Out of the map and into the landscape

Consider this manifesto an opening letter to you and a compass for me. If you connect with it you are more than welcome to follow it and tinker with it. Just like everything it’s here for now, use it but don’t be afraid to burn it. 

More and more it feels as if we have reached a point where most of us are living in a world of images, echoes and simulations of the things that were once experienced directly. I’m talking about phone calls over eye contact, pre-cut veggies over sticking our hands in soil to extract them from the earth, comparing our relationships to the carefully curated relationships we see in the media. Or how I am more often immersed in maps than in landscapes, how I often am in cultivated parks and never have been in an old-growth forest. And everyday cameras seem to get better in enhancing pictures of sunsets to be more breathtaking than their reality. Not only our digital but also physical sunsets have changed, they are redder than they were in the past. Which is beautiful, until you realize that this is because of air pollution and forest fires.  Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality (“Hyperreality is the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced societies.” ) seems to be accelerating at an ever increasing speed. If we were looking at shadows in Plato’s cave before, we are now looking at pictures of the shadows on our phones, one step further removed from reality. 

 

“We’ve run into a cultural situation where we’ve confused the symbol with the physical reality – the money with the wealth and the menu with the dinner. We’re starving and eating menus.” 

Alan Watts, “ The Process of Life”, (lecture, IBM Systems Group Seminar, 1969)

 

Living in this world curated by symbols of the abundant reality that once was the norm to be immersed in, I can’t help but long to step out of the map and into the landscape. To seek out where the echoes originate from and to see just how close I can get to the source. To experience reality in all its messiness directly, with all my senses.

I feel a lot of gratitude to have experienced periods where I am in a reality of abundance instead of symbols. These periods are often during the summer holiday. These are days where I am in nature and in good company, either with dear friends or in the solitude of trees and good friendship towards myself. The first time I consciously experienced this immersion was in the summer of 2020 during a long week with friends in the Swiss mountains. There, time was governed by the sun instead of the clock. We hiked through the idyllic lush swiss mountains with two energetic dogs by our sides, let our ears lead the way to cold waterfalls in which we excitedly soaked ourselves. On our way back we foraged mushrooms from the forest and got milk from the local farmers that was so fresh it was still warm. During our time there we were either walking or had long discussions while eating passionately cooked meals. These are slow and simple things, yet I felt richer than I ever had before. 

Then, when I get called back to the city and my working life I always feel a sense of loss as the memories of the mountains slowly become more distant and I more and more feel like a never ending to do list. I wonder, does it have to be this way? Why can’t my everyday life be more like the time I spent in switzerland? Slowly, I am discovering that indeed, my life can be more like that. I can set boundaries to create space for slowness and meaningful time with friends and myself, I can keep some weekends free to grab my tent, take a train to a decently sized forest, walk in solitude and  spend meaningful time with the trees and night sky. During those weekends in solitude, I feel the foamy hectic ocean inside me slowly become a calm, clear, rippling surface. It’s there that the dust in the water can settle and I can connect with myself and my surroundings again. It’s a sigh, follow up with the thought ‘oh. there I am’. It is this meaningful immersion in reality and our surroundings that I want to give to myself and others through the work I create.

But how can art – the creation of yet another symbol – help with this?

For a long time I struggled with the idea that all the work I created would merely be another depiction, symbol or image of reality. And why create a reflection of nature if the real deal is there to experience?

In the beautiful video essay A Thousand ways to see a forest Jacob Geller makes the point that art can serve as a guidepost that points towards the trail. Art doesn’t have to replace reality or claim to be bigger than it. Experiencing a poem that describes the passion someone feels for the way leaves break the sunlight before it reaches the floor can enchant you to from that point on look at the forest floors in a completely new way.  The question is how to let art serve as a way to immerse in reality instead of distracting from it. I think the answer lies in the duty of the artist to seek out reality, to experience as much of the beauty and heartbreak. And when the dust has settled, to transform these experiences into temporal translations. Creating signposts for others pointing towards the trail.

 

“The issue is what is being represented and whether it’s a finger pointing the observer toward or away from the direct experience that awaits them outside of the theater or the silence beyond the off button” . 

Janos Tedeschi, “Interview with Peter Mettler,” The Analog Sea Review, Issue 2. page 35.

 

With the world in its current state it is more important than ever for people to translate their findings – be that spiritual, artistic or scientific –  into meaningful experiences, you might even dare to call them rituals. I certainly dare to call them that. Our churches have been replaced by radio towers, that’s what I intuitively wrote in my journal in 2019, unaware of what it really meant. While religion used to be the foundation of our society, science and technology now seems to have taken its place. It feels as if we are slowly noticing that we miss the rituals that religion used to offer. It is so important for us as humans to have events where we get a sense of community and have space for things like welcoming the seasons and grieving the departed. I find it meaningful to see my art practice as the practice of creating meaningful experiences. Moments that feel real, connective. Montents that make you’ve moved beyond the echoes and can almost touch the source, even if it’s only for a little while. I know the experiences I create are a success when they aren’t a distraction, but help to immerse oneself into their surroundings.

Another question I like to ask is how do we differentiate the sources from the echoes, the reality from the symbols?

Like many during the pandemic I have picked up the habit of meditating. I am by no means an experienced practitioner but already I see something emerging that fascinates me: there is no center to consciousness, there are only sensations. The more I look for it, the more a sense of self disappears. What remains is the arising and passing. Warmth traveling through my body, breath animating my chest,  the beating of my heart. The sensation of having a head is also just one of these sensations arising in the space of consciousness. If there is a source of consciousness, of reality , it must be this openness. The space where everything arises.

 

“Early in the journey you wonder how long the journey will take and whether you will make it in this lifetime. Later you will see that where you are going is HERE and you will arrive NOW…so you stop asking.”

Ram Dass, Be Here Now

 

Thus, to move towards the source becomes trying to be here. To feel the rawness of life through all that arises. If you eat, eat. If you walk, walk. If you are in pain, you immerse yourself in the pain.  In some clear moments where I manage to immerse myself into my experience, a sense of self dissipates. In the summer of 2022 I was hiking through Scotland. It was my first time hiking with a proper backpack and camping gear. The first day had passed and I was sore and tired from this new experience of a backpack pressing me down. Me and my friend set up camp during the night on a hill at the edge of a small forest. We had a clear view of the city we had departed from that morning. As we had set up camp I explored my surroundings, I found a small clear lake surrounded by pine trees. I stepped in the water that due to a hot summer had a perfect temperature. I floated there, looking through the lake of air between the trees above me. For a moment there was no me and the lake, there was just this floating experience. Did I make the ripples in the water by moving or did the ripples in the water make me move?

I wonder, what would the world look like if we all had these connective experiences more often? What if they were the norm, instead of the exception? It is clear to me that capitalism can be held accountable for a lot of the crisis we are currently facing. One of these crises being that we started viewing ourselves as separate from the world and like the world is something we can exploit. Could we have ended up in the current climate crisis if we had remained to see nature as us, instead of a resource?

The path I am choosing is one where I dedicate myself to help myself and others return to a place of real connection. And I think the way to get there is through reclaiming our attention and an immersion in our experiences. To get off the highway and onto the winding road. To get out of the map and into the landscape.  

This does require a certain kind of slowing down from our unsustainably fast pace. Slowness might invoke a sense of boredom, which is being treated as something we should fear and avoid at all costs. But embracing boredom is essential if we want to have vivid experiences. To make space for boredom is to clean the window, to keep the axe sharp. It dares us to look a bit more curiously at everything around us and might ultimately reveal that the magic we were looking for is right in front of us.

 

“Our perceptions work in large part by expectation. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with small amounts of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch… Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses.”

Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled life. Page 16

 

This is where my research of the past years has brought me, and what I have aimed my compass towards. I strive to create meaningful connective experiences to get out of the map and into the landscape. My hope is that creating from this vision will play its own tiny fractal part in guiding us out of this crisis of lack of oversight and lack of connectivity.  

So that we might live intertwined with and compassionately to all life

– Paul