Dialogue as a Site for Aesthetic Practice

Rachel Oxley reminded me about this Quorum seminar at Queen Mary’s Drama Department. It was a fascinatingly rigorous conversational fail.

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Here’s the invitation:

Dialogue as a Site for Aesthetic Practice

In this practice-based session Frank and Martin will continue their ongoing series of encounters exploring the possibilities of conversation as a staging of discursive practice.

This Quorum promises to be of particular interest to all those interested in the articulation between practice and discourse, and looking at alternative and/or practice-based ways of approaching theory.

After the session we will be going for dinner at the Greedy Cow. Please RSVP by end Tuesday if you would like to join us so we can get an idea of numbers.

Frank Bock is an independent artist and psychotherapist. He was a founder member of the Featherstonehaughs Dance Company and worked with them from 1987 to 1998. With Simon Vincenzi, he was co-creator and director of Bock and Vincenzi, a project-based company that created six productions. From 1999-2007 Bock and Vincenzi researched and developed a body of work under the title ‘invisible dances’, in which memory, communication, death and disappearance were recurring themes. From 2008-2001 he worked as Creative Associate with the Cholmondleys Dance Company. He has also worked with Graeme Miller, Wendy Houstoun, Miranda Pennell, Bobby Baker and Rosemary Lee. Since 2006 Frank has practised as a psychotherapist, working in private practice, and with MIND as an assessor and clinical supervisor.

Dr Martin Hargreaves is the editor of Dance Theatre Journal and leads the MA Dance Theatre: The Body in Performance at Trinity Laban. His research interests lie between hysteria and boredom, and his current practice centres around the reconstruction and reimagining of seminal performance works from the 1960s.

About 25 people sat in the ‘rehearsal room’ in the Arts building at queen mary, which is a standard seminar-format non-space with whiteboards, a ceiling projector, and full of schoolroom tables – flattened to the wall to make room for an improvised semi-circle of seats with about 4 sparsely populated rows of spectators. The table at the back of the room had an assortment of snacks, wine and juice, and a small video camera set up on a photography tripod pointing towards the two conversationalists. They sat facing each other, oriented at roughly 10 degree angles to the audience, looking rather uncomfortable until people stopped milling about and Quorum convener Rachel Gomme introduced them both and kicked off the 45 minute conversation.

I describe all this in detail because it’s hard to put across how comprehensively the specific context and set-up of the room, the premise and the practical features of the setting seemed to undermine any semblance of conversation that would be recognisable as such from a pragmatic or interactionist perspective. I’m using the words ‘fail’ and ‘undermine’ here without meaning to give them the perjorative force they imply. Both Frank Bock and Martin Hargreaves explained the possibility or even the inevitability of them failing to have a conversation in front of the audience as an intentional part of the event.

The most obvious fail started with a long awkward silence after Rachel’s introduction, which was recognisable as a dramatic device that built tension between an expectant audience and two present but silent performers. The intensity of this interaction between audience and performers was palpable as people laughed (with release) when the two finally began a highly contrived (in form, if not in content) debate on the subject of the situation, its awkwardness and what it means to have a conversation with each other as research.

The content of this discourse seemed immediately at odds with the form it took. They talked about how the dynamics of conversation thrived on misunderstanding, but their slow talk and clear projection seemed to mitigate strongly against mishearing. Alongside meta-commentary from both of them about their emotional reactions to the situation and senses of self-consciousness, Both continually asserted that the conversation was between the two of them, not involving the ‘audience’, as they called us. However, their explanations and the people, places and things they referred to were continually explained in full – names and sirnames of common acquiantances and events spelled out in a way that would have been completely unnecessary if the two of them had been having a more naturalistic interaction.

I looked around at other people in the room repeatedly, and this performed discourse seemed to be engaging them. Some listened attentively, eyes front, some smiled or made notes. I had a particularly loud piece of paper on which I took notes and I could almost feel the ripple of awareness spread around me marking each noisy note. I could certainly hear – almost feel – other people doing the same.

The conversationalists gestures were very muted, their orientation towards each other and the audience hardly changed at all during the entire 45 minutes. As the seminar progressed, Martin Hargreaves began talking about the idea of conversation as an artwork that “has no object other than itself”, and talked about this as part of his artistic practice of non-documentation (while pointing out the video camera documenting this event from the back of the room). Frank Bock responded to Martin Hargreaves’ professional-status-talk by directly raising the supposed fact of their equality in this situation, even stressing that a non-hierarchical relationship existed between the two of them and the other people in the room.

Although on some level this is true, the assertion of equality seemed completely at odds with the epistemological hierarchy implicit in the set-up of the room, the orientation of the auidence, and the intentional construction of the situation. But by now this was becoming a familiar trope in this performed conversation: statements, assertions or refutations at odds with the apparent processes and activities being played out in front of us.

Frank Bock followed up his assertions of equality by bringing up his own professional role as a therapist “I’m still the therapist”… “only you’re not paying me”. A further extended meta-commentary followed about their respective conversational roles (Martin Hargreaves as a teacher, Frank Bock as a therapist) and to what extent they were performing them here. In a very polite, performative and roundabout way, they did seem to be asserting their own epistemological authority in relation to one another, culminating with another non-non-statement by Martin Hargreaves: “I’m trying not to deliver a lecture to you”, delivered at the end of something that sounded very much like an authoritative lecture.

During this exchange, Frank Bock came up with a nice turn of phrase describing wanting to ‘fall into a conversation’, but having a sense of ‘heldness’ in relation to the audience. He then began to break down the fluency of his talk, which had previously been marked by contemplative pauses, ponderous diction and an absence of umming and errring. Again, this was thematised in the content of his talk, “speaking from a place with no words”, “groping for the right word”. Martin Hargreaves, who had got a big laugh from the audience in relation to an off-the-cuff sexual innuendo about flirtation and seduction, pursued that line, fishing for similar responses, and then thematising that by stating (again, counter-intuitively) that he was aware of trying not to play for laughs.

At this point I started to lose interest, the dynamics seemed somehow established, and I noticed that several audience members were now playing with their phones. Note taking had ceased, no more noisy scribbling was happening, and notebooks were closed on laps. People around me seemed distracted and fidgety. I began playing with my phone too. Then I remembered to listen in to their conversation again, which I had tuned out in my distraction.

I heared them referring to people I didn’t know about by first names, and talking in less distinct voices, overlapping more, gesturing, with shorter pauses between speaker turns. They seemed to have finally relaxed (‘fallen’) into having something that looked more likeconversation, which was paradoxically marked by disinterest from a fidgeting, mobile phone thumbing and seemingly impatient audience. This was no longer directed at them, but was heating up for the two conversationalists, who seemed to be enjoying themselves by now.

Finally the fidgeting turned into overt signalling from Rachel Gomme and they slowed down towards what felt like an immanent end, meta-commenting about how they had primed this conversation with rehearsed content from prior (private) conversations, and that they would now like to ‘debrief’ about this conversation – although they might then need to ‘debrief’ about the ‘public debrief’ in private afterwards.

A sincere but somehow ambiguous round of applause sealed the end this fascinating and recursively problematic performance conversation.

I came away from the experience with a sense of bewilderment about the thinking and preparation behind the performance. How is it possible to fail to have a conversation so rigorously? Of course I’m talking about conversations in terms I would recognise from my research context, which broadly speaking, means that they should be ‘amenable to the basic tools of conversation analysis’. For example, a conversation would exhibit recognisable patterns and sequences of turn-taking, repair and other features of talk-in-interaction.

It also provided me with a profound appreciation for all the different ways we have of talking about talking in English. I’m not sure whether such a rich descriptive lexicon exists for many languages, but when I thought back to what I had witnessed, it seemed like a discourse seguaying into some repartee, followed by negotiation, then a proper chat, followed by hob-nobbing over wine. And in each of thse were another ten or twenty conversational forms, each more or less oriented to an audience, to performing a kind of epistemic struggle, improvising, joking or pontificating to each other and the audience.

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