“ARTISTS ARE NOT PERIPHERAL to our daily lives, but central,” said Creative Time artistic director Anne Pasternak, speaking from a multicolored, inflatable podium, one of three playful props situated around the stage of Stockholm’s Kulturhuset. With issues such as migration, nationalism, xenophobia, and surveillance as foci, the sixth iteration of the Creative Time Summit wasn’t going to be light fare, and the whimsical decor by artist Bella Rune, who’s also worked on sets for the Knife, offered welcome comic relief throughout last weekend’s two-day marathon. Rune’s design aimed to render the summit “more Creative Time and less TED.” It worked. “I feel like I’m in Pee-wee Herman’s playhouse,” said Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson in his opening remarks.
This was the first Summit to be held outside New York City—and the US—as Creative Time partnered with the government-affiliated Public Art Agency Sweden to bring the summit to Stockholm. The event largely consisted of thematic clusters of ten-minute presentations by artists engaging with social justice and activism, often probing the loopholes of the law to challenge institutions of power. In one instance, artist Tania Bruguera, inspired by Pope Francis’s 2013 Mass on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa that commemorated migrants dead at sea, launched a campaign petitioning the Pope to declare the undocumented migrants to Europe as “citizens of the Vatican.”
The harsh, Procrustean format dictated a degree of professionalism usually missing from presentation in the arts. The Summit’s curators—Thompson and Magdalena Malm, director of Public Art Agency Sweden—stressed the multiple methodologies found across politically and socially engaged public art. While situated on the periphery of the art world’s locus of power, said Thompson, socially engaged artists “outnumber those who are in the center.” When projects from the vast field of cultural production that deals with the social and political enter the “center”—commercial galleries and museums—the issue becomes that of legitimization. The works are suddenly critiqued based on moral and ethical questions they never sought to address. Maybe the “periphery” isn't a bad place to be.
Sociologist Saskia Sassen’s opening keynote sketched out the connections among recent financial crises, the increasing power of multinational corporations, and the decrease in the rights of citizens. Her “hobby,” she stated, was “counting the rights we’re losing.” Immigrants suffer most from low-level interventions by the state, she maintained, as immigration authorities are bound to homeland security. “How much do we know of these abuses of law?” she asked, exiting the stage with a call for action.
Ram Manikkalingam, director of Dialogue Advisory Group, moderated a cluster of presentations on “Nationalisms,” a sentiment which, as demonstrated by recent elections across Europe, is on the rise. Sweden, frequently referred to on The Daily Show as a sort of sane haven, was bitterly criticized for its institutional racism. Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who discovered his love for language through gangster rap (he cited hearing Nas’s line “Begin like a violin / End like leviathan” as a formative moment), read aloud a passage describing how Stockholm, and his view of himself, alter according to which group of friends he associates with in public space. Artist Jonas Dahlberg spoke of the ideas behind his design for Memory Wound, the memorial to the victims of the 2011 terrorist attack in Norway.
As the day progressed, the presentations began to drift in all directions, despite moderators’ efforts to hew to their respective themes. A particularly strong talk by the Ford Foundation’s Roberta Uno provided a much-needed sense of anchoring, and criticality. Uno named examples of self-sustaining, community-organized efforts, like the revitalized canoeing tradition of First Nations peoples by younger generations, calling out a “segregation” of ideas in the arts community. She suggested that the art world ignores important examples of public space already activated by the arts, because those occur in a “parallel universe”—that is, outside the world of nonprofit arts communities, and often within specific ethnic groups. In a changing world, Uno argued, we have to recalibrate “our thinking about the arts community, reshape its values and identity, and learn” from successful examples emerging within cultures of scarcity.
At the end of day one, presenters, organizers, and friends gathered around small tables at the Moderna Museet for a vegetarian Ethiopian-Swedish dinner designed by artist Loulou Cherinet and head chef Malin Söderström. Guests were also encouraged to give back “energy” to Kultivator, an artist-run farm from which the food had been sourced, in a specially designed toilet.
The second day was packed with presentations on intersections of social justice and politics, with high-profile speakers and moderators such as Edi Rama, prime minister of Albania and artist; Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a Pirate Party representative in the Icelandic Parliament; and the impressive powerhouse politician Soraya Post, the EU Parliament’s first member elected on a feminist ticket in Sweden, and only the second Roma candidate ever elected. Creative Time’s Laura Raicovich opened the day, which focused on surveillance and migration.
Some of the most captivating presentations included the brilliantly simple subversions of the Ghana Think Tank, which sets up self-sustaining laboratories in so-called “developing countries” to help solve first-world problems. When Westport, Connecticut, residents complained about the lack of diversity in their community, Ghana Think Tank’s task force on El Salvadoran issues suggested they invite the day laborers who clean their houses and tend their gardens to Westport social functions. Ghana Think Tank hired workers to do precisely that, for fifteen dollars an hour. Tomáš Rafa’s documentary New Nationalism was particularly intense, equal amounts brave and bleak. But not all presenters were as compelling. Artist Dora Garcia waxed philosophical on a recent work constructed from East German Stasi archive material. Not only was the work itself misguided in its breach of Stasi victims’ privacy by using their files for the purpose of an art project, but her conclusions were equally naive: She essentially declared Big Data to be harmless based on East Germany’s failure to anticipate the fall of the wall despite the Stasi’s ubiquitous surveillance—that is, neglecting to recognize the difference between mere information and metadata.
Privilege, power, and empowerment were ultimately the weekend’s buzzwords, as artists reflected on the impact of their interventions. Danish curator Tone Olaf Nielsen drove home the point regarding long-term impact as she stressed the need for permanence: “Asylum-seekers and forced migrants in Denmark are sick and tired of artists coming in temporarily to do a project inside the camps and leave again.” Shifting power relations between artists and the disempowered they are seeking to help is arguably the most essential element to effecting meaningful change. The summit proved that there’s a lot of pragmatic “artivism” around.