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Posters Without End: The Art of ‘The Conversation’

September 15, 2009

“Is it possible to make a poster of unlimited dimensions, a poster as long, or as high as you care to make it? A poster three foot by five, twelve foot by two and a half, six foot by ten…?” – Bruno Munari, Italian artist and designer

What makes a good community conversation? Is it the people that participate, or the format of the discussion?  Is it the agenda that frames the questions or the outcomes that result from the experience?  Moreover, is a good community conversation defined by the quality of the experiences that are shared or the amount of deeds that it inspires? Are open conversations of the diversified many more influential than closed conversation of a powerful few? And when the conversation ends, what begins?

Those are the questions that filled my head as I flew home to Atlanta at the conclusion of my participation in the two-day “Conversation” hosted by the Jewish Week (and a myriad of other supporters and alumni).  The experience, an immersive exercise in the “open space” method of conversation, gathered a interesting array of individuals from all aspects of North American Jewish life, with diverse passions and distributed geographic points of presence. Nametags with names but no titles, and a conference with participants but no agendas, the Conversation is an ongoing experiment of creating insightful community dialogue in an open and safe space.

One of the ways you know that a room has been the center of “open space” discussions is there is always a wall of posters filed with questions and answers, ideas and ruminations.  In this sense, the cacophony of conversation is not only audible, but the pastiche of its product is visible. On one wall there is a magnificent array of what happens when people combine what is in their heads and their hearts with the same elements that others offer to share. We too had that wall during our conference; it grew over the hours and days and with it took shape of the art of the Conversation.

Yes, there are some fascinating people that participate in the Conversation, and it is hard (at least it was hard for me) to feel like one belongs in a room with such passionate, experienced and innovative individuals. The imaginations in that room were as broad as vista of the rolling hills that surround the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Maryland (where our meetings were held) and the seeds of collaboration that were planted are certain to be as fruitful as the seeds planted on the on-site Kayam Farm that nourished us. But it was not just the people and the ideas that were amazing, it was the way the conversation developed, transformed, extended and intertwined over the time we were together. Those who once were strangers were soon friends and partners, what once was a delicate two-step of introductions became a lively dance of exhortations. We were changing the Conversation and the Conversation was changing us.

After that kind of experience, one can step back and truly marvel at the power of dialogue, and the unanticipated artistry it elicits. So much of the time we have conversations to seek outcomes, to help realize the individual goals of the participants in the conversation. But sometimes the conversation itself can be a majestic and beautiful expression of community, a product in and of itself. Yet we sometimes struggle with conversation that has no stated intended outcome – perhaps that is because we are more comfortable when we know what to prepare to say rather than when we realize we are unprepared for what we may hear? Or perhaps it is because our need for action so outstrips our patience for conversation that we miss the unfolding beauty of our shared energy (and exhaustion) in planning our action?

Now be sure, not every piece of art is flawless and neither is the Conversation. A vibrant artistic expression often benefits from a greater mix of colors, a finer nuance of shading and a deeper exploration of detail. A little bit more of each of those elements could enhance the Conversation in the future. But art is a matter of personal taste and so is conversation; it is at the same moment inherently timely and timeless, and as the “open space” method provides – whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. The art of any particular conversation is a product of the imagination, passion and prose of its participants, it can’t be more and it is never less. That is true not just for the capital “C” Conversation, but for all conversation in the Jewish world.  But perhaps our communal conversations should be less about give and take and more about hear and grow? Rather than being a source of frustration, perhaps we would be better served if we actively consider Jewish dialogue as an expression of communal artistry?

So back to those posters on the wall.  When one looks at menagerie of words on paper, one can’t help but notice the space between the posters and the still empty space that surrounds them as whole. One notices that in some places the posters bunch together tight and in other places they are separated – simultaneously being boldly distant and invading from the fringe. Recognizing this phenomena in the artistic world, renowned designer Bruno Munari wrote  “[t]he edges of a poster are therefore worthy of special consideration. They may serve as neutral areas to isolate one poster from the others around it, or as calculated links in a series. In any case one can never ignore them when one designs a poster, and certainly not if one wants to avoid the unpleasant surprise of seeing one’s work come to nothing once it goes up on a wall.” We too should not lose sight that the gaps between the posters have meaning to us a Jewish community as well… it is not just what is inside the lines of discussion that matters but the conversation outside the lines and the conversations yet to occur that matter as well.

With that in mind, and with special appreciation to conveners of the Conversation for the reminder, let us all find ways to experience the artistry of conversation in our own Jewish communities, however big or small they may be. And let us pray that 5770 be a year filled with posters of beautiful discussions, sustainable dreams and exquisite and impactful actions – and that the art of Jewish conversations always have a place in the galleries of our Jewish lives.

L’shana Tova Tikatevu!

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2 comments

  1. Seth,

    I can’t wait to hear more as the “art” from the Conversation becomes a part of and shapes the public sphere. In the meantime, your use of Munari’s quote also reminds me the commentary regarding the white space in the Torah. Kol haKavod … Shanah Tovah U’Metukah!


  2. Very interesting. Part of our interns’ charge is simply to engage in conversation–to use conversation as a valuable Jewish tool. I look forward to having you join us in 2 weeks.



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