Hot Topic Alert: Creative Time’s “Revolutions in Public Practice”

November 4, 2009 · Print This Article

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In a piece titled Public Opinion written late last week for Artforum.com, Claire Bishop reports on Creative Time’s Summit on “Revolutions in Public Practice” held at the New York Public Library a few weeks ago. The summit presented an overview of current practices that encompass “everything from participatory performance to allotment squatting to socially conscious photography,” as Bishop described it. At the summit, artists such Vic Muniz, Harrell Fletcher, Tania Bruguera, Rene Gabri (hey Rene!), Dara Greenwald, Thomas Hirschhorn, Maria Lind, Francisca Insulza, Liam Gillick and numerous others (including this week’s podcast guests Temporary Services) made short presentations of current works and related projects.

Bishop offered a somewhat skeptical and occasionally snarky take on the proceedings. In particular she questioned the Summit’s use of the word ‘revolution,’ given that many of the practices she observed were in her opinion not exactly new. She argued,

There was a striking similarity between many of the presentations and 1970s gestures of institutional escape, as well as to early-’90s “new genre” public art (the term coined by artist Suzanne Lacy, who also spoke at the summit). The big difference between then and now was the staggeringly dry and soulless language deployed by many of today’s artists who took to the podium. At countless points in the day, my eyes glazed over to the sound of earnest monologues announcing, “My practice is about creating platforms for a critical interface with overlooked spaces, networking with local communities to provide self-organized resources and coproducing social relations . . .” Aaagh!

Bishop summarily dismissed the projects presented by Vic Muniz and Harrell Fletcher “for their reality t.v. sentimentality” while chiding the Summit for its “predominant tone of collective agreement” and overall lack of “friction.” She concluded:

“At its best, the “Revolutions” summit offered an immensely valuable overview of a wide range of engaged practices otherwise lacking visibility in New York, while the discursive format provided an appropriate alternative to the exhibition as a means of presenting this often visually evasive work. Socially, it was dynamic—and in this respect, it had much in common with the energy of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s marathons. On the other hand, the summit was only an overview and did nothing to problematize “public practice” as a direction in contemporary art. It assumed (along with many of the positions presented) that art as a discipline can and should be marshaled toward social justice. I would have liked to see more pondering of the specifically artistic competences that can be deployed toward these ends.”

In the Talkback section, Muniz, Fletcher, and several others weigh in with dissenting assessments of the Summit – and here is where the topic gets truly interesting. Creative Time curator and event co-organizer Nato Thompson offers a particularly thoughtful and measured rebuttal which, among other issues, questioned the usefulness of Bishop’s approach to the event– an approach that, in this instance, at least, may have missed the point entirely. Thompson explained,

We chose this format so that the work could speak for itself and the audience would be left to consider all the problems and solutions they provide. Another motivation was simply to provide a platform in NYC for this type of work. Certainly, there is much more to be said, and we intend to provide more spaces for this work. Ultimately, we need to re-engage the critical project of thinking through culture’s relationship to the issues and concerns of everyday life. We must stop this antipathy for thinking and market friendly pseudo-populism that has swept the critical stage (while admitting the disaster that jargon-laden Marxist art criticism has wreaked on political art) and instead, take seriously the potential for the arts to participate in the concerns that actually matter in the world. From this difficult vantage point (that is how projects actually transform the social landscape), the discussions around political public practice may possess an urgency capable of pushing the discussion beyond the prescribed domain of art.”

Go read the article and subsequent exchanges for yourselves, if you haven’t already. The discussion has generated some real heat, and should be of particular interest to artists and other cultural workers who frame their work as a form of “public practice” rather than as art with a capital A.

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