Warsaw Dispatch: Cultivating an Aesthetic Present (10/7/13)


Back “home,” I eat with objects layered with a history, of which I am acutely aware—Mother’s and Grandmother’s dishes, a southern heritage of cast iron cooking, an antique dining table passed down. A meal is always, even if I would choose otherwise, a journey back. The immediacy of taste, smell, sight, and sustenance is tempered by narratives I would often just as soon live without. By contrast, here in Warsaw, in my Ikea kitchen, where everything is new and only provisionally mine, I have no relationship to the things around me beyond appreciating their functionality. In the absence of any personal history with them, a fork is a fork, a pan is a pan, and a plate is just a plate. A meal occurs then, in a highly generative space I’ll call the aesthetic present.

My aesthetic present, not unlike any new experience, is both falsely demarcated—as I ignore the histories of the objects because they are not personal—and fleeting—as new gives way to familiar. Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, but it certainly has a tendency to dull one’s capacity for observation and, simultaneously, to foreground memory over current experience. Two months into my sojourn in Warsaw, and my everyday begins to feel familiar rather than new. My kitchen, and the food I prepare in it, though still delightful, are fast becoming an aesthetic normal. This normal is inflected by a much shorter and far less complicated history than dinner served on Spode at a Duncan Phyfe table in Georgia, but like US dinners, it fails to be as present, as immediate, as conscious as it was during my first Warsaw meals. Because I experience the aesthetic present as highly generative, I experience this transition to the aesthetic normal as a kind of loss, and I wonder how one might cultivate the aesthetic present intentionally and less dramatically than by say, moving to Warsaw. Might the aesthetic present coexist with the everyday?

About this time last year, Bernadette Mayer pointed me in the direction of two provocative catalysts. In her own 1971 text/photo/audio installation, Memory, Mayer catalyzed an aesthetic past, via a mechanism not dissimilar to the one that enables the things I own in the US to conjure ghosts. With Memory, Mayer installed photographs, audio, and text to create a space within which memory would occur. She considers this memory space (rather than the objects she assembled) to be the installation. The objects are catalysts for the participant’s memory. The physical installation catalyzes the aesthetic past she foregrounds as the intended installation. Notably, this installation requires a participant, and because it does, the aesthetic past, as memory in action, becomes simultaneously the aesthetic (and conscious) present. That’s a rather remarkable feat, and it points me toward a mechanism for simultaneously inhabiting the aesthetic present and the aesthetic normal, aka the everyday. This solution involves a notion of curation.

Mayer’s other tip was Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, created roughly ten year’s prior to Mayer’s Memory. Whereas Mayer curated her space by installing objects intended to catalyze memory, Spoerri attended to an everyday space as if it had been curated. On October 17, 1961, Spoerri mapped and then annotated the everyday objects on his table. With the input of friends, this documentary effort catalyzed associations, memories, and processes of thought and creativity that effectively mapped not only the table and its objects but also Spoerri’s life as an aesthetic present. Travels, friendships and artistic projects across time and space shifted from an aesthetic normal and/or aesthetic past to an aesthetic present via a process of conscious engagement. Mayer installed objects that would resonate, but Spoerri made existing objects resonate.

Although both approaches have the effect of catalyzing an aesthetic present, Spoerri’s approach seems to hold particular promise for the everyday and my current conundrum of the creeping aesthetic normal. Whereas Mayer’s approach in Memory requires an active curatorial effort, Spoerri’s maneuver is more likely replicable on a daily basis because it merely requires shifting one’s mood toward the everyday as a phenomenon worth notice and careful attention. His process involves activating the everyday in a spirit of play.

A recent FB find yielded John Cleese discussing creativity. In a nutshell, Cleese maintains, following on the thinking of Edward de Bono, that creativity can be cultivated, that it is a skill or mood of play rather than an innate ability. Moreover, he offers a relatively simple formula to achieve it. In the aggregate of his 2009 talk at the World Creativity Forum in Germany and his 1991 talk in London, Cleese argues that a creative mood can be cultivated with 1) space, 2) time, 3) time, 4) confidence, and 5) humor. Although I do not equate creative mood with aesthetic present, they are intricately related since what I find generative about the aesthetic present is the creative mood it catalyzes. Thus, to Cleese’s formula, and in order to achieve an aesthetic present in the everyday, I add, 6) intention.

Without intention, Spoerri’s table would have remained a table full of stuff, and my meals, and everything else I do in Warsaw will become normalized beyond noticing. Such a fate will, of course, require me to move to [x new place]. Neither my critters nor my bank account, however, can tolerate such antics for some time to come. Although curating my space overtly in the service of catalyzing a generative aesthetic present is not my everyday option, behaving as if my space has been curated is. Mayer clearly understood the power of both modes of curation. When, she created Midwinter Day, a book-length poem written, from waking to sleeping on December 22, 1978, as if in real time, I feel as if she anticipated my current conundrum—the normalization of the new—and further, that she, like Spoerri, offered a model for shaking it up.

My take-away? Curate the everyday as an aesthetic present by employing space, time, time, confidence, humor, and intention, and see what happens. So, how many light bulbs does it take…


originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on October 7, 2013

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