The power is in the flexibility

Elīna Zuzāne


To find common ground with Andrew McKenzie is not difficult. He is a man with a personality of many facets, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the time flies by when sitting down with him for a cup of tea. Life and opportunities have taken him all over the world, from his native Scotland to Denmark, Iceland, and many other countries, before landing him in Estonia (where he has been living for the last seven years). Besides providing a chance to learn numerous languages, it has also broadened his horizon, awarding him with an experience and a deeper knowledge about the seemingly simple things.

Psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, lecturer, teacher, seminar and workshop leader in Creative Thinking, sound engineer, designer, writer, programmer, classical guitar teacher – maybe you can start by telling me what it is that you actually do?

I think there is a thread that goes through them. They are all coming together into one. It just depends on the situation, which part of it I choose to use. I take into account the people, the situation, the environment, the language and metaphors. It’s tailor made. It’s a complete opposite of how things usually are, where everything is mass-produced. I look for the appropriate thing for each particular situation. You can use the same information but you have to put a different frame around it. Most people believe that one size fits all, like you have in clothing. I got sick of that.

People are so spoilt now. They have been everywhere. They know everything. They have done everything. It’s actually much more difficult to surprise them. You have to seduce them. You have to lead them down one path, when actually you are going another way. It all goes back to when I was doing magic tricks as a kid. That’s actually what has to happen with a lot of people – they are so full, and yet they really don’t understand. What I always say, is that nobody actually needs to know anything new, all they need to do is to understand what they already know. Knowledge is not the same as understanding. There is a lot of data, a lot of information and knowledge, but understanding is the next level. You don’t get that automatically. People think that by stuffing more information inside their heads, they are going to understand. It doesn’t happen that way. Understanding is really knowledge plus experience.

But it takes time to achieve that. It’s not instant and everyone is already “lacking time”.

That’s a central point. The joke that I always make is that instant gratification now is not fast enough. Instant is not fast enough. If you stop and think about it, time is not a thing. It doesn’t run out. You don’t have “so much” of it and then it disappears. People can’t steal it from you.

I think it’s more to do with the abilities of a human being – at one point you just run out of focus, which in a way, means that you have run out of time as well. 

I think it’s interesting that you should say it like that because really, it’s the other way around – people don’t have enough focus to understand that they actually have enough time. It’s not that they didn’t have enough time to focus; they don’t focus enough, so they think that they don’t have enough time. You know how to alter time, but people do it the wrong way around – they take all the stuff they don’t like and stretch it out for ever and ever, and they take all the things that they like, and suddenly, it’s gone. So what I do, by using techniques that come from hypnotherapy and psychotherapy, is teach people how to stretch it the other way. As far as I can work out, I’m one of the first people to do this with artists and musicians. It hasn’t been done before.

People are having problems with their eyes because they are not focusing on different distances. The same applies to the mind – people are not focusing on expanding things, they are more concentrated on shorter, smaller things. They are bewildered when they suddenly see all these possibilities. It’s not something that we call a workshop-high – when people go to seminars and during those 72 hours they are empowered, but a week later have forgotten it. It’s something that fundamentally changes in you. Isn’t that what art was always supposed to be about - these fundamental changes, and not just entertainment? If 30 years ago I had talked about anything we have just talked about, people would have thought I was mad. But now give me half an hour with anybody, and they will go “oh, yes”. That’s very exciting, very interesting.

Don’t you think that it’s because people have gotten used to so many new trends coming and going? They are immune to them.

Maybe. They have so many things to consider. But at the same time, there is a hunger for these fundamental issues, which aren’t being addressed by technology.

Sometimes I think that people are only interested in these issues for a short moment… before the next thing comes to focus on.

Of course, but that’s why the next trend comes – because the basic has usually not been dealt with. It’s like pornography – it never delivers. It’s never the real thing. Modern society is addicted to several different things and they are not material things. They are offers of hope, the need to be needed, etc. All these ideas advertisers actually play on and manipulate with. People don’t often realise that, because they are so busy paying attention to other things.

It was also one of the issues I was talking about in Irbene – about control and power, privacy and transparency. Many people say that technology is evil, it's used to collect all this data, but I always say: “well, actually, the real control is inside yourself. Not out there at all.” To blame everything from the outside is to miss the point completely. Many people prefer this computerised environment. It’s not really a tool, which many people think it is. It’s an environment – a place where you go and where everything is in a particular order. Where you know where everything is and it is still going to be there tomorrow – in the same place, where you have organised it. But it’s a complete illusion because actually, all those choices have been pre-programmed for you. The difference between a computer, as opposed to a hammer, is that a computer is an environment, and an environment seduces you to a particular way of thinking. All of the metaphors – “desktop”, “trashcan”, “menu” – there are no such things. People don’t realise it. They forget it’s a metaphor. There isn’t really a “desktop”, there isn’t really a “menu”, there isn’t an “operating system” in the sense that people think about it. It’s a collection of routines that the machine is doing. It doesn’t really understand. It’s dangerous because you start to forget that. You go to the computer and you look at the menu choices and you go, “hmm, which one of those do I choose?” You don’t say, “Well I’ve got this idea. I want to do this. How can I make the computer do that?” That’s gone. People look at the choices they’ve got and choose from them. What you end up with is people eating the menu and not the meal. If you take away the conscious, the unconscious is saying: “What about me?”. Technology doesn’t address that. That’s where humans come in. Look at “Facebook”, “i-this” and “i-that”; it’s “My-space” – that’s because at a fundamental level, people need to have those things dealt with. It’s endless because there is never enough.

Also, you can’t plan for randomness, which is the second consequence of using technology. Logic is great for going backwards, but it’s absolutely useless for going forwards. It’s what we call – going forwards by looking in a rear–view mirror. It assumes that where you are going is going to be the same as where you have just been. If you have a particular tool – anything technological and mainly a computer – you are going to start to see the future through that filter, through that lens. You start to shape what happens to you and fit it into boxes, and if it doesn’t fit, you ignore it. That’s the difference between human beings and machines – human beings can take things which don’t belong together, and make them fit in some way. Computers can’t do that, based on the fact that they are based on logic.

So basically, your aim is to show people how to step out of these boxes?

Absolutely. To get people out of that goldfish bowl. With some people, you need to be subtle, and with others, you have to be a little bit stern, but that’s one of the advantages of having experience in psychotherapy and hypnotherapy. You get to know how to read people. You know what’s appropriate for that particular person, in that particular situation, rather than using a carrot or a stick for everybody. 

The title of your seminar was called “Strategies and Techniques of the Creative Act”, but do you think that creativity can actually be taught?

I always like to say that I show people what they know, but they don’t know that they know it. I don’t believe that anybody needs anything new. They actually know everything they need to know. They just don’t know how to use it. Just think about music. When I was a kid, I used to save up for two months to buy one record. That whole time, I would be thinking about nothing else but which record it was going to be. But, unfortunately, there was always another record which I hadn’t thought about. Always! That’s how I learned about choices, actually. Eventually, I would buy the record and every square millimetre of that cover would be burned in my mind. For two weeks I would listen to nothing else but that record. Who listens or reads anything that way today? Very few people. Where is the Jimi Hendrix of the computer? Where is the virtuoso who could do something new with it? I would really like to see that. I did some very deep programming, high security stuff for the police and Interpol in Europe and Arabic countries. I saw world-class hackers and none of them really understands everything about what these things can do. They were still following what other people were doing. They were not inventive in that way. They were still moving things in different ways, still rearranging things into different patterns.

But you do need that someone else’s previous experience to build upon. If you would start from square one, you wouldn’t get very far.

Sure. That’s of course the danger of having a democracy, where everybody is supposed to be equal. That means that nobody is better than anybody else. It’s great because there are all these rights to people who should have them but, at the same time, it also destroys the idea of progression, of growth, of transformation. If my opinion is just as important as everybody else’s, nobody really knows more than anybody else. That’s the logic of following on from that.   There is always going to be someone who says “No!” to something. We lose a sense of apprenticeship and learning. We throw away all we had before, but actually, you should carry it with you.

Of course, you need experience. But as you said – it takes time, and what’s wrong with that? Why has everything got to get fast? Stop for a moment, take a step back and think about why are you doing this - to have more? If you do it faster, does it mean that you achieve more, even if the quality goes down? To end up with more and not better. 

I think it also has to do with your place in the society – if you don’t follow the current events, you miss out on vital information that you need when communicating with others.

That’s a classic addiction (laughs). In a way, this idea came in with the telegraph – when we could know about what’s happening in a different place that we had no connection to. But why do you need to know? Is it really important? No. One of the things that I go through with quite a lot of people is “focus”. “Focus” is deciding that you are going to concentrate on one thing and not everything. Do you want quality, or do you want quantity? I would go for quality every time. Unfortunately, that’s not the way all of these things are structured – it’s all quantity.

I think you shouldn’t avoid information.

Most people that I admire – artists or musicians, they are not the people who knew what was going on with all the different kinds of music. They were highly specialised people. It comes back to attention, and you only have so much of it. It’s a very valuable thing. If you are constantly spending little parts of it in all these different places, it’s not very high quality. Because you only have so much of it – you also have to go to sleep and eat, etc. I’m not saying that people should stop doing these things. I mean, there are some things that computers do that are wonderful, but there is the old saying “when all you’ve got as a tool is a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails”. You start to squeeze all the things that are happening to you into this computer-sort-of thing. People expect the real world to behave the same way as it does inside this box. Of course, it doesn’t. That causes a lot of friction.

It’s interesting to see the art world shifting. You talked about artists being distant from the outside trends, but nowadays, many young musicians and artists are becoming their own agents.

50 years ago, if you were a musician, if you were a bass player, you played the bass guitar. That’s what you did. Now, however, you have to be your own PR agent, your own record company, your own graphic designer – everything. Nobody is that good. Nobody is 100% good at all these things. When they have to do all these things, it’s taking away practice, experience – what they are really good at. Creativity goes down by becoming automatic, because there is a perception of “so little time”. They do things and think “oh, I’ll just do that and I’ll fix it later”. Of course, they never fix it and they never go back and do it properly. They just take the pre-set, the template, something that somebody else has done before, and use it. That destroys the whole idea of craft and tradition. That’s actually one of the things that interests me about this place, about Estonia and the Baltics in general – there is still a feeling for tradition. If you go to an art school, there is still an idea that if you want to be a painter, you should know about painting. Anywhere else that I know about, anybody can just close their eyes and go “I’m a painter”. Fair enough, you can throw away the rules, but I always thought that it was a great idea to know them before you broke them. One of the strengths of the Baltics is that there is still a feeling of “you should really know what’s going on before you go out and do it”. Places like Denmark, Germany and France have thrown it away, and now they can’t go back. They need this ground, this basis, knowledge of how things fit together and what it means, but it’s gone. Here, there is still a chance to use that, and to make a new synthesis. I find that very interesting. There is a deeper understanding. In other countries, it has gone, and it is sad.

If you look at all the great advances in science or inventions, they are all accidents – people messing around with things they shouldn’t have been messing around with. That goes back to your question – can you teach creativity? No! But what you can do is create a situation where something will come out of it. You don’t know what its going to be, but you have to be prepared, you need to build a structure that can handle “whatever it is” that comes in. When you are “touched by the hand of God” or “inspiration strikes you”, it comes out of the blue and that’s when all these problem-solving skills become useful. If you don’t have tradition and structures, it’s as if somebody knocks on the door but you’ve got the headphones on and you can’t hear them, or you’re too busy to answer the door, or there is too much garbage on your floor so by the time you get to the door, they’ve gone and you don’t know when they are going to come back. If you are prepared and you have the structures, and you have the tools to deal with it, then there is a possibility of doing something. How many times have you had an idea and you don’t have anywhere to write it down, and then it’s gone? I also teach people about memory structures, so that you can fit these things in and wouldn’t need to write notes. These ideas are two and a half-, maybe tree thousand years old, and by doing this, you are practicing being creative; you are putting together ideas that don’t belong together and seeing the associations that come out of it. You can’t actually practice that enough. Computers can’t do this, but humans are very good at it. That’s one of the very strong creative techniques to do. Your memory works by association. The more associations, the more different sides you have, the stronger the memory is. They are old techniques, but nobody teaches them now. Those are some of the things I re-introduce. Not everything is easy, but most of the things that people rely on technology to do – memory, calculations, etc. – you can do them better yourself. If you are constantly making new associations with things, you are going to be coming up with much more creative solutions to things in your everyday life. It’s not just some dry exercises. If you can take any situation and see it from multiple perspectives, the person with the most perspectives has the most flexibility, and that is what controls any situation. The most power is in the flexibility. What else do you want to know?

I heard that you were acquainted with Andy Warhol.

I met him once. I have a great picture with him.

It’s funny how information is passed on – everyone adds something to the story and it builds up. What are the biggest transformations that you have witnessed within the art world since then?

As far as I can see, Andy Warhol was the first person to really turn art into business. He probably wasn’t the first, but he is the big one to do that. What interested me about Warhol was the whole idea of “your life as a film”, that everything you do is actually part of the whole thing anyway. All these parties, all the other stuff, was really part of the work as well. Never stepping out of the character. He used to say that “it’s really nice to get home and take 'Andy' off,” and as we now know, he wasn’t living like that at all. He was a very sad and lonely person. But the idea of being conscious of everything you do, when I was younger, was actually a very big thing to me. I later found out that this is practiced in many eastern philosophies as well – “karma yoga” – every act that you do is sacred. I don’t think that Warhol got that far, but the basis of the idea is there – to be conscious of what you do at every moment. Not to be automatic. The art that I have really liked has never been random. People weren’t just doing things automatically.

Are you familiar with the Estonian contemporary art scene?

No. I taught in the art school in Tallinn for a little while, and that’s where I saw this tradition being still important. People were still learning to paint. After living in Iceland, that was a big shock. In Iceland, nobody does it. They don’t have any traditions. It’s a very different situation. Iceland is only non-Danish since the Second World War; it was Danish until 1944. They were not allowed to sing, dance or have music, and the only thing that existed was the language, so it became the sacred cow. Where else in the world you could go to the supermarket and buy a litre of milk with instructions about language on its side? When I first went there, there was a program on the radio about the Icelandic language. Everybody listened to it. There was a discussion about language. Can you imagine having it here? But that was one of the most popular radio programs there ever was. It’s dying-out now. Some of the young people communicate in English. In terms of culture, language was really all they had, except a thing called “rímur”, or rhymes. They would sing at each other – one person would do one paragraph and there would be a bounce backwards and forwards, for hours and hours. There was nothing else to do. Also, there are no trees, so there was nothing to make musical instruments out of. Icelanders are all poets. I used to make a joke that they’re going to put a statue in the main square to the only Icelander who never wrote a poem. It’s a very poetic language.

There was also no art market in Iceland, until recently. In Iceland, the society was flat. There was no pyramid structure. There never was a royal family, for example. The president was in the phone book. You could just knock on his door. Everybody knew everybody else. Björk lived across the road from me. I was engaged to be married to her mother, twice. It sounds like a big deal, but it wasn’t. It was a village-like environment. The only people who really did have money were related to the owners of “Icelandair” – the only profitable company in an entire country. It was only after a television programme about the Medici family was shown that these people decided, “oh, we could do that!” Overnight, there was an art market and, before you knew it, you could walk down the main street in Reykjavik and if you threw a stick, it would hit three artists. You had the whole history of art in about a year. Everybody went through it. The thing about Iceland being such a small place is that it has everything, but it’s in a very small concentration. The whole country had Surrealism, but it was only one or two guys. Any change that happens there is highly concentrated. Somebody does something on one side of the island, and everybody knows it six minutes later on the other side. The reason for the recent growth of the Icelandic art market is only because everybody jumped on it. Before that, inspired by Björk and Sigur Rós, everybody was a musician. It’s a country that has no real grasp of the future. You can see this by the way people in Iceland drink, the way they do their finances, with everything. They say that Icelanders don’t drink any more than in any other country; they just do it all at once. The only reason for the bankruptcy is that they didn’t look at the future. The banks were giving away money like crazy. Everybody bought huge SUVs just to drive to the corner shop. Of course, financially it’s a pyramid structure, just like in any other country. Except other countries have other countries that push up the pyramid if this one falls down. The changes I saw during the 12 years of living in Iceland, they are being repeated here – in Estonia. But here, it’s happening slower. People are more careful; they are not jumping into the boat all at once. They are keeping one foot on the shore. That’s actually really good.

How should the Baltic countries package themselves to appear more interesting to the rest of the world?

It’s the thing about the unknown, isn’t it? The best-kept secret. I don’t know so much about Latvia, but I think people in the Baltics are a bit confused, and maybe that’s because there is still confusion about identity. It’s just a guess. I don’t think it’s been quite sorted out yet – what the identity really is. 25 years ago, we knew what your identity was. You were not allowed to say what it was, but of course, it was there. Today there is this feeling – we are not quite part of Europe yet, but do we really want to be swallowed up by this European Union? Can we not have a time of being just “Baltic” again? Can we have that for a while before we do this? That’s the sort of feeling that I get, and I like it. I like differences; I don’t like this sort of homogenisation, where everyone becomes part of the United States of Europe.