A couple of years ago I spent 90 minutes with Julie Chen’s Personal Paradigms, an artist’s book in the form of a game. At first, I had fun taking all the little lasercut pieces out, setting up the board, reading the rules. The way the game works is you use a spinner to determine an area of your life to contemplate, and then plot a semi-random grouping of concepts like “time management,” “creativity,” or “joyful occurrences” on a large game board. Each concept is represented by a different shape, and while each playthrough of the game involves a different set of words to work with, each map includes a piece labeled “self.”
During the creation phase, I kept feeling a pull between my desire to create something beautiful and balanced from the shapes and the impetus to be honestly contemplative, but I was ultimately able to use the game board to reflect genuinely on myself. The much more challenging part comes next: Chen asks every player of the game to record their map and some additional information (a title, notes about the experience, et cetera) in a ledger.
This is a nerve-wracking request. First, writing in books in a special collections reading room is pretty much always expressly forbidden, and sitting in a room full of researchers and librarians while permanently inscribing my information into a work of art felt illicit and strange. Second, Julie Chen is immaculate in her craft; you’ll never find another book artist who is as neat, as detailed, as obsessively perfect. In tracing the small models of the map pieces used to record, I felt very, very nervous about ruining her work. I was worried I would write something down and then change my mind about it, worried even to put down the time and date. And perhaps most importantly, I didn’t want to make what I had done and thought about official and final. I wanted that stuff to hang out in my mind, instead, where I could change or forget it later.
Some of this is my own neurosis and some of it, I think, is part of the piece. There exists an enormous gulf between thinking/feeling and recording, and a scary one–it’s tough to know you might get it wrong, especially when you only have the one chance to say what you mean. Flipping through the ledger allows readers to see how others confronted this challenge, and what about the experience they most wanted to share in the limited space, but in my mind the primary function of the ledger is definitely the writing, not the reading. Writing in the ledger gives a taste of the experience of making art–fussing over details, attempting to figure out how to bridge between a thought or experience and its communication, anxiety about being seen and understood.
I’m writing about this experience today in part because the area of my life I was supposed to be contemplating was the future, and going back to my notes about the game allows me to see what I wanted from my future two years ago, leading to another round of contemplation. In my notes from the experience, I call the ledger entries “weird abstract journals,” but however weird and abstract, mine still resonates with me today. If you have a chance to play the game at a library near you, plan to spend at least an hour playing and recording your game.