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"Living as Form"

An interview with curator Nato Thompson
by Barbara Pollack
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Can the Wall Street protests be considered public art? And should all art aspire to make the kind of impact that street theater, community organizing efforts and anti-Tea Party rallies aim for? Those were some of the questions raised at the third annual Creative Time Summit, held at NYU's Skirball Center on Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. Organized by Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson, the roster featured speakers whose activities stretch the definition of art, including pioneer sanitation artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles; Women on Waves, an organization that literally ships abortion services to women in countries where the procedure is illegal; and Dan S. Wang, an artist and organizer reporting on the labor protests in Wisconsin earlier this year.

Back in the 1990s, this field was derided as "community-based art" or, heaven forbid, "political art." Now revived as "participatory art," it has new energy as an offshoot of the hip-if-academic art practice known as Relational Esthetics. But, Thompson himself prefers the term "socially engaged art." While some might debate whether any of this should be considered art at all, it is clear from the packed attendance at the summit that Thompson has identified a shared activist sentiment in the art world, a movement that is even garnering attention from museums.

This year, Creative Time presented the $25,000 Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change to Rotterdam artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, whose projects have as more to do with community organizing than with solitary art-making. In 2008, she produced six episodes of Norway's first televised soap opera, using the genre's typical hospital context to publicize ethical dilemmas in health care.

According to Thompson, projects like Heeswijk's are a form of cultural production worthy of the art world's attention. To make his point, this year he organized "Living as Form," a sprawling exhibition at the historic Essex Street Market on Allen Street on the Lower East Side. The show -- whose open, cinder-block layout is designed by the five-year-old SoHo group known as Common Room -- runs the gamut from Surasi Kusolwong's mammoth heap of colored thread (visitors are invited to search for a gold necklace hidden in the pile) to Chinese artist corporation MadeIn's self-invented exercise routines based on the prayer positions of various world religions.

Also notable is the video documentation of Complaints Choir, the project where participants sing their grievances, which went viral and circulated world-wide, popping up at the Arab spring in Cairo. Off-site is an E-Flux-run food-barter cafeteria with menus prepared by artists including Martha Rosler and Rirkrit Tiravanija, and an executive washroom installed in a public toilet by the collective Superflex. And the show features an archive, online and on site, of over 100 projects undertaken in the past 20 years that have tried to change the world.

Just two days before opening, I met up with Thompson on the street outside the historic Essex Street Market -- the inside was filled with noise from bandsaws and banging -- to talk about his views of art.

Barbara Pollack: Have you given up on art?

Nato Thompson: No, no, no, no, no. I mean, 90 percent of people in this show call themselves "artists." So, have they given up on art? I don't think so. I just think the forms of art have gotten more complex and interesting. I do think most of the art world has given up on art, though; people think they are doing an interesting show, but you go in and you see, "here's the label, here's the art, here's the label, here's the art." It gets a little boring; it’s so formulaic you just want to kill yourself. And these are supposedly the most interesting people in the world. Some people ask whether what I am showing can truly be classified as art, and while I don't have an answer for that, I know that amazing people who are artists are the ones making it. It's not about finding new forms or being innovative -- I just think this is simply where the energy is.

Are all of these pieces political?

That's a complicated question, because just what qualifies as “political” is difficult to define. I certainly wanted to involve people that were interested in challenging power in some way. Now, that can mean a number of different things: you have some very poetic gestures in there, for example. Francis Alÿs has a project where people are pushing trash through the street in Mexico City. You wouldn't say that gesture is changing legislation, but the definition of polis is people discussing things together -- so yes, that's political in a certain way. But then we have Laurie Jo Reynolds' installation about prison reform in Illinois, which is dead in the bull's-eye of what most people call political art.

What are you looking forward to at the Creative Time Summit this year?

The summit excites me because it's only three years in, and it has already become something I feel will be around for a long time. Every year is an opportunity to provide some calisthenics as to who our community is. This year, for example, we have involved the United Indian Health Services, which is a Native American cultural organization that deals with health care. They would not even call themselves artists, but they are certainly working with culture and progressive politics. So I am really interested in having someone like that on the same stage as Chemi Rosado Seijo, who is a socially engaged arty artist from San Juan, Puerto Rico. We also have the collective NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst, German for "New Slovenian Art") from Ljubljana, Slovenia, who mimic proto-fascism as a way to critique fascism, but with their own distinct esthetic, and Laura Flanders, the host of the Laura Flanders Show on public television and Air America Radio, will be a keynote speaker. That kind of hybridity is really thrilling to me.

You have a book, Seeing Power: Socially Engaged Art in the Age of Cultural Production, coming out in January. I understand you take on Claire Bishop, the scholar who coined the phrase "participatory art," and basically founded the genre?

Claire Bishop is someone who actively thinks through this field, and we have an ongoing discussion around what this work means. So that’s certainly in there, but it's not the focus of the book. I think that she's coming at this field from a very art-historical place, whereas I come at it from a political-economic base. I think of culture as Culture, writ large, and I think that Claire is still trying to define the boundary of what is or isn't art.

But as a curator, aren't you supposed to hold to some bottom line about esthetics?

No, I never believed that, because I don't believe there is a bottom line. I think it’s all about navigating complexity. Basically, everybody has his or her own ideas about what esthetics are, and the whole job description of what a curator is and does is based on some modernist idea of truth. “That's the good art, that's the bad art,” they say -- and you read most art criticism and it's still, “thumbs up, thumbs down.” I have no interest in that. I'm more interested in thinking about what a work of art is doing. I don't believe in connoisseurship, and I don't think that should be the job of curators. I am a public-art curator, so my responsibility is to the public. There are those who think it is a matter of, "I go buy the nicest art for the richest people," but I have no interest in that job. I would rather go into advertising, to be honest.

What do you feel you add to the dialogue around contemporary art?

I like to use the phrase “socially engaged art,” not to start a new genre but just to refer to people who have some kind of political interest and like to use culture in that. I am not just interested in the visual arts but rather in all facets of culture. That includes realms like architecture and theater, but also things like CAS -- community source agriculture -- or community gardens. The idea that artists are the only ones that make cultural production is increasingly not the case. These days, almost every kid takes pictures on their iPhone, or has a Flickr account. The idea that only specialized people are photographers is insane. People are culture makers as a way of being in the world, and I think the artistic community is much bigger than people think.

I am trying to think through a much broader audience, asking questions like, “how do we think through this mass complexity in an age where culture is an economy?” Advertising is a kind of lifestyle, and things are never what they seem any more. Things that may pretend to be socially good are in fact just social-climbing career machines. And everyone is convinced that most people are that way, so there is massive skepticism and cynicism and disillusionment -- and for political art, that's a huge problem.

Why should people over in Chelsea care about this?

Everyone should be concerned with what is happening in the world. If you are not interested, I can't help you -- you deserve the world you live in. But at the end of the day, I find that most people interested in art stuff tend to be interested in other interesting things. I feel very excited because I think this show poses more questions than anything I have ever worked on before. You really have to embrace the ambiguity in it, and I am hoping that people come to see the work and really test their thinking powers about how this all fits together.

I didn't make this up. These are artists doing these projects; it's not a fabrication. And if it manages to challenge commonly held ideas about what is art and what is not art, then great. I think we should really think through that, and that's why I encourage people to come by. The conversation around this art form is new, but it’s also reminiscent of the discussion around Gordon Matta-Clark's Food in the 1970s. It's in that spirit; there's just a lot more of it.

BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).