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Sketch of a critique of conversational art

27 January 2001

Revised 09 January 2005

Revised 19 April 2005

Last revised 17 October 2006

What I call conversational art in this text refers to a practice in which a get-together of participants (virtual or in a physical space) and the conversation between these participants constitute the primary artistic practice. Secondary objects may be derived from it through recording or logging and assume an independent significance through transcription and possibly editing of results into new formats. One way to investigate what happens in any conversational art practice or event is to look at the roles of the artist on one side, and that of invited guests ("lay persons") on the other. For the sake of the argument I treat these roles as opposites; it is clear that there is really a continous scale between the professional artist and the lay person.

The artist, in his or her privileged role as the author of the scheme, will be conscious of the asymmetries regarding reflective capacity and art-historical background between the two opposite roles in the conversation—be it in the virtual salon, the gallery (Rirkrit Tiravanija), the chat room, the planning container (Park Fiction), or the carefully prepared conversatory (Kurd Alsleben / Antje Eske). The conversation as event is marked as extraordinary and somewhat 'staged' simply through the fact that it assumes significance as artistic practice. Forms of conversational art practice may be group conversations to which participants are invited, or more frequently, 'virtual salons' in the form of themed internet chats or 'picture chats'.

On the one side of the spectrum of conversation participants, we have the artist who has developed his or her means of expression in relation to a particular tradition—be it the production of privileged objects or the organisation of processes and events in the conceptual tradition to the point described here: the fleeting practice of dialogical exchange, whether it leaves a trace ot not. On the other side, we have the invited lay people, the culturally inclined which are in the most amicable way lured into a situation in which they become the subject of a discourse which they are unlikely to experience as symmetrical, simply because the artist will dominate the situation whether he/she likes it or not. The artist has developed the scheme, has set up the room, prepared the prospects and escape routes and can—at any moment when the lay person's irritation may endanger the intended friendly discourse—bring into play his or her skillful socratic midwife skills. [1]

It would be wrong to criticize the asymmetry of such a conversatory setting as 'unethical' because it supposedly creates a somewhat artificial communication and a potentially irritating and alienating situation for lay participants. What must be questioned however is whether this exchange is genuine in the sense that it could generate anything other than 'surface actions' and expressions—surface actions in the sense that any 'playing along' during the event is substantially preoccupied with a stressful and more or less gracious coping with the unfamiliar conversatory set-up. There is no doubt that the process can be entertaining even to participants as their coping improves through practice and they come to feel more at ease. A defensive character however remains, and it shows precisely where any trace of defense is politely suppressed by the defendor. In my experience, the irritation of the lay person often leads to a submissive playing along, partly out of goodwill, partly out of curiosity, but mostly in order to avoid embarrassment. This avoidance of embarrassment may have several elements. The invited guest or chatter does not want to disappoint the artist / host, especially where both are acquainted prior to the event. The guest may also not wish to disturb the overall situation—an intangible element of reciprocal social control between participants exerts its powerful influence here.

Another mark of defensiveness is the fact that the lay person's input witnessed is more often than not sheepish, trite, and decidedly non-committal. The playfulness establishes a level where the only pertinent message is 'no offense!' The unmediated community forced by the planned setting is in contrast to the vivid exchange witnessed in small parties of like-minded and already acquainted people talking themselves into an elevated state of frankness. The possibility of strong dissent is a sign of a constantliy negotiated boundary that implicitly aims at keeping participants from 'falling out'. In contrast, in the conservatory setting everything said stays strictly banal - in the literal sense of forced, unfree. The process of tit-for-tat, the gapless exchange that characterises internet chat, is the fitting form for the playful and simultaneously unfree. Using a scheme of rhymes makes this peculiar coupling even more evident. The rhyme constrains the choice space of the answer and lends an air of undeserved appropriateness to the next technically corresponding input. As all players tune in to the same cheerful and at the same time forced and inconsequential charade, the event becomes a social success on its outside (as performed according to the scheme). At the same time, it tends to exclude or submerge, by means of its rapid progression, any irritation that is not immediately channeled into the common production.

What makes the practice interesting is that it becomes the subject of reflection and the source of genuine dialogue after the event. Any invented social practice is to some extent scandalous since it seems to demand 'social' and artful skills that participants must mimic or improvise on the fly. In my observation, the emergent social skills found in conversational settings seem to gravitate towards an affected carefree disposition of 'self' a second nature that seems easier and simply safer to handle in unpredictable situations than a rather more complicated version of self, one that would have to struggle with the load of a continuous meta-reflection on one's own actions during the event. It is worthwhile considering the conditions of conversational exchange under which this other self—which seems a worthwhile object for sustained attention—would find itself at ease with others.

Coping skills clearly differ. Either participants find themselves in a state of having achieved a second nature, or they cannot silence the meta-reflection, are streched between immediate participation and second thoughts, and withdraw, possibly after they have realised that the social constraints inherent in the form make it impossible to promote their meta-reflection to first-level theme. Rarely, some may be impolite enough to try their luck and air their inconvenience; others willfall silent or withdraw in the future ("first and last time") after playing along half-hartedly.

A face-to-faces situation is infinitely richer and less constraining: on the level of concurrent strands of discussion that may be followed by a shifiting and distributed attention; on the level of potential asides and ad-hoc pockets of whispered one-to-one conversation; on the level of non-verbal channels allowing a richer repertoire for stress, tone, and distancing practices. Laughing is also something that does not work terribly well online.

Many of the reservations regarding conversation as artistic practice that I have described above still apply to the face-to-face setting. But the element of social engagement and risk-taking is attractive, if intimidating. The artistic situation of genuine personal involvement on a level beyond that of public, spectator, or user is nowhere else so clearly present and consciously intended as in the approach of Kurd Alsleben and Antje Eske. Asymmetries must probably be accepted as inevitable. The potential that the artist and the lay person (to keep these simplifying tokens here) enter some common ground where the initial distinction becomes irrelevant at least for a while (possibly with longer term consequences) has the feel of a genuinely pleasant utopia. But the marriage in conversation has no sustained practical or material basis. The sheen of social utopia implicit in conversational art frustrates because the actual practice is so fleeting non-committal. On the other hand, it can at times afford a certain boldness and elegance that would be harder to achieve in conditions od a stronger social commitment.

For a related text, see Thoughts about my attitude towards the Serverfestival

1 Therefore, the audience—or, as it develops through interaction, the group of participants—resembles a 'created community', a term coined by Grant Kester. Miwon Kwon, in a talk called 'Public Art and Urban Identities' (google to see if you can find it online; the former link at www.thephotographyinstitute.org has been broken), relates the concept in the following way: 'One is the "politically coherent community," as he [Kester] calls it, and the other is the "created community," created through a delegate artist, who is positioned as such to fulfill some public art project. In his view, the collaborative dynamic (...) tends to be fraught with problems of paternalism, because the participants who make up the community are defined as "socially isolated individuals whose ground of interconnection and identification as a group is provided by an aesthetic ameliative experience administered by the artist." ' (my omissions)

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