By Ross Gibson

Published in Cultural Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2010

For three months in 2008, I staged a project as part of the Biennale of Sydney. The gist of it was this: I was available for conversations with anyone who wanted to pause and spend some time in a small alcove at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I tallied five conversations per day, up to 50 minutes per conversation, across 80 consecutive days.  

The project was art, but it was research too. In the hundreds of unpredictable exchanges that ensued, participants initiated remarkable runs of thought, compassion and imagination. Time and again strangers shared intimate insights that drew us in close and turned the world around.

Daily, I was struck by the importance of creating a space that is not only physical but also mental and emotional, a space where one can define and make claims for oneself in order to offer oneself more boldly to the world of everyday experience.

I sensed how useful it is to mark your boundaries, to mark them but not entrench them. Day by day, I grew to understand how you need a solid subjective standpoint (or node) in order to move productively out to the larger world (or network) of others. The more solid your grounding, the more nimble you can be with the possibilities when you encounter someone else. The more robust node, the more resilient the entire network.

I noticed too how this mental and emotional standpoint is most stimulating when it is not entirely comfortable, when it has in it a modicum of intrigue and irresolution stimulating the participants to venture out past their habits and presumptions.

I learned that an imaginative encounter needs to be convivial but not easy or predictable. The right amount of friction makes the right amount of warmth. A challenge makes a reward. And a limit allows growth that lets one's self push over to alteration.

In my conversation alcove, I began to understand how the assertion of one's place can actually bring the world to you and through you. The boundary that you make can be with and for the larger world, not against it.

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