Take the leap.

‘I just want to tickle you’

Last Saturday at a roundtable dialogue we hosted on curating art, I met a woman who informed me of a lecture today about dialogue.

I went.

Hearing artist Kianga Ford speak at the visiting lecture series at Duke University made me feel like I was back in school. Maybe it was the way she moved from one idea so smoothly into the next. Or her poise. Or her comfort with a group of people, and her accuracy in recalling our names. I used to teach once, so I know about how important it is to establish rapport in this way. She was really curious to hear from us, though, and she said so right at the start. I was psyched because this looked it was going to be a dialogue, after all.

For a second, I was back in art school. At least, I got that eerie feeling.

The announcement for the lecture told me afterwards my gut was right. Ford teaches at Parsons The New School of Design.

‘I just want to tickle you,’ she said in a moment of perfect candor. She listens, sometimes for 16 hours at a stretch, to people’s stories. These are people in homeless communities, for example, or elsewhere along the career path that spans documentary photography for National Geographic, a PhD, and art school.

She made soundtracks for a show about walking streets of Baltimore, and paying attention to what you see (see graphic above). She worked with homeless young people on photography projects, but wondered aloud why they would care. Something about situations and how we change how we behave according to agendas that we can’t quite see got her thinking, so much so that she went back to school.

In her work, she said, those she meets tell her things they might never express to any other soul. But rather than simply report, Ford makes something new with it. She takes what she feels, and creates. This is really intriguing to me, since I spent some time with two newspapers as a reporter, but always felt a little stifled because you had to conform to the ‘inverted triangle’ or other doctrine in style. Blogging frees you of that, one thousand percent.

‘It’s not historically accurate,’ Ford says of her writing. It’s not even trying to have a journalistic fidelity. It’s just her take. It’s her fiction. She says writing is a great way to help her process what she hears. But what she shares is a hint of something, her interpretation.

‘Tickling’ is about tantalizing. It’s about raising questions in the minds of us, the people who are there listening to the result of all the listening.

The burning question

What I loved about this conversation most was hearing people talk about intention. About making something come together that’s based on asking a specific question. Tools are just tools. Studies are studies. Texts are texts. The real magic, the real art, is what Seth Godin calls “emotional labor” in his book Linchpin. It’s what gets you thinking about making meaning instead of doing a job.

The real magic is coalescing disparate thoughts and information and streaming it into a funnel so clean, so smooth, and so finely crafted that what comes out is a singular idea. It may be an answer. Or it may lead to a new question. But the making of it, then sieving through new filters of ideology or passion or life experience or simply just waiting for that random thing to come along that makes you say, “Ah! Yes!,” that’s what’s beautiful about human thought. About the human contribution. The artist’s contribution.

If you want to answer your question, stay with it. Keep researching. Keep making up new methods to gather the data you need to find your resolutions. They don’t have to be perfect, or even bow to any existing means by which people are doing their research in the world already. The way you build your story is yours. Make it what you will. But keep with it, if to make art is your mission. If you find yourself falling to the side, thinking about what you might do to solve the problems you discover along the way, well. That is guilt taking over.

That sequence of making sense, or at least resolving a burning question, that is the work that comes from staying with the question. Getting lost in the middle of trying to find some answer to a burning internal query is common, though. People who work on community problems, for example, might despair so much about the state of the world that they embark on a whole career in social work. They’ll go to those extremes because they get stuck in what Ford called ‘the guilty middle.’

But you can stay with it, and answer the questions you have by gaining perspectives to help shape thought in new ways.

This melds well with our thoughts on dialogue here at Orangutan Swing. You can’t ever claim to “know” a thing for sure. You can just know what you feel, or believe, or have come to understand by taking a long look at a lot of things that inform the view.

A table is good. A round table is better. –DK


  1. Great Article