On Bricolage

I came across the idea of bricolage in Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in LIfe and Art, where he describes the bricoleur as an artist of limits, making do with whatever is at hand. I related immediately to this with regard to my cooking and my radio work, in which I aim to create the best possible combination of a given set of ingredients or sounds. However, thinking about it more, I saw that it could apply to all of my creative endeavors.

I remember being moved by a French film called Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse, in English translated to The Gleaners and I, when it came out in 2000. The film, by Agnès Varda, follows those who glean for food out of poverty, but also features those who glean for fun or as a political statement and artists who base their work on found objects. I wasn’t sure at the time why this movie so resonated for me, but I believe now that it kindled my incipient appreciation for and understanding of the connection between the artistry and ethic of using what others leave behind.

In many ways, I see bricolage as trial and experimentation instead of predetermined linear procedure. Like gleaning, bricolage holds an assumption of possibility, no matter how barren one’s environment may seem. It also teaches, and requires, flexibility. I needed this technique while living in other countries, far from the usual pacifying material comforts of the US. There was a joke circulating among fellow Peace Corps volunteers that instead of seeing the glass half full or half empty, the Peace Corps volunteer would see the glass and exclaim, “Hey, I could take a shower in that!” It is in the spirit of bricolage that I included images from my dance improvisation sessions in my MFA portfolio and that, in my writing, I often jump back and forth between prose and verse depending on which seems a better tool for expressing the meaning I am trying to convey.

I also realize now the connection between my style of bricolage and my philosophy of non-waste, the value I place on conserving the Earth’s resources and using only what is needed. Taking the example of cooking, approaching making a meal with the lens of bricolage means that I will open the refrigerator, open the cabinet and see what ingredients are available and at their peak of readiness. Creating a meal from those, going to the store for a supplementary ingredient only if no imaginable substitute is present, creates much less waste than the alternative approach of first imagining a meal, then going to the store with a set list of ingredients and quantities, purchasing those without regard to freshness or cost, and meanwhile letting what is already present in the kitchen spoil or grow stale. By developing an awareness of the potentials of existing ingredients and imagining how they might combine in new ways, I create a meal or dish that I usually find tastier, or at least more interesting, than the alternative, too. I just have to be open to new experiences.