Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I am a member of 'Home University of Roscommon and Leitrim' (H.U.R.L.) and we have had a number of events where we do lectures. On three occassions now I have delivered this lecture on 'Deeper into Nothing' and thought it best to now archive it here. The first time was at The Dock Arts Centre, Carrick on Shannon, Co. Leitrim in Feb 2010 and twice over the course of the Flat Lake festival in Clones, Co. Monaghan, in June 2010. I made a handout for each time as well which I have included at base of post.

Deeper into Nothing

'Deeper into Nothing' is a project I launched with a website on the 9th of the 9th 2009. What I mean by nothing is the seeming nothing or the limitless potential of the present moment and what I have done with this project is create more of a technique or process rather than something which will end up as a conventional stand-alone piece or body of work. In fact the true final work I see being created by the viewer themselves if they choose to embrace this concept into their lives. Although work which could be exhibited is also being created alongside the documentation of the process.

I first need to give you some background and show you some documentation to explain how I got to this point. It came about after doing what turned out to be a 3 year land art piece on past, present and future. Which I began on the 6th of the 6th 2006 when I built an additional stone mound at an ancient stone structure on Kilronan mountain near Keadue in Co. Roscommon. I used stone to signify the present, as it's a material which doesn't betray its age and meant that my mound could have potentially just been built the moment before the viewer sees it. Then on 7/7 2007 for one night only I illuminated the cross that sits on top of the megalithic cairn at Sheemore in Co. Leitrim with red filters. Fixing it firmly I hoped as a memory of the past for those who saw it and an event of the past for those who didn't. That brought me to 8/8 2008 when I put up a website that both documented the project and revealed the final location, which was a viewing point I had begun to make, again from stone, which was north of the previous two sites and connected to the others in a straight line which ran well over 8 miles. This of course was the future point where I was suggesting that people could come to stand on a clear day and imagine themselves just a few seconds into their future and then to look back towards their past and present selves and would hopefully see more clearly than perhaps ever before where they actually existed in time. I am well aware that this concept to some people will seem a rather minor revelation but never the less I thought it was important to make something like this in the landscape in the hope it could bring people to this natural place, literally high above their everyday worries and concerns and in a very physical and visual sense allow them the opportunity to clearly see the obvious in what was hoped would be an unforgettable way. I had thought that this project would be over at this point, but this was when it started to get really interesting for me. What really was the moment and could I explore that revealed aspect of the project further?

In Taoism they refer to something called the wu which means "void" or "nothingness". But to them Wu is not simple nothingness either, but rather a formless and infinite potential. To balance this for a moment with the Christian tradition, St. Augustine said, "Where there is nothing there is God." One obvious artist and composer who has explored this area of the seeming nothing and has also been influenced by Eastern thought was John Cage with his famous 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence which was really designed to give the listener a new appreciation of the constant background noise. But I’d like to bring this concept even further up to date for you and mention what was one of my favourite shows, Seinfeld. This show was pitched by its creators as the show about nothing. The executives at NBC were understandably nervous about this and initially famously commissioned just 4 episodes after the pilot aired. Of course the episodes were full of something which they even managed to make funny. When they were commissioned for a second series, which was still only for a paltry 7 episodes, the creators chose the first one to be about the characters simply waiting to be served at a Chinese restaurant. The network hated this idea but allowed them to shoot it anyway. But even after it was made and they could see that it was funny they still insisted it be shown at the very end of the series in case it damaged the still delicate audience perception of this new show. Of course once that particular episode aired it was a big hit, no one had seen anything like this before on network TV and in many ways that episode came to define what people would expect from the show in the future. The writer's unrelenting examination of the minutiae of the characters lives was I feel a great example of how infinite and appealing the seeming nothing can be.

In my early twenties I read Colin Wilson and through him discovered the mystic Gurdjieff. In France in the 1930’s he had founded what he called his ‘School for the Harmonious Development of Man’, where he had set himself up on a farm where he lived with his family. Students would come to stay there to learn from him and also help out in the daily chores of life there. One of the techniques he had for awakening the true self from what he called the robot or sleeping self was called ‘Conscious Labours‘. On arrival many students would be given a spade and told to dig a hole or drain somewhere and Gurdjieff would come by during the day to see how they were getting on. If he observed that they were digging in a negative resistant manner, as most of his students would be, as they were mostly middle class academics not used to this treatment or expecting it, he would say, “I’ve decided I want the hole over there now, fill in what you’ve done and start a new one.” As you can imagine many people left the first day, believing him to be a charlatan but this was a test he used to weed out the people he knew would struggle to commit to his intensive method, which itself was called ‘The Work‘. In the evenings he would become more of a traditional guru and would lecture his students on his beliefs, that man had become lazy and was unknowingly allowing his automatic, robotic self to experience his life for him, and that man could really be described as living in a state of sleep. He was hoping that at some point these students of his would realise that as they were there anyway they might as well trust their teacher and embrace the whole experience, including whatever physical hardships might arise. He knew that if we could first again take control of the physical body everything mental would then fall more easily into place. What he wanted them to do through 'Conscious Labours' was to reach a point of acceptance, of the situation and of the moment. With digging for example, if they just could stop resisting it and wishing they were somewhere else and could begin to consciously embrace the activity they could suddenly wake up to themselves and see how they had just managed to overcome their automatically resistant response. Once they had found this out they could dig all day, within physical limitations of course, and would finally be enjoying the act for itself and would be at last living consciously in the moment and yes the moment did have depth. It was in fact infinite as their stimulated minds now shot off in all directions of thought as they finally again tapped into their own will, rediscovering their true selves in the process. They could still just as easily fall asleep again if thrown by another situation but once they learned and understood the technique they should be alright but it would still take constant effort on their part. That was why so few people were able for this way, the fourth way to enlightenment, as Gurdjieff called it. He once stated that we all need to keep making new alarm clocks to keep waking each other up, I see much of my art as just these alarm clocks.

So what did I do with this ancient piece of wisdom? I developed it into a technique for both creating art and living life. My credo became: once you can handle the nothing then you can really deal with the something. You could ask and may even be thinking, why even bother with the boring stuff? Because this feeling of boredom is just the resistance I've been talking about and I believe that once we learn how to deal with the most difficult, boring and unpromising situations, then we can deal much better with everything we enjoy and potentially nothing will ever be truly boring for us again. In his later years William Burroughs assistant said that his employer would have made an excellent prisoner because he enjoyed having an unchanging routine which did not incorporate much obvious external stimulation. But Burroughs still managed to find endless inspiration and never complained about being bored. As I have found myself, by going deeper into the seeming nothing, new things emerge from what were previously thought to be the most unpromising of areas, while the most promising on the surface can turn out to be far emptier than first suspected.

Regarding the day to day aspects of this technique; when I first moved into my house I would consciously approach the most unpromising jobs in my garden before tackling the more obviously easy and attractive ones. I remember the corners were the most neglected and difficult to reclaim from weeds, rubbish and landscape. These had previously been areas I was resisting and I also knew I didn't really have to deal with if I didn't want to and would still have ended up with a nice looking garden. But once I put all of my energy and concentration into finding ways to deal with these tougher areas I found everything else that needed to be done in the garden or house just flowed. Something fundamental had shifted in me, maybe I had gained more confidence in my abilities, lost all resistance to whatever happened to come up in the moment or could simply now see everything from a clearer perspective. Also when I was working the night shift in a supermarket back when I moved from Dublin first I came to see it like being in one big Samuel Beckett play. This helped me embrace what I saw as the absurdity of it and each night I would happily play my role and would get a lot of things out of it once I was not fighting and resisting being there. Like doing the work well and with a good grace and getting to know new people and still getting to have the craic with them. But once quitting time came I was still equally glad to be getting a break from it, but that night I would again feel very comfortable returning to play my role. Luckily, prior to this in 2004 I done what I called a 'secret residency' at Dublin Airport while working for 6 months as a baggage handler. This experience had already taught me some of the strategies I was now employing in this job.

This leads quite well into how I brought this concept more fully into my own art. I began my 'Deeper into Nothing' project by consciously using the most unpromising and uncreative materials I could think of like stencils and rubber stamps. At first I used these to simply stencil out the title ‘Deeper into Nothing‘ on various everyday objects, like the log you saw earlier, then I moved on to various paper mediums but I started getting more repetitive about it, challenging myself to go beyond my point of resistance where I would become lost in the action itself and the moment of doing it. There was a touch of madness in some of this but I got it to the point where I could stomach planning and making out whole series of these things which would have been frustrating in the extreme to do before but now, when done with right intent I could find pleasant and even meditative to carry out. I also at this time decided I needed to introduce another word and I felt that Trust was something you had to have for going deeper into nothing. At this point I was using things like envelopes and baggage tags because these are things which go on a journey which is what we are all ultimately on. But the question is do we choose to live moment by moment while on this journey or spend it living in our past or imagined futures. I also progressed to setting myself a goal of completing a conceptual piece in a very unpromising location within a very limited timeframe. This I also completed with relative ease and it can now be viewed on the website and on YouTube. This process I feel forces an artist to make work they would never normally have made if they took their more familiar and usual routes. I have learned that working with a truly blank or unpromising canvas can only but bring up something deeper from inside but it does take that extra effort to make it happen. That same push that we need to give ourselves if we are ever to achieve anything of true worth. I always did tend to make work from the inside anyway but now I can actually understand why that was such a good way to be and from now on I want to cultivate that approach even more.
'Deeper into Nothing' project launched 9/9/09
followed on from three year project on past, present & future
where present was revealed anew as the only state in which we can inhabit.
about the seeming nothing of the present moment
about not resisting things and going into whatever the moment contains
about deeply exploring those things and moments, however unpromising.
as once you can deal with the nothing you can handle the something
there is a technique within this for both creating art & enriching life
regarding the former
by limiting time or yourself to one highly unpromising thing or location
and making that extra effort
new things and processes are forced to emerge.
regarding the latter
acceptance of situations & circumstances no matter what they contain
with trust and no resistance from moment to moment
deeper appreciations & information emerge.