TED was the favored talk style of the Friday afternoon portion of the Creative Time Summit. In 8 minutes or less, speakers delivered inspirational, arms-length examples ending with a suggestion or a rhetorical question. “Is the museum a battlefield?” flashed on the screen behind Hito Steyerl, as she gave us a context for her recent film project.
Did we know that, in a “battle for public space,” the Louvre was stormed a total of six times during the late 18th and 19th centuries? Or that when the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in 1917, the building housed a massive art collection? The museum doesn’t seem to have as many protests these days. “It seems if we are stuck in that loop, we may have to go back to this point in time and storm the museum again,” Steyerl conjectured to a round of applause. Following her own advice would have led her to some local, fully active examples—Occupy Museums comes to mind. But more often than not, speakers’ frame of reference all but excluded working activists, oriented more toward envisioning the idea rather than actually implementing it.
Projects presented often responded to social issues abroad. Michael Rakowitz got Saddam Hussein’s personal cutlery from eBay; EDELO started an arts organization in a vacant United Nations offices in Mexico; Invisible Borders traverses Africa’s political boundaries in order to immerse themselves in different cultures. There’s nothing wrong with the projects themselves, but their selection indicated a tendency to remove, exoticize, and package the idea of social change in a way that makes us feel good about sitting through the entire talk.
Meanwhile, a good chunk of the dialogue on Twitter focused on Nato Thompson’s pants. (From the balcony, I couldn’t tell if they were pleather or shiny denim–which was about as deep as that conversation went.) Anyway, the pants got their own Twitter account @natospants, and Creative Time’s social media team took the opportunity to intermittently cue us in on the ongoing dialogue: mainly insider-y jokes from people indoctrinated in the art world (Powhida, Hrag Vartanian, Nate Hill, et cetera). The tweets were presented onstage with the “surprise” element of flipping the name and the tweet around on big white cue cards.
On Sunday, artist Mira Schor stepped in to explain exactly what’s wrong with this in a post titled “amazing!”:
…The point is, the 99%, the 47%, the struggling Occupy movement, and also the poverty of imagination of what could be the alternative to contemporary global capitalism that was addressed by [Slavoj] Žižek, all seemed like fashionable shadows within the viewpoint of Creative Time as presented by some of its leaders and by the corporate-influenced presentational model it espoused.
Given all of these issues, having Tweets about Nato’s pants read out loud to us was one huge insult to our intelligence and situation.
Sure was. Creative Time’s reluctance to dampen the mood with less-than-entertaining input from the peanut gallery said a lot about how institutional gestures rarely aimed to facilitate action.
Thankfully, activist and philosopher Slavoj Žižek seized back a few blessed minutes on Twitter by making it clear that we’d get no such congratulation from his keynote presentation:
Hello, glad to be here, but just don’t expect to get from me what you will never get from me. You will not get from me big, glad news…no, things are going pretty bad, I think.
The audience burst out laughing, but it’s true, and he meant it. He shared an incredibly depressing example of what he believes to be global capitalism’s profound effect on China: a poll in the official newspaper People’s Daily showed that 87 percent of young Chinese between the ages of 25 and 35 would only help an old person who was fatally wounded if they knew a security camera was watching them. Žižek took comfort in this statistic, arguing that we need to fight for a rational egoism through public space. The moral imperative stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the talks, but unfortunately, nobody could hear the end; Žižek went over his allotted time, and had to shout over the Creative Time’s peppy play-off drummer.
Another highlight was speaker and writer Mike Daisey, who famously made up parts of his account of Apple’s factory conditions in China, in order to renew labor concerns. If Orson Wellesian in his delivery, it did the job. He explained how iPhone and iPods and MacBooks are a conveniently personal choice of product, much like meat was when Upton Sinclair wrote the 1906 novel “The Jungle.” Both similarly massaged the truth in order to reawaken curiosity about actual atrocities.
And a few speakers reminded us of the atrocities which had already taken precedence over the Summit itself, as a few of the speakers (Bronx-originated hip hop duo Rebel Diaz, artist Narcenio Hall, and the Cairo collective Mosireen) had pulled out in solidarity with the Israeli cultural boycott. Creative Time had built a partnership with the Israeli Center for Digital Arts, which is reportedly funded by the Israeli government; once the speakers’ exit caught wind, Creative Time scrubbed its “partners” page and re-designated them “sites“.
Before I arrived, the Occupy journal Tidal and the Queens Museum of Art director Tom Finkelpearl reportedly mentioned the boycott (evidence here), but to my knowledge activist and printmaker Josh MacPhee was the only speaker to ditch his full talk for the issue. He told us that while he felt inadequately informed to speak to the boycott, he could no longer stay silent: “my cell phone has been vibrating all day with people trying to tell me I shouldn’t be up here.” MacPhee went on to remind us that:
This is a break from a call for a cultural boycott of Israel which was generated by almost 200 Palestinian organizations. The last time a boycott of this scale was mobilized internationally was in relation to Apartheid in South Africa. I think that in hindsight, that looks all clean and simple—what is there to argue about? Apartheid’s bad. But at the time, it was just as sloppy and messy and confusing as what’s going now in relationship to Palestine and Israel.
…For me, politics must be social. Because for me, it’s nothing if it’s not about my relationship to you and your relationship to the people sitting next to you, and on, and on from there.
He then directed us to websites like BDSmovement.net and Adalahny.org for more information. It’s a messy and complicated issue which undoubtedly affects much of Creative Time’s audience personally. It’s likely that most people, like MacPhee, felt unqualified to speak to the issue. But if not the Summit on social change, then when’s a good time to talk?