this is a postlude: New Geometries

(originally posted on the New Geometries blog)

In 1991, a twenty-something Swiss man named Hans Ulrich Obrist hosted his first show in the kitchen of his student apartment. Over the course of three months, thirty people visited. In a New Yorker profile of the now mega-curator, D.T. Max writes, “the idea of the show was to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life, cleverly curated, could be made special.”

Later, Obrist went on to curate and install art shows in other unusual locations, including a country house where Nietzsche wrote part of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a hotel restaurant in the Swiss Mountains, a hotel room in Paris, where nine artists created clothes for the closet, and finally, in and around the Zurich sewers, featuring art about lavatories and digestion.

Though this particular segment of Obrist’s biography was unknown to me when I conceived New Geometries, the idea of his first show—to make ordinary spaces of human life special—was certainly one of mine as well. And many of Obrist’s convictions and passions resonate with me: his view of curatorial work as “junction-making between objects, between people, between people and objects;” his interest in unfinished and incomplete work; his fondness for interactivity, participation, and ephemeral aesthetics. Max writes: “The art [Obrist] is most passionate about doesn’t hang on walls and often doesn’t have a permanent emanation. It can take the form of a dance or a game or a science experiment, and often leaves nothing behind but memories and an exhibition catalogue.”

The three-hour stretch of the New Geometries show that I hosted and curated on Saturday night was a frenzy: in total, over 150 people passed through. At one point, there were over 70 people in my apartment, and we had a line going out the door. Friends, friends of friends, and complete strangers mingled in one room. The work of twenty artists, of all different mediums and forms, was on display, including: a multi-colored quilt, a yarn drawing on canvas, photographs of Devil’s Gulch in Montara, a three-dimensional painted sculpture in glowing neon green and yellow. A performance artist danced in a corner near the upstairs bathroom, scattering dirt, fire, and water on the hardwood floor. Food installations entranced and delighted show-goers: kimchi waffles, post-modern lunchables, sugar cookie rounds amidst hundreds of tea light candles, and do-it-yourself geodesic grape structures. A live terrarium in a half-dome provided an immersive escape into a wild environment of mosses, leaves, and bark.

At 9 PM that night, after all the candles were extinguished and the grape structures dissembled, after what was left of the food was swept into the garbage and guests had trickled out, after I had used up every last bit of energy in conversation—I wanted only silence and experienced only exhaustion. That night, despite gnawing hunger pangs, I was too tired to chew any food, and drank Nyquil to fall asleep. Real talk.

Now a week later, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experience. Weeks of preparation, work, installation, and collaboration—What did I hope would come of it all?

First, I hoped for CONNECTION—connections between artists, connections that would lead to creative opportunities, connections between people who otherwise would not find themselves in the same room. This happened! Even in a small city like San Francisco, there are so many disparate worlds. and often the gaps between those worlds are far and wide. They remain unbridged without effort, and so they go on, in their separate ways, ignorant of each other. I want to change this. Above all, I believe physical proximity fosters meaningful relationships that can create positive, social change for a fragmented community. I am passionate about an economy that supports and sustains creative work while bridging socio-economic differences. I hope that connections with artists and their art would be a first step for people to make both emotional and financial investments in creative work.

Second, INSPIRATION. One of the most gratifying emails I received after the show said this: “I get down on SF more often than I care to admit, but last night reminded me of why this city has so much to offer—both artistically and spiritually.” The in-person experience of art is strikingly different from disembodied encounters with it online or on Instagram, but in the constant stream of productivity we’re tethered to (especially here in San Francisco), seeking out art can be difficult. By providing a novel artistic experience that was at once intimate and accessible, I hoped that people would see that art can be awakening, challenging, and worth thinking about. In his book No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton writes that in response to art, “one finds in himself totally new capacities for thought and vision and moral action . . . his very response makes him better and different. He is conscious of a new life and new powers, and it is not strange that he should proceed to develop them." This is significant!

Third, CONTINUATION. My hope is that New Geometries is only the beginning. In the introduction to Obrist’s book do it, a compendium of artistic instructions from over 100 artists, he writes: “Do It rejects the notion of the original in favor of an open-ended conception of the creation of the work . . . Unlike the theater, Do It has neither beginning nor end. No two versions of Do It instructions are ever identical when carried out. Via the list of instructions, the specific profane daily environment flows into the exhibition space rendering porous the limits dividing interior and exterior space . . . Each exhibition is yet another truth.”

The intention of Do It is, in part to inspire a never-ending chain reaction in which artists continue to create work based on the artistic instructions given to them. I too hope that New Geometries would spark a chain reaction—that in seeing the possibilities of creative, communal gatherings, in knowing that, even on a small scale, art in its many forms can be dynamic, fluid, responsive, non-institutional, and transcendent, others would feel compelled to host art shows in their own homes or embark on spontaneous, artistic endeavors.

My point is this: anyone can put on a show like New Geometries. You just have to DO IT.


"If what distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom is speech, then literature—and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution— is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species."
-Joseph Brodsky

"Why would anyone write a poem in this wrecked world? And really, how could they? Massive doubt, failed love, shitty thoughts, empty spirit, a dead history compelling a transfixed vision, these are devastations that might overwhelm and silence anyone; and silence, for a poet, is a prison. It's where the descent hits bottom, it's where the poet either faces or does not face all the risks of failed comprehension."

"Answers are as transient and foolish as we are, and poets generally aren't in the solution business. In fact, if you're a poet and you're going to pose questions, they'd better approach the unanswerable. Why? Is it that only questions without answers are worth asking? Is it that the muse needs courting and doesn't usually go with know-it-alls and wise guys? Is it that questions salt and preserve life, keeping the mystery fresh?"

"If rock bottom, if total bust for a poet is silence, then the questions must be unanswerable, without remedy, to provoke the central event, which is language. Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning, and if language is the main draw in poetry, silence is the occasion for it, the ground of renewal. Questions precede speech; they're language tensely coiled, expectant."

"How can one write poetry after Auschwitz?"
-critic Theodor Adorno

"And how can one eat lunch?"
-poet Mark Strand

All of the above is excerpted from Charles D'Ambrosio's fantastic explication of Richard Hugo's poem, "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," which was published in his collection of essays, Loitering. Highly recommended.


this is a new year's letter

Happy 2015!

I sent out this New Year's letter to friends and family a couple days ago. Writing an annual letter has become a decade-long tradition, and it continues with this one. Enjoy.


Dear friends and family,

I am sitting on the floor of a friend’s one-room cabin in Mendocino with a gash on my right knee. It’s a red ridge with blue, bruised edges—nature’s brand upon my body, proof that earlier today, when we were hiking through Russian Gulch, we went off the trail and found ourselves on the wrong side of the river in a fern canyon. There were fallen trees all around us, and we kept climbing over them, swinging our legs over their slippery, fungi-speckled trunks. We were heedless, determined to make it through the forest on a mere semblance of a trail with treacherous and muddy, leaf-swamped ledges. Losing ourselves in the wilderness was not a loss; rather, the experience was intimate and serendipitous, as we embedded ourselves deeply into the forest folds.

Somewhere along the way, a sharp nub of a branch scraped me badly and dug into my skin—I was careless, but sufficiently carefree. And no matter, you can’t blame nature for your pain when you collide with it, or when, like a storm, it heaves itself upon you. You cannot question the logic of the seasons, or coerce the rain into watering the earth. These are matters of fact, the mysterious ways of nature to which we ascribe beauty (a sunset) or catastrophe (an earthquake) on our own terms. The same waves that collapse boats also thrill surfers. When a tree falls, the earth grows over it, and life flourishes on it and through it and within the hollow cavern of its trunk. The sun that brings life also withers, also burns up.

This past year contained so much grief—that is what I remember most clearly about 2014, despite its many moments of shimmering joy, because tragedy echoes loud and long. Its afflictions spread surely because grief has no bounds, and it permeates, without losing its intensity, in the spaces where affinities are deep and bonds are strong—where there is love and empathy. Within community, grief is amplified, but healing is also easier. Community makes grief less terrible to bear because no emotion is possessed in solitude; true community refuses to alienate.

But still—as family members fell sick, as friends were taken away, as loved ones passed, as relationships were broken, as bigotry begot slaughter, as death followed and haunted us, as tragedy befell and uprooted us—, we asked, How could this be? How does the world rage on this way? How do we live in this darkness? I am reminded of a sorrow-filled scene in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in which 11-year-old Cal Trask is praying and crying in his bedroom: “Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be,” he says. In agony and desperation, he pleads to God, I think, not only because he sees darkness and evil in himself, but also because he sees in the world what he sees in himself, and he hates what he sees. The brokenness in him is the brokenness around him. Where is the light in all this?

I’ve tried to make sense of these passings. At first, it seemed as if understanding the logic of tragedy would offer some consolation, but when I looked for logic, I only found pain. Among the few consolations I find to be true—the ones that don’t diminish or write off sorrow—, one is in nature herself, which helps me to see beyond the immediate without dismissing the present. These systems, cycles, and phenomena that we witness in the natural world—so intricately wrought, nuanced, and complex—are in fact, in all things—they must be! Surely our human lives, so short and fleeting, are mysteries we cannot solve, mysteries that abide, mysteries by which we must abide. Mortality, however, reveals itself: in our freedom, as well as in our limits. Perhaps our helplessness is revelatory.

In the hidden gulches and throngs of mountain trees, let me not forget I am so small, walking among giants! Let me remember how grand and majestic this universe is, hidden and revealed according to God’s principles. If light can cast itself differently everyday, if the ashes of wildfire can nourish the soil, then there must be some hope of renewal to cling to. “Salvation might ache before it heals,” wrote Leslie Jamison. There is more here than what my eyes can see, rhythms that I still cannot hear. Because there is more than I can take in and understand, disavowing resolution can be a relief. Letting go of my compulsion to know and understand requires humility and willingness. The all-embracing arms of nature demand that we let go of all that is petty and unimportant. As such, every hike, every seaside sojourn, and every forest wander has felt like a sigh. Every rain and every arrival at a mountain peak has been a reminder of hope, that there is a better world to come. The world whispers, Forget not my beauty, forget not God’s grace, in spite of it all.

Nature is sorrow. Even when it relieves sorrow, nature does not transfigure sorrow the way grace, I think, transfigures all things, all people. I have seen grace in practice most clearly in my community this year, a community of friends—of brothers and sisters, really—that bestows grace upon one another. In 2014, I found a rootedness in San Francisco, which means that for the first time in my life, I feel the possibility of longevity in a place. Early in the year, I moved from one side of the Mission District to another, and now I live around the corner from four of my best friends. This has been a strange and surreal blessing. We share so much, both tangible and intangible; we possess in common; we have committed our lives to one another.

The greatest joy this year, by far, amidst all the sorrow, has been deepening these friendships: rejoicing and mourning together, seeking to understand who we are in relation to each other, and inviting others to partake in our sweet communion. We feasted on tres leches cake, we made granola, we cried so much, we planted fava beans, we hiked, we wrote letters, we climbed Bernal Heights, we collaborated on art projects, we went succulent-hunting, we took nightly strolls—every minute of all this strengthened our ability to love one another, especially when sorrow descended upon us.

To be rooted in a place, I have learned, is to be rooted in its people. It is community that grafts together the broken branches. Regarding grafting scions onto trees, I read: “When roots make physical contact with each other, they often grow together.” In what I have seen among my community this year, I believe this to be true.

In 2014, I quit my steady tech job. I traded a sheltered and bounded office life for the possibility of more meaningful work. No more than a month after I left, the founders of Edition Local—merely an idea then—found me, and I began writing the stories of craftspeople and artists living in West Marin, which was a serendipitous privilege. If my own community of friends helped to plant my roots in San Francisco, then learning the history of these towns, surveying the geography of hope in these landscapes, and discovering the narratives of the people who have lived here for decades has surely fortified and anchored those roots, stirring in me a deep sense of belonging and sensitivity to the land. These words from Rainer Maria Rilke’s diary resonate: “I feel that I am on the way to become an intimate of everything that beauty preaches; that I am no longer a mere listener who receives its revelations, that I am becoming more and more … someone who heightens their answers and confessions with discerning questions.”

Yet despite the feeling of rootedness in San Francisco, I am still wandering, as I think we—pilgrims on this earth—are always doing. Quitting my job was an explicit point of departure, but I think, whether physically or metaphysically, we are departing and arriving everyday. In these comings and goings, we can choose not to be complacent; we can choose how we want to live, by which principles we will conform our lives, instead of conforming to the cultural narratives and ideals that have been thrust upon us. We can see beyond the illusion of parameters. We do not need to know where we are going, but we can choose how we will walk.

Even without a destination, wandering is not without a sense of direction, for you can orient yourself around what is good and true and constant. Stephen Prothero suggests that wandering is not exile, but rather an opportunity that fosters new ideas and creative insights. The essence of wandering, he says, is “moving without destination into the unknown and opening yourself in the process to surprises.” No matter how daunting and unknown, the wilderness is rich in beauty and hidden glories; do not dismiss the possibility of miracles. Know this: you do not have to travel the world to see it. It is right here before your eyes. You only have to commit to seeking, and surely you will find. You will find what John Haines calls, the “hidden [places] obscured by what we have built upon it … Whenever we penetrate the surface of the life around us that place and its spirit can be found.” So go on, seek and find. Know and unknow. Root and uproot yourself. The new year lies ahead, and in its wake, I am hopeful. Happy 2015.

My friends, I hope to continue to tell the stories of where I pass through and how I walk. I started an email newsletter this year, and I continue to write on my blog. I would love to hear from you. Thank you for listening, thank you for reading, thank you for responding.

I leave you with this line from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, one of my favorite novels of 2014:
“So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.”

With love,