An Exercise in Slow

Lately I’ve been writing some analysis papers for my Art Humanities class. So far, it has been an exercise in slow.

Based on my very limited experience, analyzing art involves a whole lot of time looking. Not necessarily a lot of time making brilliant observations. Not necessarily a lot of time writing things down. Mostly a whole lot of time looking at lines and shapes and colors until you (hopefully) notice something new (like OMG why did it take me an hour to notice that the girl’s eyes are totally directed at the light source?). My professor’s advice for when you’re stuck is to look longer.

It usually seems to work, but it’s also difficult and infuriating. I’m seriously supposed to just sit there and stare? And do nothing else? When I have 3 papers to write? Even if I literally have the time, it’s frustrating that I can’t make it happen faster by working harder or “smarter,” the way we’re supposed to want to do with everything.

Some people probably see this as an example of how technology has made #millennials dependent on constant stimulation and unable to take the time to fully appreciate art. But at least for me, I don’t think that’s the main problem: it’s not exactly that I feel bored staring at art, but that I feel lazy. The issue isn’t a lack of stimulation, but a lack of productivity.

The whole “time is money” thing that we subscribe to not only implies that our time is valuable, but also that every moment of our lives is an investment. Which means we evaluate it based on measurable returns, and the more we can get out of less time, the better. Fast is efficient, and efficient is good. And if a moment isn’t a good investment, it’s a waste.

Looking at art is slow. And not even the slow-and-steady kind of slow where you can comfort yourself with constant, if minimal, evidence of progress along the way. It’s the slow-and-empty kind of slow, loaded with indefinite stillnesses which give no guarantees of progress in exchange for your time.

As an investment, slow inefficiency is a risky gamble. Instead of settling for a probably-almost-as-good quick version, you put in moment after moment for the uncertain possibility of finding something of greater value.

This can mean staring at art. Or meditating. Or watching live performances instead of YouTube clips. Or making cookies from scratch instead of using pre-made dough. Or reading the whole book instead of just the SparkNotes. Or actually watching TV shows instead of just reading the recaps (side note: I find it funny that there’s a whole online genre dedicated to making a even the most mindless pastimes faster and more efficient—and I read it).

You can’t always fit it in. And it’s not always worth it. But sometimes it totally is.

I recently found (i.e. my dad sent me) this quote from an article about early tech-panic surrounding the telegraph: “too fast for the truth.” Beyond the original context, I find it kind of interesting to think about the speed of truth. Sometimes it’s fast-moving target that you’ll miss if you slow down (Wait, how many people are running for president now?). But sometimes it’s something slow and quiet that you’ll pass right by if you don’t take the time to stop and stare between the lines.

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DanceLab-ing and Digesting

This past week, I’ve been hauling myself up through traffic and public transit to San Francisco for FACT/SF’s DanceLab workshop. It felt great to be back dancing all day, working in a playful and experimental environment, and feeling like I was part of a dance community, something I’ve been missing lately. I also got my mind and body blown working with new techniques, material, and ideas, which I definitely need to take back into the studio with me to really digest.

A few big takeaways in terms of approach that might be worth sharing:

I wrote this bit in my journal after an afternoon working with the basics of Forsythe Improvisation Technologies. The framework is based on manipulating points and lines in space–stuff which make sense in theory but also can make your head explode when you start putting them in your body and realizing how much there is to keep track of:

I think what’s so hard/great/valuable/frustrating about improv is that you have to constantly make the translation between thought and action, theory and practice. Managing the awkward gap between the two is a challenge in a lot of areas (dance technique, academia, my life in general) but I think improv is unique in how much it forces me to make that connection in real time.

I also was introduced to (and kind of got hooked on) Countertechnique. The approach to class involves drawing from a “toolbox” of potentially useful ideas based on principles of direction and counterdirection.

But with all that information, there’s also this available mantra of “fuck it.” As in if a tool doesn’t work for you today, fuck it and try something else. And if nothing works, fuck it and just dance. Or if you have fears or hangups or judgements about what you’re doing, fuck that and just do the task at hand.

I needed to hear this, as a person who sometimes cares about things way more than is useful. Not that this approach means not caring about anything, but it does give you the freedom to not care about everything at the same time. The freedom to let go of the habitual and static kind of caring and muscling and focusing–the kind you hold on to because it fits your perception of “working hard” and “being productive”–which is actually holding you back from moving in the directions you actually want to go.

I think this might be the mindset I need to let myself pursue dance.

The End of Productivity Worship

Have you had a productive day? Congratulations. You’ve channeled through the mucous procrastination barrier, grit your teeth, and powered through another unpleasant item on your to do list, simultaneously aiming for maximum time efficiency and counting down the minutes until a snack break would be justifiable. You worked “smart,” putting no more effort than necessary into the task, though you had to strain every muscle to keep yourself from turning away. You didn’t let your curiosity get snagged on little pointed details which could keep you off course. Nobody got time for that. Keep at it.

Until you realize that you’re spending your life deriving more happiness from having done than from doing. Until you get kind of sick of being a martyr in the worship of productivity, constantly flung back and forth between guilt-ridden pleasure and self-righteous misery. Or until you just crack, no longer able to breathe within the narrow walls of serious, efficient work, falling out into a field of undirected diversions and not particularly motivated to step back in.

For me, I started realizing something was off at the end of last year when I found myself procrastinating on my “work” by doing the same types of things that the work involved. I was putting off studying about the hippocampus by reading an article about hippocampus damage cases. I was putting off writing a personal essay for class by blogging similar essays. I was putting off researching gender theory by reading about gender theory.

I noticed the contrast between the momentum and ease with which I fell into my “indulgent” procrastinatory wanderings and the strain with which I plugged through my “worthy” work. I noticed how I was praising myself for “productivity” and punishing myself for “procrastination” despite the fact that the same exact learning was going on.

At that point, the whole work/play dichotomy was starting to seem arbitrary and not very…well…productive.

Realistically, I don’t think our drive to produce and complete is going to disappear any time soon, nor should we force it to. We live in a world which puts a premium on time, space, and energy. We all have deadlines and schedules and a whole lot of stuff to do. I’m certainly not about to start ignoring that. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t relieved to finish my work this weekend or that I wasn’t pretty unhappy about doing some of it.

But what if we found a little breathing room in the vast space between work and play? With practice, could we learn to gently steer our desires, curiosities, and inclinations towards our goals, instead of forcefully manhandling them down a fixed (and unsustainable) path?

What if we woke up and asked ourselves: What am I in the mood to learn? What thoughts am I itching to write first? How does my body feel like moving? The more I pay attention to my desires, the more I find that my “to-do” list and my “want-to-do” list have some intersections–or at least some points where they come reasonably close to meeting–and this shared space can be a good starting point for directing my energy.

Like a lot of people, I’m expecting to have a busy semester, filled with a lot to do and probably a little bit of strain in making it all happen. But for when I find the time, I’m adding these items to my to-do list:

  • Invest a little more in the value of your desires.
  • Work just a little stupider.
  • Wander just a little off course.

In the end, you just might end up going a little farther.

Why I Won’t be One of Those Apologetic Bloggers

So I guess I haven’t posted in a while. I guess that means I’m expected to start my next post with something like:

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve had a bunch of papers and midterms and rehearsals and general life crises. Basically life has been sort of crazy and I literally haven’t had a minute to post anything. Anyway, back to talking about Buzzfeed or dancing gerbils or whatever . . .

But I won’t. Here’s why:

  • No one actually cares that much: If you follow or read my blog, I highly appreciate it and you are the best. However, it seems a little egotistical to act as if there are tons of people anxiously waiting by their laptops with deep concern over whether or not I post something. (That said, if you feel that you have been personally victimized by my lack of posting, let me know and I will issue you a heartfelt personal apology, possibly in poem or interpretive dance form.)
  • The excuses are just excuses: Have I been having some life crises? Sure, but what else is new. Have I had a bunch of work due? Yes, but it’s not like I didn’t spend an equal amount of time procrastinating paper writing on Facebook as I did actually writing papers. Saying “I didn’t post because I was busy writing a paper” isn’t any more accurate than saying “I didn’t post because I felt more compelled to passively experience the mind-numbing properties of the internet.” Which I think is valid too, because . . .
  • I don’t need an excuse anyway: Why do I have to justify not doing anything? Who decided that the only acceptable reason for someone not doing something is to be doing two, three, or twenty other things at the same time. I’m not a big fan of all this “productivity worship” that makes us feel like we’re morally inferior or wasting space by doing anything besides highly efficient, insanely multitasked work with concrete results. There is nothing wrong with doing nothing. In fact, I probably don’t do enough nothing.

Also, it’s my blog. Until someone pays me to write this stuff, I’m going to keep on posting as frequently as a feel like. Plus, I should probably work on apologizing less in life in general, and this seems like a decent place to start. Not that I’m sorry for apologizing. I can apologize if I want to. Just not right now 🙂