Public Opinion

Claire Bishop at a Creative Time summit on public practice

New York

Left: Mel Chin’s performers rehearsing for his presentation. Right: Artist Edgar Arceneaux. (All photos: Sam Horine/Creative Time)

THIS YEAR I’ve already sat through two art-related pecha kuchas—that’s the new ADD-friendly presentation format from Japan, in which people have a limited time (usually three to five minutes) to rattle through their life’s work. At the end of each speaker’s allocated slot, the next person’s PowerPoint begins, and the previous presenter has to quit the stage pronto. Pecha kucha is like a live version of channel zapping or Internet surfing—not long enough to get really bored, but also not long enough to get really interested. It’s the perfect format for the info-ravenous who crave high quantities of global-culture nuggets but don’t want to travel far from home or engage in personal dialogue.

An epic variant on the pecha kucha model took place last Saturday at the New York Public Library, in the form of Creative Time’s summit “Revolutions in Public Practice.” Each artist or collective had a relatively generous seven (!) minutes to strut their stuff; there would be no questions from the public; when the speaker’s time was up, his/her microphone would be turned down and a live musician would begin to play. This sweetly brutal device was lifted directly from the Academy Awards, but instead of a swirling orchestra, solo instrumentalists were deployed––a perky flute, a guitar, a double bass, a trumpet, and (most entertainingly) a banjo. Those speakers who finished ahead of time and avoided being drowned out by the chipper banjo kept their dignity intact; the rest were brought to a humiliating halt.

So much for the form, what about the content? Curator Nato Thompson confessed in the program’s introduction that he couldn’t really define the term “public practice,” as it encompasses everything from participatory performance to allotment squatting to socially conscious photography. Ten hours and forty presentations later and we had an amazingly comprehensive overview of the good and the bad of the genre. The ultimate artistic judgment, though, had been made the previous evening, when the Yes Men were awarded the Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change. This presented something of an ontological conundrum: The Yes Men adamantly refuse to be called artists (they prefer “activists”). And yet most of their funding comes from art institutions, and their biggest fans seem to be in the art world. Rather than denigrating the Yes Men for lack of loyalty to their paymaster, it seems more productive to view their strategic disavowal of “art” as an indication of the paltry (or, better, ornamental) status of art in US culture. As any walk around Chelsea will affirm, art made in this country is more often a career choice than an existential decision.

Left: Artist Harrell Fletcher. Right: Curator Okwui Enwezor.

This, presumably, is why Thompson calls the alternative to this commercial game a “revolution” in public practice. To be honest, the revolution’s not so new: There was a striking similarity between many of the presentations and 1970s gestures of institutional escape, as well as to early-’90s “new genre” public art (the term coined by artist Suzanne Lacy, who also spoke at the summit). The big difference between then and now was the staggeringly dry and soulless language deployed by many of today’s artists who took to the podium. At countless points in the day, my eyes glazed over to the sound of earnest monologues announcing, “My practice is about creating platforms for a critical interface with overlooked spaces, networking with local communities to provide self-organized resources and coproducing social relations . . .” Aaagh!

This aside, there were some highlights. The women were particularly strong: a moving keynote by Sharon Hayes, an articulate overview of the collective Multiplicity by Francisca Insulza, a polemical presentation by WHW (What, How and for Whom), tough and concise statements by Tania Bruguera, and a rousing activist address by Laurie Jo Reynolds. The guys were hit or miss. The saintly rage of Alfredo Jaar (on Rwanda) was parried by the consummate opacity of Liam Gillick (on Volvo), while two of the most misguided art projects I have ever seen––the work of Vik Muniz and Harrell Fletcher, respectively––generated ripples of embarrassment through the audience for their reality-TV sentimentality. (Fletcher really took the biscuit: On finding out that he’d had a fifteen-hundred-dollar rug delivered twice to his home, he decided to sell the second one to an art gallery and get a grant to find the factory in India where the rug had been produced, at which point he gave this money back to the chap who said he’d made it. Tears of joy!)

As the day wore on, nuance was replaced by rally-style fervor. At the end of a particularly right-on presentation, the already-converted were keen to cheer and whoop. As such, the stick was definitely bent toward entertainment and affirmation rather than analysis and dissensus. Even the day’s most jarring juxtaposition, Gillick and the collective Temporary Services (amusingly grouped together under the evocative title “Ambiguity Is My Political Weapon”), was passed over without comment, seamlessly smoothed over with a bit of merry guitar picking. The only memorable moment of confrontation was in Lacy’s video clip of young black teenagers in a “facilitated debate” (i.e., full-on row) with white policemen in Los Angeles.

Left: A view of the “Conversation Room.” Right: Writer David Levi-Strauss.

Perhaps some friction was happening upstairs in the “Conversation Room”––a large paneled chamber with free fruit and cookies––where speakers were expected to hang for an hour after speaking on stage. This innovative alternative to the Q&A format had the advantage of keeping the main hall fast-paced, but who in the student-heavy audience wanted to miss out on stars like Okwui Enwezor or Thomas Hirschhorn? Word had it that artist Gregory Sholette organized an impromptu panel discussion upstairs following his appearance onstage, but otherwise the predominant tone was of collective agreement and political consensus. In this respect, it was not unlike Thompson’s last major effort in this vein, “Democracy in America: The National Campaign,” the exhibition component of which was held last fall in a similarly majestic space, the Park Avenue Armory.

At its best, the “Revolutions” summit offered an immensely valuable overview of a wide range of engaged practices otherwise lacking visibility in New York, while the discursive format provided an appropriate alternative to the exhibition as a means of presenting this often visually evasive work. Socially, it was dynamic—and in this respect, it had much in common with the energy of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s marathons. On the other hand, the summit was only an overview and did nothing to problematize “public practice” as a direction in contemporary art. It assumed (along with many of the positions presented) that art as a discipline can and should be marshaled toward social justice. I would have liked to see more pondering of the specifically artistic competences that can be deployed toward these ends. The range of positions wheeled onstage clearly indicated that there are artistic innovators in this field who stand leagues ahead of those who laboriously rework worthy clichés. Sorting out the former from the merely well intended takes more than a pecha kucha, but at least this was a start.