Art and Social Change | Part 2

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

In this second post, Camilla picks up on some questions raised in her first post and considers them further through examination of two specific projects presented at the Creative Time Summit.

In my previous post, I introduced a personal experience as an attendee at the Creative Time Summit in Washington DC, one of the largest conferences relating to art and social change. In this post, I would like to continue exploring some of the questions and critical issues that arose during and after the conference, through two of the projects presented: Jonas Staal’s New World Summit Rojava and Wang Renzheng’s Dust Project. In particular, I’d like to consider what I can learn from these projects, and how this can be translated to the place that I live and work.

To begin with, I would like to discuss Jonas Staal’s contribution. Staal is an artist based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, whose work focuses on the relationship between art, politics and ideology. He has developed various projects which question the structure of power and political institutions, and connect artistic research with human rights and democratic processes. At the Creative Times Summit he focused on his project New World Summit, initiated in 2012, which provides “alternative parliaments” that host stateless organisations excluded from other democratic processes.

An interesting aspect of the presentation was his physical absence – his VISA application had been denied because of his work on New World Summit Rojava, the latest iteration of Staal’s New World Summit. The presentation focused on the history of the project thus far and the ongoing development of the project in Rojava, a de facto autonomous region in Northern Syria, which gained its independence during the Syrian civil war (2011- ) and that is now trying to establish a more democratic and fair government. This new phase New World Summit follows an invitation from Rojava’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for Staal to plan and build a new parliament, imagining a space for a new democratic system to emerge.

Two things in particular made this presentation interesting for me: the request for an artistic perspective in the creation of a new state and the methodology adopted by Jonas Staal. First, the invitation to Staal suggests that art is conceived as essential in the building process of a new political form, with a belief in its role as an agent of social change and in the power of imagination. In this light, the artist is no longer at the service of a political authority but becomes an external collaborator who brings fresh eyes and critical enquiry to the process of constructing democracy. Second, the methodology adopted by Staal, which ties together all his projects, and consists of three simple steps: understanding the infrastructure of power, redefining its meaning in collaboration with other political organisations and finally creating an alternative which can bring new opportunities for social and political change.

The second project which I would like to present is Dust Project, by Wang Renzheng. For 100 days between July and November 2015, Wang walked the streets of Beijing for 4 hours each day with an industrial vacuum cleaner and hoovered dust from the air. At the end of this period, Wang used the dust accumulated to create a “smog brick” with the dust mixed with clay and fired. This project had a great resonance in China, where air pollution is a huge environmental and public health issue, but also abroad, developed in parallel to COP21, the climate conference in Paris that took place in December 2015. For me, the most interesting aspect to highlight is how the work itself became a means to stimulate discussion and raise awareness on the quality of air in China; the conversations and the exchanges which Wang encouraged during the performance, with tourists, police, journalists, local people and cleaners and the dialogue created around the object of the brick.

Now it is necessary to consider what of these projects I can translate to the place I live. Which questions do they raise which I can ask of my surroundings? Starting with Staal’s project, is it possible to think of the possibility of art projects, artists and institutions to be involved in the process of developing new forms of local governance? Is there a space for institutions to collaborate in understanding, negotiating and redefining the needs of a community? Is it possible to identify an effective methodology which guides our actions? From Dust Project I would like to draw attention to the importance of questioning the role that art and institutions can have in raising awareness of contemporary social and environmental issues. Is this role necessary and if it is how can it be done?

Finding a balance between issues with local interest and a wider resonance remains an essential step in creating opportunities for a fruitful discussion. The decision to stand for something and take a position should also avoid univocal discourses, instead allowing an exchange of ideas and opinions, inviting audiences from within and outside the institution. During the Summit a few presentations delved into this topic further, and this is what I will consider in my next and last post.