Breaking the Time Barrier: what I learned at the art battle
Like so many people, I have had a tense relationship with time for most of my life. It speeds up, it slows down, there's never enough when I need it, and often too much when I'd rather it just move along.
The biggest hurdle in my relationship with time (as well as in other relationships, but that's another story) is commitment. I am afraid to commit to spending time, and one of the most obvious ways that this manifests is with regards to creative projects. Actually, there is a pretty simple explanation for this: the creative flow state is timeless. Being engaged on that level erases all sense of time. For someone who is invested in time management (I have to spend my time wisely, aka: productively and efficiently) or for someone who is telling a scarcity story about time (I'm so busy! There just aren't enough hours in the day. I'll do x-y-z when I have time) going into a flow state can feel like a terrifying loss of control.
The truth about the flow state, is it isn't really the raging whitewater river it appears to be. It's more like a gentle stream you can climb out of, in order to lie in the sun for a while before diving right back in. The creative flow state is natural and part of the intricate systems that make us healthy and happy. All of the suffering and drama around the creative process is, as far as I can see, based in our own fear and resistance to it (for very understandable reasons) and has been greatly exaggerated and perpetuated throughout our culture.
Still, even leaving aside the free of surrender and loss of control, there is some other misunderstanding at play here.
The prevailing perspective today looks at time as an economy . We all agree that certain things are worth spending time on and certain things aren't (we don't always agree on what those things are, but most of us believe in the concept). There are phrases like "that isn't the best use of my time" , and "I don't have time for that". We bill by the hour and spend time on people and projects. I can see the value in this. What we do with the span of our lives is important and meaningful. We want to make choices that will bring us maximum freedom and happiness so we set about determining the value of things in order to achieve that.
Here's something I've noticed, though: since we believe that the things we want to spend time on have value, we also assume that the more value a thing has, the more time it takes. (We make the same assumption with hard work and value as well (any thing worth having is worth working for). This is how I discovered that this isn't necessarily true.
In August of 2013 I decided to enter the Vancouver Art battle. I had no idea what to expect and didn't prepare for the audition at all. It turns out that the audition meant creating a painting in 15 minutes without reference materials under poor lighting. I will not post my audition piece and I hope no one else does. I was very surprised to find out that I had been selected to participate in Art battle#86 on January 14th. The rules: create an entire 26"x32" painting in 20 minutes. The crowd gets to circle around you, comment, and cheer while an MC narrates the whole thing like a horse race. Everyone present votes for their favourite. It's thrilling. I had no idea I would have so much fun.
First lets get a few things out of the way: yes, I made it to the second round. No, I didn't win. The wonderful, sweet, and talented artist who did was the lovely Allison Woodward.
Here are three random things I learned:
1. People don't necessarily buy the pieces they vote for.
2. Don't be consistent. Galleries like a cohesive series. Audiences like variety.
3. Wear your red shoes. Make a scene. Put on a show.
But, most importantly, the experience of art battle changed my relationship to time. I value my art, I want to do a good job. I always thought that that meant spending hour upon hour perfecting and re-working a piece. I thought that the time that I put into the work was what had value. The more time I spent on a piece the more value it had. Here's the thing: it is commonly observed that a task will expand to fill all of the time allotted to it. Tasks are very good at that. They unfold and deepen and change. They bring their friends.
When I spoke to the organizer of Art Battle Vancouver, Bill HIgginson he advised that I practise at home, with a timer, around 9 times. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I could create something just as complete, just as beautiful in 20 minutes as I could in 5 Hours.
With my first piece, I decided to see if I could perfect it after the timer had run out. Just to see. With no time constraint I had the luxury of more time to think about my brush strokes, question my choices and second guess the proportions.
I posted the images to Facebook, asking which one people preferred and the response was unanimous:"the first, unfinished one". I have to agree. My work was better the less I thought about it.
Now, I'm not actually suggesting that we all create with timers ticking away in the background. What I am suggesting is that we question the beliefs and assumptions that keep us afraid and limited. Let's question the idea that important and valuable things are more difficult and time consuming. Let's question the assumption that time, a relative and flexible concept, is a tangible commodity. Let's be curious about how long things actually take when we get out of the way. When we unapologetically dive into the flow without any reservation. Let's test the elasticity of time.
I am interested in the true, multifaceted value of our the product of our creative flow state.