‘Feathers’, and the Nature of Fear

Twelve Days ago, I finished  and posted a video to YouTube.
Now, this may not seem a great feat to many, and indeed there are hundreds who do this every day. For my technologically dyslexic self, however, it slowly became such a big deal that it took me five months to deliver. The video is an overview of a massive exhibition I curated in January 2013 by the name of ‘Feathers’, involving 23 visual artists, 25 meters of chicken wire, heavy audience participation, an unbelievably successful Pozible Campaign, and a hell of a lot of love.

The exhibition itself was an enormous success, which is great as it was one of the most challenging things I have done to date. The learning curve was spectacular as I pulled all my half-realised skills and concepts into something tangible that resulted in a record 300 people through the Format Gallery just on opening night.


The shock of this has not quite worn off yet.

As described in my last blog post ‘CoCreate, Community, and the Act of Giving’, I have some issues relating to confidence, self-esteem, and concepts of self-worth. I’m still exploring the nature of these issues and what they mean as someone who is pursuing a career as a Freelance Creative-Type.  Regardless of how many project ideas I get crazy-excited about (and the list is huge), the depression and social anxiety these cause has a definite impact on my work.

The biggest one is I’m a pretty staunch procrastinator. I have been meaning to write this blog post for about seven days, maybe more. Partly this is because I am terminally distracted, easily overwhelmed by convoluted workloads, and have pretty sporadic sleeping patterns. Partly, its because I’m a chronic party-animal trying to escape all that (which I’m working towards fixing- more to come in the next post). Partly, its cause as passionate as I am of doing anything meaningful, I’m just as shit scared.

This has become a greater issue recently, as I see friends, colleagues, peers, and fellow art school graduates doing fantastic things with their lives and their own careers (both freelance and contractual). I look at myself, and compare my peers successes against mine, and I get an overwhelming sensation of this;


(credit to Hyperbole and a Half for being awesome and saying what we’re all feeling on this one)

But Why? Despite councilors, friends, professional advisers, and countless Dark Nights Of The Soul(TM); I’m still not sure.
-I don’t feel skilled or smart enough, despite my obvious success with my past ventures.
-I don’t like taking credit for the things I do, in past experience standing out from the crowd has always lead to Bad Things.
-Fear of failure; I’ll inexplicably fuck the next project up and have to crawl into the Shame Shed with all the fears and doubts singing a resounding “I told you so!”

These are all possible reasons, but they could also be possible excuses. A friend told me recently that  “Problems are perceived. The more energy you give them the bigger they are.” This works on any level, if you feed the monster, it grows.
As a brief example; social anxiety and panic attacks.  Usually it starts with a vague sense of unease, possibly triggered by an unfamiliar environment or situation. Vicious-cycle-thinking (or Downward-Spiral-Thinking, as I named it after THAT Nine Inch Nails song…) generally goes something like this;

Head; “I’m uncomfortable in this situation”
Body; “Hey, we’re pretty uncomfortable in this situation.”
Head; “Yeah, I don’t really like this. I’m starting to get nervous.”
Body; “We’re nervous! Itchy? I think there’s things on our skin. Under our skin. Inside our skin?”
Head; “I don’t like that there’s things under our skin. It trips me out.”
Body; “You’re tripped out!! Maybe we ate something weird! What’s in our stomach? should it even be IN there?!”
Head; “There’s nothing in our stomach. I feel sick. Is there something in our stomach? Maybe its just the place I’m in. There’s something weird in this place. I think its xyz…
Body; “NOT XYZ! Shit! Maybe we should run away. Lets run away.”
Head; “But we can’t run away. There’s all these people here. This is an Important Thing.”
Body; “ABC? JKL?! XYZ!?! WE’RE TRAPPED!!!!”
Head; “WE’RE TRAPPED!!!! -dizzy spells-“
Head; “AHHHHHHH! -short circuit-“

Its not easy to break this cycle, especially if you’re not aware of the triggers, and the first few symptoms can quickly escalate into a full freak out.  Changing static behaviour usually helps me stop it (go to the toilet, have a cigarette or a drink, talk to someone you -actually- know, walk around the block, dance to the band, etc), but if you remain in its hold and feed the fire like it wants, its only going to get bigger.

So it is with Fear, but on a slower scale. The more you sit and stare at the To Do List, the bigger and darker and more looming it becomes. The more time that passes the more things end up on the list. The bigger the list the more difficult it seems, or it’s that you’re too late, or what’s the point in trying you’ll never catch up AND SUDDENLY OMG WE’RE TRAPPED RUN AWAY!

Its a point of strength to be able to cross things off the list every day while all of you just wants to hide in bed (or in a bottle).
I cheat sometimes, and write small things I did that morning (“check email”, “reply to SMS”, “clean bedroom floor”),  or things that are Life Stuff (“wash the dishes”, “pay gas bill”, “clean bedroom floor”) and knowing I’ve done these medium things helps with the big stuff (“write grant application”, “make high-selling artworks for that prodigious gallery”, “establish a free school for the gifted”, “clean the goddamn bedroom floor!!”).  When I look at these little crossed out lists it helps to remind me that, considering all the little successes I trumped getting to this point, learning a new program like Windows Movie Maker (Yeap, I’m just that profesh) is not actually hard.

As three Dutch performing artists would put it, even though there’s an expectant audience watching you fight your way out of a giant plywood box while your standing on shoulders and pissing in your own face;


The hard bit is spending five months convincing yourself of that. That’s the Fear talking; the long slow stifling panic attack. But I learned something making this video; you just gotta keep doing it. Take a taste of The Scary New Thing, and run away sometimes if you need, but come back to it because the next time you try it wont be so uncomfortable. Every time you understand a little bit more, you learn, you become capable, and then before you know it you’re saying pixellated things like;


which is a great thing to express, especially if you don’t feel it too often.

I’m trying to think of an allegory to go with the last and final image that I feel really represents this journey, but its now 6am and I’ve been mentally wrestling with this post for about three hours. Instead, I’m just going to say that right now Fear is that lurking red thing in the lake, and I’m the wibbly Salamander crawling onto stable land for the first time, and I’m saying to my issues;

So here’s to that, and here’s to all the Scary New Things to come. 🙂

(and thanks again to Allie from Hyperbole for creating these pics and putting them on the internet where I can use them without permission but with all credit were credit is due. You’re a star. 😛 Xx)

CoCreate, Community, and the act of Giving

Recently Ive become a part of a movement in my little home town called CoCreate Adelaide. Its a community start-up initiative (as seems to be the fashion these days post-GFC) that aims to connect people together to find and act upon ways of engaging with the people around them to Get Shit Done that Governments and other top-down institutions seem to be failing at.  There are varying different needs being expressed by the people involved with this group, from food sharing groups, community gardens, group meditation sessions, art collaborations, and networking spaces, but they all revolve around the concept of sharing.

My involvement with this group has brought up a lot of thoughts and issues I’ve been struggling with over the past few years relying on trust, openness, and the act of giving. Amanda Palmer iterates this nicely in her seminal video ‘The Art of Asking’, where she outlines that you don’t have to MAKE people pay for music (or help, or lawnmowers, or fabric offcuts, or time), you can ASK them, and in return they will give you unforgettable experiences and have their own unforgettable experiences in turn.

There’s a huge sense of community here in Adelaide and a lot of people willing to connect and to give to each other, but its also juxtaposed with sense of the “my patch” mentality. People are too quick to jump on the “This is My Thing”, or the “Oh, you belong to THAT collective” bandwagon, which just adds to the image that we are a group of selfish, fickle hipsters masquerading as a capital city with a ‘cultural hub’ which, because of this attitude, mostly remains empty of cultural capital whatsoever.
This results in the sense that Adelaide is so tiny that there’s not a lot to go around, and we, like seagulls, are constantly fighting over the scraps tossed to us by higher organisations parading The Cultural Dream. We become disillusioned with the fact that no one else is ‘fixing it’, that it’s too hard to start something, nothing is sustainable, and that other cities like Melbourne or Sydney are the way to go to be a part of something (anything!).

I think some of the root of this ‘lack-of-community’ conundrum is not that people don’t want to GIVE, but they don’t know how to ASK for stuff to be given.  It makes them feel weird and useless, and so they bitch and moan and move to Melbourne instead where the Giving is plentiful and you don’t have to try to have things thrust in your face.

I know well both sides of this quandary from running the now-on-permanant-haiatus communal space the reading room. Time and time again we would have to ask volunteers, artists, musicians, random members of the community for their time, their energy, their washing-up skills, their muscles, their endorsements, and their money. We didn’t MAKE them, we ASKED them, and in return we got art shows, music gigs, clean dishes, clean floors, and a whole treasure trove of amazing experiences and stories. Soon we had people coming to us saying “Can I please play a gig here?” “How do I volunteer?” “Can I help you move that couch?” “I’ll wash the glasses!” “How can I contribute?” ” Here’s $20, I love what you’re doing!”.
That’s the happy end of the story, but to start off we really had to ASK the community to help us out, and as much as I’d like to say we got to a point of self-sufficiency (as is the ultimate ideal of the ReNew Adelaide scheme) we never were in a position to stop asking.  The bigger we got and the more things we did the more we had to ask for help, and believe me it never got any easier.

I’m one of those people with low self-esteem and other negative-mental-health-issues (there, I said it, you can all stop acting so bewildered at those late-night D+Ms now). Due to a childhood full of bullying, sporadic-friendships, an inability to learn social norms and parents that didn’t really know how to deal with my weird ways I’ve grown up with this sense that no one wants to help me with anything, I have to do it all by myself, that I’m incapable of anything and all that I do is doomed to failure so what’s the point. Fortunately I’m also ridiculously stubborn and ambitious, and so battle these feelings everyday to try and make for my self a life worthy of living.
To do that I’ve had to overcome this fear of asking for help. Its easier in a professional context, like at the reading room (“Hey, would you mind helping me shift this massive rug?”), but on a personal level it still grates somewhat (“Hey..um…I’d really like.. to.. uh.. do a photo …thing… for this project… thing… I’m inspired by.. um.. want to catch up sometime? You know, whenever…” Awkward.).  Its not that people aren’t keen, there’s lots of people wanting creative things to happen, its just that it makes me feel like shit asking for it.

Apparently though, I’m not alone in this. Millie Roony’s an Australian PhD student studying why in our culture it’s so hard to ASK for stuff. This awesome article shows that I’m not the only one who finds it painful to put the word out when I need help with something. Australians, while loving the philanthropic attitude of giving and supporting a cause, terminally find it hard to admit they’re lacking and need support. What we seem to be failing to realise though, is that the act of asking can lead to many greater opportunities and life experiences than suffering away in a corner just wishing you had some fresh peaches for that upside-down cake (or ten grand for that art show).
What we need to remember, and what Amanda Palmer’s TED talk hammered home for me, is that in the act of trusting your community enough to ask for help you not only remove your own sense of vulnerability, but also enrich the lives of those around you in the act of letting them in. We can change that ugly obligatory sense of ‘repayment’ into cultural exchange so that value lies not in the perceived debt and resulting power-play, but in the act of connection to a community. We strengthen our city and our culture through aid given, and given again in return.

Perhaps if we were all a little less scared of perceptions of uselessness, a little more honest, and a little more open to receiving, we’d have a lot more culture on our doorstep, and a lot more to stay home in Adelaide for. The possibilities are endless.