Karen Henninger is a creative artist of life, a visionary visual published artist and writer whose award- winning work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Her work defies common categorical dimensions and it is multidimensional. Her creative work includes media literacy, violence prevention and cultural environmentalism. Her latest multi-media work includes images and text fromtraditional technologies merging with digital for bookart and dvdart.
Koyannisqatsi is a native american word that means crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living. Godfrey Reggio is a filmmaker that created a film with no words back in the 1980s. He titled it Koyaanisqatsi. He is quoted as saying why the film has no words. “It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.”
In my view, there is nothing that more succinctly articulates how, in a very core way, humans are out of touch and in conflict with the larger reality of themselves, each other, and our environment. Our manufactured images rise up as a mental block to the world we live in while we believe they are showing us our world. Manufactured texts plant stories unto the live world in a way that supplants real life for a fractionated story of it. We push to have our lives fit a story as if this was possible. We force our views of our bodies to fit constructed beliefs whether by chemical compounds or numbers by age. These descriptions block as well as facilitate our perceptions. Each construction conflicts with another as if there is only one right one.
Placing images and language together in an activity of simple construction of materials made of dots of light causes us to believe that we are seeing something cohesive and no fractionation exists when, in fact, humans have just made something that is absolutely completely fractured from anything living and real in their lives. It is a product. The unreal comes off as real. A battle for what is real then arises like kids fighting over having the building blocks all to themselves and not willing to share. Construction of complex, multidimensional realities becomes a simple 5 minute story to believe in as if there is no builder. And the technologies keep improving and the masses of images and text keep accumulating like pollution with the conflicts from this creative human activity increasing as well. Within this pollution, the increases of who can manufacture text and image has grown exponentially. Battles are being fought, lost and won in this new man-made created artificial world we live in due to our technological advances of image and text production. This is a huge part of how our way of living, the things we’ve been taught and what has been described is not aligned with the reality or truth of the larger whole physicality of our existence as well as the natural ongoing, processes of our home, our bodies, our social system, our relationships, the planet.
At one level we all know that any text or image only captures a ‘snapshot’ – a moment in time – of a much larger, dynamic existence. On another level we take our images and texts as if they are the existence. They replace what is alive. We fail to realize that once something is written or an image captured, it is past tense and dead and has changed us as a result of it’s existence. Eventually we are living off of the dead matter and no longer living directly. We fail to comprehend what has been happening to us when what we are living in is the technology.
Does the language, images and texts you’ve been taught to use accurately describe your life today? The world we live in? Relationships you have? Have you questioned what you are saying, where you picked up the words and ideas and how old or new they are and where they come from? Do they really fit where we are now or do they just feel the most familiar and comfortable to you? Are they a piece of a snapshot taken from another time and place that fails to capture today but makes you feel secure in a belief you have. Questioning life in this way, for some, disrupts some deep securities but may actually lead to a more stable, secure world overall.
I grew up on a Pa German farm and my Pa ancestors farmed in this same area since the early 1700′s. Change on the farm was slow until recently. Not far from the back door we had a shed that we called the ‘wood’ shed. Throughout my whole life we called that shed the wood shed but I can tell you that as far back as I can remember there was never any wood in that shed. Not once. Sometime before I was born there was wood in that shed. I am sure of it. During my lifetime, though, that shed had a lawnmower, garden tools and supplies, some children’s sleds, wagons and other miscellaneous items.
We had another building that was filled with other tools for the farm but we called it the old milkhouse. I don’t recall that building being a milkhouse but I knew from that reference what the new milkhouse was even though we didn’t use the word new. As of the past decade, the new milkhouse is no longer a milkhouse cause my brother and father stopped milking cows. However, We still call that place the milkhouse. But what do you call the milkhouse while in a transitional state that isn’t quite yet stripped of the milkhouse equipment and isn’t quite yet fully used for another purpose? Slowly here and there, we do change and catch up to what changes have already taken place. Eventually language catches up. But in the meantime, the children in our family tend to just take on our language despite it’s inaccuracy.
In a similar way, I think about about our social institutions, organizations and our honored, historical buildings. I also think about language use around human relationships in many of our disciplined studies and the conversations that are going on across our communication systems.
For years, I never paid attention to our language use. It never dawned on me once whether language was accurately describing my world and how historical it was. Did it really matter that the language didn’t fit? We all knew what the phrases meant. I thought.
It wasn’t until far into my adult life that I started to begin to notice the language use all around me and I started comparing it to what was really there and thinking about children who will inherit the world. It was an odd thing to do, particularly in the specifics I was doing it. I was looking at things others weren’t looking at. Were the words accurate descriptions? I mean, I would not call a tree a car. That was clear. Why would I use inaccurate words in other places out of inherited habits that were clearly wrong.
Have the images and texts given a reality that causes me to really look at what is there or block what is there? Godfrey Reggio’s quote had really voiced a truth I could not ignore, especially as an artist. He and I shared a more in-depth understanding of the creation of words and images through our technologies and those historical relationships with the environment. I studied the history of the mass production of image and text technologies and knowledge production. I started to see how mass production of language had gone global through our technologies and I learned that was only a recent development similar to the ability to take a person across the sky in a metal container. We could move language from it’s normally restricted abilities, tied only to specific localities that otherwise would take great efforts to navigate. Language had to be born from the fact of it’s physical location to have it tied to facts, yet there we were moving language unhinged from a particular place and not being aware of what we were doing. Now language time-traveles across vast geography. I began to understand that often facts can’t be global. Not like this. Not as was happening around me.
I started asking more questions. Was there really love in that marriage? Was the best interest of the child really the best interest of the child? Was Hawaii really a part of the United States because the residents wanted it to be? Who wanted it to be? Was the woman that everyone called a bitch really so, and what did that image do to influence my behavior toward her? Was that person who claimed to be a conservative opposing the free use of birth control also the person who had only 2 children and was actually using birth control for his own family? Wasn’t this an historical practice inherited by liberals and progressives? How could a conservative be a conservative when inheriting and living so many progressive ideas from the past? Were those movies about Vietnam I had been raised with really hiding what was the real story about Vietnam that never came out because of media control? Was the religion I was raised to believe in and the God I was told was loving, really loving and how could that be sensical if harming was so epidemically structured and a part of the belief system and stories in worshipping that god of love? Was it clear that what we once called discipline was now called abuse? Was what was called debates on television really a debate? Was having free speech meant to mean that anyone could have an opinion even if the had no knowledge? Was an authority really an authority if he had no experience and knowledge? Was medical science really objective truth when it required depersonalizing people in order to practice it effectively? Was there really wood in that wood shed?
Along the way, I read The book, Your Money or Your life which begins with an introduction about how we are living in a financial system with a map that was designed for the 1890′s and that map no longer fits the system we live in today. If we seriously try to take those roads from an old map, an old text, or old image, we will end up with a conflict between what’s on the map,where we believe we are and are going and where we are actually located in real time. We may not be able to really see where we are because we believe in an old image or text. This is no accident about our financial issues or political system in our world today. Another way to say this is we hear one thing and see another. We believe what people say not what they do. They watch what we do and not what we say.
So not only our language, but our system designs, our ways of thinking, the mass produced teachings, all are antiquated and extremely limited… and even worse – simply false and wrong. Not wrong as morally wrong. Wrong as in shortsightedness. Not wrong as in other people are stupid cause they do not see what is clear that I see. Wrong because we lack similar locations and knowledge. Not wrong as in uneducated. Not even wrong as in humans innately are a bad or evil species. Humans are no more evil, or bad, than any other phenomenon of nature like tornadoes, tigers or polar bears. Unless, of course, you still believe those ancients texts that once believed in evil rather than natural processes of the nature of the planet. But wrong in what is our relationship in physicality versus what we believe it is. Wrong as a massively scaled but failed human design for our living based on mistaken beliefs and inexperience with new ways of living on the planet. Wrong as in inaccurate. Inaccurate about ourselves, our place on this earth and the connecting relationships we exist in.
There were other times in history when belief systems were bankrupt, when language was no longer adequate and useful. We all know it wasn’t easy when the Catholic church in Europe gave up the idea to science that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe and the sky was not a rounded lid of the heavens of God and the sun was a star. It took 300 years for the official church to accept the new belief and another few hundred for those leaders to give up their power based on their social position to declare the truth.
Imagine a time when the Greeks had to give up their idea that the sun was carried across the sky by Zeus and his chariot. Imagine a time when people had to give up a belief that Africans weren’t inferior to Europeans because of skin color. Imagine what beliefs you might be able to give up to make way for newer understandings.
Time and time again, beliefs are a source of conflict and must give way to new understandings. The revolution we think hasn’t arrived has already passed us in some ways. It’s just not been fully completed. We are living through it now. It’s just massive and no books or images have captured it and told us what is really happening. And the ones we do have fail to fit where we are. There’s too much confusion that is a result of large changes. We are in it. Now.
Usually words and images are produced as a story after the experience of something has ended. If produced beforehand, it’s something else like a fabrication or a prediction.
Our language, born of past generations, is lacking when it comes to describing what is happening in our world now. For me, there is no wood shed and no milk house on the farm anymore but the buildings are real and there. In fact, the farm itself is a nostalgic oasis that the majority of people I meet have no lived daily experience of anymore. We are all experiencing the losses of a society that is undergoing massive change, trying to claim what we want and blaming each other as if some particular group or person is responsible for the chaos in conflicts. We fail to comprehend we are in relationships that are prescribed that cause all of us to be in a mass group designed for a purpose from the past that no longer serves us. Someone is at fault, but the creators of this social system are historical and not present. Those present are in it and responsible, but they have been wholly and inadequately prepared and there is a struggle to get bearings from all corners as to what is going on. Mistakes are rampant.
We are all in a state of vast humiliation because words can not adequately cover what is happening – yet. Our minds can hardly grasp the accurate reality of a world of billions of us that isn’t just a blue circle on a 13 or 32 ” screen projected from a satellite so we accept a dumbed down image and version, call it real, to suit our needs and cause a delusion of some mythical control and understanding. That blue circle we call Earth is an image of something real that no one has the ability to see comprehensively. We all know there are a lot of things happening beyond that blue that is our own size; our own very lives. We can’t see it all at once.
The real earth we are located on is filled with elements that go beyond our physical capability of seeing because we are designed a certain way based on the scaling of our actual size in relationship to the environment we are in. We have lost perspective by technologically being able to see different perspectives of ourselves produced by technologies. We haven’t caught up to the reality of our communication devices and their flaws. We don’t see our blind spots. And despite our technologies, we can not physically see what so many people believe they do see only by way of constructed image and text taken out of it’s context. A blind spot to the fact that we are removing ourselves from our natural location to speak and see our world because our relationship to the earth is such that the natural design does not allow us see it comprehensively. This is what has been forgotten. We think we do see it comprehensively. That is our mistake. Our technologies of imaging both macro and micro have distorted our views of ourselves. From one perspective we are undetectable and invisible, from another we are dots on a screen looking at ourselves as if we were the size of an ant and as if those dots were us – real and alive in motion. Yet with another lens we position ourselves larger than the earth itself and the view of earth at all has disappeared from sight.
We use language that forces us to see each other as parts and in parts. This differing perspectives are not just a side note. They are the very pieces we use to construct our views. Whether we are discussing people and their lives we have never met, or massive numbers and groups of people, or trying to understand what is happening around us that is impacting our lives, we are merely getting glimpses of something much larger that we can not possibly know comprehensively with or without technologies. At least not yet. If I get a 5 second glimpse at the conditions outside my front door, can I really write about the conditions of the whole day? Viewing the mass amounts of text available from the internet gives us a glimpse of how could it ever be possible for any of us to be the expert or know anything without some faulty judgment based on our sheer limitations as humans? This vast state of humiliation that is happening to us requires us to reconsider what we know and get a better perspective of where we are and what is happening. It requires unlearning and relearning and suspending judgments and withholding hasty conclusions. It requires a humility and asks for a removal of arrogance. An arrogance that was inherited along with the system as a part of it. It requires restructuring of how we treat each other and what treatments we will accept from each other and what we think about each other. Perhaps it simply means that we might stop and think before we speak. Think about what we are saying. Perhaps like watching the film Koyannisqatsi, we simply watch quietly for awhile.