Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Painted Rice Cakes and the Absolute

Gretchen Targee, Enso, 2011

By Myozan Dennis Keegan

I recently came across an Internet exchange between Zen teachers and students regarding ethics in which the terms of “the Absolute” and “the Relative” figured prominently, with an emphasis placed on the difference between those two apparent realms. I found the exchange interesting in several respects, not least of all for the appearance of these terms themselves. The terms certainly appeared frequently in conjunction with Zen's introduction into American culture in the 50s and 60s. I think their use owed much to the decision by D.T. Suzuki and other popularizers of the period to present a great deal of their understanding about Zen within a framework of ideas and terms borrowed from German Idealism, Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. In any case, over the last thirty years, this language has been used less and less frequently. I think part of the reason for the twilighting of these terms is simply the increased grounding of Zen understanding in concrete Zen practice. The growth in academic circles of a critical stance toward the early popularizers’ ahistorical presentation of Zen has also been a major factor. And certainly the recent increased focus by westerners on the work of Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition, has played a role in furthering this shift in language and understanding. (The influence of this last item is somewhat muddied by the continued influence of German idealism in the interpretation of Dogen’s thought by philosophers of the Kyoto School.)

Perhaps there is no better example of Dogen's thought countering the notion of two distinct realms of reality – Absolute and Relative -- than his talk entitled “Gabyo,” or “Picture of a Rice Cake.” This talk which Dogen gave to his students in 1242 is preserved as a fascicle in his masterwork “Shobogenzo.”  In the fascicle, Dogen takes a phrase from a Zen story and -- in a manner typical of his approach -- turns the usual interpretation of the phrase on its head.  The phrase, “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger,” is one that Zen students frequently come across and is usually presented as a caution that the teachings should not be taken for the reality to which they point. It is the same spirit as the counsel not to take the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. Dogen himself notes this common understanding in his comments before stating that “this is not the correct transmission of the ancestors teaching." Indeed he says, "There are few who have seen this painting of a rice cake and none of them has thoroughly understood it."

Gretchen Targee, 2011

In Dogen's understanding any apparent gap between a painted rice cake and our idea of a “real” rice cake needs to be closed. As Hee-Jin Kim points out, Dogen's presentation in this fascicle, "is traditionally interpreted primarily from the standpoint of non-duality and equality. It has thus been understood that all beings and things as painted pictures are equal in spiritual status."*

Know that a painted rice-cake is your face after your parents were born, your face before your parents were born... All rice-cakes actualized right now are nothing but a painted rice-cake. If you look for some other kind of painted rice- cake, you will never find it, you will never grasp it.

This understanding speaks directly to such conversations as the Internet exchange among Zen teachers and students mentioned above. Given the Western philosophical resources that were used by the early popularizers of Zen, it's not surprising that a thread (the tathagatagarbha teaching) within the Zen tradition became highlighted in such a way that in many current presentations of Zen the world of things and social relations appear as less real or valuable than some imputed underlying essence or nature, e.g., the so-called absolute is privileged over the so-called relative and the Teaching of the Two Truths (ultimate truth and conventional truth) becomes a “Teaching of the One Truth and the One Falsehood”.  This is precisely the kind of thinking that Dogen attempts to correct by helping us see how we “paint” both elements in each of those pairs of dualities.

This traditional interpretation of Dogen’s intent deserves a place in any discussion of ethics in Zen. But I think that an even more radical interpretation of his understanding is possible. What makes Dogen's thinking so much more radical is his focus on the specific, the particular. Each painted rice cake is different, and it is in the very differences among them that they find their similarity and in the fact that they are all painted; they are all the results of this painting activity. I think it is hard to find in the Zen tradition as poetic and as clear a presentation of Nagarjuna's isomorphic rendering of samsara and nirvana. To my mind, Dogen here seems to be moving the relationship of emptiness and form -- and the Two Truths (ultimate and conventional) -- from the realm of metaphysics to the realm of semantics, i.e., from a discussion about the “real” to one about the “true.” Here things are real in their specificity, their particularity, and emptiness is no more real than the form of those things. The “ultimate” does not hide behind or below the “conventional.” It is not some real rice cake devoid of any painting.

Gretchen Targee, 2011

There is not a single activity, just as it is, that is not a picture. Our present endeavor is made possible solely by virtue of a picture.

The ultimate is no less painted than the conventional forms that are immediately available to our experience. Dogen here poetically presents Nagarjuna’s “emptiness of emptiness.”

Life and death, their comings and goings, are all painted pictures painting pictures; supreme enlightenment is indeed a painted picture painting a picture. All the Dharma world and the empty sky there is nothing whatsoever that is not painting a picture a painted picture.
This emptiness does not render things unimportant or without merit or nonexistent, nor is this emptiness some ineffable reality about which we can point but never describe. I believe one can read Dogen here as entertaining the possibility that the ultimate truth is that there is no “ultimate” truth, as rejecting the idea that the truth of a statement must hang on some ultimate nature of reality, on some unpainted rice cake. This is a deeply radical teaching that I believe can be read in Dogen's treatment of painting a rice cake.

Perhaps what I'm suggesting is an overly naturalistic reading of Dogen. But I believe that the intense attention to the particular that Dogen in this fascicle encourages us to undertake constitutes a much-needed corrective to what has appeared too often in Zen as a primary focus on an experience or insight of oneness or a privileging of some absolute. It sometimes seems that every scandal in the Zen world comes with the accessory of some such privileging, some retreat into the “one body” of non-differentiation.

As Dogen says repeatedly, “Nothing is hidden.” The “sweetcake” enso is painted; the “empty” enso is painted. We would all benefit from our attending to our painting and not be distracted by a craving for the unpainted. As he says, "There is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.”

* Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.116.

Gretchen Targee, 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sweetcake Enso Exhibit at the Rochester Zen Center, Friday and Saturday October 14th and 15th

Terryn Maybeck

The Rochester Zen Center is pleased to present the eighth Sweetcake Enso exhibit, adding five sangha artists.  Terryn Maybeck's felted wool ensos bond interlocking fibers in all directions, Gretchen Targee's one-stroke brush painting expands the moment in movement and stillness, Amaury Cruz pays a Zen tribute to Andy Warhol, and James Hatley's and Rosette Schureman's photographs dwell on the passing moments of daily life.  

In honor of the teacher student relationship all sales will benefit the Rochester Zen Center.   

Please join us for the opening on Friday the 14th from 5:00-9:00, and for viewing on Saturday, October 15th from 1:00-5:00.

Artists in the current Sweetcake Enso exhibit are: Miya Ando, Ross Bleckner, Alison Shin’ei Brown, Nonin Chowaney, Amaury Cruz, Noah Fischer, Todd Gilens, Max Gimblett, James Hatley, Gregg Hill, Theresa Lahaie, Genine Lentine, Ki-chung Eiko Liz Lizee, Terryn Maybeck, Karen Schiff, Tina Soen Schrager, Rosette Schureman, Fran Shalom, Bridget Spaeth, Gretchen Targee, Maria Wallace, Alison Watkins, Timothy Wicks, and Michael Wenger.

Rosette Schureman

Friday, July 29, 2011

Ungraspable Mind, Deep Time, and the Bodhisattva Precepts

Kojip Richard Herman, Flowers Bloom, 36x60", 2007

by Taigen Dan Leighton

In his essay “Ungraspable Mind” written in 1241 in his epic Shōbōgenzō “True Dharma Eye Treasury,” the Japanese Sōtō Zen founder Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253) relates an old teaching story about the classic master Deshan (780-865; Jpn.: Tokusan).  Deshan had been a self-described expert scholar on the Diamond Sutra, an important Mahayana Buddhist wisdom text.  When Deshan heard about Chan/ Zen teachers claiming to point directly at awakened mind beyond words and letters, he marched off to challenge them to debate.  Nearing the temple of one such Chan master, Deshan encountered one of those Zen grannies who lived near the temples, and who was selling rice cakes.  She asked Deshan about the backpack full of books he carried, and Deshan boasted about his knowledge of the Diamond Sutra.  Then the old woman told Deshan that she had heard that the Diamond Sutra said that past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped.  She said she would sell Deshan a rice cake if he could say what mind he would take it with.  Poor Deshan was speechless.  So the old lady left without Deshan getting any rice cakes.*

Kojip Richard Herman, Looking Northwest (Bright Patch of Snow), 72x72", 2011

There are many aspects of this story.  Dōgen comments on it in two Shōbōgenzō essays, and is critical of both Deshan and the old lady, suggesting more helpful, illuminating responses they might each have given.  The story goes on that after this encounter, when Deshan was struck speechless, Deshan went to the nearby Chan temple and burned all the commentaries he had come to see as worthless, setting an example for anti-intellectual branches of Zen.  Dōgen, on the other hand, recommends a non-dualistic, expressive approach to studying scriptures and traditional Zen stories, not based on the boastful approach of accomplishment that Deshan demonstrated.  Dōgen sees sutra and koan study not as part of some program of stages of attainment, but as a form of expression and ritual enactment for re-minding of omnipresent Buddha nature, much like Dōgen’s view of zazen itself.

But the main point in this story about Deshan for the purposes of this article is simply the notion of past, future, and present mind as all ungraspable.  The past is already gone, no longer here for us; the future is not here yet, merely a potential somewhere out there; and the present is passing by and away very quickly with each word—we cannot get a hold of it.  This is all a basic fact of reality.  Nevertheless, in our sitting we can experience the fullness of time’s movements, being present here as we witness and enact all passing by in many directions.

Kojip Richard Herman, Untitled, 2008

Mind and reality are both truly inconceivable.  Our human perceptions and powers of conceptualization cannot possibly capture the complexity of reality.  The inclusive Tendai school of Buddhism, focusing on the Lotus Sutra but also the whole range of skillful bodhisattva practices and teachings, and in which Dōgen was ordained initially before he founded Sōtō Zen, proclaims that in each thought moment there are actually three thousand realms.  Our reality is that complex and rich, far beyond definition or explanation.  And time itself is illusive, ever fleeting.  In the Chinese Huayan school, based on the visionary Avatamsaka Sutra, or Flower Ornament scripture, ten times are depicted, the past, present, and future of the past, of the future, and of the present itself, along with the combination of all nine of those as a tenth.  But each of these ten times is also as ungraspable as the Zen granny’s rice cakes were for Deshan.

Kojip Richard Herman, Seven Trees, 48x60",nd.

Some times people have a strong tendency to regret the past, or fear the future, and then seek escape into some imaginary, static, narrow “Be here now.”  But time continuously moves, and is fundamentally not confined to some objective, external container where we can find some fixed point in which to settle.  Among Dōgen’s various teachings about temporality is his celebrated essay on “Being Time,” in which he encourages study of the complexity and multidimensional aspect of time.  But also Dōgen strongly affirms that time is not merely external, but is exactly our existence, including our awareness, activity, and physical presence and posture.  Time is our fluid experience itself, as we can see from our sense of some meditation periods whizzing by, while others seem interminable, even though the clock may indicate they are equal.

To fully appreciate Dōgen’s teaching of being time, we must now also incorporate what the contemporary Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy calls Deep Time.  To fully engage the presence of all time, or of being time, requires a deeper awareness of the interconnectedness of time.  Our sense of the present is deeply informed by the stories we tell about the past, often called “history.”  And this awareness also includes the images we may have about the so-called future, including our hopes, fears, and various imaginations, both our own and those in our culture around us.  Just as we may look back with gratitude to ancient masters in the past, we may develop respect and relationship with beings of the future.  To fully be time, we must reinhabit the fullness of time, all ten times and beyond.  So true practice of the reality of temporality is not a matter of some theoretical timelessness, but of time-fullness.

Kojip Richard Herman, Open Space with Distant Escarpment, 60x60", 2011.  

Such practice of timefullness and reinhabiting time enriches our present and presence.  We can see how our being time is deeply interconnected with all times, just as we are interconnected with all beings in space.  Indeed, these considerations of the complexity and richness of deep time enhance the meaning and possibilities of our lives.  We can re-member and meet the past and future beings of our selves, and of other beings, right now, and befriend them.

These days this deep time may also be a source of deep sadness.  We must face the dire threat to the future of the planet from the irrevocable changes and damage already created to our planet itself in the last twenty and forty years, created through climate disruption and other environmental devastation due to corporate pollution for personal profit, and also from our own reckless human consumption.** 

Kojip Richard Herman, After Bruegel, 2007

Consideration of temporality is not just some theoretical, abstract philosophical discussion.  Our engagement with being time in deep time has many practical implications for our meditation, and for expressions of meditative awareness in our everyday activities.  Because of our interconnectedness through the ten times, we need the guidelines of the bodhisattva precepts.  These precepts encourage turning toward Buddha, or awakening; not causing harm, but supporting life and vitality; including in our caring and kindness All being, not just those we like, or with whom we have special familial or tribal links.  These precepts are how we acknowledge and respond to the reality and complexity and interactivity of time.

We must not ignore our karma, both our personal and our collective societal karma.  We must recognize cause and effect, in all times, and how we are related to those times.  Recognizing our particular limitations, including our abilities as well as shortcomings, is how we face reality.  Everything in our world is an expression of this web of deep time.  Like being time itself, karma is not just some external objective container that we can observe at a distance.  We have the ability to respond, and response-ability for being together with all time.  This responsibility is the Buddha work we engage when we take on awakening practice.  Everything that happens around us is the product of innumerable causes and conditions in the ten times.  And everything we do or say has effects in the future, and elsewhere in time.  The future is not set, so our activities and awareness always can make a huge difference to the future and the present.  With all the difficulties, our engagement of time also allows possibilities.  We can recognize the possibility of wholeness, and see how that may be integrated with the particular patterns and difficulties of the times in which we practice.  If Deshan was open to his responsibility to all time, he could have refreshed himself with the old woman’s rice cakes in any of those times.

Kojip Richard Herman, Tree in Soft Light, 2009


*  See Dōgen’s two essays, “Ungraspable Mind,” in Kazuaki Tanahashi, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo (Shambhala, 2010), pp. 191-204.
**  See the important book, Bill McKibben, Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010).

Taigen Dan Leighton is a Soto Zen priest and Dharma successor in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. He was priest ordained and received Dharma transmission from Tenshin Reb AndersonTaigen is now resident Dharma Teacher for Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago.  He teaches online at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, from where he has a Ph.D., and also teaches at universities in Chicago.  Taigen’s forthcoming book is Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry, and he is author of Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression and Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra. He is co-translator and editor of several Zen texts including: Dogen’s Extensive Record; Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi; and Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community; and he has also contributed articles to many other books and journals. 

Unsullied and idealized, Kojip Richard Herman's landscape paintings are imbued with pastoral nostalgia that very few contemporary painters are willing to approach.   This is largely because as a genre landscape painting has never occupied a time before nationalism, colonialism, and the territorial conflicts over resources that we now understand to have devastated planet Earth.  Yet in Kojip's paintings the conventions of landscape painting are dramatically driven towards the sublime, as though our viewing of grasses and leaves, rocks and clouds, could be swept towards the summit of Mount Meru.  Where for earlier generations manifest divinity determined a right, contemporary nostalgia is in Kojip Richard Herman's paintings also an expression of care and sublime aspiration for what has been left to us.  To view more of Kojip's paintings and to read about his work, please visit his website here.

Kojip Richard Herman, Niagara Escarpment at Georgian Bay, 2007

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sweetcake Enso at Dharma Rain, July 7th-9th!

Mi, Mystery, acrylic on canvas, 20"x20", 2010

The seventh Sweetcake Enso exhibit opens tomorrow at Dharma Rain in Portland Oregon!  Above is Mystery, by Mi.  The artist writes:
Purple.  It’s a basic and familiar color, yet naturally rare, occurring only in the occasional flower or in the deepening shadows of twilight.  I used it in this painting as a jumping off point to examine the way in which our minds identify objects — such as colors — and can be lulled into a sense of complacency when it comes to apparent knowledge.  Each square represents a purple, but which one is the true color, the one we mean when we use the word to designate it in the generic sense?  A “square” way of thinking — the one favored by the analytical mind — is all sharp edges, certain corners, and clear differences.  Yet it leaves the question unanswered — multiple purples proliferate in response. A more subtle approach, that characterized by “circular” thinking, allows for sinuous realities and unity through blending, thus coherency (here represented by the color white) can emerge.  This is the zen mind!

Artists in this exhibit are Sanford Biggers, Shin'ei Alison Brown, Noah Fischer, Todd Gilens, Max Gimblett, Howard Kohen Houseknecht, Gregg Hill, Chris Hoge, Sybil Shinju Kavan, Bren Kleinfelder, Theresa Lahaie, Geri P'Arang Larkin, Genine Lentine, Kichung Eiko Liz Lizee, Richard Koken Macken, Mi, Karen Schiff, Tina Soen Schrager, Fran Shalom, Bridget Spaeth, Lesley Strother, Karen Swallow, Maria Wallace, Allison Watkins, and Timothy Wicks.

The exhibit will be held in the Zendo at the corner of SE 25th and Madison, Thursday from 7:00-9:00 pm, Friday from 7:00-9:00 pm, and Saturday from 10:00-4:00.  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Endangered Species: An Interview with Todd Gilens

Todd Gilens, data points for Butterflybus, January through March, 2011, with thanks to Eric Fischer.

Since mid-January four city buses dedicated to threatened wildlife in the San Francisco Bay Area have been making their rounds.  The following interview is with Todd Gilens, the artist who made possible the Endangered Species mass transit project.  Todd exhibited in the fourth Sweetcake Enso exhibit, at the San Francisco Zen Center.

Catherine Spaeth: You have an ear for making a strong pitch that is taken up with interest, a design sensibility that is much more drawn to community discourses.  In your own writings there is an expression of your interest to step outside of the white walls of an art context and out into the context of community. The skill of negotiating with administrations and being able to convey to them the possibilities of something that has not been realized, this is a pretty explicit skill to have.  At MTA here in New York it is just not easy to get your voice into those projects. 

Todd Gilens:  The process of selling an idea is definitely part of the work, to bring people into the idea.  They wouldn’t normally encounter this idea in the course of their day, so I am noticing something, some potential, and I’m coming to them and saying, well what would it be like if we look at it this way?   I’m giving them that opportunity to really turn their perspective around on something that is a part of their everyday life. 

CS:  The realization of the project itself is really quite shortlived, I understand there are five buswraps, the San Francisco Garter Snake, the Brown Pelican, the Coho Salmon, the Mission Butterfly, and the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, and they have been moving about since mid-January and will be removed soon?

Todd Gilens, Snakebus (photomontage)

TG:  Actually four buses were done. The snake bus didn’t get wrapped, it was part of the original plan but there was a funding shortfall and I had to decide, what are the four strongest images? the problem of designing for buses is that they are a very long rectangles and with all of the images but for the pelicans a part of the animal image would be cut off.   The snake had this wonderful snaky line that went along the bottom of the bus and up to the top of the windows.If you take a chunk out of the snake it really impedes the sense of animal motion but you can take a chunk out of another animal and your eye completes the image.  I was disappointed in some ways because the San Francisco Garter Snake is really beautiful and it also presented the most challenging image. 

CS:  From the picture on the snake bus it was quite visually dynamic, it wasn’t only the snake it was the sharp spiky grass that was cruising down the street, not softened by the colors of wildflowers or the blue of the ocean, and it had a texture that sprang out from the telephone poles and the whatnots of an urban environment in a really interesting way. I too am now disappointed that the snake didn’t make it. 

This is the vulnerability of projects such as this to things such as funding and politics.

Found here.

In New York City the shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square is a huge bit of mass transportation, and the advertising skins are both inside and outside. They have a very short life, because the advertising is so high profile, so massive. Recently this was only to advertise Lady Gaga’s album.  It was to arrive in only a few days, the date was planted all over the bus.  (It is interesting to note as an aside that this was the same week that the world was to end according to God’s plan, and pamphlets were being handed out only a few feet away.) The life span of those advertising wraps is incredibly short, you are surrounded inside and outside by an outrageous consumerism.  In reading the language around it, I discovered they call it “Upmarket graffiti,” that kind of bus wrapping, have you heard that before?

TG:  No, there’s another one here though, advertising contractors call it wild wrap, not the conventional wrap placement but pasted here or there. I actually haven’t seen it done, perhaps between the design houses’ profit margins and the transit authority’s review process there is just too much uncertainty. Advertising is a transit subsidy and transit all over the country is running huge deficits, so it’s quite a pickle if you want to take public transit space back from the corporate interests. The question for me is: how do these images contribute to how we imagine ourselves into the world – and what kinds of relationships are then nourished on that.

CS: What is amazing about the term “upmarket graffiti” is the seizing upon street cred, and certainly this notion of the wild comes back full swing – your own work really starts with graffiti, I was looking at your birds in the Philadelphia brewery, the Four Stories Man, the bird shadows in the ground, there is a definite sense of the mark in public space that appears to be a beginning not the beginning, but the departure that brings you to this place, to a stronger interest in engaging with public spaces in order to frame a kind of discourse.  These have been, some of them, really quite temporary. The self-portrait deck of cards is another expression of impermanence.

Todd Gilens, Prototype, for more information please visit the artist's website, here.

With regard to the buses it strikes me that  the amount of time that it takes to generate the idea and realize it and the amount of time that is actually out there in the world are quite different senses of time.

You make a comment in the article (available here) on the Endangered Species project that you wrote for Antenna: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture about not allowing the buses to become prescriptive, there is something about the temporary nature of these buswraps that you enjoy.  This is very much involved with the notion of beauty that you describe as something that holds contradictions but that is also a generative transformer.  You write:
Beauty is a powerful force, directed toward stilling, openness and ambiguity. These qualities also describe a relationship to nature at its most essential: wonder, awe, an unsettling, diffident attraction, a feeling that the things in the world exceed our capacity for understanding, knowledge and cognition. Such beauty is able to contain contradictions, to delicately hold together contrarieties without resolution. Beauty is a method that both art and nature wield. It is a generative transformer. Image, symbol, can change minds but not determine them.

What beauty does is not have any claim to an idea but to disperse itself into the world as a variety of provisional experiences, taking in that beauty without any one claim on it. Beauty can’t change minds or determine them, but people will soak it up with all their provisional views and are nonetheless transformed by it.

There is in this project a lovely movement from your own private research towards a pitch moving through a bureaucracy, and then letting loose these beautiful things upon the city with no prescriptive intention but for how they affect people in myriad ways, always from their different perspectives turning to face the environment they are in.  That’s a very lovely movement, lovely passages through all these different moments - idea – pitch – letting loose the realization, aspects of an action in the course of its effects.

TG: Yeah it’s a complex process, layered. I also notice and think about a fractal or nested structure in the work, meaning that a relationship at one scale manifests, transformed at another. For example, the images look realistic from a distance but up close are very grainy. At another level there are personal and collective needs; the collective picture is made of all the personal ones but forms it’s own sense and pattern, yet they are the same thing.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

CS:  Did it feel rather fluid to you that from these buses you then were able to move to the next project, which is the aquarium?

TG:  The aquarium is a new project, I don’t have too much to say at this point because I’m still working out the framework for it, administratively, but from my point of view an urban space is a busy noisy environment; the aquarium is sort of turning that upside down, it’s an underwater world of tunnels, where the fish swim over you, you’re really dealing with the fishes’ world.

 Todd Gilens, interior view of the Aquarium of the Bay.

CS:  So the opposite of the buswrap, the same tube feeling but…

TG:  The bus wraps are reintroducing  the species to the people and their habitats that displaced them.  This is a borrowing from restoration ecology, bringing things back.    The aquarium is a hybrid situation because it is an aquarium, it’s not like people are going into a tunnel into the bay. The fish and their water are brought onto land where people can meet them. I suppose it’s a bit like what the animal-buses are doing: bringing animal experiences, which we have pushed to the margins, closer to ourselves.

CS:  Is there overlap between these two projects or was it in the course of doing business that these two different projects occurred simultaneously?

TG:  Well once you have a contact of some kind, even if it is only visual or through photography, something more can happen. One of the pivots between the two projects is to look a bit at things from the animals’ points of view. As far as the project origins, there is a member organization called SPUR - the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, and I’m a member, and they do advocacy and research work around urban development issues. They came out in the late ‘50s as housing advocates, but now have a much broader purview.  At lunchtime forums they discuss different issues around the city and in 2007 they were discussing transportation, which is where the bus wrap idea got going for me. They organized a visit to the aquarium last fall, a behind the scenes tour.  I had never been before and I thought the institution of an aquarium of rather dull-looking but amazing fish – our neighbors -  and especially the feeling of being transported to an underwater world, was very potent.  I grew up keeping fish in an aquarium and at one point I thought I would become an oceanographer, so that’s how that started, I was in a position to learn these things about the city – not just what humans are doing but the whole bundle.

Todd Gilens, Human Beans, for more information visit the artist's website, here.

CS:  In thinking of your work in relation to Buddhist practice I notice  that on your website you describe a primordial place before evolution where species and stages haven’t yet arrived, where “language ate at the table of landscape.”  For someone who meditates this is not at all difficult to understand as a place without distinction, accessible in that sitting practice.  Do you make the connection yourself in your work, the connection with the environment around you and the social spaces that have already sort of fit themselves in and through to the extent of having an underwater tunnel where we can join the fish, is that at all something that you would want to say is supplemented – not generated by but somehow informed by – another part of your life which is your practice as a Buddhist?

TG:  Yes, definitely.  I think of meditation practice and Buddhist studies and whatever might define a Buddhist lifestyle if you like, and my art practice, as being complementary, almost in the sense of a relationship, as in the other kind of compliment: , “Oh, you’re doing so well!”.  My art practice really is about testing out the dynamics of experience. How do things seem real? How do they relate to each other? How do they change? Buddhism has a lot to say on these themes; my work is where I can explore them in my own way, through my own history and opportunities.

CS:  Is there anything that you want to say or to add to what we’ve already said?

TG:  Yes there are some things I’d like to go back to  - one is the timing of the buses.  Something that interests me in working outside the studio, out in the social spaces, is the interaction of the work with the environment. But saying it that way is a little misleading because the intervention and the environment together are the work.  And so in relation to the end of the project what is meaningful there is that the animals will be let’s say extincted, as a demand for advertising increases.  And so I think we can all understand that relationship of commerce overriding environmental concerns as a microcosm of a familiar process.

Todd Gilens, Four Stories Man, for more information visit the artist's website, here.

CS: This is also something that happened with the Four Stories Man, it was your intention that the demolition of the building is being framed by the work and so what you’re saying here is well, it’s nice to wish that we can always have them but the fact is that we can’t and it becomes an almost more political statement to face the end of the work as an important event.

TG: It’s a recognition of transitoriness, but also what that does to our relationship in the unstable present, it provokes a certain kind of attention. And then there are the records, the photographs, which for me have been very important. They are the magical rear-view mirrors, through which we both access, and sense our separation from, what is gone. It’s a remarkable contradiction to consider and the photographs, because they are stable moments, allow us to return again and again to that separation.

Another thing I’d like to expand on is the idea between the work and public space. In the late 70’s I began putting things around and letting everyday life act on them, doing things like transplanting other people’s garbage from one city to another, in gestures they weren’t visible, as invisible as one can imagine, secret tiny shifts in the relationships of humans and landscape. My work goes back and forth between the studio and the rest of the world.  I came to understand this poverty of my own process. Working in a derelict, abandoned brewery, which was also being used for the adventures of neighborhood kids, using that as a canvas, was so much richer than anything I had experienced in the isolation of the studio.  I began to recognize my own limitations and that I needed this dialogue with the process that is going on around me.

 Todd Gilens, Urban Birds, for more information visit the artist's website, here.

CS:  It’s a huge jump from working in the private spaces, still, of an abandoned brewery and negotiating with a city transit system.  The step you are describing while it felt big at the time has incrementally expanded to the nth degree.  I was speaking with another artist recently who was able to address large historical situations as somehow corresponding with his own developmental maturity in time, responding to history in terms of a similar kind of growing expansiveness.  You’ve always been interested in nature and the environment, but have you seen some kind of a connection to systemic changes in the world that you felt the need to respond to and there was a happy marriage of skills in accord with these changes?

TG:  Like what systemic changes?

CS:  For example, in our own lifetime responses to the environment as an issue have changed considerably. I don’t think that mass transportation was considered to be a response to the environment so much as an economic social need, the practical matter of getting workers from one place to another who couldn’t afford cars, in an economy that was dependent on them.  The new interest in mass transit as a way to protect the environment would be an example of a shift that is historically finding itself outside of your own agency but nonetheless your skills bleed into that change and interest. That’s one example that I can think of, might there be another instance, where there was a readiness in the world and your skills showed up in that readiness?

Photo courtesy of the artist.

TG:  Yes, certainly the problem is to match what one has, one’s abilities and predilections, with the historical conditions. And hopefully also to grow together. This is always a struggle and perhaps at the center for most creative work. The world and my practice is one of bonding, of noticing and responding.  And so in Philadelphia in the 1980’s I was noticing the quality of the abandoned factory buildings, which was also the space I was living and working in. I wondered how did we get to this urban landscape full of empty manufacturing places, what is the meaning of these buildings?   And couldn’t that meaning be shown at some depth?  And so “Urban Birds” came through that process., There was a period of research, a search for an appropriate site, and tracking down the owners – which can be difficult on derelict property.  “Urban Birds” also turned out to be a four-year project. Working with the owners on the one building that it finally happened in became a warm up for the San Francisco Transit Authority. When I moved to the Bay Area in 2002, the natural environment was clearly a dominant aspect of the culture, just as the post-manufacturing landscape of Philadelphia had been twenty years before.

CS:  One of the things at stake in the difference between the studio practice that you describe as having left behind and what you do now, is that there’s a kind of readiness and responsiveness that inspires you in your environmental situation and that’s what compels your work.

TG:  My model or my framework of the process is a dialogue with what’s happening.  It’s much more interesting and gratifying to work on the canvas of a municipal transit system than a sheet of fine paper, though paper does have its advantages. Also maybe I’m a bit of a literal person: if I want to say something about buses, I need actual buses to say it with. But I think there’s also a risk of making work that becomes too topical.  One of the things I try to reach in the opportunity of art-making is for the work to settle down at a primordial or fundamental level, that a hundred or two hundred years from now, five hundred years from now, will still have resonance.  It matters less that the work lasts that long, as that it speaks to those parts of us, the parts that are durable to that degree.

CS:  One of the things that prevents the buses from feeling topical though is how they are moving about in lived space, people are looking for them as they go by, there is a twitter feed, “I just saw the Coho Salmon!,” so there is a mobility in actually lived life that is preventing them from hitting you on the head with a political statement, which would be the fear of an overdetermined topical work.

TG:  There are other things too that I think of more as the refinements of the project.  There’s layers in the projects that have to do with color, for each of the buses there is a dominant color and each of the buses corresponds with each of the four elements; the representation of five classes of animals; and the subtle ways they function in relation to the openings of the bus doors and windows.  At this point the project may be too fresh for me to understand any claim to timelessness or timeless beauty, but my intention is to refine it as best I can.  And there is this process to notice and to look at layer after layer after layer.  Maybe that’s where the public interactions you are speaking of come in. The project is open; it’s mine, but it doesn’t belong to me. It’s made by the people who see it or know of it.

CS:  From the beginning of the project to now has there been a new insight that has changed the import of this for you? Your understanding of what it is?

TG: What I can say about that is that it is astonishingly complex to have the buses out there and to realize the difficulties of every day life on the street in terms of our attention.  In terms of what we let in and what we keep outside.

A part of the fun is that bus riders and pedestrians are connected to this project by a twitter feed, and photographs are being submitted to the website. Here is a photograph of the Mission Butterfly taken by Anthony Brown, found here.

CS:  So the complexity isn’t only a thickening up of meaning it’s equally a loss of meaning, a missing?

TG:  I’m not sure where meaning goes. I think resistance, if that’s part of what is going on, is still a patterned process, a meaningful one.  A lot of people have worked hard to unpack the experience of every day life, urban life in particular, the complexities of ‘What is public space and how does it function?”  That is one of the limits this project is hitting, in the way that a geologist can strike a rock with a hammer to understand it’s qualities.

CS:  Using the buses then as a measure of what makes public space, what is public space, is not ascertainable.

TG:  There’s much we can’t answer, but we can still get a lot of information.  Hitting a wall means we can’t go any further.  But that collision provides information and does allow us to go further, or perhaps to transform the question entirely. The problem is to keep both: knowing and not knowing. We are so intent always on utility and solving problems, but there are other possibilities. What is a tiny butterfly or rare mouse to an ecosystem? It seems, almost nothing; but there they are!

Photograph courtesy of the artist.