Grant Kester: Introduction in Conversation Pieces

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Kester, Grant. "Duration, Performativity, Critique." In Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Three examples of "dialogical aesthetics" launch Kester's book

1. WokenKlauser's Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women, Shedhalle, Zurich, 1994-1995

2. Suzanne Lacy's The Roof is on Fire, Oakland, US, 1994

3. Littoral Arts' Routes Project, Belfast, Northern Ireland, started 2001

Projects = all aim to facilitate dialogue and exchange = conversation is an integral part of the work itself, it's a generative process that helps us imagine ourselves beyond "fixed identities, official discourse, and the perceived inevitability of partisan political conflict" (8)

Questions raised by projects:

  • How do we form collective or communal identities without scapegoating those excluded from them?
  • Is it possible to develop a cross-cultural dialogue without sacrificing the unique identities of individual speakers?
  • What does it mean for the artist to surrender the security of self-expression for the risk of intersubjective engagement?

What's at stake: a pragmatic sense that communication often fails; a desire and commitment to facilitating context in which it might succeed.

Kester's book aims to:

  • Identify models for successful communication (emphasis on communicability)
  • Identify how such models are rooted in an HAG tradition
  • Offer an internal critique of this approach to practice that observes its concern with working outside the gallery and linking new forms of intersubjective experience with activism interest
  • Explore two fronts: (1) evaluating the communicability of modern and postmodern art (2) offering case studies of dialogical art projects = 1+2 = "...a new aesthetic and theoretical paradigm of the work of art as a process--a locus of discursive exchange and negotiation." (12)

It explores (to varying degrees)

  • Community arts tradition (UK)
  • Temporary public art (US)
  • post-Greengerian diaspora of arts practices, including Happenings and performance-based actions
  • the work of Stephen Williat, APG, Suzanne Lacy and Helen and Newton Harrison, Ala Plastica, Superflex, Maurice O'Connell, MuF, Huit Facettes, Ne Pas Plier, Ultra Red, Temporary Services, Littoral art, Jay Koh, New Genre Public Art, relational aesthetics, dialogue-based public art
What unites this disparate network of artists and arts collectives is a series of provocative assumptions about the relationship between art and the broader social and political work and about the kinds of knowledge that aesthetic experience is capable of producing.

Term "dialogical art" comes from Bakhtin (though Kester doesn't unpack this beyond saying Bakhtin was interested in a work of art as a conversation)

  • It's antithetical to the "banking" style approach
  • It unfolds in time and space via a process of performative interaction - this is in contrast to a single, instantaneous shock of insight
  • It doesn't easily fit with normative forms of criticism because it doesn't easily appeal to the "I like" response
  • It may be mistaken/dismissed as activism
My goal here is to understand this work as a specific form of art practice with its own characteristics and effects, related to but also different from, other forms of art and other forms of activism as well. Further, I hope to develop criteria for the evaluation of this work that are relevant and appropriate to its specificity. (11)


  • Collaborative art has different requirements from art dependent on a specular relationship with the viewer = collaborative art requires a provisional discursive framework through which participants can share their insights, observations, reactions and so on
  • This kind of practice demands we shift our understanding of a work of art and redefine (expand) notions of aesthetic experience

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