What I find especially exciting about art is that it doesn’t have a responsibility to be or do anything. Art is free and isn’t required to fix or solve anything. It can tell the truth or not. It can make things clearer or blurrier. It can organize or mess things up. It can make things happen or not. And as art critic Hal Foster suggests, artists can take a bad thing and make it worse. Maybe it’s useful to know that a bleak future is always a possibility and maybe it is good to imagine that and think through what it might be like. Art can present or suggest options for the future, but these don’t have to be viable options. They can even be stupid suggestions. It’s good to have all the options on the table, and to have the freedom to consider obviously bad or inappropriate solutions…if we want. It is possible that it is precisely the hare-brained schemes and utopian visions that will revitalise our ways thinking and seeing the world. In 1917, Shklovsky wrote about how art can cause us to see things we might not otherwise notice simply because they are familiar. He illustrates his idea with a quote from Tolstoy’s diary. Tolstoy is cleaning and describes his movements as habitual and unconscious to the point where he can’t remember if had already dusted the sofa, or not. Because he couldn’t remember, it was the same as if he had not. Shklovsky continues, “And so, in order to return to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone stony, man has been given the tool of art.” So to make us feel things, to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are recognised, art uses different tactics to makes objects unfamiliar by what he calls estrangement, or as it is also translated “defamiliarization” and “making strange”, which aims to interrupt the smooth flow of automatised perception and allow us to see things, as if for the first time. For me, as I walk, it is the unfamiliar situation caused by the pandemic that heightens my awareness and that helps me to see things, including art, differently.
I continue walking. Hobusepea Gallery has an exhibition with minimalist grey and white paintings on the walls. This exhibition doesn’t communicate directly with the viewer on the street and even though the paintings are spot-lit I feel like someone with a bad seat in a theatre, where I can’t see the stage head-on. This gallery has a downstairs exhibition space in the cellar but the blind in front of the only window that provides a view down into the cellar space is drawn and all I can do is imagine what the work down there looks like. A couple of doors down at HOP Gallery the exhibition is a slide show that faces directly towards the street. It’s clearly visible and the voiceover coming from a speaker directed into the street is audible. The slide show with its richly contrasting black and white photographs of such things as a merry-go-round, a decorative sculpture in a well-tended garden and the sky with bits of trees peeking into the frame, is set deep in the space, thus turning the black box of the gallery into part of the work.
I double back. I want to see how my window looks when approaching from the other side. It looks fine, and I take a left turn. A little further on there are a number (four, I think) of empty shops with displays. They are part of a series, since they all have the same A4 information sheet with something about a fairy tale Christmas in the Old Town and in larger letters it says, “The street as an art gallery”. The text also has the maker’s name and their ideas. The displays are visually connected by their predominant use of white shapes and forms, and striking lighting. They are bright and cheerful looking. I am not sure whether these windows are intended as art, or is it design, or something else. I suppose the title “The street as an art gallery” is a clue, but these also look like shop window displays, except that the products for sale are missing. There is no enticement to buy, nothing to want, nothing to own. All I can do is look. This sets me off thinking about categories, whether it’s important to identify or label what these are. What difference does it make if I know these displays are art. And what difference does it make if I look at them as if they were art.
One problem in the world is inequality; this is one aspect of the current dystopia. There is currently talk of certain people in positions of power unfairly jumping the queue to be vaccinated,  ]and countries arguing about supplies and which vaccine, and so on. Meanwhile, countries like Moldova, the poorest in Europe, can’t afford any vaccines. Where is the fairness in that? Now, imagine a place of equality, maybe it’s in the octopus’s garden or maybe it’s on this windowsill behind my computer screen that I can see as I write here in my flat. It’s a place where everything is equal. I don’t mean that everything is the same or that they aren’t distinguishable from each other. I also don’t mean that we can see them all equally well at the same time or that all of them are even visible. But what if we look at them is if they all have equal value? To help us imagine this, let’s look with the eyes of someone who is drawing.
I am sitting at my desk and beyond it is a windowsill with objects on it and beyond that the window. My eye and pencil follow the multiple lines of reflected light along the rim of the glass as it curves down and becomes the side of the glass. On its way it meets the upward curve of the plastic horse’s tail that gently rises to meet the horse’s rump. Almost directly at the point where the tail and hindquarters join, a vertical line shoots straight up to describe the side of a bottle of eyedrops directly behind the horse. These lines not only describe the edges of the glass, the horse and the bottle but they also define the borders of the negative space created by these objects, as well as the side of the pot of pencils, the glassy smoothness of the Alvar Aalto vase and beyond it the tiny triangle of window frame, with its lines of cracked paint.  And this negative space is not empty. Short, subtle lines describe the texture of the linen cloth covering the windowsill and a strong dark line marks the edge of the shadow made by the vase. The way the line morphs and changes as I draw is like the transitions in and out of art and everyday life. It’s similar to the way my thoughts move, slide, jump and overlap each other as I am walking.
I keep walking in anticipation of what the other windows along this street have to show me. The windows of an antique shop, with its eclectic array of objects neatly arranged on glass shelves, attracts me. A space in the centre of the shelves makes it possible to see into the depths of the shop, where the shopkeeper sits behind a counter. It looks cosy and the window display looks a like a hard version of my own window exhibition. While I have soft crocheted containers, sponges and doilies, here there are painted ceramic and wooden objects, glass and metal, some decorative, some functional, cluttered together creating a story of nostalgia and longing for the past. It is a world in itself.
The lines in the drawing I described distinguish between one thing and another, but lines are also used to create distinctions and categories, which need not be a bad thing, but they can also determine whether one thing is better or worse, higher or lower, than another. For example, fine art is considered higher than folk art or handicraft (even the name ‘fine art’ suggests this), novels are higher in the hierarchy than comic books, and of course the worse thing is when some people are regarded as more important or valuable than others. This is where I want to blurt out that this is all nonsense, and that maybe we should forget hierarchies. Jacques Rancière, together with the 19th century French teacher and educational philosopher Joseph Jacotot, claim that “all people are equally intelligent”. Hah! Take that hierarchy! In his essay “The Emancipated Spectator” Rancière talks of the gap between teacher and pupil, actor and audience as something that people attempt to bridge, yet because of the initial problem of thinking of it as a gap, it is never possible. The idea of bringing someone ‘up’ to your level of knowledge means you do not believe that you already are on the same level, and in the case of the teacher and the student that gap is precisely what defines the traditional teacher-student relationship. Is it possible that the more we look at and focus on the differences the deeper and wider the gulf becomes. Rancière and Jacotot also claim that equality is something that is “neither given nor claimed, it is practiced, it is verified”. Do they mean ‘just do it’, as the slogan for a well-known sportswear brand encourages us to do? Jacotot and Rancière propose that equality is a departure point and not a destination  and I guess that means we should start living as if we are already equal. I believe that is how the people in the octopus’s garden are already living.
I could try to apply a different way of seeing to my octopus’s window and see, not objects, lamps, brushes, doilies, etc. but lines. I see the edges of the objects, the edge of the yellow doily is fuzzy and since it’s made of threads of woollen yarn my eye can follow either the edge or the in-and-out textured surface of the crocheting. From where I am standing I see that the doily is overlapped by a strange brush made from a used shampoo bottle and has bristles made from rope, the edge of the bottle is smooth and curves down to be interrupted by the lines of the wiggly rope, then it jumps to the line made by the rough edge of the pottery cup, which is intersected by the white dribble of glaze down the side that meets the short lines of cracks in the clay and glaze. These lines are joined by the dotted lines made by the rough texture of the clay as it protrudes through the glaze…there are so many different types of line on this one object. If I look for lines and allow my eye to run along them the objects recede and become surfaces and vessels for lines.