PRINT January 2010


the Creative Time Summit

WITH THE CLEAR-CUT CLASHES OF THE BUSH YEARS giving way to the increasingly ponderous political atmosphere of Obama, it might seem rather belated to hold a conference dedicated to the blurring of activism, art, and advocacy—a field variously called relational, tactical, dialogic, or community-based. Yet critical discourse around these practices has largely stagnated, and fresh thinking is needed, given the shifting antagonisms, conciliations, and polarizations that attend the current administration. It was with acute awareness of this situation that Nato Thompson organized “The Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice” at the New York Public Library this past fall, which had the dual effect of further legitimizing a genre as well as effectively mapping a broad cosmology of recent approaches to artistic intervention.

Of course, it was just this aim of mapping that made the event so uneven. Some speakers were curators with a range of institutional affiliations; some were artists with gallery representation; others expressed indifference, if not open hostility, to art-world production. The summit began, in fact, with the awarding of the inaugural Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change to the Yes Men (who have little interest in calling themselves artists), followed the next day by a marathon of presentations by some forty critics, curators, organizers, and artists from around the world. The diversity in the room was amplified by the format—rapid-fire, seven-minute talks based on the voguish Japanese presentation model of pecha kucha—which sometimes trumped content. Strict scheduling was enforced via musical interruptions (banjo strum or nagging flute) and cut microphones. This led to a few tragically aborted talks: Why couldn’t Kristina Norman, who had flown in from Estonia, finish her climactic sentence about being arrested for replicating a Soviet-era statue in the city of Tallinn? Moreover, Norman had to start her lecture by locating her country on a map, which indicated the dilemmas facing activist art in a global context: We literally don’t know where we’re all coming from, much less where this way of working might be going.

That said, the time constraint did reward those who strategically treated their presentations like performances: for example Mel Chin, whose theatrical entrance and self-conscious staging drove home the urgency of his Operation Paydirt project, about lead contamination in New Orleans; and Alfredo Jaar, who commandingly reenacted a performance from 1994 about US media coverage of Rwanda. Indeed, Jaar’s talk illustrated one of the repeated themes of the summit: the failings of mainstream media and art’s role in distributing alternative information. But even on this topic there was no agreement. While journalist Amy Goodman championed the inherent radicality of disseminating information, Laurie Jo Reynolds’s inspiring presentation called for a “legislative art” that goes beyond “just putting information out into the ether,” instead intervening “in a real world system.”

Invocations of the “real world” are always loaded—particularly when contrasted to the art world, apparently figured as not “real.” Still, that the summit was held in a library spoke to how museums and galleries have waned in importance as spaces for dissent. There were only a few hints (including Gregory Sholette’s instructive history of 1970s artistic activism) of previous moments in which art institutions have been crucial battlegrounds. Despite such lacunae, other issues were compellingly explored: memory and local environments (in the work of Igor Grubic´, Teddy Cruz, Edgar Arceneaux); and alternative models of affective and artistic labor (e.g., Temporary Services, Julieta Aranda, Dara Greenwald).

All these vast differences had to go unremarked upon, however, as discussion was ghettoized to a “conversation room” away from the formal program. Thompson justified this decision by stating that Q&A sessions can be “unmanageable.” True enough, but the lack of any open forum felt at cross-purposes with the summit’s intent to be a “community building” operation. In fact, the event’s many fractures have been visible only in postmortem dialogues, some online (including Claire Bishop’s thought-provoking wrap-up on, others live (a conversation at art space 16Beaver grew heated, even divisive). On the heels of this summer’s ugly health care reform “town halls,” the summit encapsulated the challenges of managing civil discourse and debate at present.

Bigger questions also arose: What sort of public is being mobilized right now? Or is it that, as philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1927 in The Public and Its Problems, “there is too much public, a public too diffused and scattered and too intricate in composition”? Many of the discussions here were concerned with drawing distinctions between art, culture, and politics. But what if, instead, we tried to understand how critics and artists are implicated in recalibrating the role of compromise, conversation, and dissent—especially now, in the wake of irrevocable atomization and diminished expectations for public exchange?

A model might be found in Sharon Hayes’s lucid keynote to the summit. The artist described coming to New York in 1991 and finding a feminist, queer performance and activist scene marked by the aids crisis, noting: “We become political . . . in deep relation to precise locations and precise historical conditions.” To chart such economies and landscapes might be one way to interrogate the stakes of this type of work. Transgressive acts then and there might not function as such here and now—and these singularities were evinced throughout the summit: Minerva Cuevas has flouted the law by switching bar code stickers and creating fake IDs, while Suzanne Lacy worked with law enforcement to facilitate a series of conversations with Oakland teens in her seminal The Roof Is On Fire. By bringing such otherwise incommensurable works together, Thompson’s program created a genuinely provocative event whose flaws were as telling, and significant, as its strengths. Summit can mean peak or culmination, but let us hope that this was an urgently needed beginning, as artists seek to engage the “precise conditions” of today.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is an associate professor of contemporary art history at the University of California, Irvine.