“Stay on the f-ing bus!”

From an article by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian (followed, of course, by some of my mind blowing and otherwise dubious ramblings):

This column will change your life: Helsinki Bus Station Theory

‘The theory claims the secret to a creatively fulfilling career lies in understanding the operations of Helsinki’s main bus station’

I’ve never visited Finland. Actually, I probably never should, since it’s a place I love so much on paper – dazzling, snow-blanketed landscapes, best education in the world, first country to give full suffrage to women, home of the Moomins – that reality could only disappoint. Even the staunchest Finnophile, though, might be sceptical on encountering the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. First outlined in a 2004 graduation speech by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen, the theory claims, in short, that the secret to a creatively fulfilling career lies in understanding the operations of Helsinki’s main bus station. It has circulated among photographers for years, but it deserves (pardon the pun) greater exposure. So I invite you to imagine the scene. It’s a bus station like any big bus station – except, presumably, cleaner, and with environmentally-friendly buses driven by strikingly attractive blond(e)s.

There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”

A little way farther on, the way Minkkinen tells it, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off on idiosyncratic journeys to very different destinations. That’s when the photographer finds a unique “vision”, or – if you’d rather skip the mystificatory art talk – the satisfying sense that he or she is doing their own thing.
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There are two reasons this metaphor is so compelling – apart from the sheer fact that it’s Finland-related, I mean. One is how vividly it illustrates a critical insight about persistence: that in the first weeks or years of any worthwhile project, feedback – whether from your own emotions, or from other people – isn’t a reliable indication of how you’re doing. (This shouldn’t be confused with the dodgy dictum that triggering hostile reactions means you must be doing the right thing; it just doesn’t prove you’re doing the wrong one.) The second point concerns the perils of a world that fetishises originality. A hundred self-help books urge you to have the guts to be “different”: the kid who drops out of university to launch a crazy-sounding startup becomes a cultural hero… yet the Helsinki theory suggests that if you pursue originality too vigorously, you’ll never reach it. Sometimes it takes more guts to keep trudging down a pre-trodden path, to the originality beyond. “Stay on the fucking bus”: there are worse fridge-magnet slogans to live by. Just make sure you take it off the fridge when your prudish relatives visit.

oliver.burkeman@guardian.co.uk (End of article)

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All of which I take to mean that you can be on the bus essentially for two reasons: With a specific desire to get some particular place, or to simply be open to (to see) where the bus will take you.

It is probably normal for most artists to have an idea that the bus they are on will get them to some possibly well defined goal, like success, or fame, a career, or a minimally sustainable income. We look at other artists and it seems they have gotten somewhere, that they are no longer traveling by bus. The career path, the bus line they were on, has landed them at a good stopping place. They’ve somehow got it figured out. They live in mansions and have the lifestyle we aspire to. They and their work are iconic.

From the outside it seems so very stable, from the view of our seats as the bus we are on goes zipping through neighborhoods and over the crest of hills. And we often take that brief glimpse to mean that arriving at stops has the advantage that our work is now identifiably our own, coherent and consistent, a brand we can base our careers on. Something we can hang our hats on. That seems like an assumption we can safely make. There is something uniquely attractive about stepping off the bus to see where its got us. “Stop and smell the roses, won’t you? Take off your shoes and stay a while….”

But ‘getting off the bus at our stop’ does have the downside that we’ve arrived at a destination. Once we are off the bus there are consequences. That’s where we will stay at least until another bus comes along, even if we still have the fare to get back on. We may also have been off the bus for so long that its hard to get back on, to leave behind the comfort of the familiar resting place for new horizons and unfolding adventures. We say “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” after all….

You see, there are consequences to staying on the bus as well. The truth is also that if we stay on the bus we may not know where all it will take us, and that can seem perilous. Or occasionally too risky, at least. It sometimes frightens us. But making the decision to stay on the bus, enjoying the trip itself, the journey, can potentially be as much worthwhile as any conceivable stop we could have gotten off at. According to the article above, staying on the bus is precisely what matters most. Persistence, not chasing originality. And maybe there’s something to that.

If we get off the bus for fear of where it might next take us, I’m not sure that’s the best reason we could have had. If we simply don’t like bus rides, that’s something else. If the constant motion makes us queasy it might make sense to get out and take some deep breaths before we puke our guts. Stay put, stay safe.

But, as I’ve recently suggested in some other essays, often we simply shy away from the unknown rather than demonstrating our native curiosity. We are often too slick, too worldly wise, for the wide eyed naivety that trades security for serendipity. Giving up what we know is a challenge. We suffer loss aversion. But the allure of the known is not by itself enough justification to permanently avoid traveling further into the unknown…. Is it?

Its the difference between seeing the point of what we are doing as a destination and seeing it as a journey. Do we see ‘success’ as where we got off the bus, or how long we stayed on and how many different things we saw and did? At the end of our lives and our careers will we regret that we stayed on the bus too long or that we got off too early? That we did this one thing well or that we didn’t do enough? That seems like an important distinction…..

Food for thought, at least!

The many buses of Helsinki

The many buses of Helsinki

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

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About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

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