The Aesthetic of Emptiness

One of my earliest memories is of the game series Myst.


Myst III: Exile

For those of you who don’t know, Myst is a series of puzzle adventure games in which you explore these vast fantastic worlds full of puzzles, mysteries, and history. You spend most of your time in the games alone, often with haunting music playing in the background. Much of the Myst games is lonely. And I love it.

I love it because the contrasting emptiness emphasizes the player’s presence and agency in the world. I love it because the stark vacancy drives a player’s curiosity to discover what happened in these worlds and how they work. I love it because there is something about the aesthetic of emptiness that dissatisfies a person, makes them uncomfortable, and drives them to act.

It reminds me of auditoriums, sheets of paper, or canvases – things specifically designed to be empty for the purpose of being filled with music, words, or images. Things built to be incomplete. The feeling I get in an empty auditorium is the same I get standing at the top of a hill or cliff. It demands that I speak or sing into the emptiness.

It’s the same feeling I get when I look at a newly rendered Minecraft world, an empty field, or the night sky. Our species has an apparently insatiable desire to fill and create from what we find. And it makes me wonder about the inherent meaning of the universe. Some say life is inherently meaningless and some say life is decidedly meaningful. I believe it to be meaningful but I look at emptiness and I think “There’s a manner in which we’re supposed to create more meaning. Fill in the blanks. Fill in the parts of the story that have not yet been written.”

For this reason, I love works of art that are minimalist or simple. Songs that use silence as if it were another note. Paintings that use the empty canvas as if it were another colour. Games where the player is in an empty world. I love these because the feeling of incompletion emphasizes the grandeur and impulse of creativity, that first dramatic step from nothing to something. From ignorance to understanding. In Myst, from absence to agency. The aesthetic of emptiness is the one that best conveys the power of the inspiration to create.


Why I Hated Dance

In elementary school and high school I would sit in the audience of talent shows and think “This is admittedly impressive in that the performers have great control of their body, but isn’t this form without content? Doesn’t this lack meaning or message?” So for the first 20 years of my life I was convinced that dance was just an inferior art form if an art form at all.

My thinking began to shift when I watched a Ze Frank video in which Ze narrates a dancer’s life story over his performance.

I liked this. I loved it. There was a marriage of form and content that I had been searching for. I wouldn’t have been able to read Harry’s performance without Ze’s narration, but we all have to be taught to become literate. No one is born reading. No one is born understanding much of anything. So then I had a problem. I had found a dance performance I liked. I could no longer write off an entire art form as inherently inferior. So what was different?

I wouldn’t know until a couple years later. I sat down to consciously think through dance. Every art form has advantages and ideas that it’s better at exploring. Theatre explores causes and effects. Poetry relates connected ideas. The various movements in the history of painting demonstrate different ways of perceiving the world. What does dance do?

The answer I came to was this – dance demonstrates dynamic. A dance that takes place between two people represents the innermost essence of relationship; some are exciting, some are happy, some are equal, some have a leader, some are slow, etc. So dance is about connection and interaction. Dance is what two souls are doing while two bodies are talking or walking or working or whatever.

So what about these solo dance performances like the detestable ones in high school or the beautiful one on youtube? If dance is about connection, aren’t solo dances inherently deficient? Aren’t they inherently about loneliness? Well, yes and no. Solo dance performances (I am including coordinated dances done in groups but without interaction between dancers) are about what the soul does when its on its own. They’re a way of sharing an innermost part of ourselves.

But that has to be vulnerable. And there’s the difference between hip-hop loving teens and Harry. Harry is exposed. Harry is embodying his pain. The talent show performances aren’t vulnerable. They should be but what they say is “The inner most part of me is strong and sassy and beautiful and ain’t takin’ nuthin’ from nobody.” That claim is almost certainly a lie and I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone for whom that was honestly true. Real people are vulnerable and demonstrating that takes incredible courage. Anything less than that isn’t art. It’s a lie you tell yourself. Unfortunately it’s the lie that most talent show participants have told themselves.

But dance is made for more. Dance is what the soul does. It can be what two souls do together or it can be a single soul at its most vulnerable. What it should never be is without risk.

You may disagree. You may find “strong and sassy” inspiring. That’s a conversation we can have. The point is I don’t hate dance anymore. What I hate is invulnerability. What I admire is vulnerability. If you admire strength, I submit to you that real strength is the courage to be open.

Rules for Valentine’s Day for Single People

Every year we see varied reactions toward this oft-loved oft-hated holiday and we see varied reactions to these reaction. There’s often a mixture of excitement and resentment among those in relationships and those single, respectively. Because of this, I often start hearing discussions of what the potential merits or shortcomings of this season may be.

Coming from the position of a single guy, I end up revisiting my position each year and discussing it with people in similar situations. I’ve heard positions as graceful as “I use the holiday to celebrate my friends’ relationships and to remind myself of what I have to hope for.” And I’ve heard positions as embittered as “This is the dumbest holiday ever conceived.”

This year I’ve taken on a new position that I think is a healthy middle ground. As I continue to mature in coming years, my feelings about this season will likely change but this is where I am this year.

Rule 1. Don’t resent another person’s happiness. It’s not their fault that I haven’t found what they’ve found. And their happiness doesn’t somehow make me more single than I already am. Even if I feel bad, I should understand that that’s not someone else’s fault.

Rule 2. I don’t have to feel happy for others. I’m my own person with my own experiences and feelings. If some of those experiences and feelings are of disappointment, other people should respect that. I don’t stop being me just because someone else is happy and I can only pretend to be happy for others for so long when I haven’t experienced what they’re happy about.

Rule 3. Focus on the good. Rather than ruminating over the shallow commerciality of the holiday, remember what genuine love is. That may or may not be romantic. Let real love have the last word.

Rule 4. Wonder how Muslims refugees in North America feel during Christmas or Easter.

Rule 5. Try to ignore it. It’ll be over before you realize and then everyone will start stocking shamrocks for St. Patrick’s. Many of us struggle with finding fulfillment in our singleness but the sun rises the next day and there are still many things in life to be happy about. Take a brisk walk. Drink some tea. Watch a TV show you like. Remember you are more than your romantic prospects.

Love is beautiful and worth celebrating but there are 364 other days of the year for celebrating everything else that’s good in the world. We single people can bite the bullet and find lots to be happy about on February 15th.

And if nothing else, we’ve all got each other.