Reality Tinkering

Reality tinkering is based on the idea of life as bricolage. It is open to everybody because there are no special skills or resources needed. It operates along two different strategies, which aim to 1) cause interruptions into the flow of everyday life, or 2) help to sharpen one’s perception of everyday details by immersing oneself in them. The reality tinkering approach has been developed and utilized during the working process of the artistic experiments of this project. 

Hannah Higgings (2002, 63) describes Fluxus with the words which suit also the reality tinkering approach: “To value prosaic materials and experiences seems to me to go some way toward an appreciative (as opposed to cynical) and emphatetic (as opposed to alienated) cognitive model that maintains a critical relationship to the subject while remaining open to it as well. Fluxus in these terms offers tools with which to create a sense of belonging in the world.” Reality tinkering as an approach differs abruptly from the concept of the artist as genius, who is the autonomous master of her artistic world, working with highly specific skills at the heart of an art institution, detached from the quotidian maintenance work. 

About the concept. The reason for selecting the words “reality tinkering” and “reality tinkerer” is based on the discussion about the possible position of lifelike artist (chapter 2.2). Because exceptionally skilled professional artist cannot be the only actor in this kind of approach, I thought that a suitable counterpart could be a curious tinker(er), who likes to try out and monkey with various objects in the world, without formal qualifications. The word “tinkerer” is derived from “tinker”, a seller and repairer of pots and pans. Traditionally tinkers travelled around, coming and going, trading their skills and goods. Because of the detached position of a traveller, the tinkers were at the same time disdained and fascinating. People needed them, but on the other hand, they were anomalies, forming a possible threat to the local social system. They carried with them objects from distant places, which one could possibly buy if she was lucky enough. And, at least, they had their stories. The character of tinker(er) is the one of a craftsperson, trader and vagabond – essentially paradoxical, like is the working field of a contemporary reality tinkerer. Contemporary tinkerers are amateurs, who concentrate their efforts on things they love – people with creative attitude, believing that anything can be fixed with a packet of bubble gum.

The “reality” part in the concept implies the possibility to concretely affect the world with one’s acts, which may sometimes be subtle but still full of meaning. Reality is flexible and blurry in many different ways. There are a myriad of reasons causing our inability to see clearly the location of the fine borderline between reality and fiction: consider, for example, the amount of metaphysical theories arguing about the nature of reality, the restrictions posed by human perception and cognition, and the variety of images media feed us. We can never know what really happened between the two presidents or in a fallen airplane. We cannot even objectively know what happened in the situations we attended by ourselves.  Reality is often set in contrast with concepts such as fiction (“contrived or imaginary accounts”, fakery (“imitations, spurious pretenses, illusions, ‘magic’/slight of hand”), delusion (“mirages, ‘voices'”), pretence (“deceit, make-believe, seeming, merely apparent”), ersatz (“synthetic, substitute”) and simulacra (“look-alikes”) (Rescher 2010, 4-5). One leading motivation of this dissertation is to create curious things into our world, which could cause us to consider more often what is real in this post-truth era. I will discuss these questions more carefully in chapter 7.1.

Tinkering with realities. Realities are complex constructions of emerging possibilities – sometimes more, sometimes less deliberately organized and managed. They unfold well by themselves, but their unique features can also be manipulated in many ways. This manipulation is here called reality tinkering, which consists of various ways to actualize some of the myriad realities hovering within reach upon our highly normalized everyday life. The focus is on the fleeting moment, when one suddenly gets confused in the middle of her ordinary tasks; encounters an anomaly in the predefined system of reality. These moments render visible the nodes of branching realities, revealing the multiplicity of possibilities dwelling in any given moment. 

For practical life, ignorance of the nature of reality is not a problem. We are perfectly capable of living our lives successfully without pondering ontological questions too much. As humans, we are also responsible for making up a huge amount of our reality by ourselves – we are the crafters of society, knowledge, practices. All this cultural weight causes an illusion of ‘normal’ to emerge from the familiar reality. For multiple reasons, our everyday reality is organized one way instead of another, familiarity causing us to consider the nearest reality as “normal” or sometimes even “natural”, although it is as constructed as those social practices we see as “strange”. Everyone is an active builder of our shared reality for example in the way s/he interacts with other people, uses language, cooking recipes etc. We have the power to choose to act along dominant scripts or to modify them, more or less. This possibility is especially visible with children: parents and teachers have enormous power to affect the child’s worldview, her concept of “normal reality”. 

Background assumptions of reality tinkering: 

1) Everyone is an active modifier of everyday reality already by living in it. “Reality tinkerer” is somebody who deliberately works towards interrupting  the “normal” everyday reality.

2) Everyday reality does not have to be boring. At times our life becomes so automatized, that we are not able to see the marvels of everyday reality anymore, but there is no reason to consider that temporary situation as the default condition of life. 

3) There are an endless amount of possible realities (c.f. the discussion in the fields of quantum mechanics, psychology, sociology, philosophy and art). It is indifferent, which theory one selects to believe, if any. To renew the everyday reality, one does not need to be aware of theories, although they can give much inspiration. For reality tinkerers, the question of the ultimate nature of reality is not important. More important is that we have possibilities to mold this reality/simulacrum around us. 

4)  An anomaly can bring visible the possibilities existing in a given moment. Using confusion as its tool, an anomaly reveals simultaneously different outcomes of a situation. All the endless possibilities hovering over every action are invisible until an anomaly (an error which makes the observer pay attention) renders the hidden probabilities visible.

Letting be
How to let a horse be a horse, a stone a stone and still stay in touch with them?
How not to alienate oneself from horses and stones and houseplants and people, but to co-exist with them?
How not to desert oneself but to exist standing firmly on the ground, still taking others into account?
(Oona Tikkaoja, Working Diary 28.11.2019)

Giving Space. The main objective of the artistic experiments made in this project is to steer our focus into the wonders of our familiar environment. This endeavour can be achieved by finding an interested and respectful position towards the already-gained, non-human and inanimate. On the one hand, the environment of a person is seen as offering impulses for her (and thus existing for humans), but on the other hand, this helps the person to perceive things around her more attentively, and hopefully to appreciate them more. This can be understood as a reciprocal relation where various kinds of things can co-exist and still retain their different natures. The work is based on a posthumanist understanding that the quality of the existence of humans does not differ from the existence of other things (Bogost 2012, 8-9). 

Humans inevitably interact with the world around them. This can be done mindfully or absent-mindedly, without questioning previous conventions. Tuija Kokkonen (2017) writes about weak action, which is an ethical and time-sensitive attitude for listening to weak signals in others and oneself. It includes giving space and time for others by practicing generosity. Weak action has a gentle attitude towards time: it is about letting things open up and take their time. It is an embodied attitude, because human beings are embedded in the environment as bodies. Weak action has sensitivity for potential, aiming to notice and foster possibilities in the environment. In this approach, concrete action and potentiality come near to each other. (Kokkonen 2017, 85-89.) I find this attitude very useful as an ethical objective: if humans as a species would have listened more carefully to the environment during the last hundred years, our world might not be now at the threshold of eco-catastrophe. My personal history as an artist has been that of a stubborn actor who is totally in charge of her creations, but now I find the possibility of diminishing my own role as a useful strategy for the future. How to be human in the world without always speaking too loud, on top of the voices of the others? 

If we aim to see the ordinary as marvellous we need to somehow perceive things differently, without pre-classifying objects as boring without even taking a proper look at them. The anomalies produced in this project are made on the basis of admitting agency to our everyday environment and the countless inanimate objects it is made of – how they can lure us to interaction or deny it from us. In addition to inanimate objects, I have included plants and animals in the selection of artistic experiments, because they can work as a bridge helping me to understand the agency and uniqueness of all kinds of objects/entities. It is a lot easier to allow agency to a living being than to an inanimate object. Non-human beings are mysterious, because they sense the world differently from us, and it is not possible to ask them to describe their experiences in a straightforward way (although it is possible to learn many things about animals if one knows something about their behavior). Other humans are walking mysteries as well, but it is easier to explain their experiences on the basis of one’s own – although our guess would not be correct we can be happy with the story. So, in order to understand and respect the complexity of every object it would be useful to try to enlarge one’s area gradually: from other humans to horses, lilies and 3D printers. I have developed an ethics of acting with domestic animals during 30 years of actively spending time with them, and now I aim to enlarge this attitude towards my artistic practice as a whole. Weak action comes near to this ethics: it aims to an interaction which takes account of all participants of a relationship. Although domestic animals are living in the human-reigned world (for instance city dogs) and are as such dominated by people from the beginning, we have a long history together of mutual influence on each other. When living with my dog, I am aware of this position, but at the same time there are lots of options for how the two living creatures can interact. I aim to treat my animals as representatives of other species with their own needs, different from mine. Trying to understand their behavior and to influence them with positive means rather than negative, giving time rather than acting in a too demanding and fast mode. Dominating the animal with fear does not interest me, but instead luring it to interaction with time and consideration, by finding out what works with specific individuals. 

The practice of reality tinkering is all about connecting different concepts and objects in unconventional ways. It has more in common with cunning tactics than large spectacles because it wants to hide the origin of the adjustments made. Reality tinkering is an optimistic way of intervention, which borrows its materials and tools from everyday life, sharing the methods of life-bricolage. It has the following qualities:

1.Optimistic and experimental by definition, including the belief in the reality-changing value of one’s efforts. Destruction of the work could be easy and instant (compare the time and effort needed for growing a flower or stomping on it), but the value of the process can never be taken away from the participants. The pieces can take any form  –  if they are material, they can be small in size and made of anything, which makes them cheap to implement and easy to transport. Naturally, it is possible to use expensive materials or bigger sizes, but expensive, durable materials are not required (compared for instance to making permanent public sculptures), making tinkering with them possible for everyone. 

2.Dialogical and letting go. A reality tinkerer can never fully control the process and future of the piece, s/he can only try to steer it into some direction. S/he has to juggle with active and passive states in the process. The dialogue with the anomalies has to be sustained by avoiding to take too dominant position in relation to them, by understanding that the most important moment often happens only after the departure of the tinkerer. One of the adjustments made in this project involves growing home plants. I made cuttings of a plant, and planted them into separate pots, thus making several independent plants. The plants would not exist without my activity, but at the same time it would not be possible for me to create living plants from a scratch. The plants grow partly because of their own genetic structure, and partly because of the care I give to them.

3.Unspectacular and anonymous. Reality tinkering consists often of simple, mundane acts, which may not demand special skills but more dedication and patience. The acts of production themselves may not appear inviting, they can be seen as dull “maintenance work” (c.f. Mierle Laderman Ukeles 1969). Despite their humble origins, the experience of encountering a reality adjustment can be strong.