2016 > Climbing Cappanawalla

Climbing Cappanawalla

The trail coils adjacent to the loosely paved back road, “Burren Way” as it is called, leading past the base of Mount Cappanawalla, is marked by decades-old tire tracks, carving into the wild grass to form parallel dirt grooves, winding and ascending at an almost absurdly steep 60 degree incline. The path meanders for at least a half mile without any markers that would signify a destination ahead. The only index along the way is difficult to ignore: a sea of limestone debris to the right of the path. There are no other signifying indicators that would direct anyone to venture off the winding trail. Any casual observation would indicate that this field of scattered rock formations is certainly not a path, particularly due to the steeper ascent at the tremendous base of the mountain to which it leads. One might initially consider traversing this non-path as an act of non-sense, not just insofar as acknowledging that taking this path would assume an attitude of sense without ground, but also in the most empirical aspect of a physical limestone terrain that consists of literally fragmented and dispersed foundation.

Why have I never continue along where those tire tracks lead up the carved path that curls around the base? Why have I always wandered off that path to the vast uncertain non-path instead? Or, if it is a path, it is more akin to being swallowed into the sweeping mouth of Galway Bay than wading along a winding creek. This new non-path, this field of openness calls forth. It is smooth space; deterritorialized space, calling one closer to skim along what feels like the edges of chaos.

I lived in Ballyvaughan once before, seven years ago. I was a post-baccalaureate student at Burren College of Art, which houses the studio art program for National University of Ireland, Galway. My intentions for enrolling in the program was to engage in an immersive studio academic environment and hopefully leverage that experience into enrolling in an MFA program, which I eventually completed at Ohio State University a few years later. While I was studying in Ballyvaughan, my approach to artmaking certainly did begin to open up from a more rigid, conceptual structure, to a looser and more emergent way of working, But I still thought of an artist’s practice as one that involved sitting around in the studio hoping to discover an idea that was out there waiting to be harnessed and formulated into art. This is the conventional way of understanding how art is made. I assumed that everyone else was making art this way, so I should as well. The mindset was that art is different; artists are different. Artists are unique in that we possess creativity, again, in the conventional sense. With that creativity we discover what is out there though harnessing our ‘gift’ or ‘talent’. In a way, I was going along with the traditional narrative that artists are unique because artmaking is radically different from everyday life. What I failed to realize back then was that the problem is not that art needs to be different from everyday life. It is that everyday life itself could be approached differently, and as such, it could be seen as one in the same with art.

There are three routes to the studio from the village center two miles away. The first is a narrow, two-lane corkscrew road, which is about the width of a one-way side-street in the United States. Take away sidewalks and add a 60 mile-per-hour speed limit, and this road is a series of near-death experiences for any pedestrian courageous enough to follow the most direct route to the workspace. The second route to the studio is called the “wood loop,” which meets up with the Burren Way. It is the back route, and it offers every quintessential aspect of Irish charm imaginable along the way, including sheep grazing in the front yard of cottages, the small cottage housing the elementary school with an adjacent rugby and football pitch, and a cow pasture teeming with landmines of perfectly rounded dung that are easily mistaken for polished rocks scattered along the field. One learns very quickly to avoid stepping on any rocks whatsoever in this area. And this is just the first half-mile of the morning commute.
Once this unconventional village-path becomes a more concentrated, narrowed route, any indicators of the built environment ostensibly vanish. The trail winds through the more proper elements of the Burren—a surface of mud, grass and randomly strewed limestone rocks. The path ascends around one corner to a moon-like landscape diffused by the peculiarity of various plant species from both arid and temperate origins. And then only a few steps later, the path curves and dips into the lush, dark, heaviness of a miniature tropical forest, as if merging from one ecological microcosm to another in a matter of moments. Such incongruence is commonplace in the Burren.

The third path is the most ambiguous insofar as it is not actually path but a kind of field, in which one has to be willing to get lost in order to gain a new kind of bearing. This is the field that requires a certain ‘mindset’ to embrace. It is a field of experimentation, of courage to let the passage breakdown and fail at many points. It is a field of relying not merely on the self, but opening up to the various elements that in their own way are active in participating with the encounter of the passage. Most importantly, beyond toying with the loss of direction, the field calls forth an immersion that involved giving up any sense of order in its navigation. It is a field that encourages a loss of the self. It is not a conventional, meditative or contemplative approach of becoming lost in thought; the field invites a new way of subject-less thinking. In this respect it is difficult to find order in movement and in language. It is an experience that approaches pure difference. It is a struggle to reconcile the fact that language will always prove inadequate in describing such difference. This kind of difference cannot be articulated, it cannot be apprehended.

The Burren is an environment infused with transformation. The limestone terrain is exposed by its history—a past literally embedded into its present. From the calcium-rich skeletal remains of marine life etched into this once Mediterranean sea-bed from 300 million years ago, to the shales, slitstones and limestone carried from the north through glaciation 20,000 years ago and arbitrarily deposited along the land, the region is a convergence of displacements. It is a paradoxical, zig-zagging historical process of Arctic and tropical formations, which from a viewpoint today suggests stability and fixity in its current temperate presence. But this is an illusion. The Burren is unremittingly undergoing a process of change, just as everything in the world; it is always in flux, in flow, and becoming something else. Sometimes the speeds and intensities of its transformation occur at a greater rate, such as the spring two years ago when months of heavy rains and winds created acute erosion causing massive rock slides. Other times the process is more gradual, but still noticeable in a human lifespan—the effects of cultural and technological change as another form of productive process, or climate change as a different, catastrophic demonstration of geo-morphological shifts. These are material processes; encounters with forces and intensive differences (or intensities) of the chaos the world. Everything is affected by the vast multiplicity of assemblages that form the world. Human thought is no different.

“Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but a fundamental ‘encounter’… it is opposed to recognition” (Deleuze, 1994, p. 139). There is much to unpack in this passage. It asserts that thinking is an inherently creative act. Thought is shocked or jolted through an “encounter” with “something in the world that forces us.” What is that something, that force, if it is not to be discovered but rather created? It is not a recognizable image of thought. It is not preconceived, nor is it presupposed. It is not an picture based on identification, classification, or hierarchy. Those are the images that constrain thought, or constrain thinking of thought differently. Instead it opens up a new approach toward experiencing life. We are not at the center of existence as human beings. We are subjects among other active subjects or participants in the world (human, non-human, organic, non-organic), not of other objects. And Cappanawalla mountain exists as a part of that productive process just as humans do. It is affected by the forces, and speeds, and intensities, just as we are. Its movements are just much slower than ours, through its creation 500 million years ago, to its reshaping from volcanic activity 15 million years ago, to glaciation in the past 150,000 years, and various stages of tectonic plate movements, erosion, and sedimentation that continues today, and will continue for millions of years to come.

This is not a composition of stable entities. It is a processes of interaction between disparate elements forming a compound of encounters and relations. It resists attempts to grasp or define what it is, but rather it is more productive to approach such a process with a question like “what can it do?” or “how does it function?” As humans we are not just an assemblage of the contingent virtual processing of genes becoming a being, but also the contingent processes of becoming that emerges through social, cultural, and political dynamics, and which alter and shape of the ongoing assemblage of a person. Thus, such an emergence is not simply between physical entities. Rather they are the interactions of systems and structures, the words and meanings, the desires and expressions that shape not just our existence, but the existence of everything in the world. The contingencies involved with these interactions are always a continual, emergent process with indeterminate boundaries. They are always in motion, always changing, always emerging—constantly enacting and shifting from within.

My experience, and my experiment traversing Cappanawalla every day was a convergence of a multiplicity of encounters. But it was not an attempt to converge art and life, as I may have tried to achieve eight years ago when I first climbed the mountain. In fact I distinctly remember standing atop the peak plateau at that time back in 2008, waiting for something to happen, just as I had been doing 1000 feet below sitting in my studio earlier in the morning. I was waiting for art to be discovered, as if it was a transcendent entity that simply required me to look hard enough, or to concentrate more intently to locate it. I find it interesting that back then I felt that this struggle took place on that peak, as if I felt that it required a positioning from above to have a full panoramic view of the structure of the world down below, or perhaps as if that would offer a completeness in thought that I needed for discovering what I was looking for in art. That is why so little actually did happen on Cappenawalla eight years ago. I was searching for unity, for cohesiveness, for order, rather than embrace unknowing—to undo what I think I know, or what I think I ought to know. In fact, the most productive process is to acknowledge that we do not know, or perhaps, simply not even paying attention to knowledge in such a situation.

The two most direct paths from the village to the studio are very distinctive routes. The wooded loop of the Burren Way has arrows spray-painted on the stones and wooden posts to assure that one is going in the right direction. Trails of stones piled a foot or so high along the edges act as subtle guardrails to ensure that one stays on track. Like any city, town, or rural village, the paths are constructed to create order out of chaos—to territorialize the overwhelming vastness of the space. Even the field of limestone debris that covers Mount Cappanawalla shows hints of that territorialization. Trails in the heavy grass muddied-worn direct a common passage from hikers in the recent past. Some rocks seem to have shifted into a trail formation, hinting at intentional repositioning by humans over the years to offer a less treacherous passage. Or perhaps this appearance it is just my rigid image of thought envisioning and sensing order where there is none. Maybe I am so conditioned to search for spaces of territorialization, spaces of comfort amidst such openness, that I create the illusion of a pathway that seems most convenient, or most familiar.

But this time, eight years later, I resist taking that path, or at least the route that I think I see—the one that is already carved out for me. I am exploring a different passage. One that is unfamiliar, where the virtual emerges through experience, through experimentation, through letting go of my desperately tight grip on needing to know. Potentiality emerges through this openness to transformation—through becoming something else, something new. My daily experiences on Cappanawalla become one of many exercises of relinquishing that subjective perspective that says “I am the one who creates.” Instead, the question is changed perhaps to “what might the world be like such that things that were not there before can come into existence?” (May, 2013). With this attitude, the perspective shifts from one that is subjective to one that is ontological—a creative ontology.

The intention of these most recent treks up Cappanawalla was not to seek out or discover of some creative thing pre-existing or waiting to be found. My experience was that of a different kind of creation—one that emerges from pure difference rather than recognition. There are potentialities that are real but they exist in a way that cannot be directly apprehended through perception. They have not been actualized, and they may never be actualized. That is the great challenge of artmaking, of learning, of living, of thought. Sometimes that potentiality emerges into something that we can grasp or understand. Often times it is never actualized in experience. The only way we can continue to embrace becoming is through creating more experiences, to continue to ‘roll the dice’ in thinking differently, and always looking for new ways to experiment in the world.

We can continue to know what everyone else knows, and remain on the paths that have been organized for us. At least that is comfortable. Or we can carve a slit in fence, or scale it, or burrow under it and take a thousand paths into the unknown, the unfamiliar, the unsettling. We can continue to create compositions of experimenting in experience by embracing a push toward chaos, and toward the creation of new paths—ones that might draw out something from the realm of infinite potentials into the realm of our actual experiences. What if we embrace play, and chance and risk? What if we push towards undoing knowledge to create a different way of living?
This is a shift toward an aesthetic thought that is one in the same with artmaking. It embraces the courage and persistence as the process continually and productively breaks down, and we learn, as Beckett (1995) says, we learn to “fail better” (p. 132). And we continue to fail better until the potentialities and intensities of artmaking, of thinking, of living emerge and actualize something new, something that does work. This is an embracing of the repetition of the productive elements of past failures that create collective encounters of experience in learning. It is the past embedded in the present and fossilized into the new.

The fragile ground of scattered, limestone fragments present a newly familiar sensation of balance, placement, and pivot. The field appears so stable, but each step is a toss of the dice. Some of the surface is firmly embedded into the ground, but most of the stones lay atop one another, hinged as precariously as they were deposited from melting glaciers thousands of years ago. It seems like a treacherous passage, with jagged rocks teetering atop one another, hundreds of pounds, tilting to another side with a dense clunking sound that I have not heard anywhere else in my life.

Like so many sounds, smells, and feelings of the unique chilly-humid atmosphere seeping into my skin and bones, the experience of physical embodiment is specific to the Burren—unfamiliar in the years since I last visited, but instantly and eerily familiar when I returned.
Exploring the Burren is like encountering a force much like that ‘something in the world that makes us think.’ It is impossible to grasp, it can only be intuited, it can only be palpated.
I have never been more productive in an artistic practice as I had in those four weeks at the artist residency in my return to Ballyvaughan. I surmise it is because I was unable to distinguish where everyday life ended and art began, or vice versa. I am convinced that is the result of specific kind of attitude, which opened all of my everyday experiences into artmaking, and open all of my art practice into life. There was no trick to it. The solution was not simply to go live in Ireland for a bit, or get out into nature. In fact, I spent hours each day in the studio. I spent hours walking through villages and the nearby city of Galway. I made paintings and drawings, I made sculptures and installations, I made photographs, I made site-specific works, I made performances, I made videos. I made them in so many of the places and spaces that I visited. I made at least one artwork a day, an entwinement of art and life.

The only explanation I have as to why this experience was so different is that I didn’t stop to think about whether the activity I was engaged in was considered art or life. I just did it! It was unselfconscious. It was not about categorizing one thing or another. It was noyt about worrying if what I was doing would amount to anything—whether it was something that could be called art, or something that could be called time well spent in life. Those thoughts did not cross my mind. Looking back now, if I were to attribute defining categories or identification to what I made, I could certainly say that many of the projects that I made did not emerge really as art—not in the form of a finished, sensible or presentable outcome. But there were so many elements that kept repeating as I continued to experiment. The productive residue of the failures eventually became something else. It might have been something that may be called everyday life, or something that might have been called art. I am avoiding calling it anything, at least for now.

These were all ideas that I had been exploring prior to this artist residency in Ireland. This was not some magical epiphany that unfolded over four weeks. The questions for art and teaching remain still as they did when I left. But in order to move forward in continuing to address those questions I had to experiment for myself. I have to practice what I am teaching. And, as the form of this practice-based writing now makes evident, I have not let go of engaging destabilizing situations that open up the risk, the fear, and the unfamiliar. But it also opens up the new, the invigorating, the life—as one with research, as one learning, as one with art.

Essay