When Talking Is High Art

British-German artist Tino Sehgal’s work ‘creates’ conversations between strangers in urban societies. Someone should tell him about Kolkata’s famous addas
Conversations
THE PERFORMANCE HAS NEVER BEEN SHOT Sehgal insists his works reside only in the space they occupy, and in memories

We have already pointed out the need of constructing situations as being one of the fundamental desires on which the next civilisation will be founded. This need for absolute creation has always been intimately associated with the need to play with architecture, time and space

—Formulary for a New Urbanism, Gilles Ivain [Ivan Chtcheglov] October 1953, printed in Internationale Situationniste #1

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One of the earliest critiques of urban societies is that it renders human interactions difficult, creating a sense of alienation that doesn’t stops haunting city dwellers. This constant feeling of alienation and the need to alienate, which defined early concerns with urbanism, is what the above quote from the Situationist International website responds to, calling for an intervention through ‘performed situations’. This seems especially pertinent in developing countries, which are witnessing massive refurbishment and redevelopment of cities, leading to a speeding up of urban life.

The notion of creating a situation has, in many aspects, fundamentally changed the notion of performance and how the viewing public interacts with it. Tino Sehgal consciously decides to carry this notion of performance into the visual arts with This Situation, an acclaimed piece that travelled to India in collaboration with the Goethe Institute last week.

One Sunday evening, walking into the Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata, visitors were confronted by a group of six people in everyday wear, deep in discussion on philosophical issues. Whenever the performers noticed a new visitor stepping in, they would stop the discussion to greet her with, “Welcome to this situation!” The players subsequently changed  their positions with movements frozen in slow motion, and one of them would then open a quote with slow movements (often evoking the poise of classical sculptures) and quote a hypothesis from the intellectual history of Euro-America without naming the author. The quotes were varied, invoking economics, art, ethics and technology. However, it soon became clear that the choice of quotes and contexts showed an affiliation with liberalist resistance to the ethics of late capitalism. 

At about 7 pm that evening, a middle-aged woman walked into Experimenter Gallery and was momentarily stunned when the performers broke off their conversation, inhaled deeply, and sprang a collective “Welcome to this situation!” greeting at her. She stood for a while and soon found her place among a small group seated on the floor. Initially, she avoided eye contact, and it took her time to understand what was going on. Soon, seeing the audience participate in the discussion, she realised that it was a conversation she could join too. One could see that she was straining to understand the current discussion around the importance that economics should have in our lives. Eventually, she chose not to participate, and when she noticed that people were actually allowed to get up and leave when they so wanted, it visibly made her feel more comfortable. In a while, she left.

As a performative mode, some silent members of the audience were even asked: “What do you think?” On the other hand, other members of the audience stepped up and freely participated in the discussions. Eventually, over the course of two evenings, one could see a continuation of the thoughts and concerns that the performers and audience kept coming back to.

This Situation is conceived as a collapsible travelling structure, performed only by people trained or authorised by Sehgal. During the Goethe Institute tour, at each stop, three or four local players performed with a two-member German team under the direction of Sehgal’s close associate, Louise Höjer. Like all interpreters of Tino Sehgal’s works, they were selected carefully, and were required to rehearse at local Goethe Institutes.

Speaking to the performers after the first evening, one got to know the structure of the performed situation, of the two-day training workshop that preceded the enactment, the nature of the quotes used and the trained slow motion as a mode of ‘performitivity’. One also learnt that this is a copyrighted model and the same set of quotes are repeated globally.

There did descend a sense of discomfort with the assumption on the part of the artist about the universal applicability of the model and quotes used. One had also hoped that the artist would have travelled with the performance himself to listen to various concerns raised at new locations. This lack of willingness to listen is characteristic of the European understanding of the modular.

Sehgal’s stance against the excessive materiality of the high-art culture leads to material embodiments of art—catalogues, photographs, films—being wholly absent in his work, even at the secondary level. While this emerges as a grand resistance, it also takes away the possibility of understanding the relational aesthetics between the public spheres in which this is performed, making it harder still to listen to differences.

This work travelled from Mumbai, through Bangalore to Kolkata and by the time this is published, a performance would have already happened in Delhi. Searching online for reactions to this work, one came across largely European and American awe of this Situationist transgression into an art gallery, and the possibility of collective thought and a civilised exchange of ideas between and among strangers.

Among the Indian cities where This Situation has travelled, Kolkata has been the most resistant to the new wave of urbanism sweeping the country. Maybe it is one of the few remaining cities which has not (yet) confronted an absolute disappearance of civilised conversation between strangers. In fact, the adda is almost as famous as This Situation as a module (though it is not copyrighted). The city is also familiar with interventions in the performer-audience relationship in the works of the late theatre personality Badal Sarkar.

Perhaps that is why instead of awe and fascination, the city greeted This Situation with a welcome familiarity and mild amusement.