Looking for Relevance and Reverence
Reflections on “Creative Time Summit: Revolutions In Public Practice” at the New York City Public Library
by Daniel Tucker, Written for H-Art International
In late October 300 people gathered at the New York Public Library to hear nearly forty artists present rapid-fire seven minute long presentations about their socially and politically engaged art practices. The event was the first annual Summit organized by the public art organization Creative Time, and their curator Nato Thompson. While the audience and presenters hailed largely from New York City or the northeastern United States, there was fair representation from people working throughout the rest of the U.S., as well as Latin America and Europe.
The event opened on a Friday night with a special recognition of the intensely active impersonators and agitators, the Yes Men. “I went from being an artist who makes things to an artist who makes things happen,” recalled Anne Pasternak, Artistic Director of Creative Time, of a statement once made by British artist Jeremy Deller. She said the Yes Men are also artists who make things happen, who are committed to “radical acts of goodness” which earned them an award and $25,000 cash prize at this year’s summit. Pasternak continued “There isn’t a door that artists shouldn’t kick wide open” and that is what the Yes Men embody as well as the other presenters throughout the weekend.
The format allowed for a symbolic leveling of the hierarchy of voices which results from presenting famous people as the featured speakers with lesser known individuals as filler. At this gathering everyone spoke for the same amount of time and a rotating cast of musicians were on hand to begin playing and slowly raise their volume to indicate that the given time for speaking was over (a more enjoyable approach than a moderator waving their hands at presenters). Veteran socially engaged practitioners like Mel Chin and Suzanne Lacy were playfully drowned out by flutes and acoustic guitars in the same manner as younger artists like Baltimore Development Cooperative and Dara Greenwald.
Greenwald, a video maker and co-curator of the recent exhibition “Signs of Change”, spoke critically of the “socially engaged art complex” the gathering embodied as mirroring similar dynamics of the competitive academia and funding streams which provide much of its economic base (see video here). Other artists like Marc Fischer from the Chicago-based Temporary Services and the Yes Men themselves also took stabs at the New York City commercial art world for its lack of relevance.
Sharon Hayes’ keynote lecture did a good job of grounding the conference with local history of New York City queer performance art communities of the early 1990s with much credit given to AIDS activism’s blend of culture and action to respond to urgency. This correlation between social movements and art was appropriate for some of the presenters who identified their personal connections to leftist and social justice efforts, but not all of them.
In an effort to encourage new directions in the language of artistic practice, artist and organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds encouraged the audience to “do legislative art.” By that she meant that artists who do work about political subject matter eventually are faced with the challenge to address the social challenges they critique or observe in a more direct way than the traditions of conceptual art typically encourage. After years of making conceptual performance art and videos about the subject of prisons and life in prison, she eventually felt compelled to combine her artistic practice with more explicit political demands – to reform prisons in her home state of Illinois which have been proven to encourage abuse and torture.
The collective What, How and for Whom (WHW) presented their recent work as curators of the 11th International Istanbul Biennial (see video here). The slide-show of their Brecht-inspired exhibit “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” posed a challenge to the audience to consider the role of political subject matter in art in non-revolutionary times. Their performative lecture channeled a kind of socialist cultural bureaucracy including precise breakdowns of the expenses of the exhibit, the national origins, genders, age of the artists. But the curators did not miss the opportunity to say explicitly at the end what they thought was needed: “The culturalization of politics promoted by neoliberal diversity which allows for the euphoric celebration of a range of marketable differences, usually touted as pluralism, must be replaced by the politicization of culture. Today, when the dilemma ‘barbarity or socialism?’ is more real than ever and the future of the world appears divided between war zones and the stable fascist systems of the rich zones – this is our task.”
This experiment in Summit making brought together a combination of people that was unique in its ability to introduce tons of ideas in one place. What a great place for a undergraduate student to find themselves listening, seeing potential methods and approaches which they might adopt or learn from. There were many good ideas and tools to learn from in the room, but the task of future Creative Time Summits will be to push artists who “make stuff happen” to aspire to more.
The reverent provocation of WHW’s presentation brought to light the crucial tension of the summit: can this summit in all its diversity articulate tasks for the present moment that everyone present will be willing to engage with? With presenters as diverse as squatted community gardens and artists doing economic development projects, to academically oriented conceptual art, prison reform and opportunistic collaborations with disempowered people and contexts – the expectations coming from the presenters and the audience span an amazing spectrum. Satisfying that diversity is impossible, yet the challenge of finding common enough language to talk (much less act) together can be near impossible as well. The presenters diversity revealed the lack of coherent thought, historical references and language available to contemporary political artists. Before we are able to take on the tasks of such urgency as legislative art or such long-term importance as overcoming neoliberal capitalism, we must get to know each other, know what we do and do not share, how that will work against us or in our favor.
[Note: Videos of all of the lectures have been uploaded to http://www.youtube.com/user/creativetimesummit and audio interviews with several artists are available at http://frankprattle.wordpress.com/]
Daniel Tucker works with the publication and event series AREA Chicago and recently co-authored the book “Farm Together Now” to be released in 2010 by Chronicle Books. miscprojects.co