A shot of this year’s Creative Time Summit (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Last Friday, I attended Creative Time’s third annual progressive social practice-centered summit, this year held in conjunction with their Living As Form exhibition. The summit was a day-long affair, stuffed to the gills with presentations about current examples of the intersections of art and politics. Over thirty artists, groups and thinkers presented in quick-fire, 8-minute succession, tackling a wide range of concerns, from the recent protests in Madison against the union-busting legislature to squatting to abortion, among other, less specific but otherwise community-oriented projects.

The timing was right – much mention was made to the on-going Occupy Wall Street protests, and curator Nato Thompson and Creative Time have maintained a show of solidarity with the protests. What is truly inspiring about the summit is its relationship to recent and current news events – the presentations showcased projects that have been on-the-ground participants in some of the most pressing contemporary news issues. Creative Time’s continued dedication to politically motivated social practice is commendable, especially in such tumultuous times as these. If nothing else, the summit functions as a spotlight on these practices that might otherwise get overlooked for being too location or issue-specific.

A common criticism I’ve heard of the summit was that a number of the presentations seemed only very vaguely affiliated with art (or Art), and while I can understand that concern, I don’t believe a strong insistence on what counts as art has been important to Thompson. I understand the practices discussed as all utilizing artistic strategies of intervention in society. The active results of less-visually arts creating projects, such as the presenter Women on Waves’ seafaring abortion clinics may not be considered art themselves, but their creation and development demonstrate a mode of thinking that stems from interventionist artistic practice. While discussing the nature and politics of aesthetics is certainly an important and worthwhile endeavor, the summit’s focus on what the practices do over their artistic implications is a value that I heartily share.

However, by nature of being so entrenched in discussion of progressive action, a summit of this sort leaves itself vulnerable to much of the criticality it adopts. Professor Shannon Jackson mentioned in her presentation a tendency of hybrid art projects attracting un-hybrid audiences, which resonated strongly with me. From the very beginning, I’ve wondered for whom is this summit. Looking at the roster of presenters and the audience at NYU’s Skirball Center, it seemed to be a somewhat homogeneous crowd. The presenters often spoke with a certain expectation of political and professional homogeneity in mind, referencing a shared left-leaning politics or commitment to careers as artists.

Presenters at the Creative Time Summit (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Moments like those references to a “we” that the audience was all supposedly apart of helped solidify a sense of community but also one of insularity. The people present were those who could afford to take the better part of a Friday off of work. Sponsored student groups were mentioned, and there did seem to be a range of ages present. Also notable is the international scope of presenting artists. It’s clear that Creative Time tried to have a collection of presenters from a diversity of backgrounds, though that diversity seemed to manifest in a sharp up-tick of Eastern artists in the final section of presenters. My friend and I each did the standard, if unscientific, how’s-my-ethnicity-represented count – I had four patently black presenters to her lone one Latino. I’m confident that many of the groups presented encompass and work with a diversity of people, but it’s hard for me not to notice these things at mass events like this, especially when we also experience a lack of racial diversity amongst us in the audience.

This further highlighted for me the insularity of the crowd. We were all there to hear about what art can do for communities, to affect change and mend conflicts – but is the point to build our morale and count our resources in the fights against economic inequality, decreasing civil liberties and a dehabilitating lack of community resources? Or might we be better served in establishing stronger coalitions in spite of professional or political affiliations? In essence, is there a value in this sort of preaching to the choir, or how do we address building more hybrid audiences? This question has been raised time and again, but I haven’t seen much evidence that we’re getting closer to solving it.

A related aspect that I believe Creative Time is trying to grapple with but has yet to find a strongly effective solution to is in building a space for conversation. Background admitted: I helped organize the first Creative Time summit in 2009, and at this inaugural summit, I managed the conversation room, which ran concurrently with the summit. The conversation room was meant to be a place where audience members could come in and have more intimate dialogues with presenters, who would come in as a part of the thematic section they had presented on. However, the main problem with that set up was that whoever was in the conversation room missed out on the presenters continuing in the main room. Creative Time nixed the conversation room for subsequent summits, and this year built in sessions for dialogue with artists exhibiting in Living As Form. However, the discrepancy between those who attended the summit and those attending the Living As Form events seems not yet to have bridged that disconnect, although time will tell how well this year’s conversations proceed.

A shot from the 2009 summit conversation room, with me in the middle (photo via creativetime.org)

In the end, the Creative Time summit presents a great opportunity for addressing the purposes and potentialities of artistic practice and strategies. While flawed, and not without compromise – how jarring is it to hear Alan W. Moore talk about squatters fighting against re-development inside a building belonging to the ever-encroaching NYU? – the summit puts the spotlight on practitioners focused on important social change, encouraging a community of artists and audiences alike to step up to the challenges of facing our social circles and build further.

The Creative Time Summit: Living as Form took place on September 23, 2011 at the NYU SKirball Center for the Performing Arts(566 LaGuardia Place, at Washington Square South, New York). The Living as Form exhibition is open to the public from September 24 to October 16 at the historic Essex Street Market (southeast corner of Essex and Delancey Streets, NY)

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Janelle Grace

Janelle Grace is the #TalkBackTuesday editor of our tumblelog Hyperallergic LABS. In some of her previous professional lives, she's written essays for the...