alchemy for beginners

alchemy for beginners

Unable yet to articulate much of this understanding, I failed my first attempt at confirmation of candidature. The research question was unclear, my panel said, and the badges with their readymade design lacked authorship. But the element of risk inherent in my methods had potential, I was told, should I decide to work with it more intentionally.

Daunted but determined, I packed away the badges and tried to come up with something else. In the six weeks that I had before my second confirmation seminar, I made a small body of work that attempted to address the issues raised by my panel. The work was almost comically opposite to the badges: textually dense, intensely personal, and unambiguous in its request for a response.

I never ended up distributing the work, or developing it beyond what I made during those few weeks. It was too dense, too personal, too unambiguous. My second confirmation seminar had also left me questioning why I felt the need for an audience response at all. My panel members had framed the issue as one of giving versus taking, and had rebuked me for trying to engage in the latter. But in hindsight this was not the issue at all — or at least, not the issue on which the game hinged. Rather it was a question of seeking dialog with the wrong counterparts, although the game and I would both need to evolve before I could see this.

Those few weeks of work between my confirmation seminars were barely a flicker in the progression of the game, but they would prove relevant nonetheless. I refer to the artefacts that I created during this time as the drafts, for that is what they are. First drafts, only drafts, successive drafts — an attempt to write my way through a seismic shock in a year that had already left me shaken. After an unexplained absence of 26 years, my biological father had made contact with me. We were in correspondence. He was sending old baby photos I had never seen; I was answering his many questions about my current life. But at his insistence, we weren’t talking about his departure or his unexpected return. I felt like a hostage to this demand, afraid that he might disappear again, and so I started writing letters to myself as well.

I wrote three letters in total. Each one was a collaboration with time and place. I carried my good pen and a pad of writing paper everywhere I went, and when my emotions welled up and threatened to spill over I looked for the right place to sit and write. A pub, a park, the top of a hill. In the writing I tried to start with the place itself; tried to open up to the specificity of the moment and let it guide me into a more personal reflection. For each draft I gave myself the front and back of a single A5 sheet — no more, no less.

A theme of letting go quickly emerged, and so I planned to insert each draft into an air mail envelope, attach it to a white balloon and leave it somewhere near the place where it had been written. The envelope would also contain a postcard addressed to me, that the finder could use to release a burden of their own.

Fortunately helium tanks are expensive, and difficult to procure without a car. That’s what I told myself anyway, as I delayed and delayed on launching the drafts into the world. Reading them again tonight for the first time in two years, I’m so grateful for my procrastination. As personal artefacts the drafts are immensely valuable, comprising the only record of a pivotal moment in my life. And as creative artefacts they convey far more about my methods than I could ever reconstruct from my notes about this phase.

In the drafts I see the game take its first conscious turn toward autobiography, a movement that would prove essential to the evolution of my methodology. I also see a more conscious turn toward place as a collaborator, which likewise would inform the later stages of the game. And in the synchrony of these gestures; this turning inward and at the same time turning outward, I see the mechanisms of a certain magic begin to manifest.