Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Bad at Sports

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Vital stats:
Format: “contemporary art talk”
Duration: an hour, on average
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

As a title, Bad at Sports [RSS] [iTunes] was funny, I’m sure, for at least 150 episodes. As for the following 120, I wonder. It’s a podcast about art, so the truth of those words is undeniable — if you’re looking for common ground among art students, that scrap may be as common as they get — but the observation seems less sharp than it could be. As with what it names, I find myself both impressed on the conceptual level and slightly disappointed by the muddle on the practical one.

Let’s be clear: this is a damned ambitious show that more than delivers on its promise. That promise, specifically, is of “contemporary art talk,” and boy, is there some contemporary art talk in here. Each weekly episode comes nears or exceeds an hour, delivering long-form conversation with an individual artist or a set of associated artists (or curators or critics or professors or what have you) plus extra segments on various goings-on in contemporary art. Though Chicago-based, the empire of Bad at Sports contributors seems to have reached both coasts of the country as well as into the wider world. There’s a lot of parochialism in podcasting; to see it a bit of, er, tri-coastalism, let alone internationalism, is heartening in itself.

The show also strikes a blow — has struck many blows, ever since 2005 — for the interview of substance. Occasional bouts of distractingly glitchy editing aside, the conversations adhere to both the rhythms and durations of, y’know, actual conversation. The correspondents’ enthusiasm for the works of and concepts in visual art under discussion is usually obvious, as is their genuine desire to hear and learn from the answers to their questions. (You’d be surprised how rare this actually is in the interview-y arts.) They’re not afraid of digression, either, which may lay some conversations defenseless to charges of indiscipline, but which — by definition, I suppose — takes them in delightfully unpredictable directions.

So far, this sounds like a pretty perfect podcast — a “Triple-P”, I call it — especially if you happen to be into the visual arts. Yet there’s a problem with the execution, a wily and amorphous one, that I’ve been trying to pin down for quite some time. At this point in my examination of the program, I can only conclude that it’s the same syndrome that afflicts contemporary art conversation in general: nobody’s quite sure how seriously they’re supposed to be taking it.

The Bad at Sports crew ostensibly takes pride in their ability to flip back and forth between the concrete and the abstract, between deep critical discussion and fart jokes. There’s no doubt that they can do that, but the transitions aren’t seamless; they’re marred by the low-level but ever-present discomfort of someone out at sea and only somewhat sure what to do about it. They talk to an astonishing variety of today’s artists, most of whom sound as if they are or could be doing interesting things, but lingering, unsettling issues about the value, relevance, direction of the entire artistic enterprise sap the edge from their confidence. “Oh, should I be asking you about how you actually make your work?” they seem to be thinking. “Or is that dumb? Should I be asking about the theories behind it? Or wait, does none of this matter? Should I make a fart joke?”

This isn’t always a dealbreaker, though, and it’s entirely possible that I’m reading too much into a slight uneasiness. To be honest, I could simply be projecting the epic frustration I harbor about the nutritionless mash of verbiage that often passes for assessment in contemporary art, or, worse, the tenure-hungry academic yammer about Gender (Dis)loc[a/u]tion that’s staggered on, zombielike, since 1992 or so. Bad at Sports is actually a bit better about keeping such nonsense out of this show than most venues in the wider art conversation, but that’s a low bar. It seems to be the show is enough of a force to get down to work on the noble task eradicating it entirely.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]