk more about this later maybe, but the other happening that kept me from writing, was that James Elkins came as a visiting scholar to FSU.  I was on the planning committee for that and so spent a day driving him around, which was pretty cool.  I also got a studio visit with him, which again was a great experience.  I DID remember to record that one.  🙂

One of the things Elkins said to me about my work was that I needed to find more of a grey area…  Where the topics of success and failure are not so clearly defined.  I think this is really great feedback, but I’m not sure how to do this.  He also got me thinking about how I define perfection, or the opposite of failure.  Elkins pointed out that to understand the failure, I should try to understand what perfection is.  I don’t have an answer for that right now, but it’s something that is rolling around in my head currently.

So… Busy times here in the studio.  Lots of studio visits, lots of thinking, and lots of experimenting with stuff…  Right now, I’m waiting for my committee to come in and do reviews once again.  Although, apparently only one of my committee members is going to be present. And I even showered, put on nice clothes AND make-up.  Yeesh.  Its OK, I get to do it again in a month.  Wish me luck!

Art & Fear belongs to the aforementioned authors.  All of the photos in this post are mine, but the images from my performance were taken by Samantha Burns.

If Three Trains of Thought are Running on the Same Track…

I have to be up in three hours.  Yeah, you heard me.  Up and going in three hours, at work in 4ish… But I can’t sleep, my brain has been churning non-stop since about 6 pm, and I can’t seem to shut it off, even with my normal routine of reading myself to sleep.  (Currently I’m reading Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots, which you should totally, immediately check out…but not until you’ve finished reading my blog.)Bear with me here, this is another one of my random thought tangents that magically tie all of my unconnected thoughts together at the end.  Yay non-linear thinking!

What got my ceaseless thinking going, was that as I was laying down to read and go to sleep, I was, um, checking…something… on my, uh, cell phone…  Oh alright, I confess, I was playing a silly game. The game, while not particularly thought provoking, did suddenly give me a huge rush of deja vu (it was in fact a game I had never played before).  Now, you may be asking yourselves why this matters, and more to the point, why you should continue reading about my already been there moment.  Well…because I said it did, and because I said you should.  So there.  Also I promise if you keep reading there will be a surprise for you down at the bottom of the page. But only if you keep reading!

The way I look at deja vu is that when you experience those moments in life, it means that you are on the right path, that you have made good decisions and things are headed in a positive direction.  This way of interpreting deja vu was introduced to me by Christine D’Onofrio a few years back, and it’s really awesome.  It’s like a tiny wave from the future/past every time.  It is actually quite comforting to think of it in this way.  Try it, you’ll like it.

My moment of deja vu got me excited because I haven’t had one in a really long time.  Which, after having uprooted myself and my husband, taken on even more student loan debt, and struggled through my first year of grad school, did not exactly have me feel so great.  And, as I am wont to do, I was starting to question myself and build myself up into an anxious wreck in anticipation of the start of the school year.  In the past few days, I had, in all seriousness, been asking myself if I should really be in grad school, if I really had what it takes, etc…  I think I was (am?) starting to dread the school year (something that may very well be a first for me), because I don’t want it to become a repeat of last year where nothing was accomplished.  If you missed the finer points, I think the 2011-2012 school year went something like this for me:

Chaos of moving, anxiety, avoiding the studio, making bad art, crying, making some more bad art, drinking A LOT, anxiety, crying some more, avoiding the studio, making even more bad art, making pumpkin cookies, drinking again, crying yet again, kind of getting my shit together, anxiety, making ok art, making terrible art, hiding under a table, getting drunk and watching the Twilight movies (yes, that was a low, even for me), crying once more, drinking a little bit more, baking cup cakes, and making some decent art.  

Yeah…that about sums it up.  No really…That’s pretty much how it went.  Who would want a repeat of that?  It was spectacularly disastrous (So much for being the Best At All The Things).  So it was partly reassuring to have a small moment of peace, in which I was shown that I was, and have been, going in the right direction.  It made me smile, quietly to myself, which is perhaps the best kind of smile.

But my deja vu train of thought got me thinking about something else…  Earlier in the evening, I had been proofreading/critiquing an admissions essay that one of the Husband’s cousins had written.  Long story short, I was harping on him to make his final goals (beyond education and the specific university he was applying to) crystal clear.  I must have told him in five different ways… Good thing it was via a word doc and email…other wise I may have gotten punched in the face.  In doing this, however, I thought back to what my ultimate goals were and why exactly I was working toward my MFA.  Once upon a time, I had hoped to teach at a college or university, and if I was really lucky, as a tenured faculty member.  But tonight I realized that may not be the case anymore…

While that line of thought was running, I had a third, but parallel line going, about how much I really love what I do.  I love being an artist, I honestly do.  For me though, making art has never been about making money, or having an audience.  In fact, I’ve never sold a damned thing (and I’ve been working as an artist in some capacity for 10 years now), and I make art pretty much for myself.  It’s a cathartic and expressive experience to me, it is how I make sense of the world around me, and how I make sense of myself.  Yes I do show my work, but if people respond, react, or even like my work, its just an added bonus for me.  I know many other artists and many of my colleagues out there are cringing at this attitude right now.  But it is the truth of how I operate.  It is as much a part of my art work as it is a part of me.  Do I want to be successful and be able to support myself solely on my art?  Well of course, but statistically speaking that’s highly unlikely, so why be untrue to myself? And it is for this reason that I’ve always planned to teach in addition to making art.  I also happen to really love teaching.

When I teach older kids and adults, it’s so amazing to me to watch them when they finally grasp and truly understand a concept, to see them get excited about an idea or a project, and then witness the results that your guidance has help to supply.  Several times when I’ve taught workshops, my students have been so fired up to try the techniques out for themselves because they had never thought of it, never seen it before, or didn’t think that they could do it themselves.  And have come up to tell me as much.  They ask questions that really push me to my limits, causing me to think, re-examine my assumptions and perceptions, and of course learn even more so that I can answer those questions!

Teaching little kids, it’s just so fantastic to me seeing them create in such an uninhibited manner.  And to see them work out how exactly to do something, or solve some kind of creative problem is just mind blowing.  In fact, yesterday at work, I gave my class some free time to do what ever they wanted, and one of the younger boys asked to make a book again.  At the beginning of each two week camp session, I have been having the kids make simple little sketch books out of printer paper, card stock and yarn.  This little boy liked the activity so much, he has made one of these books nearly every day for the last week and a half!  I asked him if he would like me to show him how to make another kind of book, and he was so excited that he dropped the book he had just started working on.  I walked him through the 4 or 5 simple steps it takes to make a folded book (that’s a random youtube link giving the gist of folded books if you’re unfamiliar), and then let him go at it.  He then proceeded to make 3 of them, trouble shooting little mishaps along the way, and then telling me how cool they were.  Wow, what a really awesome moment for me, because it really reinforces the fact that I have all of this knowledge for a reason, and even if I may not use it in my own work, I can share it with others to help them learn about art!

So in sum, I love what I do, both the art making and the teaching aspect.  That’s why I was so crushed when I found out I wouldn’t be teaching at FSU in the fall.  The opportunity to teach is a HUGE reason why I chose to come to school here.  But it’s OK,  because even if, when I finish my master’s degree, I don’t wind up finding one of the rare full time university gigs, I can still teach.  There are always community colleges, community centers, art camps, museums, schools… Again, I know some of my colleagues might go apoplectic at this idea, but to me, it’s still teaching, I’m still sharing art and art making with the world.

And that, my long suffering, ever patient imaginary readers, brings me around to my moment of deja vu.  Despite my anxieties and self doubt, I have some how found myself in the right place in my life once again.  Graduate school, while terrifyingly daunting, is providing me not only with better critical/theoretical thinking and challenging me in my art making (so that I can hopefully make a career out of it), but stronger teaching skills and a better resume as well.  I lucked into the best summer job ever, making art projects with a group of really great kids.  It helped me to remember why I fell in love with art in the first place and reminded me that I love what I do, whether its making or teaching.  Even if I have a rough patch… I can survive it, learn from it, and find my self in the right place once more.  Now if I get really lucky, Lafayette Arts and Crafts Center will not close, and I will be given the amazing opportunity to teach photography classes there this fall!

Hope you all enjoyed another random tangent brought to you by me and my crazy brain.  Keep making some art, even if it is bad.  Eventually you’ll get through it and make some OK art, and then in turn you’ll get through to the good art.  🙂  It happens to us all.  Or maybe just me.  I can’t prove anything either way.

PS, I now I have to be up in 1 hour.  So maybe I just won’t even go to sleep.  Thank the art gods that tomorrow (today?) is International Dance Day at camp and I don’t actually have to teach anything….  Oh!  And I lied about the something cool down at the bottom.  Well, not really lied, as I did have something to post for your amusement and gratification for sticking with me through the tangent, but my internet connection is being uncooperative…I’ll save it for the next time.

Now I think I’m just getting punchy.  Have a lovely one!