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What’s the point in a roundtable?

When I was in art school, there was a constant push forward towards a new now we were all being asked to co-create. That meant we had to quickly get a grasp on what had come before in order to not repeat ourselves, but we couldn’t linger in that history. We could only dip into it in order to catch up. But it was like a hand was on the small of my back, hurrying me along the whole time. What will come next? What matters now that did not matter before? Criticism often asks the same questions, we were told, but warrants new answers as the world changes. I think this experience of art school (god bless and goddamn Central Saint Martins) lit a fire under me; a fire that makes it hard to sit still in the acute social setting of a roundtable, that good old quiet dance that galleries and other arts organisations have long loved to put on.

I have been to many. I have tried. So many of the ones I have been to have been had in the empty rooms of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Others in huge galleries the size of air hangers, or otherwise small Learning and Education department-related rooms I had never seen before. There is a premise, a hook that pulled me in. Yes, I do want to think about the relationship between voice and class, for example. I do want to think more about a feminist Internet. I go along to these discussions because I want to pick off a piece of new-ness for myself. I want to use these talks to expand my own life and my own ways of thinking. But over the years, I have found expansion happens more easily (for me) in other places, and roundtables have not done enough to stretch my soul.

There is often an organiser or somebody acts as a facilitator and they share some related content in order to get the ball rolling, before opening out to the strangers who have come along to the chat. The content they have feels like the pure thing I want. But there is a problem in the format of the roundtable in that the content is cut off or held back in place of a wider discussion — one that, in my experience, dilutes the main thesis and my reason for coming. I always think: I wish this was just a straight up talk instead: something researched and practiced, full of stories, and holding a vastness in its ideas.

A roundtable, by comparison, presents a starting point that then veers off into the elementary anecdotes of the audience (and yes, of course, I have contributed to that result myself). The facilitator tries to keep things within the perimeter of the subject, even as certain audience members might try to sneak over the edge. But even if their contributions are interesting in themselves, they feel undermined by the shape the roundtable takes on: chopped up, lite, un-practiced, sometimes un-researched, full of stories but usually person-first in their ideas. It becomes a strange ice-breaker where the motivation to speak is stating what you know that relates to the topic (with the added academic subtext that asks you to state what you know in order to prove why you should have a seat here at the table). Sometimes people speak for a very long time. Sometimes it’s not about the thing you came here to hear about, and then it’s hard to stay.

So, I find them hard. I prefer singular talks. I would prefer that everyone who went to a roundtable was instead given a talk of their own — I would listen. I would listen especially if they were paid to fully flesh out their ideas and give their thoughts some form. I’ve been to roundtables that have felt so awkwardly facilitated that it is as though the gallery wants their audience to do a bit of art-thinking on their public programme for free, and this is a quick way of outsourcing the performance of cleverness. I think that is especially suspicious when arts organisations don’t have a diverse programme on the go, in terms of artists and their subjects, and this can be a way to get photographs of underrepresented bodies in their spaces looking like paid performers, mouths agape.

And so ultimately, the format of a roundtable has too many holes in it for me to enjoy my attendance. Ideas, thoughts, the new-ness I so crave, it leaks out through the holes in broken sentences coming from a broken line-up of speakers. Not always. Sometimes there is magic between people and luck brings them together for an hour. But those instances are too rare, and so I seek out talks, listen to podcasts, or read texts instead. Plus, it’s easier to bail on those if they don’t quite hold what I’m looking for — nobody can see me sneak out. 

Text by Gabrielle de la Puente, The White Pube
This text is a response to ‘Round the Virtual Table,’ an event that took place on May 6th as part of this year’s Wired Women* programme for NEoN.

NEoN are working with The White Pube as part of its Wired Women* programme. They are writing responses on the different public outcomes of the programme.Find out more here.