An introduction to the art and nuance of conversation – By Dr Alexandra Ross

7 Aug 2015 - 09:30

This month’s focus on the CCA website will be conversation and its different forms and permutations. We have collated several exchanges such as Houghton Kinsman’s upcoming Arranged Encounters conversation series and the start of an ongoing online exchange Finding Common Ground Over Great Distance.The first of these will be with Gayle Meikle, an artist and curator from Scotland and myself. More on these projects will be released over the coming month.

Conversation was the focus of my doctoral research, and therefore an area close to my heart. The inherent communicability of its medium was one of the reasons that I was drawn to it as both the focus of my research and also as a core research method. Conversation is defined as:

‘an interchange of thoughts and words; familiar discourse or talk’, and as ‘occupation or engagement with things, in the way of business or study; the resulting condition of acquaintance or intimacy with a matter’.

It is this notion of intimacy (both between individuals and within the content of the exchange) that shall be explored in the following month’s exchanges and writing. Although conversation is largely recognised as a verbal pursuit, it is conversation in its broadest sense that shall be explored, thus embracing technologically-enabled conversation taking place over vast distances and even without uttering a word.

There are some wonderful precedents to conversation in the visual art and curatorial fields, namely Audio Arts, a cassette based magazine and resulting archive. Conversation is distinguishable from other forms of inter-human communication by certain attributes relating to the moment of the encounter. Namely: uncertainty as to outcome; any questions/answers, or statements/responses stemming from a close listening to the other participant(s) in the conversation; and, a flow and rapport which accommodates for interruption, digression, and even silence. Conversation has infiltrated the online space with invitations to join the conversation in what seems like every facet of life which now exists online. However, is this a false representation of what conversation is, compared to that which can only ever be experienced in the live, face-to-face encounter? We shall be largely focusing on the online space for conversation as it relates to the instigation, staging and housing of conversation.

Furthermore, what is the relationship between conversation and the curatorial? The curatorial is an area which I would argue spans, and is inclusive of, production and critique: curatorial praxis.

‘The curatorial allows for friction… and thus the permanent coming into being of arguments in larger discussions in the cultural field. It has a relationship to art but it is not dependent on art – it can essentially be performed transdisciplinarity’.

The nature of conversational practice has afforded me the opportunity in my past and current research to locate, attach to, and tap into dialogue in the field of the curatorial which reflects the interstitial, yet integral nature of conversation in the curatorial. It is the relational, flexible, reciprocal nature of conversation which pays attention to context and the content of the encounter, whilst allowing for an attention to the individual within the collective, that conversation so adeptly navigates and utilises.

Conversation provides the ideal format to explore and interrogate the questions and practices constituting the curatorial, and targeting the diverse participants who collectively invest and have faith in the field. Although artists have already made firm in-roads into the exploration of both the art of conversation and the use and creative preservation thereof, it is the curatorial which could learn from such practices, drawing attention to the conversational encounter and fidelity to its presentation.

Conversation is a fickle beast. It has the ability to shape shift and as such, even the most prepared of conversationalist-researchers/curator-researchers can be thrown by external factors such as a slip of the tongue from which you cannot rebuild rapport, or simply a clash of personalities. Fundamentally, conversation is woven through the fabric of artistic and curatorial praxis, both as a constitutive tool and as social reality. In Sarah Lowndes book Social Sculpture the role of conversation was attributed a roving nature, crucially found to be present in public and private arenas:

‘the psycho-geography of Glasgow, of particular galleries, studios, bars and clubs now extends internationally, through personal recommendations and mutual interest, through global internet and media networks, to galleries, venues studios and bedrooms across the world. This text is an attempt to document that evolving conversation across disciplines, what Joseph Beuys called “social sculpture”.’

What we hope to set up over the coming month is an introduction to conversation highlighting its use in the online domain and its use within the curatorial realm more broadly.

Please feel free to dip into my PhD thesis exploring conversation, its possibilities and limitations as it relates to the curatorial which can be accessed at:

The Oxford English Dictionary online:

 I have conducted one-to-one recorded conversation with four key people involved in Audio Arts: William Furlong, Mel Gooding, Jean Wainwright and Zoe Irvine. See for each audio recording.

Lind, M., 2012, Performing the Curatorial: Within and Beyond Art, Sternberg Press, p.19.

Lowndes, S., 2003, Social Sculpture: The Rise of The Glasgow Art Scene, Luath Press, p.13.