Sensitivity Training Exhibition, curated by Olav Westphalen
If you think you “get” this exhibition, then you’re completely missing the point. If you don’t get it, look again.
Sensitivity Training focuses on ambiguous and unresolved—even unfunny—humour. It is about comedy that doesn’t crash-land on a punchline, but rather remains suspended, floating across meanings, thereby undermining what we know. While contemporary art is increasingly expected to be intelligible, this show looks at the ways in which it fails to communicate clearly. It argues that art triumphs precisely when it fails to properly relay an opinion; when it makes a mess of its message.
Many of the works in the show will appear to be in the wrong place and in the wrong key. They look like failed jokes, but they might just as well be accidents, poetry, nonsense, the mutterings of the insane. Sensitivity Training is a gently corrosive affair. It nibbles away at certainty and truth. If it is entertaining along the way, that too is probably an accident.
Charles Baudelaire described how grotesque, or “absolute,” comedy can violently upend our assumptions about reality and our place in it. Other comedic methods achieve equally profound effects by more restrained means. They could be described as deadpan without a giveaway; the stone-faced delivery of confusing matter without a wink of complicity. Artists in this exhibition employ both of these strategies and a range of others. What they share is a refusal to sort out the mess of lived experience. Here, for once, systems, beliefs, and opinions have low standing; ego and identity are eroded as well. And knowledge? Whatever. Here, we enter the grey area of insecurity and wonder.
Of course, the artists in this exhibition still inhabit this world. They worry about social injustice, climate change, viruses, war, and the astounding pirouettes of late capitalism just like everybody else. They touch upon real-world problems, while denying us the illusionary certainty of definitive positions. Instead of seeing comedy as a rhetorical weapon of which we approve or disapprove based on whether we like or dislike what it is aimed at, Sensitivity Training defines humour as an attitude—as a way of being in a paradoxical world. The American linguist Candace D. Lang distinguishes simple irony from humour, describing humour as “sustained irony as a philosophical position.”
Satire and comedy are commonly debated along the lines of what can and cannot be said or shown, which usually leads to each side doubling down on their assumptions. These frequently impolite and largely fruitless debates are rarely led by humorists or artists, but rather by journalists, politicians, academics, the clergy, or terrorists, who expect comedy and comical art to abide by their own senses of humour. That’s where Sensitivity Training comes in. The exhibition’s title is an ironic stab at corporate culture; at the attempts of HR departments worldwide to administer morality through policy. But beyond this (admittedly cheap) shot at the professional managerial class, the title is to be taken seriously. If we want to be able to back out of the various dead ends we have manoeuvred ourselves into, we will need to learn a different kind of perception; a more fine-tuned attentiveness to ourselves, the other, and the world we are supposed to be just another integral part of. We will require training, and a sense of humour.
This exhibition is embedded in the larger Gabrovo Biennial, which goes by the title Economy of Means and is dedicated to ecological and economic problems, such as dwindling natural resources and the rapidly shrinking margin of error in which we find ourselves operating as a civilization facing social and ecological cataclysm. Sensitivity Training takes a tangential approach and focuses on underlying social attitudes, which may be as large a part of the problem as what we burn, what we eat, or whom we get to do our dirty work. There are types of humour that totalitarians, sexists, or racists can’t stand. This is good news. The bad news is that the same kind of humour can be just as irritating to moralists, evangelists, and even progressive satirists. Gabrovo, the capital of self-deprecating humour—the town that turned everybody’s prejudice against it into a source of civic pride and tourist revenue— might be the perfect place to train deep humour; to pay attention to ambiguity, complexity, surprises, and learning and unlearning.
Olav Westphalen, Stockholm, March 2022
APT (The Association for the Palliative Turn)