Holiday Deal for Borg Like Me!

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Between now and the end of the year, when you buy the first copy at full price, you can add additional copies at only $15. Half off! You also get a free gift of a Sparks of Fire Press “Artistic License” (for every book ordered) sent in a mail art envelope. Now you’ll never be without the permission you need to let your creative juices exceed culturally-imposed limits. You’ll be LICENSED! Order your copies here.

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Understanding William Blake: Part 1

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The following chapter is excerpted from my book, Borg Like Me. It is the only pieced I’ve ever published about William Blake. Since he takes up so much of my interest and attention, and is so profoundly important to me, I decided I wanted to use my blog to delve deeper into WHY he remains so important to me and to share some of what I’ve teased out of his work. So, I decided to make this piece from BLM (which originally appeared in MAKE) serve as the intro to this series.

Next up: Gareth’s Essential Reader’s Guide to Blake.

 

WILLIAM BLAKE: PATRON SAINT OF MAKERS

William Blake. William Blake. William Blah, Blah, Blah. My family and friends (and social media friends and followers) are painfully aware of my seemingly inexhaustible prattling on about William Blake. You don’t have to hang around me for long before you’ll hear a dropped Blake quote here, a snippet of poetry there, or me quickly drawing some Blakean analogy for something we’re discussing, whatever we’re discussing.

The sad thing (for me) is that a lot of this falls on tin ears. Anything by or about Blake seems to have the uncanny ability to tax the attention spans of all but a stalwart few. I can almost count the seconds before I see eyes glaze over and begin to dart side-to-side, hands creeping toward smartphones itching to be checked for the latest Facebook Likes and Twitter alerts.

Over the years, I’ve come to think of understanding Blake and his art as analogous to learning a new language. You can’t just “speak” Blake overnight (or understand him being spoken). This is, of course, the case with any artist, thinker, or crazy person who’s created his or her own complex cosmology, as Blake did. So when people hear me frequently referencing Blake, I imagine what they hear is, say, Latin or German, or the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. They think “Oh God, he’s speaking that weird language again that I don’t understand or really care about. HELP!” And away go their attention spans – “Hey, look, new kitty-cat memes on Facebook! HE-larious!”

A relatively new friend recently asked me how I got interested in Blake. As I recount in this piece, it was actually through the work of anthropologist and co-founder of the science of cybernetics, Gregory Bateson. In reading Bateson, and listening to his lectures, he frequently mentioned and quoted Blake and seemed to imply that there was some resonance between his work and Blake’s. I couldn’t imagine how this could be the case. How could there be significant common ground between an atheist scientist, naturalist, and pioneer of cybernetics, and a strange, maladjusted, mystical Christian artist from the turn of the 19th century who hallucinated angels and whose poetry we were forced to memorize in high school?

So, I went to Blake looking for what connected him to Gregory Bateson and the things that were significant to me about Bateson’s work. Since one of Bateson’s memorable maxims was to look for the “patterns that connect” (“…the orchid to the primrose and the dolphin to the whale and all four of them to me”) this seemed like a worthy quest. That quest has now consumed the better part of my adult life and my interest in Blake has long ago overtaken my interest in Bateson. And yes, now I completely understand what connects the two of them and their seemingly disparate ideas together. But I’ll let you go on that quest yourself—connecting them to each other, and them to me, and me to you.

This piece originally appeared in MAKE Volume 17, the Lost Knowledge issue (aka the steampunk issue), which I guest edited. I thought it entirely appropriate to put the work of William Blake within the context of the crazed, creative re-imaginings of Victorian science, technology, and culture represented by the steampunk maker scene of 2009.

 

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For the past 25 years, nearly every day, I’ve interacted, in some fashion, with William Blake, “the mad English poet” (as some contemporary detractors dubbed him). I poke my nose into one of the dozens of books I’ve collected, or I whisper (or shout to the rafters) a poem, or I chew on some gristly hunk of his ridiculously complex mytho-poetic cosmology.

For someone with the attention span of a four-year-old, having anything captivate me to such an extent is downright alarming. Equally strange is the fact that, I’m a writer. I live to communicate my ideas and experiences to others, yet I’ve never published a word about Blake. Until now. Why am I so fascinated by this apocalyptic, outsider artist (in his day, anyway) whose work still defies comfortable comprehension? What keeps me coming back?

In this article, I’ll explain a little of Blake’s invented printing method and make a case for why I think he’s a perfect candidate for Patron Saint of Makers.

WILLIAM BLAKE, 18TH-CENTURY ZINE PUBLISHER

I was introduced to William Blake in British Lit class in high school, but ironically, it was during the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-1980s that I started to understand what he was really all about.

I came to the real Blake by way of cybernetics pioneer Gregory Bateson. Bateson was fascinated by how Blake famously “mixed up” modes of perception in his work; Blake claimed he possessed something called “fourfold vision” and that he could simultaneously see things on different levels of awareness.

Bateson had studied schizophrenia for the Veterans Administration and discovered that, similarly, schizophrenics confuse and conflate, for instance, the literal and the metaphorical; they don’t organize thoughts, communication, and perceptions into logical categories the same way that non-schizophrenics do. Blake also seemed to leak at the margins separating these logical types of communication and awareness. Of course, one can argue that all artists do this, but it’s the extremes of the leakage in Blake’s work, the sheer quantity, and the complexity of it (and its surprising coherence, if you stick around long enough to sort it out) that makes Blake so compelling. Bateson was also intrigued by how functional Blake was while living in his world of perceptual and categorical mashups.

As I began to delve deeper into Blake, one day I had something of an epiphany. I’d gotten a lovely two-volume set of his most popular works: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, two of his masterpieces of “illuminated printing,” a technique of free-form engraving, painting, and printing he’d invented. Up until his discovery, illustration engraving and book printing were two separate disciplines, with the engravings etched, printed, and later, tipped into the books as plates. By combining these two arts on the page, Blake’s technique freed him to write text, compose pages, design typography, and paint illustrations, right on the copper printing plates.

I was reading about all of this while working on an art and technology zine I was publishing, called Going Gaga, using an Apple Mac SE running PageMaker layout software. I was doing a lot of the writing, designing, even some of the illustrations, right in PageMaker, and printing out my zine on the Canon copier sitting next to my Mac. I realized that Blake had experienced the power of a different, but surprisingly analogous, set of media tools and had felt a similar sense of explosive creative freedom, more than 200 years earlier. William Blake had been a proto zine publisher! William Blake was a multimedia artist!1

Read More »

WINK Review: The Wrenchies

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It’s hard to describe The Wrenchies. It’s a gorgeously drawn and colored 304-page graphic novel that takes place in several time periods (including a post-apocalyptic, post-adult future). The Wrenchies is a comic book within the comic book, about a group of young crusaders out to save the world. And there are the future Wrenchies and the original Wrenchies that are actually the Wrenchies from the comic book within the comic book. Confused yet? There are also wizards and magic, dark elf energy vampire zombie thingies that are filled with bugs, aliens from Proxima Centauri, mad scientists, time-travelers, a future world populated only by kid gangs (one of these gangs being the titular Wrenchies), and a scientist who lives inside of a robotic Golem-like creature. Intrigued yet?

Read the full review here.

Singing in the Dark

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For Borg Like Me, I wrote a series of ten one-page pieces that were designed to follow after the essay “Mindfucking Since 1976,” a piece I originally wrote for Boing Boing about “guerrilla ontologist” Robert Anton Wilson. In that piece, I introduced Wilson’s Operation Mindfuck (aka OM), an ongoing campaign to creatively mess with people’s minds; to “hack” consensus reality, an idea that Wilson and Robert Shay first introduced in their Illuminatus! trilogy. The OMs in my book were designed to fill blank pages at the ends of chapters, and were little personal reality hacks and acts of “poetic terrorism” designed to make your brain and the world around you a little more interesting.

When the book finally came together, and these ten pieces were put in place, I thought they distracted from the narrative flow and added another dimension that I thought weakened the rest of the book. So, at the last minute, I pulled them. Next year, I may do another Borg Like Me chapbook that includes the original “Mindfucking” essay and the ten OMs. Here’s an example of one of them.

OM #5: Singing in the Dark

Do yourself a favor. Sing in the dark.

Here’s how: Wait until no one is around. It’s the fear of others hearing that makes so many of us “shower singers” afraid to open up our mouths and really go for it. So, the next time you’re alone and all is still and quiet: Sing. REALLY sing!

I like to lie on my back in bed, in the dark, late at night, and while all the world around me is asleep, I belt one out. I know that no one can possibly hear, except me. It feels amazing.

It’s been so ingrained in us that you shouldn’t sing if you “can’t” sing, which translates to if you don’t have a performance-worthy voice. It’s time to sing out a big “fuck you!” to that notion. You’re not singing for them, you’re singing for you. You’re singing for the sheer expressive joy of singing.

Here’s the perceptual shift you need to make: DON’T focus on how it sounds, focus on how it FEELS. Sing for the process, not the product. Think about the lyrics you’re singing, what they mean, the feelings they express, and really try and inhabit those emotions. Try and make your “performance” as deeply resonant as possible. Make each word carry its full power and meaning.

Here’s why: Do it because it feels good. Singing from your heart is FOR your heart. I really do believe it’s good for your mental health, for your ability to express yourself, your ability to more deeply feel your emotions. And it might even improve your ability to sing in the light of day (if you care to do that). But don’t bother about that now. Do it because it’s sound poetry for your soul.

I frequently wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to get back to sleep. I lie there in the pitch black, in the enveloping silence, and I sing something soulful and soothing to myself. Or something fun and frivolous. Or rousing. I try and sing the living shit out of whatever it is, feel it deep in the root of my being. Frequently, the experience is surprisingly moving, even profound. It’s a heartfelt performance that only I will ever hear. Suitably relaxed and becalmed, my faith in the expressive powers of the human instrument restored, I dog-paddle my dreamy desires back to Slumberland.

Do yourself a favor, be bold. Be brave enough to open yourself up. To sing in the dark.

[Inset of “Tears in the Rain” original artwork for Borg Like Me by John Bergin]


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If you want to see what I did include in Borg Like Me, you can learn more about the book and order it here.

Join The Deconstruction

I just got back from a fantastic ten day book “tour” in the Bay Area. While I was there, I had a great time hanging out with my pal Jason Naumoff. Among other things, we discussed his unique upcoming game/global event called The Deconstruction.

The Deconstruction is about learning to think in new ways and remaking the world around you. It’s a global rethink in the form of a game where teams get together, ID a problem or project, and document their solutions over two days. They also have a very innovative way of covering the 48-hour event, using video feeds from all participants, they produce a real-time live streaming event. It’s all about trying to see the world around you in new ways and learning how to hack your way toward the world you want.

The next contest is on Nov 14-16, so sign up NOW if you want to participate.

Leo Laporte’s Triangulation is Borg Like Me

I had a fabulous time yesterday on Leo Larporte’s Triangulation program on the TWiT network. You can see the full interview here.

Take the Potluck Dinner Challenge

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A few weeks ago, I read an article on Facebook about a writer/editor couple in Pittsburgh, PA who’d dreamed up a low-stress way of “forcing” themselves into being more sociable again, Friday Night Meatballs. Tired of being too tired to go out most weeks and too intimidated to throw proper adult dinner parties, they came up with a simple and intriguing solution: Every Friday night, they set the table and have a giant pot of spaghetti and meatballs at the ready. They have a one-hour cleaning rule beforehand. No fuss, no muss. The house is always one-hour clean and fussy clean-freak guests can suck it. They open their door at 7pm to ALL of their circles of friends, clients, neighbors, and family members. Everyone is invited. All you have to do is RSVP and it’s capped at 10 adults plus kids. They’ve been doing it for nine months now and say they it’s changed their lives in extraordinary ways.

As soon as I read this, I knew I was going to do the same thing. I’ve been feeling for awhile now that the virtualizing of our social lives has gone too far; that we’re actually losing our ability to casually socialize, to carry on meaningful face-to-face conversations, to negotiate differences of opinion. We live more as avatars of ourselves, projections, than actual people. I see these dinners as being a possible corrective to that.

Not wanting even the “burden” of always having to cook a large entree for everyone, I decided to make it potluck instead. I announced “Potluck Dinner at Chez Branwyn” last week and posted a spreadsheet so people could easily sign up and say what they were bringing (and see what others were bringing). As with the Pittsburgh couple, I immediately got a very positive response to the idea. I’m now committed to doing these every Thursday when I’m in town and don’t have another pressing event to go to.

For starters, I decided to experiment with a 20-person cap instead of ten. One cool thing about this idea is that I can help shape the social dynamics by changing the number of invitee slots. Some weeks, I might want an intimate group and will offer fewer slots on the spreadsheet. Other weeks, if I’m in the mood for a more raucous meal, I’ll over more slots.

I also committed myself to not sweating ANY of the details. Ultimately, the specific food will be unimportant, the mix of guests equally so, and the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of my house (and the most embarrassing excuse for a stick-furniture dining room table EVER) will be what it is.

This all really is a perceptual shift. This IS NOT a dinner party. This is simply dinner at Gareth’s house every Thursday night that up to 20 friends are invited to. For the first one, and going forward, I even posted a notice on my Facebook wall (to Friends), at the start time of 6:30pm, saying: “It’s 6:30. The door is open to my house. Dinner is served. Come on by if you want.” (And included my address and phone number.)

When I posted the open invite for my first dinner to my 2,000 FB friends, I had no takers for days. Of course, my first reaction was to panic. But then I reminded myself it didn’t matter. It’s just dinner on Thursday night. I’m going to be here eating at the table, regardless. Chill out, home slice! Whoever comes, comes.

It was just a few days before that one person finally signed up, a FB friend I didn’t even know. For awhile, it looked like it was just going to be the two of us. Which would’ve been fine. Eventually, she invited another friend (whom I also didn’t know). By Thursday afternoon, that was it. Lots of people began sending messages and FB posts with heartfelt “I’m so sorry I can’t make it!” messages. I told everyone: No worries. Next week. The week after that. The third Thursday in January. It’ll happen. It’s not an event that needs to be over-planned. Stressed over. Or apologized for. I keep telling myself all of this. It takes some getting used to.

The first dinner was absolutely lovely. I couldn’t have been happier (or more laid back) about how it all went down. It ended up being five of us, which was actually a nice size for civilized conversation. The dinner was a yummy spaghetti bolognese, a fancy green salad, and peach cobbler for desert. And a friend brought a thermos of Manhattans. There was hardly a phone in sight all night and we had lots of conversation. About actual THINGS.

Word got out after the first dinner (I did a FB post) and many people have expressed interest in next week and future dinners. I already have 16 people signed up for this coming Thursday. One friend, who’s an amazing cook, is bringing chicken tikka masala. Another, a bread baker, is making nan.

At the beginning of the year, I made something of a resolution to start doing less online socializing and more and deeper face-to-face hanging out. I told myself I was going to have more one-on-one dinners with interesting people and out-of-touch friends, and some small dinner parties. I’ve managed ONE such dinner this year (before last Thursday). It’s October! Like the couple in Pittsburgh, the pressures we normally put on ourselves when entertaining are just too much to overcome during a typical, frequently frantic, workweek. Somehow, this approach of “just dinner at my house — come if you like” feels categorically different.

If you’re feeling the same way, and I have a suspicion many of you reading this are, why not consider taking the Potluck Dinner Challenge? It’s easy, it’s an extremely liberating approach to “entertaining,” and it’s a great way to connect, reconnect, and disconnect from the Skinnerian push-button, get treat self-absorption we seem to have become so addicted to online.

So, come this Thursday night, my door will be open, my table set. Consider opening yours to your circles. If you do, I’d love to hear how your dinners are going and about any tweaks you’ve made to the formula.

WINK Review: What It Is

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My latest WINK review is for Lynda Barry’s bizarre and wonderful writing workshop in a dream-like book, What It Is.

This densely collaged book is utterly uncategorizable – so many modes of expression are at work here: a textbook/workbook on inspiring creative writing and cultivating creativity of all kinds, a comic-memoir of Barry’s personal struggles with creativity and self-expression as a child, a stunning and challenging piece of collage/altered book art, and a sort of extended fever dream on the nature of memory, imagination, play, and creativity.

Read the full review.

“An Evening with Gareth Branwyn,” at Salon Contra in DC, Next Monday

Join me next Monday, Sept 22, for a special Pink Line Project “Salon Contra” event.

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contraLogoAn Evening with Gareth Branwyn
Monday, September 22
6:30-8pm
@Pink Line Project HQ (details provided after RSVP)

Author and cyberculture pioneer, Gareth Branwyn, will be here to talk about his new book, Borg Like Me & Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems. If you’ve already been to one of Gareth’s DC readings, this will be slightly different, more interactive and conversational. Gareth will share stories around the book and his very colorful life, read a few passages, and he says he’s going to perform a magick ritual. Seriously. He’ll also have books for sale. RSVP here: info@pinklineproject.com

Hope to see you there!

A Tour Through Borg Like Me

I did a short video with my friend, videographer Rob Parrish, of me paging through the Sparks of Fire Press edition of Borg Like Me (with the bookplate, mini bookmark, and mail art envelope). This should give you a better idea of how lovely it is inside.

Pick up your own swanky copy here.