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19.06.14

The Power of Conversation A review of ‘Continuous Curatorial Conversations’ research

by Alexandra Ross
Image: CCC logo by Alex Tobin
 

Conversation is something so interwoven within the fabric of the everyday, that it is in many regards taken for granted. Its ubiquity belies its beauty and power. In the field of the curatorial there exists a plethora of conversational content residing in every layer of the curatorial process. Quoting Maria Lind:

“Is there something we can call ‘the curatorial’? Something that manifests itself in their activities of a curator, whether employed or independent, trained as an artist or as an art historian? It is clear that curating is much more than making exhibitions… But can we speak of ‘the curatorial’ beyond ‘curating in the expanded field’: as a multidimensional role that includes critique, editing, education, and fundraising?”

'Are we on the air yet', 2012. Photo courtesy of Barrie Morton.
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'Are we on the air yet', 2012. Photo courtesy of Barrie Morton.

There are some who have made conversation an art and employ it with alacrity and elegance. Conversation and the curatorial have a symbiotic relationship. One catalyses the other: from idea conception, negotiation and installation of work, to reception and critique of an exhibition or project.

'Are we on the air yet', 2012. Photo courtesy of Barrie Morton.
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'Are we on the air yet', 2012. Photo courtesy of Barrie Morton.

The following is a brief overview of my recently completed PhD research in curatorial practice exploring the role of conversation within the writing of a supplementary history, or rather supplementary histories of the curatorial. I examined the role of conversation in the curatorial and how and when one can capture that which more often than not slips off the record and thus is devalued in the writing of the history of the field.

'Consuming Culture' event' 2014, courtesy of Ross Fraser Maclean
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'Consuming Culture' event' 2014, courtesy of Ross Fraser Maclean

The premise of my research was that, as both medium and tool, conversation can open up avenues and work in a way that reflects back on the curatorial process itself. Conversation and its thoroughly interstitial nature sometimes defies capture. As such, it falls off the pages of the writing its history. Also, if observed, it can change the conversational content, rupture rapport or create a theatricality to the exchange. I experimented with how to record these moments and in doing so managed to predict when interesting conversation was in the offing, how to broker conversation and when to press record as it relates to the curatorial. Of course, conversation is not the exclusive medium for presentation, critique, or initiation of the curatorial. However, its presence in the form of ‘in-conversation’ events and transcriptions of conversations in publication format became a source of irritation for me. So much so, that I wanted to pin down what we truly mean by conversation and its purpose. The use of the term conversation in contemporary art is riddled with misnomer practices and semantic misattribution. Conversation should be a free flow of ideas, unrehearsed, thoroughly reciprocal and without a preconceived end point. What distinguishes conversation from other exchange is in this inherent reciprocity of listening and response. Compared to debate, discussion or chit-chat, a potential meeting of the minds reigns over adversarial combat.

'Consuming Culture' event' 2014, courtesy of Ross Fraser Maclean
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'Consuming Culture' event' 2014, courtesy of Ross Fraser Maclean

Conversation takes many forms and we are invited all over the internet to ‘join the conversation’. Of course, my eyes and ears are drawn to its presence so I am aware of the zeitgeist nature of its occurrence in the contemporary art landscape. My interest however, is in the oral nature of conversation and is looking at the fragility and nuance of the medium. The PhD journey took me into private, intimate spaces such as homes and studios, and also slipped into hectic moments of the opening of an art biennial such as Manifesta 8.

'The Host Becomes the Guest' 2012
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'The Host Becomes the Guest' 2012

The dining table as a convivial space has long been valued as an arena for exchange. Of course we can and should not record everything. However, there are content-rich moments which in the writing of the history of the field of the curatorial are often neatly edited away and banished into silence. An attentiveness to the initiation or identification of the such spaces and moments would not only increase the capture of the relationally heavy content involved in the curatorial, but would also represent its polyphonic nature. Some people are great conversationalists, some are story-tellers and some articulate themselves eloquently on the page. Such diversity is necessary and exists within curatorial practice. It is however to these beautiful, complicated moments of exchange that I would encourage attention to be turned. For example, in the manner in which we talk of conversation, in order to avoid misnomer practices (‘in-conversation’ events are often staged presentations).

'The Host Becomes the Guest' 2012
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'The Host Becomes the Guest' 2012

My research, Continuous Curatorial Conversations, is the prelude to a great many conversations and my recordings to date are, as the research title emphasises, ‘continuous’. They are networked within a time and space and I encourage others to initiate, record and present such moments on www.continuous-curatorial-conversation.org which is currently completing beta-testing stage. The audio is raw and unedited so as to retain elements of the moment of the encounter. I retain the clink of the coffee cup, the sound of a passing moped, and the silence as those engrossed in conversation contemplate their response or reflect on what has just been said. I know that not everyone will view conversation as such a fragile and beautiful exchange filled with intrinsic value. However, I would argue that it is in no small part, how we get things done, make decisions and communicate within the field of the curatorial. As such, to overlook, misrepresent or undervalue it compared to its textual counterpart, is to slice off a significant proportion of the ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ of the curatorial. With time, tagging of the files and user upload of content will identify areas of interest, repetition and expand an awareness of conversation within the professional field. I encourage you to join this conversation.

www.continuous-curatorial-conversation.org

Contact Alexandra (alexandracmross@gmail.com) for any further information or upload enquiries.