Make Space: Making Conversation

Posted on Nov 8, 2017

Make Space was a three year programme run by Nic Green and Artsadmin from 2013-2015, developed to offer young artists the opportunity to explore site-responsive performance practices. Over the three years, the project was based at Hackney City Farm, Richmond Yacht Club (Eel Pie Island) and Totteridge Cricket Ground consecutively, with each group spending a month exploring the collaborative potential between themselves, each other and their chosen site.

This weekly series will feature reflections, artistic responses and critical writing inspired by the project, exploring the potentials of ‘place’ and rejecting the pressures of ‘productivity.’ The authors of each blog all attended the Make Space Symposium in 2016, either as a participant or as a contributing artist: 

  • 'Away with the Birds | At Sing Two Birds | Mnemonic topographies | Women of the Hill' by Hanna Tuulikki
  • 'Performance As Currency For The Wild' by Rebecca Leach
  • 'A Naturally Occurring Psychology' by David Key
  • 'Making Conversation' by Ayisha De Lanerolle
  • 'Feeling Our Way Into The Practice (Of Doing)' by Simone Kenyon
  • Make Space participant reflections

Ayisha De Lanerolle: Making Conversation

Conversation is an everyday activity – and for many of us it is our main channel of communication. Most of us would struggle to pass even a day without having a conversation with someone else or, at very least, with ourselves.

We learn the turn-taking that forms the rhythm and structure of conversation as babies, but the instinct for this call and response cycle is reportedly older than language itself and spans across species. With humans, the turns come fast – just 200 milliseconds apart, the blink of an eye. We are instructed from a young age to think before we speak, so at this speed we are forced to think and prepare our response whilst the other person is still speaking. The rapid fire forces us into guessing what word is likely (to our mind) to come next in their mind and then out of their mouth. As with predictive texting, a message can morph before it gets through, and as Pauline Oliveros observes, some messages never get delivered,

"Sometimes what is heard is interpreted anywhere from milliseconds to many years or never".

It is no surprise that conversation can be a risky business where ‘mis-hearings’ and misinterpretations that arrive in an instant can take a lifetime to shift. So it makes sense that we pay it some attention; to see what we might want from this communication channel and what we can bring to it.

Looking back, I first came to really enjoy conversation in Glasgow in the mid 1990’s whilst I was training to chair philosophical dialogue with groups. Revealing and challenging assumptions; agreeing and disagreeing with ideas rather than individuals. The discipline and context of facilitated philosophical dialogue allowed me to stand back from ideas I had prepared earlier (years earlier in some cases), and embark on live thinking with others. With the freedom to make imaginative flights, embark on thought experiments, try on new ideas for size, thinking in conversation became fun and collaborative. Key to this was the space the discipline allowed for not knowing; ‘Aporia’ the ancient Greek concept of ‘puzzlement’, ‘without a path’. A necessary part of philosophising and a transformative element in conversation.

In the world of hosting dialogue, conversations are often described as containers with space for us to enter into, take part in, engage in, and hold. William Isaacs describes true dialogue as ‘a conversation with a center not sides.’ Creating conversations with a centre is a way of making a safe space to accommodate different participants and new ideas; and it requires acts of hosting, making, holding, moving and being part of something together. A discussion, in contrast, might be seen as the push and pull of an exchange between sides where individuals occupy ground with an aim to defend and persuade opponents.

The ancient Greek concept of hospitality (Xenia) does contain sides but holds them in a reciprocal host/guest relationship. Historian Bettany Hughes argues that philosophical inquiry was a conversational innovation that created a safe space in which to entertain the ideas of strangers. At a time when Athens was a hub of trade routes and different cultures this offered a framework for dialogue and facilitated both peace keeping and peace making.

The Oxford English Dictionary online tells us that the original use of the word ‘conversation’ in Middle English referred to the idea of living among, familiarity, intimacy. This makes me think of the “dance of ‘I and Thou’” that John Berger appreciates in Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson. I like the notion of conversation embodied in a dance – that we can start, pause, stop, keep going (in some cases for years). It gives us agency but also requires that we slow down, pay attention and listen in order to improve and enjoy our connection – with each other, our environment and ourselves.

Pauline Oliveros described listening as the act of giving attention to sounds whilst hearing is the physical translation of sounds into perceptions that can be measured, a ‘constant interplay with the perception of the moment compared with remembered experience’. Oliveros understood listening as a mysterious process and her concept of Deep Listening became a lifetime practice for her and many others. Whilst listening to a performance of one of her compositions at Tate Modern in 2012, I think I may have had a glimpse of what Oliveros meant by the term. It was like the sudden opening of a channel that ran between my ears, an amplification similar to regaining hearing after a long flight. It came and went in an instant – like a wave. I want more.

More recently I have encountered Theory U and its four levels of listening to identify and practise: downloading, encountering new data, empathic, and generative listening. Generative listening I think connects with the notion of Deep Listening. One of the signs of when you are in this level of dialogue is described as 'feeling changed', that you are no longer the same person as you were before that conversation. It seems to me that when entertaining thoughts we are deciding to take the risk to go somewhere unknown, and to possibly change our minds or even ourselves, so perhaps it is fear at times preventing us from taking the risk to listen more deeply to each other and our environments.

"Hope is not a form of guarantee; it’s a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark."
– John Berger

These are difficult times when the other is frequently seen as a threat but they can be hopeful times too. Many of us are drawing on the hope that we can begin to clock ourselves – and I say clock because time feels pressing. To see ourselves and the forces we are so prone to. A magician knows how much we are complicit in being duped; seeing only what we want to see and ignoring the sleight of hand that we know must be there in front of our very eyes. Derren Brown at times even tells us how he has tricked us in order to remind us to wise up; whilst psychologist Daniel Kahneman gives us evolutionary explanations for our universal tendency to settle down in our own echo chambers with cognitive biases for cushioning, i.e. left to ourselves we make hasty judgements based on faulty reasoning.

Perhaps we can all help by keeping the spirit of hospitality flowing; all the way from the ancient world into the conversational dance of ‘I and thou’ and into our everyday practice of an everyday activity.

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