On not hanging around

Since the pandemic, and this lockdown life, I’ve been asked to speak in many webinars, for a wide range of audiences, some small, some large. Presenting at conferences and workshops has been part of my life for many years, but the demand has grown hugely in the last 12 months, perhaps because people are faced by new questions, or perhaps because, stuck at home, talking to each other via Zoom is one of the few sources of professional agency. In the past, it wasn’t hard to decline such invitations, because talks always took at least a couple of days to prepare and deliver, and often more; the surprising requests to talk about things beyond my expertise were especially easy to pass on. Now, it’s harder, because it requires no travel and – at least in principle – just an hour or two in front of a computer screen. And when the requests come from people doing work I care about and believe in, which is surprisingly common, I do want to help. 

What has changed is that everything gets recorded and, worse, put online. Even in the best of times, it’s odd to stand on a stage and explain your ideas to a roomful of strangers. I’ve always preferred either to write my ideas for someone to read if they choose, or to take part in conversation, where there’s equality between participants and the possibility of learning and changing my mind. The one-way discourse (from the French word, discours, which means a speech) has never felt natural to me. Of course, it’s flattering to be invited to give your opinions, but that’s why it’s dangerous too: it’s easy to believe that your opinions matter, or that they are more than the expression of your thinking. And now, there is a record, clogging up the internet and consuming ever greater quantities of energy to keep ever-larger numbers of servers available so that my opinions – all our opinions – remain constantly and immediately available. 

Yesterday I was sent to video of a talk I’ve done for a network of community art educators and asked if I wanted to make edits before approving it for publication. Probably I would, but I didn’t have the patience or the interest to sit through an hour of me, and I turned it off after two minutes. It’s quite probable that some of what I said was badly expressed, mistaken or ill-informed. It’s very likely that I’ve changed my mind about parts too. The truth is, I don’t really care. I would like everything I say or write to be perfectly argued, elegantly expressed and intellectually unimpeachable, but there’s a lot of things I’d like that are never going to happen. On a good day, I’m doing my best (and not all days are good). I’ve said before, the benchmark I try not to fall below too often is good enough.   

It’s nice to be invited to expound my ideas, but without false modesty, they’re just the trace of my continuing effort to understand my experience of the world and find ways of leaving it a little bit better as a result. They are just part of the infinite human conversation that has been going on since the dawn of time – another brick that I hope will contribute not to a wall, but a bridge. Humanity is a river; life is a process. When I published my first book, in 1993, I was seduced by the idea that it would be held by the six British deposit libraries long after my death. Now, I really don’t care. I hope what I write helps people in their journey now, as a decent meal gets you through the day.  I dislike intensely the idea that some talk I’ve given is hanging about the dustier corners of YouTube. I deleted my first Twitter account for the same reason: the second one looks shaky to me now… 

In the original Mission Impossible, each episode began with the agent receiving instructions on a little reel-to-reel tape recorder, followed by the statement ‘This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds’. That’s probably a bit short to be useful, but six months seems more than enough for any talk I’ve given to be available. And if you do come across some old video of me outlining my ideas somewhere online, please cut me some slack. I probably think differently now.