Can a street be an inhabited space?

This week, my train of thought, along with months (and psychologically, years) of planning and preparation have been trod over and stomped on by recent violence in the streets in Ethiopia. Pictures of burnt out cars and protests in the very city I was to be visiting and making new friends and meeting extended family has made me sad and angry.

It is in the context of all this that I found this passage from Thomas Merton particularly arresting. I reproduce the whole passage here as it doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else on the web in plain text.

An alienated space, an uninhabited space, is a space where you submit.

You stay where you are put, even though this cannot really be called “living.” You stop asking questions about it and you know there is not much point in making any complaint. (Business is not interested in your complaint, only in your rent.) “I live on X Street.” Translated: “X Street is the place where I submit, where I give in where I quit.” (The best thing to do with such a street is pull down the blinds and open a bottle of whiskey.)

Can a street be an inhabited space?
This question begins to take shape. We begin to guess the answer.
To acquire inhabitants, the street will have to be changed. Something must happen to the street. Something must be done to it. The people who are merely provisionally present, half-absent non-persons must now become really present on the street as themselves. They must be recognizable as people. Hence, they must recognize each other as people. (Business is not about to recognize them as people, only as consumers.)

They must be present on the street not simply as candidates for the local shell game, or for manipulation by loan sharks, or for a beating, or for exploitation, or for ridicule, or for total neglect.
Instead of submitting to the street, they must change it.
Instead of being formally and impersonally put in their place by the street, they must transform the street and make it over so that it is livable.

The street can be inhabited if the people on it begin to make their life credible by changing their environment.
Living is more than submission: it is creation.
To live is to create one’s own world as a scene of personal happiness.
How do you do that?

Various approaches have been tried.
For instance, you can tear the place apart.
This does, admittedly, have points. It is a way of reminding business, the city, the fuzz, etc. that you are there, that you are tired of being a non-person, that you are not just a passive machine for secreting indefinite amounts of submission. It may get you a TV set or a case of liquor or a new suit. It may even (if the operation is on a larger scale) get you a whole new building. (Though the honeycomb you live in may be replaced by a better one for somebody else.)
But the trouble with this approach is:
– It does not make the street any more habitable.
– It does not make life on this street any more credible.
– It does not make anybody happy.
– It does not change the kind of space the street is.
– It does not change the city’s negative idea of itself and of its streets.
– It accepts the idea that the street is a place going someplace else.

It accepts the street as a tunnel, the city as a rabbit warren. It takes for granted what business and money and the fuzz and everyone else takes for granted: that the street is an impersonal tube for “circulation” of traffic, business, and wealth, so that consequently all the real action is someplace else. That life really happens inside the buildings. But for life to happen inside buildings, it must first find expensive buildings to happen in – downtown or in the suburbs where the money goes along with the traffic.

Violence in the street is all right as an affirmation that one does not submit, but it fails because it accepts the general myth of the street as a no-man’s-land, as battleground, as no place. Hence, it is another kind of submission. It takes alienation for granted. Merely to fight in the street is to protest in desperation, that one is unable to change anything. So in the long run it is another way of giving up.

-Thomas Merton, Love and Living, p.48-50

Minecraft hacks as art and the joy of working within constraints

Constraint really is the key component of art. Taking the constraint as a given and then trying to push the limits of it to express an idea is where all the interesting things are at. The artist may work on a canvas and their frustration at being “boxed in” may make them wish the canvas away. But take it away and they are left adrift on an ocean where the noise of the world swallows up all the potential meaning, expression, and communication. But struggle IN the box, and you can produce great and even utterly amazing things. There’s a quote laying around somewhere from Brian Eno talking about pushing the limits of early digital audio that captures some of this well. Ah, here it is:

“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

My 9-year-old son is doing this right now with Minecraft. I just think of him having fun building stuff, just like someone might have fun building with Legos and there is that, but there is also much more. He was extremely excited today to show me something he had just built. What was it? A bookshelf with some books on it. Very simple. A couple of them were laying sideways and were different colors. That is all. So why all the enthusiasm? He had pushed the boundaries of the constraints. He had found instructions on how to hack a command block to nudge objects only one pixel in space. In Minecraft, the 16x16x16 textured blocks are a primitive given. But with the hack, you can make small objects and with a lot of patience, produce relatively smooth curves where none should be possible. Any normal 3D modelling software could have produced that bookshelf in a couple minutes with a few simple points and clicks. Woopee. But to produce it in a world bade of clunky huge blocks, to suddenly make something impossibly small and intricate according to the “normal” rules of physics in that world, that was something exciting.

It’s like being given a box of Legos after living in a room full of jumbo Duplos. No, actually that’s a poor analogy. That wouldn’t be nearly as fun. This is like melting down some of your Duplos with matches and remolding the pieces in a hand-carved cast to produce a precious handful of Legos. It is the delight of the child builder to put their mind and hands to this. It is the delight of the painter to get that tree, that face, to fit on the canvas and look, somehow, even more real that it was in the flesh.