In 2006, Christopher Robbins, John Ewing, and Matey Odonkor came together to form Ghana Think Tank, a problem-creating project with the motto Developing the First World. Drawing from their experiences working in international development, the three were frustrated by the way that so-called solutions imposed by developed countries often completely disregarded the local wisdom of the communities they were meant to assist. Reversing the common directional flow, Ghana Think Tank invites communities such as Westport, Connecticut; Liverpool, UK; and Providence, Rhode Island to be on the receiving end of solutions provided by ad-hoc think tanks from places like Ghana, Cuba, El Salvador, or Serbia. In many ways, the subject of this work lies in the incommensurability of common sense and the complete failure of transposing one context onto another.
Erin Sickler: How did Ghana Think Tank come about?
Christopher Robbins: Well, it originally came from working in the Peace Corps and then from my experiences working and living in Fiji, West Africa, and Serbia. When I joined the Peace Corps in Benin, I was straight out of college. On the one hand, I was clueless. On the other, I could get a meeting with the mayor. I suddenly had all this power. My director at Peace Corps was very straightforward about the inherent cluelessness of my position. He said, “I don’t care if you grew up as a farmer in the States; you don’t know anything about farming here. They are going to call you an expert, because of the fact that you have a college degree, but you don’t know anything about how it works here. All you can do is give them your eager young American attitude and try to get people together.”
There was a lot of pressure on communities to accept what I (and larger aid organizations) was doing there. Conventional wisdom said that if you rejected a development package, then you would be considered a difficult community, and you could not get any more aid. So whatever I proposed, no matter how ridiculous it was, or even damaging, it tended to be accepted. I became very conscious, and cautious of this. After all, people had fought over the site of the new market in my village. They had physically assaulted each other. Another aid group built beautiful pigsties out of cement. In a place where, if you had money, you lived in a mud house covered in cement, and if you didn’t, you lived in a house made out of mud with no cement, no one was going to stick an animal in a solid cement and rebar house. But the chief said that if you put people in there — if you misuse the shelters — we would never get any more funding.
So they just sat empty.
I constantly saw instances such as these, where external solutions were being imposed on communities no matter how ridiculous.
So, Ghana Think Tank came out of a pretty negative reaction to that, an effort to see what it was like to have external solutions imposed on my own culture. At this point, Ghana Think Tank was me, John Ewing, who had worked in Cuba and El Salvador – he had lived in El Salvador for a few years working for a political radio station — and Matey Odonkor, who is from Ghana [Odonkor is no longer with the group, which now includes Carmen Montoya along with the founders John Ewing and Christopher Robbins]. For the think tanks, we purposely picked people who were very isolated from development or art and then used the structure of international aid, but reversed the flow. Instead of imposing solutions in developing countries, we collect problems from the US and other developed countries and then seek solutions from think tanks located in the developing world.
Lin + Lam (Lana Lin and Lan Thao Lam) are the current fellows at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School University in New York. For their fellowship project, they are consulting people from a wide range of disciplines to see how they envision the notion of change. I interviewed them about their project, about change and how it is predicted, and the economy. A colloquium is scheduled to take place at The New School on 9/11/10 to launch their web project.
Erin Sickler: You started your project with the idea of change, which I would assume came from Obama’s political platform. Is this an exploration of that on a deeper level of what change really means?
Lana Lin: This project originated as a proposal for the Vera List Center. It has annual themes, and this year’s theme was Speculating on Change, which was partly a response to the Obama campaign. We were thinking more along the lines of the financial crisis, which was really present and alarming at the time we applied, so our proposal was more about the economic situation. Obama was being influenced by these behavioral economic researchers who were asking how people made choices about how to spend their money and whether these choices were rational or irrational. So we wanted to look from an economic and also a political perspective as to what kind of changes were possible.
ES: How do you select the people for interviews?
LL: It is pretty simple. We go to people who are identified with a certain profession and ask them how that profession defines change. It started with psychology and economics and then it moved to prophecy, prediction, and probability. We were interested in more offbeat science like astrology because we were hearing news reports during the whole financial crisis that banks at a corporate level regularly consult with financial astrologers.
In 1934, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the phrase “the curse of bigness” to describe the disastrous effect that concentrated economic power can have on small business, communities, and citizen-led governments. For Brandeis and other Progressive-era crusaders, the “curse’ was monopolies like the New Haven Railroad and robber baron JP Morgan.
Curated by Larissa Harris, The Curse of Bigness at the Queens Museum of Art (May 16 – October 13, 2010) heeds Brandeis’s advice, reflecting the dangers of present-day behemoths. Avoiding didacticism, the show engages with a broad range of DIY strategies, culled from art world insiders like Dennis Oppenheim, to downtown theater mainstays Great Small Works, to West Coast wizards of destruction, Survival Research Labs. Presented here are not aesthetic objects to be contemplated from afar, but rather strategies to determine the scope of what can be accomplished on a human, more sustainable scale.
Currently on view at Derek Eller Gallery in New York, Liz Magic Laser’s chase (2009) stems from interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s Man Equals Man (1926), performed by eight different actors in various bank vestibules throughout New York City. The ongoing project unfolds in the gallery as a feature-length video and a theatrical set for an ancillary performance of The Elephant Calf, a one-act farce that Brecht originally intended to be the final scene of Man Equals Man, but later made as an addendum to the script.
The Elephant Calf, performed at the exhibition’s opening, is an absurdist tale of an elephant calf who is tried and convicted of murdering his mother despite the fact that his mother is very much alive and no evidence exists to condemn him. The play makes clear that truth is often a matter of opinion backed by mob rule. Applying the same blustery irrationality that blogger Andrew Breitbart uses to dismiss every racist comment attributed to the Tea Party, claiming that the epithets are plants by the left wing media, or the faulty reasoning behind George W. Bush’s search for his WMD MacGuffin, the Elephant Calf is the parable version of Man Equals Man, a condemnation of the convenient truths that drive the logic of war.
While chase makes clear the parallel between war’s distortions and a phantom economy based on mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps by situating the play in a bank lobby, it is questionable whether invoking Brecht has the subversive potential it once had. In an age where détournement comes in the guise of Jon Stewart and the absurdity of the theater is no match for the absurdity of the nightly news, even Brecht’s alienation technique seems up for grabs. The most subversive potential of chase may lie in its repurposing of the ATM vestibule as public space.
Like the Surveilance Camera Players, Laser’s actors are well aware that they are playing for not one, but many cameras. Yet they do not act in accordance with the rules of conduct that normally govern such occupied territory. Latin America has a long tradition of marrying theater and politics in an effort to liberate civic space. Laser may want to consider some of these approaches, such as Augusto Boal’s invisible, legislative, or analytical theater. Beyond that, an actual deliverance from wag-the-dog politics may require leaving the gallery behind to develop new techniques that can interrupt the speed at which every act of resistance is reclaimed by ever-agile corporate technologies.
The United States has always fostered a strange and ambiguous relationship to the arts. In 1825, John Quincy Adams recommended that the country establish a national university, observatory, and other cultural programs and institutions. Martin Van Buren and John C. Calhoun repudiated Adams’s proposal, calling it an imposition on states’ rights. In doing so, they set the tone for subsequent rejections of a national cultural mandate. In the 1960s, at a UNESCO roundtable, the United States firmly maintained that it had no official cultural position, reasoning that its pluralist tradition prevented the articulation of a viable cultural policy through funding or doctrine.
With the exception of the nineteenth-century support of public architecture and the promotion of art as part of Cold War propaganda, the national government has taken no official stance on culture. This does not mean that there have not been deliberate and instrumental uses of culture undertaken to foster particular outcomes. In the 1920s, the Commerce Department began supporting the film industry in the name of creating a new export for the international market. This initiative funded the Walt Disney Company’s production of propaganda films in the WWII era, aimed at building strategic international support for the Allied forces. The New Deal’s Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration were inaugurated as a means for economic relief but ended as when the Federal Theatre Project was called before The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
This ambiguity over the place of culture in society has, for all practical purposes, become the de facto cultural policy of the United States, where ambivalence is deployed as a useful strategy for avoiding controversy and navigating disparate ideologies. The moments when strategic safeguards do fail, such as in the culture wars of the 1990’s, become flashpoints that reflect the unofficial policy. In the 90s, in response to vexed public reactions to shows like the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibition and works by Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and the “NEA four,” the federal government restructured the NEA and redirected funding from the support of individual artists to far less controversial programming of cultural heritage programs and events. Even though the NEA has seen some its funding restored in the past decade, wealthy individuals, private foundations and corporate partnerships now provide the lion’s share of funding for experimentation within the visual arts.