Media deprivation and the art of nothing

In the absence of stories

There is something about not absorbing other people's stories. For the second time this year I voluntarily took part in a very Silicon Valley startup tech bro sounding exercise of 'media deprivation.' The practice comes from the (in)famous book The Artist's Way and back in the early 1990s when it was published, the author Julia Cameron called it 'reading deprivation.' The purpose is clear: to wipe away as many words and stories as possible from your life for a week. 

Thirty years ago Cameron advised us not to read books, faxes and letters in order to enforce boredom, gain time and as a result, to orient ourselves towards not consuming, but rather doing. Today, the list of what you should give up is much longer: no books, no articles, no online content, no socials, no emails (outside of work), no news, no films or TV shows, no podcasts. Cameron even goes as far as to recommend only music with no lyrics. (For the record, I am not such a masochist and yes I did listen to music with words.)

It's easy to see this exercise as another coy plot working on behalf of The Golden Age of Productivity, but in my experience, the days without media, and therefore, information and stories, are actually mostly boring, rather than productive. The most valuable facet is the understanding just how much your brain engages with words in any given day. Visually I primarily think of the word “reading” as sitting on a sofa with a book, but a media deprivation week quickly reveals that “reading,” at its very core, is a simple word / information / story intake. Every single day I read text messages, emails, recipes, news; I read while queueing; I read ads in the metro; I read subtitles; I read comments and then I listen to words in forms of music and podcasts. To give up all this is honestly brutal but it does not really work unless you do all of it at once, because if you give up just one of these things, you will turn to another. 

Something that I have not seen discussed about media deprivation much is that it is very dependent on your mental state and circumstances going in. The shock is where it's at but in order to sustain it, you are ideally in a good headspace, where silently sitting and twirling your thumbs won't send you into a tailspin (oh but it absolutely will). This is where the creativity is supposed to kick in and allegedly you'd rather create than twirl your thumbs but the artistic process is as much about having the spare time, as it is about having the state of mind. You know the drill: you have the time to write / bake / garden / put together a shelving system / draw / etc, but the mental gymnastics is preventing you from starting and doing it. 

In the absence of other people's stories I was twirling my thumbs and thinking about what to write about and nothing was coming to my mind. I wasn't particularly digging anything this week; I couldn't read or go and actively seek out stuff online. And then I started thinking about nothing and what I associate it with in art. I twirled my thumbs some more and remembered that my favourite artists of nothing (if I have to go full on art historian academic on it, let's call them artistes de rien. There, I coined a new theory) are Patti Smith and Jim Jarmusch. Patti Smith really excels at writing about nothing. I like that because even though she toured the whole world performing her music and poetry, and she was the best friend of one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, and had that sort of artistic life that sensitive teenagers writing bad poetry closed in their bedrooms will romanticize, Smith's life is mostly about going to the cafés, grabbing her notebook, and cherishing an old coat that was gifted to her. It's comforting to know that someone who's had a larger-than-life life, decides to write about the mundane actions and objects they use every damn day. 

Every time I put it on I felt like myself. The moths liked it as well and it was riddled with small holes along the hem, but I didn't mind. The pocket had come unstitched at the seam and I lost everything I absentmindedly slipped into their holy caves. Every morning I got up, put on my coat and watch cap, grabbed my pen and notebook, and headed across Sixth Avenue to my café. I loved my coat and the café and my morning routine. It was the clearest and simplest expression of my solitary identity.

Patti Smith, M Train

Jim Jarmusch's final university project, and his first full-length film Permanent Vacation (1980), is not nearly as praised as his later works, and here's why. It's only a precursor to the Great Admirable Jarmusch, not yet a genius move. We watch an awkward, lanky dude bum around for 75 minutes. The absurdity only momentary gives way to some deeper meaning and even then, it flashes in front of you so fast you may not notice it. This is the biggest takeaway from Jarmusch's work, if you have the patience. The folly his characters encounter may seem a little fabricated, but the mundane does not. Permanent Vacation has a story that unravels, but not in a traditional Hero's Journey format; the guy is a drifter in a Debordian sense of the word. He has no aim, he barely engages with people. He is a nihilistic joker kicking a can around. If there ever was a definition of nothing in a film character, he's it. 

Smith and Jarmusch show what media deprivation is about. It's the proverbial kicking a can around and maybe thinking that's beautiful, or just very lame and depressing. They ask us to consider the bone dry moments for what they are: the majority of our lives. It's comforting to be reminded that there is love, inspiration and zest to be found in dullness. It's as equally terrifying to face the literary and audiovisual representations of the fact that our lives do not revolve as much around flashy holidays, career promotions and relationship milestones as much as around the beaten old cup we use for our morning cup of coffee. I am into this tension. Sci-fi and fantasy do not speak to me on this account: imagining far-fetched worlds is so outside of myself, that the escapism the genres offer often seems duller than the elements of tedious repetition found in Smith's and Jarmusch's work. 

The nothing I associate their art with may suggest worthlessness, like the daily rituals, repetitions, and the mundane are just a crumpled up, dirty napkin thrown into a hamper after dinner. Writing or shooting films about nothing has been accused of being pretentious and easy. But the way their art exposes that our own stories are just a string of ordinary days and movements, with the same people, day in, day out, requires that we stop paying attention to the fancy and the fast-paced happening in someone else's existence. There really is something about not absorbing other people's stories.