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Russell Smith: For the creative, procrastination can be a work of art

You hear a lot about the creative economy: It means, basically, people who work in branding and PR. They do workshops and retreats on how to be creative. I have just spent some time with an artist friend who starts new projects without understanding exactly what they are. I thought I would document an example of how she comes to the various creations she embarks on. It is to show how an artist's mind works and might perhaps serve as a parable of creativity.

My friend is Gunilla Josephson, an internationally established video artist. She is from Sweden and lives in Toronto and France. Video art is short or long films that are not shown on TV; they are generally projected in white-walled galleries where viewers stand and watch, or stand and watch and move on, or move on and come back again. Gunilla's films are sparse and opaque: They might document an empty room in a Swedish country house, with vaguely argumentative words being overheard; they might show Swedish houses at night whose windows glow with moving scenes from actual Bergman films. She aims to represent women in ways that avoid the usual vernacular of commercial cinema – the close-up, the veneration of beauty – and eschews conventional narrative. She has showed her work in galleries over the world.

Now she is working on a new show – a multivideo installation for the Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines, Ont., next year – and this means sitting in a small office in front of a big computer screen and editing. So instead of doing this important work, of course she became distracted and began a completely unimportant work. She hammered in some nails high in her office wall and began hanging string from the nails. Just draping it in random agglomerations. After a while it began to look a bit knotted and webbed. It was just something to do, a way of making meaningless patterns with her hands.

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Then she had the idea to have friends come in and drape some string in patterns of their own, and chat while they did it. The office is open for this collaboration on Wednesdays: She calls it string therapy.

Is this art? Oh no, no, she shrugs, not at all, it's just therapy … except, except, she says, look here, at this book of images, the art of Eva Hesse, the great German-born American sculptor: She did things in the 1960s with rough textiles and cords. … She made patterns out of rough objects, and her practice was repetitive and long, her colour palette obsessively neutral. … And this image, this lacquered string sculpture she did, called String Piece, looks a lot like mine. I have always adored Eva Hesse, Gunilla says.

Well, now, see, here we are: This is art: We can't get away from it. Gunilla can't help herself. There are ideas behind this, of course – she, the artist, does not want to talk about them, because that is not her job; it is my job. So, here they are: The work presents process on an equal footing with content; the art is the making of the art and its attendant psychological discoveries. Non-directed, aimlessly aesthetic activity is, in fact, a staple of many popular therapeutic pastimes right now: Think of the adult colouring-book clubs that are filling coffee shops, where young people kill hours just filling in spaces with pretty colours. This idea of a repeated yet non-practical activity finds its echo in maze-walking and other mindfulness-generating tics.

The string and its proliferating agglomerations have almost endless associations. First the spider web, of course – the artist's office becoming the lair that entraps the visitor. Then the solitary woman weaving: Penelope and her loom; the unending creation of a pointless garment, in refusal of all suitors.

And then my favourite: the network that grows in random directions like the rhizomes or roots of a plant. Each new rhizome sends out roots or shoots of its own, creating more rhizomes. The rhizome is a metaphor in political philosophy for a system of knowledge that is non-linear, non-narrative and non-hierarchical. (It is opposed, by the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, to an "arborescent" or systematized way of thinking. One of the keys to the rhizomatic structure is that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be." Just like a wall of knotted string.)

So now, despite Gunilla's objections, this has become an artwork and a political text, and it has arisen from procrastination, from aimless and impractical thinking, from working without a plan, from allowing one's unconscious to direct one's hands. I see this process every day, among all the artists I know, generating mysterious and fascinating pictures, plays and texts; they are all very unlike advertising, which has a purpose. Bear this in mind the next time you hear bankers waffling on about creativity.

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