Reflections on Dinner Without An Agenda with Chloe Bass
by Manju Shandler

The night I set out for the mysterious Dinner Without An Agenda was the coldest and windiest of the year thus far.  I was somewhat unprepared; I took the premise of a Dinner Without An Agenda at face value and hadn’t really done my homework. But I had a long subway ride from Brooklyn to Flushing to look at Ms. Bass’s detailed website and I started to get a bit of a feel for her practice. In my quick study it seemed she was trying to create the transcendent from everyday interactions, or at least call attention to everyday transcendence.

Arriving a bit late, frozen and flustered the diner/introductions had already started. An empty chair was produced for me and I was generously invited to the table where I sat with 13 artists who poured me tea and whispered how each person had been asked to introduce themselves- who we are, what we do, and what are we currently obsessed with. As we went around the table this simple introduction was enough to break the ice and begin to get a sense of each person. There were a few particularly hilariously off color obsessions which started to warm up the tone of the group.

We had a gathered in a large, well lit, banquet style Chinese restaurant with round tables, equipped with bright pink and yellow table clothes and a tremendous lazy Susan in the center which made sharing the family style food both a practical reality and choosing the moment to turn the wheel and take a portion of food a sort of social etiquette dance.

While Chloe Bass made it clear that this Dinner Without An Agenda was simply that, it was also evident to me that her skills as a conceptual performance artist with a particular interest in social interactions and a background as a theatre director was very much employed during the course of the evening.  The questions she poised to the diners beyond the formal one that brought us together: How do you bring your life into your practice? were framed in a manner to keep our eyes open and aware of the importance of how we answered fundamental questions about identity and privilege both in conversation at dinner as well as in our work.

Privilege was the prevailing theme of the evening and the lens through which each of us addressed concepts of our own advantages and disadvantages the main topic of conversation. It’s hard to imagine a subject that feels more urgent among New York artists – our lives are fraught with overt issues of financial hardship and most of us have felt gender, racial, ageist, and educational bias when it comes to sharing our work and building our careers.  The commonality of the group was that we are all artists who took the time to thoughtfully respond to the question posed by the Queens’ museum and Chloe Bass. We were chosen to attend the dinner through the merit of our answers. This was a rare leveling where a brand name education, a fancy website, artsy sex appeal and even the art product itself were eliminated from the playing field. By choosing to examine our privileges rather than the hardships of being an artist, this Dinner Without An Agenda was a reminder of how much there is to be grateful for in an artist’s journey.

All in all it was a lively diner party with an interesting cast of characters. The two hours flew by and I think each of us was left with the feeling that we had only scratched the surface of getting to know the group and the ideas that were introduced. I was left with a true sense of privilege- at being an artist and a member of this tribe of New Yorkers who were trying to chip away at the surface of their own identities and striving to create and reflect on the larger world around us.

At the end of the evening we walked as a group through Flushing to the easternmost stop on the 7 train and began the lateral journey back towards the city center. At various intervals members of our group exited the train to make the connections that would bring them back to their lives.  As our group dwindled I felt how the 7 train acts as a median line of the city, bisecting neighborhoods with a horizontal line that is accessible to each of the north/south connections, like an artery with so many veins.

-Manju Shandler

Image: Eye Ball Flyer 1, copyright Manju Shandler 2015, mixed media, 32x32x14 inches from the solo show ZIZ: Synthetic Deities at the Sarah Doyle Gallery for Feminist Art at Brown University, November, 2015.