It’s not that you can’t hear the birds chirping every day. You just have to wake up really early to catch the rhythm of nature, before your busy schedules and the booming city life drowns it out. However, its mid-day and I can hear the birds and even the breeze blowing in the surrounding silence of the city. As nostalgic as this scene might seem, the irony lies in the fact that it’s considered unnatural for a city, with a population upwards of 12.5 million, to be this quiet mid-week. For the past couple of weeks things have taken a worrisome turn and we’ve all had to take a forced break from our regular routines. Not just city-wide but worldwide. All of civilization is retreating into their corners and the days are overshadowed by a unified concern. There is fear and a constant search for solace, where we do our best to keep abreast of the news globally and try to remain sane with an ever-increasing resolve to iron clad our isolation. We pray for the sick and grieve for those who have lost loved ones. We are scared as a nation but for once we are united as all of human civilization fights against a common enemy that confronts the world. A virus that pushes us to stay indoors to prevent further spread and forces us to face what the world deems frustrating. But trust the creatives to see it as an opportunity.
It is not far from what Franz Kafka seeks to define as an ideal state of solitude that spurs productivity.
“I have often thought” Kafka explains to his beloved Felice, “that it would be best for me if I lived with my writing materials and a lamp in the innermost room of a cellar floor, locked from inside. Someone would bring me my food, placing it behind the outermost door of the cellar, as far as possible away from my room. The journey to this nourishment, clad only in my morning robe as I wander through all the cellar vaults, would be my only exercise for the day. Then I would return to my desk, would eat slowly and with care, only to begin writing again immediately.”
The situation we are facing is not at all the same as the luxury of choice Kafka presents, but the situation he paints is absolutely relevant to the conditions necessary for any artist to produce work. Even though this idea of forced isolation is nowhere close to translating into solitude, it is, however, vaguely reminiscent of what an artists’ residency looks like. The kind of creativity it takes to look for a positive analogy in these times is something only Kafka’s darkness could pull out. Where the world goes into lockdown, artists find comfort in viewing this isolation as the solitude that is as close to the feel of a residency as they can get to without leaving their homes, “literally”.
Somehow if you’re an artist, writer, designer or in any creative field, time alone is a requirement for your work. Artist’s residencies are a privilege for those with busy lifestyles or demanding work schedules to just leave their routines and isolate themselves, away from the world. Artist’s residencies might or might not be away from cities, but they do require for you to come alone. Some allow your families to come with, if the residencies are longer than a year. Which generally means spouses and maybe kids, but not the in-laws and grandparents and everyone else living with you. Residencies are designed to make you break away from whatever your day job is and ask you to stay put in an unknown place where all you should be concerned about is your own creative nourishment. You wake up with only art on your mind and dig deep into the layers of your consciousness that you generally cannot reach because you are constantly being interrupted. Just as Kafka’s ideals of solitude unravel the most vulnerable of places so does a residency give you complete freedom to explore nothing but your own creative concerns. It is the most selfish and the most fruitful thing you do for your own creative soul. Some go to residencies with specific goals of finishing works for upcoming deadlines. Some go to just find what their concerns could look like if given the time and nourishment to grow uninterrupted. And if you choose to focus on “nothing”, don’t be surprised if you come away with company, the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, and artists who have dedicated their lives and works to the concept of “nothingness”.
The experience of being a resident artist myself was quite surreal, where I felt both trapped and elated. Trapped because there was literally no where I could go. It was up in the mountains and even with a car your drive would lead you to a beautiful spot somewhere further in the mountains. Where I could go on foot was the one bookshop, one art store, one gas station, one restaurant, one laundromat, two café’s and one fancy cheese store in town that were all walking distance. In other words, it really did make sure that I had no distractions. No one knew each other initially, which is generally the case at residencies, but everyone is mutually polite and professional in social gatherings. By the time I was ready to go back to the real world, however, I came away with some lifelong friendships with amazing like-minded individuals.
Generally, residencies arrange studio visits by other acclaimed artists and writers who come into your studios to give you feedback about your work. There are artist talks for you to attend and also for you to present your own work. Open studios, where everyone comes to your studios, including the public, and sometimes even a show at the end of the residency, depending on the program. You are mostly either provided three meals a day, or you are provided with access to a kitchen where you eat to live. Unlike focusing all our energies on what’s for the next meal, like we do in our very desi upbringing, the focus is to eat ‘something’ so we can get back to work. This is the mind-set that is prevalent among all the residents. Everyone knows you are there to work. It is a luxury and a sacrifice to be taking time away from your family, friends, deadlines, work and daily routines where you’re constantly “making” time for your studio. Instead, to be able to make work, write and think without interruptions really is a luxury most can’t afford in their daily lives.
Even if you can make it to your studio everyday and you are your own boss, to have an artist’s community to give you feedback constantly and without any obligation is another feeling altogether. To open your studio is akin to laying yourself bare for others to witness and comment on. To be your most vulnerable self and yet be comfortable in the company of complete strangers is only a feeling you can get when you know you’re all just as vulnerable. You’re all artists, intent on pouring your heart out into your works. The more ideas you exchange the more you gain. It is not to say that disagreements can’t occur, but philosophical debates are necessary for growth when you’re in a creative environment. You’re not always in agreement but you’re constantly learning what the other side of the argument looks like. It has everything to do with being open to all sorts of ideas from residents from all sorts of backgrounds. No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s going for a walk alone, having a conversation about your work or about world affairs with a new acquaintance, or just looking and absorbing your surroundings, it is still about self-nourishment and artistic growth. Who in their daily existence has the luxury of focusing on concerns of beauty and its efficacy or ‘God Forbid’ its redundancy?
You wake up so you can go to the studio and create works you’ve been dreaming of making. You take a break from your studio and read a book to know more about something you’ve been wanting to get to for a while but didn’t get the time to. You go for a walk because you’ve hit a block or just to ponder. You come back to the studio after clearing your head and dive in again. You turn off the lights when you decide the day the is done. You come back the next day and dive right back into your own world again.
You get to know other creative minds and their concerns, and they act like characters in a novel. The beauty of international artist residencies is the physical contact you have with traditions, practices and cultures they offer in bringing together artists from all walks of life and places in the world. Cultures you’ve never experienced and issues you would not consider from their perspectives come to you through your studio mates. You get to know them personally or through their works in the most intimate of ways through your talks and exchange of ideas, but you don’t really bring their concerns home. Like a short story, you get as involved as the short time period of the residency allows and you walk away with a fresh perspective on life and new art acquaintances. But you can choose to retain just as much or as little of these experiences as you desire. It really is a fictive world of unlimited potential. You’re the only one who decides who to let into your space and to what extent or how much of the experience of the “other” you want to retain. When you walk away, it could be with life-long friendships or just memorable conversations that will reemerge years later in your studio or life, when you least expect it.
In all this time you can choose to talk to your loved ones when and for however long you want but they know you’re away from them for a reason. It is the kind of vacation where no one else is allowed but yourself and the only guilt you carry is that you know the studio is waiting and this time is precious and running out. Very soon we’ll all go back to our daily routines and welcome the constant interruptions. But for the period of the residency, living in self-imposed isolation from everything familiar to you, is a luxury you’ll look back at longingly and relive every time life kicks in hard and leaves you no time to think.
However, Kafka also senses the danger inherent in such a spiritual adventure, where it ultimately threatens to do the opposite of stirring artistic inspiration through solitary writing (or making). While initially fantasizing about the solitary scene of creativity, from which his beloved would so radically be banished, he proclaims, “What would I write then! From what depths I would draw forth my letters!”
As important as it is for the artist to take a break from daily life and focus on their calling, it is just as important for them to return to the experience of real life. Neither art nor life can exist without the other and artists residencies are those incubators that help you refocus before letting you out to gather more steam.