A Recap of the Artist Boycott of “Living as Form” in Israel

by Whitney Kimball on June 16, 2014 Newswire

Technion's Haifa campus (Image couresty of technion.ac.il/en)

Technion’s Haifa campus (Image couresty of technion.ac.il/en)

Last week, 100 artists called for participants to withdraw from Creative Time’s traveling exhibition, “Living as Form”. It is currently showing at The Technion, a space in Israel that is known to work closely with the Israeli government on military technology. (See coverage of the escalating conflict on Hyperallergic: 1, 2, 3).

The letter, which was signed by artists such as Judith Butler, Lucy Lippard, Chantal Mouffe, Walid Raad, Martha Rosler, and Gayatri Spivak, describes The Technion as having “central role in maintaining the unjust and illegal occupation of Palestine.” The university‘s exports include stealth bombing drones and a remote-controlled armored bulldozer used to destroying Palestinian homes.

And the boycott relates to New York as well; WNYC has reported that, while the school’s operating budget is funded by the Israeli government, two thirds of the Technion’s funding comes from private fundraising in the US. In 2012, Cornell announced plans to build a local Technion on Roosevelt Island.

Back in December, “Living as Form” was also held in Tel Aviv’s Artport, but the artists claim that they were not notified until days after the second show opened on May 28th. The Israeli cultural boycott, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, was addressed at the 2012 Creative Time Summit, when a few speakers cancelled their talks in protest of the involvement of the Israeli Center for Digital Art. Creative Time’s Anne Pasternak addressed this at length in an open letter and later promised that it would engage in a “year-long listening and learning process.” Creative Time’s Anne Pasternak and Nato Thompson have responded to the artists’ letter, clarifying that Creative Time didn’t choose the venue, as the scheduling was worked out with Independent Curators International (ICI) days before the show was to launch in Tel Aviv, over the Christmas holidays. ICI has also issued a statement acknowledging that “…we should have had more conversations with all 21 participants prior to the exhibition being shown in Israel.” Both ICI and Creative Time have declined to participate in the BDS Movement, expressing that their missions are served best by increasing access to art.

The letter also urges readers to avoid “hyperbolic headlines”. Headlines have been pretty standard, but fairly divisive attacks are rolling in over Facebook, painting Creative Time as corrupt jetsetters blind to political realities.

I would not take the accusations to that extreme, but this may be a good opportunity to re-think “social engagement”. When activists raise concerns about fair wages,gentrification, or violent conflicts, those concerns can’t simply be addressed through art’s safe space and dismissed in practice. Protest is the core of social practice, which isn’t limited to celebrating equally “unique” points of view, but staking one out. As more exhibitions travel to conflict areas, the distinction continues to dog the art world.

Here is Creative Time’s full letter below:

Dear friends,

As you know, Creative Time’s mission as a nonprofit public arts organization is to work with artists in engaging in the discussions, debates and dreams of our times. For more than 40 years, free speech has been fundamental to our mission and hence we do not participate in cultural boycotts. Instead, we believe that art can play a powerful role in addressing, even advancing, social change.

As Creative Time continues to work at the intersection of art and social justice, we recognize our work may elicit debate and even contestation as it has over the past week after Living as Form (The Nomadic Version), an exhibition on art and activism originated by Creative Time and touring thanks to a partnership with Independent Curators International (ICI), opened at the Paul Konrad Hoenich Gallery of Experimental Art and Architecture at Technion University, the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. The show has produced a strong reaction among many artists and activists around the globe as its appearance there is in violation of the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Both Creative Time and ICI were asked to withdraw the exhibit and a petition asking artists to withdraw from the exhibition is now circulating. We feel it is imperative that we are transparent in terms of the facts of the situation as well as our thinking.

For the past several years, a scaled down version of Creative Time’s Living as Form(2011) show has been traveling as a part of ICI’s “Exhibition in a Box” series. This traveling exhibition, titled Living as Form (The Nomadic Version), includes up to 48 projects available for organizing venues to choose from. The traveling form of this exhibition is conceived in the spirit of open source sharing and as a “content generator” wherein each participating venue selects which works to exhibit, adding artists’ works from their own community and organizing events that relate to the premise of the show. Creative Time does not select the venues, we do not sign off on hosting institutions, we do not have contracts with the artists or the host institutions, and we do not receive financial remuneration for the tour. This is all handled by ICI, which has been traveling shows for 40 years.

As a public arts organization that hopes to reach the widest possible audience, we embrace the open source spirit of this traveling show as it makes it user-friendly and accessible for a range of hosting venues, from museums to small community organizations around the globe. The experience has been extremely positive and the show has traveled to over 15 venues from Thailand and Western Sahara to North Dakota. We are further proud that the book Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 is in its second printing and is regularly used in academic settings around the world.

While the ease and speed of the show is part of its strength, we recently realized it could also be its Achilles’ heel. On May 28th we learned that the show was opening the following day in Haifa at Technion’s experimental art and architecture gallery, curated by Vardit Gross. We immediately reached out to ICI to make sure the artists were notified their work was being shown in Israel. ICI acted quickly and informed the artists about the show, and apologized for their misstep in not informing them sooner. Of course, Creative Time extended our own apology to the artists as well.

Creative Time is an artist-centered organization and we uphold the autonomy and agency of the artist. Artists need to know where their work is to be exhibited and the context with which it will be shown. And we are taking tangible steps as we endeavor to learn from this experience and improve our processes—from being more diligent with our contracts so we can safeguard artists’ rights and allow them to make decisions on where their work is exhibited and evaluating our strategy of working internationally, and making our values more apparent to international partners.

Creative Time is a socially engaged arts organization that provides a platform for artists to engage with broad publics on the big issues of our time. We want to acknowledge the validity of the issues being raised as a consequence of this exhibition, and we want to share that we have a deep appreciation for a variety of methods to address and produce social change. In fact, it is important to understand that each of the participating artists has their own unique point of view. As an act of solidarity with the BDS movement, some artists chose to withdraw from Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) in Haifa while others did not. This highlights the fact there are a wide range of beliefs about the effective ways to participate in change. And from the get go, we have told the artists that no matter what they decide, we respect their views, honor their agency and support their decisions.

Certainly, this situation illuminates a wide range of very important questions that center on efficacy. What is the connection between social practice art and social justice? How can we, as institutions and artists, operate in ways that do not normalize the conditions of power that surround us? In this case, the exhibition was brought to Haifa to introduce artists to a cultural form of practice that blends art and social justice. It was not meant as a normalizing maneuver but a pedagogic one, which is certainly emblematic of Creative Time’s core mission. Finally, how can forms of art that engage in the material of social and political life work across a range of contradictions to effect social justice? We believe that new forms of civic production produced by artists and activists alike offer profound methods for producing social change and it is this belief that is at the heart of this exhibition.

We can only hope that there is room to consider political possibility, ethics and efficacy whether it is in the gallery of Technion, in the halls of our museums, in the biennials of the world or in the streets of our cities. For many, this situation feels like an attack on Creative Time. We are instead thinking of it as yet another moment to share, to learn, to grow, at a time where artists are increasingly asserting what they feel is right—and we will always applaud that. With that said, the Internet can quickly take a conflict and reduce the issues into binary, hyperbolic headlines and generate divisive infighting. So we urge our community to consider the complexities at work here. Meanwhile we pledge to continue to do our best in engaging in productive discussions that may even contribute to greater equity here at home and beyond.

As ever,

Anne Pasternak, President and Artistic Director, and Nato Thompson, Chief Curator

Here’s the statement from ICI’s Renaud Proch, sent to Hyperallergic:

Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) was co-organized by Creative Time and Independent Curators International (ICI) in 2012. ICI manages the international tour of the exhibition. It is based on Living as Form, a site-specific project curated by Nato Thompson and presented by Creative Time in the historic Essex Market in New York in 2011.

As part of the tour, a version of the exhibition was on view at Artport, an art center and artists residency in Tel Aviv, Israel, from December 26, 2013 to March 7, 2014. As always with this show, the contents — digitized documentation of socially engaged art practice — were selected by a local curator to best address the exhibition’s audience. This selection later traveled further North in Israel, to Haifa and opened on May 28, 2014 at the Paul Konrad Hoenich Gallery of Experimental Art and Architecture, a university gallery part of the Israel Institute of Technology.

This version of the exhibition contains 21 artists, artists groups, collectives, and platforms such as Wikileaks. As ICI’s scope continues to grow internationally, we must communicate more directly with artists about the itinerary of the exhibitions they agree to be part of, and we should have had more conversations with all 21 participants prior to the exhibition being shown in Israel. ICI is a broad network of curators, artists and art spaces from around the world that encompasses many different perspectives and political positions. Our mission is to provide access to contemporary art and resources to curators and artists across borders, therefore ICI does not take part in cultural boycotts. However we respect the right of others to boycott.

This week as a result, we have written to the 21 artists in the exhibition and offered to discuss their inclusion in this version of the show. We are addressing their concerns individually, and we are following and implementing their decisions swiftly.

Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) is an unprecedented international project, which explores over 20 years of cultural works that blur the forms of art and everyday life, emphasizing participation, dialogue and community engagement. The exhibition is conceived to be adapted freely by the curators who present it wherever it travels, and who add to this expanding and itinerant archive new examples of related works and practices from their local contexts. The works and practices in this itinerant show are represented through digitized documentation that is stored on a hard drive.

Since the exhibition began in 2012 with an initial selection of 48 projects, it has now grown to encompass over 100 examples of socially engaged practice, further increasing the diversity of works represented and giving them a broader reach.

The exhibition has traveled to 16 venues in just two years, actively reaching out to audiences from around the world, in places from California to Taiwan and Western Sahara. We are proud of this great success and moved by the engagement generated by the show.

Here’s the artists’ letter:

Dear Participants of “Living as Form”:

We have become aware that your work is being exhibited at the Technion ­ Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa as part of “Living as Form” (nomadic version), the Creative Time exhibition that is being toured internationally by Independent Curators International (ICI). As admirers of your work and this critical exhibition—which includes so many exemplary projects that imbue our everyday actions and lived environments with community participation, imagination, and political commitment—we are concerned about the disconnect between the artists’ orientation toward social justice and the exhibiting institution’s central role in maintaining the unjust and illegal occupation of Palestine.

Technion has, for decades, been a crucial research center for the development of technologies used by the Israeli Defence Forces against Palestinians in regular and widespread acts of surveillance, land theft, unwarranted eviction, restriction on movement, and violent repression. As the leading science and technology university in Israel (the world’s top exporter of drones), Technion has been central in the development of military unmanned aerial vehicles such as the “Stealth drone,” which can fly up to 1,850 miles and deploy two 1,100­pound bombs by remote control. Technion has also innovated remote­control capabilities for the Caterpillar D­9 armored bulldozer, an effective tool in the continued destruction of Palestinian homes (over 27,000 of which have been destroyed since 1967, according to the Israeli Comittee Against House Demolitions). Technion works closely with Rafael, the Israeli government company that designs advanced weapons systems, and Elbit, one of the two main contractors of the electronic detection fence, a key component of Israel’s Separation Wall in the West Bank (read more about these partnerships here).

So far, six collectives— Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Chto Delat?, Céline and Gavin Wade Condorelli, the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency, the U.S. Social Forum, and Women on Waves—have withdrawn on ethical grounds concerning Technion’s direct relation to the Israeli occupation and/or on the grounds of its violation of Palestinians’ call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and ends its occupation of Palestinian land, dismantles the Wall, ensures equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respects, protects, and promotes rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Since a broad base of Palestinian civil society called for BDS in 2005, thousands of activists, artists, and civil associations have courageously refused participation in Israeli cultural and academic institutions, noting their deep ties to governmental policies of apartheid and practices of settler colonialism. The BDS strategy has seen growing success. Support includes endorsement by a long list of luminaries, including Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, Angela Davis, Arundhati Roy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Alice Walker, Eduardo Galeano, Brian Eno, John Berger, Roger Waters, the late Gil Scott Heron, and many others. Last year the American Studies Association endorsed the boycott of Israeli academic institutions; divestment resolutions are quickly spreading around the United States and the world. You can read more about the campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel here.

We have been told that after concerns began to emerge about Technion’s military ties and the violation of BDS, ICI recently—several days after the show’s May 28 opening—wrote to some of you indicating that your work is being shown there and that you have the right to withdraw it. In addition to this exhibition, some months earlier this same exhibition has travelled to Artport in Tel Aviv (December 26, 2013 to March 7, 2014). It should be noted that both of these exhibitions are in violation of the BDS call.

Since we heard about the show at Technion, some of us have attempted to reach out to those exhibited in “Living as Form” before making the call public so that you could also be involved in the development of the call and what transpires in the future. We could not manage to reach all of you and this letter is part of that
effort. With this appeal and the information contained herein, we call on you to join your fellow artists in withdrawing your works from this exhibition.

Creative Time and ICI are, according to their statements, choosing to disregard the BDS call and unwilling to withdraw the exhibition. They have placed the responsibility on artists to do so. We ask you, as artists whose imaginative and committed work we deeply respect, to stand in solidarity with Palestinians resisting the continued colonization of their land and to stand against the tacit legitimization of institutions which develop the technologies and infrastructures for maintaining the occupation.

Please notify ICI of your withdrawal from the show at Technion and let Creative Time and ICI know that cultural organizations must halt their partnerships with institutions that contribute to or normalize the Israeli military­industrial complex. We thank you for your consideration and your continued commitment to international social justice.

May such actions help us to begin boycotting all the institutions which implicitly or explicitly support, including those in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.


Withdrawn and in support:

Celine Condorelli and Gavin Wade
Chto Delat?
Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla
U.S. Social Forum
Women on Waves

Artists in ‘Living as Form’ and signatories:

Cemeti Art House
Minerva Cuevas
Ultra Red
Wendelien van Oldenborgh


Adalah­NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel Alexander Dwinell
Amin Husain
Andrew Hsiao
Andrew Ross
Angel Nevarez
Anjalika Sagar
Ariella Azoulay
Art Palestine
Ashok Sukumaran
Ayreen Anastas
Barrak Alzaid
Basel Abbas
Benj Gerdes
Blithe Riley
Brian Holmes
Brian McCarthy
Bronson Wood
Chantal Mouffe
Chitra Ganesh
Chris Hedges
Claire Pentecost
Common Notions DAM
Daniel Tucker
Dario Azzellini
David Graeber
Dipti Desai
Doug Minkler
Elena Wood
Ethan Heitner
Favianna Rodriguez
Fawz Kabra
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
George Caffentzis
Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.)
Guy Mannes­Abbott
Hakan Topol
Hyla Willis
Jakob Jakobsen
James Cairns
Jennifer Hayashida
Jeremy Brecher
Jesal Kapadia
Josh MacPhee
Judith Butler
Kareem Estefan
Khaled Hourani
Kodwo Eshun
Laura Dvorak
Laura Hanna
Laura Whitehorn
Lindsay Caplan
Lisa Duggan
Lucy Lippard
Mariam Ghani
Marina Berio
Marina Sitrin
Marshall Weber
Martha Rosler
Mary Patten
Melissa M. Forbis
Molly Crabapple
MTL Collective
Nadia Awad
Nathan Schneider
New Yorkers Against the Cornell­Technion Partnership
Nicholas Mirzoeff
Nicolas Lampert
Nitasha Dhillon
Noah Fischer
Not an Alternative
Occupy Theory
Ohal Grietzer
Olivia Robinson
Paige Sarlin
Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel Pamela Brown
Paula Chakravartty
Peggy Ahwesh
Praba Pilar
Rachel Schragis
Rafeef Ziadah
Reem Fadda
Remi Kanazi
Renée Jabri
Ricardo Cortés
Ruanne Abou­Rahme
Rosalyn Deutsche
Ryan Wong
Sarah Farahat
Shaina Anand
Silvia Federici
Simon Leung
16 Beaver Group
Stefan Christoff
The Narcicyst
Tidal Magazine
TJ Demos
US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation
Valerie Tevere
Walid Raad
Yates McKee 

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