Image credit: Olga Koreleva
On June 30th, I facilitated ‘In Circles, Around Tables’, an event at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens, London. The event took the form of a series of three fishbowl conversations. The format was used as a way of gathering bodies together in space, exploring how we may meet, use and occupy space, and the role that the voice has in all of this.
The event provided an opportunity to continue developing research and to gather material for future work.
Below is an edited version of the introduction read to attendees of the event. It outlines the research I have been drawing together to contextualise the event, as well as other works that are currently in progress. It also goes some way to outline my approach to the Artist Working Group.
Thank you for participating in ‘In Circles, Around Tables’. This is the first/second/third of a series of fishbowl conversations I am facilitating today, as part of ‘Dissections’ a festival curated by UAL in collaboration with the RA, forming part of the Mayfair Art Weekend.
This is both a participatory live event, and it is being recorded using audio and video. I often work in this way, staging a situation in a public space that has elements of unscripted or improvised outcomes, and this material informs further works.
For this event, my aim is to keep an authenticity to what is said, and to avoid manipulation of any kind. I am interested in the fragile and unexpected nature of speech and of being in a group, in space, and this is why I think it’s important to capture it.
This is an experiment in conducting research and generating perspectives beyond my own on a number of questions that have been occupying my thoughts and artwork recently.
I see this as a meeting of sorts. We are a group coming together in a space. I wanted to bring bodies together into a space to see how knowledge manifests, how our voices and the way we share space, can be explored and improvised with.
I have invited along a number of people. I saw a connection between the topics we will discuss and the situation in which I met them, their field of work or interest. However I don’t see them as an authority over these ideas (and hope they don’t mind me saying this) but rather, they may bring a particular stance, like you all will, depending on your experiences. I want to give space for embodied and felt knowledge, and see this as adding to, rather than deviating from the conversation.
I have invited:
- Laura Mark – Architecture Projects Manager at the RA, and a member of Musarc, a choral collective based at London Met University, who explore the social nature of music, and it’s relationship to architecture and to the city.
- Toyosi Bologan – is a volunteer cook and supervisor in the kitchen at Akwaaba, a Sunday social space for migrants and refugees based in Hackney.
- Siobhan Maguire – who runs a contemporary artists studio and is also a volunteer cook and supervisor in the kitchen at Akwaaba. I invited Siobhan and Toyosi to think through how a group use a space temporarily, how food brings a group together as a social event, but also out of necessity in this context.
- Jonathan Hoskins – is a visual artist and writer living in London, interested in using narrative to practically rethink small-scale collective actions. He co-runs Residence Kitchen with Susannah Worth. Residence Kitchen started with two main questions: how to organise and how to empower introversion – meaning, a fostering of those sides of us that need sensitivity, introspection, a need for connection. They also use the events to think through the economies and narratives of food.
- Olga Koreleva – is documenting the event – she is a London-based artist working across writing, photography, moving image, and live action.
- Bella Milroy – can’t be here today because of health reasons. She is an artist and friend of mine, who is also disabled. I was very interested in her perspective as someone who has recently had to navigate space in a different way relating to her bodily needs and energy levels. I wanted to bring in the voice of those who need architecture to function; who have also had to acquire knowledge relating to their bodies in a different way to many of us.
I’d like to thank the participants for being here, and sharing their perspectives, and I’d like to thank the curation students at UAL, particularly Jessica Timms and to Imogen Willetts at the RA for the invitation to do this event.
Preparatory drawing used as the event marketing image, courtesy of the artist, 2018.
A Fishbowl Conversation
You are sitting in a seating format called a fishbowl conversation, a form of dialogue that can be used when discussing topics within large groups, intended to encourage participation from the whole group. It is meant to break down the distinction between the speakers and the audience.
In an open fishbowl, The inner-most circle speaks and the outer circles listens.There is one chair left free in the inner circle. Anyone at anytime can decide to move from the outer circle, to the inner circle. If this happens, someone sat in the inner circle already must move to the outer circle, so that one chair free at all times.
Drawing from individual perspectives you will be responding to a series of prompts. I hope you feel that we can treat these conversations as informal. There is no expectation for an outcome and I am not looking for you to prove your intellect.
“Sound is already a public event” (Brandon LaBelle, ‘Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, Bloomsbury, 2nd ed. 2015)
– and so you could treat what you are doing here, as no different from what you may do, talking with friends in a gallery, on the street, in a cafe. The inner circle are like a group of friends in a cafe, the outer circle are the others in the cafe, eavesdropping. Or if we think larger, the inner circle are the cafe, the outer circle are the city in which the cafe sits.
The format and spirit of the event
David Bohm, a physicist who died in the 1990’s says that if you are to have a dialogue, it’s important that everyone in the room has some awareness of what we mean by this term. He contrasts dialogue with discussion:
“In dialogue however, no-one is trying to win… In a dialogue everybody wins… it’s something new which may not have been in the starting point at all…
… ‘discussion’, which has the same root as ‘percussion’ and ‘concussion’…really means to break things up. (David Bohm, On Dialogue, 1996)
I am interested in thinking about a dialogue in terms of the spirit of what we are doing, and a discussion, in terms of the festival’s title ‘Dissections’ – can we somehow do both?
Subjectivity and difference
Despite the fact the seating arrangement aims to flatten the hierarchy between all those involved, this is not to say we should all share our views or find commonality between us.
Nora Bateson, filmmaker, writer and educator talks about subjectivity:
“Our way of seeing and perceiving is conditioned by the system we are seeing and perceiving.” (‘Small Arcs of Larger Circles’, Triarchy Press, 2016).
The acknowledgement of difference is very important. I thought of Audre Lorde’s words in connection to this. Coming from the perspective of a self-defined black lesbian feminist she says that for true understanding, collaboration and change to occur, acknowledgement of difference is crucial:
“Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.” (Taken from the chapter ‘The Master’s tools will never destroy the Master’s House’ in a book of the same name published by Penguin Modern: 23, 2018. Content largely taken from papers given at conferences between 1978-82 ).
How can the artwork tell us something about ourselves? What does it say about us, rather than itself?
Angelica Kauffman is a rare female presence here, in the new Collections Gallery. Anna Lena Linberg suggests:
“Kauffman makes use of a combination, impossible for the male artist, of self portrait and Muse.” (‘Touching the Rainbow’, NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 2005)
The limitations of being unable to draw from the live nude (because of her gender), perhaps informed an enquiry into the self as subject.
I was very aware of my own body, my gender and my ethnicity as a white woman, as I walked into this space.
Groups, meetings and tables
This fishbowl conversation looks to examine the structures that inform the way we meet and our experiences of being in groups and sharing food.
If we go back to Brandon LaBelle, he says:
“To produce and receive sound is to be involved in connections that make privacy intensely public and public experience distinctly personal…
..Listening is thus a form of participation in the sharing of a sound event” (LaBelle, 2015)
The outer circle may want to keep this idea of listening as ‘participating’ in an event. You have a role as listeners, and observers, not just of what is said, but of our us in the room, our physical mass. You are the outside eyes, if you will.
I was in a pub and I was telling a woman about this seating format, and she said, ‘It’s like this: I can chose where I put my attention, either on our conversation now, on the peripheral sounds of the others over there, or on that pile of clothes behind you.’
So I think it’s important to remember you have control as to where you place your attention in the outer circle. The outer circle could be seen as the investors of those in the inner circle. Try to invest in the inner circles discussion!
In Nora Batseon’s book she also has a chapter titled ‘Me watching you watching me watching you’. And this could be an interesting way of thinking about this overall exchange. As the facilitator, I am observing you and you are observing me. As the event unfolds, this back and forth will continue and I’ll be responding to your actions. Similarly, you are observing one another, the inner circle are observed by the outer.
A Spanish friend said to me that in Spain, most things happen around tables. Tables are the meeting point. He grew up in a village and he said that villagers would exchange chit chat, but the point was the interaction and the exchange, not what was said.
We are sat in circles, and yet there are many ways to meet and things to meet around.
I’ve been thinking about the way the space we meet in, and what we do in that space, may inform the relationships we have.
What is your experience of sitting around tables? What do you understand a table to be?
What do you understand a meeting to be, and what is your experience of them?
An Italian chef I once worked with in a cafe said to me, only when the plate is taken from an Italian’s table do they go out on the streets. This was his cynical view of Italians and how he saw them as complacent when it comes to protesting for what they believe in.
But I thought this was interesting. The food being taken away is the final straw. The pasta is the tipping point. There is a real importance placed on food.
Image credit: Olga Koreleva
The voice and acquiring knowledge
I’m interested to look at ways of testing the voice, dissecting a whole into parts, defining and reconstruct knowledge in accordance to the individual and group.
What forms of knowledge are there and what is given importance? As I have said, I want to give space for embodied and felt knowledge, and see this as adding to, rather than deviating from the conversation. Theoretical knowledge and factual knowledge can be broken apart and put back together by subjective knowledge. There is also the fact that we bring a bias, but exploring the limits of this bias based on our subjective knowledge is also exciting.
I’m interested in ways that multiple realities can exist in a room, how multiple voices (as opposed to one) can dissect objects, spaces, activities, moments, and what happens when we amalgamate the fragments.
Throughout this introduction I am quoting. I am aware that when someone quotes others, it can often feel like you are left with a fragmentary idea and you are limited in your understanding. However what I’m hoping to do here, is to bring additional voices into the room. These resources have helped me to think about my intention for this event and so they are a voice in the room, much like your own.
Speaking aloud is most of the time a form of improvisation, it is a way of hearing our ideas aloud and inevitably it brings perspective on them. We manifest realities in the moment of speaking them.
I am reading from a script, but I assure that I am also improvising, and throughout the next few hours, I will need to improvise a lot, and speak off the page. So hopefully this gives you some confidence that we are in some ways, in the same boat. And as I speak, I am acquiring knowledge. about what I still think is true and what I start to disagree with as I hear myself speak.
I want to paraphrase Uruguayan artist Louis Camnitzer, who said at the ‘Rights to the City’ conference on May 12th 2018 organised by The Serpentine:
“Don’t share your knowledge, share your innards, don’t make people idiots, explore your limits together.”
And this intention is something I’d like to keep in mind.
I was in a gallery recently and there was a group of students from an adult ed. course. The guide told me she took the group to different galleries to discuss the artworks together. During their visit, I followed them about the room, tuning into the way they used speech to arrive at meaning, and the way their observations were shaped by the fragments of another’s experience.
Is a voice in a room valuable?
Architecture and improvisation
For the final fishbowl I want to consider the function of architecture and it’s relationship to the body; informing, inventing, finding potential and responding out of necessity.
Architecture and the body are two physical spaces we know well but each of us very differently.
Ethnography is the study of peoples within their natural environment. We are all out of context, no one lives here, some of you work here, but essentially we just bring our bodies and our voices. They carry our subjectivity, and we bring with us the potential to alter the function of architecture.
I have been thinking about the the relationship between the space in which a group meet, and what we do in that space; and how that may inform or be informed by the relationships, needs and imaginations of the group.
In 1652 a door was cut through the original wall painting of the ‘The Last Supper’ in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, severing the feet of Jesus and nearby apostles. Which mean his feet only exist in the replicas. All for the purposes of circulation!
A friend said to me when we were stood here looking at The Last Supper, that you can’t view the whole paintings at once, you have to look at it in parts. This is partly the nature of the room, and perhaps the way we are accustomed to viewing work on this scale knowing the significance of the detail. This is a different fragmentary experience, experienced in the act of looking. It is also informed by architecture. Can we talk about details, tangential thoughts and ideas, parts of paintings we see in our periphery, without knowing anything about the whole?
There are situations in which a building changes its function. At what point does this happen, and what influences this shift?
A living room was once called the death room, when influenza was so widely spread and millions lost their lives after the end of first world war in 1918. Dead bodies would be kept in the front room before being taken for a funeral.
A friend pointed out that we can’t speak about this without also acknowledging that a living room is a luxury. To have the extra space in the house, not used for sleeping, cooking or washing is something that only a certain portion of society would relate to. What interests me though here is about the naming of this space. (It was in fact The Ladies Home Journal who suggested the Living Room be named, after the conditions improved.)
To give anything attention, do we need to dissect it? To understand it, should we find our own language for it?
What has your own body taught you about architecture?