Visual Art: 5th Column
Creative Time Summit Ania Szremski

We are pleased to introduce the periodic feature The Fifth Column: an internal subversion of our ordered state that will take varied forms. This week, in place of four topics, we present only one (the Creative Time Summit Occupy the Future happening in Washington, DC), and in lieu of reviews, a stream of text (an interview with curator Nato Thompson and live-blogging from the summit by 4Columns managing editor Ania Szremski).

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung presents Shit Wars at the Creative Time Summit.

Saturday, October 15
Afternoon sessions: Video: Adel Abidin, Love Song #3, The Case for Nonsense (Gelitin), Section 5: Enter the Anthropocene, Report From: Flint, USA, Video & Demonstration: Shit Wars, Performance: Debates on Division, Section 6: Troubled Democracy

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Things got weird on Saturday afternoon at the Creative Time Summit. In a video by Iraqi artist Adel Abidin, a young blonde starlet seductively swayed as she uncomprehendingly sang a song commissioned by Saddam Hussein glorifying his regime (the artist told the chanteuse that she was performing a traditional love song). Next, the Austrian art collective Gelitin took the stage. Dressed in cartoonish garments that were filled with balloons, the group’s four members bumbled around, groaned, wailed, and burped in front of a projected video of themselves stripped nude in a sculpture studio, slathering their bodies with what appeared to be plaster, and fucking lumps of clay in various ways. (Their installment of “The Case for Nonsense” thematic was assuredly the closest in spirit to Dada.) Later, Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung presented his video game, Shit Wars, starring Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and other figures from US politics and pop culture. In one of the levels, the player can use a dildo to attack a giant figure of Trump disguised as the Joker, a form of revenge for the presidential hopeful’s infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” remark. 

But interspersed within the sometimes pornographic absurdity were more pragmatic concerns. The “Enter the Anthropocene” session featured various approaches to tackling environmental issues through creative means. The presentations ranged from straightforward grassroots mobilization—May Boeve’s keynote talk on the initiative’s campaign against global warming—to dreamier processes: Finnish artist Terike Haapoja gave an intriguing talk on a series of installations that imagined granting the right of personhood to non-human agents (i.e., nature and animals). Chinese artist Nut Brother’s evocative Project Dust entailed him vacuuming the air in Beijing for 100 days, then transforming the dust he collected into a brick that he asked a mason to lay in the foundation of a building.

Like yesterday, the afternoon ended on a heavy note with the “Troubled Democracy” session. DC-based writer Thomas Frank described the transformation of the Democratic Party since the Clinton years—a move from at least purporting to defend the interests of the workers and the middle class, to instead championing the highly educated professionals of the knowledge economy. For Frank, this transformation inevitably created the current economic deprivation and the intense backlash against liberalism. “That’s our choice,” he cautioned—between “angry right-wing intolerance or inequality forever.” 

Qatar-based Sudanese cartoonist Khalid Albaih’s discussion was sincere and introspective, as the artist grappled with what it means for his work (which circulates through social-media platforms) to be part of the sometimes-insidious attention economy of the internet. Finally, Carrie Mae Weems wrapped up the day with a beautiful mediation on the Antigone story and its resonance in the present, stating that, like Antigone, “It occurred to me that I wanted to bury my brothers,” referring to the scores of young black people killed by police in recent years. She movingly recited a litany of the names and ages of some of the fallen, ending her talk with an exhortation to vote in the impending US presidential elections.

In his closing remarks, Creative Time artistic director Nato Thompson sagely noted that the wide diversity of positions explored during the first two days of the summit will likely occasion opportunities for friction and, potentially, divisiveness—but he urged the attendees to reflect on these differences with grace and a desire for understanding. This was perhaps the most meaningful takeaway from the event so far—which has functioned less as a call to action (though plenty of those were made), than as a chance to compare and contrast a range of practices that are usually encountered in isolation.

Vaginal Davis at the Creative Time Summit.

Saturday, October 15
Morning sessions: Section 4: Queer and Now, Report From: Ukraine, The Case for Nonsense (Janani Balasubramanian), Video: Excerpt from Political Advertisement IX 1952–2016, Performance: Voices of a People’s History of the United States

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Berlin-based drag queen and “internationally revered intersexed doyenne of intermedia arts and sciences” Vaginal Davis administered a high dose of campy fun to “Queer and Now,” the first session at the Creative Time Summit on Saturday morning. Davis was a little too silly, at times: After performance artist Sheldon Scott’s emotional talk on growing up gay and learning to negotiate sweetness and humor in an often hostile environment, Davis embraced him and asked only, “Why are you so sexy?”—eliciting giggles from the audience, but undercutting the sincerity of Scott’s presentation. At other times, though, the humor worked better. After Baltimore-based Ryan Hammond’s presentation on their ongoing project, Open Source Gendercodes (an attempt to produce plant-based human sex hormones that would be made available in a kind of biological commons), Davis cheerily called Hammond a youthful stem cell and asked if Hammond thought a new species should take over the planet. “We need to invent ourselves as a new species,” Hammond responded—one of the truer statements made at the summit so far.

But the “Queer and Now” section also had its sober moments. Particularly powerful was the talk by Patricia Ariza, one of the few survivors of the leftist Colombian political party Unión Patriótica. (According to Ariza, more than five hundred of its members have been assassinated by government forces.) She related a somber account of the mass violence in Colombia, underscoring the role of women in public art actions against the ongoing brutality.

In the “Report From: Ukraine,” Anna Hutsol of the controversial activist group FEMEN was the first speaker at the summit to acknowledge how difficult it can be to act for change in a climate of fear—she detailed the numbers of FEMEN activists (including herself) who have been beaten, arrested, or forced to emigrate, and admitted that there were moments when she was too afraid to continue protesting. Unfortunately, her advice on how to confront that fear (“Just believe in what you do”) was more hackneyed than heartfelt. Also unfortunate was the Islamophobic rhetoric around FEMEN’s anti-hijab protest that was highlighted in Hutsol’s presentation—an offensive and discordant note at a summit that has otherwise striven to be deeply inclusive and intersectional.

Speculative fiction author Janani Balasubramanian re-enlivened the mood with their charming “Case for Nonsense” talk. Beginning with the example of Schrödinger’s cat, Balasubramanian made a case for the arts as a portal to and depiction of other universes. More poetic speculation than actual argument, the discussion was (like the business of art-making itself, in Balasubramian’s words) “at once tremendously serious and very funny.” 

The morning was rounded out with a video by artists Antoni Muntadas and Marshall Reese, Excerpts from Political Advertisement IX 19522016. Every year since 1984, the duo has updated this compilation of sometimes chilling, sometimes hilarious US presidential campaign videos, which seem to grow steadily more ominous with the passage of time. Finally, the theater piece Voices of a People’s History of the United States (built on the book by historian Howard Zinn and directed by Anthony Arnove) sought to give public expression to voices typically repressed by dominant historical narratives. 

Alicia Garza speaking at the Creative Time Summit.

Creative Time Summit: Friday, October 14
Afternoon sessions: Performance: Step Afrika!, Section 2: Do It Yourself, Report From: Washington DC, Video: O Abuso Da História, The Case for Nonsense, Section 3: Under Siege

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After an exuberant step dance performance by Step Afrika!, Friday afternoon at the Creative Time Summit opened with “Section 2: Do It Yourself.” A sense of hopefulness continued to permeate the afternoon discussions—starting with a keynote talk by DC-based punk musician and label owner Ian MacKaye, who gave a sweetly personal account of his trajectory within the punk scene in DC. Next, a member of the San Juan-based Casa Taft 169 initiative described how the collective squats and rehabilitates abandoned lots and buildings while pushing to influence the Puerto Rican legislature on these so-called “public nuisance” properties, in order to legalize their use. Eva Barois De Caevel gave a particularly engaging talk on Raw Material in Dakar, Senegal—a contemporary art space founded in 2011 and run by six women that is reinventing itself this year as an arts academy. But while all the reports offered up efforts that were admirable and, at times, inspiring, they also raised unanswered concerns—when we go about “doing it” ourselves, are we absolving local governments of their welfare mandates? To what extent do these kinds of projects unwittingly contribute to neoliberal gentrification forces that could end up harming the very communities these initiatives intend to advocate for?

If those nuances were missing from the cheery “Do It Yourself” session, heavier realities were finally and refreshingly acknowledged in the powerful “Under Siege” segment that closed the day. Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza delivered an incredibly compelling keynote speech on the state-sanctioned violence against people of color in the US, and the necessity and inevitability of a movement like BLM. “Today’s world order was built on communities under siege. What happens is those people will and must fight back,” she warned. Later, the Lebanese filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige gave a convincing presentation on tactical artistic strategies for working under threat, describing cinema as a field that allows them to “intrude on reality and reclaim a lost territory.” That territory can be imaginary, or something quite literal—for instance, the pair explained how, when filming Je Veux Voire starring Catherine Deneuve and Rabih Mroué, they finally managed to negotiate access to a border zone with Israel that had previously been barred to them, and even temporarily opened a forbidden road.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta of the New Dehli-based Raqs Media Collective closed the day with what began as a seemingly lighthearted talk on the enormous monuments that are an intrinsic part of nation building. (Especially humorous was a short promotional video of the new Statue of Unity under construction in the Indian state of Gujarat, which purports to be the largest statue in the world.) He pointed out, however, that these statues inevitably crumble and fall, auguring the collapse of the regimes that built them. We must “have the patience to deal with the fragility of power,” Sengupta suggested. “If there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s the higher they build the statues, the harder they will fall.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist speaking at the Creative Time Summit.

Creative Time Summit: Friday, October 14
Morning sessions: Occupy Power, Report from Syria, In Conversation: Dear America, Video: Can I Jump?, Keynote: The Case for Nonsense

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Despite repeated references to Trump’s presidential candidacy and other global disasters, this year’s Creative Time Summit at Washington DC’s historic Lincoln Theatre opened with a notably optimistic tone on Friday morning. Holding forth beneath an arch of superhero cardboard cutouts inspired by international social movements (designed by the DC-based Floating Lab collective), the speakers in the first session, “Occupy Power,” shared their success stories: Photographer and artist Peter Svarzbein related his triumphant bid to run for the city council in El Paso, Texas. The Liberate Tate activist-artist collective announced that in 2017 the Tate galleries would no longer accept funding from oil giant BP. “This is a very misleading panel,” Creative Time artistic director Nato Thompson joked after Liberate Tate’s talk. “Everyone’s got a victory—but ‘occupy power’ is really a universe of losses.”

Those grimmer political realities were underscored by the absence of two speakers from the morning session. Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset (and the first Arab woman to be voted into the parliamentary body on an Arab list), was unable to travel due to the Israeli government’s investigation of her political party, Balad (fifty party members were recently arrested pursuant to the investigation). Locally based student Layla Alshaer read Zoabi’s remarks on her behalf—a stirring call to the international community to take action against the Israeli occupation. In addition, Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s US visa application was suspended due to his work in the northern Kurdish region of Syria. Maria Hlavajova, director of the Amsterdam-based BAK contemporary art space, spoke in place of Staal, whose current work with the Kurdish leaders on creating a new parliamentary building for the de facto autonomous state of Rojava was particularly fascinating.

Most of the morning was dedicated to projects that, like Staal’s, employed art to practical, usually activist ends—from the Senegalese hip-hop duo Journal Rappé’s weekly rapped news reports, to the Syrian story-telling platform SouriaLi. But the morning concluded with a purportedly less instrumentalizing approach from curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who delivered a breathless keynote speech about the founding of the Dada movement in Zurich in 1916, which he used as an example of wielding “anti-art” strategies to propose alternatives to an abhorrent political status quo. His talk then speedily progressed through a panoply of artists who sought to directly (if often cheekily) participate in the political sphere (conceptual artist John Latham; performance artist and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief; painter, photographer, and filmmaker Bruce Conner) before focusing on poet-novelist Eileen Myles and her 1991 presidential bid. Myles’s video giving instructions on how to mount your own presidential campaign (filmed for Obrist’s earlier Do It exhibition) added a welcome note of warmth and humor to the otherwise fast and furious art-history lesson. Obrist finished his talk with a video statement from Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera, who declared that she would run for office. 

Obrist’s keynote was described as introducing a series of talks called “In Defense of Nonsense” that will run throughout the summit, and which is meant to champion (in the spirit of Dada) a fierce refusal of rationality and utilitarian approaches to art. But the examples he cited, like the “social sculptures” and community projects of Theaster Gates, didn’t seem to gel with that conceit. It will be curious to see how this notion of nonsense will develop through the rest of the summit, given the (perhaps inevitable) overall emphasis on discussing art as a means to an end.

An Interview With Nato Thompson

Nato Thompson. Image courtesy Creative Time.

Ania Szremski: So tell us about the Creative Time Summit.

Nato Thompson: It’s an international gathering interested in the convergence of art and social justice. It features artists presenting projects from around the world, but it’s interdisciplinary and intersectional, meaning there are academics, researchers, activists, and politicians at the table, but they all share a certain interest in this convergence. At the same time, the summit has historically been interested in grassroots movements internationally, and tries to hear from those who are operating on that level in a fight for social justice. I want to keep that discussion broad, because the world is a complex place—one person’s social justice movement in China is very different from someone’s social justice movement in Los Angeles, and it’s good to have that complexity.

It’s a three-day event—the first two days often feature ten-minute presentations and some films and discussions. Then the third day we break out into groups, where you can have more intimate conversations and just get to know people. It’s important for us to have not only a place where people get to learn a lot, but also get to know each other and to share practices. 

AS: Can you speak to the significance of Washington, DC, as the locale for this year’s summit?

NT: So we’re doing it in DC, and, clearly, this is an election year—that is not by accident. But it also feels like somewhat of a constraint to see politics only from the perspective of elections. We want to have the conversations that are inspired by the elections, but also inspired by what is not being discussed in the elections—to hear from people like the Black Lives Matter movement. I listened to both debates between Hillary and Trump, and I never heard a single conversation around how to actually save people of color from being shot. I hear Trump constantly saying, “Our inner cities are nightmares,” whatever that means, but then I don’t hear Hillary saying anything, interestingly enough. I’m sure there are political reasons why, but it just seems that for such a giant movement to not be taken seriously is an outrage. Simultaneously, there are conversations around wealth inequity that are important to a lot of Americans but are not being addressed—so the summit is a place to air that. The summit’s topic is “occupy power,” not that it’s saying we should—it’s more a provocation about what would it mean to take power, and DC seems like the perfect place to discuss that.

We are also featuring some artists from DC, including Ian MacKaye, who started the bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. He was also known as one of the leaders of a movement called DC hardcore, a form of punk rock that was invested in the do-it-yourself movement, which basically asked musicians to own the means of production—they would start their own record labels, support each other financially, have their own venues that were only five dollars and were all ages. They were also straight-edge—at least Fugazi and Minor Threat were. It very much embodied the spirit of socially engaged art, which is interested not only in aesthetics, but also in how aesthetics can be in conversation with political economy—it’s not just making music, it’s how you sell your records. That spirit is important when we have conversations about art and activism.

As much as DC’s known as a place where politicians and lobbyists and lawyers all gather, it’s also a community without full congressional representation, that is rapidly gentrifying, that has a historic African-American community that’s being displaced right now, that has a vibrant countercultural scene and has for a long time. It’s an opportunity to highlight that as well.

AS: The first summit was in 2009, and 2009 to 2011 felt like a more hopeful moment for the world. Now it feels to me like we’re in this really entrenched depression and grim reality. I was wondering how that has affected your thinking about the summit.

NT: At this summit, we’ve got Alicia Garza, who’s one of the three founders of Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter in some ways can epitomize the mood. It is totally awful that people of color get shot by police all over America, but it is also not historically new to these people that this has been happening. What is new is not the violence against people of color—it is the awareness and the mobilization against that. As depressing as the violence is, and as depressing as it is to have a movement that rides on the back of violence, it is hopeful in so much as it is a mobilization to stop it. And more than that, it’s not just to stop it—like all mobilizations, they’re complex webs of subjectivities moving toward different political awarenesses. Black Lives Matter is more than just police violence—it is a movement about race, social justice, gender; it is a movement that is deeply intersectional, queer. It’s extremely hopeful. So it certainly bears the markers of a certain kind of mood.

I would also say I’m astonished by the amount of progress that Bernie Sanders got in this election. It was considered political suicide to say the word “socialism” as a Democratic contender. Not only did it not kill him, it bolstered him. That changed the book on what is the appropriate political position in the Democratic Party. He didn’t get it, but he got close—shockingly close. And that’s hugely encouraging. Right now with this election we’re so caught up in this tabloid-esque Trump rise. If Trump wins, we’re fucked. But ultimately, it will be a Hillary Clinton era, which would be, in many activists’ minds, a progressive, liberal position on social policies combined with a pro-capitalistic, business-friendly economic position. With the rise of Bernie, in terms of social justice movements, you’ll see huge pushbacks against that position in the next four years. 

I’m ranting about politics, but it impacts the mood. It wasn’t that long ago, in 2011, that there was a lot of international solidarity, around things like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and now no one knows how to even get that—people are just too under fire to even think about that.

AS: So is that one of your goals in the summit—to address this waning solidarity?

NT: No, it’s not really a goal. One of the questions to be asked is: What does it mean to take power? We’re in DC, but also thinking about Greece, thinking about Latin America—particularly Brazil, with the kind of soft coup against Dilma. The backlash is intense, but the left is actually gaining traction, as much as you can’t see it right now. I think that’s why the backlash is so intense. Even with what happened in Egypt, you would say the backlash was intense because progress was made. It’s almost like things get fascist as soon as the social justice/leftist program starts mobilizing. It’s out there for the taking. It sounds crazy to be hopeful in these times. We’ve always had crazy Republicans in the US. Trump’s a different kind, but Ted Cruz is just as maniacal, if not messianic. But what’s different to me is not the craziness of the Republicans. It’s how the bullshit corporate Democrats are being called out. And so we’ve got Thomas Frank, who’s been writing a lot about that. Kind of like, this corporate, socially progressive world that has been the face of labor for a while is just getting . . . people don’t have the patience for it anymore. That’s the good news.

But at the same time, I don’t want to gloss it over. And it’s not the summit’s job to resolve things. It’s a complex world, and there aren’t easy answers to anything. It’s more about creating the space where different subjectivities from different regions, different genders, different races, different levels of power, can speak from their position—and that produces a certain set of contradictions and conversations that push against each other. Everyone’s got their own concerns. A young activist from Cairo is going to see the world differently than an elder statesman from Brazil. And it’s important to have that. 

AS: Can you tell me more about this “The Case for Nonsense” theme that’s running through the summit?

NT: It’s the hundredth anniversary of Dada, and it’s a great excuse to be weird. I don’t mind instrumentalizing art, I really don’t. I just think it’s important to be aware that that is what you’re doing, and also to have it within yourself to appreciate the ambiguous gesture, or the ability to speak on a level that isn’t clearly useful right away. That’s the spirit of Dada, in its essence—to resist rationality, to resist use. And of course, Dada was basically rejecting the atrocities of World War One, and simultaneously witnessing the kind of psychotic populism that would become the Third Reich. It’s not insane to make corollaries to today. At a summit where you’re talking about social justice, one needs to keep the weird in the conversation—in a kind of radical refusal of sensibility—and to remind ourselves of the power that has. Sometimes art can be at its most powerful at the socio-civic level when it’s completely inexplicable. 

AS: How so?

NT: Because we’re overwhelmed with utility. And it makes us kind of dumb. Even with activism, it’s beneficial to be strategic, but it’s a curse at times—a hopeless dependence on practicality. And when it comes to social justice—anyone who thinks of themselves as socialist, for example, must appreciate a certain existentialism or absurdity with their actions. Or climate change—it’s good to be practical about climate change, but at the same time, it’s OK to have a moment of embracing the poetic. When people experience something that doesn’t want anything from you . . . that doesn’t happen often. When you go down the street, every encounter is an encounter of want. The open-ended gesture that wants nothing—that’s few and far between. The thing that doesn’t want anything but is just a weird rumination—that’s rare.

AS: I was also wondering about these special reports you have coming from various places. What’s the idea behind that?

NT: The idea is to get reports from people at the front lines of different issues, or from social movements. It’s been really effective. It’s these individuals who are up against giant forces in the world; it’s an opportunity to hear from them and their struggles. It’s powerful to see these people in person. 

This year, we have E. Ethelbert Miller, giving a report about Washington, DC—it’s really important to be both deeply local and deeply international in these things. Things are odd when they’re one at the exclusion of the other. I’m very familiar with conferences on art or politics or something where everybody’s flown in from all over the world, but not a single local person is there. That says more about an organization’s desire for social capital than actual exchange. But I also think activists relate more to local scenes than they do international ones. Most gentrification battles are fought locally, most anti-police brutality movements are fought locally—so that is the kind of lens that we see through. That said, it’s important to be aware of the global conditions you’re operating in.

We’ve got a statement from Flint, Michigan—Melissa Mays, who became an activist because of the Flint water crisis; she was radicalized, and didn’t want her kids literally being poisoned. It’s important to hear that kind of voice. Anna Hutsol is speaking from the group FEMEN, this radical feminist group in Ukraine, who have been doing a lot of work on gender politics in Ukraine—also, you’re going to hear from a country that was invaded by Russia, but is simultaneously being invaded internally by a growing right-wing movement. 

AS: It seems like a way to get this intense injection of reality into a conversation that might get a little—

NT: Esoteric, yeah. It’s not like any format anyone else has been in, and I really take pride in this Creative Time team in shaping that. The summit is like this peculiar blend of famous-art-world person with anarchist-activist group that hates the art world—I feel like it has also often had an ambivalence about the art world itself, while simultaneously appreciating the arts. We’re trying to get our doses of the real in there, but also some pleasure and fun as well.

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