The balance between control and chaos is something that every artist does every day. There is a spectrum between lovers of control and lovers of chaos. Ranging from photographers to sculptors respectively. Then there are those that walk the line between both and calculate their findings. My mind immediately thinks of Pollack. How could it not? His work is the embodiment of this idea. Many greats teeter on the edge of something indescribable- some call it chaos, some call it madness, some call it transcendence. Whatever its name, it is the taste of which no serious artist can deny. It’s what feeds us, literally, because god knows it’s not the money, the cred, the outcomes. It’s the practice of connecting with something unnamable and great that feeds the desire to continue on creating. The practice includes attempting to get more, to contain more, to translate more of this unnamable element. For the purposes of this short written expose, I’ll call it chaos. Others may choose to call it light, life, love, lust, or the muse. The other side is control, calculation, precision, the human element.
My personal journey as a creative started with music and sound, as a percussionist in a 5th grade band. Anyone who has participated in band or music lessons of any kind, knows that when you are starting out, chaos reigns. You can’t quite get a grasp on what you are really supposed to be doing. Then you do it over and over and over again until your muscles start to remember on their own. The human element takes over. This can be truly beneficial, especially for the ears of the parents and participants involved. Control and precision is crucial to really doing anything other than making a racket. I went into the extreme realms of this, by competing in drum line competitions until the age of 18. To balance this “control” side of my creative practice out, I started writing short stories and poems. In those early days of writing, chaos once again reigned. I let myself free write and free associate. In college, exhausted by the competitiveness of music, I decided to side with a new found special interest and pursued a writing degree. I too learned rules and regulations, formulas and poetic meters. I read canon English literature and of course, got obsessed with surrealism, and post modernist tinkering and ideals. I wanted more of that chaos and I wanted to learn how to make it my own language. To harness it and grasp it at the tip of my pen. To finally be able to play the game of imagination and discovery with no limits. This too, eventually left me exhausted. How could I discover a new language all on my own? Without limitations, the words become so jumbled they stop making sense and instead of sounding like Lewis Carroll, I started sounding like… well… an amateur. It reminded me of being in 5th grade again, stumbling through sight reading snare drum rudiments. A cacophony of nothing but random beats, without reason, without a thread of rhythm, direction, or dynamics.
I continued to write and to play music, but began to be interested in films, photography and visual art. After getting a deadly infectious parasite in South America (another story for another time) that left me sick and faced with mortality, I started working towards sharing my work on a larger scale. A story I had written very much felt like a film. I became entranced by the magic of cinema as many do, and wanted to know how these visionary filmmakers seemed to capture so much in a seemingly simple time based medium. I went back to school for health resources and yet again, to delve into a creative practice, one that would change everything for me.
In film school I found that there were two kinds of filmmakers: photographers working with light and poets working with time. I aired quite loftily on the side of a poet working with time. Being at one of the only remaining experimental film programs left in the country- founded by Stan Brakhage at the University of Colorado, I had hoped to find a different way of communicating. I very quickly realized that my yearning for chaos directly butted heads with my profound need to control some aspect of what was happening in the frame. The thing I learned about film was that so many- so so many things can go wrong. And it wasn’t just pieces of paper on the line, or my parents ears enduring drum practice, it was time and money- all the money I could muster to pour into it. The stakes were higher for me and I had to create something that people could remotely wrap their minds around. With the craving for chaos, I mostly made experimental pieces, some with sync sound and dialog, but mostly I made films with an old Bolex, a faint inkling of an idea, an excursion into nature, and a box of old inks, paints and my grandmothers typewriter. I knew how to write poems, I knew how to write songs, so why shouldn’t I be able to make films and marry the two? This was my main intention going into it, to make visual poems married with my own musical scores. Then I got lost in the darkroom. With chemicals, with metrics, with undeveloped rolls of film that could be destroyed in a second flat if I didn’t take the right steps.
This intricate play of control and failure began to eat away at me until I felt like my screws were going loose and I might explode. It was a mixture of stress, time management, precision, inevitable failure, and chemical fumes that drove me out of my imagination and into the very real moment before me. To add on to this, I was also deeply invested in the digital and technical side of filmmaking- dealing with computers, editing software, SD cards, hard drives, and problem solving. My left brain had all but taken over, while my right brain craved the energy of those transcendent moments, the rushes I would get from capturing light and shadows at play- the plastic bag fluttering in the wind kind of scenarios. Those moments where I looked out of the viewfinder and into a mirror. That’s all I wanted. More of that. I wanted to lean further and further into chaos until the boundaries of self disappeared. What seemed to be my savior also became my unraveling. Many peers in my class would watch my film and say, “I don’t get it.” Some would connect with the moments I captured, others applauded it whether they really “got it” or not I don’t know. Most just “didn’t get it” and didn’t know what to say. “Why does it matter?” I thought? Of course with any art form there is a sense that when you’ve lost yourself in the art, your audience also gets lost, but you have to lead them through it or else the trick doesn’t work, they never find anything and they never find themselves in it. Many people look at Pollack and think it’s just a bunch of splatter paint, when in reality it is so carefully executed that no one on earth has been able to recreate its precision. But at the same time it’s complete and utter chaos, so stunningly beautiful and complex that you can’t help but breathe in the life of it, the movement. And there will always be those people that think it’s just splatter paint.
I wanted to puff up my ego and say, it’s “art,” it doesn’t have to necessarily tell an exact narrative. At the same time, it was frustrating. It was frustrating to put in the time and money and work and to not have a real critique like everyone else who made linear narrative films with casts and crews and scripts. Anyone who has gone to art school or has any creative degree can tell you how frustrating it is to feel like you aren’t getting through to others in the same way that you feel moved by the process. Many people drop out, switch majors, switch schools. Some people sputter through it, some people crack like an eggshell, but one way or another, everyone makes it up as they go.
Life as a creative is not easy. Everyone wants you to do stuff for free. We live in a world so heavily saturated by content, the title “artist” becomes synonymous with the social media marketing manager job description. You can’t be everything to everyone, but many times that’s what you have to do to scrape by. There are those that stay true to their craft, their intention, their unique vision, those that really truly make it, and I don’t just mean financially, they are also personally fulfilled by the work.
It’s not really about luck I don’t think (maybe a little bit), but it’s about striking a deal between chaos and control, the transcendent element and the human element. It’s about going through the gauntlet enough to know when to try your hand and when to let things fall. The lust for that frothy ocean of possibility must be capped and put on a slow drip. Too much medicine makes you sicker, for God’s sake. The key is there are rules and also, there are no rules.
My most successful film was also my most simple. It was a simple concept with constraints. It was executed with near technical ease and extreme amounts of vulnerability. It had people and voices and eyes to gaze into. It had just the right mix of experiment and chaos that shaped the way the film dances on the screen. In that spiraling unknown and fluctuating between playing my hand and letting things fall away, I had created something that people could connect with, but also had splashes of surprise. This was what I had been working towards. And in a way it was what I had been searching for creatively throughout my life. An etched description of what it was to create something. I was able to construct a 9 minute simulation full of real emotions, real people, real stories and real moments.
To walk that edge is not a faint hearted thing. To stray into each end of the spectrum is inevitable and composes a lesson worth learning. Creating art that resonates with people takes the willingness to adapt to the internal and external environments, to plunge into the depths of certain psychological torment and to come out the other side with an object riddled with humanity and sprinkled with chaos. It takes stepping out of perfectionism and into a split second where all could be lost. Because it’s in those moments that transcendence can occur and translations are possible.