Dinner Without An Agenda with Herb Tam

Can an unstructured conversation between 10 up-and-coming artists and an established curator work? Can a group of strangers move beyond professional striving and intellectual one-upmanship and just dialogue in a spirit of conviviality? Am I dreaming? There’s such a theatre of exclusion surrounding high-end culture in this city. And obviously the networks of discreet influence, which are cause for public recrimination in politics, are the bread and butter of the art world.

But if the QM’s mission is to upend the traditional hierarchies of culture production, to in fact focus on community building over career building, such an experiment is definitely worthwhile. The problem is, at a table where all hierarchies are flattened, how do we navigate the ordering of appetizers?

It was an hour or so into the meet-up at Takesushi (Sunnyside, Queens) before anyone was comfortable enough to think food. With a different special guest (featured eater?) we might have been staring into empty place settings until midnight, but Mr. Tam’s easy comfort, his modest deflections of questions back at the group, his early confession that he didn’t jibe with all contemporary art and thought it was empowering to admit it, deescalated the feeling of ‘event’ and established a casual, energetic conversation that actually got into some ideas.

Tam moved to the city as an artist back in the 90’s and took the reins from Asian-American artist/activist group Godzilla with his collaborative Godzooki, which mainly just met up for dim sum. His interest in collective actions, along with the assessment that his political and cultural subject matter was not currently embraced by the NYC art scene, seems to have led Mr. Tam into curatorial work. Tom Finklepearl was a big influence during Mr. Tam’s temporary post at the Queens Museum, and it’s clear from the current programming at the MOCA that the curator prioritizes promoting local cultural narratives over globalized trade in exquisite objects.

The success of this non-objective dinner/dialogue stemmed from the fact that the participants themselves, by the very fact of their self-selection, lent thematic cohesion the event. Among artist-attendees, there was heavy interest in speaking to migrant experience, advocating for marginalized narratives of POC’s (People of Color) in particular. At least two participants are part of artist collectives, and they plumbed the resources of Godzooki and kin for tips on how to make it work for the long haul. I think everyone at the table was involved in teaching, at venues from Studio in a School to NYU to the Noguchi Museum. The idea of the artist as social mover, perhaps even agent for societal change, sucked posturing and careerism out of the conversation like so many edamame beans.  Herb Tam, rather than acting as moderator for a structured conversation, proved to be its generative agent, his professional interests acting as the DNA upon which the giant lizard body of our dialogue took shape.

I think it’s significant that his curatorial model fits nicely with the non-hierarchical approach of QM. Will the next dinner unfold in the same way? Unlikely, as the guest’s own temperament and professional ethic will determine the anatomy of that particular lizard. Each Dinner Without an Agenda is likely to be as shockingly different as, say a lizard bombarded with high levels of gamma radiation as opposed to a moth bombarded with equal levels of the same. I can’t wait.

— Brian Zegeer

Image: Godzookie, child of Godzilla

This post is part of our series on Dinners Without an Agenda where guests authors react to the events they attend. Read on at this link for the rest.