BG 276: The Artistic Path is the Crooked Path

Episode Description:

John F. Simon is a visual artist and software programmer whose work can be found in prominent museum collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was also one of the app designers on the world’s first app album, from Björk, called Biophilia.

In this episode we speak with John about his long-standing search for the source of creativity, and how that search has led him to explore a contemplative Buddhist practice. During the discussion with host Vincent Horn, John describes the strategy he uses to search for the source of his creativity and the parallels his strategy shares with meditation teacher Daniel Ingram’s progress of insight map.

Episode Links:

Episode Artwork:







Vincent:    Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn, and today I am joined by a very special guest:  John F. Simon Jr.  John, it’s great to have you on the show. So glad you could take the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks today.

John:    It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Vincent:    Yeah. I just wanted to share a little bit of the back story of how I got in touch with John. We did a little bit of meditation work together. You were in our first cadre of the Life Retreat program. And very quickly I learned that you have this incredibly rich artistic background that’s not just as a professional artist but also as a contemplative. And as I spoke to you more and more about your practice of drawing and your practice of art, the more I realized what a cool topic this would be to explore on Buddhist Geeks. Such a great pleasure to have you on the show and I’m really excited to explore this with you more.

I wanted to mention that you are a computer-based artist or maybe you’re most well-known for that.

John:    That’s right.

Vincent:    And I was wondering if you could share a little bit about how does one get into computer-based art? Cause you got into this well before it was popular. I mean I think at least in the 80’s, right?

John:    That’s right. I was doing photography and print making, especially silk screen. This was before any personal computers. So I was studying art but I was also studying earth science and have a degree in geology. And sometime around 1984, in the spring, I saw this little box on a desk which was the original Macintosh, and I saw MacPaint and something clicked. And I knew that I would be spending a lot of time working with software and drawing on a system like that.

Vincent:    And at that point, did you switch over to a digital medium or was it a gradual process?

John:    Well it was gradual because those machines were really expensive and hard to get and they didn’t do that much. I was in an earth science program that had an affiliation with NASA, and they were using digital satellites to photograph the earth in a program called Landsat, and also to photography Mars which was the Viking program. And so I was drawn to those programs for the fantastic images that they were creating, but also because I was learning how to program a computer in order to do the work to process those images and study them. So I was both drawn to work like that for the visual aspects but also it gave me the skills and training to program a computer.

Vincent:    Very cool. And I wanted to mention, just for people to have a sense of the kind of things that you have done, on the commercial side, a lot of people might be familiar with Björk’s new interactive album app called Biophilia, and you programmed one of the songs in one of the apps within the app. And it also had a geology based thing to it.

John:    Exactly.

Vincent:    So I can see why, suddenly, it all starts to make sense.

John:    That’s why they drew me in. That was Scott Snibbe’s project for Snibbe Interactive. They’ve done some amazing work and they had an idea to make a music album with Björk where all of the tracks would also have an app. So that was a fantastic project.

Vincent:    Yeah. It was really cool when I first looked at it, I had the sense that in a certain way this is sort of the future, or at least one possible future, for interactive music experiences. It’s pretty incredible.

John:    Yeah. You know the promise has always been there for expanded experience: music, imagery, interaction, poetry, writing, drawing, all integrated, and we’re starting to see things like that. It’s an exciting time.

Vincent:    Nice. And then I wanted to kind of jump right into one of the most interesting things, at least in my mind, in what I’ve seen in your practice of art and drawing, which is that you sort of developed a kind of contemplative drawing practice. And I wondered how that came about to begin with.

John:    Okay. I was beginning to think about software as a kind of creative writing. You know, software not as a solution to a mathematical problem, but recognizing that the person that writes the software controls what you see, how you interact, there’s an author there. So it’s a kind of creative writing process. And so a lot of my software art works, which were made on stripped down laptop computers that were hung on the wall, explored these themes: color mixing as a kind of dynamic theory, or emergent behavior, so the question became how do you get the computer which is just executing these list of instructions to do something creative.

And it became more and more important to study the model that I was writing about as much as it was important to study the new algorithms for emergent behavior. So I sat down in 1999 with some cards and I began to improvise, and I thought well I’ll just draw anything. I’ll just doodle and I’ll draw anything I can and then I will kind of try to watch what I’m doing while I’m doing it spontaneously, while I’m just doodling along. And see if I can come up with some generalized rules or some expert system for the way that I’m improvising. And so that’s more or less how it started. And like I like to say: it was the wrong question but the right answer. Because in fact the complexity of that decision making is just incredible and far beyond what I’ve been able to make into rules. But the process of self observation started to open some doors and that’s where the contemplative part came from.

Vincent:    And before you started doing this, this sort of internal study of–I didn’t completely understand–internal study of emergent systems or something like that?  [laughter]

John:    Let’s say you sat down or I sat down with a piece of paper and just drew whatever we felt like drawing. Why did we draw that? And your drawing would be different than mine. So could I come up with some rules where that was coming from or why I chose to draw that way? And that focus turned me around to look at my own motivation, volition, my own intentions.

Vincent:    Okay.

John:    That’s what set me on that path. And then by practicing that over and over again, you know I wasn’t usually getting anywhere in terms of making a computer program that would solve that. But I was getting the benefits of this kind of inward looking calm, detached practice.

Vincent:    Okay, really interesting. So when you say it was the wrong question but the right answer.

John:    Yeah.

Vincent:    Tell me about the answer. Tell me about what started to emerge as you began that kind of self observation through drawing.

John:    I found it to be very similar to the kinds of things that come out in sitting practice. You go through phases where strong emotional experiences will emerge, annoyances, you know personal things. And then as you go, your view becomes broader. You sort of leave that part of yourself behind. And you get into more imaginative things, for instance, or you find yourself curling down and following one thought for a while. So eventually, and it took lot of years to get to, but eventually you get that focus and you get a style. And I think some new things, some new information, some worlds start to emerge.

Vincent:    This was a daily practice as well.

John:    Yes.

Vincent:    This became a daily thing. You didn’t start with that intention though right?

John:    I did have in mind when I began that I should draw everyday.

Vincent:    Okay. So there was a disciplinary dedication.

John:    In the beginning I kind of had to push myself to find the time and now I have to tear myself away. But yeah there was a little bit of a discipline. Because I said I need to solve this to advance my work and so I got to commit the time to it.

Vincent:    Okay. I got you.

John:    I had some business oriented justification somewhere in there.  [laughter]

Vincent:    Yeah, in the beginning.  I mean that’s a good motivation right.  [laughter]

John:    Exactly.

Vincent:    So if you were to look back now starting in ’99, it’s now 2013, 14 years.

John:    Yeah.

Vincent:    Especially in the early years, what sort of patterns like, now that you’ve looked back, what kind of patterns did you see emerge in both the drawing and also in your inner experience?

John:    Yeah. In the beginning it was more rigid. It was more logical. And also as I improvised forward I tried to push the drawing,  in the beginning, tried to push it more to something more recognizable. I try to push it toward a subject, early on. And later I began more to trust and just to believe if I just really let go and let go that it wouldn’t deteriorate into, I didn’t know what. There was a fear there that had to let go of. So finally you could just improvise and trust that something was going to be coherent and emerge. And so now I improvise in that way and really it’s a joy to let go. And the real surprise is that things do emerge and sometimes even coherent figures and subject emerge.

So I don’t really consider what it is that’s coming out on the page until really late or till I say the drawing is done and then I try to look at it and say what is that one. What’s the story there?

Vincent:    Really interesting. And were there particular like insights that happened as you went along, or were there particular shifts that happened where after which things really changed?

John:    Yeah, it’s true. There have been about, I’d say four or five what I called major phases of symbols that have come out. And sometimes I get to a symbol which I would call a “totality symbol”. It’s like a symbol that sort of summarizes on as many levels as I can what I think–I don’t know what you say–is going on or the zeitgeist or whatever. So it tries to capture something bigger than me and something at my scale and something that’s going on inside of me. So in the beginning there were like tile patterns. There were symmetric patterns and the patterns kept dissolving, kept going apart in the drawing.

So there’d be a portion of the symmetric pattern that would be coherent and then the other parts of the drawings  they would fly apart. And I went so far as to make a software or artwork called “Swarms” where the patterns formed and un-formed and like that. And then around September [2001] when I was in New York City there was this big event with the World Trade Center and then after that it shifted; no more dissolving pattern. In some way that was like I don’t what. There was a pattern bursting apart in the drawings and then a change. And then it went into some, I would say, more like biological forms, and I was caught up in kind of a Turkish pattern done with ovals which sometimes reemerges, and I was caught up in that pattern for a little while and made a piece of software about that.  And then that led to, up to about the time my son was born and then that pattern shifted out.

But there’s other things that go on at the same time. I don’t want to say that’s all that goes on, but I often get a pattern that becomes persistent for a very long period of time in most of the drawings, or it’ll be the kind of immediate tendency that I’ll have. And I’ll go through and I’ll make larger artworks that reflect that. And a lot of the show in 2007, and again my solo show in 2010, were all derived from blowing up and making larger the smaller drawings that were persistent. So somehow I felt like what becomes persistent over a long time in the drawing is something significant.

Vincent:    How are you then tying that to, or do you connect that with the contemplative process? How are you making sense of these pattern shifts, which are obviously not just happening in the drawing but they also have an interior correlation in your experience, like your subjectivity is somehow tied to this?

John:    Yeah.

Vincent:    That’s really fascinating.

John:    Yeah. I’ve been looking for maps to try and explain that or to follow that, and I went through a lot of psychology.  I read a lot of Carl Jung to look at his thoughts about the unconscious. But it wasn’t until I got into the eastern practices, Advaita Vendata and Buddhist meditation, that there were some records that showed, like you’re saying, the kind of typical patterns that emerge if you move inward or look inward. The recent one that came out of that life retreat, because we had a special guest Daniel Ingram came one week and I end up reading his book,  and he gives a very specific map. And you can find that map in, you know, those phases of thought in the drawing as you go.

Vincent:    Okay. That’s really interesting cause many people who listen to Buddhist Geeks probably know of Daniel Ingram and he is map, you might call him a map monger. He’s very into the maps and he’s got into, I think what you’re describing is, the progress of insight map. Tell me a little bit and we can just go really geeky here. If people don’t follow it might be helpful to go listen to some of the interviews we’ve done with Daniel. But I mean this is really interesting because you’re coming from a different background and then you’re picking up these kind of eastern contemplative maps, which has been around for a long time. And tell me about the connections you started seeing between some of your experiences and some of these sort of Buddhist models or Buddhist maps.

John:    Okay. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, actually very much in the last month or so, about dependent arising, and there’s a lot of writing about that. Because ultimately what I want is not to master contemplative practice but I want to know the source of creativity.

I want to know where these ideas are coming out of, and what it is, and what shape it is, and work with it because this is the thing that I’ve had my whole life is this need to do creative work. And so my work has become this kind of study of that. So I looked at dependent arising and how it talks about one thing that happens in the world affects one thing that happens in your body. It’s kind of a map of how emotions and thoughts arise. And that’s really what I wanted to think about. And there was a set of work that I did in 2009, that led to the show in 2010, where I was drawing these rectangular forms that overlapped each other, and they kind of formed an oval, all the overlaps, they would go all the way around, and I was calling them cycles, and so one rectangle on top of another rectangle going all the way around.

This looks to me now like this map of dependent arising, cause I envisioned them as this flow. And in fact I drew a river along and crossing the rectangle. It’s probably hard to visualize. But the river went around the cycle, and I use to talk about the river being this, basically, our conscious thoughts. You’d follow the river along from rectangle to rectangle in this sort of course of dependent arising, and of course it ends up being a cycle itself. That’s what comes out of that. Dependent arising makes a cycle itself. And I worked with that for quite a while and I kept drawing cycle and cycle and cycle for months. I was drawing these cycles.   And finally I thought, “why am I drawing these cycles?” And then I thought “maybe it’s the thing that’s inside the cycle that is what’s trying to form. It’s not the cycle itself but it’s the negative space inside.”

And then these profiles started to come out and emerge.  And what I saw was the self, I’m calling it the self, this profile that was the center of this cycle which was really only formed by all of the things going around it, was coming out, so the self being the product of the cycle of dependent arising. And that seemed to be a teaching that matched up you know. It sort of clicked for me then like maybe the way I’m thinking about how whatever. Because I’m focusing on how my creative activities are arising and trying to note that and draw that on the paper, it’s actually reflecting in some way something that’s really happening. Do I make any sense to you?  [laughter]

Vincent:    Yeah. And I’m thinking of….

John:    I mean could it really teach you that? Could you really learn that? You know what I’m saying? Could it really be? But I did have a real deep sense of the self being the construction of our thoughts, from that drawing process, that coming out that way.

Vincent:    Sometimes I think one hears statements like my running is my meditation practice.

John:    Exactly.

Vincent:    Or whatever it is. And I think for most people that have a serious practice of some sort, they kind of recognize that as being just a way that people can kind of relate to what one is doing. But what I hear you describing is very different than that. It sounds like in a lot of ways that is a meditation practice, but it’s very different.

John:    So I when I went to the Life Retreat I was trying to find some kind of confirmation like that. So I know when I told you that in the beginning it was like oh yes, that’s his running or something. And I think there’s an aspect of that, but I mean I wouldn’t be in that if I wasn’t getting the phenomenon. I’m there to figure it out. I mean I wouldn’t be in contemplative practice if that wasn’t happening.

Vincent:    Yes.

John:    I would be back into programming or something. So there it was, and I just wanted to find out “is that really happening?” Is that really what’s coming up in the thoughts and is that really coming down? But when you told me about noting, and I thought about that a lot, and that is also one of Ingram’s big things is that you sit and you note, and you even had us practice that, you watch what comes up with your mind and then you kind of label it: I’m hearing things. I’m seeing. You know whatever. Feeling the chair like that.

You note everything that’s going on. But for me it’s direct like brain to hand. I started calling it marking practice. This drawing I started calling it marking because it’s going right from the impulse to the hand. That’s also another way it works. So you know, some people draw to music and that’s the exercise you get in drawing class sometimes. So you put on fast music and you make little lines. You put slow music and you make loopy lines. But what is it if you look into your thoughts? And then what comes up?

Vincent:    Yes. So correct me if I’m off here. But it sounds like when you’re doing this marking practice there’s a process of going, sitting with a blank card or blank canvass.

John:    Right.

Vincent:    And then you’re sort of, in a certain way, just letting something come out, and you’re noticing from where it’s arising or what the intention is or what the motivation is that’s driving the movement of your hand across the page. Is that sort of accurate?

John:    It’s true and it’s not one thing. It’s not the same thing and that’s the beauty. In 14 years, it’s never been the same. That’s the thing that gets you. But basically you’re letting it come out. But sometimes you’re more self conscious and sometimes you’re less and sometimes you’re tired and sometimes you’re on it. And it’s always the times when you’re really in a good state, when you’re really in a good meditative state and you’re not thinking and you’re really not present, that the drawing comes out in a way and it blows your mind because you can make a reading on it. And maybe it is that you’re just making it up but you’re just making up the drawings too. So what does it mean really? I don’t know. That’s what I’m here to try to understand.

Vincent:    And you know as you’re describing this practice, it strikes me that one very different thing in how you’re approaching this is that your interest or your motivation to start this wasn’t about trying to eliminate suffering or get into some sort of enlightenment experience. It was very much about creativity. Could you talk a little bit more about that and why that drive is actually something that could lead one into this very deep introspective process?

John:    In the beginning it was art and science. I was reading Leonardo magazine and there’s a lot of groups, especially in computer graphics at that time and Siggraph, that are there about combining technology and art. And I could never, I liked it a lot and I liked a lot of the things going on in technology art, but it was never totally synthesized for me. And then finally I realized, somewhere along the line, that they’re categorically separated. So if you talk about science and art, just because they’re made into separate categories you can never totally resolve.  And where is the resolution of this, the thing that you love about discovery in science and the thing that you love about discovery in art?  It’s in creativity.

You need to talk about something, I don’t what you’d say, a larger more encompassing than the Venn diagram. So I went back into creativity and that’s when I started to think about “where is it, why is it that I feel everyday I want to make something or discover something?” And that’s the gateway to that path. That’s how you start into this kind of self contemplation. You start to look inward to say “who is that’s thinking, who is it that’s creating, any ideas coming from inside of me, am I just making it up or is it you know some external information being transmitted to me?” There are lots of great theories. I went to every source that I could find that would try to work with those ideas: where ideas come from, where information comes from. So I think to go back that way in a creative practice is a way of opening up.

And then I thought I was going to get to the source.  I thought I was going to find the source of creativity in myself. That there was going to be like this nugget there and all I have to do then is mine that, and there would be my work as a creative artist would be so much easier, that I would just mine this creative source. But as you go back into the creative source, it doesn’t get any more narrow, and you can’t use any reductionism at all on it. In fact, it broadens into your whole life and you realize that first of all everything influences your creativity and then every venue is a place where you can exert creative choices.

So if you’re really practicing that creative work, the way you speak to someone, what you eat in a restaurant, how you decorate a room. Those kinds of things, they’re all part of being involved in creating. Even more broadly, the motivation for nature, constantly, is to plants go to seed, animals have more animals. That’s all creative practice. We’re all out there creating. That’s life. It’s creative in that way. So that broadens that again and then you’re thinking about your connection to the environment and what you’re creating. I’m having children and I’m creating and continuing this process of life. So just a simple consideration of what you want to draw today can lead you backwards and all that.

Vincent:    What I find so interesting in what you’re saying is that you had this idea going in about trying to find the source of creativity, and I can’t help but notice a parallel for a lot of meditators, and for myself included, that people usually come in with a sense of “I’m going to find awakening or I’m going to find enlightenment. I’m going to be there to witness it or be there to observe it. And somehow if I find it then I’ll have it and I’ll able to be like be stable in it.”   I can’t help but hear parallels to what you’re describing. Very interesting.

John:    I think that’s the magnet. That’s what drew me toward contemplative practice was that the dialogue, seemed to me after reading, I mean I’m telling you I read in all fields to look for something similar, and that was something that resonated. I could find a resonance in contemplative practice. And of course because people are sitting calmly and letting thoughts arise and then working with those thoughts.

Vincent:    Now one thing that comes to mind here, and I think it’s perhaps an important place to explore, especially for folks like yourself who are really at the edge of multiple disciplines, is:  in what ways are some of these different approaches, in what ways do they reveal something different about life? And since you’ve really gone deeply into many disciplines: art, technology, contemplation–how are you seeing those different fields and what they reveal as being different? Do you notice differences there?

John:    Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know. There’s all different flavors. I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ll sit in meditation and do noting practice or just watching thoughts with no pencil and that goes somewhere. That’s something. And the maps that you see, generally the maps that you see in Vipassana and Theravada Buddhist maps, they’re pointing you to something. They’re pointing you to a place which is freedom or a certain kind of openness of thought, a certain kind of lack of suffering. But as John Daido Loori says: the artistic path is the crooked path. So I’ve crossed those little towns, but as you’re suggesting, they’re little outposts there that aren’t necessarily, what we would say, like the ultimate goal of Buddhism but are still pretty interesting places to hang out and interesting people.

Yeah. You get somewhere in the mastery of drawing and you start to reveal kind of inner worlds and inner logics that are pretty fascinating. I think the same thing happens when you construct scientific theory or when you get into a computer program. I mean when I’m in a program and I’m thinking about writing a traffic simulation, for instance, I’m living in that. So all my choices about how the buildings are represented, and how the cars are represented, and what the inner rules of the traffic are.  That’s not an ultimate goal, but that’s a stable place that you can exist and move around in, it creates a kind of world there.  And then you create that world and the software and you exhibit that, or show that, or share that, and same with the drawing.

And I think that the idea is that you’ll go into a place in meditation, and you’ll reach a certain kind of equanimity and certain kind of way of dealing with the world, and then go back out into the world. That’s the end of the Ox Herding Pictures, the end of the cycle, and where the cycle returns: go back out into the world with that experience and then share that.


John F. Simon Jr

Born in Louisiana in 1963, John F. Simon Jr. has an MFA in Computer Art from the School of Visual Arts and additional degrees from Brown University in Providence, RI, and Washington University in St. Louis, MO. His work is found in prominent museum collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California.