Performing Conferencing: SMT’s Words and [  ], a durational conference


There are two ways of interpreting the concept of “making thinking,” a la School of Making Thinking (SMT), the producing entity behind Words and [  ], a durational conference, which took place in Montreal, May 6-8, 2016.

The first way of interpreting the two words put together is illustrated by the grassroots school’s logo, a dual Venn diagram of the two words, overlapping in a thin ellipse at the center. Here, making and thinking are envisioned as two distinct spheres which produce art and thought, respectively, overlaid and combined through SMT’s live-in forms of retreat, residency, group activity, and class.

The second way of interpreting the two words “making thinking” is as verbs, a description for acts, or processes, which are producing (or otherwise generating) thought and thinking-abilities. Performatively and creatively practiced by persons as they methodologize their own ways of thinking, making thinking processes might thus deal simultaneously with how thinking is performed and how making is thought through.

The first frame for making thinking perhaps more clearly proposes a functional and “readable” overlap between preexisting institutional and dialectical spheres of art and knowledge production. In his welcome announcement at the beginning of Words and [  ], a durational conference, one of the SMT founder’s, Aaron Finbloom, describes this overlap as a location and an intention for this conference. Through a microphone, Finbloom addresses an assembled body of conference presenters, performers, and participants who have gathered in the Darling Foundry’s sun-filled studio room on the rez-de-chaussée of the former ironworks and machine-assembly building. The idea with this conference, Finbloom says, is to “bridge” academic and art world practices, to bring together scholars and artists. He proposes that by combining and juxtaposing perspectives which are often mutually exclusive and separate, we may allow application of theory to artistic practice, and vice versa.  Hereby, both “artworlds,” i.e. distinct industries of dance, visual art, theater, and “academia,” i.e. distinct publishing industries and educational institutions, may share vocabularies, ideas, and methods held by one another, in order to strengthen, empower, and solidify their own (re)productive paradigms.

Certainly, both senses of the two words “making thinking” together—as overlapping spheres and as performed processes—are proposed by SMT’s mission statement. Throughout the conference, more complex, diverse, subtle, and perhaps more radical and active forms of making thinking processes continue to appear within, between, and throughout multiplicit, relational, and discursive presentations, performances, and workshop situations of the Words and [  ] conference.

Via its durational format and other organizational considerations, there is possibility for participants to enter into critical relationships with modes of production themselves (allowing conferencing to become inherently political) and embody collective processes themselves (experiencing conferencing as inherently personal).

The reason I am discussing this conference in this rather abstract way, and making a distinction initially between two different propositions for interpreting “making thinking,” is because I am struggling to select and pull out “threads” from this conference, in hopes of weaving together this response piece, while solely using either interpretation of “making thinking.” The former interpretation of making thinking (i.e. as two overlapping yet distinct spheres of “making” as art and “thinking” as academia) leads us first into discussions of how the conference was structured (and resisted structuring, also as per SMT’s mission statement), in terms of its economic, social, and political contexts.

Through the sense of the conference as a structure connecting two spheres of society (making and thinking), we might see that the conference publicity materials attempted to appeal to academic/thinking conference-goers (perhaps) by posing itself both as a “conference” and through “streams,” much like the platforms, themes, or topoi usually aiding conceptual and theoretical framing during traditional conferences, but also attempted to appeal to artists/makers (perhaps) by describing itself as a “community,” a kind of created/creative or constructed experience that could maintain certain qualities which multiply, diffuse, and “break down” hard norms and logics.

The general overview of the conference includes this description:

“Presentations cover a wide range of topics related to how words, not-words and quasi-words rub up with and against the intuitive, the sensuous and the embodied. As this theme cuts across art and thought, so too will our conference feature a diverse array of platforms that push-up against the word-centric methodologies of traditional conferences.”

Forms of “pushing up against” and “breaking down” seemed quite visible and were experienced directly in some ways. In other ways, especially in terms of the structure of the conference, some types of breakdown were intentionally, definitively prevented.

For example, distinctions between conference organizers, presenters, and participants were reinforced by color-coded string wristbands. In terms of economic exchange and value, registration involving three-tiered fees ($65/day, $20/day, suggested $10/pay-what-you-can per day) was strictly enforced at the front desk. In terms of time, the conference schedule was printed into a booklet with changes or absences clearly experienced as “flaws” or problems by most (although some subversions of time, scheduling, and presentation-identity were performed).  Additionally, since presenters and performers were encouraged to pay and were not paid, conference attendees can be described as predominantly privileged, young, childless, Canadian or American, and institutionally educated (of course via such a description, a few persons are positioned as exceptions). The objective to bring academics and artists, and their distinctly spherical ideas, together was doubtlessly fulfilled; however, other potential socio-political ruptures and radicalities were, in some ways, directly prevented by the conference’s selection and curation processes, its fees, its location in the expensive historical district of the colonial city of Montreal, and its legitimizing presence within a well-known art-world building, and perhaps by its borrowing of both academic conference and performance festival structures.

If, however, we see “making thinking” as creative methodologies for thinking, for example, we might not focus on the conference’s lack of structural radicality within capitalism, let’s say. Despite the necessity of critical reflection, a process-based frame acknowledges how it is nearly impossible to consider each and every structural element and weigh each possible set of pros and cons when one is designing such a project. It is not theoretically possible to fit every logistic to every ethic within a collaborative team, or to ever make an “ideal” durational performance of any kind. In comparison with other “performed conferences” including those I have co-organized and, for example, Association of Performance Art Berlin (APAB)’s Curating Performance Art as Artistic Practice conference, problematics stay fairly consistent with the intentions to confer: inclusion vs. exclusion, structure vs. flexibility, capitalism vs. ethics.

Moreover, it is often the case with alternative conferences such as this one, that a simpler and more “readable” structure, identifiable in comparison with existing structures, is more inclusive. It is also often the case that a more readable and traditional structure allows the presentations and situations “held within and during” it, to practice and situate intentional breakdown safely, without, for example, completely dissolving into chaos, arson, and drunkenness.

It seems that a constant suspension of binaries between academics and artists, between words and not-words, and other projections of distinct “spheres,” could be performed in order to enable a breakdown of such binaries and comprising recursivities, partly with a bias against “word-centrism” and general desire for “breakdown” of structures, due (perhaps) to our current association of structures, languages, and traditions with capitalism, imperialism, and kyriarchy.

(Perhaps) it is in a delicate balance between the two senses of “making thinking” that cool-headed (and occasionally nauseatingly neo-liberal, to my taste) forms of participation, collective ideation, barter and trade, gift, de-hierarchized discussion, sensual contact and interplay can be designed. How much can we “break down” without becoming too broken to survive?  How much of us can remain whole while we attempt to break free?

Within the conference, projects like Andreanne Abbondanza-Bergeron’s Traces performance dealt with the (in)stability of human-made structures, outlining feet, pieces of paper, podiums and mic stands, beer bottles, and sleeping bodies with thin masking tape. The traced shapes, as they accumulated, emphasized motility and fading short-term memory but also affected a feeling—in me at least—like a nostalgia or FOMO.  

Lo Bil’s performance was similarly “heart-breaking,” while remaining intentionally focused on theorizing breakage. While Bil demonstrated formal methodologies for improvising deeply personal improvised speech acts and connecting these with social performance processes, she also conjured emotional phenomena. Near the middle of her performance, Bil declared “I need to drop into an emotional place, drop into emotion” and then proceeded—so it seemed to me—to bind (“this is my bind, my bound,” she screamed) those present into a raw zero-source-point of body-mind, just for a moment.

Taking place across three days and three floors, the sheer volume of making thinking was overwhelmingly abundant, an overflow of ideation and interpersonal experience often ecstatically breaking down cohesions and coherencies. As I took notes in workshops and lectures, tucked handouts and texts into my notebook, and smoked cigarettes on the sidewalk outside the building, the only clear array of problematics that appeared to me constantly surrounded this binary between “making” and “thinking” and its similar and parallel binary, found in the title of the conference: Words and [  ].

This title, perhaps, with its all-important connective “and,” can be seen as a metaphor for much larger, deeper, and more epistemically-embedded dichotomies between sense vs. nonsense and knowledge vs. embodied sensation.

Is “art” engaged only in “nonsense,” while academic theory makes “sense”? Who decides what and how is sensible or insensible? How do forms of language which are not written or spoken rupture, resist, and reconfigure distinctions between not knowing and seeming to understand, thinking and feeling, body and mind? Must we associate words and language with coercive and extractive structures? Is it more valuable to understand, to communicate, or more valuable to feelingly express, misunderstand, take pleasure in confusion? Conference presentations and performances can perhaps be discussed through such delineating and dividing questions, seeming thereby to deconstruct and reconstruct methodological processes for making and thinking within and without such tensile binaries, spectrums, and dichotomizing conditionings.

In other words, the pitching of a dichotomy between Words and [ ], and between making and thinking, allowed the conference’s 100+ multiform sessions to argue for one sphere over another, and/or to move beyond division and definition of such spheres into projection of analogous and associated binary distinctions as well as into performative locations for resistant syntheses and alternate models, modes, and ideations.

Some sessions seemed to argue for the primacy of sense and “words” as tools and technologies towards greater collective understanding and communication. For example, K.G. Guttman’s It’s like hammering into nothing when I speak it simply re-read truncated transcriptions of the artist’s conversation with a mentor 7 years ago, emphasizing the interest-value of recorded conversation. More complexly, SALYER + SCHAAG’s durational participatory performance (Breathing and Moving: A Gestural Orchestra) involved carefully-worded performance instructions on time-stamped cards meant to be opened and interpreted causing relationally-aesthetic performances to pop up in the hall, posing language as delicate connective tissue through time and between strangers.  On the other hand, projects like Michael Mersereau’s sound-collage of screams seemed to argue for the primacy of “[  ]” as a tactic for dissolving, puncturing, and resisting the universalizing and homogenizing or seemingly anti-sensual constructions of words and language. Many more sessions, however, operated in tension with dichotomies themselves, some in now-familiar post-structural deconstructivity, others proposing synthesis, constructive discordance, formal disruptions, or conceptual blendings as methodological and magical “third options.”

For example, conference co-curator Adriana Disman’s Peux-tu remplacer ta peur de l’inconnu avec de la curiosite? (trans. Can you replace your fear of the unknown with curiosity?) described in the program by the artist as “not about meaning, narrative, or emotion,” but instead “tension without the spectacle,” in which Disman firmly held the sides of an electric kettle while ice melted into water and then came to a boil, at least three times.  

Tom Haviv, in his talk Index of New Words, framed his digital project with Owen Roberts as an exploration of mathematically making nonsense. Their website is a pseudo-algorithmic program that conjoins prefixes such as “crypto-,“ “mytho-,“ and “homo-“ with Oxford University’s list of English nouns. Generating new words automatically and without “subjective judgment,” this public website outgrows Shakespeare, Paul Celan, and Dada to overwhelm the nonsense-creation capacities of poetics and other aesthetic acts of portmanteau, ideogram, or compound wordsmithery lead by conscious subjects. In discussion, this project is associated with Haviv’s interest in his grandmother’s tongue Ladino, and other rare creole languages. While the discussion did not make a clear connection between the art project of the website and Haviv’s language scholarship, the conference context allowed subsequent conversations to use Haviv’s language to deal with the power paradigms of sense-making and distribution (see Jacques Ranciere), theorizing that the website challenges the capital value of “new wor(l)ds” as brands or terms (i.e. “iPod” and terms like “affect” alike) just as a Creole languages challenge the value(s) of imperialist/colonialist wor(l)ds.

Throughout the conference, dominant hierarchies and value-schemas that extract sense from nonsense did often re-appear or were intentionally re-proposed, either allowing discussion and attitudes to fall into a simple “art = nonsense and language = sense” paradigm and/or materializing the issue to enable direct confrontation with this paradigm. Some presentations and performances seemed to demand a “pure nonsense” as “pure emotion/affect,” projecting radical forms of destabilizing, rupturing, or disorienting anti-language and/or resistance to language, as with Valerie Kuehne’s slug sex, during which the artist mixed and offered up a bowl of tuna fish, BBQ sauce, hot sauce, chocolate, and peanut butter, or Lorene Bouboushian’s pop-up performance in the Garage in which the artist violently manipulated the dusty boards and chairs in the space while singing/muttering “what a special bunch of snacks…” and dumped a bucket of water on her head outside on the street. Projects and processes which swung towards the guttural, gestural, musical, echolaliac, emotive, and abstract were often scheduled in this concrete-floored garage space, while more traditional lectures and PowerPoint presentations—though often humorous, casual, and personal, still unfolding through linear speech and suspended in a web of dialectical terms and references to philosophers—tended to happen on the second floor mezzanine, the “soapbox” or in the large studio room.  Alt-form lectures by Bruno Duarte (Text, Image, Translation), and Jordan Arseneault’s Gesture Trouble occurred in these spaces as well.

[Jef Barbara, Soft to the Touch (2014). Jordan Arseneault’s lecture involved a mass dance to this song, which I now can’t get out of my head and will forever associate with this conference for many reasons.)]

Jenna Swift’s workshop, which occurred several times over the course of the conference, took place within an installation tucked intimately beneath the metal spiral staircase. Inviting participants to sit with her at a table, Swift discussed parallels between natural processes of sedimentation, sifting, eroding, electrical induction, and writing. Swift gave bowls of coal, fluorite, and wasp-nest paper to participants for tactile engagement, showing us burnt out antique spark plugs, the work of Romanian visual artist Miruna Dragan, heavy sand from the Athabasca Dunes, texts by Helene Cixous and many others, and scrying mirrors. Moving through frames and contexts, this workshop made no distinction between making and thinking, between “nature” and “constructed language” or between natural and human-made materials. Rather, Swift addressed processes themselves, asking how humans are involved in material and materializing patterns and processes.

Conference co-producer and co-curator Anique Vered’s Pirate Radio project provided an aural and technologic analog to this fluid and intuitive inquiry. Performed in collaboration with associate producer Brian McCorkle and disseminated through radios scattered throughout the conference spaces and sites, the Pirate Radios’ sputtering sonic fields swam in and out of recognizable speech and textural harmonics, broadcasting podcasts by Eastern Bloc, performances by Erin Hill (Radio is Dance, Radio Project), and Crystalgriche, among many other performances, open jams, and shows. The pirate radio platform also hosted ongoing “live conference live” sessions, during which McCorkle wandered the spaces with a transmitter, narrating the goings-on, and [insert your tongue here], daily open dialogues moderated by Vered.  The presence of this radio project influenced the atmosphere of the conference overall, much like the way that background music in a restaurant allows people to talk without too much self-consciousness about being overheard by strangers. It also provided something to listen to and engage with between sessions, while waiting for lunch, or when overstimulation demanded that one simply find a place to sit with eyes closed.

There were often periods during this conference when I became overwhelmed to the brink of panic attack, or wasn’t sure what was happening, or seemed to be unable to find a place or point that could hold me. I didn’t have much luck choosing to go to certain sessions; more often I stumbled into this or that, and was grateful for the moments when I found myself deeply immersed in a session, such as Courtney Mackadanze’s thoughtful Laban-influenced dance workshop using the word “maybe” to design choreographies, and Ellen Belshaw’s drawing and writing workshop during which we blissfully made marks and drew and played with bits of paper, tape, nail polish, and other found materials for almost two hours.     

The “habitus” of this conference, as the program notes clearly state, certainly existed in “in between” modes of experience, encouraging “methodological breakdown.” This breakdown was perhaps felt most deeply by the conference organizers, who were pushed to the very limits of awareness and ability due to lack of sleep and durational organizing tasks yet still kept the huge metabolism digesting and compending. Those of us who slept on the wooden and concrete floors of the Darling Foundry all night or wandered the halls experiencing Elaine Thap’s all-night installation Aural Fixation and Fortner Anderson’s poignant 12-hour reading of 256 poems and dates for 110 days without poems, Reading Light (il faut continuer, I can’t go on, je vais continuer), also found many moments of surreality, segue, and uncanny sensate subsistence echoing experience with homelessness and travel, evoking the transient and exhaustingly circular spaces of hospitals and rehabilitation centers, universities, museums, libraries, and dreams.

In this piece of writing, I mention only a few of the projects I directly experienced; any subject participating in this conference could only access it partially, as sessions overlapped, appeared and faded away, even dissolved into the structure of the building.  While this methodological breakdown certainly makes it difficult to wholly report this durational conference, a deep value to conferencing in such ways might be described by a chiastic statement: we don’t do these projects to have done them, we do these projects to be doing them. Once such conferences have passed, we are left with pages of hastily-scrawled quotes, little sketches, URLs, e-mail addresses of those we met, phones full of snaps, and perhaps new terms, both terms in the sense of words which (make) matter to us, and terms of engagement with other maker-thinkers, situations, and processes of making thinking.

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