Work: Surviving the Arts

Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.

–by Scott Pinkmountain

Practice

Part 2: The Mine

Each of us is a mine. The physical body is the entrance, the mineshaft, the part which the rest of the world sees: the face, voice, actions. The mine itself is our internal identity: the mind, the consciousness, the memory, the soul, whatever you want to call it. The first chamber in the mine is the part of us that’s most accessible to the world. Our surface characteristics are on display here, the ideas, opinions and personal stories we talk about, share on a daily basis. They’ve been polished presentable. The chamber’s well lit. It might even have extra chairs for visitors, a high ceiling. Then maybe there are a couple little side chambers. We might let a few select people in to see them, friends and family, lovers. Maybe they glow in a warm candlelight that casts intriguing shadows. There are some out there that never even enter these chambers of their own, and others for whom the chambers are quite publicly exposed.

As you move further into the mine, you encounter murkier regions of the subconscious. You enter the world of psychology and private memory here: personal thoughts, imagination, un-shared experiences. Now you’ve got your miner hat on with a light attached to the front. You’re in your work-suit because it’ll likely get messy. This part of the mine has been excavated, maybe there are supports, maybe even some buzzing electric bulbs strung up, but it’s hot, uncomfortable. Maybe you’ve got a map, or a guide rope tethered around your waist with someone, say an intimate, a parent or a therapist, up at the top of the mine pointing a flashlight around, talking you through your excavation. You’re digging into muddy walls and finding large chunks of semi-recognizable ore – treasure that you can carry up to the surface and examine in the light of day without much difficulty.

This is where we learn about the personal self, and where most people stop. There’s certainly enough here to keep us occupied for a long time. A lifetime, maybe. The objects that you bring to the surface look similar to objects you’ve seen on display in the antechambers of other peoples’ mines. Yours are unique with a handmade quality, but they function and signify in the same way. They can help forge connections to those with shared experience, thoughts, ideas, memories, but it’s a connection that occurs on the surface, between isolated bodies and thus ultimately makes us more conscious of the separation between those bodies.

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Beyond this secondary, psychological layer of the mine, things start to change. You no longer benefit from the light of the surface world in any way. No guiding voice can reach you. You must follow the natural curves and bends in the rock. Progress is slow, difficult. The air is different down here. Everything feels slightly dangerous, though you can still maintain a mental map retracing your steps back to the surface. But you have to concentrate, keep repeating the directions in your head, and maybe you choose not to pursue certain turnoffs because of the likelihood of getting lost or stuck.

What you find down here is an ore of a different nature. It’s harder to extract from the walls of the mine. You need tools, some skill, some experience, so that you don’t accidentally break off only a piece of the discovery and thus risk a major misinterpretation of what it is or was. You must carefully remove the thing in its entirety so that it can be understood as a whole. Some of the things you find are quite small and extremely fragile, very rare. It requires a keen eye for observation and tremendous luck not to overlook them, nimble hands not to destroy them in extraction or transport. Some of the objects are large and cumbersome, and it takes great strength of will and perseverance to carry them back to the surface. Both may be extremely valuable. They are somewhat unique, less commonly seen in natural light.

When you bring them to the surface, you can clean them, make them presentable, and put them on display. You don’t have to do so, of course, but if you’re like others who do this kind of work, you probably feel compelled to share your discoveries with the world. You are both proud of your accomplishment in finding and extracting these objects and you also believe that other people may benefit from viewing them. Perhaps they’ve never seen something quite like what you’ve found, or maybe they will gain encouragement from your success to attempt their own excavations? You can choose to present the object exactly as discovered, or transform, translate it to clarify and deepen its significance or make it even more comprehensible to more people. Either way does not matter.

You will likely feel a certain propriety over the object given the amount of skill and determination you needed in order to obtain it, while simultaneously recognizing that the object itself was ultimately found. Discovered. Uncovered. But uncovered in your own domain, much like a gardener pulls a ripe vegetable from her cultivated field; that tomato wouldn’t have become what it is without the hard work and know-how of that particular gardener, but likewise, the soil, the sun, the earthworms, nutrients, microbes, geography, climate, etc… also had a hand. Whatever the case, the objects often bear an overt resemblance or relationship to their discoverer. They contain some distinguishing quality that links them to the person from whose mine they came. They carry the mark of the individual, and those objects are what make each mine unique. Some of these findings can be quite valuable to the surface world and some miners (whose treasures from this layer of their mine are highly valued), might be tempted to continue to return to the same regions, retracing the same steps, plunging those same walls until they become dangerously hollow and barren, threatening collapse.

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As you’ve surely figured out, there are deeper regions still to be explored in the mine. They are dangerous and unchartable. They lay beyond the scope of the mind to map and remember, for not only are they labyrinthine, but also mutable. They shift in reaction to the tectonic and gaseous fluxuations of the inner earth. There are cave-ins and floods, great rock walls churning and tilting, passages opening and closing depending on the unpredictable variables of pressure and release; subduction. Not only does the explorer risk getting lost, but she risks being buried alive within the depths of her own consciousness, overwhelmed by the chaos and inscrutability of the human mind. We all have seen the vacant stare of someone who’s gone missing in the interior regions. We have all witnessed the empty husk of a body in which the consciousness has retreated to unreachable depths. This danger is real, and, like mercury, not to be handled heedlessly. To enter this stratum of the mine, one must be willing to get lost, to risk sacrificing her re-entry to the surface world. She must move forward courageously in the blind dark, following only some vague intuition, trusting her self, her senses, her skills, but knowing that they alone, independent, will not suffice. There must also be a reliance on some undefined other.

Call it faith or hope or trust or love or whatever, the miner who enters this depth of interrogation places her fate beyond her immediate control. Those who do so with extensive preparation, training and a clearly defined intention are vulnerable at the very least. Those who do so recklessly, simply for the thrill of risk, the excitement of the unknown, or with expectation or desire for recognition of their actions, are suicidal.

The ore at this level emanates from sources unknown and unrelated to the miner. The discovered objects are foreign. They resonate with a spiritual significance and appear crafted or forged from an incomprehensible imaginative force. The objects establish a clear and profound logic embedded in the context they are found. They fit together with their surrounding environment, and it becomes clear that they are part of a vast immeasurable formation that must span miles in every direction. It is an elaborate, inconceivably large and complicated object of interlocking parts, some mountainous and solid, others fragile and spindly. The miner realizes that the objects found in the previous layers must have broken off from this massive structure long ago, and incubated in the rare individual soil of her own personal mine, transformed into something relatable (perhaps only) to that individual. But down here at the lower depths, where the object is still one solidly connected thing, still growing and changing, it makes complete sense only as a whole. A miner could break off a small fragment, surely, but it would be rendered meaningless removed from its function and place in the greater context. A miner is free to do this without harming the greater structure, for a little fraction is of no great consequence to an object that is likely limitless in scope. But that small piece will require extensive explanation and translation if the miner were to show it to others. In fact, it will be quite difficult for the miner, once the piece is removed from the whole, to even remember or explain to herself its function and significance, regardless of how obvious and clear it is at the moment of discovery.

And of course the whole object itself is far too vast to describe. Great portions of it can be examined and grasped in an instant, at a single glance, but it is not remotely possible to transport the whole, physically or conceptually. So the witnessed portion must be memorized and re-created, interpreted, by the investigating agent. It would be impossible to access such depths with the added weight of documentary devices, for the journey there and back requires the miner to take solely what is absolutely necessary for survival. The only recording device available to the miner is herself. The only truly retrievable relics from this depth are insight, understanding, memory. And returning to the surface is a matter of blind luck, faith, hunch, as I mentioned. This far underground, “up,” has next to no meaning. Gravity plays tricks on you. It’s impossible to return the way you came for that route has surely shifted, sealed up, and you have only your intuition, conviction and will to live to get you home.

Upon surfacing, your discoveries will of course be unverifiable. It is the word of the miner versus the world. So not only does an explorer of this realm need the mental fortitude to undertake and survive such a journey, but she must also have the strength to survive disbelief, skepticism, ridicule, and perhaps most likely and worst of all, indifference. Many outside observers won’t want to hear about this kind of exploration. There is much invested in the belief that things we cannot see, hear, touch, or immediately understand are not of any value. The miner who is dedicated to this degree of excavation must be prepared to have her findings ignored, probably for her lifetime, possibly forever.

 

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Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, in The Rumpus, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications, and he hosts the Make/Work podcast for The Rumpus. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He works as a music analyst for Pandora Radio. He can be found at www.scottpinkmountain.com and @spinkmountain.

  • Dru

    My friend Casey is always talking about the things that are necessary in a life (friends, sex, something to look forward to, someone to look up to, etc.) but one thing he always includes that I really like is ‘finding and doing the thing that you would do even if nobody was around to acknowledge it’. In Infinite Jest Gerhardt Schtitt talks about tennis as the medium through which the students at Enfield will occur. Maybe a couple moments of occurrence are the most we can hope for.