The Creative Time Summit: Living as Form, Skirball Center for Performing Arts, NYU

Vol 3, Issue 2

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The Creative Time Summit: Living as Form, Skirball Center for Performing Arts, NYU

by Christian L. Frock
This year's summit was held in conjunction with Living as Form, Creative Time's coinciding survey exhibition, which documented more than twenty years of socially engaged projects. In addition to twenty-nine speakers, there were remarks from Creative Time’s President and Artistic Director, Anne Pasternak and Chief Curator, Nato Thompson, a participatory performance by My Barbarian, a keynote address by GRITtv broadcaster Laura Flanders, and the presentation of the Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change awarded to Jeanne van Heeswijk, with a video address by Laurie Anderson. Speakers included journalists, historians, educators, academics, artists and curators. An odd sound effect would chime as speakers approached the eight-minute time limit; if they went over, their voices were drowned out by live music.

The notion raised by Thompson that all dissent is, on some level, creative dissent was reflected in both the wider range of projects presented at the summit and those documented in Living as Form. Whether or not social practice is considered art in the formal sense is another matter—one that might ultimately have little impact on those engaged by the work, but a matter that is nonetheless often rigorously contested in the critical discourse surrounding contemporary art. Thompson freely admitted to an absence of concern around such distinctions, instead favoring a broad perspective of cultural production galvanized by a desire to change the circumstances of the disenfranchised.

The inclusion this year of more regional community arts organizations intermixed with projects more easily identifiable as “contemporary art” further blurred categorical distinctions. Many of the speakers knowingly played off the perceived ambiguity of their work as art in the formal sense. Representatives from Austrian artist collective WochenKlausur, whose projects include a mobile medical clinic that treats six hundred homeless patients a month, put it plainly: “We are artists and we are allowed to call anything we do art. It’s just that simple.” Given that the prevailing critical discourse has spent nearly a century validating a readymade urinal, I am inclined to agree. Points of critical consideration in social practice are, in many ways, diametrically opposed to contemporary art as it relates to the art world-cum-market. If the work succeeds formally without meeting activist measures of success (Does it engage community and site? Is long-term impact sustainable?) it still fails. If it succeeds on both counts, the art-invested community sometimes still remains skeptical.

This tension was apparent during the summit when a remote audience member challenged via Twitter that the work of Mammalian Diving Reflex, who presented the amusing project Haircuts by Children (date unavailable), might have been initiated to capitalize on funding for youth-based projects. This represents the general skepticism with which the art world often views social practice.

Unfortunately, the format didn’t allow for the artist’s response, which made the comment seem merely snarky rather than a useful opening for discussion around the pitfalls of social practice. Though often held to the impossible standard that social practice must be positively received by vast numbers of people—i.e., everyone—to be considered a critical success, the only guarantee is that reception will be mixed, as it would be with any other artwork. Some success is to be found when new practitioners and audiences emerge from the process— it is the pinnacle of success when people see improved circumstances in the form of actual change. Although it may often struggle to find currency in the larger art discourse, the real life issues at stake in social practice promise greater impact than any review, favorable or otherwise.

Christian L. Frock is an independent curator and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Invisible Venue, founded and directed by Frock since 2005, collaborates with artists to present art in unexpected settings in the public sphere. The full-length version of this article, originally published by Art Practical on October 20, is archived on Frock’s writing site
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