You Are Here Awake and Alive

By Georgeann Sack

O’Malley’s permanent installation at the Montalvo Arts Center, A Healing Walk.

The indelible imprint of Susan O’Malley’s art

When choosing a title for my publication on consciousness, Awake & Alive Mind, I thought of Susan O’Malley’s art, and the above in particular. Interestingly, I remembered the text incorrectly, starting with “I am” instead of “You are”. O’Malley’s art engages the viewer in internal conversation. We consider the text and can agree, disagree, or something in between. What we take away from the encounter depends on our subjective experience of it.

O’Malley in her work space, 2013. Image from her blog.

I took what I needed, which is the message, “I am here, awake and alive.”

Consciousness is having an internal model of self. How an individual responds to experience depends upon this internal model of what/who “I” is. Put another way, your experiences are a reflection of your self-concept.

Asked why I am interested in studying consciousness, I reply, “Because I am here, awake and alive.”

Art as collaborative expression of deeply felt truths

Susan O’Malley described her art as a collaborative act. I think of O’Malley as part artist, part social scientist.

I am interested in shifting ordinary exchanges into heightened experiences and rely on the back-and-forth between myself and others in the creation of the artwork.

O’Malley (source)

Grounded theory relies on interviewing people to collect qualitative data on a specific subjective experience. It is what Brené Brown used to understand shame. Initially, the researcher decides upon one or more open ended questions about their topic of interest.

In Brown’s case, she asked, “How would you describe shame?,” “How do you think shame impacts women?,” and “How do you think women overcome shame and the impact you just described?”

In O’Malley’s case, she asked “What is your dream?” or “What makes you feel happy?”

O’Malley (left) and Christina Amini asking people about their dreams. From O’Malley’s blog. They created and wore shirts that said “I Will Listen,” a work of art in itself I think.

In the social sciences, replies are then systematically reviewed and coded until general concepts emerge. In art, the artist can take what they like depending on what they are trying to achieve. O’Malley often presented individual responses or emerging concepts as text based images.

The text in O’Malley’s art is not an answer but an invitation. A question. A conversation starter. It gently prods the viewer to consider whether or not they feel the same way.

True of most things with great value, her art can come across as simple. ‘Yes, of course,’ you might think. The words tend to stick, however, and bounce around inside your mind until you see how they touch on the very nature of what it means to be an awake, alive, human being.

Mural of O’Malley’s art on the Root Division wall, San Francisco. Photo by Leah Garchik / The Chronicle (source).

Some of her pieces create an aching want. ‘Yes. That is what I want to feel/be/understand. I want to look at the world like that. I want to feel connected to others like that.’

Some are a deeply felt comfort. ‘Yes. Everything is going to be ok.’

Some are a jolt of appreciation for this fragile life. ‘Yes. I am here, awake and alive. Life is beautiful, isn’t it.’

What can O’Malley’s art teach us about consciousness?

I highly recommend O’Malley’s book, “Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self: Real Words of Wisdom from People Ages 7 to 88”. O’Malley asked people of all ages what advice they think the 80-year old version of themselves might give them, then turned their answers into text-based art.

The projection of our self-concept into different times in our lives, past and future, is an interesting perspective from which to consider subjective experience.

O’Malley theorizes the creation of the answer as a form of time-travel — a chance to bring two non-contiguous versions of the same self into contact — but also highlights the ability of this exercise to cut through noise and focus on the big picture.

Book review by Leila Easa, Art Practical.

It is interesting that much of the content of O’Malley’s book relates to worry. What do we worry about now, and what might an older version of ourselves have to say about that? It seems, based on this, that much of our conscious thought is driven by fear and anxiety. It also seems that we imagine an older version of ourselves would no longer be as concerned about these same fears.

People resist the study of consciousness because it is something by definition something that exists within each individual. However, by comparing subjective experiences, or responses to open-ended questions about subjective experiences, across individuals, we find commonalities in our shared human experience. I think studying the commonalities between our subjective experiences is a great way to begin to understand consciousness.

These are but a few takeaways of many. I encourage you to get the book and take a moment on each page to think about how your own experiences shape your reaction to each response.

It’s easy to forget how wise we can be. We resist our internal wisdom due to any number of reasons, such as fear, fatigue, or inconvenience. … What’s great about the 80-year-old self is that no matter how frantic we get, she is always readily available to us. She is present within each of us, reminding us we can be the best version of ourselves, not through some colossal effort at personal reinvention, but simply by slowing down. We just have to take a moment to pay attention and listen.

O’Malley, from her introduction to “Advice From My 80-Year-Old-Self”.

Many pages from O’Malley’s book can be viewed in this review by Maria Popova.

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