Nobody f***s with my speakers

September 28, 2007

Or at least they didn't, says veteran talks organiser Marquard Smith, until a recent event when it all went maddeningly, horribly wrong

I often wonder why so little academic research has been conducted on the social, cultural, economic and even sexual dynamics of learning in public. As I write, surely, someone somewhere is putting together an Arts and Humanities Research Council Interdisciplinary research network bid to bring together a sociologist, an anthropologist, a psychoanalyst, an educationist, a corporate events organiser and a museum curator to run workshops and seminars on this very subject. What could be better than spending public money running workshops and seminars on the value of running workshops and seminars?

I'm currently programming a series of events at a London art gallery - an opportunity for academic and non-academic audiences to come together democratically to experience learning in public. The idea is that once a month, in the casual setting of the gallery's cafe-bar, with wine and tapas, we informally debate the ideas that underpin and shape the making and interpretation of visual art today.

As well as programming the series, I act as chair, a role that involves liaising with staff at the gallery, overseeing proceedings, introducing the speaker, getting the Q&A going, watching the shape of a discussion unfold, steering the debate and bringing proceedings to a close. I like the tension of being "in control" of something that is so unpredictable. You never know who might be in the audience, or what they might say, so I'm always a little anxious.

I've been programming events for about 15 years: in academic environments, at places such as the ICA and the Tate, as well as in pub-like venues. And ever since I started I've always had the same credo: nobody fucks with my speakers. I've invited them, and they're generous enough to come along and contribute, so I have an obligation to them, a duty of care. Every now and then over the years, someone has screwed around with one of them: there have been tough questions, discourteous rejoinders, self-important statements masquerading as questions, attempts at public humiliation, and so on. All par for the course. But at the last event, someone truly fucked with my speaker. I think it was probably assault.

A member of the audience - let us call her Ida - made herself known quite early on, before the event had even begun. I overheard her, speaking quite loudly, accusing her neighbour, a total stranger, of fundamentalism. A worrying start. We should have known something was afoot when, ten minutes into the speaker's presentation, Ida interrupted to demand that the windows and doors be opened because of the smoke, and she proceeded to reprimand all the smokers in the room, accusing us in no uncertain terms of selfishness and insensitivity. (Incidentally, if anything's going to bring an end to public intellectual debate, it's the ban on smoking.)

Ida did remain quiet for the rest of a fluent, dextrous and thought-provoking presentation. But once the Q&A began, she came into her own.

Ida asked question after question after question. Well, they weren't questions so much as statements. And to say they were tangential would be kind. But she persisted. And every time anyone else asked a question or offered a comment, she told them that they were wrong - loudly.

At first, this behaviour was just disruptive. We couldn't get the conversation going, couldn't keep it on track, it kept being derailed. But the audience was a generous one, polite, indulgent even. So it was fine.

But Ida persisted, became ruder and more abusive, and accused another member of the audience of being delusional. At which point the veneer of middle-class politeness finally slipped, people were no longer willing to listen to her, no longer willing to be terrorised by her, and someone told Ida that she was wrong. Just plain wrong. Ida went wild.

She stood up and began to shout - at members of the audience, at the speaker, at the bar staff. She accused us all of being deluded if we thought it was right to have this kind of conversation about the avant-garde - the subject of the debate. She kept threatening to leave if we didn't agree with her. No one tried to stop her, but she tarried nonetheless. She threatened to contact the director of the gallery, to tell her all about our delusional conversation, and how dangerous it was to permit us to conduct our delusional discourse in a publicly funded gallery. She shouted some more, tried to throw the digital projector on to the floor and to upturn the table on which it sat.

Then she went for my speaker.

I should have moved faster, but didn't. So much for being in control.

Ida grabbed his arm, pulling his sleeve, trying to shake him out of his own delusions. Again and again she accused him of fundamentalism. The speaker was calm. He sat, his arms raised in a pacifying gesture. "Enough. Enough," he said to her quietly.

Time stood still.

Ida backed down.

A member of the gallery's educational staff and I stood between her and the speaker as she continued to rant. She was not touched, she did not touch us. Soon enough, the gallery security staff arrived, and Ida was ushered out of the room, and out of the building.

Almost as if nothing had happened, within 30 seconds the event was back on track. The speaker and the audience discoursed about the avant-garde, its history, manifestos, time, Utopia, the future and, unavoidably, the impact of global capitalism.

Fifteen minutes later, I brought the event to a close.

The gallery kindly offered everyone drinks as a thank you. We all stayed a little longer, longer than we should have stayed. Some continued to debate the premature death of the avant-garde, some to marvel at the evening's incident, some simply to chit-chat. We stayed together - as often happens to groups of friends and strangers who have experienced some kind of collective trauma, however minor - until we ourselves were asked to vacate the building.

I look forward to the next event but, much as I like learning in public and much as I'm committed to the democratic nature of learning, I can't help but be a little apprehensive.

Chairing events as an exercise in risk management? Am I prepared for that, trained, insured even? My commitment to the intrinsic democratic value of learning in public, of healthy public debate as a force for good, has been shaken. How many other Idas are out there?

I'm not proud of being happy that Ida may be barred from the gallery. I'm all too aware of how an incident like this, by breaching the protocols of polite conversation, draws attention to the often exclusive and exclusionary nature, and the unwritten rules, governing exchange itself. The real question for me, then, is this: when it comes to learning in public, how do we balance our rights as individuals to freedom of speech with our civic responsibility to a community of interlocutors?

Marquard Smith is a course director in the School of Art and Design History at Kingston University.

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