I tried to do a Cultural Thing the other day, and it ended up being A Thing. I’ll explain.
I went to see a local exhibition, and ended up only being able to stay for all of a minute. While I enjoy the activity of going to see a show or an exhibition, in and of itself – seeing what new and potentially inspiring works of art or other type of creativity has just been borne into being – I struggle with the inevitably social side of doing so. Even in a relatively quiet setting, if someone – even one other person – comes in, it changes the entire ambience for me. Indeed it’s even worse for me if it’s only one other person, because then it becomes a Potential Social Situation. You know, where it feels dangerously close to being a thing which feels like a thing you’re Doing Together, rather than simply Doing In The Same Place At The Same Time…
The Scottish weather is not always forgiving or conducive to the types of summer activities which can normally be enjoyed in basically anywhere else in the world, however when it isn’t raining and it’s during a certain peak festival period in the capital city then even trying to do some outdoor photography presents a dilemma.
So sometimes there’s nothing for it but to attempt to appreciate the Great Indoors, where the subjects/objects d’art are less likely to be compromised. However space in these places tends to be even more scarce.
In quite a few posts on this site I’ve made reference to the notion of missing out on something which I can never quite pin down. It just hovers over me, tormenting me in the form of the elusive Idea That Everyone Else Is Doing Some Amazing To Some Extent And Which You’re Kind Of A Big Loser And A Bit Of An Idiot For Not Doing Or Even Knowing About In the First Place.
In a bid to quell this feeling as much as possible (ignoring the infinite regret of having missed out on lots of these things much earlier on in life) I’ve been making more of an effort to do cultural things and expand my mental landscape in the process. When you are only sporadically employed at most, and find that you have an ongoing obstruction to creativity, a chronic inability to prompt yourself into action AND a tendency to magnify niggling worries until they end up being far bigger and more intrusive than they originally were, you start to realise the importance of keeping yourself occupied in a somewhat healthy way. Some of the time, reading a good book can divert and alleviate these encroaching thoughts/feelings but it has to be a really good one. (Few books really draw me in enough to make me forget myself completely but it’s well worth continuing the search for that odd one.)
I try to venture outside what I know every so often, and also to stay in touch with “what’s happening”, which is all too easy to do. Luckily, between Glasgow and Edinburgh there are frequent cultural events which can be attended without too much practical difficulty, many of them showcasing upcoming art and literature. From poets with a profane edge, to niche photography exhibitions, to open questions concerning the meaning of “fake” (very popular in 2017), it’s easy to just “drop in” here and there to check out whatever rouses one’s curiosity. The latest exhibition I went to see in Glasgow had a library theme: it was basically a small special collection of history, travel, art, etc themed books in a communal sitting area, with a smattering of books in the adjacent room suspended from the ceiling.
As someone who trained to be a librarian not too long ago, this felt like one of the things I had to go see at least once. It has been the motivating factor for many of the slight detours I’ve made on recent trips (basically any renowned public library or collection in the city I happen to be in (with the personally infamous inclusion of the Library of Congress – the librarian’s pilgrimage site – which it never occurred to me for a second would be closed on a Sunday…)) because what better way to delve into the psyche of a place – if places can even be said to have any kind of collective psyche – than to meander through the written collections of its literary representative, and even also some up and coming voices from the region. So… a library collection serving as an art exhibition near where I live? Alright then!
However… as someone who endures chronic social anxiety, which can be exacerbated by current mood and other circumstances, simply “dropping in” and “checking out” things like exhibitions can be far more complicated than it might seem. There are various factors to take into consideration – how busy is the venue, how many people are going to be there at any given moment, what direction are people moving in and are they likely to get closer to you than you’re comfortable with, what kind of lighting is there (very open and airy places which are “bathed in light”, which seem to be very much du jour these days, are the opposite of what would normally make me comfortable, as it induces a feeling of overexposure, in more ways than one), are there any convenient exit routes, and crucially… are there attendants/guides tracking you visually with every step you take, either approaching you directly to say something or otherwise sitting silently in the corner, ready to verbally admonish you for the slightest infraction (actually happened to me once, I reached out to lightly touch something (and there weren’t even any signs saying not to do so) and up pops an attendant charging towards me shouting something to the effect of “NO!”)… and heaven forbid- is there a reception?
The thing is, Asperger’s Syndrome (a name I hate but will use for descriptive purposes here) makes exposure to large crowds of people and loud, bright and unpredictable sensations more difficult to deal with than for the general population. This makes it a bit of a conflicting desire, to want to both indulge my cultural appetite AND to not be subjected to these variables which would effectively cancel out any appreciation to be had from said cultural activity. This means that the answer to each of these hypothetical questions in the previous paragraph needs to be known if the visit isn’t going to result in me nope-ing my way straight out of there less than a minute after arriving, and seeing as the odds are very much in favour of there either being a sizeable crowd or one or two lone attendees (making it the dreaded Potential Social Situation referenced at the beginning), an area so brightly lit that it would make heaven itself look like the kind of gothic bedroom with blackout curtains I wanted as a teenager, and on top of everything, no way of knowing how you’ll deal with any of these variable factors on that particular day and time… it becomes something of a gamble.
More often than not, due to repeat experiences in crowded, noisy, bright museums and galleries and other cultural venues – where the distractions all around by far cancel out any potential enjoyment or appreciation to be had from the actual artefacts on display – I’ve started to try to go to these things less and less, and only occasionally now. Yet as a trainee librarian, one thing which was made very clear was the collective bid to encourage the general public’s patronage and attendance, including measures to make venues more accessible to those with special requirements and/or disabilities. In short, they really want lots of people going to these things, which in and of itself is really no bad thing. Furthermore, as someone who finds that the more personalised and exclusive a place feels the more enjoyable, I realise that I am most likely very much in the minority. There have been occasions, however, when the conditions have been, if not ideal, then perhaps as close to ideal as is possible.
The British Museum in London ran an open evening a year ago (not sure if that’s a regular thing) which held an instant appeal for me as I was alone and didn’t feel like either going on a “night out” alone or, well, going back to my hotel room alone. However it seems that almost everyone in the area had the same idea; cue one of the noisiest and busiest sessions at a museum that I think I’ve ever seen. Although this time, I had a secret weapon – earplugs. Along with a resolute will to make the most of a rare free activity in London.
Earplugs made a huge difference to the ability to appreciate objects of antiquity such as the Rosetta Stone and the personal collection of, arguably, the world’s first librarian. It was then that I was able you appreciate what a cool place the British Museum is, especially during an open evening, when you can (almost) imagine that things in there are about to come to life…
More recently, there was an exhibition at the nearby Tramway Theatre involving a special and now-obsolete type of film being used in the photography of a visiting American artist, which required the entire room – the size of a warehouse – to be almost completely blacked out. In fact, here’s the bit I liked – you needed a torch to go in there, because any exposure to light would have been damaging to the type of film being used. Wandering around in an almost completely dark and empty place was intriguing and a bit good-scary, but of course I was unable to take any photos, even if it was allowed nothing would have been properly visible.
The examples above are, as far as I’m currently aware, exceptions to to the general rule. Due to increasing (over)population and the competing need for everyone to be everywhere at all times – and to take the appropriate selfies to prove they were there – very few places have an ambience of retreat and escape. Yet this is perhaps all part of the challenge of modern living, to find a way to both co-exist with fellow people and to create a way of being both original in and true to oneself whilst sharing an experience which, essentially, was designed for the very purpose of being shared by and amongst people.
It is an ongoing challenge, and I’ve no idea how that will work out for me personally in the future.