Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice

Addressing and defining change and measurable progress often seems like the end result of a project or political campaign, rather than the starting point it ought to be. Last weekend, Creative Time, that hyper-dynamic creative engine for public art and its potential in New York (and increasingly elsewhere), held its second annual summit, a two-day conference in New York City, and succeeded in presenting a concrete conversation about design for change that went beyond the clichés to engage systemic approaches to political challenges.

In his opening remarks, Nato Thompson, the chief curator of Creative Time and of the summit, summed it up well with a quote from artist Tania Bruguera: “I don’t want art that points at the thing. I want art that is the thing.” Thompson emphasized the growing importance of cultural production beyond any perceived isolated world of art. He reminded us that now “the cultural landscape is the political landscape…and this makes culture producers extraordinarily relevant in society.” If it were not as apparent before, now it is glaringly obvious that people vote based on their cultural affiliations, making cultural production at the forefront of politics, across the spectrum.

2010 Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change recipient Rick Lowe

This year’s choice for the Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change captures the approach of this year’s summit perfectly. Rick Lowe received the prize for his Project Row Houses, a far-ranging, community-based architectural and artistic project that aims to create sustainable dignity and culture-led potential within Houston’s Third Ward. As the project nears its third decade, its scope of commitment and practical yet inspired vision continues to typify the kind of contextualized public interest creative practice that this summit seems to exalt. The topics and projects ranged from the architecture of conflict to prison systems to artistic interventions in agriculture. And the old clichés that the personal is political, the local is global and, increasingly, that the cultural is political, were made plain.

Claire Pentecost, Art Institute of Chicago

In her presentation on food, Claire Pentecost of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose work investigates divisions of knowledge (for example, nature and artificiality), may have best articulated the necessary scope for a committed and systematic approach to change in the 21st century. She marvels at the deeply entrenched separation between man and nature and how this has led to, among other perverse dynamics, the lack of complex thinking about eating, which is, she reminds us, “our most intimate experience of the natural world.” Of course she is greatly encouraged by the progress of the last decade, in which complex thinking about eating has indeed gained traction, perhaps permanently. While many see this as merely a trend, she strongly believes it is a movement, a “long-brewing, popular response to deep structural conditions that degrade life across the board. As an issue, food is entangled with a host of other problems and possible solutions, from health care to climate change, from class to wildlife, from energy to sovereignty. Food is so cultural and certainly our ecological and political solutions are ultimately cultural.”

Lest anyone dismiss this movement as an expensive bourgeois flight of fancy, Pentecost listed a number of examples that show otherwise, including Detroit, “the capital of a failed paradigm” that also presents the largest urban farming network in the country. Other examples abound – Milwaukee, Oakland and many other places around the globe, including in India and Mexico, where it is indeed a movement, and one necessary for survival. But Pentecost appreciates the need to further bridge the gap between “what may be perceived for some as an elective desire for change [and] the work of those who are fighting for their lives.”

The other artists on the “Food” panel also presented deeply integrated projects that illustrate the prime importance the production and distribution of food has in almost every facet of life.  Amy Franceschini’s urban gardens, one of which was in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, consciously echo and draw upon such historical precedence for urban gardening as the government-promoted Victory Gardens of WWII, when one propaganda poster read “Victory Gardens March On To Freedom.”

Wheatfield — A Confrontation, Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982. Commissioned by Public Art Fund | © 1982 Agnes Denes

Agnes Denes, an environmental land artist who can easily silence any murmurings about the aesthetic value of activist art, spoke about the need to address our existence as the first species that can control its own evolution. Her work has always integrated science and art, and many other fields that these two seemingly disparate disciplines subsume. Perhaps her most famous urban intervention was the beautiful wheat field she planted in Battery Park in 1982.  She made skyscrapers, golden wheat and a surrounding harbor all seem a wonderful accident of nature. She is presently involved with a 25-year master plan in Holland that aims to string together a 100-kilometer-long series of forts while implementing an extensive system of water and flood management, an example of how her work has evolved towards more committed interventions that aim to change a space permanently, but still just as beautifully.

Eyal Weizman, Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London

A closer investigation of the role of the transformation of geography itself was presented by Eyal Weizman, the director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London and a member of the architectural research project Decolonizing Architecture. Weizman posits that the power of geography is not in its fixity but in its transformation. He sees space as something that “…goes through continuous transformation. That within that transformation lies its power, its oppressive power, but also its potential.” He speaks of a “political plastic” to describe the powerful potential of the elasticity of space. In more concrete terms, Weizman illustrated this notion by explaining that “In the West Bank, it is not only the fact of where military bases, roads, settlements, bridges are built, but the fact of constant transformation…its unpredictability that has actually become the mechanism for control.” An impetus for his project was Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the very real physical and geographical dilemmas faced by Palestinians who had to inhabit the physical space of their recently departed enemy. While Israel/Palestine is in many ways a unique area of geographical conflict where land, space and structure carry special historical burdens, this work translates into any area of conflict, minor or major.  It is also, as Weizman points out, a way of entering the political process in a different way: from the ground up, so to speak.

Claire Doherty, curator, writer, and educator

Of the six regional reports about revolutions in public practice elsewhere in the world, Claire Doherty’s presentation about the use of public space in the UK, especially in light of the 2012 Olympics, resonated most. Doherty, a curator from Bristol, led the audience through a series of projects investigating the use of public space. At one end was the use of Trafalgar Square – the place of near-hysteric populist joy at the awarding of the 2012 Olympics and where Antony Gormley held his Fourth Plinth experiment, in which a total of 2,400 volunteers occupied a plinth over 100 days. Doherty described the experiment as “false democracy at its worst…the experience of watching the participants was akin to an excruciating episode of Big Brother.” She provided examples of projects that better feed the public’s very real need for shared cultural experiences, public art projects with long durations, such as the Liverpool Biennial, Grizedale, and Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland, a fascinating ongoing project in direct response to the 2012 Olympics. Nowhereisland is a micro-nation created by Hartley on an island that emerged from the melting ice of a retreating glacier near the North Pole. Hartley discovered this island while on an Arctic expedition in 2004 and will be sailing a scaled version along English shores during the Olympics. As Doherty described it, “This is our Cultural Olympiad — a riposte to the monolithic intervention in public space with an epic endeavor and call upon public time to become citizens of this new micro-nation — to imagine what laws and rules this landmass might accrue on its slow journey.”

Laura Kurgan, Spatial Information Design Lab

A project with more direct implications for New York and other urban centers was presented by Laura Kurgan, the co-director of the Spatial Information Design Lab in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia. For the past five years, Kurgan has been working on a project called Architecture and Justice, which was first exhibited at the Architectural League and is also part of MoMA’s permanent collection. Architecture and Justice used criminal justice statistics from courts in multiple American cities to literally map out the geography of incarceration and return. Kurgan and her team analyzed the home addresses of the incarcerated (the vast majority of whom are non-violent felons sentenced to 1-3 years) to visualize what they refer to as “Million Dollar Blocks,” so called because of the millions of dollars spent annually on incarcerating individuals from certain individual census blocks in places like East New York and the South Bronx. By illustrating the incarceration and return rate of these “million dollar blocks,” Kurgan offers an opportunity to reconsider the relationship between poverty and incarceration and the seemingly squandered opportunity to use that money more efficiently and effectively.

Million Dollar Blocks | Spatial Information Design Lab and the Justice Mapping Center

Million Dollar Blocks | Spatial Information Design Lab and the Justice Mapping Center

Kurgan has recently put those maps to use in a project in New Orleans, Louisiana, the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the country, and therefore in the world. An analysis of the Central City neighborhood revealed a rather disturbing portrait of a once-vibrant center both stricken by Hurricane Katrina and bisected by a newly-constructed highway. Using the resources and funding pouring into New Orleans after Katrina, Kurgan and her team were able to identify community groups and non-profits working separately in the area and help bring those groups together to implement several very effective projects. At present, Kurgan is working with New York’s Department of Probation to relocate Brooklyn’s central probation office. The office is currently in Brooklyn Heights, many miles and socio-economic levels away from the eastern reaches of Brooklyn where most offenders reside.

As Clare Pentecost emphasized, “We might say that the very concept of better living is what we are in the process of changing. To know how to live and soon how to coexist, it is not possible to be living well if others are living badly or if nature is damaged. To live well means to understand the deterioration of a species is the deterioration of all.”

While it is easy to dismiss some utopian visions for change as just that — utopian — the acceptance of a shared fate and the understanding of the systematic underpinnings that must be addressed are not easy to dismiss at all. The Creative Time Summit succeeded in both explaining this and providing viable models that make it real and provide clues to a more sustainable future.


Yael Friedman writes about art and culture, and often about sports. She lives in Brooklyn and grew up in Tel Aviv and Rockaway (Bauhaus heaven and unapologetically homely beach town, respectively). You can check out more of her stuff at Ida Post.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

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