Implicit Motor Learning – Experimenting with the dual and multi-task method

20.04.18

I am experimenting using the dual task method of implicit learning, but with a task that I am already familiar with.  I am crossing the length of my 15m slackline while looking straight ahead and counting backwards from 50 or more, alternating between three languages: English, French and Finnish in this way – “fifty, quarante-neuf, neljäkymmentäkahdeksan, forty seven, quarante-six, neljäkymmentäviisi”, and so on.  So far, the effect is that I walk slower, but much more precisely and smoothly, and instead of struggling with the physical task, I distract myself by struggling with switching between languages.  What’s also interesting in this particular case is that I have moments where I am unsure of what language I have spoken in (I am counting out loud), and it is as if my brain simply recognises that it is the correct number in the sequence, rather than any acknowledgement of how that number is encoded.

The parts that I struggle with the most provide the greatest distraction, and would therefore seem more effective in maintaining the primary task unconsciously.  As it is a skill I have already acquired, I believe that implicit learning could possibly help change whether we operate consciously or not, or at least improve or maintain an old skill on a subconscious level.

My experiments today are actually multi-tasking, as counting backwards in English is a secondary task, but counting backwards in a foreign language alone is itself a dual task, so combining multiples languages in reverse order is enough to be difficult while just sitting, let alone when walking a slackline.  But this is the key point, we would expect poorer performance through multi-tasking, but in this instance the opposite seems to be true.

Multi-tasking was able to take me out of any thoughts of falling, which is a good example of how the advice “don’t look down” can be successfully applies in a practical situation.  We seem to understand that we can overcome fear with distraction, but the difficulty usually lies in finding and implementing that distraction.

As we advance in our practice of multi-tasking we adapt as with any training, but with the added benefits that come from doing so implicitly, and in the same way that load and exercise complexity can be and must be adjusted in order to keep progressing, the difficulty of dual or multi-tasks can also be increased to improve the primary physical skill.

The variety of avenues to explore is immense, because not only can we pair a physical primary task with a mental secondary one, we can choose any number of different combinations.  The multi-language counting or speaking game was something I already played on its own, and simply borrowed for this experiment.  In the future I would like to try different games using pre-acquired skills while attempting to disrupt my normal train of thought or non-thought as I carry them out.  Improvised word association, poetry and story-telling is something I wanted to do already as a means to break through mental barriers that result from, and in over thinking, which seems like it will be well-suited to dual and multi tasking.  Such an approach to increasing the cognitive complexity of tasks seems little if at all explored outside of circus arts and novelty acts, and my hope is that my own examples may provide insights or inspiration for others who are interested in exploring these relatively uncharted waters.

The possibility of being able to re-learn or regulate an already attained skill to a subconscious level is something that both professional athletes, dancers and performers could benefit from, as well as amateurs, people involved in physical jobs and activities, and patients undergoing rehabilitation.

Multi-tasking feels mentally draining, and I am experiencing similar feelings as when I have been using the errorless learning method to practise drumming co-ordination exercises: not only do I feel like my brain is fried, but there is also a sense of not having learned / achieved anything.  I think this arises from the fact that usually what we consider learning is to be able to explain, recite or regurgitate what we have accumulated, but in the case of implicit learning there is simply a void, as if you spent your maths lessons staring out the window at nothing in particular.  I imagine that this feeling is something we can learn to appreciate or enjoy, and I find that I am becoming more aware of it as it manifests itself in different areas of my life.

I have had moments of “overload” where I am unable to think or say anything, and I couldn’t “remember” or conjure up what number was supposed to come after 127 in any language.  Likewise, with the drumming exercises there are moments when my body is running on automatic and overload causes random things to come out.  In both instances it’s funny to experience, and laughter adds a whole other dimension of distraction and difficulty.

 

Habits, Depression and The Importance of DIY

18.04.18

What is depression or a depressive episode?  I am starting to believe that the illness and the symptoms are often conflated, and that having such a perspective either leads to acute treatments such as electro shock “therapy”, or prescription drugs that are targeted at changing some fundamental problem with the brain and its chemistry, or worse, it leads to the patient believing that they cannot be cured or helped even, and this often serves to reinforce a belief in their own state of powerlessness (the power is in the object).

The maxim “treat the cause, not the symptoms” follows a sound logic when applied to purely mechanical problems, but as we know the brain is far from simply being a complex, mechanical organ, or biological computer even.

To treat mental illness as an engineering problem is to deny the environmental or contextual factors involved, but more significantly it overlooks the self-reflective and re-organisational capacities of the brain that mean that not only is it capable of being affected by physical stimuli, it is also able to produce various sensations and experiences itself, from hallucinations, psychosomatic disorders and various placebo effects to name a few.

The subject/object role of the brain appears to be fluid, so that where a mechanic might treat the problem in a top-down fashion, it seems likely that there is often great potential to fix things with a bottom-up approach.  While traditional treatments such as psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and counselling may at first appear to fit the bottom-up criteria as they don’t involve medication or lobotomy (although may often be used in conjunction), their basis remains in observing and then removing or reconciling some sort of broken part, often in the form of trauma.  If only all of these issues can be rooted out, talked-over and resolved, then the organism can get back to functioning normally.  This is the psychological equivalent of many postural training and “functional” exercise methods.  If we deconstruct the human body and stretch or strengthen this, then the whole will work normally again, but as I noted elsewhere on this blog the mechanistic approach to solving what appear to be, or manifest themselves as physical problems, doesn’t account for the magic-like regulatory powers of the central nervous system.

The search for the miracle cure is just another manifestation of our desire for a quick fix.  Simple doesn’t mean easy, and so, in a contrived way we may just have over-complicated things in our mistaken haste to achieve universal convenience.

My personal experience of depression was always that it was something of which I was under the influence, which is normal considering the language we use to describe such a state.  I had no control, and in fact there were two of me: the one who was depressed and the one who was not, but both were blind to the perspective of the other, and unfortunately there was not a third “I” through which I could view the tormented two at a distance.

There is a strong resemblance between depression and a feeling of profound helplessness and the perceived inability to affect change in the world or in one’s own life, so for me they are interchangeable.  Suicide or suicidal thoughts are the final manifestations of a feeling of extreme powerlessness, as if the fight or flight response has been hijacked, turning the organism inside out and against itself.

Self-help is the ultimate form of treatment, as contained within it is a sense of value that cannot be attained through foreign third parties or their chemical equivalents.  Self-help as a system or philosophy or even just the decision to take things into one’s own hands and begin making change, however seemingly small, are massively important to the psychological well-being of anyone who feels powerless.  I believe that for many people who have “tried everything” and then turn to alternative medicine, therapy, education and so on, the much overlooked or downplayed aspect is in the personal symbolism of such a gesture.  We already know that placebo effects express themselves when the subject is in a situation in which they expect them to occur, which may vary depending on whether we have a preference for hospital or witch doctors.  If we have a history of negative encounters with a particular care-giver or other authority that would in “normal” circumstances help us toward well-being and improvement, if the relationship cannot be mended, then the individual must heal through methods of their own making or choosing.

Sometime after reaching the realm of self-harm and self-destruction I took a step back from the edge because I knew all along that it wasn’t what I really wanted, and with that single ounce of strength I had gained from saving my own life I used it to pay the relevant authorities: the counsellor, the psychiatric nurse and the doctor holding the prescription for Paxil shrouded in a halo of promising white light.

I ultimately rejected medication in all its forms for the reason that I didn’t want to rely on them in order to live a normal or balanced life.  It’s at that point that my journey into self-help and towards recovery began.

It’s not until writing this today that I realised not only the importance of self-help and its connection to recovering from depression, but also the extent to which I have been exercising various self-help techniques in their many forms.  Until now I had seen myself as being on a journey of self-empowerment in the direction of autonomy in various levels, but now I see that I have been implementing my own forms of self-treatment to compensate for all the ways in which civilisation and its traditional structures have failed me, and how the pre-packaged notions and customs are uninspiring to me.

For the first time in my life I feel as if I have just unearthed something about myself that I didn’t know, which now helps explain many of my ideas and actions in a new light.  I had previously envisioned experiential art as a method by which to re-wild individuals; to un-domesticate them, to wake them up and introduce them to some of their own power.  I also see much of my lifestyle as being a form of rehabilitation from decades of exposure to and immersion in a hostile modern environment that is mindlessly self-propagating, and that has neither the interests of the inhabitants of the planet, nor its own, more specialised kind in mind.

I realise that in my own quest for happiness and self-empowerment I want to share that with other people too.  As Ai Weiwei said “I want people to see their own power”.

A year or so ago I came up with the idea for a simple DIY antidepressant.  The object of the exercise is to first make a list of all the behaviours that are characteristic of your “symptoms”, and to then begin deliberately doing the opposite when we notice ourselves depressed or slipping that way.  For example, we may overeat or overindulge in sweet, fatty foods, go to bed too late, get up too late and not get out of the house enough or get adequate exercise.  The anti-depressive heuristic simply tells us to eat better, go to bed sooner, get up earlier and move more!

As this concept turned from an interesting idea into something that I practice more and more, it became clear to me that acting out the symptoms of depression was as much a habit as any other, and it no longer seems to me that it is depression driving the symptoms, but that they have a mind of their own because they are habitual behaviours all the same.  This means that we don’t need to stop or wait until we are cured before we change our habits, but also that because they are habits with their own momentum they will take a lot of effort to slow down and reverse or change, and that in the beginning it will seem like we are not progressing because any attempt to change a habit is an uphill struggle.  It takes more than a few sporadic tries to change a habit we may have spent a lifetime unconsciously practising.

I am learning to feel the resistance to change, and the pull of the habitual behaviour which I now see as simply “the easy thing to do”.  I don’t see myself as a lazy person, so this way of looking at things provides a good motivation to change.  Every time I am conscious of being faced with a choice; the old pathway or the new habit, I no longer act automatically.  Awareness gives me the time to react and then reflect on my choice, so that even if I select the old pattern, I do so from a conscious perspective, which makes it more likely that I will develop a sense of “right” and “wrong” about my choices.  That is to say, knowing that I have already decided that I want to change my habits, there is only so long I can consciously move in a direction that contradicts it.

When I do the difficult thing and avoid my old habits I congratulate myself on doing so, as is rightly warranted, and I am actually beginning to feel better for avoiding them too.  As with all habits they become easier over time as they become more automatic, which highlights the importance of consciously choosing which habits to develop and which to change.

Around November of last year I began another little personal experiment which simply involved me going out the house to walk every day regardless of the weather.  I had already identified that staying in and not getting enough exercise was one of my depression-associated habits, so I wanted to see how having a daily dose of movement out in the fresh air affected me when made a priority.  What I noticed, and this is true of all things around which there is a mental block or some kind of internal resistance, is that my thoughts about what it would be like to go out were much worse, and often not at all like the actual experience itself.  Normally these convincing thoughts and feelings would be enough to prevent me from taking action, but during my month of commitment what I was essentially practising was proving to my brain that it was wrong about the real world.  Every time I have a knee-jerk, habitual, emotional reaction to something, or just the thought of it, by taking swift action I get to collect valuable evidence that my thoughts and their ensuing emotions are not well correlated to the reality of things.  But if instead I allow those thoughts to linger, I inevitably end up feeding them, making it progressively more challenging to try and break away from the thought and to engage in the action.

There were many days when it was cold, wet, windy and grey when I didn’t want to go out, but once I was actually outside I felt even better than when I was at home, thinking about how depressing the weather was.  So while in theory we may recognise that the thought is worse than the reality, it takes consistent experience of that fact in order to override old habits and re-calibrate our perspectives.  This re-calibration is at the heart of my journey towards overcoming incompleteness, because it is the thoughts that present a problem and create a barrier between yourself and immediate, in-the-moment action.

Knowing that part of depression / anxiety is feeling a lack of control or order, it makes sense that having a routine is a good method to counteract disorganisation and associated feelings.  To look at things another way, the behaviours we normally associate with our own depression for example, can be considered negative rituals that we automatically carry out.

Recently I have been focused on developing a strong morning ritual that consists of tidying up things left out from the night before, washing the dishes and clearing up the kitchen.  What this does is not only provide the physical space necessary in order to prepare food for the day, but it also creates a palpable sense of psychological space to enable the day to unfold anew.

Before having this ritual I would notice that I would come into the kitchen hungry, but would not cook because the space was a mess, meaning that either I would try to find something to snack on that didn’t require preparation (which was often both unhealthy and insufficient), or I would go back to what I was doing without eating at all.  Eventually I would have to face the pile of dishes, but by that time I would have spent so long in an unfed state of limbo that I wouldn’t have got any work done in this state of “incompleteness”.

So the ritual serves a practical purpose that has multiple, positive knock-on effects in addition to this psychological sense of freedom.

As with traditional rituals my morning routine as well as any other kitchen time involves a ceremonial dress in the form of an apron.  These kinds of details seem to help bolster the routine by signalling to ourselves that a certain activity will now begin, effectively putting us in the right state of mind beforehand.

I have become ever more aware of this sense of “incompleteness” lately, and how it stems from many things that need to be addressed in some form or another, but are delayed or put off unnecessarily.

While tidying up a physical space seems to have a “resetting” effect, the act of putting things away or cleaning something after use can be seen as the necessary steps that bring finality to any process.  It’s not just that mess is a physical obstacle, but that it is symbolic of a failure to get closure and transition to another phase or a whole new endeavour.  I now feel that I have been unwittingly creating a lot of my own anxiety through various projects and processes that I have begun but failed to see through to the end.  Every time I make a negative but don’t make a print from it I am accumulating more and more things to do: I am adding to my incompleteness.  What this means is that I need to continue to develop the discipline (habit) to finish things, which more often than not takes only a small amount of work, but a lot of anticipated effort.  This also means that I need to be more selective with my time, to avoid engaging in things that I am unlikely to finish in one go or that risk lingering unnecessarily, and to invest that energy in achieving completeness elsewhere.

The same idea not only applies to how I organise output, but equally to various sources of input.  If I have some writing on a topic to do, I consciously avoid doing any significant reading until I am done with my own ideas first.  Initially this was something I did to try to avoid being influenced before expressing my own opinion, but now it is equally about limiting my intake of information if I am not in a position to do anything about it.  If I cannot immediately, or in the immediate future, implement any information that is being diffused by various forms of media, then its practical value is nullified and its effect seems to be an increased sense of incompleteness.

I believe that the culture of the global village is responsible for this strange sense of anxiety and dissonance, as we are faced with innumerable, insurmountable problems that we are unable to affect in any meaningful way.  In normal situations dissonance is resolved one way or another, but the invention of high-speed, worldwide, pocket-sized telecommunications means that not only do we have information on tap that is practical in theory, we also have the world’s problems at our fingertips, and this ease of access is contrasted with our relative powerlessness in the face of what we witness on our screens.

Every day there is the opportunity to collect a new, unresolved problem that is effectively beyond our ability to change.  On a simple level we get a taste for what that feeling is like every time we watch a film that lacks resolution: the killer is never found, the criminal escapes being brought to justice or the central character fails to bring some kind of order to a chaotic and turbulent situation.  This is how we react when we know that the events are fake, and why TV soaps leave us with a habitual cliff-hanger, because the writers know we need psychological resolution, and so they dangle it in front of our noses like a carrot on a stick.  But the news offers no such salvation for either its characters or viewers, and instead there is only distraction in irrelevant, wholly-unrelated, often comical factoids.

People need to regain their own power by realising that it doesn’t stem from the TV remote or smart phone, and that reducing or eliminating their use entirely is the single-most important act in restoring balance.  This collective depression can also be fought on a personal level by choosing to make change on a very local level – which is where we are most effective and receptive to the consequences of our actions.

By giving importance to some biased reporting of an exotic and highly-publicised problem you de-emphasise your own situation in favour of a popular point of focus chosen by a third party.  Your role in your own life is diminished every time you allow others to dictate what is important, interesting or relevant.  There can be no dictatorship without media support, but there is always room for dictatorship without government.

Implicit Motor Learning – External Focus

Implicit Motor Learning for Sports, Dance, Martial Arts and other Movement Practices

For an introduction to implicit motor learning see the following lecture by Professor Rich Masters of the University of Waikato.

Implicit motor learning is when we acquire new skills but are unable to create explicit, verbal descriptions, instructions or rules about the movements needed to complete them.  Simply put, implicit learning results in improved performance, without direct knowledge of the “how?” or “why?” that underlies it.

For example, a coach might talk a student through all of the body positions that they must imitate in order to replicate a tennis stroke, which would engage the working memory and might essentially prove to be “too much information” for the student.  Implicit teaching of the same skill might involve simply using an analogy that imparts all of the necessary information but on a more subconscious level via the use of simile.

The benefit of implicit learning is that skills acquired using such methods are better retained and more importantly, replicated under pressure and fatigue as may be in the case of a performance, a competition or combat.

There are different proposed methods for learning implicitly, but the one I have chosen to focus on for this video is an external focus of attention.  What this involves is that instead of concentrating on what your body is doing while attempting a movement, you instead focus on something external; an object, an apparatus or something in the local environment that is affected by that particular movement.  For example, as with the tennis stroke again, you can either focus on what your arm is doing (internal), or you can focus on what the racket or even ball is doing (external).

As I am more a dancer than a sportsman I tend not to use apparatus, nor affect the external environment in any significant way when I move, which I why I decided that it would be interesting to begin exploring the ways in which different tools can be implemented “artificially” in order to create an external focus that would otherwise not normally exist.  The object, or the tool is only present during the learning stage, and in practice the movement is executed without it.  This concept can be potentially applied to many different scenarios, sports or activities along with the other methods of implicit learning, and with these demonstrations I hope to spark interest in others who will have their own specific needs, goals and ideas for practical application.

Although the purpose of this video is to demonstrate potential uses of the external focus method, the way in which I have structured the exercises naturally makes use of another method: errorless learning.  By breaking down the movement into small components each one can be practiced individually and with little need to call upon the working memory due to their simplicity.  As the task is simplified there is a greatly reduced tendency to think about what is happening or why, which means that successful implementation of errorless learning will lead to skills being acquired implicitly.  I will demonstrate use of external focus in tasks that are unrelated to one another, as well as ideas for creating errorless learning exercises in future videos.

Implicit motor learning is not currently something well known outside of academic circles, yet it has the potential to make huge changes to the way we think about movement (and how we might stop thinking) and how we perceive the teacher-student relationship.  This is because the underlying implication of implicit methods is that not only are they perhaps the best way to learn, but that we are all capable of learning in a more natural way that doesn’t require anything near the amount of interference and verbal over-complication that we have become accustomed to as language-led animals.  Instead of the almighty teacher passing on wisdom to the lowly student, the power roles are reversed, and it is the job of the teacher to coach in such a way that simply brings out the natural capacities of the student.  From this new perspective the teaching styles we are probably most accustomed to might not only be barriers to effective learning, but also barriers to realising our own power and importance within the process.

The following demonstration uses the example of the one inch punch as the final skill to be acquired, but as you will see the exercises themselves can also be used or modified to serve other purposes – learning never happens in a vacuum.  This is not a tutorial about how to learn an effective one inch punch, rather it is an exercise in generating ideas about how a theoretical model can be applied to different real-world situations.


 

 

Wrist movement and strength

The first clips show the initial ideas that I had, and as such, they are perhaps a little unnecessarily complicated.  The idea is that instead of simply concentrating on the stick, the resulting movement from the wrist is transferred along the stick, to the string and to the weight attached to the end (a pine cone).  Conceptually speaking, concentrating on the pine cone is supposed to be further removed from the wrist than either the stick or the string, thus being “more” external.  As the following example demonstrates, I took this external distance a step further by actively trying to hit a target with the pine cone, albeit a large one.  The (potential) problem is that in order to make the pine cone move in such a way as to strike the target with the greatest force, there is a certain amount of timing necessary, and the placement of the arm and length of the string play an important role.  These requirements may actually be beneficial in particular circumstances, but it’s unsure whether there is any advantage to making the focus more removed from the initiating movement, and it seems that by complicating the exercise in this way, it could have the opposite of the intended effect.  Thus, this variation is probably suited to more advanced learners.

As the next videos show, I simplified the exercise while gaining an improved sense of feedback from the impact with the metal bar, which I eventually changed to the punch bag which allows you to hit with greater speed without the stress of contacting an entirely solid object at speed.  Any object could potentially be placed or hung at the desired height, but as I demonstrate the exercise can be performed with the arm in different positions in order to change the emphasis and stress.  The movement is also done in the opposite direction with the stick facing behind, so that strength can be built symmetrically.  Other factors that can be altered include: how close to the end of the stick it is gripped, how long or heavy the stick is, and how thick it is.  Positioning yourself so that the impact is near the end of range of motion, near the beginning, or somewhere in the middle is also a variable to consider.

The final wrist exercise is a similar movement that only requires a stick, the other difference is that it is the opposite hand that is absorbing the impact, so this also functions as a conditioning exercise for the hands.

In all wrist exercises the movement should come from the wrist alone, and not from closing the grip around the stick as if simultaneously squeezing and lifting up.  More movement can be created this way, but it gives a false impression of the role, and therefore strength of the wrist.  Both can be practised though, as transitioning from a loose grip to a tightly-held fist is another useful skill.

Torque and force transmission

Utilising the stick and punch bag once again, I devised this technique for teaching the hips/torso how to generate power.  With the stick held firmly against the body it is left up to the body to determine how to move, while you simply concentrate on hitting the bag with the stick.  A solid grip on the stick means that you will not be able to use your arms to assist with the movement.

The next variation is a step up which could be regressed into a step forward, or modified further by being incorporated into different lunges or striking at different stages of the lunge/stepping movement.  In the first example I am stepping with the right leg while turning in a clockwise direction, and then using the opposite leg while still turning the same way.  The same is then repeated in an anticlockwise direction.  The movement has been made more complex by forcing the body to generate force from a single leg which requires more involvement from the surrounding stabilising muscles.

Other progressions might include increasing the height of the step, decreasing the stability of the standing leg, adding resistance to the movement either on the body or the stick, or calling for the movement to be executed more explosively with a jump for example.

It’s important to note that although I am demonstrating the hips and torso as one, the position of the stick can be changed in order to isolate just the hips, or could be carried out in a sitting position in order to isolate the upper body.

The next exercise is essentially the same movement, except that with the stick and the arm outstretched we are now turning rotational force into forward force, which is perhaps the most important element in maximising how much can be generated from a static position.  Failing to generate or transfer force from the lower body means that you will be relying solely on the relatively smaller muscles of your arm to do all the work.

The more the arm remains in both the same horizontal and vertical planes, the less energy is wasted and will be transferred into forward motion.  Although I practised this concept by feel, having a precise target to focus on should help ensure that the arm does not waver.  This is a good example of when the use of a very light stick would be better suited to the task, as the excess weight can make it difficult to maintain a straight line of movement.

This longer clip is just me experimenting with putting the pieces together while still using the stick to give me a feel for how well the movements were occurring.

The final piece is an example of how precision could be practised, although it would be unnecessary and even counterproductive to train at full speed in the learning stage.

 

Reverse Capoeira

 

“There’s more to fishing than catching fish”

In the documentary A Passion for Angling this sentiment, or philosophy rather, is made eloquently clear through the tales and adventures of two old friends and fishing partners, Bob James and Chris Yates.  It’s almost as if the actual act of catching a fish is merely a bi-product of the activities that surround it, with particular emphasis on time spent in peaceful appreciation and contemplation of nature.

To this day it remains an inspirational souvenir from my childhood that captures many different qualities that I still find important, all wrapped up in the myth of the traditional fisherman.

Having been hunter-gatherers in a not-too-distant past, it seems likely that we are all inseparable from the non-obvious rewards that accompany such activities.

Deriving a sense of pleasure from life-saving, life-preserving and life-creating activities can be seen as nature’s way of reinforcing itself through ourselves and through multiple secondary benefits.  It also seems likely that we enjoy spending time immersed in the natural world because it was a necessary part of hunting and gathering.  Now our search-engines do all the hunting, and consequently all the legwork, and the gathering is carried out by third parties in the third world.

Unless we are to return to such primitive ways of living, there remains this untapped innate connection, and the opportunity to live a more fuller life through exercising neglected aspects of our humanity.  But conversely, there are other, non-desirable aspects that we would be better off without, this is why violence and war will continue to linger for the foreseeable future, provided that humans are still around, because these harmful activities fulfil age-old needs, despite huge differences in our environment and social structures.  In the same way that we can benefit from making use of our biology in healthy, non-destructive ways, we also remain vulnerable to exploitation in the form of superstimuli, and higher powers who wish to manipulate us for their own purposes.  The most obvious example of this in practice is war.  Young individuals, mostly male, are shipped off to die heroic deaths, to exercise their fight or flight response in the most realistic scenarios possible, and for those who do make it back they have likely undergone the most powerful of bonding experiences the modern world has yet to replicate elsewhere than the battlefield.

It’s easy to dismiss war as a barbaric tradition, yet its worldwide prevalence is a testament to how much we need it, or at the very least, something that closely resembles it.  Computer games don’t create heroes, nor help fulfil such myths as they lack skin in the game, except perhaps that of the thumbs.  They are essentially play-play-fights carried out visually and sedentarily.  Team sports take things further by allowing the creation of an “other”; an opponent to be “beaten”, which has the advantage of implicating the spectators who can also enjoy a slice of the contrived conflict, albeit from a position in the stands.  From this point of view, football hooliganism seems like a natural re-evolution of what the sports and fanaticism all stood (in) for in the first place.  It seems that some prosthetics may just never be enough for some people.  And while computer games present us with many forms of play-play-fighting, sports such as boxing and cage fighting represent the grown-up and brutally organised end of the spectrum.  The blood, sweat and tears are all real, yet the motives are often empty and meaningless.  This is how civilised human beings agree to bash each other’s heads in.  By these standards wrestling theatrics are merely symbols for the enjoyment of the half-hearted fan who is unwilling to lay anything on the line, who instead of play-fighting, pays to watch others do it for him.

Despite our innumerable successes in manufacturing addictive and harmful superstimulants and in exploiting our primitive brains, we have yet to make progress in turning our weaknesses to our collective advantage.  The secret lies in first acknowledging the vulnerability in question, and then testing various potential, healthy replacements and diversions.  it may be the case that we cannot eliminate all evil in one fell-swoop, or go cold turkey on war, and that instead we must settle for the current lesser of the evils.  All of this remains highly personal though, so one man’s martial art may be another man’s war.  The key is to concentrate on searching for and developing alternative outlets.

If war and violence are not simply about defeating the enemy, then understanding those secondary, and non-obvious aspects of physical conflict can help shed light on what kinds of activity may be beneficial in the process of weaning ourselves off of this particular drug.  Differentiating between the icing and the cake itself is a useful exercise for a culture that eats too much cake in the relentless pursuit of icing.

I realised some time ago that sports and other physical activities were actually just starting points, or excuses to enjoy and explore the different uses and capabilities of my body.  This idea became more solidified as I began to engage in and seek out manual labour “for the sake of it”.

Music is as much of a physical practice as it is an audibly expressive one, and just as different sports require different skills and parts of the body, so too does each instrument.  I have progressed from the piano to practising coordination exercises for drumming which makes everything that bit more explicitly percussive, while changing the involvement of the limbs and the complexity of their use – two hands vs ten fingers.

If you limit your physical practice to those things only currently accepted, categorised, reinforced and promoted as being valid options, then you cut yourself off from the vast sphere of all possible options, which includes a huge chunk of (personally) unexplored terrain.  The difference between moving thousands of kilos of furniture and an equivalent weight in the gym is not really down to the environment or the shape of the objects, but the context of the intention.  Either one could be both a chore or a pleasurable workout or challenge and so on, they key is the mindset which is always separate from the environment and the apparatus.  The mindset is mobile, and having a mobile mindset is imperative to adaptation in the long run.

My ongoing interest in the martial arts has not been kept alive by the inextricable kicks and punches, but by the training methods, and the simple idea that if you do something for long enough, you will get good at it: the same concept that gives fingers a mind of their own helps humans gain inhuman strength and capabilities.

I also have a particular fondness for the training regimes of boxers; the hard grind and cardio that leaves people in a heap of limp, sweaty mush by the end of the session is something to be admired.  While I had these myths and ideas in mind as I purchased a second-hand punchbag, my intention was never to become a boxer, or martial artist even, but to use the bag as a novel movement stimulus.

Capoeira is sometimes said to have evolved from the need to train a martial art in secret, and so it was disguised as a dance.  I like to dance while disguising my movement as something more practical, and more deadly.  I call it reverse capoeria.

 

Speedbumps

The trial and error, DIY, experience-it-yourself, go-out-and-actually-have-a-look method of doing things is a naturally occurring speedbump that has been vastly eroded in recent years by the widespread availability of both written and visual information about everything and anything imaginable.

Those annoyingly ingenious features of the urban landscape designed to consistently infuriate us by impeding our flow are actually there for the benefit of everyone.

I’ve come to view rituals and other “time-consuming” activities as both breaks and brakes, intended to force us to slow down and alert us to our over eagerness to rush through life physically and mentally.  The perceived inconvenience of any particular activity becomes its strength; an opportunity to take back what an efficiency addicted culture has robbed us of.

Nowadays even our rituals can be easily purchased, in an ironic twist of fate characteristic of a sick society (dis-ease = uneasy with itself and the rest of the world).

We no longer engage in anything of substance because it’s quicker and easier to buy and display symbols.  If I burn enough incense and place enough statues of Buddha around the house it’ll be easier to achieve enlightenment.  If I buy all the equipment and invest enough in accessories, then I won’t have to do all the hard work.  We are essentially trying to bribe our way around the speedbumps in order to get to our next destination as quickly as possible.  If we try to drive at 100mph over the speedbumps the journey becomes uncomfortable, reinforcing the idea that they’re something to be removed.  But if we slow down, it not only gives us a chance to take things in that we normally miss, but the very experience of passing smoothly over the bump provides an insightful contrast to the rest of the journey.

This is why I believe that we need to bring back and promote the creation of rituals around the ideas and events that are most important to us as human beings and as individuals.

Despite growing up in an industrialised age, in the late 80’s and 90’s at school we celebrated harvest festival every year, where everyone brought food along to donate to charity.  Our parents weren’t peasant farmers subject to the whim of the seasons, yet we had a ritual celebrating abundance which included giving to those who were less fortunate.

In a society that is ruled by the metaphor “time is money”, any activity or act that is not obviously and immediately related to productivity is considered a waste of time, and is often frowned upon.  I think this is one subtle reason people end up trying to convert what they are passionate about into a money-making endeavour, because based on the rules of the system anything that turns a profit becomes legitimised, whereas doing things for fun is seen as childish and inconsequential.  Meditation is only valid if it can be packaged and sold, and art is only worthwhile if it can be displayed in a gallery.  In this way we can begin to understand how a single metaphor can shape our experience and in turn, our actions.

In this new age there is no art, only “content” ; an amorphous, easily consumable by-product of our industrial metaphors.  There is no artist or human even, just a biological machine programmed to do its job and fulfil the needs of the hungry masses.  But just as food is consumed mindlessly and without chewing or appreciation, so too is the steady feed of content, never wholesome or nourishing enough to satiate us. (Funnily enough, Soylent, the liquid food alternative for busy people doesn’t require chewing either.)

So now we are at a crossroads, where either we put up a stop sign and some traffic lights, or we keep our foot down on the accelerator and hope that it doesn’t take its toll.

While the speedbump imposes practical limitations on how quickly something can be achieved, the benefit doesn’t come from making life increasingly inconvenient, but slowly arises from the realisation that by habitually rushing through every activity, including those that are supposed to be enjoyable, we fail to appreciate life because we are trying to make it happen sooner.  Furthermore, when we live at peace with the present moment we dissolve the idea of “wasting time”, because even if we spend effort attempting to reach a goal and we fail, by remaining present throughout the process we experience life to the fullest, which we gradually come to realise is more important than the results.  This could be summed up as:

“the journey is more important than the destination”.

If we think of the current status and trajectory of modern civilisation and its technology we could describe it as being efficiency and outcome-oriented i.e. “the results are more important than the process”, and “the ends justify the means”.

From this perspective, a mindful existence and lifestyle is not just at odds with the civilised environment, but is contrary to its guiding values and its core philosophy.

When you live by the metaphor “time is money”, the abstract concept of time is conceived in terms of the tangible object, money.  But money however, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, but is symbolic of the power of self-sustenance, based on all of the necessities and things that help form our self-image that we could purchase with it.  This connection between the three concepts, time, money and self, helps explain the sense of deeply-felt urgency that accompanies life under the influence of such metaphors.  Wasting time i.e doing nothing to sustain your self-image is equivalent to both actual and metaphorical suicide, as if the ticking of the clock indicated our life force draining as in a computer game.

As long as we identify with our jobs, careers, hobbies and appearance and so on, we will always be uneasy with stillness, with non-striving, and with minimalist lifestyles that require less doing and more being.

Notes on Ways of Seeing

14.02.18

This a response to the video Ways of Seeing by John Berger, which is itself inspired by the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by philosopher Walter Benjamin.

 

Artwork – images and objects tied to place and general context.  As a familiar smell, feeling or sound might signal and signify a particular context, (original) works are the signifiers of the context out of which they are born.  Copies are also signifiers of their own context, but this is mostly hidden from view, as copies are often presented in the same light as originals – when an artwork is set up to be copied the context is omitted; we don’t want to see the oil painting under bright lights in a studio, we just want to see the painting, or as much of it as possible, which means as little as possible evidence of context, as little as possible evidence that it is in fact a copy, and not an original itself.

This veiling of original context is aided by technology while simultaneously leaving its own footprint – typewriters, printing presses and computers all remove evidence of the hand of the creator.  On the face of it, such copies could come from anywhere and from any time, because the word (or image) in its homogenised form bears no resemblance to the mark of the author, and instead displays evidence of the machine or technique that produced it.  Instead of strictly referencing the author, any text published in the Times New Roman font also becomes a reference to Stanley Morison and Victor Lardent; the creators of that typeface.

As an artwork passes from original to copy status, the shift in context leaves its mark.

Graffiti on canvas, although it may be original, is really just an example of transplanting an idea into an alien context.  The form has remained the same – it is still spray-painted letters in a particular style, but it is no longer tied to the immobile and illegal world of the outdoor, on-the-run artist.  By severing the link between the context and the artwork, or as in this case, by attempting to graft the whole genre onto a new context, the origins and meaning are lost in translation.

Everything becomes bastardised in some way by experiencing it in your own preferred and habitual context, which is often at home and on your computer.  This is domestication in brief: rounding up untamed elements and bringing them into the home for the pleasure of convenient experiences. The desire to make art that fits inside gallery walls, music studios and television channels, only serves to benefit those particular structures and the people hiding behind their favourite and most profitable contexts.  Instead of a bio-diverse art community, we have work that is invested in and created simply to fit into the moulds that may accommodate them with open wallets.  Instead of artists that produce work that is true to its own, and to their own specific context, we have work whose origins are hidden, whose would-be destiny is the featureless and naked gallery wall, the tv, cinema or computer screen.  Artists are willingly giving up identity and context to the demands of technology and consumerism.

Each musical style is embedded not just in time but place as well, despite music being a non-physical medium.  There is something uniquely bizarre about listening to hip hop at home in your bedroom when you live in Finland.  This couldn’t have happened without the physical act of mechanically copying music onto disks, and without the removal of a whole culture from its context.  The role of technology in creating convenience in its many forms is at the heart of the worldwide spread of ideas, art and imagery.  If everything had to be experienced in its rightful place; in its birthplace, then it would severely limit what would be shared, and by whom.  In a sense, experience itself is the unshareable artwork: we can only gaze upon the aftermath through art-produce and its reproductions.

If you believe that everything can, and should be shared for reasons of equality, then you consequently endorse the continuation and spread of domestication, because to make everything equally available ultimately means to make it effortless and contextless, and thus meaningless.  By turning Mount Everest into a guided tour, it stops becoming the feat it once was; it is de-feated.  Accessibility for all, while on the surface appears like a noble ideal, is actually counterproductive, and seems to spring from the philosophy that all hard work should be replaced by convenience at our earliest convenience.

I experience other people’s art as if I don’t understand it, i.e. as alien and as incomprehensible as it really is.  My reactions are mostly gut reactions and a projection of my own ideas: I cannot ultimately see the world without my own biases or perspective, and so instead of understanding we must satisfy ourselves with the feeling of having understood, or at the very least, the idea that we tried.  The work exists as it is, but there is no perspective-less perspective from which to view it.  Restoring context goes some way to remedying this problem, but cannot overcome it completely.

Misunderstanding is the basis for many a creation, and could be seen as a form of memetic mutation.  By failing to re-create the original meaning or context we veer off in a new direction, using religious icons as placemats, and wartime propaganda as wall hangings.

Just as objects signify contexts, images themselves become symbols of particular ideas and associated, inferred contexts and characteristics.  It is these implicit associations that advertising uses to hijack our experiences.  Products themselves come to signify desirable contexts and experiences as they are consistently shown to us in unison, and certain colours, shapes or fonts come to signify brand markings.

If reproduction destroys original meaning and gives rise to multiple interpretations, then we could say that copying processes delete objectivity and replace it with infinite subjectivity.  But if context is also time-specific, then by virtue of them being old, we can never experience the true meaning of an artwork, even if it hangs in its right place.  It’s not that reproduction in the mechanical sense destroys meaning, but it is reproduction from one mind to another where meaning is lost, irrespective of spacial and temporal context.  Mechanical reproduction simply aided this realisation.  This becomes immediately evident when you publicly display your work.  No amount of showing it in the context of your studio, or wherever else you created it will help change the fact that the meaning people derive from the work is a product of the work itself and their own minds.  Since there cannot be an experience without one or the other it becomes the destiny of any idea or artwork to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and remixed, both purposefully and accidentally.

Meaning, if any is present in an artwork, is only ever loosely attached, in the experiential sense – there is no universal, transmittable meaning (no universally convincing arguments).

Harmony

04.02.18

Either I take photographs to see how they look relative to the reality they are derived from, in which case harmony is achieved through accepting the process and the surprising outcomes, or I take photographs because I have a relatively clear (in comparison to my own hazy imagination) idea of how I want a photograph or series to look, in which case harmony in a more obvious way, is about matching the intention with the end results.

Whether our intentions are explicit or not, our sense of satisfaction or dissonance arises from whether or not our actions and their results meet our expectations.  Having an implicit or subconscious expectation can sometimes be the root cause of a problem; a meta-problem that must first be solved before the real work can begin.  If I am unaware of my reasons for doing anything, harmony and dissonance can seem to be fleeting and unexplainable, or else, we attribute them to factors other than our intentions.  In such a case, a creative practice may serve as an exercise in enlightenment, that is, in illuminating our drives, values and desires, elevating them to a conscious level.  But unconscious trial and error is a painstaking way of going about realising what our dreams are, and it runs the risk of returning a result way too late to be of any practical use.  Better late than never, sooner rather than later.  It is much simpler to sit down and take a moment to define our initial goals and values so that they may guide us in advance, instead of simply notifying us when we make a wrong turn.

So from a creative perspective, we ultimately seek to achieve harmony in various ways: with our environment, with our tools and materials, with our ideas, our creations and ourselves.  In the same way we might consider an un-retouched photograph or perhaps even a photo-realistic painting to be “true”, in the sense that the lines, shapes, light, tone, texture and colours are sufficiently matched or appropriate, there is also truth in artistic creation when we consider this alternative concept of harmony.

Truth is also about our personal interests and perspectives, so that if we find ourselves engaged in activities that we are not really interested in or find inspiring, it doesn’t resonate with us, or “ring true”.  In this case there is dissonance between our desires or direction, and what we are doing or where we are going.  Even from an emotional perspective we experience these different kinds of truth in the same way, i.e on an instinctual, gut-feeling level. Does an idea make you want to jump out of your seat, stop whatever you are doing and get to work, or does it make you want to stay in bed on a Monday morning, and worse still, make you feel worthless?

Most of us don’t consider ourselves to be artists, but if we think of art as being a deliberate, creative endeavour based on truth (harmony) and beauty, then in carving out the lives we want to live we become artists, and we develop a sensitivity to what is true and what is not.  The title is not simply a label for the sake of labelling, but it is rather a reminder of our responsibility to ourselves and of our role in taking deliberate steps to actively achieve what it is we have previously and explicitly stated that we wish to achieve.  In this sense, a job title is a call to action, and a personal mission statement, rather than simply a description of some task you regularly carry out for financial reward.