ART AS CITIZEN
A Conversation with Creative Time Reports
Founded in 1974, Creative Time is one of the longest standing institutions for the production of ambitious public art in New York City. Headed by President and Artistic Director Anne Pasternak, this once local organization has now expanded to a global enterprise, with a 3.5 million dollar annual budget and a board of directors dedicated to the commissioning and presentation of artist projects across the globe. As part of Creative Time’s commitment to public engagement, the organization recently launched Creative Time Reports, a subsidiary project of their Global Initiatives venture. Now in its fifth month of tenure, its web-based international platform stems directly from Creative Time’s belief in the value of artists’ voices and their growing need for agency in a media-saturated culture. Associate Art Editor Kara Rooney sat down with the Creative Time Reports team—Anne Pasternak, Creative Time Chief Curator Nato Thompson, and CTR’s Editorial Director Laura Raicovich—to learn more about the aims of this unique project as well as its initial development.
Kara Rooney (Rail): I’d like to begin with you, Anne. As the President and Artistic Director of Creative Time since 1994, you have undoubtedly spearheaded numerous projects and initiatives for the organization in response to shifting cultural and artistic trends. How does Creative Time Reports highlight yet another shift in what is required for non-profits to stay relevant and current?
Anne Pasternak: This is a great question to start with because relevancy is key. Why exist if we aren’t relevant?! In fact, Creative Time Reports emerged from a series of strategic planning conversations centered on this very question. We asked ourselves, if we really believe in artists, if we really believe that art and artists matter in the world, how could we broadcast their voices to have a much greater impact? I wasn’t thrilled with the insular way in which arts organizations just keep talking to their own communities. Furthermore, we asked, to whom could we broadcast their voices?
One answer to these questions was to create a web-based platform devoted to artists’ commentary and ideas about public issues, and to offer this content, free of charge, to other media outlets (including mainstream news media), as well as to social-justice organizations, helping us expand the reach of the artists we feature to a global community. So this seemingly simple idea provided an opportunity to experiment with how to build community, broaden the ways in which we work with artists, initiate new types of collaborations, and expand the reach and impact of our mission. It also allows us to experiment with ways of being a global organization in a globalized world—without the inevitable difficulties and complexities of franchising or commissioning public art projects in numerous other cities.
Rail: The website’s multi-media interface, and indeed the very fact that the project takes place solely in a virtual field, seems to indicate a shift of metaphor in the way we use technology to engage with and understand the world. How does the framework of CTR take this into account?
Nato Thompson: We live in a very cross-platform age. You can feel the impact of new technologies in terms of the ways in which we understand culture. But culture, which typically a lot of people think of as the domain of the arts, is in fact the platform for a myriad number of things now. I think in some ways the arts are very much left behind in that glut of opportunities. People have culture on the phone, on the TV, on the radio—it’s a culture world! And the arts are still relegated to early 20th century models of distribution. So in some ways, we’re just trying to catch up to the late ’90s! “Contemporary” art is catching up to 20 years ago! Artists have a lot to say and they need to participate in the platforms and vehicles of distribution that are of the moment, because when we say “artists,” what we’re really talking about is people that use culture as a way to make meaning in the world. So trying to find platforms for them is important.
Pasternak: We had a few starts and stops along the way. Originally, we thought we would partner with one media news journal, Huffington Post, before they were sold to AOL, and then once we finally launched our collaboration with them, we realized it wasn’t the right partnership. We had thought at one time that this would be a series of podcasts, and then realized that was limiting our audience and artists too much. We thought it would be interviews only—but interviews were way too time consuming to get out there. So we’ve gone through a lot of trial and error in terms of the model, and we are continuing to learn, change, and grow.
Rail: How does this project take Creative Time into the global sphere in ways it has not explored before? Does it? Is the immediacy of the platform significant in this sense?
Pasternak: For one, Creative Time Reports allows us to work with a far greater number of artists in meaningful ways. There are a lot of artists that we really admire out there in the world, and there are a lot of organizations we’d like to partner with, but we have only so many resources and there are only so many hours in the day. CTR gives us an opportunity to form meaningful relationships with artists and other presenters that we wouldn’t be able to if we were only commissioning public projects. Remember, it’s very complicated to work globally. There are difficult geopolitical conditions, informed by economics and history, culture and politics, which make navigating this terrain quite complex. It’s kind of absurd to even think that there could be an effective organization sort of parachuting into another culture and producing projects.
With CTR, artists get to exercise their own agency; we are simply broadcasting their voices via a meaningful platform that has global reach. I love that an artist from Ethiopia, who may not be known in the international contemporary art context, is on the same playing field as a well-known artist like Liam Gillick. This is quite unusual and extremely exciting.
Rail: Laura, as the director of Global Initiatives, Creative Time Reports falls under your purview. Can you describe your role within CTR and if/how this differs from your engagement with other iterations of the Global Initiatives projects?
Laura Raicovich: When Anne and I first started talking about this potential department that she wanted to form around working internationally, it was very exciting but also daunting to think of ways in which Creative Time—knowing its history and its values—would manifest itself internationally; how would that happen? And what I think has been most rewarding, but also most educational for me over the past year, are the ways in which Creative Time’s very basic, core values are reflected in that outreach.
There are certain cultural assumptions that people make about the ways that people work internationally. It is really important that we are clear about our intentions, that this about an exchange mode of communication, rather than a broadcast mode where we’re just collecting ideas and rebranding them under our auspices. So there’s a lot of sharing. By and large most of the artists and culture makers who we’re working with are engaged in a kind of social practice, so there is a basic level of trust that needs to be established. We operate from a place of privilege being a contemporary art organization based in New York City, but we’re not simply interested in telling the rest of the world how we operate. One of the great advantages of working on a series of initiatives that are based in large part on discursive platforms has been that you can communicate that willingness to exchange really quickly, and you can also invite many more people to the table.
We’re also not just bringing the usual suspects into the room. For example, we have assembled a truly international Advisory Committee for Creative Time Reports to help connect us to artists and culture-makers with whom we aren’t familiar. We are also working with artists of all stripes—while visual artists may be our area of expertise, we are branching out, with the help of our advisors, to make connections to writers, poets, filmmakers, playwrights, etc. And as Anne said, we offer our content free of charge to any media outlet. We are building partnerships with magazines, newspapers, journals, and blogs to pick up our pieces and share them with global audiences.
We hope this kind of cross-pollination between disciplines recasts artists as people who are engaged with the world, who want to, and should, be invited to share their knowledge and perspectives publicly. So often artists do incredible amounts of research on very specific ideas or situations that then appear in their work. Of course, only a fraction of what they know and have learned can be encapsulated in the artwork itself, so we see Creative Time Reports as a way to make public this gathered knowledge that may provide new ways to see the subject at hand.
In doing this, we hope to create a new framework through which to see artists in society. So CTR, the Creative Time Summit, and the Global Residency program—all of which are part of Global Initiatives—offer very open-ended invitations for both artists and audiences. At the end of the day, these platforms aim to build communities who share interests and values, as well as a need to connect.
Rail: It’s a unique model in the sense that you’re doing a lot of research on the ground for the pieces that are commissioned, which, from documentary works like those of the art collective Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema, to the spoken poetry of Nick Drake and interviews with artists such as Liam Gillick and Laurie Anderson, are extraordinarily diverse. Can you tell me more about the selection process for commissioned pieces and the artists you seek out?
Raicovich: It’s interesting because we’ve been trying to work along two parallel paths. Right now, as we’re just about five months old, we’ve been really focused on the commission model, although we’ve had two open calls for submissions, and we’re really trying to build a pool of contributors. We would like to be known as a place where you can write to Marisa Mazria Katz, our editor, and propose a piece—or even just send one. We want to be very democratic about that on one level, because it’s important to us that we’re not just plugging into our existing networks. Over the past few months, we’ve focused not only establishing a network of artists who can contribute regularly, but also trying to tap into alternative networks of people with whom we don’t necessarily have direct connection in order to foster a much larger community of people who may contribute to the site. We’re really trying to figure out ways to set up this framework to invite more people into the conversation.
Pasternak: So it won’t be exclusively commissions as we go forward.
Raicovich: We started with people we knew or people who knew people we knew—because you have to start somewhere—and were then very deliberate about trying to be truly international. We targeted certain areas where we felt like we didn’t have enough contacts on the ground, for example, in East Asia.
So in addition to the commissioning model, there are many ways to participate, both as an artist and a member of this larger community: contributing to Creative Time Reports via open calls or submitting proposals to our editor, stirring up discussion with active commentary on the site, participating in the Creative Time Summit as a presenter (we now have an open-call slot each year), live audience member, or remote viewer (via Livestream), planning parallel events around the Summit themes and sharing these discussions with us, commenting on and sharing the Summit talks online, etc. We are always adding new ways in which our community can participate in these initiatives.
Pasternak: Our process mimics the newsroom. For example, the New York Times figures out what issues it’s going to be dealing with, and what feature stories it may commission. We’re hardly the New York Times, but for example, we might say, “November is election season. It’s not just election season in the United States, it’s election season in Tunisia, it’s election season in Greece, it’s election season in Turkey—wherever it may be—let’s commission artists in those regions to create pieces around the election theme.” So we do structure ourselves not just by the artists we know, but by the issues that we think are important.
Raicovich: In addition to plugging people into the issues that are hot at the moment and that we want to hear new perspectives on, we are also looking to unearth certain stories that are underreported in the typical news outlets. At the end of the day, if we get it right, it’s that chemistry between giving a bit of context for this particular artist’s practice, whatever that might be, and the subject matter that they’re commenting on. And then, their very particular take on that subject. What follows is continuing to share that work beyond the walls, as it were, of our website.
Pasternak: There is also a parallel reality, a kind of zeitgeist that this project emerged out of, which is citizen reporting. Major news media organizations, due to consolidation, have been forced to shut down local and regional offices around the world, so the kinds of stories they produce are becoming more and more limited. This has led to a big movement around citizen reporting—we see this, for example, with public radio and their expanded local coverage online. What we’re doing is harmonious with this larger news trend. Some may ask, “why should I care about hearing what an artist thinks?” It’s an interesting question. I could ask why should anyone care what a journalist thinks? Are journalists any less biased than artists? Or, conversely, are artists any more biased than journalists? Is a journalist who “parachutes” into a community to observe a situation any more informed or better equipped to report on an issue than a citizen who has been involved with that same issue or community their entire lives? I’m not saying yes or no, but I’m saying these are fair and reasonable questions. And I do believe that artists are great at looking into those places where there are gaps, where others may not be looking. They do this with creativity, and in the process help us see things differently, perhaps more complexly, more compassionately, more completely.
Rail: I attended the roundtable discussion Creative Time Reports hosted here on the direction of the project some weeks ago where the artist and educator Pablo Helguera touched upon an interesting point: the project will either succeed or fail depending upon how you “frame” the role of the artist in it. This seems particularly true in the U.S. where there is a blatant distrust (albeit an ironic one, considering how biased our news outlets are) of reportage that has not been vetted through traditional media channels. Is the problem of news reporting one of the issues CTR aims to address?
Pasternak: Absolutely. We are all fed up with the binary positions mainstream media so often takes today. We know that issues are much more complex and call for fuller, richer perspectives. And as media becomes increasingly privatized and for-profit, I think it’s fair to say that nobody at this table believes in the lion’s share of what we read, hear, and see in the news media any longer. Artists, on the other hand, speak truths to power. Sometimes, they even speak fiction to power. They complicate things a bit. I find their ability to complicate, to be free, and to push very useful and compelling.
Thompson: There’s no empirical evidence, but I’m convinced it’s true that the amount of people globally who consider themselves artists is radically different than in the mid-20th century, and so, this term has become much looser. Artists are people that use culture for a number of reasons. Sometimes saying the obvious is radical. When the news is so far removed from daily life, artists who are not afraid to say what’s right in front of them, to represent the world around them, can form radical news.
Pasternak: What’s also interesting is the multiplicity of artistic practices. For some of the artists we work with, contributing to CTR is very closely linked to what they would otherwise be doing if they weren’t working on this project. And for others, it’s a challenge to think about turning their ideas into a format that would make sense in this context. We are purposefully open: if they want to do something that is more abstract or takes advantage of the fact that we’re on the web, we’re completely receptive to that. So the configuration of what their contributions look like is always shifting.
Rail: Is there an artistic platform that you feel hasn’t been explored yet on the site, that you’d like to see an artist tackle?
Pasternak: Absolutely. There are so many! I would like to see more photo-essays, for example. We want more short-format contributions. We want to create better contextualization to other news sources.
We’d also like to have our readership contribute their voices in more robust ways. We want to expand our partnerships with arts, social justice, and news media platforms. These are just a few changes to come.
Raicovich: Since day one, readership participation has been a huge priority for us; we want this to be a platform for exchange.
Rail: What other mechanisms are in place besides the comments section for people to interact with the projects?
Pasternak: Our Tumblr blog, social networks, Facebook, and Twitter panels are a few of the ways we invite and embrace public interaction. But we’re rethinking this with trial and error because how people share is rapidly evolving. Obviously, for example, a comments page may not be the solution to fostering this exchange any longer.
Thompson: And we’re new to this, so we don’t want to come off as though we’ve got it all figured out. So there are a lot of practical getting-to-know-yous going on.
Rail: How much support staff do you have to implement such a diverse project?
Pasternak: It’s a full time staff of one and a half people! Marisa is the editor, and Kareem Estefan, who is not full-time yet, is the associate editor.
Rail: I’m going to ask a somewhat controversial question. Do you think the project, now in its fifth month, suffers from somewhat utopian aspirations? For example, when your reach is this universal, how do you deal with the issue of what is edited out, of what gets highlighted, etc.?
Thompson: Well I don’t think it’s utopian—ambition’s never been a problem at Creative Time, per se. I think what’s going to help the project most of all is continuity over time. I know from everything that I’ve experienced that good content will win out. Solid, consistent, good content. I think the idea is right and artists are clearly interested—there’s this excitement and confusion. Confusion’s not a problem. It touches on a nerve that’s out there in the world. We’re not irrelevant. I think that’s the death of everything, irrelevance. At the same time, because it’s so new, I do think the community required to organize around this is going to take time. So it’s just a longer-term thing, not an immediate results kind of project.
Pasternak: I agree with you. I think that our greatest challenge is being under-resourced. If we had more resources, we’d have an appropriate amount of editorial staff, we would have staff either devoted to working on partnerships and making this more multi-disciplinary, we’d have a full-time social networking person—there are a lot of things that we would do. Our website would be updated on a weekly basis so that we could adapt new forms of content as quickly as we imagine them.
To answer your question about whether the vision is too utopian, too big, it’s basically the vision this organization has been operating under for 40 years, and we’re still around.
Raicovich: I also think that if we were to highly specialize, then we wouldn’t achieve the larger goals.
Pasternak: Of course, we struggle with the scale of our vision, but that’s what makes it exciting. Why do it if it isn’t important? Why do it if it doesn’t matter? This is the tension of Creative Time itself. On the one hand, we’re often commissioning very conceptually difficult work, and then at the same time we’re trying to engage broad audiences. Often it works, but it’s not an easy thing to do. One could say it’s absolutely absurd and they would be right, but we’ve been struggling to do this for 40 years and it is deeply worthwhile.
Rail: I want to go back to this issue of the news, the way it functions in the world. I was listening to Tom Healy’s interview with monologist Mike Daisey for CTR, and he touches upon something I think is very relevant to this conversation. He spoke at length about his interest in what the culture is NOT talking about, one of those things being that empathy is disturbingly absent from the algorithms we’ve created to track and analyze the massive amounts of data generated by the technological world we live in. What has resulted is a gap between the way that we interpret the world around us and the world that we experience on a sentient level. Is CTR an attempt to bridge that gap in some way?
If so, how does this platform, for each of you, seem to generate a moment of openness or receptivity where others have failed?
Raicovich: Absolutely. I don’t know that I would have said it in exactly those same words, but I think it is exactly what we are trying to do. At the end of the day, the world we hear about in the news media does not reflect the actual experience of it. All you need to do is talk to somebody who is present in another location when something dramatic is happening to understand that. There are artists out there with huge amounts of expertise about very specific things and there is no platform for their voice. We are trying to make one for that.
Thompson: And we are not doing anything new by injecting affect or emotions into the media. In fact, that is the realm of the media, which is predominantly based on fear; it’s a way to get people to stick around for the next episode. If you look at just about any news station, the content and delivery are all emotionally driven. That’s news; it’s all an artwork. But artists, who are, if anything, the producers of emotion in visual or spatial terms, are not necessarily so coercively driven. To relate to another human being in Palestine or Israel, to make a stand, whatever or wherever that might be—this is a politics of empathy. It undermines the current emotional, coercive landscape of media.
Pasternak: In terms of openness, our team is very clear on how important it is to form relationships in the places that we are interested in covering. The best strategy is to go and meet people on the ground, because you gain a sensitivity that you couldn’t from simply reading or talking on the telephone.
In no way did we set this up in response to any “failure” within our field or a response against the art market; rather, we saw it as an opportunity. There was a gap that was worth filling, a gap in ways for artists to share their views beyond exhibition opportunities, and without being interpreted by others. It’s not just about artists talking about art with artists—it’s about artists talking directly about things that matter in the world. I really see Creative Time Reports as a new contribution to the plethora of arts coverage that’s already out there, but I do suspect there may be some cynicism around the project because it does not play into typical art world media strategies.
Raicovich: We learnt that early on. We were initially going to call the project “Artists on the News,” but what we found was that when we started talking to people, it was very uncomfortable for them to think of contributing to what they perceived of as an American news organization, not a cultural organization doing this kind of wacky project. This is when we decided that “Creative Time Reports” was better suited to our original vision of what we were trying to do. As we move forward with this international community-building, we really have to “put our money where our mouth is,” which means truly being out there and making those actual connections.
Rail: One of the things that distinguishes this project is that it opens those channels up in ways that the art magazine, the art market, the art fair, the art auction—those models—keep very closed.
Thompson: The production of platforms is a very political thing. I say that because when you look at other countries where they have different platforms, the artwork being made is very different, because people have access to new ways of being. So if we have only conservative platforms, then artists just don’t have spaces to show off what they are capable of. So the production of new platforms is a huge gift to the artistic community which is eager to explore options—they want options!
Raicovich: Part of the invitation has always been, “Look, I’m going to throw something out to you as an artist and if it’s challenging to you, throw it back at us. We’ll try to adapt and make your vision happen within our capabilities.” We’re willing to take risks and experiment, and we’re hoping that the artists will come along with us. Sometimes it works out better than others, but usually it’s been pretty successful.
Rail: I wonder if part of the cynicism that might exist around the project is partly because it’s so generous. You’re not asking for anything in return except for some sort of genuine response.
Pasternak: Well, we actually are asking for things in return: like any magazine, we’re asking for contributing artists to deliver, on time, a piece that’s editable, that’s translatable, that makes sense, that’s relevant, that’s informed. We pay artists for their contributions, as that’s a core value of Creative Time and has always been—to pay artists for their efforts. It’s a shame that so few art journals pay art writers professionally if at all.
Rail: What is next on the horizon for Creative Time Reports?
Raicovich: We’re really pushing now to find more, and better, and more frequent partnerships. We’re doing something very specific, and now we need to partner very strategically to get that material out there in the world.
Pasternak: We need to experiment with new forms of content and to have more variety. We want to build more community through comments—not to have comments on our site because it looks good, but because we really want to build conversation. We want to broaden our community. We want to reach more people in more places. We want to expand our partnerships. And—-—
Thompson: Get it funded.
Pasternak: [Laughs.] We want to get it funded. Yes! We want to get it funded.
To learn more about Creative Time Reports or to subscribe to their email list, visit creativetimereports.org
ContributorKara L. Rooney