What’s the reality we live in today? How can we survive as artists in these crazy times? Konstantin tells us his thoughts about what’s really happening right now.
Konstantin Kulakov is an award-winning poet, editor, and translator born in Zaoksky, former Soviet Union. He has never lived in one place for more than three years. He is the editor in chief of a partner to culturala, Pocket Samovar.
Our roaring twenties are here. The pressure to usher in a decade of glitz wasn’t crushed by the pandemic. Billionaires made good money and are plotting to colonize mars. Vaccination affirmed modern trust in technology. I completed my MFA and found salaried work all the while gathering the jagged pieces of a pandemic breakup. Still, many of us do not feel like we are really back to normal. For many, happiness is not a possibility, but we’re also not depressed or wracked by anxiety.
Some experts describe this common state as languishing: an experience of neither sadness, nor happiness. A public or collective avenue for grief is unimaginable. The problems technology solved led to a different set of problems: the return to the restless consumption and production of marketable goods, a lack of face-to-face connectivity to the planet and people that shape our lives. Scarcity of time, attention, money is written into the day. Normal is an alien idea.
The artistic mindset, however, doesn’t feed on scarcity or normalcy. It finds its bearings in wonderment, strangeness and connectivity. In spite the odds, art makes do with what’s at hand. It metabolizes, expands. From the given materials of the artist—physical sensations, memories, environments, books, traumas, relationships, movements, emotions, ideas—art puts into motion. At the core of technical skill is a more fundamental question: our relationship to life, our motivation, the why. That outside of art becoming more important than the work of art.
But o, time. If time is money, time can feel scarce. Artists are asking themselves if they have the power to take back time from the market. From Seneca to Kierkegaard, it was not busyness (business), but boredom that fueled creativity: the time to watch, take in the world, play, experiment. Today, especially for the disadvantaged, imagining a way beyond scarcity seems impossible. It is obvious that in order to survive in the future, the industrial world, facing ecological devastation, widening wealth inequality, violence, and a pervasive feeling of stress can learn from the outside world.
In 2017, I was honored to learn from the vestiges of pre-modern life in the coastal village of Rio San Juan, Dominican Republic. From the free-roaming dogs to the two-hour siestas; from the sea life that teaches species co-operation to the unrushed time to observe the rose apple tree; from the sticky closeness to earth’s clock of rain and sun to the late-dusk conversation, Rio San Juan charged me. There was little air conditioning, computer access, or hot water, yet this only led to a more spontaneous, face-to-face lifestyle rooted in lifecycles and community.
The pressure to resume business-as-usual in an increasingly unusual world returned. And as artists we have the option to be more intentional and scrappy about how we relate to the times and spaces we inhabit. David Lynch, for example, imagines his artmaking as a process of simply showing up to his studio space, an unrestricted domain set apart for daydreaming, experimentation, play. My painter friend, on the other hand, asks his kids to pick the colors he paints with. For me, attention to lighting, the inkiness of my pens, and the texture of my paper creates my writing space. The artist may never be able to replace the market, but the artist may be able to imagine a better world.
Similar to a home, a good studio or writing space is a safe place where whatever we lack in the world becomes real. It is a place where deeper imaginative forces feel safe to strike root. It is a space disconnected from judgement, achievement and results and put on by the unusual, the new. It’s a place dedicated to the immediate pleasures of the artmaking process. We must invest in these places. No matter the size or how little we spend there, we must protect them.