Everything you do is a balloon

Published 25 Sep 2020, last modified 25 Sep 2020

A dusky streetscape

Why does anyone make art, if they aren’t personally expecting to “earn a living” from it? Why invest the time, make yourself emotionally vulnerable, “bare your soul,” study the masters, take creative risks, and submit your work to members of a judgmental public, if no one is paying you for it? Why, especially, do those of who are of the proletarian majority, who have to work to feed and house ourselves and our families, make art that doesn’t pay? To quote The Coming Insurrection:

We know that individuals are possessed of so little life that they have to earn a living, to sell their time in exchange for a modicum of social existence.

So why do we invest some of that time we have to sell for no pay at all? I suspect the answer is that we are cultivating experiences—for ourselves and for others. We are gardners of our lives, and any gardner knows that no seed you plant is guaranteed to sprout. Those that do sprout don’t always wind up feeding you. We make art to cultivate the gardens of our lives. Not all gardens are for food. Some are for medicine, or for spices, or for private ├Žsthetic enjoyment, or for public recreation… Every thoughtfully written letter you send, every doodle you share, every craft you make as a gift is a seed that may grow untold human experiences.

I recently discovered this little game of sorts called The Endling Archive I made as a high school student. I guess the word game isn’t entirely right; it’s more like hypertext fiction. The conceit is that you the player/reader have connected to this text console that serves heavily abbreviated encyclopedic articles about the world, left by a small post-apocalyptic human space colony. These little article snippets are arranged in a hierarchical menu and the more articles you open, the deeper this menu expands, opening previously hidden bits of lore. What strikes me about it now, more than a decade later, is how earnest and original it is in some ways, how many creative risks I was taking. This isn’t to say that it’s all well-executed or that it’s not entreating in any way. Some of the writing, the weird angsty selfie I instead into the game, and this Japanese pseudonym that somehow seemed totally fine for me to use at the time (even as I would explain quite often that I was not actually Japanese) are all pretty embarrassing to revisit. But I think as a parent I’ve become somewhat more patient with these artifacts of my own clumsy youth, and I can also just see that these artistic themes I was working on at the time were very much worth exploring, even if I wasn’t especially adept at worrying about them.

The Endling Archive is about the experience of being an endling—that is, the last living member of one’s species—and that means facing the self-destruction of humanity that’s going on all around us, but also the age-old dilemma that comes from us being such desperately social animals while also being really bad at forming and keeping social bonds, especially in our atomized contemporary capitalist mode of socioeconomic organization. I would find it daunting to write about these things now, and it’s so strange that it was the most natural thing to me in high school, that I would naturally spend my time making not-especially-noticed art about this stuff just because I intuitively felt there was something important underneath it all that I should share with the world. And as embarrassing as I find my work from that time, a few people did tell me they found it interesting or even inspiring in some way. That’s really all I want as an amateur artist

The more professional our internet spaces become, the more we’re surrounded by the slick handiwork of career influencers, the more I long for people to get out there and make their embarrassing amateur art. I’ve said every piece of art you make is like a seed, but I could also say that on the internet everything you do is a balloon; it floats away from you and becomes a part of something you can’t control, something that could touch other people’s lives. And I think if more of that were earnest, genuine, amateur art rather than advertising, it would enrich all of us.

Also I’m huge Boards of Canada fan and just really wanted to name this essay after one of their songs.

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