Project Timeline 2005–2010

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Biennale of Sydney ‘CONVERSATIONS II’

Categories: Conversation, Further Reading & Research, General, Support Material
Date: 18 June 2008

This is how it started …

In October 2006, Caroline Christov-Barkargiev suggested to me an idea for a seemingly minimal piece that kept gathering little nuances as we discussed it. I went away and thought about it and sent this email to CCB.


The first thing I like about the word ‘conversation’ is that it has ‘verso’ inside it . Verso — like the fold of earth made by a plough blade; like the layout of paper in an open book. These things that can turn over. A conversation can bring people together to cause something to turn over. In this respect a conversation can involve revolutions and tropes — events or places where turns happen. Tropes — points or lines or places where things turn. Hence ‘the tropics’. We have these words like ‘the tropics’ — ‘trope’ places, places where ship captains changed direction. All good conversations have tropes and possible revolutions in them.

This idea of turning is central to what we’ve been discussing. I like to think of art as a situation where peoples’ assumptions and habits get turned around or inside-out, where change can occur … change to habits, values, expectations. So, a conversation about art (or about anything, actually) can help with that turning, that revolution.

The crucial thing about a conversation is that no one involved (’involved’: to be folded in) can know exactly where it will go. People involved in conversations follow twists and turns and end up in surprising places. For me, a conversation is close to a real-time essay which commences, according to Montaigne, with the question: ‘What do I know?’.

A good conversation starts with an intriguing topic and with a sense of safety and conviviality shared by the people involved. We would establish these basic conditions in the Biennale project. We would advertise a few basic rules which would allow the conversations to commence with a focus and then flourish. As one of the people in each conversation, I would not promise to explain anything. I would just be present as an important, responsible agent within the drama of twists and and turns as each conversation proceeds.

We will need to define the rules precisely. Eg, how long will each individual conversation will last? How should the entire project be advertised to the general public and to the participants? How would each conversation get started?

From these simple rules, over time, a complex set of ideas and emotions would emerge in the form of a record of the Biennale conversations. It is important to ‘capture’ this complexity, to show how this complexity emerges during the Biennale and how it establishes a context for continuing the conversation day by day.

How to capture the emerging ‘history’ of the Biennale conversations? I would like to ‘map’ the main topics of each conversation, to show how themes, ideas, words, feelings, references all gather to make patterns over time, to show how these patterns cause more patterns, to show how any conversation is both free and predetermined, like life, like art. To capture these patterns, I would take brief notes during each conversation and then at the end of each day I would post my summary of the topics (or ‘trophies’ — another word about tropes or turning-points) that came up during the day. Over time, all these postings would become a network of inter-related themes and prompts for more conversations.

In the room, I would like a laptop connected to the internet, as an aid to conversation.

For me, the project is not explicitly an artwork, although it is certainly a sustained creative act of some kind. I would like to avoid the project being perceived as an individualistic ‘conceptual art’ piece. For me, it’s more like the collaborative work that a dramaturg does with a theatre company. The dramaturg sits with the theatre company during rehearsals and helps the company draw out, discover, invent or recognise special qualities in response to the text. The dramaturg is a ‘catalyst’, helping special potentialities emerge.

Also, the project is like a meditative ceremony, a ritualised activity that is carefully designed so that the participants can find some quiet clarity amidst all the information both of the Biennale and of the contemporary world. In this way, the projrct is quite like certain ritual activities that interest me greatly, for example certain Zen exercises, for example a Jesuit ritual designed by Ignatius of Loyola, called the ‘Spiritual Exercises’. The ‘Spiritual Exercises’ work like this: for thirty days, five times a day, the participant examines a set of simple questions concerned with responsibility and desire. This rhythm, caused by pausing five times per day to try to get clarity, this is what appeals to me about the project. Thus, every day there would be five conversations, adding up to approximately four hours of concentration for me. It would be exhausting, but I would learn a huge amount from it.

Mostly I would learn a huge amount about myself! But for the public, it would NOT be a project about me. It would be a project about collective thinking, exploring, speculating … and about conviviality, courtesy, tolerance.

In all the study I’ve done of Sydney’s history, one of the most striking things about the early colonial days is how much suspicion, distrust and lack of friendliness defined the town. All these petty police, dispossessed incumbent, landgrabbing incursives, misfits, embittered men, vulnerable women, criminals and victims of crime — they were all pressed together in the town, and nobody felt safe to offer each other conviviality or simple friendship. These terrible early conditions still shape the town, and I’ve always felt that the only way to transcend these beginnings is to enact ceremonies of conviviality, generosity, creativity. This is one of the reasons why I want to do the project, even though it daunts me greatly.

Another note in the margin: despite how grim and suspicious everything was in the early colonial years, there were also some astonishingly creative and generous conversations. For example, next time we speak, please remind me to talk to you about the relationship that developed in the first years of the colony, between Lieutenant William Dawes and a young indigenous woman called Patyegarang.