Archives For Art

Feb 14

A process of refining the truths two people tell each other

By Adrienne Rich:

An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.

It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us.

A life without love is of no account. Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern or Western. Divisions only lead to more divisions. Love has no labels, no definitions. It is what it is, pure and simple. Love is the water of life. And a lover is a soul of fire! The universe turns differently when fire loves water.

~ quoted from The Forty Words of Love, by Elif Shafak (a historical novel about the Sufi mystics Rumi and Shams Tabrizi, which I read during Burning Man)


Fire in a Burning Man sculpture
Fire spreads across the roof of a sculpture at Burning Man


This year, I’ve gained a new interest in personal spiritual experience — so my approach to Burning Man 2016 was very different. In the past, I’ve focused on art and dancing and stuff, with triumphant articles like The Best Art At Burning Man 2015. (Note: Anything I say about Burning Man that includes the word “best” is a joke.)

So this year I did less art-hunting, but there’s always plenty to see. On my way to the desert, I was reading Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and I encountered a section with this heading:

No Trace: When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.

One of Burning Man’s Ten Principles is Leaving No Trace. Officially, this is about our environmental impact — we don’t want to leave a mess in the fragile desert. But Suzuki started the San Francisco Zen Center, which became active before Burning Man began in San Francisco, and someone in the original Burning Man crew probably read the book.

Continue Reading…


April 23, 2016

When I was small, I dreamed of getting lost, alone, in every major city in the world. When I grew up, I realized that this was not the best plan, but it felt surprisingly doable in Venice.


Venice by Lydia Laurenson
Venice. View on Instagram


I took a couple of days on my own in Venice, and it was everything I imagined and more. Venice is so unrelentingly beautiful and aesthetically consistent. It’s hard to photograph the narrow, cobblestoned streets — lined in wrought-iron ornamentation and arches, surrounded by slender canals — but I did my best! (You can find my full set of 48 photos on Facebook here.)


Painting by Andy Fluon
A painting by Andy Fluon, displayed at Contini Art Factory. View on Instagram

Continue Reading…

Dec 21

Mridangam, the roleplaying game of Indian dance

Nerd alert: This is a post about obscure roleplaying game theory. :)

When I worked in game design, there were a number of indie designers whose work I admired, like Shreyas Sampat. Years ago, Sampat published a fascinating thought experiment called Mridangam. Mridangam is a game written for an alternative history of our world — an imaginary world where roleplaying games evolved from Indian dance instead of American war games.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

In the city of Srikakulam, it was once the tradition that the Rikha and Sibarat theatre dynasties would engage in a competition for the firstborn princess’s hand in marriage. Before the Sky-Dwelling King, the finest storyteller of each line would oppose the other in an improvisational performance that began with the seed of a myth.

The loser of the contest would be given as tribute to the barbarians of the eastern plains, who demanded the stories of Srikakulam in exchange for their fatted yaks and protection from the silver-faced pirates of the distant north. (i.e. If you win, you become a princess; if you lose, you get to be a bride of the royal eastern mounted yak men.)

In time, this competition became a meaningless charade; the gestural language of dance-drama fell into disuse, and soon the laity forgot its meaning. Rather than using the gestures to communicate messages to their audience, the dancers began to use them as a secret sign language, to communicate amongst themselves while they performed.

In 1956, Rachana Melwani created the first roleplaying game, when she realised that she and the other dancers were telling stories that only they could fully understand. She pared down the gestural language, reducing it to a simple system that could easily be understood by the laity. This is her creation.

Each of the dancers in Mridangam takes on a heroic persona. A dancer may only speak in her character’s voice. To indicate that she is speaking the character’s thoughts rather than his words, a dancer may hold the palm of Ardhachandra toward her face and look into it, as though examining herself in a mirror. If a dancer wants her character to do something besides speak, this must be stated as something the character thinks or says. For instance, if she wanted her character to climb into a chariot, she may say, “Now I must climb into my chariot.”

Sampat’s text goes on to describe the hand gestures of Mridangam, and he then explains how each gesture can resolve conflicts and move the game’s story forward.

Mridangam was originally published in Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying, Volume 1, back in 2006. Sadly, Volume 1 was the only issue of Push ever published. (Experimental roleplayers are both a tough crowd and a small market.)

I live in fear that Push will vanish from the internet, so I asked the lead editor Jonathan Walton to let me host a backup of Volume 1 here on my site, and he agreed. Thanks to Walton’s generosity, if the above link isn’t working, you can also grab Push in PDF right here.

Dec 2

Abstraction is a type of decadence

A few years ago, I was visiting the apartment of a dear friend and I saw this photo on his wall:

Jenny Holzer Abuse Of Power Comes As No Surprise Shirt

I was so thrilled by the photo that my friend made me a knockoff of the shirt, which was originally created in the 1980s by the artist Jenny Holzer. Then I got so excited about my knockoff shirt that my friend made me another shirt. The new shirt features two more Holzer slogans:



I love these shirts, and I often have interesting conversations with passerby when I wear them. Sometimes, at art events, people recognize the Holzer reference, and we enthuse together.

Jenny Holzer may be best known for her list of Truisms. These have not merely appeared on t-shirts, but have been projected on huge public walls and posted on billboards.

I certainly don’t agree with all the Truisms — and I suspect that Holzer doesn’t either — but they’re really fun to read. Part of the maxims’ awesomeness is their uncompromising directness. Here are a few more that I like to think about:





Addendum: If you are really in love with Holzer’s work, then I also recommend the Twitter feed Jenny Holzer, Mom. It’s a mashup of Holzer-style maxims + the sensibility of a Midwestern mom. Examples:




Oct 17

Disguise an object to look like another object

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is now distributing free high school lesson plans created by leading contemporary artists. I particularly enjoyed this list of activities by John Baldessari.

My favorites:

Assignment #6
Disguise an object to look like another object.

Assignment #7
Make up list of distractions that often occur to you. Recreate on video tape.

Assignment #9
By using movie camera to follow actions and by your observations into cassette recorder, document the movements of someone secretly for an entire day. Or have someone follow you.

Assignment #11
Describe the visual verbally and the verbal visually.

Jun 26

My favorite Leonardo da Vinci quote

“Life is pretty simple. You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do some more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else.

“The trick is the doing something else.”

Jun 4

The postman’s fairy palace

During a long-ago class, I learned about the Facteur Cheval, an 1800s postman who randomly built a fairy palace. Here’s an excerpt from my old art history textbook, The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes:

The other naif [besides Henri Rousseau] whom Surrealism especially admired was not a painter but a builder who, in the obscurity of his own country garden, created what was perhaps the most elaborate, beautiful, and mysterious “unofficial” work of art made by any nineteenth-century artist. He was Ferdinand Cheval, a postman or facteur in the village of Hauterives, about forty miles from Lyon. The Facteur Cheval (as he is usually called) had done nothing remarkable for forty-three years of his life. But one day in 1879, on his delivery round, he picked up a pebble. It was a piece of the local greyish-white molasse or tufa, gnarled and lumpy, about four inches long — his “stone of escape,” as he later called it. He put it in his pocket and, from then on, began first to collect more odd-looking stones, then tiles, oyster-shells, bits of glass, wire, iron, and other junk. Back in his garden, he began to lay foundations and build walls. He was, by his own account, bored of “walking forever in the same decor,” and so:

… to distract my thoughts, I constructed in my dreams a faëry palace, surpassing all imagination, everything the genius of a humble man could imagine (with grottoes, gardens, towers, castles, museums and sculptures), trying to bring to a new birth all the ancient architectures of primitive times; the whole thing so beautiful and picturesque that the images of it remained alive in my brain for ten years at least … but the distance from dream to reality is great; I had never touched a mason’s trowel … and I was totally ignorant of the rules of architecture.

Facteur Cheval fairy palace

Continue Reading…