Carolyn Wright: Pleased to meet you, again

Niki Russell

Caroline Wright, Conversation with Friends

Caroline Wright, Conversation with Friends

My mistaken arrival at the Arnolfini Meeting Room was the first confusion of the “physical meeting point” within Caroline Wright’s Conversation with Friends; I was quickly redirected towards the reception desk where I was due to begin. The work would not be a simple exchange of news or ideas, but would involve a three-stage encounter: guided walk, physical meeting and video document.

I am instructed to press play on a CD player at 16:20. Not wearing a watch and sensing that timing might have significance for my experience, I lean across the counter to watch the remaining minutes pass by on the time display of the PDQ machine.

“Let’s walk together.” The voice explains my route, but also reflects on the more tactile qualities of our shared meanderings in and around the Arnolfini. The doors open in front of me Aladdin-like in response to the audio only I can hear. The cold air immediately hits me and my decision to come out in a thin shirt concerns me as Wright comments, “There is quite a breeze, hope you wrapped up.”

In tandem with the focal voice, a second voice is heard, hushed and intermittent. Despite its restraint it is still a subtle intrusion—“Will I recognise you when we meet?”—often coming at the end of another more instructional statement, distracting you as you strain to hear. When later asked if I had enjoyed the conversation, I answered that I had not thought of it as one, not feeling the need to reply in any way. I am trying to listen, follow and to note discrepancies. I try to match Wright’s steps across the cobbles and am surprisingly pleased by the synchronicities; as I raise my foot to step on the pavement edge I am warned, “Be careful of the step.” I am just as delighted by my inability to keep up, or when I get ahead of myself; looking over the balcony I realise I am on the ‘wrong’ one, and later I watch as another person moves just too quickly at the same stage.

The guided walk completed, I leave the CD player behind and enter a darkened room, the soft red lights allowing me to make out Wright, who guides me to a seat. The ensuing “face-to-face exchange”, our second ‘meeting’ in multiple ways, felt like pleasantries prior to the request to visually document our encounter. I remain as still as possible as Wright places a piece of photographic paper in her mouth. The intense white light replaces the photographic safe red, directed specifically at me as I sit motionless, staring forwards. Lips pursed, slightly open, the stare is returned. On reflection this position takes on the character of a freeze-framed dialogue, but the pose removes any sense of intimacy.

My detachment is increased as I am guided to sit alone in a space designed as a refuge point (for those who cannot evacuate in fire situations). A video document makes up this third and final phase, left open with no clear start or finish, a conversation between a man and a woman across a table. With the video slowed and silent, I focus on other forms of communication, body language accentuated and yet problematised by its display. Each fiddles with their hands or face, gestures not openly hostile but displaying outbursts of emotion, followed by shared laughter. A further stifled conversation.

An exchange later in the day queried if this experience would affect my conversations over the rest of the festival. I also began to note that other participants were ruffled by the intended subversion of conversational etiquette, angered by an inability to contribute to a two-way exchange or the opportunity to know each other. In the early stages I felt none of these emotions, immediately accepting the ‘one-way’ flow, as I would in response to the green man or the train station tannoy. My behavioural response was clearly relational, and I was content to focus on my behaviour, but in a manner more responsive than conversational. The conduit I had created meant that when the potential for two-way exchange occurred, I was running alongside rather than within this exchange.

2 February 2006