The Chairs are Where the People Go, a collaboration by Toronto artists Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti, is an exploration of one person’s work, art, theories and urban experience. In this record of a series of conversations between Misha and Heti Misha outlines his worldview. It is funny, glib, moving, insightful with a dash of annoying.
Written in short, direct, aphoristic chapters, the book bounces from topic to topic. In each chapter Misha presents the subject, tells an anecdote or two, preaches his lesson and rounds out with some naunce.
The effect can be earth-shakingly insightful and focused. His chapters on improvisation, games, and ‘unconferences’ are all compelling. One of the best is a section titled “Making the City more Fun for You and Your Privileged Friends Isn’t a Super-Noble Political Goal.”
He is at his best on this theories of how to get adults to play, how to get people to trust each other enough to fully improvise and create new things.
It is clear that Heti brings out the best in Misha. As much as it is about him, her clear talents as an interviewer allows real concrete ideas to appear. She gets past the many masks of Misha and shows us his real insights. She forces him to be honest with the audience.
Alas, the hero has an Achilles heel. The total focus on one man’s worldview and life experience is a double edged sword. For each moving and insightful anecdote, there is one that falls flat, is boring, is actively annoying, or tiresome. It is a tough challenge to be charming while preaching for 150 pages and Misha fails to meet this burden.
In some chapters, like the one on drinking, he is oddly puritan. Others such as the one on Home Maladies are just uninteresting. In some, in particular about his work organizing a NIMBY movement against a local night club, the stench of privilege is just too overpowering. At times yet another chapter of self-reflection and theories of experimental music are just so tiresome. There is only so much talking about one person’s detailed problems can a reader take.
Thus I recommend to not read this book in one sitting, or even in a day or two. Read it out of order. Read it over months. Even if you are enjoying it, put it down. Misha’s charm is intense and each individual chapter on it’s own he is always engaging. It is in repetition that the work struggles. The tone that tickles you the first time bores you the fifth time.
If this work has a broader theme and is not a mere collection thoughts, (something I am not sure of) it is the importance of play and that play can be organized and still be fun. It is about the importance of recognizing that urban space is more than just your experience. Last, it is about how to be an adult.