Curating Political Art: A Conversation

Daniel Tucker in conversation with Nato Thompson on Curating Political Art
Conducted via email on 2-2-2010 for the upcoming issue of Squealer

Daniel Tucker works with the journal and event series AREA Chicago and is releasing a book of interviews with activist-farmers in the fall of 2010 on Chronicle Books (co-authored with Amy Franceschini). Nato Thompson is the Chief Curator at Creative Time and has a book about art and activism coming out on Autonomedia later this year. Together they have worked on several exhibitions and events, including “Town Hall Talks” – a massive interview project with socially engaged artists in Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City for the “Democracy In America” project by Creative Time in 2008. Here they discuss in general and specific terms some of the challenges and possibilities of curating and facilitating socially and politically engaged art today.


Daniel Tucker (DT): In the early 2000s there was a trend in institutionally sponsored art exhibits to incorporate activism as a subject in and of itself. Activist groups were displayed like artists, artist groups made art that borrowed aesthetically and conceptually from political activism. Some examples include Democracy When? (2002) at LACE in Los Angeles, Hardcore: Towards A New Activism (2003) at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and your own smaller scale example Counter Productive Industries (2000) at 1926 gallery in Chicago and later on The Interventionists (2004) at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. What do you think happened when street protest groups and tactics were activated or put on display in the exhibition space?

Nato Thompson (NT): Well, first of all. I wouldn’t necessarily agree there was a trend. It really depends on how one might measure such a thing and in comparison to what. The exhibitions you mention besides the Interventionists show I curated at MASS MoCA and the exhibition at Palais de Tokyo were all fairly small. There was a lot more movement in Western Europe but that could almost be described as a more prevalent institutional tradition over there. It is important to provide a word of caution in regards to the misleading idea that there was trend, because it assists in answer to your question. In the late 80s, there was a much more asserted trend toward political art that resulted in certain artists and collectives like Group Material, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haake, Krzystof Wodizko, Tim Rollins and KOS, having more stable art gallery lives. That is to say, the trend resulted in a paid artistic living with a specific type of result. This could not be really said of the intermittent movement of activist art practices at the early part of this decade. I’m not really put much a value judgement on that since lack of commercial success for a movement can provide certain benefits (like limited professional jealousy and divisive behavior) that can be productive. However, we must also bare in mind the trajectory of the alt-globalization movement that certainly motivated, and inspired, the spirit of art activism at the beginning of this decade. Certainly, its dissolution on US soil after 911 and the election of Bush has been absolutely crushing in terms of the prevalence of this kind of work.

So, what happened after some projects were displayed? Well, I would say that hopefully one of the functions of heightened visibility of political practice is a sort of legitimating of that kind of work. Teachers, young artists, older artists, and the curious are able to see a kind of way of participating in civic discourse that exceeds the methods they are familiar with. This type of legitimation across institutions is certainly useful in shaping the range of what people think is possible and acceptable. That type of legitimation can also go toward helping some artists get faculty work and then, perpetuate this type of thinking in their students. I wouldn’t say this happened on a large scale, but more in a limited manner.

DT : So you cite inspiration and artists getting jobs as the things that happen when these hybrid artistic-activist practices were put on display in galleries and museums. But what else happens? Lets dig a little deeper and talk about the transformative power of art. There is sometimes a critique of interventionist-inspired art shows that its just a bunch of “one-liners” when the art is decontextualized. So a project “about sweatshops” becomes the stand-in for “labor; or the third world exploitation which is fueled by first world consumption”. As an artistic project it is curated into fulfilling a distinct topical role, but often fails to be read or activated as a more multi-dimensional work. This is why I mentioned earlier that there was a pattern of talking about activism as a subject in-and-of-itself which seems to encourage this disengagement with the complexity of the work or the context in which it was intended to be shown/used/activated. Five to ten years later after most of these exhibitions I am seeing art institutions taking on much more specific conceptual frameworks such as ecological and economic crisis. Do you see this as a continuum of the counter-globalization movement-inspired interventionist art of the early 2000s? What lessons can curators in this moment learn from the more broadly defined exhibitions of last decade?

NT: So, right, of course I missed the most important part of the impact of these works being shown: that people engage with them! So to what degree is that effective? Well, I think that there are numerous strategies at work under the heading of political art practice. It is almost difficult to discuss in the abstract what any of them do. Some projects are extremely nuanced, such as the works of the group Spurse who present a cloud of information that the viewer must make their way through. Other works are elegantly simple such as Michael Rakowitz’s Parasite project which was a homeless shelter attachable to an HVAC system. I think what one of the major impacts this work can do is to say what issues are worth discussing as well as expanding the manner in which questions are discussed.

Last year in 2009, artist Jeremy Deller worked with me on a project on Iraq titled It is What it Is: Conversations about Iraq. In that work, we traveled across the United States with a car blown up in Baghdad with a US soldier and an Iraqi who had both been through the war. The point was to generate open ended discussions on the road. We had many folks from the left dissatisfied that the project wasn’t taking a side. What people failed to understand is that it isn’t just the position one takes, but sometimes, how positions are produced that has a politics. I think this type of approach can be useful when considering political based work.

In terms of a continuation of the anti-globalization movement in art, I think that a sever burn out and depression set in under Bush. Some managed to retool their work to more community concerns in the vein of what you are doing with AREA, others jumped at a more tightly constrained gallery based practice, and others gave up to get teaching gigs and start families. Ultimately, I think that as opposed to curators learning something, I wish wish wish, artists would challenge the institutions that exist in much the same manner that students have sometimes historically challenged educational institutions. One battle is to challenge the function of art in culture in a more radical way. Curators can push the boundaries, but public pressure (because none really exists anymore) would really go a long way.

DT : That’s a fascinating point about the politics of how sides or perspectives are produced. I actually think that would explain some of the interest I’ve been observing from socially engaged artists in the theories and practices of popular education and critical pedagogy from recent histories of Paulo Freire (“pedagogy of the oppressed”) and the Highlander Folk School. The field of education has given a lot more attention to the ethics associated with exchanging ideas than any art school I’ve visited. That said, I think that some of the education-inspired art works I’ve seen and heard about in recent years and even the How We Learn/Pedagogical Factory series I organized in 2007 at the Hyde Park Art Center with AREA Chicago and the Stockyard Institute veer very close to an aestheticization of the learning space and experience. Its like “learning for learning’s sake” – which is cool as a life choice, but can be odd as an institutionally-sponsored art piece. Sometimes I think, lets get over performing education and lets actually just participate in educational spaces that allow us to develop our ideas further. If there were really dynamic and low-cost educational spaces for adults to develop new skills, learn history, and practice their creative and critical thinking then I bet we would see less inspiring people feel like the only choice they have is to enter expensive universities. Of course that doesn’t address the economic motivations for going to school, but it does start to get at the cultural motives.

Related to your “making demands” comment, I was reminded of an experience I had recently representing AREA Chicago at a meeting of Chicago-area non-profits organized by the Crossroads Fund about “Non-Profits and the Economic Crisis.” After a fun popular-education role-playing style skit about foreclosures and about wealth disparity in the US, there was a panel of foundation representatives talking about how their funding was changing either related to cuts or cut-backs of their support of Chicago area culture and activism. Since I had little professional stake in the conversation I asked a representative from the MacArthur Foundation if it would be strategic for fundees (or MacArthur Foundation grant recipients) to hold a rally, do a mass call-in, or some kind of classic direct-action on their offices to demand that they maintain funding levels at all costs. Now this felt a bit absurd to me because I would be the first one to criticize non-profits for being overly dependent on this foundation money which is amazingly interdependent with the health of the financial sector. How people from cultural and political non-profits have managed to convince themselves that was a stable ground to build organizations on is beyond me. But I asked the question out of genuine curiosity and also because I felt there were people in the room who were at risk of loosing their jobs because of the elimination of certain grant programs by foundations that were in the room. I had no idea what they would say, but the representative simply said that any kind of direct action would be ineffective and that that’s simply not how foundations work. He went on to say that anyone worried about the impact of cuts to grant programs on their organizations should try to set up a meeting with him personally. This reminded me of another reason its crazy that so much culture and politics from the Left is wrapped up in financialized foundation money – that its totally undemocratic.

To the same extent, I would argue that most museums and arts organizations are too. They are not designed internally or externally to respond to the demands of constituencies except funders. Non-profits just don’t work that way for the most part, unless they have affordable and democratic membership structure. But even museums that have members are not designed internally to respond to member demands about the direction of the institution. Which makes me think that its a bit pointless to encourage people to go knocking on the door of museums or art institutions making demands. It would be more appropriate if substantial percentages of their funding is public or if they are entirely public – because then everyone has a stake in the distribution of those public resources. In most cases art institutions are more beholden to their board and their funders than their audiences. Sure we could do boycotts to withhold admission fees in some cases, which might make a difference – but if we are talking about just getting them to make more relevant programming then it might seem questionable to try to shut them down and prevent them from doing any programming.

What kind of public pressure would be strategic given these conditions I describe if an audience really wanted an arts institution to direct its energies in new or different ways?

NT: While I agree with some of you of what you say Daniel, I think it is important to bare in in mind the Machiavellian nature of producing social change in the country. How did arts organizations become dependent on foundation money? Because people and organizations become dependent on the forms of cash that allow them to survive. The ones that tend to survive longest and at times, have impact, are the ones that are at the same times, most regressively dependent on their cash. It is a paradox of operating in a system of unequal distribution of power and resources. It is of course hardly ideal. Nonetheless, non-profits still have a mission statement and while you might think they are solely responsible to their board and funders, they are also dependent on the validity of their mission. You might think that challenging organizations based on their mission is a naive approach, but I am convinced that it would raise the stakes of debate. We must take seriously the material infrastructures that produce the conditions of perception. They are not just pointless cultural spaces, but massive shapers of what people perceive as valid concerns and aesthetics.

I too have been very interested in Paolo Freire and the idea of radical pedagogy as a model for considering the power of aesthetic gestures. There is room for lots of models of participation. You call it “performing” education which has the ring of a sort of inauthentic education. There are certainly no shortage of artists approaching the world in a sort of manner in which they arrive at something that already has a long history. They could say, “I have this art process that is non-hierarchical and people share their experiences in the world and we learn based on each others knowledge sets.” And then, you can’t help by reacting that what the artist has arrived at is people talking to each other. Not particularly ground breaking but I suppose a nice thing overall.

Nonetheless, this basic form of personal exchange can feel fetishized and alienated when placed in an art context particularly if you feel that the placing in this context denotes a certain underlying social capital generating intention. This skepticism doesn’t exist solely in the realm of art but in all the fields of cultural production which leads to the gut instinct in grounding everything in long=term “real” forms. The fact is, this desire to ground things stems from a national paranoia of social capital and in-authenticity that permeates our perception of all things ambiguous.

DT: How can curators support the creation of authentic and grounded culture that truly aspires to transform social relations?

NT: It feels awkward to single out the curatorial role doesn’t it. It is such a team effort so I guess one would have to caution that curatorial projects must be enacted within a multi-front production of meaning. In the curatorial field, one operates in the field of legitimizing certain projects as well as introducing people to new methods of cultural production. Supporting artists with an active critique as well as methods that produce possibilities is clearly a good idea. I would suggest operating with an analysis of capital and its effects on aesthetics in mind and not being afraid to deploy that is useful as well.
DT: Since part of the role of the curator is to introduce audiences to culture and ideas they find meaningful, lets conclude by mentioning a few projects we think do exactly what you describe: operate with an analysis of how capitalism structures social, economic and political life and explore ideas that point towards other futures.

The most inspiring work I’ve seen is the work of the Croatian curatorial collective What, how and for Whom? This group really strategically uses the exhibition format (and the standard accompanying lecture series and exhibition catalog) to really pursue ambitious and rigorous research questions at the intersections of art and politics. As opposed to some of the relational art that I was criticizing earlier for being insincere, they actually tend to focus on presenting work that was made for exhibition (as opposed to participation). Their larger group exhibitions “What, How and for Whom, on the occasion of the 152nd Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto”, “Collective Creativity” and “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” have all used the exhibition format to strategically address the history and culture and possible overcoming of capitalism.

What have you seen that has really stirred you or informed your work?

NT: Lately, I am really inspired by specific practices by artists and collectives whose work really pushes into the realm of reality. That is, they take their task seriously. The ARTWORK newspaper that Temporary Services put out was really quite inspiring. I am also enjoying the productivity of the group FEAST based in Brooklyn who basically produce artist grants through dinners. Recently, the artist Tania Bruguera said something to me that really inspired me. She said, “I don’t like a political art that points at things. I want to be the thing.” I think this movement toward the production of models and actual existing phenomena, is an incredible opportunity to think about cultural production. Working with Paul Chan in New Orleans certainly inspired how I think about community based work and the power of ambiguous gestures coupled with basic grassroots organizing. They can be quite inspiring together.

Published by Tucker

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