Creative Time Reneges on Promise to BDS Artists with Israel Exhibition, Artist Withdraws [UPDATED]

A 2011 exhibition organized by Creative Time has traveled to Israel, including the military-linked Technion University, renewing longstanding criticism of the organization’s sensitivity to artists participating in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement (image via Wikimedia)

The revelation that a Creative Time exhibition curated by Nato Thompson has traveled to Israel unbeknownst to participants has drawn sharp rebukes from artists subscribing to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, including the immediate withdrawal of one artist contacted by Hyperallergic with the news. Independent Curators International (ICI), the group partnering with Creative Time, a major New York arts nonprofit, for the international tour of the 21-artist exhibition, yesterday sent a letter to participants retroactively seeking permission to show their work in Israel, some six months after the show first appeared in the country. The belated request, in which ICI cites possible BDS objections and states it “feel[s] strongly about the right of others to boycott,” appears to have been prompted by objections raised over social media by Occupy Theory, an activist group that has, along with others, previously engaged Creative Time on the subject of the BDS cultural boycott of Israel, drawing specific assurances of transparency from the organization in 2012 and 2013.

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This type of unmanned bulldozer developed at Technion University was deployed during Operation Cast Lead, a war that killed around 1,400 Palestinians (image via Wikimedia)

In a private Facebook post yesterday, Occupy Theory’s Amin Husain, a Palestinian-American artist, denounced the exhibition’s appearance in Israel without the consultation of participating artists, which he alleges violates Creative Time director Anne Pasternak’s 2012 statement on the issue. “We respect and work to protect the right of anyone to participate in the BDS campaign,” Pasternak wrote then in a detailed response to artist protests over a controversial Israeli partnership.

Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson struck a note of contrition, offering the following in the thread on Husain’s Facebook page:

To clarify, ICI is our partner who is touring this project. The arrangement happened fast and we are in discussions now trying to get ahead of something that has gotten away from us. We are aware of the seriousness of this and should have a statement soon.

The exhibition in question, Living as Form (The Nomadic Version), like much of the rest of Creative Time’s work features a number of political artists, including Decolonizing Architecture, a group whose practice is premised on pro-Palestinian advocacy. Reached by email late last night, Decolonizing Architecture stated that they were “absolutely not aware” of the exhibition’s presence in Israel until Hyperallergic reached out, and alerted Creative Time of their wish to withdraw from the show immediately. “[I]t takes us by surprise to know that we are exhibiting in Israel without our knowledge. It is simply unacceptable from our side,” they said, adding that they hadn’t heard from Creative Time since the exhibition’s first iteration in New York closed in October 2011.

Another collective in the exhibition told Hyperallergic that they had also not heard of this component of the show’s travel itinerary and were unfamiliar with the BDS movement. “I have never heard about this travel of the show and we artists somehow delegate to CT to deal with this issue of places,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

“It’s not about this show. It’s about a pattern. This is an organization whose sole mission is exploring social justice issues via art, and it’s not being straightforward with its artists about something that clearly matters to people,” Amin said.

Particularly at issue is the venue of The Technion, the show’s second and current host in Israel after a stint at Artport Tel Aviv from December 6 to March 7. The university, also known as the Israeli Institute of Technology, has extensive research-and-development links to the Israeli Defense Forces. These links were damningly investigated by Adam Hudson in a 2,500-word essay for The Nation appearing in March of last year on the backlash against New York’s proposed $2 billion Cornell-Technion campus, which is slated to begin accepting students on Roosevelt Island in 2017. Hudson details the ties between Technion, Israel’s premier institute of technology, and its military apparatus, noting that:

Technion conducts research and development into military technology that Israel relies on to sustain its occupation of Palestinian land. For example, Technion developed an unmanned D-9 bulldozer for the Israeli military, which it used during Operation Cast Lead, a war that killed around 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and thirteen Israelis. Because of the machine’s “exceptional results” in Cast Lead, Israel is expanding its use of unmanned bulldozers … Currently, more than half-a-million Israeli settlers live in the occupied territories; that number continues to rise. Technion also has partnerships with Israeli arms companies, such as Elbit and Rafael. Elbit provides surveillance equipment for the separation wall, such as cameras and drones, while Rafael manufactures missiles that accompany drones and an armor protection system for the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) Mk4 battle tank.

What’s more, Hudson argues that the soft-power instrumentality of an enlightened higher education campus is central to self-professed Israeli strategy of rebranding its national image away from military themes. (He writes: “Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel in New York, told The Jewish Week that Technion’s partnership with Cornell ‘is of strategic importance in terms of positioning Israel not only in America, but all over the world, as a bastion of creativity and innovation.'”)

Reached for comment late yesterday afternoon, Nato Thompson told Hyperallergic that a statement would be forthcoming from Creative Time “shortly,” and did not respond to follow-up queries about his knowledge of the exhibition’s travel itinerary. We will update this space when we receive comment. [See update below.]

Here is the full text of the letter sent by ICI to the 21 artists showing in the exhibition on Wednesday, June 4:

I hope this letter finds you very well. I’m writing to you today about your participation in Living as Form (The Nomadic Version).

As the exhibition continues to tour, I would like to bring your attention to it being shown at two venues in Israel, Artport in Tel Aviv earlier this year, and now at the Paul Konrad Hoenich Gallery of Experimental Art and Architecture, a university gallery part of the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa.

This presentation features a selection of 21 artists and collectives, including your work, and I wanted to reach out to you personally because of issues related to working with organizations in Israel.

ICI’s broad network of curators, artists and art spaces from around the world encompasses different positions and responses to Israel and the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. While ICI does not take part in the boycott of Israel under BDS or other frameworks, we feel strongly about the right of others to boycott. So if you would like to discuss your participation in this presentation of the exhibition, please contact me by email or directly on my cell phone at [Redacted]  so that we can make sure that your positions are respected. Thank you in advance for your attention to this.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you once again for being part of this exhibition, which has already traveled to 16 venues in just two years, actively reaching out to audiences from around the world, in places including California, Taiwan, and Western Sahara. We are proud of this great success and moved by the engagement generated by the show at every stop of the tour. Thank you!

Update, 6/5 3:55pmWe have yet to receive a statement from Creative Time, but after this story was published this morning, Thompson posted the below on Husain’s private Facebook page on behalf of the organization:

As we have stated in the past, the commitment to the free exchange of ideas has always been central to Creative Time’s mission, and thus we do not participate in cultural boycotts (CT’s Statement of Commitment to Universal Human Rights and Free Expression). We believe the activist practices as demonstrated in the Living as Form show can contribute to society by raising awareness, help correct injustices done around the globe, honor international standards of human rights, and lead to a more just world.

Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) has traveled to more than a dozen places as part of a tour organized by Independent Curators International (ICI). The exhibition consists of documents downloadable from a hard-drive and has been shown from Mexico to South Korea and Taiwan, and will soon open in North Dakota. Recently ICI has arranged for a tour of the show to two venues in Israel.

Creative Time does not have any financial relationship with the show’s tour.

Update, 6/5 5:59pm: Creative Time has reached out to Hyperallergic with a copy of the above statement. Reached by phone, director Anne Pasternak said that “as an organization with global reach we can’t be part of a boycott, no matter what our personal sympathies may be.” Though she stressed that the show’s itinerary was set by co-organizer ICI, she acknowledged her organization’s failure to notify artists. “When the show opened in Tel Aviv six months ago we were so swamped with Kara Walker, it didn’t register. It should have registered, what we should have done is call the artists then … We are taking a look at our internal processes,” she said.

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