Thursday, March 16, 2023

A short note on the common mechanisms of love and deception

I'm deep into the rewrite of the second draft of my book about Mr. Apology.  With any luck, I'll have a new version ready in a few months, and then back to the thankless task of looking for an agent or publisher.  

In the meantime, I wanted to put this little snippet out there. Today I'm beginning to work on the chapter about Allan's misadventures with Richie the Serial Killer.  This is the hardest section of Allan's life story to get right - the point where he lost the thread of his own work and veered off into madness.  How do you account for an artist's crazy blundering without discrediting his entire life's work?

In Allan's case, it starts with Richie's deception.  The poisoned fruit of the tree of knowledge.  Here's a snippet I wrote today, which I like a lot, even though it may be a bit overwrought, in which case it's not likely to make the final cut ....

Deception happens much like love in the sense that it can be both sudden and drawn out; it's a muscular thing, the very sinew of life, the way it propels us forward and back at the same time. Deception and love are further alike in that they often start as an infatuation which then builds into a spell that holds us powerless in its sway. 

In full flower, a grand deception ends up functioning as the negative corollary of love; nothing more than the mutual investment in an outright lie comes to serve as the all-but-unbreakable bond of attraction between two people. Such was the nature of the bond that formed between Allan and Richie the Serial Killer.


Friday, April 15, 2022

The Origins of Apology

 Last night a little after 1:00 AM, the Volunteer Fire Department's siren started wailing, which set off Thor howling at the foot of the bed; then Bayleigh chimed in from the adjoining room. So much for a peaceful night in the country.  It was both a grievous and joyful way to be awakened from slumber. And by such mixed means I was brought to the edge of a major discovery.

Unable to return to sleep, I checked my email - usually a mistake whenever you find yourself suddenly roused in the middle of the night. But somehow last night, it turned out to be providential.  Because right there on my iPad, the very first thing I found turned out to be the key I needed to solve the puzzle that I've been stuck on for the last few weeks.  The key was there, in the form of a reply to tweet I had sent a few weeks earlier, and it contained just one word -- Aphanipoiesis. That's a term coined by the writer Nora Bateson.  It means the coalescence of blessings that proceed from sources unseen, or at least that's the way I would slightly rephrase Nora's definition.  And this key, this aphanipoiesis, had arrived in my conscious mind in an entirely appropriate manner, from sources unseen, thanks to the siren and howling that had erupted in the still of night.  (You can read Nora's original posting here.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. How can I expect you to understand the deep meaning of Aphanipoiesis, unless I first explain the puzzle I'd been struggling with recently.  For the last few weeks,  you see, I've been trying to write the third chapter in my new book -- It's a pivotal chapter, where I describe Allan Bridge's invention of the Apology Line.  And if you know nothing else about Allan and his story, then you should be aware that this is the moment, which he arrived at in the summer or early fall of 1980, when he first conceived of his masterpiece, the conceptual art project known as the Apology Line. 

How does an artist come up with a break through idea?  Where does inspiration come from?  The initial task I set for myself in writing this chapter was to identify all the important things Allan had already figured out -- the various pieces of the puzzle that he assembled and laid out on the table in front of him based on his earlier work.  After all, a breakthrough is predicated on laying the foundation in your prior work. 

But even after laying out all the pieces, and taking stock of the important ideas Allan had already discovered, something was still missing.  The pieces alone did not lead ineluctably to the solution Allan eventually found.  The big idea was still inchoate.

So I went back to look through all of Allan's writings, and the transcripts of the countless interviews he gave over the years, where he described his early adventures creating the Apology Line, and I noticed something curious.  Much as Allan was a dedicated diarist and kept meticulous records of the progress of his work, he remained remarkably silent when it came to Apology Line's moment of conception.  You can follow his tracks leading up close to the event and you can pick up his trail immediately afterwards.  But there is a gap of a couple months that covers the crucial run up period of gestation or incubation or whatever you choose to call it when the idea first came to fruition.

And that brings me back to Aphanipoiesis.  Beyond a certain point the mystery of art cannot be solved. We're not privileged to see those sources unseen. We can't be. That's just the way it is, the way our world is set up.  Those deep well springs of inspiration are not accessible to the conscious mind of the artist either. They coalesce underground, the way a seedling does, where it may remain hidden though already in plant like form, before bursting forth into daylight.  These are the leaves full formed underground that have been nourished solely by an interior light.


Tuesday, April 12, 2022

A Very Weimar World

These days it seems
It's a very Weimar world
Poised on disaster's brink  
An era of scams and shell games
And for screwball comedy
As my brother reminds me
A la Lubitsch and Chaplin
But don't you just wince
When you remember how 
The plot unspooled last time
We rolled this reel

* * * * *

With publication of this poem, I'm pleased to announce that I will be taking up residence here on the Apology blog, more or less full time, while the Lampoetry blog undergoes renovation.  

Most of what I publish here will be prose, although please forgive me if I throw in a haiku or sonnet or two every once in a while.  I am very much in recovery mode from poetry, still overly attached to extended metaphor, and therefore prone to backslide by poetically speaking from time to time.

And by way of further explanation to those of you visiting this site for the first time, my efforts on this blog will be directed towards developing -- for myself and anyone else who happens to be interested -- a better understanding of the life and work of Allan Bridge, aka Mr. Apology. This is the subject of my current writing project, which is coming along swimmingly, or at least well enough for me to feel comfortable inviting you now to come along for the ride ....

Sunday, February 6, 2022

A Successful Artist Re-Invents the Universe

The passion an artist feel for his elements is what distinguishes art from esthetic exercise.  An artist must be content not merely with the reinvention of the wheel.  In truth, that is the work of a successful esthetic hack.  The successful artist re-invents the universe.  This is no easy task.  Much of the enjoyment of art resides in  experiencing or sharing the solution.  The sophisticated observer of art attempts to infer the problem undertaken by the artist from the solution presented.

Allan Bridge, from The Confessions of Mr. Apology 

An artist is someone who lays claim to primary authorship of the most important passages in her or his life story, notwithstanding whatever other major influences may come to bear upon it. Creative discovery happens without undue reliance on serendipity or dumb luck.  In other words, an artist is someone who makes his or her own good luck.

That’s one of the things that impresses me most about Allan’s legacy.  The Apology Line was a world entirely of his own making. He was the creator and sole proprietor of it.  It was his Swan’s Way or Guernica - not just a wheel reinvented, not a mere world, but reality reconstituted into a universe in miniature, complete unto itself, and built by power of his imagination.

What further distinguishes the Apology Line as a singular product of contemporary art is that it was peopled with living souls.  Allan figured out how to build his universe using as his raw material the voices of present lives in being  -- human essences that he incorporated directly into the fabric of his work.  His remarkable accomplishment lay in discovering an utterly novel and constructive use of these raw materials he found close to hand.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Voices of Apology


Click here to listen to The Apology Line podcast

Allan Bridge was a visionary, way ahead of his time.  It’s only now, 25 years after his death, that we can begin to grasp the magnitude of what he accomplished.  He began the Apology Line as a simple art experiment in October 1980,  putting up posters around New York City challenging criminals and wrongdoers to call and apologize for their misdeeds.  Not really sure what to expect, he set up a telephone answering machine in his loft to record their messages.
Almost immediately the calls started pouring in and they continued to do so for the next 15 years, during which time, Allan kept pushing the project forward, sometimes in entirely unexpected ways, moving well beyond the boundaries of the conventional art world.  For one thing, soon after he started, Allan began splicing together the more interesting messages he had recorded, along with his occasional commentary, to create a biweekly series of 15-minute audio programs. In effect, these audio programs were the world’s first podcast, which he broadcast as the outgoing message on his answering machine.   Mind you, this was a decade before Internet 1.0 had come into being.
His innovation didn’t stop there.  Before long, the Apology Line also became interactive, and blossomed into one of  the world’s first virtual communities.  This came about when Allan realized he could use his answering machine to facilitate an asynchronous discussion among the callers.  From one program tape to the next, callers would exchange messages back and forth, sometimes supportive, sometime critical of each other, in precisely the same way we have come to take for granted when we join groups on Facebook or LinkedIn.  Again, Allan had anticipated the development of social media by more than 20 years, launching a version of a moderated Internet chat group using the rudimentary technology of his answering machine.   The Apology Line community thus embarked on its exploration of the virtual world even before Mark Zuckerberg had been born.

But what’s most remarkable and profound about Allan’s work are the voices of the Apology callers.  They were the raw material out of which Allan built his masterwork  -- and believe me, many of those voices were quite raw indeed.   As much as possible, we’ve tried to give them pride of place in the podcast as well.  Given Allan’s training as painter, he thought of the calls he recorded as a form of portraiture -- portraits which the callers themselves directly participated in creating.  As Allan wrote in one of his unpublished  manuscripts:   
Arguably, I achieved not merely artistic distance or reserve, but actual non-interference with the callers and the recordings they made.  My approach seemed esthetically right; and this was the basis of my unstated but implied claim that the project was indeed art. My decision not to put my imprint on the messages was an esthetic decision.  I thought of it as a scientific esthetic; that is, make an experimental setup, then stand back and record what happens. 
Beyond the scientific and esthetic detachment, there is an even more important spirit that lies at the heart of Allan’s work.  Ned Rifkin, who was the curator of the first Apology Line exhibit at the New Museum in 1981, explains it this way:
If you were to try to define a spiritual element of Allan’s work, it is through the generosity  of his project.  There is an incredible spirit of generosity in giving the opportunity to people to express their regrets and remorse and to place that at the center of your work.  
Whether we understand it as a work of art or as a virtual community (or a combination of both), Allan's spirit of generosity was the foundation on which the Apology Line was built. 
One last point I want to make about Allan and his work.  Scientific and esthetic detachment may have been Allan’s original intention, but as the Apology community came to life, it proved to be an impossible ideal for him to maintain. The more the Apology community flourished, the more the voices of Apology sprang to life, the more Mr. Apology  himself became drawn into his creation.  This points us in the direction of the ultimate outcome of Allan’s life story, which has much in common with the myth of Pygmalion, albeit far more tragic and somewhat in reverse.  In Allan’s case, even as the work he created came to life, it was the artist who ended up being subsumed in his work.
It’s a remarkable story about a remarkable man, and I hope you’ll find our podcast well worth your while to listen. 

Listen to the Apology Line podcast
Allan, I should add, has had an enormous influence on my life, even though I never had the chance to meet him in person.  I think it’s fair to say I would most likely never have started writing and translating poetry if not for Allan -- not that this would have been any great loss as far as the world is concerned, although it has made a world of difference to me. 
In any event, I want to close out this blogpost with links to a few of the poems I have written about Allan and Apology over the years.


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Why the Apology Line Matters

This August will mark the 25th anniversary of Allan Bridge’s death and the subsequent wind down of the Apology Line, ending its remarkable 15-year run.  In cooperation with the Wondery network, my wife and I are currently developing a 6-episode podcast that will introduce the Line to a new audience, and we hope, bring this one-of-a-kind work of art back to life, after lying dormant for many years. 

When we look more closely at the virtual community Allan managed to build and maintain, it seems not only was the Apology Line far ahead of its own time but, in some respects, it still remains well ahead of our own. Apology was a virtual community that fostered and inspired trust among its members to an uncanny extent, which somehow managed to avoid many of the negative and corrosive tendencies experienced by regular users of Facebook and Twitter today.  Its value rested not on the sheer size of the network but in the strength and depth of the bond it forged among its members, and the extent they were ready and able to lend succor and support to each other, even though they remained complete strangers.  Allan’s achievements as a community builder were all the more remarkable in that he launched Apology at the dawn of the digital era, before the Internet had even come into existence, working with relatively crude technology – twisted copper pair wire and not-so-smart telephones – compared to the high-speed networks and microprocessors we take for granted today.  And from start to finish, the Apology Line was the brainchild and masterwork of a single artist working alone in his loft apartment without the benefit of financing from venture capitalists on Sandhill Road or the vast resources made possible through the public markets. In fact, Apology flourished for 15 years largely without any external financial support, except for the occasional $5 or $10 donations mailed in by listeners.

In stressing the positive qualities of the virtual community Allan built, I don’t mean to suggest that the Apology Line was free from its share of darkness and controversy.  Far from it.  The Apology community experienced many of the same annoyances and challenges that have become accepted features on social media today – there were trolls and imposters, there were callers steeped in depravity; and sometimes the dialog between callers would degenerate into harsh personal attack.  But somehow, even with all those obstacles and shortcomings, the Line continued to flourish and provide a vital sense of connection for its participants.  It was a community that primarily nurtured a sense of resilience and mutual tolerance among its members rather than serving, first and foremost, as a platform for personal networking or constant self-promotion. 

As part of this blogpost, I want to highlight the key qualities that Allan incorporated into the fabric of the Apology community, and which stand in sharp contrast to what we have come to accept as inevitable aspects of the social media platforms we use every day.  None of Apology’s distinctive features alone is sufficient to explain the enormity of difference in the “user experience”, but somehow bundled together, I think they are key to explaining Allan’s success in establishing Apology as a consistently vibrant and positive virtual community  -- one which, instead of breeding disillusionment and anomie, helped participants overcome their isolation and develop an enduring and meaningful connection with one another.

1.      Apology was founded by Allan as an art project; personal financial gain was never central to his agenda.  There were various times and ways that Allan tried to make money from the project – at least enough money to cover his expenses – but he always resisted any money-making schemes that he thought would exploit the callers or their stories.   By and large, Allad earned the trust of the callers by consistently putting their needs above his own financial interests. (Just imagine how different Facebook would be if the same could be said of Mark Zuckerberg!) 

2.      The community was open but curated.  Unlike Facebook or Twitter, there was a clearly identifiable operator of the system – Mr. Apology – who bore ultimate responsibility for whatever messages got played.  In that way, Apology resembled a curated message board, although the curator invited critique and did not pretend to infallibility.

3.      But unlike the curated groups we’re familiar with from Facebook and LinkedIn, Apology managed to draw participation from an incredibly diverse group of participants.  The community was not, by definition, limited to members who shared a common and narrow set of interests.  It was completely open to one and all – anyone who wanted to drop a dime and listen or leave a message.  In this way, Apology managed to avoid the avoid the echo chamber effect we encounter in much of our social media usage.  It encouraged people to listen to other points of view instead of reinforcing their own proclivities.
4.      Apology was premised on preserving everyone’s anonymity (including Allan’s). An important inspiration for Allan’s approach was Catholic confessional, where the shield of anonymity is granted to encourage full and honest disclosure. Rather than making communication seem impersonal, anonymity deployed in this way served to encourage people’s willingness to speak openly.    

5.      On the flipside, because callers to Apology remained anonymous, there was no simple and easy way to insure the truthfulness of the messages that got played.  In the first instance, Allan’s gut instincts provided a basis for him to exclude from playback any message that didn’t bear the ring of truth.  Beyond that, what evolved was a community-based scheme of fraud detection.  Sooner or later, other callers would begin to question the veracity of a caller’s story if it sounded contrived or fabricated, as happened, for instance, with the long-running saga of Richie the Serial Killer.

6.      Communication was voice based and almost always spontaneous, not scripted.  This was fundamental to the nature of the community.  The human voice has unique qualities which make it that much easier for us to sense if someone is being honest or not; it provides the most reliable means for sharing deep personal truths. The voice is also capable of imparting a far richer range of feeling and meaning than can be conveyed in writing.

7.      The Apology Line was episodic not a continuous channel of communication.  In other words, the medium didn’t overpower the message.  Callers could become obsessed with the Line and many of the them called regularly over its 15-year history.  But even so, Apology wasn’t prone to abuse or overuse, nor were callers prone to addiction.  What the history of Apology proves is that social media can be riveting even when it doesn’t attempt to monopolize or demand a participant’s continuous and constant attention.

Ultimately, a community is only as strong and resilient as the principles upon which it has been founded and built.  Allan may have been something of an idealist, a product of the Woodstock generation, who was willing to place the consideration of collective well-being at the center of his community-building efforts.  But the success of the Apology project over its 15-year lifespan demonstrates that such idealism can be both practical and workable when it comes to building a lively and sustainable virtual community.  And in that way, Apology provides an important model for the next generation of entrepreneurs who are now facing the challenge of building new apps and platforms that will better embody and nurture positive human values in our networked world.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

What is Transformative Art?

I don't make a regular habit of reading scientific journals but today, after doing a bit of web sleuthing, I came across an incredibly provocative article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience about the meaning and practice of Transformative Art.  It’s by an Israeli neuroscientist named Son Preminger and I can’t recommend the article highly enough, particularly if you’re open to the possibility of transforming the way you think about artistic experience. (You can find it here.) The article is not overly technical and it is remarkably well written, given the conceptual complexity and difficulty of discussing the meaning and value of art in terms of neuroscience.

What drew me to read Preminger’s article was my experience listening to the Apology Line program tapes made by Allan Bridge from 1983 through 1995.  (If you're not familiar with Allan's work, you can learn more about it here.) I’ve been trying to better understand Allan’s artistic legacy, having spent the last 6 months listening to hundreds of hours of his audio recordings, in preparation for our work on the upcoming ApologyLine podcast.  It’s more than 40 years since Allan first set up his answering machine, and more than 25 years since his death, when the Apology Line fell silent, and yet the Apology recordings have lost none of their power or fascination and, if anything, they have only grown richer in meaning over the intervening years.  How many works of art can claim that sort of enduring power?

It struck me that one key to Allan’s artistic triumph is that the Apology Line exercises a transformational power on its audience.  That, quite literally, was Allan’s stated intention in undertaking the project – to help callers to the Line turn over a new leaf.  How that worked in practice is a fascinating subject, which we will explore in detail in our podcast.  But as a general matter, how does Art come to possess such a transformational power?  Is there, in fact, such a thing as Transformational Art?  Not that I had ever heard the term used before, but I felt certain this concept must have been previously explored, either in the realm of art criticism or aesthetic theory.  Thanks to a little bit of Google searching, that’s how I came across Preminger’s article in a neuroscience journal.

This brief blogpost is not the place for me to summarize the full range of Preminger’s thoughts on the subject. Besides, as I said above, her article is really worth reading for yourself.  Instead, what I simply want to do here is highlight a few ways in which the Apology project can be perhaps best understood as an exemplary work of Transformational Art.

·      Art as an engineered experience.  Preminger as a neuroscientist has a somewhat unique way of describing and thinking about an artist’s work.  In her words, “artists can be viewed as experts in controlling and manipulating humans' perceptions as well as the emotional and cognitive experience that they induce.”  This seems true of painters, writers and moviemakers alike.  And it seems particularly apt when it comes to a conceptual artist such as Allan Bridge, who very deliberately crafted the Apology Line as a means to foster anonymous confessions that would lead to personal insight and growth, both for the callers and listeners to the Line.

·      Art May be Deliberately Constructed to Promote Transformational Experience.  Once we recognize that a work of art is specifically designed in order to control and manipulate human perceptions as well as the emotional and cognitive experiences that accompany them, it follows that certain artistic experiences may be created with express intention of fostering human transformation.  Or as the neuroscientist Preminger more precisely puts it: “Given that brain and cognition have the capacity to be molded by artistic experiences, art can be created in a way that takes this knowledge into account and utilizes it to generate transformative experiences with particular artistic or rehabilitational goals in mind.”  This describes the workings of the Apology Line quite precisely.  The original inspiration for creating Apology stemmed from Allan’s earlier experience building a sculptural machine called Crime Time which directly served a rehabilitational purpose for Allan himself, as it proved instrumental in helping him stop shoplifting.  From the outset, he conceived of the Apology Line as a way to serve a similar purpose for a more general audience of callers and listeners.
·      Transformational Art may be most effective when designed as a repeatable experience.  Preminger notes that the viewer’s experience of art is most typically part of a singular encounter rather than repeated. Of course, if there’s a painting you particularly love or a favorite movie, you may go back to see it many times.  But when the artist or moviemaker creates the work in the first instance, they will usually craft it to be self-sufficient on a single viewing.  Preminger, on the other hand, suggests that one of the hallmarks of Transformational Art is that it is deliberately designed to be repeated in order to achieve its desired transformational effect.  In her words, it is “art could be viewed as a medium that by instigating repeated experiences may induce long-term changes and serve as means for modification, improvement, and rehabilitation of various cognitive functions.”    One of the truly remarkable aspects of the Apology Line is how it exercised a continuing hold on both callers and listeners, many of whom were repeat callers and actively participated in the Apology community for most if not all of its 15-year duration.

 One more point I want to make about how Apology fits so aptly within the category of Transformative Art.  This isn’t something derived from Preminger’s article but something I realized myself as I have continued to contemplate the nature of Allan’s work.  When he first set out to create the Apology Line, Allan approached it very much in the framework of the traditional art world.  He collected recordings on his answering machine and then played them back in a series of gallery and museum exhibits.  This was avant garde conceptual art but nonetheless it was work that he managed to present through the art world’s established gatekeepers. But gradually, by producing his program tapes and playing them back over his answering machine, Allan weaned himself away from the art world and found a way to reach his audience directly.  As a result, Allan’s connection to the established art world became tenuous and the Apology Line’s classification as a work of art became increasingly problematic. Was it art, online therapy or a sociology experiment? -- even today it’s not easy to say.  And that is one more bit of evidence of the Apology Line’s transformative power – it was a transformative work of art that managed to transform itself along the way, breaking outside our conventional categories and providing us with an utterly singular transformative experience.

We hope to share this transformative experience with a new audience of listeners when our podcast launches later this year.  Click here to join our mailing list.

*  *  *  *  *  *

My cousin Susan emailed me after reading this blogpost and pointed out that I failed to mention musicians in the discussion above, specifically in the paragraph where I discuss how writers, painters and moviemakers all demonstrate the various ways in which artists become adept in controlling and manipulating human perception, emotion and cognitive experience.  Of course, Susan is absolutely right; this is an obvious omission, inasmuch as music is paradigmatic of how effective art can be in shaping all three -- perception, emotion and cognition.  If I recollect correctly, Preminger specifically notes that music's transformative potential is significantly enhanced since we are much more likely to listen again and again to a favorite song or sonata compared to how often we are inclined to reread a favorite novel.

It's also worth noting that Susan's deep appreciation for music's transformative power is very much shaped by her practice as a music therapist.  All art therapists (whether musicians, painters, actors, etc.) are on the front lines in creating and performing transformational art, inasmuch as their art practice is done with a very clear and specific rehabilitational purpose in mind. 

There is this difference, though, between Allan's work on the Apology Line and the work of an art or music therapist.  In a hospital, school or rehab setting, an art therapist directs his or her practice towards the benefit of a specific student or patient population.  Allan's art practice was much more of a free form operation, in which he served as a general and wandering practitioner of transformative art.  His efforts were directed towards anyone who took the time and trouble to drop a dime and call the Line.  And in some respects, the transformative effects of Allan's work extended equally well to those who left messages as well as those who just listened to the program tapes, as I hope you'll have a chance to hear for yourself once the Apology podcast goes on air.     


A short note on the common mechanisms of love and deception

I'm deep into the rewrite of the second draft of my book about Mr. Apology.  With any luck, I'll have a new version ready in a few m...