The Constellations Reveal Themselves, One Star at a Time - Essay
Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.
This quote from John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos expresses the essence of his writing methodology. Berger’s writing does not follow a traditional linear structure, instead the reader is meant to find links in Berger’s short vignettes after they have read through the fragments, which are well illustrated in both And Our Faces and Bento’s Sketchbook. This theoretical method could also be utilized by a visual artist as the basis for a meta-disciplinary practice where the hierarchy of mediums and subject matter is flattened, allowing each discipline the time and space to become a link, eventually mapping out overall themes.
Utilizing a constellational approach freed Berger from the confines of a linear storyline. It allowed him to include a collage of short stories, descriptions, poetry, quoted text, and even drawings into his writing. Without the structure of a traditional linear storyline, one could begin on any page of a book like Bento’s Sketchbook and read through the fragments of stories, quotations and drawings, find themselves back where they started, with an overall sense of having sought and found something they did not even realize they were seeking.
Berger’s writing requires patience and time of the reader. He is a storyteller, sharing his insights, his experiences, and at the same time encouraging the reader to be an active participant while reading. The reader is engaged with looking at the world anew, considering topics from a different vantage point.
In And Our Faces, Berger has split the book into two portions, the first ‘about Time’ and the second ‘about Space’, and these two themes are the underpinnings to a constellational approach, not only for the reader or viewer but for the writer and artist as well (AO, 3). An artist’s ability to be patient is a key aspect to the constellational approach, not only of the viewer as they make connections through their response to the work, but artists require a great amount of patience and confidence in themselves as they wander through the making process.
If an artist can adopt this constellational approach, utilizing it in their own practice, the constraints set by disciplines and the need for linear connections would dissipate. A creative practice, in which the artist is concerned more for the possibility of connection, rather than finding a conclusion, results in more authentic storytelling.
Utilizing a Constellational Approach
In his storytelling, Berger utilizes a constellational method throughout the structure of his writing, which allows for lateral movements across both subject matter and writing techniques. In an interview from 2011, Berger described how different components of his writing, like incorporating characters from his own life, are consciously allowed to emerge from his mind rather than seeing a direct correlation to a linear story:
I suppose it is a choice, but it’s not that one day I sit down and say, I want to write about Arundhati Roy. She appeared in my imagination, in my mind, and I didn’t refuse the idea. I think that we often imagine that writers make more choices and decisions than they really do. Some of what happens is quite natural, and most of the real decisions are about correcting or eliminating.
Berger’s approach to visualizing ideas or imagination as stars in a constellation stems from his curiosity into Walter Benjamin’s interest in allegory as a mechanism for writing. Benjamin himself draws parallels to constellations, stating this concept, ‘Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars’. But as Gilloch explains in his chapter ‘Allegory and Melancholy’ about Benjamin’s theories:
The notion of the idea as a constellation is used by Benjamin not only to articulate the importance of the patterning of phenomena by concepts, but also to point to the characteristics of this process. In a constellation of stars, the most remote objects are conjoined to form a unique, legible figure, which cannot easily be undone. Similarly, in the idea, a sudden yet enduring connection between extreme phenomena is brought into being. (AM, 70)
This theoretical approach requires trust of the artist, trust in their own ability to search out these links and find fulfillment in the filaments of connection between what may appear to be vastly different ideas, materials, and methods of research.
When utilizing an allegorical storytelling technique, the creator is ‘conveying one thing by saying, or showing, another’. Instead of a linear mapping of the journey, with a starting and an endpoint, everything is instead laid out all at once, and the reader engages with making sense of the fragments. For Benjamin, he saw ‘allegory as capturing the world, not in its fullness and perfection, but in its ruination and fragmentation’. (AM, 81) While these fragments may at first seem separate and wholly disconnected, it is through their collaboration that they create something more than what they could have been separately.
Allegorical storytelling is a distinct shift from a traditional linear account of events whereby, ‘narrative is the horizontally-oriented chain of events, [and] allegory “arrests narrative in place” by “superinducing” a reading of the correspondences between vertically-adjacent chains’. The rhythm and movement a reader may feel is wholly dependent on the way a narrative is expressed. Allegorical storytelling utilizing a different rhythm, requires above all else, time from the reader or viewer to engage with the material, because it is not a fast or easy read:
[t]he time of allegory is the time between the act of grasping the particular and the awareness of having grasped the general; it is, therefore, the time between allegory and symbol, or between allegory and its own overcoming. (AR, 237)
The space in between
To read a constellation, one must see all of the darkness of the night sky as well, the space in between the beacons of light. That liminal space between the two points of a narrative can hold just as much power and weight as the events themselves. This is why Berger’s writing method is so powerful, he provides his audience with the time to view this in-between space. Because he is less concerned with making the reader “see” something and instead provides an opportunity to “seek” something, Berger provides many ways of reading his work. As Berger expresses so eloquently:
In following a story, we follow a storyteller, or, more precisely, we follow the trajectory of a storyteller’s attention, what it notices and what it ignores, what it lingers on, what it repeats, what it considers irrelevant, what it hurries towards, what it circles, what it brings together. It’s like following a dance, not with our feet and bodies, but with our observation and our expectations and our memories of lived life. (BS, 72)
Successful artwork does the same. The artist provides an opportunity for the viewer to engage with the work and to seek meaning, instead of expressly telling them what needs to be seen. Thus the viewer or reader becomes an inherently important part of the life of a work of creative output through their critique and reading of the work. Benjamin believed in the power of the critic or the reader and believed a work was not simply finished when the creator was done with a work, instead, ‘[a]lthough individual works of art come into existence at a particular moment, their meaning is not thereby fixed by the author, but instead is continuously reconstituted in their afterlife’. (AM, 72-73)
‘Seeking’ rather than ‘Seeing’
Both the constellational approach Berger takes in his writing and the allegorical theories expressed by Benjamin are situated in the desire for the reader to “seek” rather than “see” the information. Situating the reader into an actively engaged part of the narrative journey and moving away from direct symbols where ‘[t]he instantaneous vision of a symbolical “seeing” [compared] to the necessarily temporal process of allegorical “seeking”’. (AR, 235)
This type of storytelling is well illustrated in Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook. The reader is taken on a journey, placed in a position of actively seeking something rather than passively being shown the tale. What exactly the reader is seeking may be a bit of a mystery at first but as they relax into the journey, they will eventually arrive where they needed to all along, which is unique for each individual. This type of writing allows for the individual reader to take what they need from the story, rather than leaving with exactly the same narrative as everyone else.
This is not to say that there are not themes and an emotional aura that Berger’s writing provides, but their complete understanding is not explicit for the enjoyment of the reading.
When an artist leaves room for the viewer to seek meaning while engaging with the work, there is a collaborative effort between artist, the artwork and the viewer, formed through the time and effort a viewer may take to think about and respond to the work. This type of time and space is not always easy for an artist to provide, it requires confidence and a release of ego surrounding the need to ensure a viewer sees the exact artist’s meaning in a given work.
How Berger changed the way I view my practice
When I consider my own artistic practice in relation to Berger’s method of constellational storytelling, it is not that his theoretical approach informed my practice from the outset, but that it has become a way of visualizing my practice through a holistic and meta-disciplinary lens. Instead of being consumed with creating a linear storyline, and a preoccupation with defining a conclusion, I am able to embrace a constellational approach in which there are many points for research and the multiple aspects of my practice are all equally significant.
Just as Berger described the process of allowing his characters to come into being, I am consciously creating the time and space for the connections in my work to surface. It is a practice of patience and trust.
I have always been envious of those whose minds seemed to think in a way that filled a sketchbook front to back, systematically measuring out pages, and finding freedom in the pages of a bound book. I forever struggle to fill a sketchbook, beginning on a page closer to the end of the book and then skipping pages at random, later tearing out sheets that were not what I had deemed part of the book. In all honesty, I have never completely filled a journal or sketchbook, the anxiety to ensure each page contained something of value is overwhelming, and the countless beautifully bound tomes I would receive at Christmas or on my birthday would lie empty and lifeless hidden in a bottom drawer. Instead of using sketchbooks, I end up writing and marking on scraps and random bits of paper, these most often would wind up in the recycling or crumpled beyond recognition in the bottom of my bag next to coins and lipsticks.
Recently I have come to the realization that the anxiety of a bound sketchbook, had to do with the linear structure of a bound book, with its decisive start and an end. Needing to know what I was putting on the page and how it related to the other pages crippled any attempt to keep a sketchbook. It was only after reading Bento’s Sketchbook, seeing the eclectic collection of stories, drawings and quotes, without a definitive beginning and conclusion, that I began to think again about filling a sketchbook. I appreciated Berger’s perspective on the act of mark-making, ‘[d]rawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself’. The plotting of points brought to mind the shining stars of a constellation and I realized that I too could experience this freedom to seek if I just had the right tools.
I continued to be inspired while reading Bento’s Sketchbook when Berger writes of his unpretentious method of drawing: I’m drawing with black ink (Sheaffer) and wash and spit, using my finger rather than a brush […] I have a glue-stick if need be. There’s also on the grass a bright yellow oil pastel, taken from a pastel kit made for schoolkids. (BS, 7)
Berger’s description of his humble tools and the need to redraw and add and subtract from the page reminded me that when drawing in this way, you do not have to be good, you just need to ‘make drawings prompted by something asking to be drawn’. (BS, 6)
It was after a bookbinding workshop I realized my scraps of paper could be bound together into a cohesive set of pages, with drawings, poetry, short thoughts, and anything else that I collected along the way. I could map my thoughts out at a later date, allowing for what seems like random connections to surface, rather than have an overly prescribed idea for a sketchbook before even making a mark.
In response to these revelations about sketchbooks, I have created booklets of random bits of paper, bound together for the time being with a binder clip, carried in a plastic zip bag with an ever changing selection of drawing instruments, an homage to Berger’s humble materials. The clip allows me the freedom to move the paper and sketches and writing around at random. I am no longer tied to the linear entrapment of a traditional sketchbook, which has allowed me to harness my ideas into singular place for the first time in my practice.
In the Studio
Through understanding Berger’s methodology, I am also conscious of manifesting the constellational approach in my own studio space. Through consciously cleaning off the walls every other week, it allows the fresh and new ideas and materials the time and space to breathe, to see how they interact and are impacted by previous thoughts and ideas. It is important to not become too invested in any single medium or idea or obtain too much focus for too long, if I do not consistently divide my time between the diverse mediums and ideas that are present, the possibilities of connections between the many facets of my practice are diminished.
As I am accumulating information about one topic or medium I am working with, it inherently happens to link up with something else that initially felt completely in left field. Recording of experiences through writing has also become an important way of finding links between the inside realm of the studio and the outside realm of my life. Writing is a way of connecting the two so they become two halves of a whole rather than separate worlds I vacillate between.
The concept of seeking rather than seeing is an important one for my practice. Instead of spending my time consumed by creating a conclusion for the viewer, I am seeking, and inviting the viewer along for the journey.
As multiple topics begin to surface there is a natural, or perhaps culturally taught, desire to make sense of the relation of one topic to another. When looking at my own practice, questions arise; What do acerbic collages of a set of male twins have to do with meditative landscape drawings in ink toner, or sculptural shapes of paper with bits torn with the teeth? At the beginning of this semester, and in fact even a month ago, I am not sure I could have answered that question. And what is worse, I would have been incredibly frustrated and disappointed in myself for not having the vocabulary to express what I wanted the viewer to see.
The constellational approach which Berger utilizes in writing such as Bento’s Sketchbook or And Our Faces has forever changed the lens through which I view my practice. After spending time with Berger’s writing and delving deeper into Benjamin’s philosophy, I find myself moving away from the typical construct of attempting to make a linear story. This preoccupation with seeing a definitive conclusion in everything is what strangled my practice before. I am now working utilizing a constellational method that provides the freedom to take the time and space to move from one to another, whether its medium or subject matter. This is why limiting oneself to a singular way of making makes little sense to me. I instead want to be making in diverse ways, in all aspects of my life so that I am always creating a story as it relates to my practice, in that moment and of that time.
My practice has become a meditation on allowing the stars, these beacons of light, to shimmer and shine through the darkness. As they burn brighter, the connections are not always immediately obvious, compelling me to take the time to engage with each separately, one no less important than the other. In fact, these beacons begin to work collaboratively allowing the subconscious connections to appear; sometimes in uncanny ways, allowing ‘the constellations to reveal themselves, one star at a time’.
 Berger, John, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), 8.
 Berger, John, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, (London: Bloomsbury, 2005). Henceforth AO.
 Tepper, Anderson, ‘John Berger on “Bento’s Sketchbook”’, The Daily, (2011).
 Gilloch, Graeme, ‘Allegory and Melancholy’, Walter Benjamin; Critical Constellations,
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), 57-87, 70. Henceforth AM.
 Lehman, Robert S., ‘Allegories of Rending: Killing Time with Walter Benjamin’, New
Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation, 39(2), (2008), 233. Henceforth AR.
 Wong, Jack, ‘Remapping the Constellation of Walter Benjamin’s Allegorical Method’,
American, British, and Canadian Studies, 25 (2015), 39.
 Berger, John, Bento’s Sketchbook (London: Verso, 2015), 150. Henceforth BS.
 See Figure 1. Sketchbooks handmade with binder clips.
 The Tragically Hip, lyrics to ‘Bobcaygeon’, Genius, (2018), https://genius.com/The-tragically-hip-bobcaygeon-lyrics
Berger, John, Bento’s Sketchbook (London: Verso, 2015)
Berger, John, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, (London: Bloomsbury, 2005)
Gilloch, Graeme, ‘Allegory and Melancholy’, Walter Benjamin; Critical Constellations,
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), 57-87
Lehman, Robert S., ‘Allegories of Rending: Killing Time with Walter Benjamin’, New
Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation, 39(2), (2008), 233-250
MacCabe, Colin, ‘A song for politics: a discussion with John Berger’, Critical Quarterly, 56(1),
Tepper, Anderson, ‘John Berger on “Bento’s Sketchbook”’, The Daily, (2011)
The Tragically Hip, lyrics to ‘Bobcaygeon’, Genius, (2018), https://genius.com/The-tragically-
Turney, Richard, ‘Remembering Berger’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 27(3), (2017)
Wong, Jack, ‘Remapping the Constellation of Walter Benjamin’s Allegorical Method’,
American, British, and Canadian Studies, 25 (2015), 37-59
Wroe, Nicholas, ‘A life in writing: John Berger’, The Guardian, (2011) 12