Nov 15, 2010

Moderately Effective Practices in Public Art


It's been over a month since Creative Time, the once-pioneering Manhattan public art institution, convened an impressive list of speakers for its second annual conference, ambitiously titled, The Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice. I hope the third summit, if there is one--and there should be--tones down the rhetoric and brings its name into closer correspondence with reality. Creative Time's curator since 2007, Nato Thompson, who organized the conference and served as its overall microphone-wielder for attendee participation, has a history of activism that goes back to the early 2000s, before he began ascending the ranks of the professional curatorial class. I interviewed him in 2001 for an unrealized Metropolis article--unrealized because the claims being made by activist groups were not very credible and the art was not very good--about the aesthetics of the post-Seattle World Trade Organization protest movement.

At the time Thompson was a Chicago organizer of the Department of Space and Land Reclamation, one of the unaffiliated Reclaim the Streets-type groups that took inspiration from the London anarchists who were throwing street parties, trucking big speaker systems into places like Trafalgar Square and having spontaneous flash raves. These types of events were meant as protests against cars and lack of public space and the commercialization of the visual landscape and a lot of other things, but they were shut down by the police wherever they happened and had little lasting impact. Nonetheless, in the past decade, a growing public desire for better pedestrian and bicycle pathways and a transportation-policy-reform spirit among city, state and federal officials has taken hold across the country, resulting in traffic-calming streetscape improvements and more bike lanes. Maybe these public-space protests were just a product of the process of reurbanization of the college-educated classes that has taken place over the past 30 years.

It almost impossible to remember how much activist culture was changed by the September 11th attacks and the wars that followed and continue today. The activist marches of that time were overwhelmingly preoccupied with the aesthetics of branded advertising in public space and McDonalds and Starbucks as symbols of globalization, led by people like Kalle Lasn of Adbusters and Naomi Klein, who wrote the book No Logo. It all seems incredibly superficial and practically irrelevant today. I always thought that the idea of protesting against the World Trade Organization itself was pretty seriously misguided, considering it was the only international organization that enabled poorer countries to negotiate for fairer trade policies, even if they were inevitably ignored by the more powerful countries. A small, poor, landlocked dictatorship like Burkina Faso was at least able to argue publicly against agricultural subsidies in the developed world, which it pointed out were creating more poverty than all the international aid in the world could compensate for. So it would have made more sense to me if the protests had been focused toward advocacy of specific issues, like an end to agricultural subsidies, rather than being against globalization, or against capitalism, which are pretty improbably abstract things to fight against with makeup and signs, or by breaking a Starbucks window, though that is pretty fun.

There was also the irreconcilable conflict between a critique of international trade as promoting inequality between richer and poorer countries and a critique from the point of view of nationalist labor interests: the first one called for freer trade--or should have--the second called for protectionism and enforcement of international environmental and labor standards. Somehow both joined in common confusion: anti-globalization. The reaction of Islamic extremism to cultural globalization would practically erase all that.


The pre-9-11 protests were more entertaining and made more of a splash than the dreary anti-war protests that followed, with the return of all the hack puppeteers and bubble-letter poster-ers and face painters and angry costumes and overwrought street theater and false fake-preachers. I appreciated the festive presence of the Hungry March Band at these events, and Billionaires for Bush was among the rare humorous and entertaining exceptions, organized by a group of Living Theater performers, but they had been doing that since the 1960s. Judged by its result all of it was pretty meaningless and ineffective, along with being artistically uninspired, which is worse when you're writing about aesthetic innovations in contemporary protest movements.

In the aftermath of the failure of these large-scale protests, however, a more localized community-based, small-scale political art practice has emerged that has been moderately effective at the scale in which it operates. A number of groups whose events and projects I have participated in were represented at the Creative Time event, including Kickstarter, which I used to help fund a public art festival in my neighborhood. The Bruce High Quality Foundation University creates a great community for sharing ideas and meeting people and collaborating in the art world, despite their terrible presentation. They always seem to be trying to thumb their nose at the fancy art world that they have quickly become players in, which I respect. FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics), which helps raise funding for small-scale community-based projects by hosting dinners, in which attendees vote for the best project to give the money to, did an entertaining theatrical piece recounting the story of their organization and why they do what they do.


It seemed to me that the presentations examining Food as a subject for activist art were the ones that had the most clarity of purpose and effectiveness at a local level. The amazingly sharp and focused keynote by Claire Pentecost inadvertently implied that these small efforts are probably vastly outweighed by the magnitude of the problem of unsustainable agriculture--this is what it sounds like when someone has something to say, finally!--but they're certainly exerting a cultural influence over the way we think about food, and it's having a broadening impact on municipal and federal policy.

My unanswered question for the conference, posed during the Geographies panel to my friend Eyal Weizman, the London-based Israeli architect whose work has immeasurably clarified the way that West Bank colonization processes operate within physical space, and Trevor Paglen, whose work I admire as a kind of aestheticized reporting on secret military practices, has to do with what it means to talk about "revolutions" in public art. Almost no one seemed at all concerned about indicating whether the work had any practical social and political effects. What is the word revolution supposed to mean in this context? The term is normally used to signify the overthrow of political institutions and fundamental changes to the social order. Here I think the word was only meant to signify well-intentioned and sometimes genuinely positive local practices that are promising and could some day have an impact if they were more widely adopted.

Creative Time, for its part, is an organization that has always relied on money from the city, state and federal government, along with grants from foundations, and was established through an integral collaboration of then-young artists with downtown development agencies, the city government, and real-estate developers. So it is not, and has never been, a revolutionary arts organization. It nonetheless has had a profound influence on the way public art is practiced, making the city itself and the world as we find it the site of artistic intervention, usually through temporary installations that are performative and interactive and make space more public in active and participatory ways. This is "revolutionary," in the weakest sense, in relation to the way public art used to mean statues installed in squares--but not revolutionary in any proper social or political sense. It's this confusion that reigned throughout the conference. Local practices that in many cases seemed to be temporarily effective in their small specific contexts and had modest social or political implications were often being presumptuously asked to claim a broader importance, though in most cases they would be unnoticeable beyond the clique of the art world or beyond their own local environment.


The conference came on the heels of a project I produced in my own neighborhood with the help of a group of young public space activists and associates from a class at the Bruce High Quality Foundation. We had the thrilling experience of temporarily transforming five blocks of the neighborhood from a series of underutilized industrial warehouses with almost no public access into a place lit up with art and video projections with thousands of people walking through the streets. My hope for the project was always that it could be made into a tool of advocacy for activating areas along the Greenpoint waterfront and making them public in a participatory way, a realization of a theory of applied urbanist reporting in which the investigation of spaces, the critique of their use, and the exposure of public policy could be done through realized projects in physical space alongside words in print and online.

No one had any illusions about the embeddedness of this project in real-estate development processes that were inevitably going to increase the value of property for the owner of the warehouses and make it easier for the buildings to be turned, according to current zoning law, into high-rise condos. Within that framework, though, I believe that participatory art and public programs can influence the way that public areas of the waterfront are planned and designed, and articulate new possibilities for their use. A window was briefly opened into a part of the city and how it could be transformed. It will take years and maybe decades to find out whether it will have any lasting impact.


There's also a worthwhile show curated by Andres Lepik at the MoMA, Small Scale, Big Change about a similar set of concerns in architecture, part of a really refreshing activist streak at the ultra-establishment institution that is totally unexpected--and that Barry Bergdoll has played a leading role in with his amazing Rising Currents show. A wonderful exhibition at Exit Art compiles an impressive body of research on the history of alternative spaces founded to address the needs of young activist artists, which also has an important relation to these issues.

In this context, I have to just mention the mixed efforts so far of the new Storefront director to engage public issues in architecture. I'm rooting for her and the institution, but I'm disappointed by the apparent capture of the proudly independent institution by Columbia GSAPP, another ultra-establishment institution that is less--almost not at all--engaged in important issues of our time. My friend Olympia Kazi is doing somewhat better at the helm of the Van Alen Institute, opening up some useful discussions, such as one on Ecological Urbanism and Green Gone Wrong, as part of her Reading Room Exchange series. I'm less interested in the subject of biennials for another series of discussions: they are already overexposed and overrated. But I'm especially concerned by the obsession of both institutions with securing associations with the most established names in the field, probably a symptom of the endless drive for fundraising, rather than focusing on finding new ways to engage issues, influence policy, reveal new practices, produce projects, and include young people outside the mainstream who have no institutional representation, no funding, and not many jobs either.


I attended an absolutely pointless discussion at Storefront last week about Bernard Tschumi's new book--previous dean of the Columbia architecture school--that only reeaffirmed that he was out of ideas, as he practically admitted. I like his work generally, but the content here was utterly lacking. It was part of a new series of discussions called Interrogations, but the "interrogation" featured Tschumi and the British ultra-establishment eminence grise Peter Cook congratulating each other for their supposed importance. Add a couple more architects with exaggerated bad English accents and you've got a Monty Python skit. Apart from being complete self-absorbed bores, I was infuriated their failure to talk about anything of any distant relevance to the time we are living in. Words are fooorrmms. Really! Your drawings are so preciiise. It took everything for me to restrain myself from shouting, "What are you talking about and why should it matter in any way to us?" Yes, I also attended because of the significant names, but their words had no content.

What I'm looking for in all of this activist artistic culture is inspired work that has a transformative effect on spaces, discussions that bring important issues and facts into the public sphere, institutions that create communities and serve underrepresented groups, and ultimately, moderately effective practices with a demonstrable impact on public understanding, government policy, or people's lives. Otherwise it better be really fucking beautiful and cause everyone, especially architects, to stop speaking.