MomenTech is an experimental production studio based in New York City, founded in 2010 by Filipino-American conceptual artist Reynard Loki and Polish-American multimedia artist Maciej Toporowicz. American filmmaker Mika Johnson joined in 2013. Inspired by transnational progressivism, cosmology, post-humanism, ecology, neo-nomadism, futurism and more, MomenTech has created pop culture remixes, instructional works, site-specifc installations, public space interventions and user-generated content pieces, developing over 35 projects and participating in 18 group exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy, Greece, South Africa, China and the Philippines.
As of November 1, 2013, MomenTech is on hiatus from any and all creative production for a six-month period as they engage fully with our proposed on-hiatus activity: a daily meditation practice.
MomenTech's hiatus residency also includes meditation research, data collection and progress updates posted to the RFAOH website.
This investigation into meditation continues MomenTech's interest in the practice, which began in 2010 with Field Experiment, an interactive, site-specific audiovisual project that explores meditation, self-hypnosis, the media and our cosmic origins (via Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, or CMBR) by asking participants to imagine a field after having stared into live television static for a period of 10 seconds. Field Experiment was selected by the Behring Institute of Medical Research to be a part of their first publication for "Placebos for Art," a long-term research project investigating the influence of "art-based placebos" on public health.
Meditation was also a theme in MomenTech's 2011 project Mandala-Tanque, in which pétanque competitors are invited to play a game on the surface of the pétanque court on which a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala has been drawn. The project was selected for inclusion at the 2011 Dumbo Arts Festival.
MomenTech will resume its normal production schedule on May 1, 2014.
Being the primary writer in MomenTech, the task of composing the group's response to the exit questionnaire naturally fell on me. My suggestion to my fellow collaborators was that I would draft a response from the group as a whole and Mika and Maciej would add their own thoughts. But the more I thought about what we "should" express as a group, the more I realized that it was a bit of a fool's errand. It makes sense: Meditation—the daily practice of which was the main activity of MomenTech's residency—is ultimately an individual journey.
Of course, group meditation is a common practice; I have participated in several such gatherings at the Tibet House in New York during our residency as part of my own exploration into the various styles of meditation. But in the end, meditation is an intensely personal activity that can lead to intensely personal revelations, even as it may help to strip away what is to be one of humans' heaviest burdens: the ego.
The initial structure of our residency was straightforward: Each of MomenTech's three members would engage in an individual daily meditation practice for the residency's six-month period. But while the design of our residency may have been rather simple, its goals were anything but: to "develop mindfulness, concentration, insight, wisdom." That's pretty heavy-duty stuff.
Did we develop any of these aspects? I'd like to say yes, but who can really know? Meditation is not so much a "fix-it" therapy as it is a lifestyle, a way of being present in the world. Perhaps that movement towards "being present" and "being in the present" affected MomenTech's ability to plan for future events around the residency. For example, at the outset, we were all gung-ho about hosting weekly online open meditation sessions via Google Hangouts. That plan never materialized until the very end. (We hosted an open meditation on Google Hangout on the last day of our residency.)
One thing is for sure, MomenTech really did go on hiatus and for the first time in our four-year history, took a break from making art; or rather, taking a break from producing the things MomenTech produces (MomenTech, as a rule, avoids using the terms "art" and "artists.") But is that even possible? Art is often compared to life. And if art, like life, is a continual process, then can an artist truly avoid "making art"? Perhaps MomenTech did not think about, design and build a "product," per se, but the experiences we had, both individually and as a group, during our six month hiatus will forever be a part of all our future work in some fundamental way.
Our residency did "create" one kind of important thing: questions. And perhaps the best thing about our residency with RFAOH. Some of the best effects that meditation can call forth have to do with a growth in awareness. And part of becoming aware is to challenge one's status quo, to continually ask questions. What is art? What does it mean to create it? Can an artist take a break from making art? Is meditation an art form? Conversely, can making art be meditative?
I asked my fellow MomenTechnicians to email me a few lines of thoughts and observations a few days after the residency ended.
"Having a surgery and recovery during the residency taught me that meditation has its limits, at least for me," Maciej said. "I wasn't able to meditate, because the post-surgery stress was too much." He added that "having opportunity to meditate more often than usually moved me closer to solving my personal koan, the one I have been trying to solve since a while."
"The main challenge the residency posed for me was in relation to self-discipline. On some days finding time to meditate was not an issue, whereas on other days it was almost interruptive, even frustrating. Undoubtedly, this was partly because the residency was not in a physical space, with a community of artists or meditation practitioners working toward a common goal. However, in the end, this absence of a physical space and community made my practice stronger, in the sense that I had to learn to integrate my meditation time with my normal routines and responsibilities, which is also a useful approach to art making as well.
"In the beginning, we had originally set out to answer short daily and weekly questionnaires. We took a lot of time formulating these questions, which were later abandoned. My guess is that the practice immediately became something very personal, which in many ways was difficult to comment on, at least by questionnaire. I responded similarly to the blog, in the sense that I found it challening to write about something that felt entirely personal. I simply didn’t feel I had much to contribute, as the content of that practice was my own subjectivity, not something that I could generalize about or even articulate. In retrospect, I do wish MomenTech had agreed to do one spontaneous drawing before and after each meditation session, as it would have physicalized that response, without rationalizing it. We did this on the last day and all found it surprisingly interesting and satisfying."
"Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through," wrote French author Anais Nin. "Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death."
Could taking a break from "creating art" help to avoid a kind of "artistic death"? Perhaps. One thing is for sure, for six months, a residency with RFAOH changed the normal "elected" state of MomenTech. The decision to meditate during our hiatus only heightened the experience.
Finally, on behalf of MomenTech, I would like to thank Matt and Shinobu, the founders of RFAOH, for making this all possible. We are fortunate to have been a part of this program. Through our residency, MomenTech sowed important seeds for the future.
As part of our residency, MomenTech submitted an event proposal to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, a museum that features art of the Himalayas. Included in the proposal is an audience participatory activity framed as a pseudo-scientific “meditation experiment.” This involves asking the members of the audience to create a quick doodle on a high quality sheet of archival paper in permanent marker or similar drawing implement prior to the meditation session, and then another one immediately after the meditation. These anonymous doodles would be collected, analyzed and presented in a “before-and-after” format, in an attempt to reveal possible changes in participants’ mental state due to the effect of the meditation session. Today, as part of our individual morning meditation sessions, the three members of MomenTech did a test run of this experiment. Each drawing was made in under a minute. Below are the results.
Part of your teaching method involves an expression of Zen through “creative response.” Can you define this concept?
That means to be creative in any kind of problem-solving situation. For example, you’re out on the street and see a 16-year-old kid who’s begging and you want to help this person. What’s the creative way to do it? The most creative way is not to give them a dollar, but to interact with them, to get to know them, to try to make a real difference. That’s a creative response. We tend to get stuck in these rails of thinking and it keeps us from really making a meaningful difference.
You are a founding member of the Zen Peacemaker Family. What is this organization?
My teacher Bernie Glassman founded the Zen Peacemakers along with me and a few other people in this country—maybe there were five or six of us. At that time—it was about 1995 or 1996—social justice was not a Zen Buddhist concern in the States. Zen was about your own personal liberation. You really have to give Bernie credit for this, because he was the one who started the dialogue. He said, “Wait a minute. If I’m personally enlightened, doesn’t that mean that I am automatically out here working for the equality of all people?”
So he’s saying that with enlightenment comes responsibility, that enlightenment is not just a self-centered state of being.
Exactly. But there were arguments about it at the time. Some people would criticize those among us who approached social responsibility through the lens of Zen, saying, “Well that’s not Zen.” Of course, that’s no longer the case. Bernie founded Greyston Bakery and hired a lot of people who were on welfare. The profits went to the bakery’s non-profit parent organization, the Greyston Foundation, which supported the local community. Bernie is quite the entrepreneur. What happened was that he got so interested in that that he became less interested in people sitting and facing a wall and wearing their robes. This is life. I came on at just about that time and I have tried to hold on to both, because I see a need for both. And also, I’ve always done this kind of work. When I was doing video, I was teaching people in drug treatment centers and people with AIDS. So for me, it wasn’t a big difference. All my Dharma talks naturally include what our responsibilities are.
Would you say that there has been an increased interest social justice among the Zen community in recent years?
Yes, there has been a huge change. Another teacher from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hahn, has been very involved in peace work. In the last couple of years, Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada Buddhist monk ordained in Sri Lanka, where he studied for 30 years, founded Buddhist Global Relief, which is fighting hunger across the world. So this is what’s happening now to Buddhism in the West, and in the States in particular.
It’s nice to be reminded of the activism that has become a part of modern Buddhist ideology, considering our steady diet of bad news streaming in from the 24/7 media cycle.
And that’s what sitting in meditation is good for. You take a breath. [Deep breath.] You become present: “I’m right here.” When you are truly present, you can’t block anything out, whether it’s joy, sadness or frustration about the conditions of the world. And if you really feel that frustration, then you have to say, “OK, what can I do about it? What action can I take?”
When you become less a part of the problem and more a part of the solution, perhaps frustration gives way to hope.
The Buddha taught that to achieve enlightenment, one must develop two qualities: wisdom and compassion. Can meditation alone develop these qualities, or do you need other studies?
It’s good to have other studies, but one can arrive at it purely through meditation. In Zen, we would say that the realization that you’re not separate from everything, that you are part of everything is an enlightened viewpoint. You’re walking down the street and it’s not just about you, it’s about everything that’s happening at that time. So wisdom is the realization of the nature of life. I am part of everything else.
How does compassion relate to that?
It naturally arises out of the wisdom. Once you realize that this hand belongs to the same body as that hand, you’re going to take care of both hands.
As meditation has emerged as a tool not only for enlightenment, but also for developing brain skills like memory and concentration, there has been talk about the possibility that this practice is being misused for decidedly non-compassionate ends, such as being a more successful Wall Street executive or a better sharpshooter.
I can’t imagine it being misused. Being a progressive myself, I hate to say it, but that criticism is kind of a knee-jerk progressive response to any kind of news that says, “Well, the capitalist ‘bad guys’ are going to use this for their own greedy purposes.” But how can it be? If a person becomes more intimate with themselves, when they realize that what they’re doing, who they are, is also who the next person is, is also who everyone around them are. How can that really lead to harmful behavior?
If people are either innately good or innately evil—and that’s a big “if”—then does it follow that the practice of meditation may have either good or evil consequences?
I don’t quite buy the good-and-evil thing, but as an old-fashioned leftie, I’m going to say that there are those who are very deeply traumatized and injured who are sociopaths. And yes, they might be able to misuse the benefits gained from meditation, such as concentration and focus. Yes, it has been found that meditation improves the performance of sharpshooters. But most of the people using it would discover that they can self-soothe so that they don’t need to eat, drink or take something to soothe themselves, that they can simply take a breath and it would work fine. And they would become more aware of their interaction with others. Ultimately, that leads to a more compassionate lifestyle. I think that a hundred years from now, we’ll laugh at the debate that went on. And we’ll see that this was a major change in our culture.