A Conversation with Nato Thompson – By Chelsea Haines

The creation of a journal, such as 127 Prince, on social art practice speaks to some larger issues not only about art but also about its presentation. For the inaugural issue of 127 Prince, I interviewed Nato Thompson, Chief Curator at Creative Time in New York City, NY. Via email, we discussed the issues as he sees them, specifically his views on the field and its relationship to larger cultural production, and focusing on The Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice, which Thompson organized October 23-24, 2009. This interview is set against a backdrop of inquiry about how we, as arts practitioners, claim legitimacy in the academic and artistic fields while also trying to build a sense of community?
– Chelsea Haines

Chelsea Haines: I have a few main questions to get us started: why did you decide to organize the Creative Time Summit; why did you select the format that you did; and to what did you want to call attention with this program?

Nato Thompson: Operating in New York City as the curator of an established art organization provides for some types of cultural power that differs from some in other cities. As the New York art scene operates inside one of the primary global sectors of the neoliberal economy and thus, a fairly robust commercial art sector and thus its fairly robust non-profit art sector, it provides for certain forms of power. I do not want to qualify whether this power is good or bad, but it certainly has the capacity to do different things than say, that of San Francisco or Barcelona.

I wanted the summit to demonstrate not only a broad swathe of this deeply confounding territory called “social practice” although there are many conflicting terms for the field including new genre, participatory, community based, interventionists, dialogic. It isn’t too difficult of a curatorial maneuver to introduce to New York the kind of non-commercial cultural practice that seems to be thriving world over. There is a large contingent of artists deeply invested in social struggle as well as loose-knit forms of social projects that deal with collaboration, complicated forms of authorship, alternative economies, diverse relationships with ideas such as community and audience, participation, generosity, and sustainability. I wanted Creative Time to not only provide a platform for legitimating this kind of work (a type of social capital power reserved for large art organizations) but more importantly to demonstrate complexity and fissures amongst its practitioners.

The format was meant as a way to introduce numerous practitioners to a large audience on an equal platform. While artists like Thomas Hirschorn, Liam Gillick, Alfredo Jaar and Suzanne Lacy certainly possess some cache in more mainstream contemporary art circles, I wanted to place that work alongside almost purposefully anti-art world cultural producers like the Baltimore Development Cooperative, Laurie Jo Reynolds and The Change You Want to See. I must admit that I personally do not actually believe in some of the work that was on display, but instead wanted to present a sample constellation of the kinds of work being made with a knowing nudge toward those both inside the art infrastructure as well as those poised outside.

The criticism that drives me crazy is that the summit felt a little too friendly and that folks were basically all on the same team. This field couldn’t be more at odds with each other and the divisions (particularly around concerns of strategies on political issues) are extremely real. The next one will certainly make more room for conversation so that these tensions become more obvious.

CH: The “anti-art world cultural producers,” particularly the Baltimore Development Cooperative (BDC), were the ones who really addressed the economics of sustainable practice during the summit—where their resources come from and how they invest them.  I found this to be a huge contrast to the other artists like Minerva Cuevas who, while also addressing economics and food issues through S.COOP, created a temporary fantasy economy of free ice cream, made possible by corporate and foundation support (not mentioned in her presentation). I’d like you to comment a bit about sustainable economies in the realm of social art practice, and if you think artists making socially-engaged work should be thinking more about the ways their work is funded, and how that is made transparent to the public.

NT: Certainly, this kind of transparency is critically important in an era where the representation of political action can rest on a whole range of funding structures (DIY, non-profit, gallery, corporate, self-financed). I think that the underlying economy of a project certainly positions the work. But I do say “positions.” It would be a mis-step to take from this that the underlying economy of all projects should in fact be of the kind BDC is representing. For sustainability is a difficult idea in general as are projects relationships to capital. What you don’t want to open up is a witch-hunt hounding those whose relationships with the economy are not completely without difficulties. Living under neoliberalism capitalism, all our funding structures are with difficulties.

But to get to your point again, I think that the it helps position the impact of a work in making the type of funding structure a part of it. This materialist more unified approach is certainly gaining more acceptance in a wide range of practices. But again, I want to caution, that finding alternative models should not be equated with sustainability. Certainly the entire idea of sustainability is anathema to a system whose most lasting impression on society is that of precarity (the constant unbalanced position of labor that the contingent work force is placed in).

CH: Without doubt there are different tactics and strategies that a group like BDC must develop, both in terms of funding and presentation, compared to Cuevas, or The Yes Men, who focus on temporary projects for maximum political effect. I suppose this can lead into a much larger question of ‘defining’ trends in social art practice. Surveying the field is something 127 Prince is attempting to undertake, and I would like to ask what direction(s) you see the field moving in today—are there dominant movements, particular tensions, new approaches you’re noticing, etc? Perhaps this also speaks to The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere exhibition you curated at MASS MoCA in May 2004, and how practices may be shifting.

NT: Things have changed a lot since 2004. The craze over the ‘tactical’ has been to some degree subsumed into an interest in the strategic. These of course are terms coined by Michele DeCerteau but they hold quite true for the way the field of social practice has been evolving. I see a lot more alternative art schools (Public School, Bruce High Quality Foundation University, Learning Site), food distribution and economy projects (InCUBATE, FEAST, Fallen Fruit), amorphous connections between people (spurse, Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor). These tendencies come out of large contingents of folks deeply invested in alternative models. It is refreshing and raises all kinds of questions that are worth asking.

Nonetheless, you still have plenty of one-off type projects (interventionist), or more relational aesthetic gestures. These certainly still remain out there and to some degree deserving of discussion and reflection. The question of what kind of language to use to discuss these works is absolutely critical. Having a platform to highlight kinds of social practice and then to discuss the myriad methods for analyzing them should certainly play a central role in this on-line journal y’all are putting together.

CH: Julia Bryan-Wilson commented in the January issue of Artforum that during the Creative Time Summit there were deep disagreements between presenters in “art’s role in distributing alternative information”[1] arguing that some felt that the art world was not “real” in relation to larger cultural or economic fields of production. Yet, in a comment responding to Claire Bishop’s review of the summit (on artforum.com), you said, “admittedly, the question of what constitutes art (I prefer the term culture) wasn’t addressed head on.”[2] Why did/do you prefer to the term culture rather than art in this context?

NT: It is a tricky discussion because the phrasing is so context specific. The term ‘art’ does have its uses in that it can indicate the material structures and sites (the infrastructure that is the art community from magazines to schools to galleries to museums to alternative spaces to foundations, etc) that constitute the field of art. These spaces have a history and their own power dynamics that can be useful to discuss when articulating the concerns and trajectories of those operating inside it. Nonetheless, it can also be limiting for two basic reasons. 1. Many artists are ambivalent if not hostile to the description of their work as art. They feel that their work moves across discursive territories and feel that they underlying infrastructure of the arts is too conservative and myopic to hold their larger concerns. 2. Art is only one field among many that work with the forms of aesthetics and larger social issues under the information economy. The growth of cultural production (radio, television, film, software, music) has impacted a growing spectacularization of everyday life. Thinking of these projects from the trajectory of art simply doesn’t take into account the more ambitious relevance these works have in the larger information economy. Culture is big politics. From the destruction of the twin towers to the politics of Karl Rove, from the rise of the Tea Party to the battles of same-sex marriage, the cultural battles of mass politics are but one testament to the growing function of cultural production in the politics of everyday life.

CH: How does this larger understanding of art and culture reflect your position as a curator, a position that was historically situated to serve as mediator between artists and publics? Do you find that this has changed at all with your focus on artists who aim to actively engage with the public?

NT: Certainly. In fact, the entire title Curator is almost entirely inaccurate. While it comes out of this lineage, the job description has changed so significantly that it might require different wording all together. Museum curators certainly confront this dilemma (try throwing an education department on top of that), but it is even more so with works in the public sphere where the manner in which an audience first encounters a work is a big part of the work itself.

I think of my role more as a conceptual producer and my producer’s role as a technical producer. Our jobs move across each other quite frequently in an effort with the artist to make a project hum. Massaging budget constraints, site concerns, community outreach alongside conceptually framing a project in press releases, websites, interviews and essays are all pieces of the puzzle.

The artists I tend to work with are keenly aware of the complexities of audience engagement with a project. They realize that people come to the table with a myriad of situated knowledges and that configuring a work must take this into account. I do not serve as a bridge between the artist and the public so much as function as one piece among many advising on the strategies of legibility and the impact of pragmatics.

CH: Finally, what projects do you have in development right now? You hinted that you were planning another summit—do you intend this to become an annual event? If so, do you have any sense of a future presentation format?

NT: Honestly, I’m buried in projects right now and I don’t say that in any self-aggrandizing form. I always joke that New York City is a place where people bump into each other and talk about how productive they are. This hyper output can be a real malady. Nonetheless….

We are working with Paul Ramirez Jonas on a project called Key to the City, which will be redesigning the key to the city of New York as a mass distributed household key that will open up physical and conceptual spaces across the New York five boroughs. I have a book coming out with Autonomedia this summer, finally, called Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production. We will be launching a sick [sic] secret project with Tania Bruguera in November and finally, this October, as you mentioned, we will be collaborating with The School of Art at the Cooper Union to present the second iteration of the Creative Time Summit.

This next iteration will last two days and make more room for conversation. We will still keep the basic format of quick presentations by artists from around the world. Chalk full of the famous, not famous, revolutionaries, compromising aesthetes, hobbyists, manic visionaries, theoretical malcontents, hippie-inspired gardeners, the summit will again develop a temporary platform to hear from practitioners interested in not only the form of social aesthetics but more importantly the transformation of everyday life for the purposes of making the world a better place.

[1] Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Slant: Julia Bryan-Wilson on the Creative Time Summit,” Artforum (January 2010).

[2] Nato Thompson. Comment on “Public Opinion,” artforum.com, comment posted on November 1, 2009, http://artforum.com/talkback/id=68743 (accessed February 28, 2010).

Nato Thompson is chief curator at Creative Time, as well as a writer and activist. Amongst his projects for Creative Time are “The Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice” (2009), “Democracy in America: The National Campaign” (2008), “Waiting for Godot in New Orleans,” a project by Paul Chan in collaboration with The Classical Theatre of Harlem (2007), and “Mike Nelson: A Psychic Vacuum” (2007). Thompson was formerly a curator at MASS MoCA, where his exhibitions included “The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere” and “Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History.” His newest publication, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production, published by Autonomedia, is slated for release this summer.

Chelsea Haines is the public programs manager at ICI (Independent Curators International), a non-profit that seeks to foster best curatorial practices through exhibitions, public programs, training, and networking opportunities. A recent M.A. graduate in Visual Culture Theory at New York University, she is publishing a revised version of her thesis, A New State of the Arts: Developing the Biennial Model as Ethical Arts Practice, in the fall issue of Museum Management and Curatorship.


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