Last week I attended the following event at Goldsmiths ATMOSPHERES OF PARTICIPATION: ART, MEDIA, POLITICS (Two talks and a discussion about presence, liveness and the importance of participation). As usual I had rather rashly agreed to participate in this event as a speaker without being entirely clear what would be asked of me. The day before I looked in more detail at the paperwork and realised the event would be a round table for invitation-only guests and that I should probably
a) Think through more carefully what I wanted to contribute and
b) Attend the evening talks the night before as one was being given by an old colleague who would also 'respond' to my presentation and the other would be by another participant.
SO I left the Royal College and tried to take a train from Victoria in the pouring rain with my bike, having failed to get on a train but by now underway I continued in the downpour arriving late, lost and soaking during the first talk. Despite being a read paper (which I always struggle with) you can't knock a talk which features "Suffragists, Trolls, and Sharon Hayes' Art of Protest". However, as I steamed dry and tried to focus on the next (again read) paper I became increasingly panicked about what might be in store the next day. Now I'm sure the speaker who we'll call Mr S is a very bright, very well read man ... but there was no possible way to gauge this from his talk. As well as reading a very dense piece of theory he simultaneously showed on a huge screen behind him a piece of work (given very little intro) which had subtitles to lots of montage protest footage. This went on at some length and after about 5 minutes I gave up trying to follow him or the subtitles (never mind both) and just sat there longing for the whole thing to be over.
Now, had I not been speaking alongside this man the next day I probably wouldn't have felt
a) Rage that I had sat through the best part of an hour of this or
b) Increasing panic about how I would engage with the other academic material on offer the following day.
In fact without this pressure I may even have indulged in some curiosity as to whether he was just being deliberately difficult or in fact had no idea that it was impossible to follow.
So we come to the next morning, I get up at the crack of dawn and write my talk without a clear guidance as to how long it should be or the availability of AV equipment. Terrified of missing the first speaker and not being seen to 'fully engage' I then take a cab to Goldsmiths to be there on time. I then spend the morning sitting round a large boardroom style table listening to more or less interesting (but again drily delivered) academic papers which to my mind seem to connect rather loosely to the questions posed by the organisers.
Along with the other two artists asked to participate we all struggle to remain engaged through these rather lengthy and specific papers as we are then to have lunch with these other guests and they will in turn respond to our ideas ... or so we think.
As the usual bolted lunch and missing AV cable anxieties subside and we settle into our allotted artists slots (approx. one third of those allowed for the academics) there are some rather obvious gaps around the table. Basically most of the morning's presenters have now made a hasty exit and we are left with a vastly reduced group of participants and for me a somewhat disappointing atmosphere of 'participation'. Each of the artists (including me) successfully cuts short their presentation in order to keep to time, as well as giving a lively, illustrated and specific talk (without reading) accurately tailored to the advertised interests of the conference.
The day is completed by a final academic from Goldsmiths. He begins with an 'apology' for his failure to attend any of the rest of the day, as he has been speed reading a newly published book apparently unavailable in translation and so (I assume he assumes) inaccessible to his audience. Rather than a generous sacrifice I take this as a rather arrogant opt out of the days event and a final nail in the coffin for the idea that it has been about participation. This impression is not helped when he corners myself and another artist in the pub afterwards and oscillates between name dropping, apologising for missing our presentations which he nevertheless tries to comment on and bleeding us for contacts.
By the end of the day I was developing a sneaky liking for Mr. S the source of all my anxiety the night before. By now I realised that the majority of the audience had failed to follow a word he said so I no longer cared about this. Plus of all the people at the event only he and a handful of the other academics made any attempt to actually engage with the atmosphere created by the people in the room and what they bought to the debate. I actually almost found myself willing him to make another comment before the day was up, I may not have followed what he was saying but we did at least seem to have a mutual respect for the 'importance of participation'!