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Limbo Breaker

Published: 30 March 2021 Author: Tom Lines

If you’re stuck in a creative rut, this solitary workshop can help you in isolated times. It was originally devised as a face-to-face workshop to explore the capabilities of the modular synthesiser. Tom has adapted the idea to be possible as a solo exercise that mimics the generative and interconnecting systems of the modular synth, using only a pen, paper, an internet connection and a series of prompts and questions.

Modular synths are made up of multiple modules, some of which generate sound by themselves, but most not. It is through patching modules together with wires that we can create complex sounds and music. The reason this is my preferred technique of producing sound is that, while there are many possibilities, the process of patching modules together narrows those possibilities down dynamically. Instead of being utterly alone in creating, you can work in collaboration with little computing things.

Limbo, feeling blocked, or the fear of breaking perfect silence and the sublime blankness of a page, comes, I think, from having too many possibilities to process. Systems and processes guide us past this point of infinite choices to intersections where we have just enough choice to be creative, and just few enough options to be able to actualise meaningful choices. 

With this in mind, we will now use different systems to create trinkets and talismans, objects with no function other than to have character and meaning, for our own personal cabinets of curiosities. The trinkets/talismans will be comprised of different “moods” to set the scene for your work. 

Follow the activities below in any order. Roll a dice if you need to, there are 6 choices. Collect the documents, images, and recordings from each activity in a folder to be accessed whenever you need guidance. You can make as many trinket/talisman folders as you want. You can also upload the folder to our shared cabinet of curiosities here.

This is a document for me as much as it is for you, a series of solutions based on my own ruts and anxieties. Take your time, take breaks, use the table at the end, and feel no pressure to do it all.

Preface: Make this personal to you.

The following exercises are applicable to all mediums, even though they will include colour, sound, and writing. The result will be a resource that will hopefully help guide the early stages or difficult crossroads of your projects.

  • The first mood for your trinket/talisman is the tarot card “The Hanged Man.” A.E Waite says that (amongst other things) it represents “life in suspension” and wisdom. I see it as limbo, crisis, and yielding. It is common for an artist to be ungrounded, willingly, or not. It is also necessary to let go of logic and control to make the best creations, something that Keats called “negative capability.” Look at the Hanged Man and think about how it may relate to your work, and through this activity, embrace uncertainty and yield a little to the system.

Thought 1: The order that you arrange things is just as important as the things themselves.

When we compile influences for creating art pieces we usually do not think about the sequence of the different elements. Let us say we are editing a film and had four establishing shots – a wide shot of the environment, a shot of the protagonist entering a room, a close up of some detail, and a piece of text. As it turns out, there are 24 different permutations in which we could arrange these shots, each of which would give different weight to the shots and a different feel to the set up of the scene. This awareness of order can be applied to any artistic medium; when I paint, I need to think about which sections I paint first, and where the subjects lie in the composition; when I make music, I need to think about where different sections go, as well as what to include. This is why cards like Tarot are able to produce such a varied and nuanced variety of readings. You are drawing a combination from many cards, but the order also brings a lot of meaning.

  • Roll a six-sided dice (or use this online dice roller) and play the corresponding recording under permutations. The sound you hear includes three audio effects, and you have randomly chosen the order in which those effects are routed. This is one mood for your trinket/talisman.

Thought 2: Limits are possibilities.

In the manga series Hunter X Hunter, the strength of the characters’ supernatural abilities is proportional to the limits they put on themselves. The same can be true of artists. It’s a useful tool to limit your range of focus, materially and conceptually, as this lets you explore the nuances and details of a technique or subject matter. 

If you draw or paint: 

  • Only use 3 colours
  • Use your weak hand
  • Only spend 30 minutes on a piece
  • Only paint/draw negative space
  • Only use dots, lines, or another repeating mark

If you write:

  • Make a sonnet or haiku, or follow another limiting poem structure
  • Write a short story in 100 or 250 words in a day or two days respectively
  • Explore what happens when you can’t use a basic element of writing, like full stops, verbs, speech marks, etc.

If you use sound:

  • Make a 30 second piece
  • Tape off half of your instrument
  • Ignore melody, make it one note, or just noise

 

Pick one of these limits and follow this link for a random word.

Use this random word in your piece: i.e. if you are writing a story or poem, include the word in the text; if you are making a film, include the word, no matter how abstract it is, in a scene; if you are making sound, maybe you will sample an object, mimic an action or generate a mood which relates to the word.

This limit-word combination is another facet of your trinket/talisman.

Thought 3: Sometimes you should work with something you cannot stand.

We all have opinions of what we do and do not like. It’s fine to hate something, so long as you understand what it is you do not like about the thing. This may be a piece of art, a person, a song, or something else.

  • Spend 10 minutes documenting something you do not like in a completely detached manner. If it is piece of visual art, draw it; if it is a person, describe what they do without judgement (don’t include any identifying factors); if it is a song, write down what you hear and what effect it has. You may find your opinion changes in the process of paying attention and moving beyond gut reactions and first impressions. 

This document is one more mood for your trinket/talisman

Thought 4: Change a part, change the whole.

Alfred Hitchcock famously demonstrated the power of changing a single shot in a sequence. Watch him explain it in this video: 

  • Flip a coin 4 times and write down the results (e.g. HTHH). Find the corresponding recording under combinations. The sound you hear is made up of 4 elements, each of which has two modes. Your coin flips chose the modes of each element. This is one of your moods.

Thought 5: Add a bit of colour, or Colour relates to sound relates to words relates to touch relates to…

Indulging into too much dry seriousness, academia, and intellectual posturing can alienate people. Give your audience something to respond to experientially.

Take a screenshot and refresh the page. Take another screenshot. These colours are another element of your trinket/talisman. If you make visual work, use them in your piece, even if you do not usually use that kind of palette. If your work is non-visual, then try and feel how they would translate into writing, sound, smell, and touch. A crimson might smell like wine, sound gothic, feel smooth or wet, or remind you of a time you ate pomegranates. An acidic green might taste sour, sound futuristic or harsh, burn to the touch, or bring visions of gremlins. Whether you have synaesthesia or not, one sensory input can be translated (however loosely) into another sense. Be as literal or metaphorical as you want.

Thought 6: The body is always relevant.

The way we hold our bodies has an effect on how people interpret us. It also effects how we act and think. Often, we work in positions that obstruct the task we are trying to do. Make sure all the things you need for a task are to hand and your chair and table are the right shapes and heights. Creating a good workspace can also create a separation between work and non-work, so if you are like me, fretting over to-do lists while lying in bed, it’s advised to not perform any of that work in bed. Give the work its place and leave it there.

Generate 2 or 3 poses. You can perform them if you want, but for now think about the movement between the positions. If you are a visual artist, this may generate a composition or form for you; if you are a musician, it may create a dynamic structure for a piece; if you are a writer, try to create a context in which the positions or movements make sense.

Appendix: Random Wholesomeness Generator

If you are finding yourself overwhelmed by your own thoughts and paralysed by the infinitude of possibilities out there, take a deep breath, roll a six-sided die, and do the corresponding activity below. These things should give you time to think.

 

Dice Result       Activity
1 Make a tea/coffee/squash/hot chocolate/water
2 Go for a 30 minute walk
3 Do a 5-minute sitting meditation (Headspace is a good resource).  
4 Call a good friend or family member (you don’t need a reason)
5 Bake something quick
6 Put on your favourite music and get up and move to it

 

Tom Lines

I am a multimedia artist based in Newcastle, working primarily in digital media, oil paint and sound. In the gallery space I make installations which are multi-sensory, such as my 2019 piece “Manstaining,” which involved film, sculpture, text and painting, paired with a soundtrack I created myself, or my Audio-Visual installation “Follow-Through,” which was part of the show Terra Nexus at Proposition Studios. In this installation, the audience played a part in damaging the soundscape of birdsong, leaves rustling and synthetic water, momentarily silencing it with their footsteps, encouraging the alert viewer to tread lightly to preserve the sound piece.

Other work deals with the monster as a agent who lies between the human and the other, most notably between the human and animal (as in much folklore worldwide) and between the human and technology (as in the cyborgs).
The concepts of my work are like my media, diverse but always strongly connected, a rubbing up together of technology and muck, folklore and cybernetics, steely synthesis, and analogue noise. In my imagery I evoke the lush patterns of the Baroque and Medieval geometric patterns alongside the organic forms and grit of monsters and animals, digitally degraded in my iPad work and scraped and overworked in my oil painting. Much of the time my work deals with interiors, as I attempt to create “thick air” in these fabricated spaces. Sound is an integral part of my work process, and increasingly central to my practice. I work with a modular synthesiser, as it seems like the most organic way to generate music in collaboration with technology, being generative and system based it mirrors the functions found within nature.

Find out more here