This past Saturday, I attended the Creative Time Summit at The Cooper Union in NYC, and I’m glad I did. Whatever one may say about Creative Time’s role in the art world, one has to admit that the organization is one of the most visible in terms of doing things to actively promote art that engages with activism, social justice, and alternative forms of democratic politics. This weekend affirms Creative Time’s place among ongoing struggles to support artists working at the fringes of the art world/market, and at the limits of what artists can activate for civic and social well being.
The first panel I attended (all of the panels can be accessed online through Creative Time’s archive of both their 2009 and 2010 summits) focused on “markets.” Speaker Julia Bryan-Wilson focused on histories of artists using air as a material, and addressed concerns about the social impact of pollution. Among the materials Bryan-Wilson presented in her survey included Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fresh Air Cart and a recent reenactment of Matta-Clark’s performance by Katalogue Study Group in Shanghai. Bryan-Wilson made reference to a number of other artists and thinkers during her performance, which was grounded in the scholar’s own experience of air pollution through her childhood in Houston, Texas. Given that air has become a commodity, and corporations now can pay to pollute through Cap and Trade and other neoliberal policies deregulating rights to basic elements, Bryan-Wilson’s performance seemed timely, if not the tip of the iceberg in terms of art’s relationship to conflicts about the expropriation of environments and ecologies. I would add that it was surprising that Bryan-Wilson didn’t mention the San Francisco-based artist, Amy Balkin, whose work more than possibly any other I know addresses problems of elemental expropriation, such as in Balkin’s Public Smog project where the artist seeks to create a “clean air park” through the purchase of carbon emissions credits.
Among the other presenters on the “Markets” panel, the Denmark- based design group SUPERFLEX discussed their project GuaranaPower, in which they work with farmers and workers in Brazil in order to present an alternative economy to produce and distribution health drinks, alcohol, and other products. Another alternative to the typical marketplace was presented by Anton Vidokle, organizer of the New Museum’s Night School and eflux, whose Time/Bank seeks to put individuals directly in contact with each other so that they may exchange services. Following Vidokle, J. Morgan Puett presented about Mildred’s Lane, a project which she undertakes with Mark Dion, Allison Smith, and other artists living and working on land in rural Pennsylvania. Puett’s aphoristic remarks resounded an ethos expressed by many of the presenters at Creative Time’s Summit on Saturday: that “comportment itself has become a form of art,” and “the collective seeking of new ways of being” is one of the most important things artists can strive to work towards with each other and with the members of their communities. During the Q&A, Puett followed up her statements in a direct confrontation with an audience member who asked whether or not Puett and the other panelists were endeavoring to “end capitalism” through their art practices, a statement to which Puett declared a definitive “no,” adding that she did not think that art could be successful where other forms of culture work so far had failed.
Throughout the summit, the specter of art’s relationship to a marketplace, and to late-capitalism/neoliberalism specifically, continually came up. On the markets panel, all of the presenters (with the exception of the Japanese artist Surasi Kusolwong, whose practice presents makeshift marketplaces in which money is exchanged and consumer desires are thereby foregrounded) expressed an anxiety or simply an ambivalence about making claims for how art could help to resist globalization. Those in the audience who questioned the deregulation of the art market and the relation of aesthetic practices to neoliberalism were useful to the conversation that emerged at the summit, inasmuch as they tended to get artists to address what they thought their projects were doing pragmatically to advance progressive and revolutionary agendas for public practice.
The issue of art’s deregulation and the complicity of artists with neoliberalism came up again in a panel later in the afternoon, which focused on art practices based on and related to “food.” To start this panel, artist-activist Claire Pentecost delivered a witty and well-paced presentation on her experience of discovering food as a problem for art and the evolution of her practice since this discovery. Her recognition of food problems began in the early 90s, when she noticed that certain countries were not accepting the United States’s genetically modified food. This led Pentecost to advance her practice through questions of access to food sources, healthy diets, and the regulation of food by governments (a problem that artists such as the Critical Art Ensemble have also approached in crucial and groundbreaking ways through their various projects having to do with genetic modification and the expropriation of genetic material). Useful in Pentecost’s presentation was her reference to Jack Burnham’s 1968 article, “Systems Esthetics” which, during the Q&A, was rightly acknowledged by the presenters as relevant to their practices. In “Systems Esthetics,” Burnham argues for the need for artists to shift their attention towards formatting, distribution, administration, and structural formation (i.e., “systems”) beyond the production of discrete works of art. He held up Robert Smithson, Les Levine, Carl Andre, and others as proponents of a then-new understanding of art’s function:
Increasingly “products”-either in art or life-become irrelevant and a different set of needs arise: these revolve around such concerns as maintaining the biological livability of the earth, producing more accurate models of social interaction, understanding the growing symbiosis in man-machine relationships, establishing priorities for the usage and conservation of natural resources, and defining alternate patterns of education, productivity, and leisure. In the past our technologically-conceived artifacts structured living patterns. We are now in transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done.
Burnham’s article anticipates that the shift in aesthetic practices from “things” to “way things are done” has consequences for how we think about art in terms of its social, political, and ecological effects within an increasingly administered and technologically conditioned world.
Following Pentecost, Amy Franceschini discussed her work with Victory Gardens, a project based in San Francisco that revivifies public agricultural gardens from the period between WWI and WWII, when allotments were given to the public for farming. Victory Gardens also provides private individuals, families, and communities with the technology and know-how necessary to farm their own plots. InCUBATE, an organization based in Chicago, presented on their project to produce alternatives to administration and distribution of funding for artists and other culture workers. The main outlet for this redistribution work is a project they call “Sunday Soup,” which, through the format of meals, attempts to provide artists with funding. Though InCUBATE uses a food service to raise the funds, I was interested in InCUBATE’s insistence that the project is not about food per se, but about the structural underpinnings of arts funding and administration. It was also interesting that InCUBATE ‘s Sunday Soup had been taken up, and in many cases significantly adapted, by organizations elsewhere in the United States and around the world.
Problems of distributional and organization modeling continued to be discussed by F.E.A.S.T. (“Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics”), which staged a short, elementary school-style play demonstrating the evolution of their organization from a group initially invested in tactical art that who moved its practice towards offering services that could help fund emerging artists. During the Q&A, F.E.A.S.T. participants addressed the question of whether their art was not in fact feeding into neoliberal tendencies by stating wryly that their art was more about “socializing than socialism.” This sentiment was seconded by InCUBATE, who spoke about what they had learned through interactions with social justice activist communities, and about the importance of making visible social economies and processes in order to encourage more rigorous participation and involvement.
Art, as such, becomes a kind of framework or model by which artists and audiences/participants can more directly participate in a social, economic, or political relationship. Artist Agnes Denes poignantly affirmed the work of her younger contemporaries on the panel by opposing one questioner’s use of the term “bourgeois” in regards to the work of the artists. Instead, she insisted that art must, whatever else it does, offer a “movement into the world” in the interest of altering human behavior and the individual’s sense of personal responsibility. Through her artistic remediation projects such as Niagara Falls, Wheatfield, Tree Mountain, and most recently Forest for Australia, Denes recalled the seminal contributions she has made to the fields of environmental art and systems esthetics.
The questions about art’s usefulness for foregrounding social relationships and intervening in struggles for social justice was reiterated in Rick Lowe’s keynote address, in which he received the Annenberg prize for Art and Social Change awarded by Creative Time. Echoing the food panelists and other presenters throughout the day, Lowe emphasized that “change” was not enough if it was not for the end of social justice. He also emphasized how art could take on widespread community-based challenges by reviewing his Project Row Houses, a community-based project that revitalizes the houses of Houston’s traditionally middle class and lower income African-American neighborhood, the 3rd Ward. On a larger scale, Lowe showed how art could not just be a thing or action, but a way of fundamentally transforming an entire community. To intervene through art in such a way, for Lowe, involves the restoration of “human dignity” that has been eroded by neglectful social conditions and infrastructure. By changing the way education, art, design, and architecture function within community, Lowe uses art to revitalize his community in sustainable and long-term ways.
All of this said, some key differences did become visible to me among the practitioners who presented their work on Saturday. One such difference became perceptible on the “education” panel, in which three members of the New York-based Bruce High Quality Foundation, an artist group supported by Creative Time, presented along side Jakob Jakobsen of the Copenhagen Free University and two artists from the Denmark-based group, Learning Site. Though it was difficult to hear or understand them at times, I gleaned from Learning Site’s presentation that their project involved working with communities to produce spaces for education and learning; a non-hierarchical, feedback-based learning process which they referred to as “learning learning.” In his presentation about the organization he was involved with from the 1990s until 2007 when the school was voluntarily closed by its participants, the Copenhagen Free School, Jakobsen emphasized the necessity of promoting spaces for education which may hold emancipatory and leveling social potential. This tradition among Danish artists since the 60s recalls the practices of Jens Hanning, Palle Nielsen, and others, which are all made possible by Denmark’s robust social welfare programs and funding for culture workers. To “take over the university,” in Jakobsen’s words, was a “discursive act” in the interest of resisting globalization and for exploring egalitarian access to educational resources. In the Q&A, Jakobsen said that he and his colleagues were not “trying to lead,” but committed to research inflected by global problems of wealth and power distribution and to group process that might cultivate and model educational dynamics towards the resolution of such problems.
The third presenter, Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF), reappropriated a text by painter Ad Reinhardt about the function of art, using it to present an institutional critique of art world problems and dynamics in regards to the history of the “art school.” This is the fifth time that I’ve encountered BHQF, and each time I’ve seen them, I have had a similar sense that their work is an elaborate hoax intended to express ambivalences and ironies around art’s marketplace and institutions. In this regard, I felt BHQF was miscast with the other panelists who, through their work, have attempted to have a direct impact on how education functions within communities and as a forum for radical socio-political content. In his talk, Jakobsen alluded to a retrograde movement away from the “educational turn” among artists in the 1990s and 2000s. BHQF’s lack of transparency during their presentation (had Creative Time’s curator Nato Thompson not mentioned the organization’s funding of the group, it probably would not have become known to the audience), and their unqualified use of the term “free” (a kind of open signifier during the group’s presentation), made me question the group’s intentions. That BHQF have recently presented work at P.S.1’s Greater New York Show (a pedestal “exchange program”), the Whitney Biennial (an ambulance with video projected inside it about American media representations since the 80s), and have shown work in a prominent Chelsea gallery (an installation of progressive education artifacts such as a paperback of John Dewey’s Art and Education and chalk boards reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’s lecture performances) makes me wonder how they wish to make use of the radical format of the free school.
BHQF stuck out for not explicitly foregrounding their processes as a group or their relationship to an existing or possible educational community. Could it be that the BHQF are as naïve as they at times let on (a scenario belied by their cool-headed, professional demeanors)? Or that theirs is a not unprecedented attempt to appropriate the work of culture workers towards the increase of their art world credibility — the market values they would otherwise seem to critique and express ambivalence about? Could it be that they are offering an alternative to the radical pedagogies of the free school, or calling into question the efficacy of radical pedagogy during our current cultural moment? Though I found BHQF’s clarity and sense of humor refreshing in many respects, I wonder too if they do not represent a form of opportunism and cynicism recently injected into the art world through the back door of progressive art historical formats and social commitments. It is the threat of this bad faith that BHQF’s work suggests. And it is likely this suggestion that some of the more aggressive questioners in the audience were attuned to, and one in particular who, in response to BHQF’s use of the term “free,” wondered why the organization was not paying its students to participate in what was to him very clearly an art project?