The art world is full of talk. Behind almost every exhibition there lurks a symposium, a moderated panel, a public dialogue or a celebrity lecture – all organized to legitimate the art on display. Yet despite talk’s increasingly instrumental role in the experience of art, this “ecstasy of communication” produces agony for discourse. The more talk there is, the less it seems to be valued and, at the end of the day, a familiar refrain returns: Talk is cheap. Art should speak for itself. This kind of street wisdom also commands that, like a good joke, art loses its magic if it needs to be explained.
But the talk goes on, and perversely, it needs to: both to foil that age-old idea that “art is beyond language” (if there was no talk around art, how could such an idea even emerge?) and to further the notion that talking things through is the basis of good society. (Is this not why we have parliaments?) Does art then become a social phenomenon when it is talked about? Not exactly. For all its legitimizing force, talk is rarely acknowledged as a powerful domain in the realm of art. Most often, it is digested like harmless, zero-calorie sweetener. Until, that is, talk appears in the place of art. Or, to be more specific, unless someone summons the art of conversation, challenging the art/conversation binary, and giving informal talk a form charged with new responsibilities.
What you are about to read are (minimally edited) transcripts of The New York Conversations, six sessions that took place on 26, 27 and 28 June 2008 in the new e-Flux space, a former Rabbi’s office on Essex Street in New York’s Lower East Side. Added to that are two more sessions held in Brussels at the Beursschouwburg. They are a result of A Prior‘s collaboration with three artists: Nico Dockx, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Anton Vidokle. In a fundamental challenge to our usual working method, the three feature artists accepted our invitation with a proviso: our format proved problematic for the representation of their collaborative working methods and they proposed that we meet and make the magazine differently.
For the past seventeen issues, A Prior has consisted of special paper projects by invited artists who are encouraged to treat the journal as an exhibition site, and monographic essays that constitute (often the first) in-depth written engagements with their work; as well as an increasingly lively “visions” section of independent essays, interviews and speculations about contemporary culture.
Dockx, Tiravanija and Vidokle chose to invite interlocutors that would contribute to the experimental making of the journal. Their guests included Liam Gillick, Martha Rosler, Louwrien Wijers, Jan Verwoert, Miwon Kwon, Marti Peran, Sis Matthé and Egon Hanfstingl, Raqs Media Collective and Maria Lind. Lawrence Weiner was invited on a more impromptu basis, once the conversations were under way.
It should be noted that the editorial team – at first somewhat anxiously, but soon deliberately – did not define any “themes” or “topics” to be discussed. Early attempts at planning had yielded resistance from the artists that we soon saw as an opportunity. We would improvise. Though, not unlike the protagonists of the “free jazz” era, we soon discovered just how fraught the freedom of improvisation is. The planning was minimal: there would be an afternoon and an evening session on each day, and alongside the guests specifically invited by the artists, the public was welcome to join in. Rirkrit, along with a team of helpers, would provide food. (And, if “cooking” designates exceptional communication among jazz musicians, this ingredient also came to mean more than may be initially surmised.) We, Anders and Monika, would moderate if needed, and occasionally summarize the discussions for newcomers, albeit with a light touch.
The conversation flowed unevenly, as conversations tend to do, and it took different directions, depending on who was present at a particular moment and on those asked to take centre stage for a particular session. This is obvious from the transcripts. All good improvisation has some structure.
Modalities of power and status were a topic of conversation, but also the self-reflexive question of what we were actually doing around that table, apart from speaking – often about ourselves, and with our mouths full of delicious noodle salad or cucumber soup. To be sure, a certain amount of introspection was necessary in order to understand why we would continue without a script for three consecutive days. But the open format also made us talk about many other things.
The relative desirability of “speculation” and “planning” as methods in art and beyond was one such topic; should we “make do” with speculation, if planning (understood as a specific form of “plotting”, an employment of fiction to achieve certain goals) can make us more “powerful”? The issue of alienation in the professional art field was another. How can we “own” our alienation? The possibility of establishing “criteria” for talking about art, and talking as art, was discussed. Do criteria kill the faculty of judgment, or are they a necessary prerequisite for it?
The disappearance of bohemian sociability was brought to the table, along with some consideration about how this has yielded to an art sphere dominated by professional structures such as schools (with the legitimating forces of MFA or PhD degrees in tow). Here we had a reminder that certain questions, confusions and discomforts regarding our own gathering in this somewhat informal way (or was it the formalization of casual talk?) may be a product of an all-too-regulated artistic culture.
Another theme, ever-present under the surface of the conversations, but only occasionally addressed directly, was the difficulty of discussing practice without making it sound less interesting than it is, at least to the practitioners themselves. Those to whom public speaking and writing is practice might find this problem abstruse or peripheral, but to many of the participating artists it was of great, if insufficiently articulated, concern. As readers will understand, the documentation and mediation of live events like this one are fraught with difficulties. This question of re-presentation pursues us: how can the nuances of speech, silences, smiles, even blank stares or other atmospheric aspects of The New York Conversations be shown on a printed page?
Several discussions ensued during and after the event about how a journal could be made from this unique encounter. Apart from transcripts, a number of the participants who chose to stay silent, some who wanted to say more, and others who could not be there, have been engaged via additional texts or interviews.
Working with these particular artists and thinkers interested us because we (and, we assumed, our readers) are seeking a fuller perspective on certain rather elusive cultural practices that have been called “relational”, especially as their retrospective moment looms and there is a drive to make them simpler and more digestible. Consciously, we avoided the term “relational aesthetics” and our engagement was anything but semantic. In many ways, The New York Conversations did stay true to an experimental, improvisational and convivial ethos that underlies the three organizing artists’ decision to organize them in this particular way. The space was always full; the atmosphere sometimes uncertain, sometimes easy, at times very electric; and words continued to flow in unpredictable ways. For all the reluctance of the three feature artists to talk about themselves – by the final session, we were even privy to some very frank thoughts about their politics, publics, art and its administration. Needless to say, we also felt that we had just begun to warm up, and the potential of the “art of conversation” remains to be fulfilled.
Published 11 March 2009
Original in English
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