Magazine article Artforum International

Silent Partners: Richard Meyer on "Intimate Collaborations"

Magazine article Artforum International

Silent Partners: Richard Meyer on "Intimate Collaborations"

Article excerpt

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I tried to persuade the artist Barbara Kruger to participate in an event I was organizing at the University of Southern California called "Contemporary Conversations." Seeking to move beyond the staid format of most academic conferences, the event featured a series of unscripted dialogues among artists, critics, and curators. Kruger was reluctant to participate, telling me she was more interested in "the moments between or before" conference presentations--the things said backstage, shared among the audience, or discussed at the reception afterward--than in the presentations themselves. 1 countered that there could be no moments "in between" unless there was a main event: We needed to stage a public conversation in order to provoke private exchanges and impromptu responses.

Kruger ultimately agreed to speak, but her hesitation stayed with me, even long after the event. How, I wondered, could private or sotto voce exchanges become part of a shared public dialogue? And what, exactly, has happened to "official" institutional conversations that renders them less vibrant than what happens behind the scenes, offstage, or in sundry pockets of the audience?

I attempted a provisional answer by using the last morning of "Contemporary Conversations" for informal discussion in a Los Angeles art bar. By staging the meeting off-campus, I hoped to loosen the reins of professional hierarchy and academic posturing. But it was what followed our bar conversation that really changed the group's dynamics: an impromptu visit to "Passages," an exhibition by Walead Beshty at LAXART, a nearby alternative art space. "Passages" included a mirrored glass floor that became increasingly cracked as visitors stepped on it. According to the LAXART press release, Beshty's floor functioned as a part of his ongoing investigation into "modernity's transitory and indeterminate spaces." But three members of our group--one professor, two graduate students, all women, and each wearing a skirt--had quite a different reaction to the installation. Each was palpably discomfited by the public exposure of their bodies that Beshty's mirrored floor enacted. Rather than remaining on the margins of our group tour, the experience of the three women became a central component of our discussion, and in this way something that might have gone unspoken was suddenly brought into public discourse.

I found myself thinking about this episode during a recent weekend spent at another conference, this one titled "Intimate Collaborations." Organized by the University of Pennsylvania scholar and critic Kaja Silverman, the conference was inspired by the exhibition "Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an unprecedented examination of the role of collaboration in the work of five leading twentieth-century artists. The conference marked the second in a series of public events organized by Silverman in conjunction with a $1.5 million Distinguished Achievement Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The award--the single largest prize in the humanities outside the Nobel--bespeaks Silverman's extraordinary stature within the field.

For all Silverman's prominence, however, she could not bring to pass a primary ambition of the conference. Initially conceived as a joint effort between the university and the museum, "Intimate Collaborations" was ultimately mounted entirely at the former. Tensions between the two establishments hovered just outside the official discourse of the conference, which studiously avoided any direct mention of a problem in working across institutional boundaries. But that knowledge surfaced in private exchanges among audience members, and in the conspicuous absence of any museum staff from the official conference program.

I never discovered precisely what had gone awry in the working relationship between museum and university. …

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