Creative Time Summit and the Boogieman

Anne Pasternak welcomes the crowd at the 2013 Creative Time Summit.
Anne Pasternak welcomes the crowd at the 2013 Creative Time Summit.

The theme for this year’s Creative Time Summit, held at NYU last week, was Art, Place, and Dislocation in the 21st Century City. The two day event featured keynotes, panels, short films, and on-stage interviews. With any event like this, there’s an odd paradox of information overload on one hand, and a feeling that the presentations are too short on the other. There’s never quite enough of the interesting stuff, but there’s too much of everything.

Another feature of a forum like this is that the speakers use a shared shorthand for some pretty complex concepts. Partly this is out necessity, due to short time slots, but it can also feel lazy. It’s a way of playing to the crowd, if you know your listeners are sympathetic to a certain idea or line of reasoning, it’s easy to lean on it too heavily without bothering to justify it.

One of these shorthand terms that stood out to me was the way a number of speakers referred to “capital” as a diabolical autonomous force. Capital wants this, capitol destroys that, we must resist the influence of capital and on and on (Neil Brenner’s keynote is a good example of this). This is a pretty typical way of speaking in left-leaning community of socially-engaged art, and I don’t normally have a problem with it. I was well aware of the political positions and goals of many of these projects, and of Creative Time as a whole, well before I decided to attend the conference. I get it, and I (usually) agree with what these projects are trying to achieve. But something about the way the word capital was used with such an ominous tone bugged me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the on-stage conversation between Creative Time’s chief curator Nato Thompson and Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses. Project Row Houses is a community art initiative in Houston that has combined artist residencies and affordable housing for twenty years. Their conversation was frank, funny, and provocative in all the right ways. One line that stuck with me came up when Rick was speaking critically about creative place-making, the umbrella term that seems to have usurped the older and less sexy notion of community art. He said, “It’s easy to go to the place, it’s harder to go to the people.”

This sentiment was echoed later in Lucy Lippard’s keynote, where she made the point that “place” as a concept has been cheapened. If you want to do a project that engages place in a meaningful way, it requires more that just loving the place, it requires immersion. I took this to mean that only when you’re immersed will you begin to truly understand a place, mediated through genuine relationships with the people who make the place what it is. This idea, touched on by both Lowe and Lippard is both inspiring and challenging. For those of us working to cultivate new ways for art to occupy cities, it’s a reminder that this is difficult, complicated stuff.

I also like this idea because I think it taps into a much deeper truth, one that goes way beyond creative place-making and social art projects. The warning here is that people are always more important and complex than ideas. We can have wonderful ideas, but if the implementation isn’t responsive to people, they probably won’t amount to much.

Then it dawned on me why the tendency to speak about capital as a community-destroying boogieman was bothering me so much. It replaces a complex constituency of people with a simple idea. Simple ideas, no matter how well-intentioned, will never be a substitute for getting to know people and understanding their motivations. Characterizing capital as a unified force glosses over the fact that businesses are run by actual people. The people who run businesses have diverse, nuanced, and conflicting motivations, just like artists, activists, and everyone else. Some businesses really are predatory and awful, others genuinely want to make their communities a better place, and there are plenty who fall somewhere in between. To echo Rick Lowe’s statement, it’s easy to demonize businesses, it’s harder to demonize the people who run them.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m speaking in defense of bank CEOs, brutish condo developers and architects of the subprime lending crisis. I’m not. What I’m against is the tendency to lump bad actors together with honest, hardworking people who run commercial ventures. This more nuanced approach is not a semantic exercise. If we’re serious about the goals presented throughout the conference–creating places that are just, equitable, and inclusive–we’ll do a much better job if we work alongside businesspeople who share common interests than if we demonize everyone who’s trying to make money.

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