From Operas to Activism: Creative Capital Convenes

by Paddy Johnson on August 2, 2013 Reviews

Williams College and the site of the Creative Capital Retreat

“The goal of our project is modest: we’re seeking to fundamentally shift human culture,” Zach Moser and Eric Leshinsky told the Creative Capital retreat audience this weekend. Under the moniker Shrimp Boat Projects, they make public art inspired by situations they encounter while running their Houston-based shrimping operation.

Shrimp Boat Projects was about as ambitious as any of the 86 seven-minute-long artist presentations at this weekend’s four-day conference. The retreat was attended by over 300 artists, consultants, board members, guests, and Creative Capital staff. For reference, Creative Capital offers career development services to artists and grants projects up to $50,000; and this year’s presenters included grantees working in visual arts (2012), film/video (2012), literature (2009, 2013), emerging fields (2013) and performing arts (2013).

Retreat presentations weren’t as strong as the year prior, though the margin on that is slim. Last year, a lag between retreats had allowed grantees more time to develop their projects before they gave presentations; this year, grantees had less time to do so.

Also, this year’s combination of visual and performing arts didn’t always juxtapose well.
Try watching a loud operatic performance after you’ve seen a series of understated installations without thinking it’s cheesy. It doesn’t happen.

That said, by the end of the presentations, I actually found myself a little teary, as I reflected on the volume of generosity, creative energy, and sheer force of will that brought these projects into being. It seems the 2013 emerging fields category is largely responsible for that shift—the program’s tech-minded initiatives have been replaced with civic-minded works—and given the growing ubiquity of social injustice, so be it. Laurie Jo Reynolds is among the new grantees doing the most to address issues like this; her art and media campaigns successfully shut down the Tamms Correctional Center this year, a supermax prison that kept inmates in continuous solitary confinement. As Reynolds explained during her presentation, she makes art for a number of reasons, “but mostly, because its needed.”

Here are a few of the weekend’s highlights, which I’ve grouped below by subject matter:

Gregory Sale, It's Not Just Black and White, 2011


Laurie Jo Reynolds
Growing up in Canada has given me a false idea of how prisons generally function in the United States. In Canada, we treat people more humanely. Reynolds told us horror stories about Tamms; they kept prisoners in continuous solitary confinement, failed to treat mental conditions, and even practiced torture. Upon learning about the depraved conditions in the prison, Reynolds founded the Tamms Poetry Committee, an organization that sent letters, mail art, and poetry to prisoners at Tamms. She later founded Tamms Year Ten, a successful legislative and media campaign which closed the prison this year.

As you might imagine, the crowd erupted into applause with this news. This year, Reynolds was selected as a Theo Westenberger awardee (one of the few named-awards Creative Capital gives out), along with Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts and Quintan Ana Wikswo.

Gregory Sale
Every time I see Gregory Sale’s 2011 work “It’s Not Just Black and White”, it gets better. That’s because the multi-part project is too massive to absorb all in one sitting. Sale’s project is visually defined by a black-and-white wall installation painted by prisoners at the ASU Art Museum, but the work also includes 54 events. These include panel discussions, workshops, and seminars in which prisoners, correctional facility managers, politicians, and arts administrators all come together to discuss art and civic policy. In the words of Sale: “The events brought together legislators, and panel conversations about the prison system when previously there were none.”

Phillip Andrew Lewis
Phillip Andrew Lewis was held against his will for two years of his teenage life in a cultish drug treatment program, all stemming from some recreational drug use. Sponsored by the government, the program, called Synanon, is now both defunct and well-known enough to have its own Wikipedia page documenting its extreme treatment policies. At last year’s retreat, Lewis talked about how he considered his project, entitled “Synonym”, a form of deprogramming; through a series of installations and performances, he sought to reconstruct the treatment center.

This year his presentation began with a photograph of the unmarked, windowless door to the now-closed treatment facility where he was housed. The rest of Lewis’ work mirrors and attempts to analyze the conditions of his experience. This was most powerfully demonstrated in a video he produced using a Junior ROTC drill team, made up of 15 -17-year-old members. In it, the team executes a variety of orders we never see issued: They march directly at all wall. Then, between two columns. All of this is done at the military standard of 120 beats per minute. Together, the men act as if part of a single organism, even as they experience discomfort or find themselves in situations in which only individualism can help them escape.

As it happens, Lewis met someone at the retreat who knows the owners of Casa del Mar, the Synanon program’s former headquarters. Apparently, the owners are art collectors, so we’re hoping an onsite residency is possible.

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