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Biennele: The Lost Art of Conversation.

Written by Jessie Smith on July 17, 2008

Now days, it is common to organise social functions or gatherings over email or on social networking sites, as this has become one of the more time efficient methods of informing and getting people involved. As a result of the advances that technology has made, we can now chat online, go shopping online, play poker online, read books online, watch movies and TV online, buy and steal music online, some people even fall in love online. We are now able to do so many things, from the comfort of our computer screen, that the majority of us now live in a genuine virtual reality. A genuine virtual reality that is so “Jetsons” like, that we can go bowling in our living rooms and our cars can give us driving directions.

We live in a world where technology reigns supreme and people are becoming increasingly disenfranchised and burrowing deeper and deeper into the isolated black hole of online communication and text messages. Because of these advancements, one could say that the oldest art form known to man, that of the conversation, is heading the way of the Sabre tooth tiger. Listening is one of the most powerful ways of communicating and the internet does not allow us to exercise our eardrum very often.
Throughout the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, you are invited to rectify all of this and book a 45 minute chin wagging session with writer, artist, film maker, uni lecturer, magazine editor and social anthropologist Ross Gibson, as he attempts to revive the ‘lost art of the conversation’ and find some common ground with visitors. All the while investigating the beauty of connection, the exchanging of ideas and documenting the clustered topics that emerge during his 3-month stint inside a box in the lobby of the Art Gallery of NSW. Jessie Smith investigates.

It feels like you could be sitting in any café in any corner of this city. But you are not. You are in a box that resembles a television – people walk past or stop to listen, or take photos. Your box is in the lobby of the art gallery of NSW and inside this box are a couple of photos, an Aboriginal dream time painting and one Mr. Ross Gibson, who learned yesterday from an 80 year old woman doing a degree in Archaeology that, because the snake in said painting went around in an anti clockwise circle – as the sun does from morning till night- it was a symbol of all things being “naturally good”.

Would you expect a Nana from the suburbs with a question mark for a spine and a blue rinsed perm to know the inner meanings behind an ancient tribal artwork? It has become a tendency to make assumptions about people based on appearances. But as someone as wise as they are anonymous once said “The mind is like a parachute, it works best when it is open.” And we stand to gain a hell of a lot more from this philosophy, as opposed to a narrow version of it. As Gibson explains, his aim is to find that ‘thing’ that excites each of the subjects that visit him and gets them talking. “People will often only tell their story in the right moment. When they feel comfortable enough and open enough to reveal it. That is what is interesting, whether that trust is built.”

Today he built that trust with me and before long our conversation flows easily.

We empathise with each other about the pressures of starting a paper, for he did just this in the late 70’s with a group of his friends in a time when a macintosh was a raincoat and you literally had to cut (with a scalpel) and paste to get a layout. We speak of Karma and racism, of Labyrinths and Kraftwerk, of Bjelke-Petersen’s reign over Queensland and the day Sid Vicious and ultimately the punk scene died. We speak of fate, of Chinese radicals, the beauty of unity found in collaborations and the inner meanings of curating. I learn of Sydney in the 80’s before money moved into our town and the horseshoe night patrol between Woolloomooloo and Newtown. He tells me of the Kingston reggae scene (which I am now completely in heart with), of seeing the Specials in their prime and being present at the second ever “Birthday Party” gig – which turns me green. I find myself telling him personal truths, and he empathises and puts me at ease. It all feels so “naturally good” in this box I find myself in, two total strangers discovering acres of common ground.

To quote, the film The Castle, “we could have talked for hours.”

Later that afternoon, back in the office – I receive a text from a friend, asking how my chat went and it all seems to ironic.

Artist Ross Gibson will be in the main lobby of the Art Gallery of NSW through till the 7th of September. To book a time to see him please visit the website,

5 conversations are available daily – and on the 9th of August you can come and speak with Music Feeds, Jessie Smith, inside the box, and get her knowing about your band or anything that takes your fancy. Stay tuned for more information.

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