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Sport 35: Winter 2007

Amy Howden-Chapman — A Week of Talk

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Amy Howden-Chapman

A Week of Talk

On Saturday I plan to go to a talk. Beforehand I go shopping, but there is nothing beautiful or cheap in any shops I go into. At 2 p.m. when the talk is beginning I am still down the other end of town. Arriving at the talk, I sit down next to a friend and ask her what I've missed. She also arrived late and can't fill me in. Four different women are talking about the documentation of art work. Examples of documentations are projected on to the wall behind where the speakers are sitting, but it is a sunny day and the gallery has no curtains, and the projections can't compete with such conditions. My friend and I have to leave early as we've made an arrangement to catch a lift to the swimming pool. While we're flutter-boarding we discuss what was said at the talk. My friend says that she thinks it would be a good idea for us to interview each other, as a form of documentation, after we complete each of our works. My mother paddles past and asks about the talk. We give her a rundown of what was said, and she comments that artists these days seem to be very concerned with themselves.

On Monday my class is cancelled so I go to a lunchtime talk. Charlotte is talking about a recent show she curated. There are only five of us there including Charlotte. There're hot cross buns and tea. Everyone splits open their bun before biting into them, and everyone comments on how few raisins they contain. One person has only one raisin.

On Tuesday evening after work I arrive at the talk to find there is beer and juice which puts me in a good mood. I sit on the couch at the back and drink alternately from my glass of juice and my bottle of beer. The two speakers, Louise and Liz, stress their desire that the talk be as much of a discussion as possible. The subject of discussion is socially engaged art. A general consensus emerges that terms used to define such art are problematic, as is the relationship of such art to page 23the gallery space. I have planned to leave at 7 in order to make dinner for my family, but I keep putting off leaving because everyone seems to have quite a bit to say on the subject and I enjoy contributing my opinion.

When I finally get to my parents' house there is no one there except Bevan. He has been there for an hour by himself. He began frying some onions and garlic but when no one turned up he turned them off. We wait around until it can be assumed that they are all eating out somewhere, then we put the onions in a plastic container and take them home.

On Wednesday our teacher cancels our class so that we can go and hear Ian Wedde. He shows some images, including a watercolour from the 1840s of a seven-storey tower built by a northern Maori tribe as part of the feasting ceremony. As far as I can tell he is calling for a new museological method combining historical artefacts and images, methods that will reveal the complex narratives that exist in New Zealand history and society. He hopes that such narratives will reverse the culturally homogenising effects of branding campaigns, such as 100% Pure New Zealand. He apologises for being so utopian, but the audience doesn't seem to mind. They break into discussion about the tower; someone asks if it really was as high as it appears in the watercolour, someone else confirms that it was, and says that after they used the structure to display the food they used the wood of the structure to cook the food.

On Thursday we go and hear my Dad talk about climate change at 7×7. 7×7 is seven different speakers talking about seven different issues for seven minutes each. The chair of the event begins by asserting that if you can't explain something in seven minutes, it's not worth explaining. He explains the theme of the evening—'Taking Wellington to the World'. He goes on about being a creative capital and goes over time by 30secs. We can tell because there is a huge plasma screen at the front of the stage counting down time from seven minutes to zero. The next speaker gives a punchy presentation about aggressively integrating into the global economy. He tells us to 'dream big dreams' and that as New Zealanders we have to fight against the 'tyranny of page 24reasonableness'. Peter Jackson, he reminds us, is not reasonable. The event ends with a motivational speaker, who is not so much a speaker as a preacher. She makes the entire audience stand up and clap and chant 'One Voice—One Word—One Understanding'. Afterwards, walking towards dinner, we add up how many of the speakers were trying to sell us stuff. There was the guy trying to sell his educational DVDs about walking the Great Wall of China, and Rod the designer selling the dream abode, a prefabricated home designed in New Zealand and manufactured in China. Rod's challenges to us was to make magic manageable. We all feel slightly dazed, but have to admit to each other that group clapping is vaguely fun.

On Saturday afternoon I go to a simultaneous movie and discussion organised by Tao. When we arrive Tao is jerking around in the corridor outside the theatre trying to get things ready. He's wearing a white T-shirt that has Sale written on it in black letters. He also has a piece of something white, paper, or tissue, stuck just above his lip. I assume the piece of paper's a joke, and I'm about to ask him about it, but it occurs to me just in time that he must have cut himself shaving, he was probably nervous about making this afternoon go smoothly, which made his hands unsteady, causing a nick. I wish him good luck, and move off to find a seat without looking too much in the direction of the tissue. The film Tao's organised is of Joseph Beuys giving a lecture in New York in the 70s. Because most of what Joseph Beuys says is pretty oblique and he says it in a thick German accent and the sound quality is pretty bad, Tao has distributed multiple remotes to the audience. As soon as anyone gets lost, he tells us, we have to stop the film, and then as an audience we will collectively try and figure out what Beuys is going on about. The auditorium where Beuys is speaking is packed. There are not enough seats to seat all the people who want to hear him talk, and many people have been denied access, so for the first part of the film there is the sound of constant banging from people trying to get in. The film shows Beuys getting people up on stage to ask him questions, but they don't bother to ask him about art, they just ask him how he can justify allowing his public talk to be closed to so many members of the public. I compare the audience in New York page 25with us in Wellington, and conclude that people became far more impassioned about public art talks back then.

Tao is the first member of the audience to pause the film. So what's going on? he asks, and a discussion starts up, but it seems to be more a discussion about the strange circumstances of the auditorium where Beuys is talking, than about Beuys's theories on art. We watch for another half-hour or so; we see Beuys take off his fur jacket, recline on the couch on the stage and point at his diagrams on the blackboard, all while talking into a microphone which he orbits around his mouth.

The next pause is not for discussion, it's for a break. People wander out to get coffee and use the toilet, but the film has started up again and I have to leave soon so I keep watching. Beuys has a smile like an African animal; he talks about the importance of altruism in art and in society. I have to leave, though I wish I didn't. I wave to Tao as I sneak out; he is drawing diagrams on large sheets of paper he has stuck to the walls of the theatre. I think the diagrams are an attempt to put into order what we as audience have been saying about Beuys's talk. I expect everyone to be milling around in the foyer waiting in line for coffee and talking about art, and Beuys's part in the formation of the German Green party, and the myth of the man, but there is no one in the foyer, they weren't taking an intermission, they just left. I suppose people just don't like spending their Saturday afternoons talking about talks.