An Email Interview Concerning a Website about Spoken Events

6.4 / Free Speech in the Art World

An Email Interview Concerning a Website about Spoken Events

By Dushko Petrovich May 27, 2015

Christopher Howard is the founder of the blog In Terms Of, which publishes reviews of lectures, panel discussions, interviews, conferences, and symposia in the visual arts and related fields. Last year, In Terms Of received a major award from the Arts Writer Grant Program, funded by Creative Capital and Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

________

Where did you get the idea for In Terms Of, and what is its history? What made you want to start it? What has its development been?

 I conceived of the project in 2011, after attending a conference in New York called “The Now Museum: Contemporary Art, Curating Histories, Alternative Models,” organized by folks at Independent Curators International, the Graduate Center, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. During three fascinating days of panels and conversations, I found much to disagree with, especially regarding the curatorial cannibalization of libraries, archives, and educational programming, typically with dilettantish disrespect. But how could I express this displeasure, since I’m not the type to hog the microphone during the Q&A session? Thankfully, the art historian Katy Siegel wrote a saucy review of the event for Artforum.com—even though she was one of the speakers.

 I was also surprised by the historical amnesia of today’s art world. 

A month later, I came across a large book in the art paperback section at the Strand Bookstore: Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990, edited by Judy Seigel and published by Midmarch Arts Press in 1992. Because it has a bad cover and an awkward title, I’m not sure why the book caught my attention, but it did. In short, Mutiny and the Mainstream compiles fifteen years of reviews of live speaking engagements, mostly in New York, that were published in Women Artists News, a newsletter-turned-magazine produced by Cynthia Navaretta for about seventeen years. I was surprised at the sassiness of the reviews, and the frank, feminist approach these writers had. This book is a fantastic time capsule and a major source of American art history that has been regrettably neglected. Reading through the short-form pieces, I was also surprised by the historical amnesia of today’s art world. The same problems we face today—such as questionable museum politics, the art market, the relevance of art criticism, white male chauvinism, and so on—have been around for several decades, yet we act as if these problems are brand-new. To give In Terms Of a historical context, I occasionally republish selected reviews from the book.

Many services talk about panels and readings before they happen, but not so many talk about them afterward. This seems backward to me. Would you agree?

It’s true that we live in a world of publicity and promotion—through picks, listings, and things to do this week—instead of a culture of considered evaluation. The primary purpose for organizers of public events is getting people in the door; having a good discussion, or challenging or changing their views, is a residual effect. That said, I’ve noticed established publications such as Art News, the New York Observer, and Hyperallergic stepping up their coverage of lectures and panels over the last year or two. It’s great to see this attention.

Even though audio and video from talks are documented and posted online, I’ve noticed that the watch count for institutional Vimeo and YouTube channels is low. Despite the technology being available for broadcasting, the demand for panel reruns seems small. People still want to experience and participate in dialogue in person, just like how they want to see art in person or watch a band perform live. In Terms Of never covers events only watched online. When you think about it, reviewing a panel without being present, in the same room as the speakers and audience, makes as much sense as reviewing an art exhibition from JPEGs on a gallery’s website.

How many events do you attend on a weekly basis? Do you see the same people? Is there something like a circuit? Are you learning something from paneling?

Everyone says that the New York art world was much smaller back in the day, whether that day was in the 1950s or in the 1980s. Based on the content of Mutiny and the Mainstream, my impression is that many of the same people attended panels, especially those staged by Artists Talk on Art (ATOA), an organization that is still around but whose relevance as a promoter of dialogue has been eclipsed by schools and museums. (I attended an ATOA talk a couple of years ago and was the youngest person in the room by at least two decades.) Anyway, it seems as if panels were major social events—many took place on Friday nights!

I typically see one or two events a week, though on any given day there are two or three really good things happening. I don’t see the same people at all—everyone’s interests are dispersed. I do run into friends and acquaintances regularly, but not often enough to form a scene.

Quantifying what I’m learning through “paneling” is hard to gauge. Going to talks, films, concerts, exhibitions—it all adds up to living a life, no?

Has there been an increase in the number of live spoken events in the art world? Why do you think that is? Do you think this has enlarged the discussion?

An exhibition today is inconceivable without its attendant calendar of events.

Yes, a tremendous explosion. The art theorist Boris Groys recently noted that the contemporary art museum has outgrown its function as a place to store and exhibit works of art, becoming instead “a stage for the flow of art events … a place where things happen.” In a recent essay he wrote, “Events staged by museums today include not only curatorial projects, but also lectures, conferences, readings, screenings, concerts, guided tours, and so forth.” Public programs in museums have existed for decades, of course, yet the sharp increase of such programming over the past five to ten years is astounding—at least to me. An exhibition today is inconceivable without its attendant calendar of events. Elsewhere, live speaking engagements constitute a core part of the mission of libraries, colleges and universities, and nonprofit art organizations. We also have the ubiquitous author reading and book signing at commercial bookstores. Fortunately, many of these talks are free and open to the public; most have a component during which the audience can give feedback. Yes, the dreaded “time for questions and answers.”

One thing I’d like to mention, since this Art Practical issue concerns freedom of speech and freedom of the press, is the consequences of publication, especially for In Terms Of, which centers on dialogue and people. To frame my experiences, I constantly return to a passage from a book by the art historian and theorist Isabelle Graw called High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture (2009). Regarding cordiality in the art world and criticism in particular, she observed that “few are prepared to write a well-founded negative review, as I know from my work as an editor. People are unwilling to make unnecessary enemies, especially as their support might one day be needed. Today’s rival could be tomorrow’s crucial cooperative partner. For this reason, hardly anyone today fights out in the open.”1

Graw also noted how artists no longer publicly antagonize each other and devise factions, which she called “a form of behavior that was part of the standard repertoire of every avant-garde from Dada to Situationism.”2 She ended with this thought: “While I do not argue for a nostalgic return to these brutal struggles, I nevertheless consider it telling that, if there is criticism today, it is made quietly or pseudonymously.”3 I think she’s right. It’s as if we’ve all taken Thumper’s father’s advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Printing antagonizing and negative words is certainly a misanthropic move in the professionalized network of today’s art world. Having polarizing positions is something that established and insulated people like Robert Storr can get away with but for most of us it's self-destructive behavior. Nobody wants to offend because nobody wants to burn bridges unnecessarily. But when cooperation eclipses competition, we lose something. We forget to challenge each other, to have disagreements.

A panel on “The Changing Landscape of Museums Today” at the Asia Society included (from left) Richard Armstrong, Melissa Chiu, Tom Finkelpearl, and Peggy Loar (Photo: Christopher Howard) http://www.in-terms-of.com/landscape-surveyors/

In Terms Of is an experiment in a way, because it allows me to write about impressions of other people and their points of view that aren’t positive, that may even be hurtful or cruel. I’m not sure what the consequences are, since my blog has a relatively small readership. Nevertheless, I’ve experienced a backlash once or twice. Back in fall 2011, I expressed disappointment and displeasure with a panel of critics called “Toward an Ethics of Art Writing.” The event’s moderator, the young arts writer Aimee Walleston, sent two distraught emails to me privately, upset because I didn’t portray her positively in my piece, “Let’s Stall the Conversation,” and because I found the discussion lacking in many ways. Walleston got really worked up in those two emails. The audio of this panel is available online, so listen and judge for yourself.

A couple years later, an emerging artist having a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum was scheduled for a conversation with a young critic. The event was highly irritating and inspired this opening paragraph in my review:

If a person wanted to learn more about an emerging artist, fresh out of graduate school, who caught the eye of an advisory board for the Brooklyn Museum, “Artist’s Talk: Caitlin Cherry” was not the place. Instead, an audience of several dozen mostly young artist types that gathered for tonight’s event was subjected to the opinions and interests of Nick Faust, an aspiring art writer with a following on Facebook who usurped the role of interviewer and relegated the artist to an uncomfortable sidekick status. That same audience was also subjected to his foul mouth—a barrage of “shits” and “fucks” echoed throughout the museum from his amplified voice—and to his obnoxious facial expressions. Like Miley Cyrus, Faust took great pleasure in sticking out his long tongue multiple times during the hour-long event.

And later:

Faust did not ask many questions of Cherry, instead opting to talk at length about subjects that interested him while prodding her when he needed a response. His behavior was flirtatious and charming at first, but this demeanor quickly came to grate, like an insufferable know-it-all who corners you at a party. 

I don’t know if Cherry or Faust read my piece. Despite what Andy Warhol said, unfavorable press is not the kind of thing an artist puts on his or her CV—at least not when the writing is fresh. (I’ve seen lukewarm and negative writing from other critics eventually listed on artists’ bios.) But even if Cherry declines to acknowledge the review and Faust hates me, I don’t feel bad. In a rambling but entertaining essay in the New Inquiry that came out a couple weeks before the Brooklyn Museum talk, Faust condemned stuffy writing on art and offered alternative approaches. He wrote:

Likewise, art writing must attempt to draw new connections, weaving in unpublished, hushed talk that always gets spoken but generally not on the record. The documentation of the piece, the Facebook posts, tweets, and vines that surround such work, the gossip about the work in the bathrooms of the gallery and outside during the smoke breaks and back in the patios and bars after the opening, the press releases both in unchecked email and listserv format, and the 10,000 art-opening invites that networked artists receive each day on social media, the write-up of the work, the studio visits, the sketching out of the ideas, the conversations that influence and sustain the practices—all these are rich and evocative and can provide tremendous energy and meaning to a work and extend its life out beyond.

Faust advocates letting go of constricted speech, embracing gossip and allowing all sorts of informal discussion into the critical dialogue. In her emails, it seemed as if Walleston couldn’t wrap her head around why an audience member would have feelings and opinions about the content of a panel discussion that differ from hers. Isn't it good to get feedback?

Page from the author's notebook, from March 2011 conference “The Now Museum,” during which he conceived In Terms Of.

I haven’t set out to cut off the knees of emerging arts professionals. The oldsters can also mishandle talks. In an In Terms Of review called “Conversation with the Sound of Its Own Unraveling,” I described how the seasoned scholars Jeffrey Weiss and Julia Robinson seemed disorganized and unprepared for their interview with Robert Morris, during an event that celebrated Weiss and Clare Davies’ new book on the early work of the legendary artist. I wrote:

How could such an experienced crew bungle this rare opportunity? It certainly wasn’t the fault of the articulate, soft-spoken Morris. Rather it was Weiss and Robinson, whose cluttered thoughts belied the sharp focus of the book…. What’s worse, though, is that [they] had great difficulty asking a simple, straightforward question, as both were plagued with the malaise of offering a garbled comment in place of a question. When a question finally did come out they immediately tried to answer it themselves, offering several possibilities before Morris could even respond. Furthermore, the pair constantly stumbled when describing and interpreting the images of the artist’s work projected on the screen behind them. This was all a pitiful shame…

I’ve attended and reviewed lectures that were scattered—talks by the artist Frances Stark and the critic Naomi Fry come to mind—but the content of those presentations eventually redeemed themselves as I wrote my reviews for In Terms Of. I still can’t decide if Stark’s talk from June 2014 was the worst lecture I’ve ever heard. It probably was. But I got something out of it.

Most of my reviews of live speaking engagements are not like these examples. I’m not purposefully trashing other people. When I’m writing applications for grants and residencies, I select for my writing samples the most interesting discussions, such as a panel on postinternet art at Frieze New York, presentations by two artists from the Balkans at the International Studio and Curatorial Program, or a conversation on printed and digitally based artist’s books at the Museum of Modern Art’s library. Several people have commented on the thorough level of attention that I’ve given to these and other talks, so I must be doing something right.

Paula Cooper Gallery hosted a panel on Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings featuring (from left) Ann Temkin, Jock Reynolds, John Hogan, and Béatrice Gross (Photo: Christopher Howard) http://www.in-terms-of.com/an-almost-unimaginably-radical-act/

What makes a good live spoken event? What makes a bad one? Do you feel like you are learning about how to structure these kinds of events?

I don’t have advice for structuring panels. I like the diversity of events that I see, or that I’ve participated in myself. I appreciate novel presentation formats and have a couple ideas of my own that I might implement someday. The most important aspect of a good panel discussion is sticking to the topic; the moderator should be well prepared in advance and be able to guide the conversation effectively. Little things can be annoying, such as a speaker’s technological ineptitude and an audience member’s fear of microphones.

What is the future of In Terms Of?

I plan to attend and review more panels. Since I attend more talks than I can write about, I’m constantly saddled with a backlog of notes and half-finished drafts. Thankfully, the panel circuit slows down slightly in the summer, and I have a two-week residency in November at the Luminary in Saint Louis to help catch up. I’d love to write for In Terms Of full-time. The project deserves greater attention and could make a significant impact in the visual arts, but, as we know, few can make a living as a writer, especially those based in New York.

Notes

  1. Isabella Graw, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2009), 107.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.

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