As a human being alive in this bewildering cosmos, you can choose to see things in one of two ways: linearly or nonlinearly.
Usually, we call a linear view of experience a story. It has a beginning and end, which gives it a chronology and causality. Our memories seem to like rendering themselves as stories, maybe because they are more useful for drawing conclusions. Once upon a time, an evil coronavirus mutated, so you had to wear a mask and socially distance for a year, before the heroic work of scientists and essential workers returned things to normal.
This is a neat, easy narrative—there are other tellings, of course. But whatever the details of a story, linearity is the preference for newspapers, books, films, and most people. Linearity works for any part of society that needs to seem firm and solid and reliable, or any person that needs to feel the comfort of those traits.
In a non-linear way of being, things happen in a place beyond reliable reasons and narratives. There are no calendars or clocks because an hour is as long as it feels, and a day can stretch into infinity or pass without notice. The lack of a shared experience makes it difficult to hold onto a story, like a slippery fish in lakewater. Instead, we call it the present moment and say that everybody has their own darting, silvery one to catch.
What does the world look like from a nonlinear point of view? Does it look more real? Does it feel more authentic? If you believe that stories are told by people and not gods, then probably so. Probably, there are no narratives apart from those we tell, no real beginnings and ends to be found in nature, and no heroic scientists or villainous microorganisms.
Sometimes, novels are written from a nonlinear perspective, and these examples can help us attune to a freer way of seeing. Authors are often forced to use neat tricks, Proustian madeleines, to help readers accept nonlinearity. In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim is abducted by a hyperdimensional alien race, which helps explain why his wartime trauma stops him from following a neat, social timeline. In McCormack’s Solar Bones, the life of Marcus Conway is told in a single sentence that ends only with his death on a quiet roadside in Ireland. There are no periods because life is indivisible, despite the ways in which we try to carve it up. In Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” the final weeks of Neal’s life stretch into endless digressions before compressing into a single photo in an old school yearbook, just like the headlights of his car illuminate the concrete bridge before his vehicle crumples into it.
Bas Jan Ader was a Dutch-American artist active in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. A known figure in the LA conceptual scene, he has since become a cult icon for many a melancholy art student. Ader made performance pieces that are all about chronology, causality, and how identity is wrapped up in those two ways of seeing the world—the story of a person versus the solitary experience of living.
His grainy, black-and-white videos show him inconsolably weeping or falling from trees, chairs, and roofs. There are ones where he holds onto various objects until he can’t stand the weight any longer. In Fall II, he calmly rides his bike into an Amsterdam canal, sending a plume of water into the air as he comes into firm contact with the present. Each piece rejects a complete narrative, instead carefully presenting experiences that are mostly inaccessible to outside viewers.
In his final series of work, Ader embarked on a voyage across the Atlantic, from Cape Cod to England in a 13-foot sailboat—the smallest ever to make an attempt. Called In Search of the Miraculous (One night in Los Angeles), the piece is comprised of Ader’s solo journey, plus a gallery showing a series of photographs of the artist wandering the streets of LA, and a choir of his UC Irvine art students singing sea shanties at his departure. Months into the crossing, Ader was declared lost at sea, his boat later discovered off Ireland’s coast by Spanish fishermen, his body never found.
Ader was an experienced sailor and knew that choosing to use such a small boat presented a real danger in the open ocean. He must have understood that he might not make it to the other side. I can’t help but think that this danger—an outcome beyond his control—was part of the allure for him as a performance artist. You can’t tell a neat, linear story when you don’t know the outcome.
A wider look at Ader’s biography shows an interest in less risky, more conventional art, and a desire to be documented, written about, exhibited. But in the end, he chose this perilous leap of faith as his masterpiece, away from gallery walls where his work would stand a better chance of becoming part of the cultural narrative. His last actions were unobserved, unnarrated, and given up to fate.
Sailing a 13-foot boat across the ocean isn’t a very relatable act, but there is something about traveling slowly through unknown waters, confined to a cabin, surrendered to outside forces, which speaks to the pandemic. There will be many voices vying to control the narrative of what happened over the past eighteen months. Others will want it firmly consigned to the past, to be forgotten. But I think it’s important that we choose, like Ader, to see this time in a nonlinear way. A period that, like the waves that must have risen around his boat on starlit nights, swelled from the years before and will flow into years to come. Currents that travel for miles under the surface, carrying you unnoticed, indifferent to your plotted course.
Cover illustration: Jess Shadrick
This is the final essay in Trains in the Basement, a five-part series on pandemic themes in modern and outsider art.