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How Culture Shapes the Contemporary City
Nato Thompson on Urbanism, Social Practice, and the Creative Time Summit

By Paul Schmelzer

While global cities have hosted high-profile pushes for change—from space-use protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to Occupy Wall Street’s charge against wealth inequity in Zuccotti Park—it’s a less headline-grabbing movement that aims to dramatically alter urban living: movement of people from rural areas to urban centers. The 2010 US Census found 12 percent growth in urban populations over the previous decade, with more than 80 percent of all Americans now living in cities. The trend is matched globally, with urban populations expected to double by mid-century. By the year 2050, some 6.5 billion people worldwide will live in cities, according to World Health Organization projections. This fact alone suggests new, possibly radical, thinking will be required—about sustainability, urban planning, even democratic institutions and economic justice.

Against this backdrop, New York–based public art organization Creative Time has focused the theme of its 2013 Creative Time Summit on the city, addressing issues such as gentrification, urban innovation, and community building. The October 25 to 26 convening—titled “Art, Place & Dislocation in the 21st Century City”—is the fifth for a nonprofit best known for organizing large-scale public art projects that intervene in the life of the city, from the placement of Gran Fury’s billboards of kissing same-sex couples on New York buses in the 1980s to Jenny Holzer’s 2004–2005 work, in which iconic texts were projected on landmarks and strung behind an airplane above Manhattan, to last weekend’s Between the Door and the Street, a project by Suzanne Lacy that’s the organization’s largest participatory art project ever.

In anticipation of the 2013 summit, Walker web editor Paul Schmelzer talks with Creative Time curator Nato Thompson about the summit, the perils and promise of movements in the arts such as place-making and public practice, and the role artists can play in shaping the healthy cities of tomorrow.

Paul Schmelzer

Creative Time is primarily known as a public art organization, but it appears that public practice is growing in importance. Is the summit evidence of an evolution at Creative Time to better embrace public practice as a facet of public art?

Nato Thompson

I don’t want to say we’ve redirected our mission. Historically speaking, Creative Time has addressed political issues through public art. In the ’80s, for instance, Creative Time was very involved with the AIDS crisis and artists dealing with that in a public manner. That said, public practice is certainly a compelling genre that I myself am deeply invested in. Art always finds new ways of working that we’re very open to. Artists matter to society, and public spaces should be kept for free expression: these key values will always be part of Creative Time, regardless of the genre we’re working in.

Schmelzer

What do artists uniquely bring to the table for social change work?

Thompson

One of the most important things about contemporary life is that there’s a delicate game people play between open-endedness and directness—between the didactic and the poetic, if you will. Activism is often denoted by its directly didactic tendencies, its direct speaking methods. But, at times, I think people are turned off by that. One of the things the arts offers is a non-direct way of talking to you. Things have multiple meanings. There’s space for you, as a listener or participant, to make up your own mind. That’s a kind of freedom the arts offer.

The early part of the 21st century will be denoted as a period where culture has become the dominant language of the world. In fact, the skill sets that were once reserved for artists are being deployed in every discipline there is. Representation, performativity, reflexivity. Things that come out of drawing, really, are the skills that every PR department uses, every design department uses. That’s to say that the skill sets of the arts are, broadly speaking, part of the tool sets of everyday life. Which is good news and bad news. For some folks it really threatens the autonomy of the art world because it feels like if everyone is doing art, what’s left for Art? That’s the glass is half empty. But the glass half full is: the arts have deep relevance to every day life and speak a language that a lot of people get. And if it can drop its self-referential hermeticism, it can actually wake up to the fact that it’s a very powerful political language.

Schmelzer

I was glad to find that last year’s summit wasn’t just a bunch of artists sharing information with each other about their “really cool projects.” There was plenty of that, but I also met a lot of in-the-trenches activists who might not consider their work art, including physicians working on public health issues in the developing world and activists from Occupy in New York. Is this kind of cross-pollination explicit in the summit’s mission?

Thompson

I think of the summit every year as a new form of calisthenics. Stretching what’s possible. In its first year, the summit was very much inside the art-world language. The aim was to push the agenda that social practice even existed or was important—or, to be even more conservative, that artists doing political work might be important. But in five years, the horizon has stretched. It’s almost like a becoming community as opposed to mixing communities. There are a lot of artists and activists out there who understand crossing disciplines. Their own lives kind of blend between these fields. They do some activist work, and they do some art work. This diversity of approaches demonstrates a kind of dissonance and harmony that makes the possibility of a new kind of community happening.

Schmelzer

There are certainly more people who are saying, “Well, I’m not really an artist, but art is one of the tools in my box.” Theaster Gates comes to mind. He’s well received in both the visual arts and performing arts worlds, but in some of the interviews I’ve read, he seems less interested in sharply delineating his art from his work in the community.

Thompson

Right. Or Teddy Cruz—the architect, not the Tea Party guy—who’s doing urban theory around understandings of art and what art offers and the production of alternative communities in cities. I don’t even know what to call a lot of this work, frankly, because it’s so radically interdisciplinary. We find so many people today who are working across a range of disciplines to get stuff done and to make expressions in the world. The numbers are astonishing. And it’s happening everywhere, in any city I go to. I live in Philadelphia, and a lot of folks I meet won’t even call their work art. They’re just people doing gardening projects, or they’re people doing work with disabled people. But they use a lot of skills sets that artists are using as well.

Schmelzer

I was thinking the other day about global warming and population growth—about the very real possibility that my 18-month-old son will be an adult on a planet that, for the first time, will be shared by 10 billion people. Then I thought: wow, we’re screwed. To accommodate all these people and their needs and address the corresponding environmental impact, we need more than a few smart art projects. We need radical change—and quickly.

Thompson

Because my personality sounds so positive, I think I may come off as naively positive about everything. I’m not like, “Yay, yay, yay, social practice is the best thing that ever happened!” I’m not like that. I just feel like we’re entering an interesting period where there’s a new way of working that crosses disciplines. The questions and the ways to think them through is interesting. It isn’t a question for just artists. It’s a question of all disciplines.

Schmelzer

You’ve just returned from Turkey, where you attended the Istanbul Biennial, and I know that both you personally and Creative Time have been impacted by the thinking of Occupy Wall Street and even Hurricane Sandy and the grassroots response to it. How have movements like Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Gezi—and the public space issues in Istanbul that spawned it—shaped your thinking in formulating this year’s Creative Time Summit?

Thompson

Very much. We were really influenced by Occupy in last year’s summit because it was a real public space question: the occupation of space. In Gezi, it’s much more directly linked to questions of gentrification, which is a little different than Occupy Wall Street, which was about vast inequity, the rights of space, and producing a politics. Gezi was literally started because there were accusations of gentrification of the park in central Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Of course, there are a myriad of issues with Gezi but gentrification featured as one of the prominent concerns. This connection with space is very much on our mind. The biennial was very much about this subject, although it had to readdress itself as the politics became very intense there.

The other thing that’s deeply influenced our thinking is a kind of boosterism regarding the arts as an economic generator right now—and it’s been growing. I consider it a latent result of Richard Florida [author of The Rise of the Creative Class]: the arts have grabbed onto it and started talking about the arts as a way to revitalize economies. We hear this stuff, but, like a lot of boosterism, it’s not nuanced. It doesn’t address the possibility of such economic development displacing people or questions about class and race. At the same time, we do think that the arts have a role in the composition of the city and that cultural projects do change the city. They’re not neutral, and those politics need to be thought through carefully.

Schmelzer

Are you talking about the current boom in city-making, place-making, creative place-making? Not to be too literal, but those terms seem to suggest a focus on “making”—i.e., building structures and plazas instead of working more organically—than on addressing ways that we all can feel at home and comfortable to be active in democracy.

Thompson

Certainly there’s a lot of room for growth in this field. Everyone’s tiptoeing into it with their own vocabulary. But I know a lot of folks in the place-making movement are very interested in diversity and in exploring how to make a city livable in a Jane Jacobs kind of way. I think that we just need to collectively work on the language and tease out the complexities of the discussion. Because if you say to anybody, “Hey, are you interested in producing an equitable city and thinking through how the arts can participate in that?” everyone would say, “Yes, that’s what I’m interested in.” Right? That is to say, from this position we have a common ground to approach the questions.

What’s amazing to me about it is that there’s a general acceptance that the arts actually have a use in the world all of a sudden. It was only a few years ago when the arts were considered radically ineffectual at anything. So somehow a paradigm switched.

Schmelzer

There are plenty of developers and city planners who are very interested in art. The City of St. Paul, for instance, has a crew of city artists in residence—mostly doing community-based or social practice work—that attend some of the same meetings as, say, public works officials. So that suggests something has definitely changed.

Thompson

Most certainly, this kind of more structural work poses new possibilities and concerns. What’s tricky with this kind of work, though, is that you do start rubbing with power. For example, the artist Laurie Jo Reynolds, who worked on closing Tamms Supermax Prison, worked closely with the Illinois governor’s office and Republican and Democratic members of Congress, because that’s politics. Some folks in the arts are very suspicious of anything that deals with power in any way. When it comes to thinking about the role the arts can play in the city, it’s good to be aware that this stuff is messy. But at the same time, it’s an opportunity to really set the agenda in terms of equity, race, class, gender, human rights.

Schmelzer

One thing I keep thinking about is the history of public art—how the Percent for Art movement really affected what we see and how we view art in public spaces. It really affected a whole generation of artists. How do you think today’s boom in funding for creative place-making and city-making is affecting art in cities?

Thompson

As much as you might say it’s a boom, it’s nothing compared to the boom that is Percent for Art. Percent for Art is a magical thing because it’s such a guaranteed part of a city’s budget. There’s really not that kind of guarantee for public practice work, economically speaking. Some foundations have begun to support it, but I think it’s radically disproportionate to the money pushed toward Percent for Art. A lot of cities don’t want to get rid of their Percent for Art program because they understand that once you get rid of an arts program, it won’t be replaced with another arts program. It will just disappear.

But there are a lot of smart people working in cities, and we’re beginning to create a language for how to think about this stuff a bit more critically—as opposed to just setting up a gallery district and thinking that’s going to revitalize a broken neighborhood. One great model is Project Row Houses in Houston. You look at someone like Rick Lowe, whose interest is less in investing in the places than in investing in people. People come first, and the place is infused by that.

It’s a really amazing example not just because it’s an artist-initiated project, but because of the long-standing relationship that he has with the community. That it vacillates between an international reputation and deeply local reputation. That it facilitated relationships between the local community and artists moving through the space. That they developed a plan for single mothers to get support while they were going to college—childcare and housing. These small initiatives that grow over time radically affect a neighborhood. It wasn’t just a place; it was a place that was very involved with the residents surrounding it. I would also say—I’m only repeating what Rick Lowe says—these are also not scalable things. That is to say, it exists at a certain size and then it’s maxed out.

Schmelzer

A question about poetics: I’m reading Vishaan Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities, which posits that hyper-dense city living is a solution to many of the world’s problems. He writes that sprawl is the direct result of both government subsidies for the suburban lifestyle—which requires highways, gas stations, and amenities in formerly rural places—and a complicit media that, since World War II, has championed suburban and rural life while demonizing urban living. He cites anti-city rhetoric in films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Bob the Builder, and he points to Blade Runner’s dystopic city as bad PR for the city of the future. So if Hollywood has helped to sell a pro-suburban, anti-city fairytale, how can artists help shape a pro-city counter-narrative, which is hopefully pro-environment, pro-diversity, et cetera?

Thompson

It’s a good question. But it’s not just the work of artists. It’s funny: I can’t tell who’s being more effective these days, the anarchists or the artists. Because anarchists came up with all kinds of stuff that is a part of everyday life now, like bike shares and book shares and other ideas about cooperative living. Have you noticed that’s much more in the language of contemporary city living? That never used to even exist. People would be like, “Oh my god, that would never work. Everyone would steal a bike.” Well, guess what? It works.

This word “artist” is funny because I think some artists are good at telling us what’s fucked up and some artists are good at telling us what’s great and what’s possible. At the same time, certain environmentalists are good at telling us what’s possible. There’s a realm of science where there’s hypotheses. You can make hypothetical statements, and you can dream. Basically all sciences can dream. That’s part of the sciences. I don’t want to limit it to artists because I think there is a way of working across a range of disciplines. Economics, right? There are certainly plenty of economists who take capitalism as a given and then they just do the math based on that. But there are other economists that say, “What if this kind of economy was put in place? Or these are different ways we could exchange or produce value.” So the horizon is open for people. Although artists at times are very good at it, I must admit. Because they’re crazy. Some of them. And that is good.

Sometimes when I’m pressed on what the arts are, I’m like, it’s just a place for people who just don’t fit in anywhere. You know: “I was just too crazy at my job at the law firm, and so I got into art about contracts.”

Sometimes I think it’s one of these annoying tautologies. When I worked on [the exhibition] Living as Form we used this phrase from Donald Rumsfeld: “If you have a problem and you can’t solve it, make it bigger.” But it seems like with these art and society things, we’re always defending that it has to be art. But sometimes it sounds absurd. It’s only an artwork because someone famous in the gallery world did it. And everyone’s like, “How do we know it’s art?” “Because so and so is famous in the art world.” That’s about it. But that seems like the most stupid defense I’ve ever heard. It sounds like crazy talk. But I think the fear is that if we don’t hold this line then our institutions lose all point.

Schmelzer

It is interesting that a leader at one of the most prestigious art institutions in New York City is saying this.

Thompson

I think it really forces us to take stock of what is it that the arts are doing. Because, in fact, there is a lot. I just think it’s really a question of vast hybridity and interdisciplinarity now. Because we can produce these platforms for a lot of people. I think of it like ecologies, where you can point out—like at the summit, as you were saying earlier—that these social justice organizations are doing this and these people who call themselves artists are doing this. You can see differences; you can also see similarities. Then we have to be unafraid to build the language as we go. Because there are scientists who are doing stuff that looks a lot like art right now. In some ways I think that’s how TED has gotten so huge: because the world is hungry for ideas. Hungry. And that is, like TED, a good and bad thing.

Schmelzer

There may be something for the rest of us to learn from TED, in terms of making ideas compelling and digestible.

Thompson

I think we have a lot to learn from them. When ice tea got really big, Lipton was nowhere to be found. That’s what I think about with the arts. Somehow the arts are really huge, but the art organization is nowhere to be found. Everyone is in on the culture game now. I don’t want to be fighting for the crumbs and trying to pretend like only the art world knows what is going on.

“If art can drop its self-referential hermeticism, it can actually wake up to the fact that it’s a very powerful political language.”

“I can’t tell who’s being more effective these days, the anarchists or the artists. Because anarchists came up with all kinds of stuff that is a part of everyday life now, like bike shares and book shares.”

“Everyone is in on the culture game now. I don’t want to be fighting for the crumbs and trying to pretend like only the art world knows what is going on.”

Jenny Holzer, For the City, 2005

Photo: Charlie Samuel, courtesy Creative Time

Nato Thompson at the 2012 Creative Time Summit

Photo: Casey Kelbaugh, courtesy Creative Time

Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do, 1989

Photo courtesy Creative Time

Suzanne Lacy, Between the Door and the Street, 2013

Initiated by artist Suzanne Lacy, this project brought some 400 women (and some men) to stoops along one block in Brooklyn on October 19, 2013. Presented by Creative Time and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, participants spent the day engaged in unscripted conversations about issues related to gender politics.

Photo: Jonathan Dorado, courtesy Creative Time and Brooklyn Museum

A meal catered by Conflict Kitchen at Judson Church, 2012

Conflict Kitchen serves only foods from countries with which the US is in conflict. At the 2012 Creative Time Summit, staff from the Pittsburgh-based restaurant catered a meal from North and South Korea.

Architect Teddy Cruz presenting at TEDGlobal, 2013

Photo: TED Conference, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Slavoj Žižek speaks at the 2012 Creative Time Summit

Photo: Casey Kelbaugh, courtesy Creative Time

Martha Rosler discusses her Meta-Monumental Garage Sale at MoMA at the 2012 Creative Time Summit

Photo: Casey Kelbaugh, courtesy Creative Time

Laurie Jo Reynolds

Reynolds, along with Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani, will be awarded the 2013 Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change at the 2013 Creative Time Summit.

Photo: Mayumi Lake, courtesy Creative Time

Mothers of men in isolation at Tamms supermax prison protest outside the facility (since closed)

Photo: Adrianne Dues, via Creative Time Reports

Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe at the 2010 Creative Time Summit

Project Row Houses, Houston

Photo: Eric Hester

Social theorist Slavoj Žižek holds up a banner in solidarity with the 2012 summit’s theme, “Confronting Inequity.”

Photo: Sam Horine, courtesy Creative Time