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e-flux conversations

Art of Conversation, Part I

Much has been said of late about “the conversational” or “the discursive” in and around the field of contemporary art.1 And yet we seem reluctant to talk about an art of conversation in the same breath. Maybe it is the all-too-powdery whiff of seventeenth-century aristocratic ladies and gentlemen, fanning themselves amidst idle chatter, whose connections to our own aspirations we would rather sweep under the shaggy carpet?2 Or perhaps it is because we are desperately hoping to talk ourselves out of stale notions of art as a cultural practice that to suggest an art of conversation might at first seem utterly oxymoronic?

My attempt to resuscitate this term in all its discomforts stems from its potential to unhinge a particular binary concept, which might be summarized in the title of a recent exhibition curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen and Florian Waldvogel as part of the Brussels Biennial—Show me, don’t tell me.3 Why not show and tell? The same question might be posed to the proponents of the discursive as a way out of a mere looking at art. Why do we so rarely hear of doing or thinking two things at once? A dialectical intertwining of positions might demand that we ask of art (as makers, viewers, critics, students, teachers) to suspend, boggle, or otherwise challenge available discourses and that we in turn develop a discourse to elaborate evasions, deferrals, or misunderstandings of its available notions. Or, we could remain actively neutral with respect to this binary—however dialectically complex it may be, something seems to be missing from the equation.

With this in mind, I have been thinking about certain staged or filmed conversations, with an eye to how conversation is forged and what it forges. At stake are productive notions of how thought can move through conversation and how conversation can move thought that probably have very little to do with clichés of conversation operating in the art world. This may be understood as an aesthetic point of view insofar as aesthetics is the attention to ways of appearing, perceiving, sensing. Conversation is often understood as an equal, rational, democratic exchange that builds bridges, communities, understandings, and is thus a way for people to recognize each other. The thorny issue of whether or not one should talk to dictators (with or without pre-conditions) that continually flared up in the run-up to the recent American presidential elections points to a particular concern in the political culture with regard to how, when, and with whom one should engage in dialogue. To converse with dictators is to forestall their annihilation, to see—in the sense of acknowledging—them somehow.

Yet this a priori recognition confuses the matter. What if conversation is understood not as the space of seeing, but of coming to terms with certain forms of blindness? In other words, what I think is not being articulated, but what drives the reticence for conversation, is the acknowledgement of non-knowledge rather than recognition. To have a conversation with Chavez or Ahmadinejad is to recognize that one does not know them and wants to. In this way, conversation is always political and aesthetic because it shows who we want to see, who or what we admit into a world order. To put it somewhat differently: if, as an art, conversation is the creation of worlds, we could say that to choose to have a conversation with someone is to admit them into the field where worlds are constructed. And this ultimately runs the risk of redefining not only the “other,” but us as well. Art and conversation share this space of invention, yet only conversation comes with the precondition of plurality that might totally undo the notion of the creative agent.

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