Permission to Loiter
by Wendy Richmond
I want to loiter. I want to show up at the station long before my train is scheduled to depart. I want to sit in the reading room of the library and not read anything. I want to spend too much time doing too little.
I’ve just completed a large collaborative project that culminated in an interactive, multimedia exhibition. I’d been involved with the work for over a year, much of which was spent experimenting. As with most exhibits, the month leading up to the show became increasingly more directed. During the week of on-site installation, each day had a purpose and a plan with a specified outcome. We were very productive.
Now I am back home. The exhibit and its opening were energizing, and I’m excited about entering this precious, unscripted phase that exists between the completion of one project and the start of another. For me, it is a period that is meant for replacing strict efficiency with lenient meandering. I’m eager to begin a new cycle—to once again be at the place in my work where I am open to surprises; where the unknowns outnumber the knowns.
I’m also nervous. I’m faced with what is essentially a huge blank canvas. What comes next? What quest will be compelling enough that I will want to devote a significant portion of my life to its pursuit? What is the plan?
This is a familiar feeling for many of us. What is our goal? Is it worthy? What have we accomplished today? It’s a scary state. In our society, we are taught to have a direction, a five-year plan that we then break down into day-by-day lists. When we fear emptiness and lack of purpose, we rush to fill the void. And before we know it, that precious, empty space has disappeared.
An artist’s work cannot begin with a business plan. For me, a plan is antithetical. The most authentic endeavors—the personal projects that stick and are the most deeply engaging—are the ones that sneak up on me. I don’t find them; they find me.
Loitering, by definition, means being unproductive. It is about spending (i.e., wasting) time without a specific purpose. As I reflect on the work I have produced over the past decade, I realize that each long-term project started with, essentially, loitering. A month of daily beach walks, which began with no other goal than a round trip to and from the pier, turned into a limited-edition portfolio of fourteen photographs, each accompanied by letterpress text. A year of bi-coastal travel, which consisted of hours and hours spent waiting in airports and train stations, instigated an obsession with shooting surreptitious videos with my cell phone. Those video clips formed the basis of a series of etchings and a sixteen-monitor video installation. My most recent work came from mornings of hanging out in cafes, where my eavesdropping on annoying cell-phone conversations eventually became fodder for an interactive installation of sight and sound.
In each project, it was weeks, if not months, before I realized that I was beginning a new body of work. In the earliest stages, I was collecting material—experiences, artifacts, ideas—without knowing it. By the time I started to translate this material into work, I was already familiar with it. I was already confident that it was the right way to go, because I had faith in its natural momentum. All of these initial activities were “unproductive.” And each turned into a project that would come to occupy me powerfully, from inception to completion.
I have learned to recognize my pattern. Now I want to trust it and immerse myself in the empty space that permits surprises, and then unravel their possibilities. I want to go against the obvious urge of being productive and instead wait to see, out of the infinite number of possible directions, where my thoughts choose to linger.
In my previous column, “Contemplating White Space,” I wrote about the pressure I felt to fill the space of an exhibition; in my desire to show that I had worked hard, I had a tendency to include everything I had produced, to fill the room. But as my confidence grew, I removed the extraneous and added more emptiness.
Now, looking back at a completed body of work and looking forward to something that does not exist, I see that I am, once again, reminding myself to have the confidence to leave white space. Only this time it is not about leaving white space in the exhibit; it is about leaving white space in my life. CA
© 2010 W. Richmond
Editor’s note: Wendy’s new book Art Without Compromise* is published by Allworth Press.