/ July 6, 2008

"Talk of the Town"

Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead? The run-on title of the cult British children’s TV show was a beautiful paradox: Watch this, but don’t. Think of it as practice versus theory. Unfortunately for the makers of the teatime staple, its signature injunction was all too tempting, tending to curtail any further, uh, discourse. “The New York Conversations,” a recent series of talks convened both to launch e-flux’s new premises on Essex Street and to provide conceptual fodder for a forthcoming issue of Belgian art journal A Prior, was similar in its apparent determination to inspire via negative example. And it worked; I was out the door with a whole hour left on the clock.

Perhaps I missed some crucial initial question—it’s true that I arrived five minutes late for the Saturday-evening session following a convoluted subway journey to the Lower East Side—but what the discussion was actually for or about was never made entirely clear. As I arrived, wedging myself into the tiny fluorescent-lit storefront (seemingly a derelict launderette), chef and participant Rirkrit Tiravanija was complaining about his self-imposed exclusion from some crucial earlier stage of the dialogue—“I didn’t expect to stay in the kitchen so long.” But whether or not this was the kind of meeting at which a talking stick was passed around or votes were taken remained ambiguous. Additionally presided over by artists Nico Dockx and Anton Vidokle (e-flux’s founder), this was the final installment in a three-day sequence of two-hour lunchtime and dinnertime lock-ins, and the mood was earnest.

The organizers had prefaced their meet with a set of rules for conversation cribbed from Peter Burke’s 1993 book The Art of Conversation in Early Modern Europe, including “Avoid too excessive pedantic or technical speech (like direct interrogation, the use of imperatives and short answers such as ‘Yes’ and above all ‘No’)” and “Adapt your conversation to the people you are conversing with.” Sage advice that was consistently ignored as the dozen or so glum faces around the luridly patterned conference table made your correspondent feel like a student in the wrong classroom or, worse still, the teacher’s lounge. That I was standing (seating was limited to a strip of chairs arranged along one side of the action) and boiling (thanks to one esteemed co-participant planted in front of the fan) didn’t help.

Gradually, very gradually, workable ideas emerged—but was it ever heavy going. “Immaterial labor is so exhausting,” quipped Vidokle, to the quietest of laughter. Incrementally, the discussion creaked around to a comparison of different models of art writing and a critique of “modalities of engagement” (what was that about technical speech again?), the potentially alienating aspects of being a “content provider” (tell me about it), “the difficulty of talking about practice,” and “moving beyond representation.” Apparently, artist Liam Gillick (you just knew he’d be involved in this, didn’t you?) had “rejected the notion of freedom” in an earlier discussion (cheers, Liam), but when Tiravanija’s sous-chefs finally rolled out the snacks around nine o’clock, allowing the official participants to stuff their stony faces while the rest of us could only, in the words of one, “perform communality,” I was forced to make my escape. After all, there might have been something good on TV.

Image: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija