Tired of clever-things-said-in-debates-designed-to-miss-the-point, 2017 was the year I stopped reading or turning out on rainy Tuesday nights for events where nothing actually happens. Looking back over the last 18 months of social carnage we’ve been forced to dig deep just to defend the basics. Oh, you know, challenging sexual harassment in our workplaces or finding ways to help the people around us who have fallen off the welfare grid.
On the off chance that you’re returning to humanity punching and spitting this week I want to tell you a story about why the contact between us matters.
In the run up to the American elections and the Brexit vote, a group of us ran a project in London called Thinkers in Residence. The project involved six months of conversations about racism, migration, politics and despair mixed in with stories of dads and jobs, a London now passed and the people we love. These conversations were recorded and archived along with blogs and images on the online archive here. On the final day of the project, just five minutes before we end our final recording, a young woman who I had never met before joins the group. As I turn off the recorder with probably a touch of self-satisfaction, she grabs my arm and says “Is that it? (Angry eye popping pause) I want my money back”.
Rather than saying what first came to mind (“get in line sister I feel that way about life”) for the first time during our project I was unable to find any words. Stunned by the spite, and poleaxed by the profundity of what she had just said.
It’s probably predictable that when you run a project that audaciously invites people into a public space to say what’s on their mind an attempt will be made in last few minutes to hijack the love and generosity of the people involved. Sometimes this involves what can only be described as a psychic dump and run – when someone decides to try to, well, shit on it.
Free Association? How very dare you.
To be fair to this woman, she may have had a point. Generally when an institution asks you what you think, they don’t actually mean it. There is something slippery about setting up a project in the The Photographers’ Gallery, made up of the designed stuff of Thinker in Residence badges, a Thought Creche, a beautiful website and good coffee. Asking people what they actually think in this warm-bath institutional setting could be precisely the opposite of an authentic question – a kind of psychic slight of hand that people have become increasingly resentful of.
But despite these mitigating factors, what transpired was a series of politicised and transformative conversations between people who’d never met before. Literally the best conversation I’ve ever had about neo-liberalism was held while looking at a Donovan picture of Cindy Crawford and talking about the emergence of supermodels. Actually true.
There is also something about talking to random strangers that allows ‘expertise’ to be wrestled out of the hands of experts. This isn’t to say there aren’t people who know more about some things than others – but by being open to what anyone has to say, and to really give the time to hear them, you always learn something. I have been changed by listening to Greek teenagers talking about images of refugees and stories of boys-done-good who grew up in the 50s in Soho. The shared and growing realisation that we don’t have the leaders we deserve. The photographers and psychotherapists who continue to open themselves up to working through and finding meaning despite the dismal professional returns.
The surprises that came out in these conversations happen when our environments don’t reflect our realities – our minds start to work to fill in the gaps. Despite the populist pap we’re getting force fed in our political culture the fact remains that when representations of reality directly contradict our own experiences we get to work. It’s at this point that things turn 180 degrees and ideas and meanings get turned on their heads. Genuine transformational learning.
In a way it’s both ambitious and silly to run a project aimed to promote human contact. The uncomfortable act of talking to someone else and genuinely being open to what they have to say remains a real struggle for all of us. In the real world if you’re going to open up a Thought Creche you have to be prepared to take some shit. Seriously. Easier to retreat or withdraw than actually allow ourselves to be changed by other people. But as with all of the things we learn and create – this only ever comes out of an intercourse with life and actual other people.
Is that it? Yes, it definitely is. We are all we’ve got. Like dancing or sex, if you picture yourself doing it you go right off the idea. Better to just to get on with it.
Over the coming months conversations taken from the Surviving Work Library will be produced on this blog.
To see the Thinkers in Residence project archive click A Body of Work. The eBook includes contributions from Jason Evans, Marie Adams, Sally Weintrobe, Steve Fuller, David Morgan, Marianna Fotaki, Jonny Briggs, Del Loewenthal, Angela Eden, Oliver Whitehead and me. To download the eBook click HERE.
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