What Is Common Space?

From http://blog.urbannatureculture.com/?p=220, a wonderful site well worth your visit.

A recent flap in Eureka Springs focused attention on the peculiar activity of ‘yarn bombing.’ This is where people obsessed with knitting/crochet apply their talents to public spaces in the name of art. In Eureka Springs, this includes wrapping tree trunks in complex patterns of colorful yarn.

Yikes!

No wonder a resident who sees these vibrantly adorned trees in the park across from her home allegedly, under cover of darkness, cut the yarn and freed the trees.

I do understand how the artist(s) who had applied themselves to these difficult tasks would feel hurt that their artistic talents were so rudely destroyed. On the other hand, I’m afraid my sympathy in this case lies with the vandal. Parks are, after all, supposedly places where everyone can enjoy the beauty of nature, set aside in cities where everything else bears the heavy hand of humanity.

Why gild the lily? Aren’t trees fascinating and beautiful enough on their own? I get that creations of yarn probably don’t stand well on their own in a public venue, but then, perhaps that’s a challenge for yarn artists to figure out rather than glomming onto nature’s talents.

And while I’m on the subject, what about those stacked rocks now cropping up in public spaces around the country? Who exactly wants to go to a wilderness like the Buffalo River and come across someone’s self-important effort to be noticed? Wow, man, how cool is that guy, stacking all those rocks so carefully?

Who gets off on venturing to a remote rural stream only to find the tracks of other humans? Isn’t that why we go out to embrace Nature in the first place, to leave behind the streets, noise, neon lights, exhaust fumes, shouts and cries, and all the other overwhelming and increasingly inescapable evidence of human habitation?

It doesn’t matter if the trace of other humans appears in the form of discarded fast food containers, rusting appliances, or yarn art. What matters is that we somehow come to an agreement that common spaces meant to preserve some tiny fragment of Nature remains exactly that—Nature.

Same goes for those Western lands currently contested by farmers who think they have some kind of God-given right to use public lands. If it’s “public lands,” that means it’s for all of us, NOT for an individual. Federal law needs to change so that no one gets dibs on public lands, not to be leased for running cattle any more than they should be leased for oil and mineral exploration. These destructive processes permanently mar the landscape, change the entire ecosystem, and leave only the heavy footprints of humans.

No. Just no.

So about those hiking/biking trails through our Northwest Arkansas cities. Why must these be pockmarked with works of art? Are we really so inured to the natural wonders of our environment that we can’t exist without putting our mark everywhere? Artworks are fine in museums, in front of fancy buildings, and even in the public square. Why is it necessary to drape the natural landscape of trail routes with reminders of people?

This is similar to the systematic abuse of music, another art form, by layering it into every single waking moment–television programs and movies, elevators, every store and office, every trip to anywhere. What about extended periods of silence? What about music as a singular amazing rendering of an art form worthy of our attention?

I have nothing against art. But putting art where it doesn’t belong is as much a violation of art as ignoring art entirely. Let’s create art parks where people visit to enjoy visual art. Maybe rotate installations surrounded by tended beds of colorful flowers, fountains, and other contributions from the natural world. But art in such settings is the key feature, not a bit thrown in here and there where people visit for other reasons besides art. Art museums, art galleries, art installations in designated public places—these are venues where art belongs, not superimposed on places meant to be natural.

Maybe this is a discussion to be held in any community. Where does art fit best in our town? Where can we preserve Nature for everyone’s enjoyment? If we’re trying to preserve Nature, can we limit our invasion to the creation of a pathway for us to walk/bike and leave the rest untouched?

Can we not at least agree to set aside places where the ham-fist of humanity is not allowed? Can we not recognize the rights of animals and plants to live undisturbed, at least in a few tiny corners of our world? Can we not pull back our tendencies to claim territory and preserve some fragments of nature amid urban spaces?

That means no yarn bombs on parkland tree trunks—unless that park is a designated art park. It means no cute stacked rocks along river banks and shorelines. We can improve on our cities by the use of Nature, but we cannot improve on Nature with the use of art. If the urge to leave your mark overwhelms you, keep it in your yard.

~~~

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Lost Song

Lurking in the back of my mind, an emotional revelation waits. What it is, I couldn’t tell you. A memory from my past? An understanding about myself? About life in general, the world? I don’t know.

I think that if I waited long enough, carved away the distractions like a pending visit from one of my kids, or the telephone that might ring, or the dog barking outside at falling leaves, whatever It is might reveal itself. It might stand fully formed in front of me, shimmering in magnificence. Terrifying. Fulfilling.

It won’t come, though. I know this because I’ve felt this way before. It never comes, at least, not lately. Now when I need it the most.

In the past, it came with LSD and mescaline. It came with sex. It came when I pounded out the last bars of “The Long and Winding Road” on the piano and tears ran down my face. It came when I reeled off the walls, tequila rushing through my veins, and the truth was made known.

This is different.

I get nowhere with booze. Won’t even consider psychedelics or sex. I can’t look at a piano, much less sit down to play one.

This is like singing, something I once did well. Singing came out of me like some truth too profound to express any other way. I can’t sing now. My voice is old and broken. In my dreams, I can sing. In my dreams, I’m also younger, lovely, strong.

When I try to sing, my voice breaks around middle C, something I noticed after one of several surgeries and which I assign to a tube being forced down my throat. Vocal cords pushed aside, deformed or broken. I want to open my mouth and let a pure note emerge, then another and another until the last note shines off into the distance. I feel it inside me, waiting to come out.

One of my expectations, now that I think on it, was to surround my older years with the things I had no time for when I was young, things like painting where my brush would drift over the paper spreading colors into magical swirls and hues. Things like strumming a guitar again, forming chords that drifted off into the evening air. I would sing along, remember “Scotch and Soda,” “Girl from Ipanema,” “Turn Around”…

I can still paint. I have the supplies. The method has become rusty, but if I applied myself, I could remember how to make shadows while the paper is still damp. I could let orange fade into indigo along a sunset horizon.

Somewhere in all that is the thing I can’t quite reach.

A Moveable Feast

dickson copyDickson Street, 1970. Old rock buildings with narrow profiles and high pressed-tin ceilings. An abandoned railroad depot that trembled when freight trains thundered past. A declining backwash between campus and the downtown square of a town still embracing its provincialism.

The university drew them, intense intellectuals seeking knowledge, misfits seeking community, young men determined not to die in Asian jungles. In between time in class and demonstrating against war, they settled into the street’s cheap real estate to paint murals and make free love. Abandoned warehouses and decrepit brick structures a hundred years old became head shops, bars, and art galleries. Downscale restaurants heaped alfalfa sprouts on whole wheat bread sandwiches—radical. Cooperatives sold tobacco and honey in bulk, locally made tofu—far out.

Sweet smoke hung in the air. Street festivals celebrated music of hope and rebellion. People wore crazy hats and stood on the corners laughing and hugging. Dickson Street crackled with excitement.

All this made it a place people wanted to be. Straight people, women wearing hosiery and high heels, men in suits—they loved the experience of freedom, even if they themselves couldn’t be free. They dared to step out of their establishment lives and feel the beat, smell the smoke they didn’t inhale. Well, maybe they inhaled—who would know? On the street, they became part of a separate world, joined a conspiracy in which all participants shared the secrets.

Not everyone loved the street where long-hairs had carved out a world of their own. What on earth went on down there, they lamented—police, city fathers, wives of husbands who slipped out for a drink at one of the dive bars and ogled the braless young women. Owners of real estate along the street stopped repairing the roof and the plumbing, inflated the prices so that the restaurants couldn’t own it for themselves, so the art galleries couldn’t afford the rent. The hippies needed to go.

By 1990, value created by the alternative culture gave the establishment reason to retake the street. There was money to be made. People wanted to eat there, shop there. The street was cool. Never mind that the coolness had been bestowed by starving artists, by inventive bohemians, by fledgling entrepreneurs selling worn-out blue jeans for respectable profits.

The rich bought the street. They demolished landmark gathering places to put in shops selling diamonds and art from back east. They came dressed in their finery to eat at chain restaurants and watch traveling Broadway shows.

The street is now a shell of its former raunchy self, an extravagant display of fakery in expensive plastic packaging—a back to the land scene where the joyful family piles out of their brand new SUV to view nature, a credit card ad with Beatles music playing in the background. There’s no getting it back. They don’t even understand what’s been lost.