Monika Szewczyk

Hjärnstorm | 2010

Hjärnstorm 101, Winter 2010

Conversation between Monika Szewczyk and Johan Lundh.

Johan Lundh: When I asked you if I could interview you about the ‘art of conversation’, you mentioned that you had noticed a kind of fetish for the term ‘conversation’ in the mass media, which is partly perhaps why there is so much interest in the subject these days within the art world as well. Could you elaborate on this?

Monika Szewczyk: I’m not sure if art has followed the mass media so directly in this case – that is if, in the art world, we (and I don’t want to take myself out of this equation) fetishize conversation for the same reason mass media do. I think, in the media, the fetish has a lot to do with some notion of interactivity and democratic participation. And with the telecom boom, calling back, emailing or posting to a television or radio station is increasingly easy and increasingly part of the ritual. Now, this becomes something of a politico-moral issue when BBC hosts a program like World Have Your Say which is advertised with a call to “join the global conversation.” Can such a thing ever exist!? The implication is that it already does and listeners should better jump on the bandwagon. But of course they cannot join the real ones that define their world – the ones in Davos etc. That is what the anti-globalisation movement was very much about: the decline of the democratic process with increasing prominence (policy impact) of closed conversations. When I hear that slogan on BBC, it seems to want to obscure this problem. It also reminds me of Rem Koolhaas’ description of “junk space,” which he likened to being at a party, in a hot tub…..with a thousand of your closest friends. This restless mill is no place to have a proper conversation!

If I’m starting to sound judgmental, it is on purpose. I would like to resist the notion of so many gatherings always already being conversation. This notion is delusional and a product of the traumatic foreclosure of public space. At the moment, several things may be going on in the realm of art. There is the (to my mind simplistic) idea of conversation as compensation for “mere looking”. But there might be more pragmatic reasons for this. It’s often easier to move people than to move things (works of art).  The habit of moving people around (often in pursuit of global exhibitions) has been detached from its original purpose and has begun to stand on its own. But there may be a more interesting development, wherein conversation is understood as an art.

We were both recently at the Bergen Biennale Conference, which was essentially a symposium organized in lieu of an exhibition. I think this displacement put an interesting pressure on the proceedings. And while for a day or two this was touted as a great model, by the end a more critical view had crept in, voicing reservations about the implication such an act of displacement.

Johan Lundh: In a world infatuated with the concept of conversation, you seem rather skeptic about the idea itself. I’m curious to hear more about what attracted you to explore the subject in the first place?

Monika Szewczyk: It was a bit selfish, I’ll admit. I was involved in a few instances where a regular exhibition or the production of a journal was replaced with semi-staged conversation or a set of them, but a clear sense of why we were doing this did not emerge. Rather, it was a desire to do things differently. I began to wonder what was really going on and also wanted to elaborate on some unresolved tensions between conversation and art. This for me was key. I think the fine line of what is and is not art and what the naming of something as art does is key for operating critically within a culture that lends art a special status.

Along the way, I had also come across a book by the art historian Mary Vidal entitled Watteau’s Painted Conversations. This book held some truly imaginative clues to how conversation was fetishized in an earlier era with the onset of bourgeois society. This appealed to me especially because, having recently moved to Berlin, I had visited the paintings she discussed at the Schloss Charlottenburg. There is something very immediate about looking at Watteau’s paintings of an art dealer’s space (Ghersaint’s Shop). You get a sense of the novelty of the scene he is describing in paint and you begin to wonder about the transitions afoot for yourself, for us. I think most social transitions, especially in the post modern era which has rejected the modernist manifesto, do not come to us written down or announced. It might be easier to understand them in the fluid space of conversation, especially when this space is inflected with the aesthetic anarchy of art.

Johan Lundh: I would argue that most the examples of the art of conversations in your essay are unusual or even strange. Could you expand on this?

Monika Szewczyk: You’re right. Especially with the first essay in the e-flux journal, which was really processing Maurice Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation, and it’s notions of otherness and neutrality, I wanted to make things strange. I was, still am, a bit disappointed by the insufficiency of what passes for conversation. So you could say that I’d like to preserve some of the idealism and novelty found in Blanchot, and also in a Watteau. I read (in Vidal’s book) that Watteau was a man, an artist, who not only recognized, but participated in shaping, the aesthetics of conversation. He helped to carve out this realm as a radically open space and this further changed his status as an artist.

Johan Lundh: To briefly return to contemporary art, has a ‘discursive turn’ actually happened, and if so, what will its impact on the art world be?

Monika Szewczyk: I don’t think we can generalize in this way. Or I’m not sure I can. And I wouldn’t want to conflate discourse and conversation, because the latter depends so much more on the activity of silence. It might sound funny, but in writing under the title ‘art of conversation’ I’m not necessarily advocating a turn or aiming to test it’s consequences. It’s a bit more immediate than that, and also much more abstract. So I can speak about specific occurrences and attempt to put pressure on them with speculative, open concepts. Of course, there is a sense that I might put pressure on this loose concept of the ‘discursive turn,’ which I’ve heard probably as often as you have. And this pressure would probably concentrate on troubling what we call discourse and also what we call conversation so that these are understood as things in play and under construction, not things that have passed us by and whose consequence we’ll need to suffer.

Johan Lundh: Finally, is there anything you would like to remark on while discussing art of conversation?

Monika Szewczyk: Hmmm, for now, I’ll exercise my right to remain silent.

Attention: this interview was published in Swedish in Hjärnstorm alongside a translation of an essay entitled Art of Conversation originally published in issue 3 of e-Flux journal.