Creative Time Defends “Living as Form” Tour Stop in Israel

Graphic for Creative Times' "Living as Form" exhibition

This afternoon, Creative Time’s head, Anne Pasternak, and “Living as Form” curator Nato Thompson at last responded in full to the building controversy around the show’s tour stops in Israel. The uproar began last week with the revelation that the show of politically engaged art was appearing at Israeli venues including Technion, a university with ties to the Israeli military, in violation of some of the exhibited artists’ personal commitment to a cultural boycott. This prompted a wave of artists to pull out, starting with the group Decolonizing Architecture and culminating in the withdrawal of several important artists, including Allora & Calzadilla (one-time US representatives at the Venice Biennale), as well as a petition signed by numerous important artists and art theorists, including figures such as Lucy Lippard, Silvia Federici, and Martha Rosler (read Mostafa Heddaya’s full series here, here, and here).

In their letter, Pasternak and Thompson acknowledge that the affair could have been handled better and pledge to learn the lessons of the event, taking steps to be clearer with artists in the future about how their art is shown. They also make some effort to distance themselves from the decision to show in Israel, emphasizing that the “open source” nature of the touring show, designed to spread the gospel of socially engaged art to the widest possible audience, put aspects of its tour beyond their control (they seem to say that they did not know about the opening of the show at Technion until the day before it happened, on May 28). Responsibility for the tour itself, they say, was handled by Independent Curators International, their partner in the “Nomadic Version” of “Living as Form:” “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.”

At the same time, Pasternak and Thompson remain clear that Creative Time does not support the tactic of cultural boycott, and that they stand by the value of bringing the socially engaged artworks in “Living as Form” to Israel as a “pedagogic” gesture. While they say that they support the personal decisions of the artists who have pulled out, they highlight the fact that some artists have chosen to remain in the Israeli tour stops, illustrating that there are “a wide range of beliefs about the effective ways to participate in change.” Finally, they urge Creative Time supporters who have been following the controversy “to consider the complexities at work here” and ignore the “hyperbolic headlines.”

The full letter is 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

Amin Husain, an artist who helped launch both the protest and the petition, has already responded to the Creative Time statement on Facebook. His response (printed with permission) reads in part:

One thing to keep in mind is that there is the Palestine question, but then there is just the absurd claim that there is an important dialogue that needs to happen at Technion where it’s a key research institution in the creation of military drones, military robotics, and other related technologies. What is the social practice component, dialogue, happening at Technion? Do not let this critical question get lost in a plea for space, for diversity, for tolerance, for patience.

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