I assume that the experience of direct address—rare and potent—is the desired effect of any art work. The tactics are manifold and the media diverse, but the consequence, when everything works just so, is that the viewer is arrested.
Over the summer and fall of 2014, this idea of direct address was literally played out through The Parable Conference, a project of the artist and museum educator Pablo Helguera. First requesting colleagues and friends to participate, and then encouraging those initial collaborators to extend the invitation to another, Helguera stipulated only one thing of those who accepted: that they agree to meet, all of them, at a given time, at a given place. In return, Helguera wrote letters, what must have been hundreds of them. Participating by way of the extended call, I was part of this elaborate orchestration, receiving ten letters through the post over the course of five months and meeting in New York City in mid-October 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: it was The Parable Conference made flesh.
In the months preceding this gathering, missives would arrive at my home, my name written in black ink across envelopes suggesting some sort of institutional existence for the conference (a birdhouse logo, a street address, stamps showcasing winged creatures of America), a personally addressed typewritten letter inside, and Helguera’s scrawled signature at the close. Sometimes, what can only be described as a kind of treasure would follow the letter out of the envelope: feathers, slides, found notes. Counter to my own expectation, these letters told stories, usually somewhat sad, of the transformation of an experience of art into something valueless or impotent. As a form, parables relate lessons using magical kinds of imagery, like talking animals. These parables, however, featured characters that looked not so different from myself, men and women of the art world working to define a place for themselves within it. Either thwarted or pathetic, these attempts at embededness never really worked the way the characters assumed they would. As a reader of the letters, my reflections were compounded by the direct address of the inscriptions: what if my lofty intentions are in vain or shallow or ignorant? Further, the correspondences of The Parable Conference pushed me to consider how it is that I approach art at all. When I stand before a painting, when I listen to music, when I participate in performance, how is it that I bear witness? This is an investigation into action, not just apprehension.
When we finally made good on our initial commitment of gathering together, The Parable Conference again unfolded through the experience of direct address. The web of connection that was first deployed to shape Helguera’s audience was reconfigured that evening; the seating was prearranged and relationships between participants were highly choreographed. At one point during the project prior to this, we were invited to write letters to other participants. I wrote about the righteousness of aging. I received a letter about the perils of information density and the urgency of addressing climate change. When I arrived at the Parable Conference, a women introducing herself as “Pablo Helguera” sat me at a table beside the person whose letter I had received. They had received mine in turn. We were bonded. When “Pablo” introduced me to other people at my table, she offered up our curiosities as additional bridges between us. She knew things about me, things I had not told Pablo or “Pablo,” but that evidenced a research and care for the compositions we made together. Helguera was speaking to us through each other. Our obligation that night was to continue the conversation. Intimate propagation.
The event itself imitated something like a fundraising dinner party: we were asked to come clad in black and white, we were greeted with champagne and all of the “Pablo”s wore tuxedos. It began when Helguera, also a trained musician, serenaded us operatically. As the evening progressed, the cast of “Pablo”s performed a verbal weaving together of the letters, some of which I had received, while others were unfamiliar. I was puzzled why Helguera would choose to translate into performance the thing we had already received as correspondence, but through this gesture I realized that the scope of the project was much larger than what had arrived in my mailbox. I am still not sure why the form of the event mimicked opulence, but one consequence was that it shifted the event from being simply performative to a metatextual comment on how what we enjoy as art comes to be. Without patronage, so much less would be possible, especially in the US where government funding for the arts is impoverished. However, because the tone of the letters had been critical, I was primed to interpret the lavish gestures as critiques as well: perhaps support of the arts should not be so self-indulgent.
Processing the conference here, publicly and through an online platform, feels like a compromise of the project’s spirit: the whole experience has been one of the flesh and intimacy, first unfolding letters and then later shaking hands. That evening in New York, as Helguera made sense of the experience for himself through a performative monlogue, he suggested that contemporary forms of communication make letter writing obsolete. I wouldn’t take that claim at face value though. A parable is never about what it is about. Rather, a parable makes something visible through tangential description, like a star whose light reveals itself in deflected vision rather than straight-on observation. Through the written word, certain ideas take shape that cannot otherwise root in speech or through the everyday. In 2014, to write a letter is an act of tenderness. Do we wish to be tender? Well, if so, then we must nurture the impulse in the ways it requires.
Not every medium suits every means.
In the last letter that Helguera sent to me, he explained: “In life I am convinced that there is nothing more important than human connection through communication. And you have honoured this seemingly simple, and yet extremely difficult art of listening and engaging with others. Your generosity as a reader has reaffirmed my trust in the possibilities of how art can bring us together.” There may be too much art in the world (as one of his parables suggested), but there is not enough intimacy.
The grand lesson of the project, to attempt a distillation of the experiences on paper and in person, is that it is the artwork that matters in an encounter with art. It sounds silly for how simple it is! But when in the company of Helguera, I am reminded that it is not the descriptions of art that allow it to live. Neither is it the theories we use to rationalize it, nor is it the spectacle that gathers around it. Before all that and after all that, there is the art. All these other processes, while they can be deeply rewarding in their own way, are parasitic on that moment of encounter. Helguera’s mode of direct address stands as a model for engaging artworks, each on their own terms. How he met us, his participants, stands as an example of how we can approach art. One to one. Intimately. Generously.
The Parable Conference is now also a book, which can be ordered here.