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.

Enough to Eat

“If I had money, I’d record
albums of the calls of children begging
their meals in the street. I’d address
books to all the rich people, to let them know that
in this world live millions of humans
who don’t have the rags that they burn.”
—Richard Dogbeh, Beninese Poet

Togo, 2010

Two women walk along the road in front of in colorfully patterned, matching pagne cloth. Assuming I don’t speak their language, one turns and brings one hand to her mouth as if eating. I respond, “Moi aussi, j’ai faim.” And the women laugh and look at one another. What a stupid yovo, if she with her white skin and privilege can’t find anything to eat! I guess we are not so bad off after all.

My own nighttime musing:

Legs under mosquito net
Every evening
slightly slimmer

Could losing weight
be one good thing about
this hunger
this heat?

I talk with a Togolese friend about whether my “hunger,” my stomach grumbling and losing weight from not having easy access to food options that appeal to me, feels any different from the hunger experienced by impoverished Africans. Unlike many locals, of course, I have the financial means to purchase food items; I am not at risk of starving. “I’m not sure,” he says, “but we are used to suffering here. Look around and you can be sure that some of the people you see haven’t eaten in a couple of days.”

The Cartesian Paradigm

I arrived at my MFA studies at Goddard College interested in the paradox between simplicity and complexity. In the past I had considered some ways of life simple, others complex. I had often thought of improvising as simple, following rules as complex. Then, from my own experience and learning about the emerging field of complexity science, I saw that the seemingly simple could be complex, and the seemingly complex, simple. The real complexity lay not in order or disorder, not on one end of the spectrum or the other, but rather, in the messy, in-between regions.

When I read in Morris Berman’s The Reenchantment of the World about the idea of the Cartesian split, I said, “Aha! This is what I’ve been running away from since college, this overemphasis on reason, this denigrating of body wisdom and connection to nature. And this is what I want to try to heal in my life work, my teaching, my artwork.”

I still think one of my primary intentions is to heal the Cartesian split, the division between mind and body, reason and intuition. I identify with the term “Post-Cartesian.” But I know that even that understanding is an oversimplification.

As Iain McGilchrist has noted, both hemispheres of the brain are involved in reason and emotion. According to him, while the left hemisphere narrows things down to a certainty, the right hemisphere opens them up to possibility. Western culture has privileged left hemisphere thinking over right, he asserts, dividing, categorizing, and conquering over understanding the greater meaning. This is an argument that resonates with me much like the idea of the Cartesian paradigm. Let’s heal this split, I say, be it between the hemispheres or between reason/analysis and body/intuition. Let us see what connects, as well as what divides.