In 2012, I had been working with the digital world for a decade, focusing on the fields of data visualization and interactive storytelling — but was starting to fall out of love with the online world as a medium.
The Internet’s early promise as a pioneering technological utopia had given way to widespread screen addiction, a vast attention economy, the cult-like obsession with “Big Data,” and the consolidation of power in a few enormous companies.
Furthermore, I realized that the works of art I loved the most rarely happened on the Internet — and that works in other mediums like literature, film, and music often touched me more deeply. This realization led to a frustrating period of stuckness that lasted a couple of years, from 2013–2015.
During that time, following what I now understand is a well-travelled path, I began to explore philosophy, eastern religions, meditation, and psychedelics. I read troves of books, traveled down countless YouTube rabbit holes, and attended retreats in various traditions. Ultimately, this time of exploration led to a series of powerful plant medicine experiences from which I felt I would never return.
When I did return, I was left with the feeling of life being a dreamlike illusion, of my friends and family as exquisite apparitions — and the conviction that agreeing to participate in the world at all would somehow be dishonest, like agreeing to believe in a dream. I considered taking a vow of silence and retreating from the world into a more or less hermetic existence.
Shortly thereafter, I was fortunate to meet a mentor named Ernesto Pujol, a Cuban-American performance artist and former Christian monk.
He led a retreat called “The Art of Consciousness” at the Wonderwell meditation center in Springfield, New Hampshire, where a young lama of Vajrayana Buddhism named Bryn Dawson was the resident teacher. I arrived at their retreat the day after a particularly challenging plant medicine experience, looking to restore my belief in reality.
Their retreat was held in “silence” — defined by Ernesto not as the absence of sound, but as the “absence of distraction.” The first night, he said to us:
The Buddhists say all of this is an illusion. If that is so, then why not create beautiful illusions?
The second day, he had us tell our life story to each of the other participants, who were asked to listen in silence, simply saying, “Thank you, I have listened” at the end of each recount. After reciting the all-too-familiar life story but a handful of times (without the habitually reenforcing commentary of the listener), it begins to reveal itself as what it really is: a malleable collection of source material from which to draw as needed, a nebulous kaleidoscopic fiction that can be told and retold in myriad ways — something whose “truth” is mostly determined from moment to moment by how it’s presented and framed.
The third day, he had us move an old New England stone wall ten feet to the side. We moved the wall stone by stone in silence over the course of four or five hours, until the whole wall was standing in a slightly different place on the lawn. Then, he had us move it back, stone by stone, also in silence. At the end of the day, the wall was back where it had been for the last hundred years — the same wall, yet now also totally different.
The fourth day, he invited us to create artworks using a medium we’d never practiced before. I took a set of blue and white tea cups from the kitchen of the retreat center and ran them, one at a time, half a mile down the road to a small brook, where I filled each cup with water, before running it carefully back to the center. By the early evening, I’d repeated this process twelve times, once for each of the people to whom I’d told my life story two days before.
I lined up the cups on the ground, and asked each of my story partners to come forward. Holding each person’s hand with my own, I poured the water over our two sets of fingers, as a simple gesture of recognition and thanks. This intuitive act felt beautiful, appropriate, and totally natural, and introduced me to the power of ritual.
A few weeks later, I attended a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, where I sat by the banks of the Gihon River (named after a river of the same name from the biblical Book of Genesis), contemplating everything I’d recently experienced.
Through the harrowing dissolution of the plant medicine journeys that radically broke open any sense of a frame, to the gentle restoration of Ernesto’s retreat that built back my belief in reality, I was left with the uncanny sense of life itself being the medium, and ritual as a powerful tool for “working with life.”
With these understandings in mind, I began to wonder how and where to apply them. From my wooden chair beside the river in Johnson, Vermont, my awareness shifted to High Acres Farm, an hour to the west. I thought of all the suffering that had taken place there over the years — and the great beauty that was present there as well. I thought of my own wish to create a life there someday, and to share its beauty with others, yet the trepidation I also felt about becoming trapped in its historical patterns, as my mother and grandfather had been before me.
It occurred to me that the life situation of High Acres Farm offered a natural context for me to explore and practice what I began to think of as “Life Art” — a way of transforming my experience of life in that place through the creative application of ritual: a “technology” for amplifying intention and bending belief.
I spent those two weeks at the Vermont Studio Center going back and forth between the banks of the river and the walls of my studio — imagining and planning out the rituals that would constitute In Fragments.
A week later, I drove to High Acres Farm while my mother was away in New York, and I began to perform the first few rituals in the series. The process was slow and awkward at first, as it is always is when learning any kind of new language.
At the time, I imagined that In Fragments would take me a few months to complete. I had no idea at all that it would end up taking six years. What I didn’t anticipate or understand at the time was just how deeply intertwined these rituals would end up being with the rest of my life — and how real.
Certain rituals seemed to pave the way for key changes to follow in the physical world — such as smashing the reflection of the wall in Equidistant in 2015, the same wall that was later demolished in the gut renovation that followed in 2016; or performing Give Up The Ghost the very night before that renovation began; or performing Scarecrow six months before my mother’s passing, intuitively laying the wooden effigy in the very place where she ended up dying.
In other cases, it seemed as though life needed to be given a chance to catch up before certain subsequent rituals were allowed to be performed — such as needing to grow in certain ways as a person before I could offer the broken mirrors from Use a Hammer and Hall of Mirrors as a meaningful gift to The Joyous Lake in See Glass, thereby completing a cycle.
In yet other cases, it seemed that certain key rituals needed to be performed and completed before other key rituals were ready to be attempted — such as needing to clear my mother’s haunting dreams through Paper Weight, and the old land use restrictions through Hexagram, before new dreams and patterns could be planted in the land through Electric Webb and Seed the Future.
Throughout the series of rituals, there were many moments when a seemingly intractable impasse would occur — yet a solution would always seem to present itself, often at the very last moment. For instance, during the process of building the glass furnace in Phase Change, our initial design was only reaching temperatures of around 900°F, not even close to the 2000+°F required for the glass transition to occur. Ethan and I were stumped as to how to reach these extremely high temperatures, when Marshall Webb at Shelburne Farms suggested that we needed a way to dramatically accelerate the airflow into the fire chamber, such as by adding some kind of fan. We returned to High Acres Farm reflecting on Marshall’s advice, and immediately found an old leaf blower with a long plastic neck. But how to introduce this tool to our furnace without causing its neck to melt in the heat of the fire? Just as we were discussing this dilemma, we glanced to the side, and just there on the ground, leaning against the outside wall of the shed, was an eight-foot rusted iron pipe, just the right size to hold and protect the neck of the leaf blower. The pipe had likely been laying there for the last fifty years, waiting for this moment to fulfill its destiny.
Throughout In Fragments, there were many other such moments of grace, which helped me cultivate a deep sense of faith and trust in the process — a feeling of being supported and guided by some larger presence, intelligence, or unfolding. Of all the learning and growth that occured through In Fragments, this sense of faith and trust has probably been the most enduring.
The pivotal ritual in the series was probably Phase Change — the glass-making process that producted the special cup, which became a healing tool that was later used to accomplish other tasks in Paper Weight and Hexagram.
If the glass cup was the fruit of the first twelve rituals, then the set of twenty-seven copper “lightning transformers“ from Electric Webb were the fruit of the rest.
Taken together, the cup and the point help to integrate the feminine and masculine principles, feeding a new and healthy wholeness here on the land.
Throughout this whole process, each of the four classic elementals were worked with again and again, through their specific local manifestations:
Beyond their specificity, the twenty-one rituals that make up In Fragments also touch on certain universal qualities, such as:
The integration of fragmentation and wholeness
The role of destruction in creating new life
The tension between dissolution and emergence
The transformative potential of processing grief
The relationship between sacrifice and results
The body as a vessel for enacting sacred service
The power of symbolic action to alter reality
The malleable nature of life
In Fragments offers a deep and vivid example of “Life Art“ as applied to one individual’s specific life situation — showing a range of ways that the “technology” of ritual can be used to shape and evolve a particular experience of life over time.
The gestures and aesthetics of these twenty-one rituals emerge from the specific life context of High Acres Farm, whereas other contexts would reveal their own sets of gestures and aesthetics, as emerging from the uniqueness of those situations.
Each place and person is the center of a world — while also existing in relationship with myriad other worlds, each equally unique. In his series, The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander offers this guidance on “working with life“:
Each center gets its life, always, from the fact that it is helping to support and enliven some larger center. The center becomes precious because of it. Thus, life itself is a recursive effect which occurs in space. It can only be understood recursively as the mutual intensification of life by life.
When we truly understand this insight, and fully step into its power, we can become active co-creators with the world that surrounds us — no longer pawns in the hands of fate, but conscious collaborators in discovering our own unique destinies, unfolding within the wholeness of creation, which we help to shape.