In the next room, M is writing a computer game. Earlier today, our son had described a game in which the player moves through space, collecting clouds. He had spent the afternoon making an iPad from an offcut of pine shelving and a trimmed down A4 punched pocket, sellotaped to form a screen into which he could insert multiple drawings of the games he imagined playing. The drawings emerged over several hours, accumulating intense depictions, felt-tip arrows and instructions which bled through to the reverse, so that each double-sided game became more complex than its intended, labyrinthine plot. Accompanying each drawing was a narration of what was happening in the game, a narration that was impossible to follow without zoning out and wondering what we would eat for the next meal.
Now the house is quiet and M is at his own computer trying to make it happen, using images from cloud libraries, a synthetic wind generator and shaders, things you apply to three-dimensional objects to render a cloud-like form. The idea is a kind of anti-game, in which instead of collecting pixelated trophies or exterminating stiff-limbed avatars, you accumulate experiences of blank space. The problem is that the clouds are currently black, and frankly pretty awesome. I can’t work out how to make them any other colour.
A new book had arrived that morning, and in the emphatic quiet of a household with newly asleep bodies upstairs, I tore open the package. Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather, Art in an Emergency: its pink clothbound cover fell open to reveal endpapers of intense Klein Blue.
It is a hyper aesthetic, weighty object, bringing together essays from over a decade of Laing’s writing on art. There are profiles of a dozen late 20th century artists— Basquiat, Jarman, Agnes Martin—many of whom Laing has written about at length in 2016’s The Lonely City, her investigation of loneliness by way of art. There are her Frieze columns and fiction readings, too: Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus, Ali Smith, the kind of writers likely to be found in the smooth piles of Tate Bookshop. There are ‘Love Letters’—eulogies to John Berger and Bowie among them. The tone throughout sings with warmth and intimacy, and it’s clear these are artists that have meant something to the writer personally, rather than objects of critique. A few pages each at most, these are digestible essays that take the time it might take to drink your coffee. They make for ideal lockdown reading.
One of the things I enjoy most about Laing’s writing is her attention to what’s going on in the act of making. Writing about Chantal Joffe, she relates a visit to the artist’s studio in which instead of assuming roles of journalist and subject, she and Joffe attempt a mutual act of simultaneous witnessing. As Laing describes their efforts to depict each other in words and paint she shows how art’s attempt to capture can affect human connection at a more intimate level: the encounter is revealing in both directions. It’s a visionary piece of writing, and only disappointing that Joffe’s images of Laing aren’t reproduced.
It isn’t easy to set down what you really see, Laing recognises. It isn’t easy at all. But there’s also a thrill in sensing what can’t be captured: in the way a failed artwork can point to what has eluded it, like a silent clue:
‘The painting she made was accurate, it rendered the features, but the person she’d been looking at had evaded her completely. When she told me that story she was excited. Something had been there, in the room. It hadn’t been caught.’
You sense Laing shares Joffe’s excitement at such failures and frustrations: not least for their propensity to provoke questions—propelling change. Discussing British conceptual art, she quotes Susan Hiller’s point that, ‘you have no subject matter other than what’s already in language—and what was already in language, for my generation of women, was not what we wanted to say’. Elsewhere Laing seems to broaden her own linguistic approach by borrowing from visual practices: collage, (dis)placement, spacing, as in her tribute to Wolfgang Tillmans. Written in eight intense vignettes, the form here may be reminiscent of Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, but the effect is more like a cluster of photographs that Tillmans himself might tape to a wall—apparently unrelated to each other, lemons, apple blossom, broken eggs, but somehow amounting to a way of seeing.
This is art nudging us from aesthetic cliché, pushing us to see and to appreciate differently: not just to find new instagrammable objects in the mundane, but to question fixed ideas about aesthetics themselves. It’s a good nudge when you’re stuck in COVID-lockdown, sick of the sight of the same four walls.
More relief is on offer through reading, ‘those journeys into the recesses of other minds and anatomies’, as Laing describes Maggie Nelson’s writing—a sentence that feels particularly resonant in a time of needing to stay two metres apart. Offering those other bodies through which to navigate another way of living might be a critical or political exercise, but right now, I’ll take it for the escapism.
Among the many effects of the pandemic lockdown, many of us are experiencing different kinds of timeframes, as the usual markers of routine and change have been removed. For my grandmother, confined to her bedroom in a care home, the short-term memory slippage of her dementia has been stretched into a continual now, as each day remains unmarked by visits or venturing out. For working parents blurring bedroom backdrops for zoom calls or sharing kitchen tables with homeschooling children, the working day and domestic life have reached new degrees of intermingling, as the phrasing of each email is perforated with parenting. There is a double ‘now’, a working present coexisting with a parental one.
‘Can art do anything, especially during periods of crisis?’, Laing asks in her opening essay. Art can’t replace touch, and it’s not a guarantee of empathy either. But it can open a window here and there. ‘What art does is provide material with which to think’, Laing concludes, ‘new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.’
Staying home, that chance to journey in another body and place might feel especially welcome, whether via fiction, a performance on Instagram Live or a succession of urgently-imagined computer games. You might glimpse new registers of connection, of intimacy either in real space or up close on a video call. You might turn your daily walk into an artwork of your own, bringing to it the self-awareness and precision of intention of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton: ‘An art of vanishing, an art that exists nowhere save in the afterlife of the mind’, as Laing puts it. But your ability to engage with any of this right now will depend on who’s isolating with you, how much they’re talking or needing care, or the shape your memory’s in.
In the next room, M has nearly finished rendering the game, although the graphics remain black—a problem deferred for tomorrow. The computer’s fan kicks in as its working memory starts to feel the strain, a white noise, enveloping, like entering cloud.
Anna Chapman Parker is an artist and writer based in the Scottish Borders.