Anxious to Organize
Anxious to Organize
You’re standing by the bar at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt on opening night of transmediale, and you strike up a conversation with the woman standing next to you about the price of drinks. At some point the small talk turns into bigger talk, and you find yourself heatedly discussing the commodity market as a measure of value. The next morning you run into the same person when looking for a seat during a panel discussion, and you exchange email addresses. By the end of the weekend you’ve started a Slack, a working group, and a Dropbox for material related to your combined interests. A year passes and you’re both back at transmediale; your joint organization has twelve employees, a name, and its own event on the conference program. When, exactly, did your conversation turn into an organization?
This year’s transmediale, which wound down this past Sunday night, was called “conversationpiece,” a title that alluded both to the format of the single events (all dialogues or polylogues as opposed to one-way talks) and to the absence of a single pervasive topic throughout those discussions. The content itself was clustered into four categories or “streams,” Anxious to Act, Anxious to Make, Anxious to Share, and Anxious to Secure, which, given the umbrella title, all built up to a meta-discourse that could be called Anxious to Talk, or perhaps more broadly: Anxious to Organize.
Anxiety may suggest inability to do something, a fear or confusion, but it also suggests a strong desire or urge to do so anyway. So what happens when an organization, nearing its 30th year anniversary, takes on the problematics of what it means to organize as the content for an organized event?
Over the four festival days this led to a recurring focus on words themselves: the sets of vocabulary and terminology that are often taken for granted as self-evident but which begin to shift and slip away when you try to pin them down. Conversation at transmediale has always aimed for a measure of interdisciplinarity, for a variety of perspectives that don’t always come with the same cultural, political, or linguistic background, but this was a moment to examine the junctures between those modes of looking at the world. As transmediale’s artistic director, Kristoffer Gansing, wrote in a recent article for Das Netz magazine, talks between those coming from different disciplines can often break down “due to the confusion of the participants using the same terms while referring to entirely different things.” Assuming that, along with all our other sorts of anxieties, our anxiety to communicate with each other seems to be increasing, the occasion to pause and scrutinize those words was fully taken advantage of by participants.
The term “organization” recurred as one such term. As various discussion groups tried to understand the concept of what it means to organize as a group, tentative and telling definitions arose. These include: the organization as an enforcement of a set of moral principles; the organization as a formalization of the relationship between labor and management, or between labor and life; the organization as a method of knowledge production and preservation; the organization as a way of taking account of a situation, keeping account of each other, or holding one to account for one’s actions; the organization as an ongoing, crystallized conversation.
Many participants seemed to feel that organizations who have the capacity to effect change beyond their own inner structures are those who resist the closing down of possibilities and the calcification of knowledge that occurs when a conversation becomes too institutionalized—while recognizing the necessity of some semblance of institutionalization to function in the first place. But does the existance of an organization necessitate some kind of longevity beyond a set time frame? Or does it just require some kind of semi-formalized patterns of behavior that all parties agree on as a basically productive means to a common goal, for however long that lasts? This led me to ask of our own discussions: were these conversations themselves micro-organizations of sorts?
In some discussions, the question of vocabulary went beyond frictions within a single language and to cross-cultural / cross-language exchange. One audience member brought up this difficlty during the Anxious to Act keynote conversation between Hito Steyerl and Nicholas Mirzoeff. The question was posed towards Mirzoeff, who speech was mainly about the #BlackLivesMatter movement; the questioner was curious how he envisioned the relevance of that particular political cause to a European audience. Many wondered whether “solidarity” can be anything but symbolic between groups that may be sympathetic towards one another’s aims but who share no common language.
This is perhaps partially why both Mirzoeff and Steyerl framed the concept of solidarity in terms of vision (or mutual recognition) rather than in a specifically linguistic sense. Other events, especially workshops and performances, picked up on non-verbal communication in other ways. For example, Liat Berdugo and Phoebe Osborne’s dance workshop got participants moving their whole bodies in the same ways we usually use our fingers to navigate handheld devices. In the performance 1000 Handshakes, artist François-Joseph Lapointe shook the hands of transmediale-goers in order to change the microbial makeup of the palm of his hand. A single instant of physical contact, a gesture, can organize or re-organize us from the inside out.
If conversation could be said to exist on a continuum between the bar chat and the board room, conversationpiece was meant to create a space for the whole spectrum—to see what happens when those modes of discussion collide, invert, collapse—and maybe even to invent new ways of communicating. Towards that aim, throughout the coming months this website will serve as both a landing place and a launch pad for reflections and responses expanding upon the four days of intense discussion during conversationpiece. On this blog-like platform we will hear from the four chairs of the thematic streams (Oliver Lerone-Schultz, Ben Vickers, Theresa Züger, and Teresa Dillon), the curators of the film and Co-Curricular programs (Florian Wüst and Daphne Dragona), and a wide variety of transmediale participants from past and present.
The hope is for the conversationpiece to continue as an organic organization—to preserve the tacit knowledge produced throughout the festival and to continue to create it, but also to continue to resist the hardening of the structures through which we are most used to organizing ourselves. This experiment will include debates, skypes, podcasts, .jpgs and .movs. It will entail big talk, small talk, rants, glances, high-fives, jokes, and wishes. As David Garcia put it during a panel called MediaActs: “Being right is not enough. Knowledge is not enough. What is required are different rhetorical tropes, different registers.”
As always: we hope you get in touch and join the conversation.