3.3 / Review

From New York: The Creative Time Summit

By Christian L. Frock October 18, 2011

Now in its third year, the Creative Time Summit is the New York City–based nonprofit's annual daylong conference that explores socially engaged art in the public sphere. This year's summit was held in conjunction with Living as Form, Creative Time's coinciding survey exhibition, which documented more than twenty years of socially engaged projects.1 In addition to twenty-nine speakers, there were remarks from Creative Time’s President and Artistic Director Anne Pasternak and Chief Curator Nato Thompson, a participatory performance by My Barbarian, a keynote address by GRITtv broadcaster Laura Flanders, and the presentation of the Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change awarded to Jeanne van Heeswijk, with a video address by Laurie Anderson.

Carlton Turner of Alternate ROOTS on community initiatives in Baltimore. Creative Time Summit 3, September 23, 2011. Courtesy of Creative Time. Photo: Sam Horine.

Speakers included journalists, historians, educators, academics, artists, and curators. An odd sound effect would chime as speakers approached the eight-minute time limit; if they went over, their voices were drowned out by live music. When Mierle Laderman Ukeles concluded in the nick of time and raised her arms triumphantly as the music started, the audience applauded. When several others, such as Hou Hanru, went long and were cut off, the audience booed, but the music played on. Remote audience members listening to a live stream of the proceedings were encouraged to participate via Twitter.

The notion raised by Thompson that all dissent is, on some level, creative dissent was reflected in both the wider range of projects presented at the summit and those documented in Living as Form. Regardless of critical reception, socially engaged art projects are proliferating around the world. Whether or not they are considered art in the formal sense is another matter—one that might ultimately have very little impact on those engaged by the actual work, but a matter that is nonetheless often rigorously contested in the critical discourse surrounding contemporary art. Art historian and curator Claire Bishop, for example, had a field day skewering the first summit in a review for Artforum.2 The heated responses that ensued online offer a portrait of the debate that still swirls around the status of socially engaged practices within contemporary art.

The inclusion this year of more regional, member-driven community arts organizations intermixed with projects more easily identifiable as “contemporary art” further blurred categorical distinctions. Thompson freely admitted to an absence of concern around such distinctions, instead favoring a broad perspective of socially engaged cultural production galvanized by a desire to change the circumstances of the disenfranchised. Those who preferred a narrower, more canonical definition of contemporary art could tune in or tune out at their discretion; after all, one only had to wait eight minutes for the next presentation.

Darren OʼDonnell of Mammalian Diving Reflex, Creative Time Summit 3, September 23, 2011. Courtesy of Creative Time. Photo: Sam Horine.

Many of the speakers at this year’s summit knowingly played off the perceived ambiguity of their work as art in the formal sense. Representatives from Austrian artist collective WochenKlauser, whose projects include a mobile medical clinic that treats six hundred homeless patients a month, put it plainly: “We are artists and we are allowed to call anything we do art. It’s just that simple.” Given that the prevailing critical discourse has spent nearly a century validating a ready-made urinal, I am inclined to agree. Points of critical consideration in social practice are, in many ways, diametrically opposed to contemporary art as it relates to the art world-cum-market. Whereas community impact is alien to discussions of criticality in contemporary art, it is a stalwart measure in activism. If the work succeeds formally without meeting activist measures of success—Does it engage community and site? Is long-term impact sustainable?—it still fails. If it succeeds on both counts, the art-invested community sometimes still remains skeptical. Consider Alastair Smart’s ruthless assessment of Ai Weiwei’s oeuvre in the London Telegraph earlier this year.3 At the same moment that the artist’s life was at risk during unlawful detention by Chinese authorities and people all over the world rallied for his release, critics like Smart chose to offer formal critique.

This tension was apparent during the summit when a remote audience member challenged via Twitter that the work of Mammalian Diving Reflex, who presented the amusing project Haircuts by Children (date unavailable), might have been initiated to capitalize on funding for youth-based projects. The implication was representative of the general skepticism with which the art world often views social practice. Unfortunately, the format didn’t allow for the artist’s response, which made the comment seem merely snarky rather than a useful opening for discussion around the pitfalls of socially engaged art. 

But what of this difference between contemporary art in the larger sense and socially engaged practices? Alternate ROOTS Executive Director Carlton Turner noted how his regional arts organization developed as an outgrowth of the legendary Highlander Research and Education Center—where Rosa Parks took a ten-day training session the summer before initiating the Montgomery bus boycott—specifically to meet the needs of the growing population of artists who work for social justice. The significance of this legacy offers a critical insight into the broader goals of artists who work within their communities to effect change.

The strength of socially engaged work lies in embracing the risk of failure. Though often held to the impossible standard that it must be positively received by vast numbers of people—i.e., everyone—to be considered a critical success, the only guarantee is that reception will be mixed, as it would be with any other artwork. Some success is to be found when new practitioners and audiences emerge from the process—true success is found when this is met with actual social change. Each year the Creative Time Summit presents artists who are genuinely trying to effect change in the world beyond the art world with varying degrees of success. For Creative Time and all of the presenters at the summit, most of the critique leveraged at socially engaged art is merely a distraction, unless put to constructive use. (To both their credit, Creative Time engaged Bishop to pen an essay for the forthcoming Living as Form catalogue, to be published by MIT in 2012.) Although socially engaged practice may often struggle to find currency in the larger art discourse, the real life issues at stake in the work promise greater impact than any review, favorable or otherwise.

The Creative Time Summit: Living as Form was presented by Creative Time at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on September 23, 2011.


  1. Following the conclusion of the Creature Time Summit, attendees were treated to a preview for Living as Form, which featured documentation from more than one hundred projects and included off-site projects and lectures. The Living as Form archive is forthcoming online and promises an array of more than 350 projects.
  2. Bishop, Claire. “Public Opinion.” Artforum.com, October 29, 2009. < http://artforum.com/diary/id=24062>. Sourced October 13, 2011.
  3. Smart, Alistair. “Ai Weiwei – Is his art actually any good?” The Telegraph, May 6, 2011. < http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/8498546/Ai-Weiwei-Is-his-art-actually-any-good.html>. Sourced October 13, 2011.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content