In the debate on academies that swept museums and magazines last autumn, one matter that took a back seat to institutional critique and funding misfortunes was the act of learning itself – especially in relation to that particular form of adult education known as the symposium. What actually lingers in the mind of that daydreaming, text messaging, doodling audience after a seminar or conference? And how could you maximise the oddments of knowledge that are retained? In issue 101 of frieze, which looked at ‘art schools then and now’, Brian Dillon compellingly argued that public statements are strongest when stripped of all paraphernalia, scenographic or otherwise, focusing on words alone. Assuming there is such a thing as words alone, the problem is that many art-world orators, myself included, are rhetorically useless, to say the least. The statements – prepared hastily on the flight over and mumbled into a microphone flanked by bottles of Evian – followed by mutual pats on the back and some Q&A chagrin – are hardly the dematerialized ‘extensions of the exhibition’ they often aspire to be.
Curator Anselm Franke’s recent description of biennials seems pertinent when applied to symposia and their concerted displays of intellectual accomplishment: ‘It is astonishing’, he argues, ‘to what degree these events are reviewed on the basis of what they display, while the medium itself goes unquestioned. Like an Italian opera, there’s no forum here for the politics of its engineering behind the scenes.’1 Interestingly, for all the moaning and groaning about biennial overdrive, symposia have even more gruelling reputations.
But would we attend conferences more eagerly if the manner in which they were delivered was seriously addressed; if they utilized, say, a combination of old presentational methods and experimental interactive formats? Or is the very notion of the ‘art-world professional as educator’ a non-starter? Why listen to art critics explicate the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben, for instance, when you could read his books, or YouTube his lectures, or listen to someone who has had the time for rigorous research – unlike your notoriously hectic critic/curator? One might argue that there’s much to be gained from an interdisciplinary perspective, but it is challenging and time-consuming to go beyond gilding an object of knowledge with different disciplines, and few pull it off successfully. Actually, a truly interdisciplinary approach in an arts context would reconsider the traditional division between the artistic and the discursive. Although it is artists who have organized some of the most compelling discursive experiments (Dada, Fluxus, Art&Language, Institutional Critique, etc.), symposia curators compulsively belittle the artists as innocent bystanders, claiming to speak in their name, and preferring to emulate the epistemic ceremonials of the humanities – while the humanities emulate the natural sciences.
Roland Barthes had a different strategy, suggesting that a public seminar must allow for ‘irony’, ‘flow’ and ‘art de vivre’, and would ideally resemble a marijuana-smoking session with his students. I have no ambitions to introduce weed to symposia, or the nauseating, potato-chip-craving languor that complements its use. Nor do I wish to reiterate the widespread notion that the most valuable moments of panel discussions occur offstage. But I do feel, as Barthes insisted, that it is not just the relationship between the speaker and the audience that is important, but that between the members of the audience as well.
Next time you’re at a contemporary arts symposium, take a quick look around the room and you’re likely to find some 95 percent of attendees are arts professionals or students (as you probably are yourself). If it’s taking place in Europe, you’ll frequently find the majority are also non-local, having travelled quite a stretch to be there. And I don’t think they will have come for the Q&A. Symposia are watering holes for both speakers and audience, where the lecture is a pretext for tête-à-tête shop talk, and for the post-Fordist job interview we still call ‘conversation’.
While such a context doesn’t exclude the possibility of a didactic approach, it would nonetheless suggest that any speakers hoping to engage the audience effectively would go easy on the Agamben, and render their contribution more site-specific. If critics, curators and artists are noting increasing commercial pressures on the one hand, and widespread dissatisfaction with the critical-discursive input of the non-commercial sector on the other, perhaps this is not the moment to maintain fantasies of mass agora pedagogy or analytical aspirations even more galactic in scope (globalization, the reinvention of life as we know it). To begin with, focusing on the material circumstances under which we conduct our public conversations would address the question of how knowledge is produced and conveyed in the first place, and whether it is knowledge alone that is at stake.
Tirdad Zolghadr is a critic and curator based in Berlin.
1 ‘The Grudge’, printed project: I Can’t Work Like This, issue 06, Dublin 2007