The year was, 2010. The place was Berlin.
I was given a book, "The Gift", by Lewis Hyde.
"The Gift" felt like a much needed philosophical retort to the dense individualism spruiked by books like "The Secret". Field notes, perhaps, for those among us weary of constantly 'manifesting' wealth, power, advantage, divine blessing and contriving gratingly self-referential memes and Instagram posts.
Perhaps there remain different ways of considering wealth / power / blessing / cultural collateral and exchange? Perhaps some of these modalities might even be worthy of anthropological invstigation?
After 5 years bouncing back and forth from the antipodes to the German capital, I had settled at last into the bosom of (now achingly hip) Neukölln, just to the West of the former Berlin Wall. All was giddy with possibility - without equivocation I had committed myself to the 'Berlin experiment' of trying to ply my trade from 'music alone', in a foreign nation, without the security of a 'day job'.
Committing to Berlin was a decision which has profoundly changed the course of my life - one which has served to fortify some quiet personal convictions regarding what possibly constitute enduring 'value' in life.
As ubiquitously branded, Berlin was most certainly 'arm, aber sexy' (poor, but sexy!).
Whilst feeling no inherent virtue in poverty, removing over zealous fiscal aspirationism (as opposed to the very real need to meet basic needs) from life's daily tapestry did honestly feel like such a gift, leveler, a wonderful social blessing. At Berlin's beating heart, a quiet suspicion (even disdain) enduredover such aspirations. How did certain aspects of this far 'poorer' culture actually equate to a far richer cultural experience than one I'd previously experienced? I'd argue that, existentially at least, many fundamental aspects of the day to day were radically simplified, and this came to offer unlikely social salve.
Berlin nascent Socialist hangover was something I was in so many ways thankful for. Comforting realpolitik anchoring the curiously cadenced grammar of the city's multitude stories.
Forget picket-fences and quarter-acre blocks - how would I best make use of state healthcare, transport, shared public space? How could locals creatively steward the innovative potential of state-funded education? How would we all make mirthful sense of long, dark winters in close proximity?
What's REALLY important here? Were there inevitable spectres haunting the corridors of this strangely earnest utopia?
*cue the brilliant film, "Goodbye Lenin!' (we'll revisit Lewis Hyde again a moment).
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Value - how could this look, taste, stretch, expand and seed if not derived not from income, but rather intention, awareness, discourse and basic gratitudes sewn into the minutia of life's most seemingly 'insignificant' exchanges?
Inhale, exhale, render, loop, repeat.
For many far more enlightened than myself, 'arts practice' is an unnecessary prerequisite for exploring these notions - yet personally, music has continued to offer up profoundly helpful tools for self analysis and reflexion. Tools I might perhaps not naturally possess.
I'm rambling here, I realise. Im attempting to tie together some disparate threads. Trying to focus things sharply through the best lens I've been afforded - 'art', abstracted (even nominally) from 'commerce', or 'product', or 'publishing'.
Why do we 'do', what we do? Does art infact 'do' us?
What if arts work might be considered indicative of a different, parallel value-system - one invested in (at least some) useful moral predicates expunged from the discourse saturating late-stage capitalism?
What it, most fundamentally, 'arts work' might just be the most interesting excuse we can come up with to share a meal, a drink, a bed with people who we don't really know, but would like to imagine we could trust as part of our tribe?
Enter Lewis Hyde, who continues to speak to these questions, and who's anthropological insight is both comforting and inspiring. In "The Gift", Hyde oscillates from a firm thesis (at the books outset) to a less clear conclusion - and herein also lies his charm. He's willing to be proven wrong.
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Unfinished reflections Part 2.... (3, 4, 5.....)
For centuries immemorial, the roll of much 'artisanal' discipline has maintained a close relationship with what we might call the 'gift economy'. This 'gift economy' is not an abstraction - but forms an ever-present, deeply important part of social function and community cohesion. The gift economy bears an often opaque, frequently flirtatious relationship with the market economy - but (to me) is indicative of what I call the 'economy of the heart'.
Previously in Sydney, I had been privileged to be awarded the ongoing roll of Artist in Resident for a group called Café Church based in the inner west suburb of Glebe - creating original digital work every week, and helping facilitate and empower the voices who were part of a very special fringe community of souls - namely many who had been excluded, burnt out, or outright damaged by traditional faith communities'.
Café Church was an unlikely experiment in patching up broken things, and set me very much on the path of investing in arts / music as a deeply healing work, beyond the model of conventional commerce.
The 'practice' itself was the reward - and the more this practice was shared, the more its value felt enriched, rather than diminished.
After 2 years in the roll at Café Church, I reluctantly relinquished my position - due only to travel commitments, and the deep sense that it was time I passed on what was truly an incredible gift to me. As Lewis Hyde puts it in The Gift:
It felt time for me to honor the gift I had been given, by relinquishing myself of it, so that it might continue to breathe, thrive, become renewed.
My time at Café Church had reminded me, in a fundamental sense that music, art (cooking, gardening, breathing...) were all acts which might best be served by being considered acts of grace. After decades stumbling on through the undergrowth of arts-practice, fundamental questions remained about how best to 'monetise' my practice, however one thing was sure - my priority above all else, was really to make the best 'work' possible.
Imagining that 'work' might be valuable in its own right was precious realisation. Particularly in an an age of unprecedented automaton, considering reimagining a truly valuable 'work life for all' feels deeply important.
Prior to my tenure at Café Church, 5 years working as a designer / video editor in a rather more corporate environment had continued to lead me to new pastures - based purely on the (perhaps egotistical?) assumption that working within the realms of advertising / front end web design often meant that the work I was producing was compromised. There were only so many times I could get away with turning down jobs based on feeling they were morally compromised, or aesthetically patronising to clients.
I didn't feel like I could keep my heart tender creating army-recruitment, gambling, porn, big-pharma websites. And yet these sorts of 'jobs' were increasingly the types thrust before me.
Eventually, through natural attrition, I exited the corporate universe...and landed square in the centre of so-called 'community work', where the road rose up beyond all expectations to meet me. My income halved overnight - but suddenly this seemed largely irrelevant. I was making work I loved, relishing every hour of practice, bettering my skills, service, thesis.
This is not to say that my previous 'corporate incarnation' wasn't filled with incredible humans. Moreover, it truly was - hyper-intelligent, infinitely more skilled and visionary designers, copywriters and artisans, and some notable social visionaries. It was just that, as a 'coal face' pixel-pusher, I felt my craft couldn't grow in such an environment.
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So music became 'the thing'...and yet... I was privileged (deeply so) to have the freedom to allow it to be 'the thing' - a freedom initially afforded by being born into privilege, education and relative security. Same as it ever was.
Ironically, many aspects of the 'music industry' proved far more morally compromised than anything I had experienced in the corporate universe.
And yet.... somewhere amid the rubble, I encountered a radically different set of presuppositions, honor codes and modalities of trust, place, belonging, gift exchange and....value....
Whats more, curious, experiences like playing clubs like Berlin's Berghain, revealed to me a parallel, if rather different experience of 'music as monument', or temporary homeland for those without a sense of historical place.
Art as a modality of creating psychic (un)realestate - temporary autonomous space, a new kind of cultural common, a kind of tangible, economy of the heart...and often a refreshingly non-sentimental one, in addition.
This question of space, place, belonging, and the place of 'non-place' remains a central thesis in my work - as an expat, a migrant currently wedged between continents.
I'll stop for now. It's late, once more, and there's too much to say. I'll leave for now, with this quote from Lewis Hyde, and gather more thoughts again later.
To be continued.....