I was conversing with an artist friend yesterday. At one point we talked about the Creative Time Summit 3 in New York, which I am on my way to now. He said that he’s been finding these kinds of gatherings less and less satisfying, ie conferences and symposia in which a bunch of socially engaged artists come together and discuss how and what “social engagement” means for art and artists. I understand where he’s coming from. When Daniel Tucker and Nato Thompson organized a one-day gathering in Chicago back in January of 2009, inviting what would be for any conference an impressive list of art activists, I skipped it. Maybe because I already knew a lot those folks, or it didn’t seem clear as to what the purpose of such a meeting would be. Many of the people already had working relationships with each other. And—now I’m remembering—at that time I just needed to stay home in Madison for a while and not travel. All in all, for me the event just felt kind of unnecessary.
I also recall people asking questions about the first Creative Time Summit, which took place in the fall of 2009. The presence of a few art star names in the program, while not exactly disappointing, did pose the question of what this event was aiming for, in terms of status, prestige, and constituency. That was my main question, understanding that those considerations can be quite practical. For others there was the hang-up about access, specifically the price and availability of tickets. This event charges more than a nominal fee for entry—some of the costs are definitely passed on to the audience. For a summit ostensibly about exactly those issues of democratic process, access, and structures, it did not seem out of line for art activists to wonder aloud.
And when I heard about Open Engagement, I concluded that the deed had been done. Now we can say it. The collective force of artists, curators, teachers, writers, and others has successfully opened up a new genre, even though we haven’t made our society any more democratic or participatory. We have carved out a tiny niche in the resource-rich world of cultural production, a niche that seems to be going by the name of “social practice.” If, as Todd Gitlin likes to say, the Sixties generation took over the English departments but left the real power of legislating and governing to the Right, then we have achieved something, but haven’t even accumulated English-department levels of power. What we can do is organize periodic get-togethers, and even sponsor some of the travel.
Where is this all going? And what are these gatherings for? Based on how Summits 2 and 3 were designed, I can see that these questions have been considered by the Creative Time team. The presentations were streamed live for Summit 2 and archived—I don’t think they were streamed live the first time around. And the range of presenters for Summit 3 is noticeably wider, reaching out of the art school/art world and into social service and regionally identified people and projects. They also dropped the "Revolutions in Public Practice" tag that was used for years 1 and 2.
I certainly still have those questions. But here I am, participating in Summit 3. Why?
Well, for one thing, it is hard to say no to Nato, the curator. His friendly force of personality—let’s call it that laid-back California soft persuasion I find irresistible—is perfect for the job of bringing lots of interesting people together, and making intense, urgent topics fun. Plus, not to be discounted, it's a mostly-paid for trip to New York. That could just be me, or an art thing; some people and groups who are farther from the art universe who were invited didn’t get on board. (That's another way of saying the spectrum of participants is not quite as wide as it was hoped to be.)
Beyond Nato and the personal pleasure of helping to realize his vision of what the Summit could be, there is the substantive reason I was invited: to say something about what happened in Wisconsin and especially Madison back in February and March, to a New York audience of artists, activists, and intellectuals. Yes, somebody has to do it—or more to the point, the Summit audience definitely needs to hear about it. And yes, bringing an account of the most important turn in American labor and left wing movement politics in the last three decades is a good reason for being here.
But then I’m back to the problem of these gatherings, on a structural level. There are about thirty presentations. Outside of the keynotes and performances, the slots are limited to eight minutes at the microphone. You can say a lot in eight minutes about one, precisely bounded thing. A single, titled art project, for example—which is what many of the presenters talk about. Try saying something compelling in eight minutes about an incredibly complex social and political movement, one that’s not finished and in fact continues to unfold even now, to an audience of people who might know a lot about it, or nothing at all. As is always the case with any kind of conference, the best conversations will happen outside of the program structure, in the socializing and informal encounters. But the presentation is the only time when the whole assemblage will get their ears stuffed with Wisconsin Uprising info. What am I or anybody speaking about the Wisconsin Uprising under such constraints supposed to say?
Even though I’ve rehearsed and have my talk pretty much down, I have no idea how it’ll come across. The points I make might be obvious or even stale to many, but completely baffling and without context for others. I guess all I can plead is, folks, go through my old blog posts on the Wisconsin Uprising and do some searches of your own. There is so much great reporting out there, tackling the million or so angles on our movment: John Nichols, Rebecca Kemble, Abe Sauer, Lane Hall/Lisa Moline, and others. And there you go—the last and best reason for being here: I’m at the Summit to get people intrigued, to open the doors of their curiosity about what the hell is happening in the Great Lakes states, and, hopefully, to direct people to the world of activism, movement analysis, and exemplary solidarity work that is our Wisconsin of the moment.
The Summit schedule is here.
I'm going on at around 12:30 PM or shortly thereafter. Catch it live here: