Conversation and the Arts

Posted 1 year ago by Catherine Colwell

It was the written word that seeded A Year of Conversation 2019. Jorge Fondebrider, an Argentinian poet, commented at a launch in Edinburgh (of The Other Tiger - Recent Poetry from Latin America, edited by Richard Gwyn) how hard it is to have a conversation with us because we are 'missing half the conversation'. He was referring to the paucity of translated literature available here; what has been called 'the three per cent problem'. The idea of ‘translation as conversation’ lodged with me and I began a long series of conversations with arts practitioners and arts organisations about the role of conversation in their art forms and the importance they attached to it as social interchange/engagement. From the outset the methodology and the endpoint of A Year of Conversation has been and is conversation. The arts have special qualities for the nurturing of conversation, concerned as they are with communication, expression, empathy and curiosity: everyone I speak to ‘gets it’.
It was also clear and becoming clearer how rare these qualities are becoming in daily life – private and political. In Reclaiming Conversation, Shelly Turkle writes of nurturing empathy through conversation, while Theodore Zeldin, in Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, sees the opportunity for conversation to transform a culture through re-establishing itself in our private spaces. My conversations led to the identification of five key themes: translation as conversation, conversation in a digital world, conversation as a social good, conversation as event and conversation across art forms and across borders. The last of these stems from the fact that, if translation can be seen as conversation, all collaboration is a form of conversation.
Over the years, I have worked with a wide range of artists – printmakers, bookmakers, collage artists, ceramicists, sound artists and jazz and folk musicians. At times, the conversation before the ‘conversation’ of the work itself, was extensive, at other times necessary but cursory; but each time I experienced the enrichment that comes with learning another language. Improvisatory jazz may provide the most obvious value of listening in conversation, but there is a listening in any successful collaborative conversation. Such projects, in my experience, confound arithmetic by demonstrating how 1+1=3.
The flexibility of conversation is one of its main attributes as an overarching theme. Here, for example, we could branch off into a consideration of the importance of conversation in the development of individual artists. In his essay, The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg [1], Jonathan Katz quotes Rauschenberg, saying, ‘Jasper and I used to start each day by having to move out from Abstract Expressionism.’ Later in the essay, Johns tells of the nature of their conversation. ‘The kind of exchange we had was stronger than talking. If you do something then I do something then you do something, it means more than what you say. It’s nice to have verbal ideas about painting but better to express them through the medium itself.’ Similarly, the correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, recounted in Becoming a Poet by David Kalstone, illustrates the importance of conversation (written, spoken or visual) in creating a context for the furtherance of artistic practice. We might also consider – in contemplative vein – the conversation that artists have with absence, from the imprint of a hand in a darkened cave to W. S. Graham’s conversations with Silence:
Listen. And even silence
Has turned away. Listen.   (from 'Letter VII')
A Year of Conversation has an extensive range of partners (and in the digital age, international reach) – the Scottish Book Trust, Scottish Storytelling Centre, The Scottish Poetry Library, The Edinburgh International and the Wigtown Book Festivals, The Scottish Playwrights' Studio, The Stove Arts Collective, Voluntary Arts Scotland, Literature Alliance Scotland and so on. I have had stimulating conversations with them all about conversation and the focus/highlighting they might give A Year of Conversation in their programmes. What makes a good conversation? To my mind it’s curiosity and that is why Wigtown Book Town and A Year of Conversation is joining with Glasgow University Dumfries to celebrate A Day of Curiosity at Wigtown on 8 June 2019.
The Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky commented that, ‘Our times are characterised by the loss of rituals, but it is important to have rituals in order to find our way back to ourselves on a regular basis.’ In the world Tarkovsky depicts, how might artists/creative people (all of us) devise A Ritual (or Rituals) for Conversation (for two people to five thousand)? The ritual should be straightforward as a recipe and as nourishing. If any of the readers of Arts Professional would like to get cooking and to share their recipes, I'd love to hear from them.
A Year of Conversation 2019 – Creative Director Tom Pow, Producer, Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust (Dumfries)

[1]Included in Significant Others, Creativity and Intimate Partnership, edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle Courtivon (1993)

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