Version 2.0 Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice
Creative Time Summit, Cooper Union, New York
October 9-10, 2010
by Rachel Cook
Version two “point 0” of the Creative Time Summit proved to raise just as many questions as it presented definitive statements. It provided a series of platforms for dialogue among artists, activists, theorists, curators, instigators, academics and assorted advocates for social change. In the first iteration, at the New York Public Library in 2009, it seemed like a one-day marathon of individual soap box presentations without structure or form. In this new and improved 2.0 version at Cooper Union’s Grand Hall, a keynote speaker was given 15 minutes to introduce a given panel topic within a theoretical landscape. A series of presenters—sometimes up to five—were then each allotted eight minutes to speak. The sessions culminated in a sprawling and unruly 30-minute discussion period, including questions from the live and online audience who were watching thanks to Creative Time’s technological partner, Live Stream. The result was something between a Slide Jam at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and a slowed-down Pecha Kucha evening.
Each thematic panel topic was titled with one-word signifiers—Markets, Schools, Food, Geographies, Governments, Institutions and Plausible Art Worlds. Some groupings were more dynamic than others, and here is where I would question the curatorial decisions of framing. For instance, it seemed bizarre to place Otabenga Jones & Associates in the Institution panel for their project at the Menil Collection, which I thought was better suited for the School panel because they created a classroom within the museum. Their collective mission is more about education and less about institutional critique, unless you are talking about the institution or construction of race, prejudice and culture. The fact that no one brought up the de Menils as individual activists, and how that may or may not be seen within the institution, was yet another glaring oversight on the part of the organizers.
The other problematic curatorial decision was that there were rarely any real points of contention among the panelists. In curator Nato Thompson’s opening remarks, he defines his task as trying to create a common language: “We can’t even argue yet because we don’t know what each other is saying, so this is one of the tasks […] that is, we are trying to put together something of a language around socially engaged aesthetic cultural production that has efficacy, and that audience and that community has not formed yet.”
Really, we don’t have a common language yet? Maybe the only thing we really need to be hashing out with language is clearly defining Activism and Public Practice in terms of a contemporary art context and practice. Looking back at Claire Bishop’s Scene & Herd Artforum Diary entry on last year’s event, she stated: “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.” Are we, as contemporary art workers, really responsible for creating an aesthetic practice around a call to arms for social justice?
In someone like Rick Lowe’s practice, who won the Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, social justice seems applicable. But even in his case, there are some slippery terms, because his aesthetic practice has now evolved into a full-fledged non-profit organization. Project Row Houses was founded in Houston’s Third Ward in 1993 and began as a series of shotgun houses that got turned into installation spaces. Seventeen years later, the organization has taken on so much more, including establishing low-income housing for single mothers, a park, community garden, health centers, a literary center and Labotanica, a performance art space. In this way, Lowe’s work (and Lowe as an individual) might be better described as that of a founder, mentor, urban planner, grassroots neighborhood organizer, activist, even arguably an instigator/curator type, than just a contemporary art practice. So, do we talk about this project within a contemporary art context, or do we talk about this project as one spearheaded by an artist who created an organizational structure that promotes and actually serves social justice? Should we discuss every non-profit that has been founded by an artist as part of their aesthetic practice?
In closing, I would agree with Bishop’s summary of last year’s event: “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.” Maybe if you were doing curatorial research for an exhibition or project based on public practice or socially engaged work, then the Creative Summit would allow you access to a wide range of work in a short amount of time. In this way, it does allow individual practices to gain more visibility, but wouldn’t it be more provocative and focused if it were structured more like a thinktank situation? In the structure that exists now, the highlights of the presentations, as Bishop said, become more entertainment and affirmation rather than analysis and dissensus. I would prefer to see points of contention used within the curatorial decisions for inviting and structuring panels to create and provoke dialogue, even argumentation, so the audience does feel like it actually got somewhere.
A native of Houston, Texas, Rachel Cook is currently pursuing a Master's candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.