Off the cuff

Off the cuff gallery talk

Off the cuff gallery talk

A while back, I joined in several online discussions of a wonderful essay by Jennifer L. Roberts on “The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention” (Harvard Magazine). To boil this down to the essentials for the TL;DR crowd (which, in this case, would be an ironic approach), looking at art takes a lot of time, and if we slow down enough, we will be startled by how much we can find that we missed on quicker looks. The corollary is that this is a great assignment for students. Angie Bennett Segler was among the first I knew to take up the challenge, and brought her students to the Met for just such a “slow looking” activity. She wrote a series of posts, including posts of student work resulting from the visit (here, here, here, AND here).

I love this assignment, and l am a devotee of slow looking, something that is central to my art historical practice. Just about every summer, I hie myself hence to England, so that I can spend long, more-or-less uninterrupted days in manuscript reading rooms, looking at works. Sometimes, I spend eight hours with a single folio, and yes, yes, YES, there is a lot to be seen, if we give these works the time they require. (Sometimes unintentionally — in my notes from a visit to the British Library to view the Hexateuch, there is bit of panic: “One hour in, one folio, one image of 400….”) Indeed, I’ve even blogged on this site about the value of “slow looking,” though I didn’t yet have that term at hand.

This is all my way of prefacing a post where I’m going to push back, just a bit, by arguing for the value of fast looking. And fast thinking. And, of course, fast talking. Three points of inspiration are swirling together, here, for me — two events (one planned, one accidental) and one document: a Kalamazoo talk, a gallery talk, and a manifesto (yes, our manifesto).

At one ICMS, shortly after I had arrived at Kalamazoo, I got a note from my good friend and colleague, Derek Newman-Stille, telling me that he had taken very ill, and would not be able to attend the conference, where he was scheduled to give a talk called “Getting under Your Skin: The Monstrous Subdermal” in a MEARCSTAPA session I co-organized. He asked if I could deliver his paper for him, and of course I agreed to do so. I didn’t have access to a printer, and anyway, did not receive the talk until a few minutes before the session began. I borrowed a friend’s iPad (thanks, Kat), and delivered the paper, sight-unseen. It was a lovely paper, but it was in a voice very different from my own writing. The style and syntactic strategies were not mine, and since I had not had any time to review the paper, I had to interpret it on the fly. I agreed with most of the argument, though not all of it (fine points of distinction that monster studies folks like Derek and I delight in bickering over).

I was reminded, as I read, of my experience with the Occupy movement, and its use of the Human Microphone. As Richard Kim writes, “The human mic is …, of course, an egalitarian instrument, and it exudes solidarity over ego.” When I deliver my talks, written by me, edited by me, and performed by me, me, me, there is (yes, I know you know) plenty of ego in the process. And it was refreshing for me to subjugate a section thereof, to give it over to Derek’s words and ideas. It was also an instant and spontaneous collaboration. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and preferably next time Derek will be in the room, healthy, and he can, sight-unseen, deliver my essay, before or after I deliver his. We should all do this, regularly. Write talks, and swap them at the very last moment before our sessions. It was fascinating.

The second event that got me thinking about this was when two of my colleagues — a painter and a sculptor — collaborated on an exhibition at a local gallery, “James Kuiper + Sheri Simons: Placing,” at 1078 Gallery. Months before this, they invited me to come to the studio to talk some about my research on maps and mapping, and told me just a bit about their plans to produce a show based on maps and aerial photographs of our own region, up here in the North State. Closer to the opening, they asked me if I would give a spontaneous talk on the show at the opening, without any prior access to the works. They wanted me to walk in, look at the works, and give the talk immediately. I cheated by arriving a few minutes before the talk was scheduled. This meant that I was able to at least get a quick look at all the works.

It was nuts. And it was great fun. I thought it was a fabulous process, and I’d definitely do it again. (If you are curious, it was recorded by the gallery, and is online here.) I had enough time to jot a few notes and think of a few main themes and connections, around which I structured the 15-minute talk, and the rest, I had to construct on the fly. (Secret takeaway idea? Never really prepare for conference talks again. Kidding! Kidding!)

So, I’ve been thinking about play, about experimentation, and about our manifesto. We call for “a lyrical and experimental style of writing,” but why not of lecturing, as well? “We encourage spontaneity in writing art history,” but I’d now add “and in speaking art history.” I have noticed a strong trend, in the last few years, toward more “roundtables” at conferences, which sounds like a step in this direction, but many of these (including a number I’ve participated in) have really been non-spontaneous sets of micro-papers, rather than spontaneous generated-in-the-moment, honest-to-goodness (or badness) discussions.

As I said at the outset, I am devoted to slow looking (you won’t believe how much content is subtly embedded in the plan of Jerusalem in BL, Add. 32343, f.15! Just wait!). But I think that there is a role for quick looking and quick thinking and playful, spontaneous responses. For the last few semesters, I have been assigning slow looking assignments of the sort that Roberts advocates and Segler put into practice early on. But I want to include another assignment, in which students are shown a work of art, and asked to respond in the moment, and at some length — say, 5 minutes of straight riff on an unknown work for each student. To some, this will probably sound like an invitation for good ol’ bullshitting. Ok, fine, maybe. Almost certainly, there will be some of that (guilty as charged, officer). But I am willing to bet one class-session’s time that there will be a few positive outcomes, as well: insights, generated right then and there, in the moment, yes, but more importantly, confidence. If students feel that they can talk about a work of art, on their own, without supports or preparation, I bet that they will participate more actively for the rest of the semester, and that they will voice their thoughts more willingly, for the rest of the term. Some may flounder, stumble, falter, may, as the Manifesto encourages, “destabilize, amuse, and blunder.” At least, I certainly hope so.

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