Conversation Is Hard Mar 8, 2013

by Tim Smith-Stewart

Sometimes group conversations and public discourse about art (arts criticism, art education, art and activism, arts and commerce, etc) stress me out.

Probably because I’ve invested way too much of my time in those conversations, attending four years of art school and investing in grassroots activism (Occupy). 


I continue to invest, because I love conversation. Meaningful dialogue between two or many people, dialogue about art that inspires and challenges my thinking about the world.

Those rare beautiful moments. Like when my friend Mark, who's a social worker/activist/former hard core punk frontman, drank with me and my collaborators after our last performance and proceeded to affirm everything we’d hoped and dreamed our work might communicate, and we gave Mark a collective high five for making us feel like we accomplished something meaningful for another person.


When we (me and my amazing collaborators) were building and rehearsing in the Hugo House parking lot and a ten year-old boy with unrelenting curiosity demanded that we define and articulate our work to him, ultimately ending with him begging his father to take him to our show. 

And many more moments we’ve all shared of usually spontaneous, informal chats over food and drink that allow us to reflect on work and inspire us into new work. 

But formal, group conversation and public discourse on art (and many other topics) often stresses me out and dissuades me from engagement because “conversation”  as Andy put its in the beginning of the show, “is hard.”  I don’t remember the exact quote but it was something to the effect of, “opinions are easy but conversation is hard.” 

Especially in a public forum like the internet (comment sections).

Andy and Jeremy, the creators of Culturebot, and the lecture/event/performance Everyone’s a Critic at OTB last night, are bravely attempting to inspire and cultivate that type of honest, insightful, meaningful conversation—a continuous dialogue amongst artists, audiences, and reviewers that inspires individual artists and fuels a thriving art community.

What I’d like to share in this blog is that real conversation happened last night, in a beautiful, surprising way. I got stressed out a couple times  (there was some yelling happening at the critics’ table), and I got frustrated a couple times, but I was also inspired, and had meaningful interactions with strangers, and that’s awesome. Also pretty rare. 

When Olivia, a high-school member of the Teen Tix press corps, shared her process of wrestling with non-linear, abstract performance at On The Boards, she brilliantly articulated  her desire to understand the seemingly unrelated moments of Kyle Loven’s Loss Machine, eventually accepting her visceral experience, where a sock puppet’s poetic monologue “sent shivers down her spine” and she stopped caring if she understood at all. I saw Kyle in the audience and I wonder how he felt. I felt validated and moved, lucky to be invited into this young person’s open-hearted experience of the show - and it wasn’t even my work. 

On the bus ride home from OTB, I asked my friends if they’d felt that they’d engaged in an honest conversation during the night. 3/4 of us agreed that we had. 3/4 ain’t bad. In fact, I think its kind of amazing.

Moments of honest conversation are rare, especially rare within the context of a performance. In the end, I think, we as performers and performance-makers hope that our work communicates and creates dialogue. I certainly do. But creating the public space for conversation is hard and I’m glad Jeremy and Andrew (amongst other wonderful people) are taking on this challenge. And I’m glad they opened up a space for us last night. Thanks Jeremy and Andy!