Art and Social Change | Part 1

This post is the first in a three-part blog series by our current Curatorial Intern Camilla Crosta focusing on the potential of art to affect deep and lasting social change. The second post can be read here and the third will be published shortly.

In this first post, Camilla reflects on the Creative Time Summit, an international conference focusing on art and social change, which she attended in Washington DC in October 2016. 

Art and Social Change is one of the most discussed topic in contemporary art today. Speaking about this issue is a difficult task, because the boundaries of activism, social work, art, politics, and sociology are easily blurred. From one side this issue is open to criticism and on the other there is growing need to believe that art has the ability to help change the current social and political situation. This need leads to the development of new art practices, new projects related to communities, research and conferences to discuss these issues. It is in this context that I present this reflection on the Creative Time Summit, one of the largest conferences about art and social change, which I attended last October in Washington DC.

The Creative Time Summit is an annual three-day event organized by Creative Time, a leading arts organisation based in New York City, which develops, organizes and supports art projects in the public sphere which address current social issues. During these three days the participant is completely immersed in an intense schedule of talks, performances, screenings, workshops and events. The atmosphere is incredibly vibrant; artists, activists, curators, politicians, researchers, and academics from all over the world are mixed with a public of other artists, curators, producers, activists, art lovers, journalists and others. The Summit started in 2009 and until 2014 took place in New York City. Since then it has taken place in a different city each year: Stockholm, Sweden in 2014, Venice, Italy in 2015 and now Washington DC in 2016. Each year the conference addresses a different topic that relates to the current social situation. Held in Washington, only a few weeks before the American presidential election, in a moment of total uncertainty, the topic for 2016 was Occupy the future, concentrating particularly on present threats to the democratic process and thinking about possible new alternatives.

The presenters represented a wide range of backgrounds and the schedule was divided into six different sections: Occupy Power, Do It Yourself, Under Siege, Queer and Now, Enter the Anthropocene, and Troubled Democracy.

During the first day, the section Occupy Power explored how grassroots movements and artistic practices can create new and alternative forms of power. The Do it Yourself strand gave some examples of people who decided to stay and act in their home cities producing their own economic and cultural realities and, to end the day, Under Siege presented movements which fight against inequalities and violences produced by weak democracies. On the second day, we had a fun start with Queer and Now, where the discussion about gender and sexuality was mainly presented through performances. Enter the Anthropocene moved the conversation to environmental issues and the day ended with presentations from Troubled Democracies, which discussed the complexities and the contradiction of power. What characterises this conference is the mix of really well known speakers, such as curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and actor Waris Ahliuvalia and groups including the activists Femen, Liberate Tate, and Black Live Matters alongside local artists and activists who simply decided to act to change something in the place they live.

The main question now I have now, after listening to all these presentations, some inspiring and some really controversial, is how I can sum up the conference? What are the impressions that can be taken from it? What have I learned from it?

My first perception, at the moment of stepping out from the theatre, was that this conference is a way to speak again about things which, despite all the efforts made, remain urgent: the need for community, the need of integration, the right to speak freely, the need to act critically, the urgency to decide who you are and for what you stand. However, I perceived a certain distance from the real world: we were talking about it in a bubble in which we were hoping for a change that the reality doesn’t want. If this is the case, what can meetings such as this achieve?

Regardless some critical aspects emerged during the discussions and I’ve started to understand why the Summit is so well attended and popular. This conference is more about people, it’s an opportunity to initiate new collaborations, to encounter other realities and create a common project which can travel from place to place bringing new energies and discussions. In the end, as one of the presenters said, “the crowd is the power’’.

On the way back home, with a certain distance from the intense days of the Summit, a set of new questions arose: what am I bringing back? Which is the place in my context of the stories, experiences and thoughts that I heard? How I can speak about art and social change in the context I live in? How should I address the criticalities present in the area I am in, and how might a cultural institution such as Timespan deal with these?
I will end with an answer to the first question, because the others will find their own space in future posts. What I’ve brought back is an awareness and knowledge of new practices and how they operate, an understanding of what can be inspiring and what should be reflected on with a degree of criticality. What I have gained is a number of exchanges, contacts and possibilities of collaborations that might affect the place I live in now and places I may live in in the future. What I’ve brought back is a set of questions, which I hope will enrich this place and this context.