Talking Points


In 2014, I gave a talk at a biannual arts festival called the Williamsburg Circus (yes, I know) on behalf of the design collective BF Bifocals. I conceived of the talk after reading a monograph of work by the artist Michael Asher, who refused to name his works even “Untitled,” ensuring that their every mention would require a comprehensive unpacking of the way his installations worked.

The organizer invited BF Bifocals to present work, and with the Circus billed as a performance festival and BF’s other members dispersed around the country, I agreed to perform. The other participants spanned the gamut of contemporary and traditional performing arts: singer-songwriters, an alt-lit poet reading off an iPhone, various other readings, a performance art piece, etc.

I had stopped working in the arts and diverted BF’s efforts away from them largely because I felt, after lengthy discussions and writing between the group, that art, particularly a socially or civically responsible art, was an impossible thing to extract from the venues, audiences, and presumptions of contemporary art. To do something that might actually be for (or even in support of) marginalized or at-risk communities seemed like a giant misfire, like preaching to deaf ears.

After working on Drone Activity, which allowed Ben Seretan and I to put together a book and reading experience in immediate conversation with the audience to which it was presented (a meditation on the implications of particular art venues and communities, for a crowd of art book fairgoers), I became excited by our success with extremely focused content for a very specific audience.

For the Williamsburg Circus talk, I decided not to prepare. If the fair, held in a progressive lefty church, was to draw clean, professional young performers from across the spectrum of what we readily recognize as the “performing arts,” one could expect the delivery to be polished (or adorably packaged as otherwise, in the case of the poets). I also guessed that, due the festival’s size and near invisibility, the majority of the audience members would be friends or collaborators of the other performers.

I felt that to get anywhere near that place of unraveling that art can take us to, where concepts become fluid and our own beliefs unhinge, I would have to completely get rid of the sense of preparedness and forethought that would accompany the other work. Instead, I returned to a lot of reading, and quickly jotted some reminders down on my phone throughout the preceding days. My goal was simply to openly criticize the nature of the festival by suggesting there is a certain failure of aesthetics behind closed doors.

I spoke for about fifteen to eighteen minutes, tying loose threads from experiences and readings together, stopping, stammering, thinking — also reminding the audience verbally to get comfortable with the long pauses. As I had just been interviewed regarding BF Bifocals, my opinion of the failures and successes of aesthetics were highly available: around the pauses, which occurred fairly naturally, I spoke fluently and fervently. But without a script, I tried to discourage any possibility that my delivery was itself an artwork or performance, or that there was any kind of separation between the audience and me.

As I progressed, people felt comfortable asking questions or interjecting. When I described Mohammed, a bodega cashier in my then neighborhood, I conjured a man who loved to learn and had often spoken wisely about life but would absolutely never interact with a festival or group of people in the present setting. Thinking that was a fairly obvious assessment, I was stunned when one of the organizers cheerily asked, “Why?”

The word illuminated a great deal of the ignorance of a community in New York that has so long sat in its own filth. The litany of reasons rushed to my tongue:

This is an arts festival (a what?) in a church (he’s Muslim) in Williamsburg (he lives in East New York) filled with young (he’s about 40) white (he’s Yemeni) overeducated (nope) people.

I realized I would have to stay after the festival and talk with anyone that wanted to (a number of concerns arose). Having brought my camera, I described the film I had brought (expired Tungsten film that the Met had used to catalogue work back in the day) and offered to speak with everyone until they were satisfied, on the condition that they let me shoot their portrait.

I stayed for about forty-five minutes after the festival talking with a group of different audience members, some delightfully curious and others quite angry. One of the participants allegedly complained to the organizers about my lack of preparation. I can say comfortably that the talk was the only work that generated any discussion at the festival, though I really liked one of the poets. The only record I have of the event are the notes from my phone (bracketed content added) and this portrait of one conversant. I didn’t record her name.

Why I’m here
What I am doing
Bodega guy (would not come to this)
[Max] Bill on purpose in design
Flying Lotus interview
[“With as much access as we have to all this stuff, to our musical history, our world history, we definitely can be killing shit way crazier, I feel—there's way more room to grow, we're just getting started, I feel.”]
Not excluding
Not destroying arts communities
How to bring in outside
You can’t?