Gambling in Reno, Some Notes on a Social Practices “Field Trip”
“After the conference papers are over, we go slumming in their bars.”
Like many things in my life, this essay begins somewhat obliquely. The above quote is from Richard Shusterman's Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art. He's writing about what comes to count as legitimate experience in the professional world of philosophy and literary theory. For an experience to count in these domains it has to take an institutionally recognizable form as a conference, a paper, or a book. This same question of legitimacy plagues the professional art world - roughly analogous substitutions might be exhibitions, works, and projects. Shusterman writes that we are impoverished by academic practices “...[which fail] to recognize the value of non-professional responses which seek neither interpretive truth nor publishable novelty but simply enriched experience, experience which may perhaps be communicated in writing but does not need to be to count as legitimate and meaningful.” When one engages in such non-professional practices, when one goes “slumming” in Reno, you run the risk of academic oblivion.
How does “enriched experience” find articulation? Does this essay enhance or undermine the experience of our field trip? How do you provide enough of a structure for something to become legible without allowing the structure to be the only thing that's experienced? Perhaps these considerations are central to social practices, or maybe this is merely my conceit. My interest has always led me to teeter as far on the edge of evanescence as possible – allowing, for example, the trip to Reno to live or die in the memories of my fellow travelers rather than making a video, or taking photos, or creating a Jeremy Deller like travel guide.
This essay may undermine this anti-ambition, but it can at least specify that no guide book is possible for the trip. It was a singularity comprised of a specific set of people at a specific moment in time. This is not to say that fruitful discussion/interpretation cannot take place, but if the trip was “successful,” discussion, documentation, and exhibition, would never adequately capture its complexity. This is dangerous territory. I'm sounding awfully “arty.”
Perhaps there's little else you need to know about the trip other than the fact that it was bookended by free appetizers when we arrived in Reno, and sage cheddar cheese on crackers on our way home in the white mini-van. Perhaps that is all you can know unless you were there. It was never a “project,” but it was something more than spontaneous revelry, although that happened too. Above all, it was a gamble.
I've gambled with others in Reno before, in more and less serious ways. Neil Young has indirectly asked – Tell Me Why Only Love Breaks Your Heart? To this I can only offer the corniest of replies – love is a gamble, and that gamble, if it is to have any meaning at all, must have failure as one of its real possibilities. Without the risk of losing everything, gambling/love is just another game, one hardly worth playing. Maybe my deepest ambition for social practices and the art/life tension it embodies for me, is that it too is a game worth playing, something more than a profession, something more than a series of projects, a game with something tragic at stake – something that could break your heart...