The 2015 Creative Time Summit in New York City, a two day long conference that took place on November 13–14, focused on the current political and artistic musings of artists and activists alike. Last year’s summit marked CT’s eighth international conference “devoted to exploring the intersection between art and social justice”  in the last seven years, and was the first to take place in the borough of Brooklyn at the beautiful and historic Boys and Girls High School Campus in Bedford–Stuyvesant. The topic was “Curriculum.”
It should be noted that this was CT’s second summit on this subject. The first took place at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and its modus, as CT’s Chief Curator Nato Thompson slyly revealed in his opening remarks in the school’s auditorium, took on a more “meta” approach to investigating the concept of “curriculum.” Not resting on its laurels, this summit would be less abstract and more concrete, focusing on the education system in the US both nationally and locally, highlighting issues of student debt, institutionalism, racial discrimination, gentrification, the Global South, and alternative practices in pedagogy.
The summit opened with a presentation by Rashanna Jackman, a recent graduate of The Research and Service High School at Boys and Girls, and the recipient of the Remarkable Achievement Award by the NYC Department of Education. Her rousing speech spoke to her experience in NYC’s education system, explaining how her peers and family thought she would never amount to anything. Through perseverance and self-motivation she became one of the top students in her class. Riding on the clichéd phrase, “that you should always believe in yourself, even when no one else will,” Rashanna, through her great poise and nervous pacing, made the idiom her own, and her words were nothing less than inspiring.
Other highlights included Nikole Hannah-Jones’s presentation on school re-segregation and the remarkable benefits of integration in the public school system in the US ; Kemi Ilesami’s presentation on the Laundromat Project based in Harlem, focusing on bringing art and art programming into community spaces—such as Laundromats, street corners, etc.—across NYC; and Hans Haacke’s presentation on the Committee to Save to Cooper Union (CSCU) and the students efforts to reclaim Cooper Union as a tuition-free school.
One of the more impressive aspects of the summit however, was the introduction of the Classroom Sessions: a multitude of “open discussions, workshops and roundtables” for the audience to choose from after the lunch break, and set in the actual classrooms at Boys and Girls. This promoted a more concentrated and intimate setting for both the audience and presenters to exchanges ideas, and to discuss issues of race, education, and of course social practice. I attended artist Simone Leigh’s roundtable discussion on the first day of the summit. Leigh also gave a chilling presentation on her Free People’s Medical Clinic (2015), a project inspired by the work of the United Order of Tents (a secret society of black nurses/medical practitioners that formed after the Civil War), which staged a free clinic for a month at the Stuyvesant Mansion in Bed-Stuy, offering free HIV screenings, yoga classes, acupuncture and homeopathic services, all while bringing more attention to the role of black women in the history of medicine and public health in the US. In her roundtable she prompted the group (approximately twenty of us; predominantly white female) how she could continue the project as a more sustainable and underground program.
Leigh would go on to argue that she believed that there was some type of efficacy in the secrecy of these underground health programs such as the United Order of Tents and the Black Panther’s Free Breakfast for Children Program. The discussion went astray and centered on the topic (and existence) of a “white audience,” after a mixed-race French woman from Guiana refused to believe in a racial binary of a “black and white audience,” despite evidence these racial binaries do have historical antecedence in the social fabric of the US, which by and large includes art discourse and viewership. The woman in question came from the perspective of a post-race, European idealism that refuses to see race in the social context of the art world, as if art exists in a cultural and historical vacuum . Nevertheless, the impact of Leigh’s intentions resonated very strongly with me. She ended her roundtable by saying that she would probably start a similar program to Free People’s Medical Clinic, but in complete secrecy with a small group of friends. As if to completely divorce the work from the order of art, Leigh was convinced that these health programs would be more advantageous to the community if it were less visible to the overall public—especially the art world. How to achieve such a thing (as an artist) is the million-dollar question.
These engagements with the artists and presenters call attention to Grant Kester’s essay “Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework For Littoral Art,” (1998) in which Kester defines “dialogical aesthetics” as:
[A] discursive aesthetic based on the possibility of a dialogical relationship that breaks down the conventional distinction between artist, artwork and audience—a relationship that allows the viewer to “speak back” to the artist in certain ways, and in which this reply becomes in effect a part of the “work” itself.
I am almost certain that Kester was on the minds of the organizers of the summit, and this notion of “dialogical aesthetics” was brought to bear quite nicely I might add. However, with response to Leigh’s inquiry on the advantages of secrecy, privacy and the invisibility of these projects to the public eye, there was shift in this discursive exchange that precludes the participation of an audience or viewer that is not without precedence.
I am reminded of the Austrian art collective WochenKlausur. Founded by Wolfgang Zinggl in 1993, the group proffers social interventions as its artistic medium, and “at the invitation of art institutions, develops and realizes proposals—small-scale but very concrete—for improving sociopolitical deficits.”  In one of their projects, Shelter For Drug-Addicted Women (1994), the members of the group invited drug experts and politicians to discuss the issues plaguing these women privately on a boat in Lake Zurich. These private conservations proved to be very productive, according to the group, as they encouraged the participants to have a free open discussion, without being scrutinized by the press or the public. As a result, WK’s work, in theory, gives fodder to Leigh’s belief in the advantages of underground movements.
Moreover, one of the many currents that ran throughout the summit was this idea of removing the work from the public eye of the art world, or even further to divorce it from the concept of art entirely. For Instance, Laura Hanna and Astra Taylor from The Debt Collective touted at the end of their presentation that their project was not an example of social practice but social activism. Social practice is a concept tinged with the overriding tension between art as social commentary and art as a form of sustainable social change. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the phrases “parachuting in” or “helicoptering in” are all too common when referring to social practice as ineffective models for sustainable social change (i.e. simple artistic gestures). Moreover the skepticism around social practice’s efficacy to bring about actual social justice is shared by both the doubters and the practitioners.
The notion that artists, or let’s say creative types, have the political and cultural caché to enact social change is optimistic if not solipsistic at best; however it’s all the more enticing for the select few that believe in it, want to believe it, or even more, are incapable of reconciling their feelings on the importance of using art as a mechanism for social change. Here, the term “art” is used loosely, only to encompass everything from performance to the minutia of daily life, which makes the word all the more frustrating and annoying to use with conviction and precision. It’s the snobbish equivalent of the word “porn”—impossible to describe but easy to identify, perhaps. And yet “porn” may be the perfect metaphor to describe social practice. Albeit a crude analogy, and possibly a logical fallacy, there is something interesting about porn being this nebulous thing, so difficult to describe, yet immediately recognizable, and more than often is experienced in the most private of settings. But I digress.
Lastly, one of the open discussions that I attended at the summit, and the one that I was most interested in, was “Writing on Socially Engaged Art.” The panel was moderated by Thompson and featured artist Chloë Bass, and critics Sue Bell Yank and Ben Davis. At one point, I asked about the issue of visibility and invisibility within the context of socially engaged art, which quickly got heady when an Italian gentleman in the audience went on a harangue on the visibility of social practice in the mainstream art world. Nonetheless, one thing that struck me was Ben Davis’s discussion about the difficulty of writing about social practice without it sounding like a press release (something I strongly sympathize with). For years now I have been grappling with the idea of writing about social practice, thinking that I could bring new critical insights to the movement, but also a new kind of visibility to an underexposed art form. What I realized from attending the summit is that my writings about social practice were more or less empty gestures. It is impossible to have any real cultural significance through this type of writing without actually being involved in the work to help shape and improve our local communities. I was looking from the outside in, not knowing anything about the world I wished to engage with—I was naive. And in principle, social practice can only be fully experienced as an insider, a participant.
In the end, the summit was a tremendous success, insofar as it offered a dynamic space to exchange ideas about education, art, and activism both openly and privately. It also served as a foil for social practice writ large, looking at a mega art conference as an example of socially engaged art. Unfortunately however, the summit did not attempt to resolve the tension between visibility and invisibility that exists in these art projects, and in some ways only widened the gap between social activism and art, which I doubt was the point. But maybe there was no clear aim to the summit, other than creating a space for dialogue and exchange. Creative Time, as both an institution that relies heavily on media attention, fundraising, and publicity; and an institution that supports radical forms of artistic engagements—that occasionally undermine the notion of visibility—embodies this same tension. It’s a contradiction, but perhaps a happy one. It’s one that forgoes looking for a concrete answer to social problems, but instead continually stretches the limits of how to better help (and build) communities through art—or what have you.
Terence is a writer and BOMB Magazine’s Oral History Fellow. He lives in Brooklyn.
1. “Summit Overview,” on Creative Time’s official website, accessed January 25th, 2016, http://creativetime.org/summit/overview/
2. Jones is best known for This American Life, episode 562: “The Problem We All Live With,” her report on the accidental desegregation program that was launched in the same school district that Michael Brown attended in Missouri.
3. This came as response to Leigh confessing that the primary audience for her work was white, despite stating earlier in her presentation that her intended audience for her work are exclusively black women.
4. “Method,” on WochenKlausur’s official website, accessed January 25th, 2016, http://www.wochenklausur.at/methode.php?lang=e