In continuing this written monologue about conversation, I am becoming aware of the sheer weirdness of thinking in this way about something that behaves so differently than writing “for the record.” But if, as Maurice Blanchot demonstrates, conversation can be defined as a series of interruptions—perhaps the most powerful of which being the neutrality of silence—then writing, which is a kind of silent speech, may itself constitute an interruption to the way conversation is imagined.1
When I think of conversation I increasingly think of overhearing. Recall Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Hackman’s character—Harry Caul—is a professional wiretapper whose obsessive records of conversations are haunted by the possibility of fatal consequences. One job may have cost a man his life; another job, the one underway during the film, may prevent another man’s death. The film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May 1974, was a fortuitous echo of the Watergate Scandal that came to a boil in the summer months of the same year—a political event that churned around the overhearing of conversations, thereby accentuating wiretapping as an invaluable political tool—provided that one does not get caught. Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon was the unlucky Republican president who did get caught, and he was nearly impeached for indiscriminately wiretapping the conversations of his opponents in the Democratic Party during their convention at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State, also compulsively recorded their own conversations, understanding that what is said seemingly “off the record” is often of the greatest political consequence. The recordings of their secret and semi-secret conversations, many of which took place between 1971 and 1973, are now available online. Just as they hold the potential to reveal the truths of policy and power, so too do they paint a general picture of a cynical political era that saw a fundamental transformation in the popular conception of conversation as not only something that shapes and reflects values—of wit, pleasure and elegance, of time well spent—but also as information, tangible evidence, something to be placed before the Law.
To be sure, spies and other lucky listeners had overheard conversations for centuries and used them for political gain, but it was only with the increasingly rampant wiretapping of the Cold War era that words could be spoken “for the record” without the speakers’ knowledge or willingness. Hence everything you said could be used against you. And this has come to beg the question: How do we watch what we say as a result? Have we become more cautious, even paranoid, about how we break a silence, less able to test our radical ideas in the open—all because there is a greater chance of the record of such conversations coming back to haunt us, even once we have changed our minds? If so, the amount of willfully recorded and also scripted conversations—and their recent proliferation in the art world—becomes particularly curious. Artur Żmijewski’s video for Documenta 12, Oni [They] which synthesized an entire body of behavioral research about wordless conversations among Polish artists of his and earlier generations; Falke Pisano’s script for A Sculpture Turning into a Conversation, performed on occasion with Will Holder; Gerard Byrne’s re-enactments of printed interviews from past decades, such as Homme à Femmes (Michel Debrane), based on Catherine Chaine’s 1977 interview with Sartre about women, or 1984 and Beyond, which restages a speculative volley between futurologist writers such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein; and Rainer Ganahl’s continuous photographic documentation of talks and symposia—these examples only scratch the surface, highlighting the most formalized instances, which may not always involve something to be heard, but always offer a view onto conversation.2 But there are also conversations that seemingly replace other ways of showing art, examples of which I will come to shortly. All this is to say that, in the realm of contemporary art, we do not seem to be watching what we say in terms of holding back. Rather, we may be increasingly interested in considering the aesthetics of people talking together.
But what to make of the sheer volume of conversation in art? It may be that, in our hyper-communicative world, any record of a person’s speech is just a droplet in an ocean of such taped talk. In this kind of “infinite conversation” it might in fact be the volume that counts.3 Is the idea to talk more so as to turn the droplet into a weightier drop, maybe even a “new wave”? If so, it remains to be seen whether a shared horizon of social change grounds many of the artistic and curatorial projects that have taken up conversation as a subject and form of late.
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