Talk, Talk

by Robert Storr

The trials and tribulations of the international lecture circuit

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Marina Abramović performs Public Drill at Manchester International Festival 2009. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York and the artist; photograph: Marco Anelli

Marina Abramović performs Public Drill at Manchester International Festival 2009. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York and the artist; photograph: Marco Anelli

A while ago, on a bank of hard seats under anaemic lighting, I found myself in the same airport waiting-room as Oliver North. Readers whose awareness of art history dates to the ‘Sensation’ show, and whose sense of history reaches back to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, will recall that the affable, opaque, ever ‘gung-ho’ Colonel ‘Ollie’ North was the linchpin of an arms-for-hostages scandal in which the affable, opaque, ever ‘gung-ho’ President Ronald Reagan circumvented an embargo on selling guns to Iran in order to obtain the release of American hostages in Tehran while simultaneously funding US misadventures in Central America. After giving testimony before a Senate committee, North, the uniformed bagman, became the defrocked fall guy for this inoperable ‘op’. Since then, he has made the rounds of Neo-Con lecture opportunities to pay the bills his military pension doesn’t cover.

So there ‘Ollie’ was at 5:40am, waiting for a flight to who-knows-where, to give a speech about who-knows-what, most likely followed by a rubber chicken dinner, a half-night in a motel, and another pre-dawn flight to who-knows-where-else. And there I was supplementing my museum income by taking the red-eye to a college here or an Institute of Contemporary Art there. And, in the only circumstances possible, I felt a kind of Willy Loman-like solidarity with this icon of Reaganite black-market middle-management. Strange bench-fellows indeed!

Actually, we are legion. And if the ‘have-mouth-will-travel’ circuit-riders of the cultural industry are less numerous than pundits in other fields and, on the whole, less well paid – John Waters makes a bundle but he’s a Hollywood cross-over and, like Orson Welles, finances his marginally bankable films by cameo appearances on campuses and at art-world events – then the life of the professional talker is pretty much the same, no matter what the subject or the venue.

The most dependable but generally least lucrative art world gig is as a ‘visiting artist/critic’. It usually involves showing up in a place starved of information and contact with the wider world, giving a public slide presentation, a seminar and studio critiques – interrupted by breakfast, lunch and dinner – with local faculty, patrons and eager young artists. It can be fun if one savours the eccentricities of people and places as I do, but it is gruelling nevertheless. If one does not enjoy being ‘out there’ and, worse, if one is inclined to condescend to audiences assumed to be less sophisticated than those in big cities, then things can go very wrong. I have often been in the slipstream of certified Gotham players – the scold of a major daily paper, for example, or the gadfly of a glossy weekly – and listened to tales of their inattention to the hosts and their lazy performance of an overly familiar act, usually aggravated by glibness, snarkiness or outright arrogance. Roadshow hot-shots beware! Busy boom-towners flip through what you write and fear your power; out-of-towners read it and can quiz you on what you said and derisively repeat your shtick while ignoring the clout they’re sure you’ll never use to their advantage.

Visiting artists who are welcome on the tour give good weight. Those who make a lasting impact give much more than expected. Plus, they have a sense of timing with regard to what they offer. I still remember Lynda Benglis at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, in the late 1970s ducking into virtually all of the studios after her lecture, and, a glass of Scotch in hand, spending most of the afternoon and much of the evening engaging one-on-one with every student who risked showing her their work. Nayland Blake did the same a few years later. Their insight and generosity changed lives.

Time will tell if Marina Abramović’s recent visit to Yale changed lives, but it should. This is a big year for the artist – a retrospective at MoMA, New York, a biography from MIT Press – though she nevertheless spent two days with students who sought her out because no formal performance curriculum exists. What they got was a full blast of her energy and a no-way-to-fake-it crash course in paying attention to mind and body. They also got to participate in a choral reading of her freshly penned ‘Artist’s Life Manifesto’, which effectively co-opted them into expressing ideals few budding artists dare proclaim in this sceptical age. It was like listening to some Utopian Youth League channel a Postmodern Ad Reinhardt. Abramović’s words to the wise included:
‘An artist should be erotic.’
‘Suffering brings transformation.’
‘An artist has to understand silence.’
‘An artist should avoid his own art pollution.’
‘The artist should give and receive at the same time.’
Amen to all, the last especially.

Robert Storr

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.

frieze magazine

January–February 2010
Issue 128

First published in Issue 128

January–February 2010

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