Our third assignment was to include an element of exchange in a conversation. I asked people to bring two things, a topic for conversation and something to give away. The participants had all been to an earlier conversation together. I intended there to be other people but that didn’t work out.

I thought about exchange  and what I and the other  people in the conversation might get out of it and give to it.

  • all participants may get
    • enjoyment, understanding of one another, mutual connections, increased openness to others views, a gift
    • in return for presence, participation, giving something away
  • I may also get
    • understanding of how people negotiate process, increased confidence, knowledge of what issues matter to people, satisfaction, awareness of people’s skills
    • in return for forethought, asking for help, action

My thoughts beforehand

  • exchange the ideal for the achievable – without losing too much idealism
  • people bring diverse ideas and possibilities into the mix and negotiate which there is time to talk about
  • the personal value of ideas, need for equality, taking people seriously, temporary commitment to one another.
  • Exchanges
    • exchange one’s preoccupations for a better understanding of someone else’s.
    • Find out what is important to each other.
    • People also bring a small gift and leave with one.
    • Building connections between people.
  • Potential for equal exchange (of ideas) is determined by the decision of the group (of individuals), if it can make a decision as a group about which of the topics to discuss.
  • The idea that people in the group bring skills that can help the artist, facilitation may be a matter of noticing who is good at what, and inviting them to do it.
  • the others in the  conversation are co-producers
  • the outcomes are considered but not pre-determined
  • how much knowledge is optimal
    • do I explain what is happening and why?
    • do I allude to exchange?


  • mention I will be reflecting afterwards on weblog
  • how will I collect ideas for discussion? I thought about asking people as they arrived and making a list, this would be good if anonymity were important. Or asking people to go round the circle and offer their discussion topic. This is what we ended up doing. It’s more of a challenge for participants; not everyone would feel able to do this especially in a bigger group.
  • how will we negotiate what subjects are discussed?
    • ask for ways to resolve or suggest ways to resolve
      • practical
        • number of people >= number of subjects
        • divide people
        • divide time
        • both
        • consider extending into the future/other people
        • subset subjects
          • discuss some: never/in future/in another context
    • In the event we mutually chose to  discuss almost all the subjects. One was postponed till  another person might be present. One was almost not discussed but I raised it towards the end. I w0ndered how peple might feel if we didn’t discuss ‘their’ topic. I could  have asked this.
    • attend to group dynamics –  something I find very hard to ‘read’
  • how will I organise exchange of gifts?
    • add all gifts to a bowl, have people take something as they leave?
    • in the event, people seemed reluctant to be first to take something. I took the bowl of gifts around the circle. I think this was actually quite a tricky exchange because as well as people wanting particular items, they had investment in seeing how the item they brought was chosen by another. And because the coices diminished as the items were taken.
  • documentation/feedback – as well as my own notes, I decided to give people a small feedback sheet with these questions
    • why did you come?
    • what did you expect?
    • what did you receive?
    • what would you change?
    • any other reflections?

Review and observation

  • personal – I felt
    • vulnerability with regard to particular issues
    • overwhelming, ordeal, exhausting
  • social behaviour – I noticed
    • etiquette, turn-taking, roles
    • how difficult it is to make truly collaborative decisions
    • different personalities, for example whether people like uncertainty or not.
  • what came up about dialogue
    • trying to really hear and listen
    • the importance of using words clearly
    • the people may have been too likeminded
    • the importance of expectation
  • issues, insights arising from  the conversation
    • the problems of labelling people and therefore not seeing them any more
    • [lack of/limitations of] communication can be an issue in the community
    • the ubiquity of change



Because I thought a lot about contingencies at the planning stage I found it easier to ‘think on my feet’ than usual. The group having met before felt comfortable and even joyful, yet still with challenging and divergent views. The exchange of gifts seemed to be special to people, some mentioned this in their feedback. It was interesting to learn what people wanted to talk about.


I almost derailed the conversation when an issue came up that affected me personally. I don’t think such issues would necessarily be something to avoid in this kind of conversation. But the artist needs to be prepared and aware of her own vulnerabilities in order to act professionally!

I would have liked to take a photo of the bowl of gifts and/or of people choosing them.

other thoughts

Helguera talks about the ‘construction of a community or temporary social group through a collective experience’ (Helguera, 2011: 9). This raises issues about what happens afterwards. Are we creating expectations of permanence? How can this be avoided if the project really is temporary? I learned the importance of clarity around this. Where does a project end –  I have to know, and yet  also be open to that changing, in some situations? Might a physical exchange provide a symbolic memory of the event, and possibly a closure point?


On the other hand, he also notes that ‘the effects of the project may outlast its ephemeral presentation’ (Helguera, 2011: 12). I think this is something I would hope for, outcomes that may be unforeseen but are ongoing. I like the idea that something new might come to life and grow as new connections are made and new networks formed. I’m excited by what may happen to a project at the point where the artist lets go. If she can succeed in creating a rich experience and sharing ownership of it, all kinds of potential becomes available to the participants: reproducing the experience, developing it, and creating new fruitful interactions.

Helguera, P., 2011, Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books


Conversation with exchange