Monday, June 15, 2009

Technology becomes art

OASIS (HD) - sand from yunsil heo on Vimeo.

And art creates a collective experience.

OASIS from yunsil heo on Vimeo.

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Monday, June 8, 2009


I'm heading back to my friend's mother's house soon, helping with more of the cleanout process. For those of you who may not know, I’m helping a friend sort throw his mom’s house (she moved out to LA to live with family when it became clear she could no longer live alone). As we’re doing this task it has become painfully clear that she’s a compulsive hoarder. For example, we’re finding piles of newspaper from 40 years ago with family letters from dead relatives stuck in the pages, all hidden in boxes full of grocery bags. It’s meticulous, exhausting work.

The last time we were there, as in previous visits, it was hard physical, mental and emotional work, lots of sorting and processing, lots and lots and lots of throwing away. We were deep in the middle of piles of 20 year old paper when he said, “I’m so afraid of doing something wrong here.” I asked him what he meant because, frankly, the only real failure would be not to throw out as much as we could.

“I’m afraid I’m going to throw out something important, something that matters. I mean, I understand the money stuff well enough, I can figure out which old bills I should probably keep and which I can probably throw away, but this stuff?” He gestured to a pile of birthday cards signed by people he’d never met, a pile of cards like hundreds of other piles we had found, shoved into bags and the bags then shoved onto shelves or into shoe boxes. “I don’t know what to do with that stuff.”

I listened to his frustration and confusion, then realized that the closest I had to an answer lay in my college years

My degree is in folklore. An important part of my training was that context is king. An artifact, a song or a story without context loses much of its meaning – it needs to exist in the context of its culture, you need to record its setting and the culture around it for that scrap of human creation to have independent meaning. Admittedly, we’ve stripped context away from much of our folklore – who really remembers the culture that surrounded Little Red Riding Hood anymore – but the folklorist’s job is to capture context as well as cultural artifacts and memes. So when my friend bemoaned the loss of the physical objects of his mother’s life, I asked him about their context.

“If you don’t know the context of these cards, then all they are is stuff. Things. Sure, they are some of the accumulated matter of her life, but they don’t have meaning. If she isn’t asking you to send them out then it isn’t your job to find out who they're from or if they once mattered. And most of these people signed their first and last names, there’s no personal touch here; the cards that were personal had at least a note. Otherwise there’s no context on which to base any assumptions about the relationships.”

I pointed to an old picture he found, probably 125 years old, two young women leaning against each other in a lovely posed portrait. “We don’t know who they are either, but we at least have the context of the approximate time when this picture was taken, that it meant enough that not only your mother but your grandmother saved it and saved it carefully, in an envelope in a drawer. There is more meaning in this one item than in the stacks of cards she saved in old ziplocks. Look! She even saved the cards from businesses she dealt with.

"What matters here is that she saved stuff. And now you have the job of saving the parts of her that will matter to you and your sister.”

He sighed and we went back to the hard work of cleaning out a life. I don’t think my comments were much comfort to him and frankly, I know I was being too black-and-white in my response. I’m sure it wasn’t the answer he was looking for. But I kept thinking about the need for context in our lives.

It isn’t just our belongings or traditions that need to exist in context. We need a context around us to feel understood. When our context is removed we can be, quite literally, lost.

It's sometimes good to be out of context. Travel does that. When we go to new places, have new experiences, we are forced to see ourselves out of context and so have an opportunity to learn something new about ourselves. But we need some kind of context to come back to, some setting within which we can hold our identity. Employee, lover, artist, citizen, prisoner, something.

We build context around us automatically to help us know who we are. We build it physically (our homes, the expression of who we are by how we decorate, how we dress, our tattoos, and the physical artifacts we chose to keep (like old cards)) and we build it internally by the stories we tell and the myths we internalize. It's our internal context that can support us most effectively throughout our lives. For now I want to think about the stories we tell about ourselves; the myths will have to wait for another time.

Those stories that most readily display our internal context are stories about identity.
"When I was a kid I wanted to be a..."
"I love that sports team. Do you remember the time they...? I was so happy!"
"Hi. I'm a Scorpio. What's your sign?"
All of these personal contexts tell the listener something about the speaker, their place in the world and the world they come from.

I suspect, however, that the stories that help us understand our own context most vitally are the stories we rarely tell, the stories that live inside us as glowing embers we can gaze upon to remember who we are. Our secret selves. The stories we whisper to our loves and the stories I won't write here. The stories that feed us when we are most in need. All of those stories have context, too, and set us in time and space with great moment. They are our own, personal versions of once upon a time and happily ever after. Within these stories we are our own heroes and villains, rescuers and distressed. And these stories are set in an age (childhood, college, old age) and locale (a secret fort, a dark alley, a room with a ticking clock) that is never anything but epic. Additionally, like an ancient ritual, these stories can only be told in a certain context - to a new lover when the world is being rebuilt in the context of that love. In an AA meeting. In a job interview, when we describe ourselves as we wish we really were and we hope they believe us. At high school or college reunions. All of those stories exist only in their own context and each kind of stories displays some aspect of our secret hearts.

My friend is afraid of making mistakes and throwing out the wrong thing, but really he can do no harm, because he continues to tell the stories of his mother, to keep her present in his own life (his own context) and the physical objects are simply accessories to the real work of once upon a time. Just as we must maintain the context of our own lives as we tell our stories, build ourselves anew, and leave our own card collections for our children to puzzle over.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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