A Game of Statues: Amanda Palmer, Persona, Expression and Life

When I was in Kindergarten, in a school called Adventure Place, we used to play something called “A Statue Game.”

I knew it as The Statue Game. We would listen to this song–which I now know to have been created by Sandy Offenheim and Family–move around and when the song would tell us to stop, we would freeze in mid-motion. We couldn’t move and the song would tease us, play games with our minds by implanting the suggestion of itchiness or needing to scratch our heads, and then it would start again and we would be allowed to dance and hop around as we did before. It turns out that this music and this game are still being played to this very day: and it is a fact doesn’t surprise me.

There is a reason why I’m bringing this up and I will get to it soon. During Amanda’s Art of Asking TED Talk, we got to see a picture and a little bit of a demonstration of Amanda in her previous occupation as a living statue. This is not the first time I heard her mention this: chances are I probably read it on her Blog or in her Introduction to The Absolute Death. But there were two things that struck me about her time as a living statue.

The first is how, in a way, we are all conditioned to be living statues. At least, that is what looking at “Let’s Play a Statue Game” as an adult makes me feel. I mean, think about it: the song and game is really rather instructional. It teaches children pacing and rhythm. It delineates a time for play and then moments of formalism: of needing to be still and having to listen. Making it a group game also socializes children into a group calisthenic: tapping into that unconscious place where we all unknowing imitate and synchronize with each other. It teaches a time for play and stillness, but it also allows us the space and the capacity to laugh at ourselves. I’d argue that it is one of those early methods of making social interaction into a game that everyone plays along with and is both half-joking, and half-seriousness.

Yet what really grabs my attention is that rituals like “The Statue Game” encourage us to build those early personas: a social facade that allows us to interact with fellow human beings. Personas are not illusions nor are they fake in any way. They are just different aspects of us or personalized mask-tools that we use in different situations of interaction. We make these masks from childhood and things like “The Statue Game” allow give us the basic tools, mental shapes, and situations to do so. In other words, you can look at all of this as an experiment not only in socialization, but in communal art as well.

Of course, some of us have a lot of difficulty with these games. Some children do move under suggestion of the song. Other children have slower reaction time or a different sense of movement, balance, and rhythm. And some just plain get itchy regardless of any song or suggestion. Yet the rules of “The Statue Game” still have an effect on them: they either learn the communal rhythm or make one of their own.

That is what artists do.

So let’s get back to Amanda Palmer. I have imagined her, and now seen images of her as this eight-foot living bride statue holding out a flower and trying to make eye-contact with those people who passed her by. On an intellectual level, I think it was brilliant and an excellent metaphor for an artist learning to keep being relatable to a prospective audience.

Also, it was very subversive of her. Think about it like this: what is an eight-foot living statue of a bride? It–and she–are symbols of of a communal making: an archetype of certain expectations and theoretically immutable traditions. Yet there Amanda was, in a role of monetary exchange granted, using eye-contact and a simple gesture of holding out a flower to appeal to an individual on a basic, human, empathic level. It is ingenious: just as ingenious as making a game for children teaching them how to learn to act as statues and feeling people at the same time. And she was taking that philosophy and applying it to the rest of her work.

She appeals to people directly: or as directly as one artist can to her audience. In addition, she takes the role of a statue–of an untouchable celebrity–and subverts it to remain relatable and to appeal her present and potential fans. Originally, what she did with a statue pose and costume she now does through Kickstarter Projects and her Blog. But one lesson that seems paramount for me is that she originally managed to create this appeal, to hone and develop her own art of asking, but not saying a word. She simply held out a hand and expressed emotion through her facial features and her eyes. It is an experiment in empathy: in relating to people through song, action, and expression through gesture.

Now I’m going to look at how this relates to me.

In a similar way to how her own Blog and Kickstarters function, I have my own 8-foot statue through Mythic Bios. I have admitted that I combine a lot of myself and my observations to make this Blog. I’ve also admitted that I make this Blog to order to find an audience and to relate to them. However much I’m successful is a subjective question. I mean, after all, this Blog still accords me a certain level of distance from everyone else and the role that divides us is still there. I am a writer and you are an audience and sometimes we correspond and sometimes we don’t.

This also functions the same for me offline. One thing that “The Statue Game” does teach children who grow into adults is that there is a distance between us–as fellow statues–but also a closeness in our similar natures. In our statue roles and in a best case scenario, we are polite and formal with a certain social ingrained amount of common decency. But when we get to know each other and playtime happens, we bounce around and jump and sing and dance and cuddle and do all of things kinds of things.

For me, it goes further. Sometimes I feel more like a Weeping Angel from Doctor Who: in which eye contact will freeze me into my vaguely uncomfortable distantly formal polite statue-form, but when others turn their backs I am more like my crazy, warped creative self. Then people leave and I eat the time potential that they leave behind: writing up whatever I glean in different kinds of stories.

Amanda mentioned in her TED Talk that sometimes when she was a statue, people came her way who probably hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks. The Doctor once described the Weeping Angels as “the loneliest beings in the universe since their quantum-lock reaction makes it difficult for them to socialise.” It gets too easy to be the statue and to regain animation when other people are no longer around: a statue that forgets to play or can only dance by themselves now.

https://i1.wp.com/www.caddicks.com/blog/wp-content/weeping-angel-hands-e1351558624422.jpg

I’ve been, and I am one of those statues. So I ask myself what I would feel when someone like Amanda Palmer can actually see through that facade and acknowledge my feelings? I would … feel some discomfort, to be perfectly honest. A statue is often also how we like to present ourselves to the world. And having someone see how I feel makes me feel very … vulnerable.

Don’t misunderstand. I have a lot of people who just see the statue or simply do not get what they see, or ascribe characteristics to it that frankly do not exist. Whenever I acknowledge them, I have plenty of ignorant and misguided people telling me how I feel to last for sometime. But having someone see me for what I am–feeling as though they can see my anger, bitterness, sadness, awkwardness, and general bullshit–makes me feel vulnerable.

I’ve been taught to view the world a potentially hostile place where you always need to have your guard-up–where you always need to save face–and where vulnerability is seen as an exploitable weakness … even when you want, and have the need, to reach out.

On the other hand, I am also an artist. I can write about all of the above through the medium of my Blog and find people who relate who can relate to at least some of it. Artists, to some extent, are empathic beings and have the potential to take their statue-form and open it up to relation. I imagine extroverts and positive, optimistic thinkers who wholeheartedly trust people are better at this.

I am obviously not one of these.

However, I can cheat. I can pretend to be optimistic for a while. I can, as Kurt Vonnegut warns, become what I pretend to be. And I don’t have to pretend to like what I do: because that much of it is true. Also, there are many ways to express vulnerability as strength and I’ve already found a few of these. And as long as I can express it in the best way I know how–through writing–then I will be okay. But more importantly, I am building up to the point where I can ask for help when I need it.

Make no mistake, if I want to move forward in my creative endeavours I will one day need help and I will ask for it. And if I can express vulnerability to the point that Amanda Palmer as: to the point of making other people smile, cry, or feel an uncomfortable, awkward, and twisting form of sympathy–of realness–then I will have begun to do my own job.

So when you get right down to it, and look past all the mixed metaphors, analogies, and references here I’m going to say this: for just as Amanda Palmer states that there should be no shame in asking for help, there should also be no shame in striking an honest pose … itching, sneezing, and all.

P.S. I just want to illustrate what happens when Weeping Angels play the Statue Game.

It’s not very pretty. Or maybe it is. They did ask for it after all.

The Man That Makes Horror into a Science-Fiction of the Ridiculously Sublime

H.P. Lovecraft envisioned a universe where humanity is a small minuscule particle of sanity in a vast morass of evil and madness. In this kind of universe normalcy is an exception and not the commonality: where humanity is either ignored by vast alien intelligences, or horrifically used by malign entities.

Even trying to understand this vastly liquid and alien universe beyond human understanding is dangerous because the person that tries will go utterly insane … or cease to be human entirely. This is a view of the universe created by Lovecraft in his works and you can see how difficult it would be to make a television program out of such a thing or even a movie.

And what’s worse is that Lovecraft was born before the time of Gene Roddenberry: the latter who decreed in his Star Trek science fiction universe that all aliens have to be portrayed as humanoid in order to convey similar human expressions of emotion. Lovecraft’s creatures aren’t even that, and the most polite things you can say about them–when you can envision what they are from how they are described–is that they are the stuff of nightmares. We don’t even have the monster to relate to in this strange place just behind our own existence.

So how can a viewer relate to a universe that is terrifying beyond human comprehension?

I believe that a human answer to a Lovecraftian universe is Doctor Who.

The Doctor is basically Christmas-incarnate with nonsensical wonderfulness, ingenious bluffing skills, and a bad-ass core of fire and ice. And when I say he is Christmas-incarnate, I don’t mean that he’s Christian but that he is just the embodiment of an event that you look forward to at least once a year.

He is a renegade Time Lord on the run that understands time and existence far differently than we do but is light-hearted enough, and wise enough, to appreciate the little things that the grandiose horror of such inhuman non-humanoid horrors like the Daleks miss every time. The Doctor lives in and adapts to an intrinsically frightening, potentially nihilistic universe by being as ridiculous and as tangential as possible: while unifying everything into a haphazard way that–quite miraculously and somehow–works.

It may be that he is insane: and by our human standards he might be. Hell, even by his former fellow Time Lords’ standards, he is probably considered crazy. It doesn’t hurt that he Regenerates into different people each time when he dies, refuses to fight with a gun, and that he travels through time and space, or that he is over eight or nine hundred years old his time. He is the weird. He is the strange. But he is also the laughable: the person the viewer laughs with but also sympathizes with.

The Doctor is the Other with a very humanoid face: but he is still the Other. I appreciate the irony of this statement on at least two levels in that I use the Other as someone who is other than human, and that there is a possible back-story to the Doctor’s character in that he was once an older Time Lord and founder Time Lord society called The Other. But more than that, The Doctor–whose real name we never know and we fear the unknown–is portrayed as the champion of normalcy and sanity against the more destructive and twisted elements of the universe that humanity doesn’t understand.

At the same time though, he challenges normalcy and sanity through his mostly human Companions: changing their lives forever in what they see with him. He shows them that the alien universe, for all it challenges human preconceptions, still has wonders and isn’t always evil. Sometimes, it is quite relatable–the other aliens, worlds, and stars–and although not humanocentric, humanity is definitely a part of the strange and entertaining mosaic.

I’m sure that there have been other articles and essays about The Doctor and the Lovecraftian. Certainly, some older series of books put them both in the same universe: including run ins with the Great Old Ones and so forth. But even if you look at The Doctor’s universe and the villains within as influenced by Lovecraftian literature, I think the thing that really hits home for me–when I look out at how large and terrifying and insensible the world can be–is the image of The Doctor as a hero: armed against all that strangeness and eldritch horror with only his telephone box-fixed TARDIS, his sonic screwdriver, some strange suit, a new face, daring, and a whole lot of curiosity.

And somehow, when I think about it like that, he is one of the few heroes that can make me smile–make me glad to see him–each and every time.

Now, I wonder who or what will be the answer to a Vonnegut universe …

Ice-Nine Mornings and Vonnegut Nights

I’d only heard his name in passing as I read other works of fiction and science-fiction. I’m not even sure how my girlfriend got me to start reading Kurt Vonnegut: what the precise details of that moment were like but I remember other details.

It was summer of last year. I was still in the process of (procrastinating) writing my Master’s Thesis and driving myself crazy. I’d finished reading Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game–or Magister Ludi if you’d like–and I found that once I did I wasn’t really interested in reading anything else of his. But I was starving for reading material: so much so I didn’t even know that I was.

I don’t exactly remember when my girlfriend and I started talking about Cat’s Cradle, but we did and I really wanted to read it. But as I write this I remember that it had to do with her introducing me to Vonnegut’s made-up religion of Bokononism–of the concept of a karass as a strange unification of people under God or divine influence, and especially a granfalloon: the creation of a forced or “false” group of people who really have nothing in common whatsoever but–again–something forced or artificial. I’d had some personal experiences with both–and it is hilarious and fitting just how fictional concepts make human nature and interaction easier to understand–and I wanted to know more about the book from where it all came from.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find her copy. So I gave in and borrowed it from York’s library. As I was reading it and making commentary on the way as I usually do, all my girlfriend really told me at the time was that she found it “cute” that I thought I could predict how a Kurt Vonnegut novel would end or even continue.

She was right.

What can I tell you? That summer, Kurt Vonnegut–or “Grandpa” as my girlfriend likes to call him–exposed me to a world of black, black humour and rendered spectacularly the banal frailty and stupidity of the human race in such a way that was immensely entertaining. His “what-the-fuck” moments were plenty and awfully true to the strangeness of life. I started Cat’s Cradle slow. It was a deceptive little bugger: with each chapter little more than a few pages for the most part. Then as I got towards the middle I consumed each page with voraciousness and a notable lack of mercy or pity.

After that there was an old, tattered, and well-loved copy of Mother Night for my consideration: where what we consider war crimes and human atrocity, stupidity, and uniqueness essentially and cunningly “fuck you the fuck up” and your preconceptions too. The best lesson I got out of the thing that I read as I took the bus to school, lay in our bed, and even rode with my friends to a table-top role-playing game session with Lego is to be careful of what you pretend to be, because you might become it.

I remember mornings where my girlfriend forced me to go meet my friends for gaming weekends and those books accompanied me with lunch. I didn’t think about my looming school project, but I learned from Grandpa Vonnegut instead–my cynical, grumpy, literary grandfather–about life. I don’t remember the last Vonnegut book I read. It was about a man who was a former soldier and he taught at a college close to a prison. I never got farther than the chapter with him and his class looking at old and failed perpetual motion machines found in an attic.

I remember that part well. I was riding by myself back down two buses from York Region back downtown from said gaming session and the serious work around it  :). It was the bus I took on Bloor in the late warm summer night: under the amber artificial lighting of the bus, the ambiance of the passing streetlights outside, the fading blue darkness in the sky. and a metal framed red-purple seat. I put that book on hold to read A Song of Ice and Fire–based on my friends’ constant pestering that I needed to–and I never picked it up again. I wish I had.

My Vonnegut education is not complete. I didn’t finish that book and my girlfriend doesn’t have Slaughterhouse Five. I hear Vonnegut likes to break the fourth wall so much after a while that he just gets fed up and it is less a spectacle and more a matter of a “I don’t give a damn” course. I can sympathize with that. I think I will be a grumpy old man like that when I’m old. I’m already half-way there with the grumpy part. Or maybe that’s crazy I’m thinking about.

I do think that you need to have time between readings of Vonnegut: just like you don’t want to eat bitter-sweet chocolate all the time: just occasionally and when the summer times come, and when you have a long bus ride far past two in the morning and you need some black therapeutic entertainment on the TTC … all the way home.