The Art of Conversation

This was a durational street intervention held at the corners of Ontario and Frontenac within the group project entitled D'un millénaire à l'autre: Neuf interventions artistiques dans des espaces extérieurs à Montréal sponsored by the Ville de Montreal's Service de la culture.

Photography credit: Mario Belisle

The Art of Conversation was based on the intimate art of conversation. Living room furniture was temporarily installed outdoors every Tuesday between 12:00 and 16:00 over a period of ten weeks during the Summer of 2000. Participants in the conversations were those who came across the work accidently, those who were directed toward it through word-of-mouth and publicity, and invited visitors. This participatory process is a key component as the work was not meant primarily as a viewing experience. In the deliberate blurring of roles -- invoking a question of who is the audience and who are the performers -- is a statement about the capacity for each and every one of us to be history makers and authorizing agents of individual and collective memory(ies). The domesticated setting was not simply a stage or theatrical device, it served as the place/space where direct embodied interaction and communication became possible. Conversations touched an a number of central issues including trust and what happens when it is broken, childhood memories and the way in which they play their part in adult life, decision making and the notion of choice.

After setting up my living room furniture on the street, I would engage with passersby in conversations about home, belonging, family, the continuum between private and public, domestic abuse and political terror, exile, comfort, and anything else that was suggested, or came up. Often people would bring objects from their own homes to ‘decorate’ the living (room) space. One woman who would frequent regularly, brought a painting she had done and hung it on a nearby tree for the duration of one sitting.

My father joined the sitting one Tuesday and was visibly upset and uncomfortable throughout his visit. When I asked him a few days later what was it that disturbed him he told me of how sitting on the couch in the middle of the street had triggered a memory that he had long ago forgotten. When he was a little boy growing up in Russia, he was the one in his family to be responsible for closing the curtains every Friday night before his mother would bench licht (light the Sabbath candles). As it was forbidden to openly practice any form of Jewish ritual, the consequences of being caught were known to be quite severe.

Sitting in the living room space created nearby the Metro Frontenac, he recalled how one Friday night he had forgotten to attend to closing the curtains. The lit candles were seen by a neighbor who promptly informed the local authorities. My father, along with his parents and siblings, were then evicted from their home and were not allowed to return for quite some time. All of what they had was locked into the house leaving them no access to any of their belongings. This is what was making him so uncomfortable while he was sitting in the 'art of conversation' setting.

The impact of this re-membering and the consequences of his telling have been resonant and reverberant for us all. He has long carried his sense of fear, guilt and anger around this incident without being aware of how it has influenced and affected our own home as I was growing up and still affected the home he shares with my mother. With this telling something was able to shift.

It is the nature of creativity to offer (sometimes unexpected), moments of healing and connection. The art of conversation as a durational performative intervention was a site for many such connections and discoveries.