We create so many circles on this straight line we’re told we’re traveling. The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.
— David Bowie (2002)
There’s a missing link in this chain of events, that I’ve just now rediscovered while going through the oldest of my notes. An evolution of the project that only ever existed on paper, but which nonetheless influenced the shape of the game.
It’s tempting to rewrite history and slot this evolution into the first part of the narrative where it chronologically belongs, but that would be missing the point. For the link has been there all along, guiding me to where I am now; to where we’re going next. But it seems that I had to forget it to get to it, or to let it get to me.
So. After the creek walks. Before the smiley faces. Still in death valley, but slowly disappearing my life back into moving boxes. Bitterly cold, bronchitis. Incapable of anything but the deductive way of working that I had been trying for months to leave behind. Somewhere in the midst of packing and sleeping and shivering feverishly I came up with an elaborate new version of the game. The game that I had not yet walked my way out of trying to create, and that I had not yet walked my way into creating.
The particulars are overcooked and irrelevant. To summarise, the intent was to lead players deep into the city’s labyrinthine network of laneways, guided by a series of questions that would appear briefly in various windows. I hoped this quest would open players’ eyes to unnoticed aspects of the city; that it would help them to step sideways into subtlety and shadow.
It was a quest that was never to be undertaken, at least not by its intended audience nor in its envisaged form. But the act of imagining this journey turned out to be valuable just the same; a hint of the process-based understandings that were to come. And in the end, it was indeed the questions and the windows that led the way.
In developing this phase I went through a lengthy process of compiling and refining a set of questions to display in the windows. The questions were loosely inspired by the themes of the Tarot and were developed using a multitude of sources, including several card games geared toward storytelling and facilitating conversations. Looking now at the questions that made the cut, and more importantly at my notes on the development process, I can almost see the ghostly traces of a blueprint hovering behind the words.
First, the connection to the matchsticks is clear. Questions that probe the inner life of emotion and imagination. Questions that prompt reflection on personal history. Whispers of hope and regret; hints of shadowy magic. In my memory the matchsticks had sparked to life fully formed, and in a sense they did. Yet that spark was also a seed unfurling.
Second, the questions gesture even further into the future, to the concept of genjōkōan that I was still a year and a half from discovering. My notes from the selection process contemplate certain ideas that begin to approach the Buddhist teaching:
It’s about finding the universal in the personal, and vice versa. We are all living the human experience, which can be lonely and frightening at times. It helps to be reminded that we’re in it together. And also to remember that each of us is unique — which is exciting. Fractals and prisms; little mirrors one and all.
Little mirrors, little windows. Although my thirst for the real made me wary of working with metaphors, they would continue to arise nonetheless. This was the first to make itself known, and in hindsight perhaps the most significant. T1
T1:The writer Kay Larson (2012) brushes up against the paradoxical relationship between the metaphorical and the real in her reflections on Bruce Nauman’s video work Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), in which Nauman leaves a video camera running overnight to determine why the mice in his studio have thus far escaped the cat. In her musings, Larson obliquely suggests a synergy between apparent opposites.
‘In the studio, things happen by chance,’ she writes. ‘A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These “chance events” are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy and eventful lives … By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a “silent” space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings … There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations’ (ibid. p. 709).
Yet even as Larson asserts an objective truth to these events, she also assigns them a subjective symbolism:
‘The artist maps reality,’ Larson writes. ‘That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?’ (ibid. p. 710).
Although Larson seems to contradict herself with these two passages, drawing metaphor from her initial observation, the metaphor itself gets to the core of the paradox. For it is exactly what genjōkōan describes: the ability to see a moment for what it is, while at the same time reflecting on the larger truths it might reveal. As Norman Fischer writes, ‘This seems to be the whole trick of zen practice — to stay with your actual experience, your own personal story, and yet to see through it at the same time to something more’ (2014, para. 1).
Larson was a practicing Zen Buddhist for more than a decade, so it seems likely that her writing is informed by genjōkōan or related concepts. Indeed, the above passages come from her book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists — which concludes with its own contemplation of understandings left unspoken:
‘And where in Nauman’s cat-and-mouse game is Cage, or Buddhism, or non-intention, or process, or any of the trappings of one man’s path?’ she asks. ‘The teachings merge with the world. Not a trace remains’ (2012, p. 711).
But it’s windows. Windows are what I’m after.
You step through a door into a new space, and by definition you leave the previous space behind. You cannot be on both sides of a door at the same time. You can linger in a doorway, long goodbyes — but eventually you must choose a side. Doors, liminal as they may be, are meant for closing as readily as they are for opening.
But a window is an interface. It sees both sides at once; both sides see each other.
The window also frames a scene. For it is not just an opening, but the limits of this opening, that defines a window. It is what you cannot see, as well as what you can.