Dinner Without An Agenda with Raquel de Anda

The September 30 “Dinner Without An Agenda,” a Queens Museum Open A.I.R. experiment, began with a delicious mystery. A Sri Pra Phai Thai restaurant worker pressed a surprise envelope into the hands of Raquel de Anda, independent transnational curator and intrepid dinner host. Curious eyes alight, Raquel opened the envelope, found several orange cards bearing a message, and passed them around the table. We had barely learned each other’s names, and we were already being collectively hailed by an unknown force. The cards read:

on behalf of others…

“What can a little man effect toward such realizations in the face of the formidable power of great corporations, great states, and all their know-how, guns, monies, armies, tools and information? The individual can take initiatives without anybody’s permission.”

– R. Buckminster Fuller (comprehensive anticipatory design scientist, visionary, and inventor of the geodesic dome)

We, a motley assortment of social art and action practitioners from around the world, had been selected for this dinner based on succinct responses to the question: “What was the last risk you took in your practice that confronted power?” This envelope–its own risk created by someone not chosen to sit at the table–set the evening’s searching, anarchic tone.

Artists and activists have notoriously danced along the spectrum of representation–how they anticipate or reflect on social life, build or disrupt relationships with communities they inhabit, intervene in movements (or not), porously conjure lifestyles. We dozen around the dinner table shared a range of vibrant projects, speaking independently and yet on behalf of our own others: Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Program, Free University-NYC, Mayday Space, Utopia School, photography, video, oral histories on feminism and migration, urban guerrilla farming, streetcorner performances, biomythographical fiction, actionable art, non-incentivizable art, patient art. Over steaming dishes and a bustling restaurant din, we took turns translating this work, occasionally losing details and inflections from each other’s mouths and our own.

Throughout, the envelope’s haunting proposition remained, like runes scattered amidst the dumplings and taro nests and dizzying sauces and jasmine tea. Who was not selected for this table? What were their names, their projects, their own behalfs? Who is welcomed into the banquets of artistic and political worlds, and who is left outside or washing the late-night dishes? On whose initiatives and permissions do we act? The group explored how to approach risk as a practice of freedom. How to widen (or upend) the table. How to de-center who traditionally speaks at its helm. How to transition between mediums. How to stare in the face of power. How to refute the role of artists and installations as vanguard battering rams of gentrification. How to come out to one’s family through storytelling. How to return to art or political practice after intense hardships. How a parade against ecological violence, a desegregated lithography workshop, a series of concentric freedom school circles in a public park can act as dress rehearsals for future insurgencies.

By the end of a two-hour meal swirling with spices and delightful provocations, we all agreed to challenge official license as we continue vitally humanizing activities, and we all disagreed on whether art should inherently be social, confrontational, outward. We’ve seen across histories that the engine of autonomous mischief found in art and activism can catapult us into new experimental forms. However, a notion of creative freedom as merely self-independence can hazard a slippery derilection of concern for the dazzling, fraught lives of those around us. So despite no agenda, we still took copious mental notes on courses of action, coalitional possibilities, ways to decolonize the feast.

— Conor Tomás Reed

Image: Demonstrators make their way down Sixth Avenue in New York during the People’s Climate March. Photo by AP

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.