Review

The Creative Time Summit: Living as Form

New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
New York
Sheryl Conkelton

23, 2011

The third Creative Time summit, titled “Living as Form,” brought together more than thirty activists, artists and collaboratives to present practices that might illuminate the “Living as Form” rubric and add to, if not begin to account for, the growing number of artists working in social and public spaces around the world. With 1000 attendees in the auditorium, the one-day event attracted more than double the audience members of the previous, 2010 summit. There were many others watching as well, with organized livestream events in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Charlottesville, Virginia; Dallas, Texas; Holon, Israel; Los Angeles; Mumbai; New Delhi; Portland, Oregon; and Toronto. The summit kicked off an exhibition by the same name that went on view for three weeks in the Historic Essex Street Market, and performances and events in locations in the surrounding neighborhood. This was the first Creative Time summit to be accompanied by such events, and it seemed that, although the projects were—for the most part—smart, provocative interventions that could be models for continuing socially-engaged actions, the energy that had been present in the two previous summits was somehow lessened or perhaps simply enervated by being distributed among different components.

My Barbarian kicks off the Creative Time Summit with a participatory performance. New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

My Barbarian kicks off the Creative Time Summit with a participatory performance. New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

Creative Time is a small organization that, to their great credit, has always had an impact larger than their physical scale; this has been especially true since much of their program and resources became focused on curating socially and politically motivated practices. The organization was founded in 1973 to produce public art in all forms in New York City. As artistic practices and ideas about public space evolved, the organization also changed, presenting temporary and performance-based works in the 1990s, and more complex and expansive projects over the last ten or so years. Their current mission statement presents their purpose succinctly: to “commission, produce and present the most important, ground-breaking, challenging and exceptional art of our times; art that infiltrates the public realm and engages millions of people in New York City and across the globe.” A recent project, Paul Chan’s “Waiting for Godot,” produced in New Orleans in 2007 following the post-Katrina calamities, demonstrates this intention very well.

Creative Time chief curator and summit organizer Nato Thompson was careful to outline a non-critical position in the statements he wrote for the Living as Form website and the summit and exhibition texts, asserting his intention to take a broad, inclusive stance to “provide insights into this vast new terrain…a significant and growing form of cultural practice” and acknowledging that “it seems daunting to attempt to contain it under the heading of ‘art,’ as so much socially engaged cultural work exists outside this field.” This purposeful inclusiveness and not-just-art position was quite evident in the broad range of projects that were represented. Among the presenters were political activists, experimental media practitioners, visual artists, urban planners, performance artists, conceptual artists, architects, social interventionists, historians, and social justice workers.

Nato Thompson presents at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

Nato Thompson presents at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

The content of the presentations was almost always direct, engaging and inspiring. Among the standout presentations: a spellbinding video of several risky political actions by Voina, a Russian group with two hundred anonymous members; a slide show (that garnered a standing ovation) by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who built an anthemic recitation of passages from her diary about what has fed her work over her long career; a talk by Carleton Turner about Alternate ROOTS’s work since 1976 using the arts to illuminate civil rights issues (he pointed out that Rosa Parks wasn’t simply a tired old lady, but a knowledgeable activist who prepared a strategy to fight racism); an eloquent and wry presentation about the popular demonstrations in Wisconsin by Dan S. Wang, who described the compelling concreteness of such projects as both matching and exceeding everyday life; and a heartfelt and articulate account of work “to provide a better world in which everyone has a stake” and in which everyone can “face a world in progress as creators not consumers” by Jeanne van Heeswijk (who was awarded Creative Time’s Lenore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change).1ender a fair or authentic theoretical accounting. Nor is it necessary that art-critical ideas be stripped in order to reveal something more authentic. Much has already been written about social practice, beginning with Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1998) and since developed with publications such as Grant Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (2004), and Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson’s Collectivism After Modernism (2006); and various essays by Sholette, Brian Holmes, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Claire Bishop (including her book Participation, 2008), and many others. A body of theoretical and critical writing has already been produced, a portion of which directly engages aesthetics of these practices; it is still evolving and could be—should be—usefully drawn into this conversation. For example, Bishop’s interest in the criteria and the categorization of social practices in particular addresses the need for critical distinctions, and highlights issues such as what constitutes critical distance from the necessarily insider perspective of collaborative projects, as well as the more potently disruptive tendencies that emerge when socially engaged art is judged by humanist ethical criteria.3

Perhaps, as Purves gently suggested in his talk, different questions can be asked in order to develop commonalities that account for the shift towards engagement and new critical positions that are capable of framing the full range of social projects. It is a matter of further research and dialogue to evolve and articulate the issues that will illuminate these practices in all their differences—not as a cynical, corporatizing, moving-toward- an-academic-curriculum strategy, but as an attempt to understand the full scope of what is being generated and to get at structures, relationships, and their analysis as we do (or should do) with everything in public discourse. Inquiries and investigations such as this will not only enrich this expanded field in all its dimensions (rather than simply, or simplistically, enlarge it). They might reveal tensions not previously perceived as central or understood as impactful; they might posit new capacities and agencies, or open up a new horizon onto different intellectual and practical territories.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles speaks about her work as a self-proclaimed “Maintenance Artist” at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles speaks about her work as a self-proclaimed “Maintenance Artist” at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

And, finally, what about art? A significant conversation could be developed from this notable gap in the Living as Form Summit: the complete avoidance of any discussion of art, an oddity considering that it appeared that most of the audience was made up of artists, students, art teachers, and academics. The reluctance to call attention to the artistic aspect of these practices or to articulate or specify any aesthetic facet posed an odd conundrum, as if the summit organizers believed in a simplistic notion of art as elitist or, if not that, had based the summit on a unarticulated (and thus unshared) subscription to ideas such as Tania Bruguera’s arte útil.4And yet, one of the powerful experiences of the summit was the sense of empowered and active solidarity, an aesthetic of potent affect. The projects that engendered the greatest response were those that triggered the desire to participate: the Voina collective’s video of some of their political actions, whose true risk-taking induced waves of cheers; Laderman Ukeles’s speech—the story she told and the quickening rhythm with which she told it— infected the entire auditorium. These projects and objects pointed to process, and provided opportunities to share an array of authentic experiences; they used the power of imagining to create interventions and transform real situations. A significant commonality among the disparate projects of Living as Form was this tapping of a compelling imaginary in the broader audience who watched, inspired, from a distance. Ironically, this is what was precisely staged by the summit, but which was minimized and suspended by the lack of any kind of debate that included art, aesthetics, or the phenomena of the imaginary. These projects need to be discussed in aesthetic terms of performance and spectacle, in terms of motivations, and in terms of affect as well as result, in order to yield a more productive and generative engagement of the tensions among art, activism, aesthetics, politics, social agency, and real life.

Sheryl Conkelton is a curator and art historian living in Philadelphia. She teaches at Moore College of Art and Design.

Footnotes

  1. All of the presentations can be viewed individually at www.livestream.com/creativetime.[[2]]Claire Bishop’s lecture can be viewed at: http://www.creativetime.org/programs/archive/2011/livingasform/talks.htm#!prettyPhoto/0/.[[2]]

    Some moments were less successful. Awkwardly, the keynote speakers had trouble making statements that defined the purpose of the summit. Grit TV founder Laura Flanders was lively and purposeful but said, “I was curious why I was invited—I do politics.” She then gamely offered that “disturbing the peace…is what connects me to you.” Laurie Anderson talked amusingly about her residency at NASA; although she did not seem to connect with the idea of social practice as such, she did provide an aura of celebrity. Some of the presentations did no better. The curator Hou Hanru, usually eloquent, chose an odd theme—“night”—for his talk and simply described some of his projects that fit the category until he ran out of time. Theaster Gates presented a lackluster video that seemed to have nothing to do with the topics at hand. The last session of the day presented a strange grouping: all of the projects from outside Europe and North America were gathered in it. The earlier sessions had all featured North Atlantic projects. While this segregation was likely unintentional (it is difficult to imagine what possible purpose the grouping might have served), it was incongruous and intellectually uncomfortable.

    It was clear from the articulate presentations of resonant and affecting practices that the Creative Time staff worked very hard to choose projects they see as valuable—as models at the least—while avoiding any categorization that would separate artistic motivations from political ones, or value one type of endeavor over another. It is admirable that director Anne Pasternak, Thompson, and their partners want to avoid developing new hierarchies, but the Living as Form Summit completely eluded the role—and the Creative Time staff’s role as curators—to expose and engage the larger issues of definition and critical assessment. As the organizers of this event, especially its third iteration (and with twenty-five curators engaged as advisors, as noted on their website), some attempt to make transparent their criteria for selection seems due. Lacking was a description or proposal of the perspective that is plainly there, having generated a program, a history, a genealogy of practices. What makes one project more significant and more deserving of being singled out and given a platform like “Living as Form” than another? What was the selective process; what were the deliberations? What are the criteria already in use?

    Don’t Rhine of Ultra-Red, a sound collective founded by AIDS activists and artists, presents at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

    Don’t Rhine of Ultra-Red, a sound collective founded by AIDS activists and artists, presents at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

    Other factors reinforced this tangible absence of critical dialogue. For the first time at a Creative Time summit, there was no audience participation other than the warm-up exercises proffered by My Barbarian as one of the keynote presentations and an in-the- audience attempt at shared production by Dont Rhine of Ultra-red. This is a fundamentally confounding position in an event about social practices. The earlier two summits were marked by their attempts—in both cases not too successful—to engage the audience. Those events felt messy and experimental, and matched the tenor of the projects being presented. The palpably ambitious experimentation, the rhythm of rising and receding—and competing—energies, fed the sense that you were present and participant in something being born, something profoundly energizing—whether it made you angry, inspired, or confused. Although this excitement was communicated in many of the individual presentations in the Living as Form Summit, it was very much missing in the shape and sense of the summit itself. To even subtly suggest by excluding its participation that the audience was somehow separate from the proceedings except as passive consumers was to close down the idea of community and participation that the projects themselves embraced.

    Another potentially damping feature was the slick presentation of the summit, oddly disruptive of the experimental, collaborative and emancipatory moods generated by the projects. While everyone appreciated the smoothly accomplished, almost-perfect technical support, a huge, screen-filling (and presenter-dwarfing) logo preceded and followed each presentation, effectively branding the conference as belonging to Creative Time but also unsettling the general atmosphere of accessibility and sociability with a corporate ethos. The massive hall, necessary to accommodate the one thousand audience members, put great literal and emotional space between them and the presenters. And, somehow, unlike the previous summits, the mostly lecture-behind-a-podium format smoothed over dissimilarities and seemed to render the incredibly disparate political, social and artistic practices very much similar, reducing or erasing the distances and differences among them.

    In fact, critical and theoretical accounting of any kind was accorded very little room and mostly went missing. Except for a call for an outline of critical positions by Ted Purves (author of What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art, 2004), and back-to-back talks by the third keynoter Gerald Raunig and art historian Shannon Jackson, which were too-brief descriptions of their research into possible theoretical platforms, no theoretical positions were outlined. The obviously missing component was the lack on the part of Creative Time to describe their framework, beginning with some critical discussion or even description of a way of thinking that might accommodate these diverse artistic, political, and social practices. And while other related projects being produced by Creative Time engage theory in different degrees—notably a spring 2011 series of lectures by Claire Bishop, Brian Holmes, and Thompson;{{2}}[[3]]See Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” Artforum (October 2006), 179–85.[[3]] an on-line archive of social projects; and a book to be published in spring 2012—the lack of a stated framework for or even simple description of some formative critical ideas from the summit organizers was a powerful statement on its own. Among the various Living as Form projects, only the summit offered the potential for dialogue with an audience about the project’s intellectual platform, and its absence signaled a lack of interest in opening up their position to debate and discussion. In fact, the lack of discussion and the arbitrary separation of practice from critical commentary produced surely unintended but misleading effects: the isolation of projects from their contexts, the stripping away of motivations for action, the foregrounding of presentation rather than debate, and the construction of significance without critical discourse.

    At midday, Pasternak reiterated Thompson’s avoidance of theory or critical debate (with language that reflected a hewing to the humanist ethical standards that has been critiqued by Bishop), stating in her address that the program’s purpose was to “stretch beyond the confines of the art world [to] do great things—substantive, meaningful, important work…to make real change.” While apparently aligned with the character of most the presenters themselves—self-defined, nonhierarchical, antiauthority, altruistically noncompetitive—the rhetoric offered at the summit by Pasternak and by Thompson was stubbornly inadequate. Making a statement about creating or maintaining openness doesn’t substitute for the need to integrate conversation and critical reflection with action. What constitutes substantive, meaningful, important work, then? And is it only non-art or work that denies aesthetics that can accomplish this? It is not necessarily true or inevitable that an art-critical accounting for these practices would produce a catalog trapped in reductivist and insufficient old ways, or even restrictive new ones. Even more significant, the protestation against framework can be read as a refusal to engage outside a certain circle, and as a presentation of authority—top-down, imperious, not to be challenged. The Living as Form Summit’s isolation of action from criticality inevitably grounds their authority in a refusal and also, importantly, in a deferral of meaning.

    Critical assessment need not come after practice in

  2. mber 23, 2011

    The third Creative Time summit, titled “Living as Form,” brought together more than thirty activists, artists and collaboratives to present practices that might illuminate the “Living as Form” rubric and add to, if not begin to account for, the growing number of artists working in social and public spaces around the world. With 1000 attendees in the auditorium, the one-day event attracted more than double the audience members of the previous, 2010 summit. There were many others watching as well, with organized livestream events in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Charlottesville, Virginia; Dallas, Texas; Holon, Israel; Los Angeles; Mumbai; New Delhi; Portland, Oregon; and Toronto. The summit kicked off an exhibition by the same name that went on view for three weeks in the Historic Essex Street Market, and performances and events in locations in the surrounding neighborhood. This was the first Creative Time summit to be accompanied by such events, and it seemed that, although the projects were—for the most part—smart, provocative interventions that could be models for continuing socially-engaged actions, the energy that had been present in the two previous summits was somehow lessened or perhaps simply enervated by being distributed among different components.

    My Barbarian kicks off the Creative Time Summit with a participatory performance. New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

    My Barbarian kicks off the Creative Time Summit with a participatory performance. New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

    Creative Time is a small organization that, to their great credit, has always had an impact larger than their physical scale; this has been especially true since much of their program and resources became focused on curating socially and politically motivated practices. The organization was founded in 1973 to produce public art in all forms in New York City. As artistic practices and ideas about public space evolved, the organization also changed, presenting temporary and performance-based works in the 1990s, and more complex and expansive projects over the last ten or so years. Their current mission statement presents their purpose succinctly: to “commission, produce and present the most important, ground-breaking, challenging and exceptional art of our times; art that infiltrates the public realm and engages millions of people in New York City and across the globe.” A recent project, Paul Chan’s “Waiting for Godot,” produced in New Orleans in 2007 following the post-Katrina calamities, demonstrates this intention very well.

    Creative Time chief curator and summit organizer Nato Thompson was careful to outline a non-critical position in the statements he wrote for the Living as Form website and the summit and exhibition texts, asserting his intention to take a broad, inclusive stance to “provide insights into this vast new terrain…a significant and growing form of cultural practice” and acknowledging that “it seems daunting to attempt to contain it under the heading of ‘art,’ as so much socially engaged cultural work exists outside this field.” This purposeful inclusiveness and not-just-art position was quite evident in the broad range of projects that were represented. Among the presenters were political activists, experimental media practitioners, visual artists, urban planners, performance artists, conceptual artists, architects, social interventionists, historians, and social justice workers.

    Nato Thompson presents at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

    Nato Thompson presents at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

    The content of the presentations was almost always direct, engaging and inspiring. Among the standout presentations: a spellbinding video of several risky political actions by Voina, a Russian group with two hundred anonymous members; a slide show (that garnered a standing ovation) by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who built an anthemic recitation of passages from her diary about what has fed her work over her long career; a talk by Carleton Turner about Alternate ROOTS’s work since 1976 using the arts to illuminate civil rights issues (he pointed out that Rosa Parks wasn’t simply a tired old lady, but a knowledgeable activist who prepared a strategy to fight racism); an eloquent and wry presentation about the popular demonstrations in Wisconsin by Dan S. Wang, who described the compelling concreteness of such projects as both matching and exceeding everyday life; and a heartfelt and articulate account of work “to provide a better world in which everyone has a stake” and in which everyone can “face a world in progress as creators not consumers” by Jeanne van Heeswijk (who was awarded Creative Time’s Lenore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change).1ender a fair or authentic theoretical accounting. Nor is it necessary that art-critical ideas be stripped in order to reveal something more authentic. Much has already been written about social practice, beginning with Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1998) and since developed with publications such as Grant Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (2004), and Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson’s Collectivism After Modernism (2006); and various essays by Sholette, Brian Holmes, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Claire Bishop (including her book Participation, 2008), and many others. A body of theoretical and critical writing has already been produced, a portion of which directly engages aesthetics of these practices; it is still evolving and could be—should be—usefully drawn into this conversation. For example, Bishop’s interest in the criteria and the categorization of social practices in particular addresses the need for critical distinctions, and highlights issues such as what constitutes critical distance from the necessarily insider perspective of collaborative projects, as well as the more potently disruptive tendencies that emerge when socially engaged art is judged by humanist ethical criteria.{{3}}[[4]]Bruguera’s concept of arte útil, “useful art,” embraces the deliberate, seamless insertion of art into everyday society and a motivating awareness of “the beauty of being useful.” See http://www. taniabruguera.com/cms/528-0- Introduction+on+Useful+Art.htm for a transcription of the introduction given by Bruguera at the Useful Art Event at the Immigrant Movement International Headquarters on April 23, 2011, jointly sponsored by the Queens Museum of Art and Creative time.[[4]]

    Perhaps, as Purves gently suggested in his talk, different questions can be asked in order to develop commonalities that account for the shift towards engagement and new critical positions that are capable of framing the full range of social projects. It is a matter of further research and dialogue to evolve and articulate the issues that will illuminate these practices in all their differences—not as a cynical, corporatizing, moving-toward- an-academic-curriculum strategy, but as an attempt to understand the full scope of what is being generated and to get at structures, relationships, and their analysis as we do (or should do) with everything in public discourse. Inquiries and investigations such as this will not only enrich this expanded field in all its dimensions (rather than simply, or simplistically, enlarge it). They might reveal tensions not previously perceived as central or understood as impactful; they might posit new capacities and agencies, or open up a new horizon onto different intellectual and practical territories.

    Mierle Laderman Ukeles speaks about her work as a self-proclaimed “Maintenance Artist” at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

    Mierle Laderman Ukeles speaks about her work as a self-proclaimed “Maintenance Artist” at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

    And, finally, what about art? A significant conversation could be developed from this notable gap in the Living as Form Summit: the complete avoidance of any discussion of art, an oddity considering that it appeared that most of the audience was made up of artists, students, art teachers, and academics. The reluctance to call attention to the artistic aspect of these practices or to articulate or specify any aesthetic facet posed an odd conundrum, as if the summit organizers believed in a simplistic notion of art as elitist or, if not that, had based the summit on a unarticulated (and thus unshared) subscription to ideas such as Tania Bruguera’s arte útil.{{4}}And yet, one of the powerful experiences of the summit was the sense of empowered and active solidarity, an aesthetic of potent affect. The projects that engendered the greatest response were those that triggered the desire to participate: the Voina collective’s video of some of their political actions, whose true risk-taking induced waves of cheers; Laderman Ukeles’s speech—the story she told and the quickening rhythm with which she told it— infected the entire auditorium. These projects and objects pointed to process, and provided opportunities to share an array of authentic experiences; they used the power of imagining to create interventions and transform real situations. A significant commonality among the disparate projects of Living as Form was this tapping of a compelling imaginary in the broader audience who watched, inspired, from a distance. Ironically, this is what was precisely staged by the summit, but which was minimized and suspended by the lack of any kind of debate that included art, aesthetics, or the phenomena of the imaginary. These projects need to be discussed in aesthetic terms of performance and spectacle, in terms of motivations, and in terms of affect as well as result, in order to yield a more productive and generative engagement of the tensions among art, activism, aesthetics, politics, social agency, and real life.

    Sheryl Conkelton is a curator and art historian living in Philadelphia. She teaches at Moore College of Art and De

  3. 23, 2011

    The third Creative Time summit, titled “Living as Form,” brought together more than thirty activists, artists and collaboratives to present practices that might illuminate the “Living as Form” rubric and add to, if not begin to account for, the growing number of artists working in social and public spaces around the world. With 1000 attendees in the auditorium, the one-day event attracted more than double the audience members of the previous, 2010 summit. There were many others watching as well, with organized livestream events in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Charlottesville, Virginia; Dallas, Texas; Holon, Israel; Los Angeles; Mumbai; New Delhi; Portland, Oregon; and Toronto. The summit kicked off an exhibition by the same name that went on view for three weeks in the Historic Essex Street Market, and performances and events in locations in the surrounding neighborhood. This was the first Creative Time summit to be accompanied by such events, and it seemed that, although the projects were—for the most part—smart, provocative interventions that could be models for continuing socially-engaged actions, the energy that had been present in the two previous summits was somehow lessened or perhaps simply enervated by being distributed among different components.

    My Barbarian kicks off the Creative Time Summit with a participatory performance. New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

    My Barbarian kicks off the Creative Time Summit with a participatory performance. New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

    Creative Time is a small organization that, to their great credit, has always had an impact larger than their physical scale; this has been especially true since much of their program and resources became focused on curating socially and politically motivated practices. The organization was founded in 1973 to produce public art in all forms in New York City. As artistic practices and ideas about public space evolved, the organization also changed, presenting temporary and performance-based works in the 1990s, and more complex and expansive projects over the last ten or so years. Their current mission statement presents their purpose succinctly: to “commission, produce and present the most important, ground-breaking, challenging and exceptional art of our times; art that infiltrates the public realm and engages millions of people in New York City and across the globe.” A recent project, Paul Chan’s “Waiting for Godot,” produced in New Orleans in 2007 following the post-Katrina calamities, demonstrates this intention very well.

    Creative Time chief curator and summit organizer Nato Thompson was careful to outline a non-critical position in the statements he wrote for the Living as Form website and the summit and exhibition texts, asserting his intention to take a broad, inclusive stance to “provide insights into this vast new terrain…a significant and growing form of cultural practice” and acknowledging that “it seems daunting to attempt to contain it under the heading of ‘art,’ as so much socially engaged cultural work exists outside this field.” This purposeful inclusiveness and not-just-art position was quite evident in the broad range of projects that were represented. Among the presenters were political activists, experimental media practitioners, visual artists, urban planners, performance artists, conceptual artists, architects, social interventionists, historians, and social justice workers.

    Nato Thompson presents at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

    Nato Thompson presents at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

    The content of the presentations was almost always direct, engaging and inspiring. Among the standout presentations: a spellbinding video of several risky political actions by Voina, a Russian group with two hundred anonymous members; a slide show (that garnered a standing ovation) by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who built an anthemic recitation of passages from her diary about what has fed her work over her long career; a talk by Carleton Turner about Alternate ROOTS’s work since 1976 using the arts to illuminate civil rights issues (he pointed out that Rosa Parks wasn’t simply a tired old lady, but a knowledgeable activist who prepared a strategy to fight racism); an eloquent and wry presentation about the popular demonstrations in Wisconsin by Dan S. Wang, who described the compelling concreteness of such projects as both matching and exceeding everyday life; and a heartfelt and articulate account of work “to provide a better world in which everyone has a stake” and in which everyone can “face a world in progress as creators not consumers” by Jeanne van Heeswijk (who was awarded Creative Time’s Lenore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change).1ender a fair or authentic theoretical accounting. Nor is it necessary that art-critical ideas be stripped in order to reveal something more authentic. Much has already been written about social practice, beginning with Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1998) and since developed with publications such as Grant Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (2004), and Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson’s Collectivism After Modernism (2006); and various essays by Sholette, Brian Holmes, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Claire Bishop (including her book Participation, 2008), and many others. A body of theoretical and critical writing has already been produced, a portion of which directly engages aesthetics of these practices; it is still evolving and could be—should be—usefully drawn into this conversation. For example, Bishop’s interest in the criteria and the categorization of social practices in particular addresses the need for critical distinctions, and highlights issues such as what constitutes critical distance from the necessarily insider perspective of collaborative projects, as well as the more potently disruptive tendencies that emerge when socially engaged art is judged by humanist ethical criteria.{{3}}[[4]]Bruguera’s concept of arte útil, “useful art,” embraces the deliberate, seamless insertion of art into everyday society and a motivating awareness of “the beauty of being useful.” See http://www. taniabruguera.com/cms/528-0- Introduction+on+Useful+Art.htm for a transcription of the introduction given by Bruguera at the Useful Art Event at the Immigrant Movement International Headquarters on April 23, 2011, jointly sponsored by the Queens Museum of Art and Creative time.[[4]]

    Perhaps, as Purves gently suggested in his talk, different questions can be asked in order to develop commonalities that account for the shift towards engagement and new critical positions that are capable of framing the full range of social projects. It is a matter of further research and dialogue to evolve and articulate the issues that will illuminate these practices in all their differences—not as a cynical, corporatizing, moving-toward- an-academic-curriculum strategy, but as an attempt to understand the full scope of what is being generated and to get at structures, relationships, and their analysis as we do (or should do) with everything in public discourse. Inquiries and investigations such as this will not only enrich this expanded field in all its dimensions (rather than simply, or simplistically, enlarge it). They might reveal tensions not previously perceived as central or understood as impactful; they might posit new capacities and agencies, or open up a new horizon onto different intellectual and practical territories.

    Mierle Laderman Ukeles speaks about her work as a self-proclaimed “Maintenance Artist” at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine.

    Mierle Laderman Ukeles speaks about her work as a self-proclaimed “Maintenance Artist” at the Creative Time Summit, New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York, September 23, 2011. Photo: Sam Horine. Courtesy Creative Time.

    And, finally, what about art? A significant conversation could be developed from this notable gap in the Living as Form Summit: the complete avoidance of any discussion of art, an oddity considering that it appeared that most of the audience was made up of artists, students, art teachers, and academics. The reluctance to call attention to the artistic aspect of these practices or to articulate or specify any aesthetic facet posed an odd conundrum, as if the summit organizers believed in a simplistic notion of art as elitist or, if not that, had based the summit on a unarticulated (and thus unshared) subscription to ideas such as Tania Bruguera’s arte útil.{{4}}And yet, one of the powerful experiences of the summit was the sense of empowered and active solidarity, an aesthetic of potent affect. The projects that engendered the greatest response were those that triggered the desire to participate: the Voina collective’s video of some of their political actions, whose true risk-taking induced waves of cheers; Laderman Ukeles’s speech—the story she told and the quickening rhythm with which she told it— infected the entire auditorium. These projects and objects pointed to process, and provided opportunities to share an array of authentic experiences; they used the power of imagining to create interventions and transform real situations. A significant commonality among the disparate projects of Living as Form was this tapping of a compelling imaginary in the broader audience who watched, inspired, from a distance. Ironically, this is what was precisely staged by the summit, but which was minimized and suspended by the lack of any kind of debate that included art, aesthetics, or the phenomena of the imaginary. These projects need to be discussed in aesthetic terms of performance and spectacle, in terms of motivations, and in terms of affect as well as result, in order to yield a more productive and generative engagement of the tensions among art, activism, aesthetics, politics, social agency, and real life.

    Sheryl Conkelton is a curator and art historian living in Philadelphia. She teaches at Moore College of Art and De

  4. Bruguera’s concept of arte útil, “useful art,” embraces the deliberate, seamless insertion of art into everyday society and a motivating awareness of “the beauty of being useful.” See http://www. taniabruguera.com/cms/528-0- Introduction+on+Useful+Art.htm for a transcription of the introduction given by Bruguera at the Useful Art Event at the Immigrant Movement International Headquarters on April 23, 2011, jointly sponsored by the Queens Museum of Art and Creative time.
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