Anne Pasternak on Socially Engaged Art and Making the Change They Want to See

Kara Walker, Dominio Sugar Factory Project
Creative Time's current exhibition is Kara Walker's Dominio Sugar Factory Project.
Today and tomorrow, artists working at the intersection of social justice and the art world will gather at Anderson Ranch outside Aspen to discuss their projects as a part of Making the Change They Want to See. The artists are as varied as Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave; Laurie Jo Reynolds, who used creative organizing strategies to shut down a supermax prison in Illinois; and Mel Chin, who addresses issues of ecological destruction and cultural displacement through collaboration at non-traditional sites: at toxic dumps, on prime-time television and through video games.

To learn more about the event and the state of socially engaged public art, we spoke with Anne Pasternak, the seminar's curator and the president and artistic director of Creative Time, a New York-based public arts organization.

See also: Michael Mayes on Dead Man Walking, Cut and Shoot, Texas, and Social-Justice Opera

Westword: Talk about how you selected this group of artists and how they relate to your conception of the seminar.

Anne Pasternak: I'd begin by saying that as global markets and global capital dramatically expand, so has the art market. As a result, so much of what we read about, in terms of art, are the gallery shows, market prices, art-world gossip or whatever it may be. But we aren't maximizing our opportunity to talk about the great impact artists are having on society and the marketplace.

So when Anderson Ranch very generously asked me to organize a seminar, I thought it would be great to raise awareness and engage the local community in conversation about how artists are participating in social change movements. So the artists that I've selected are, quite frankly, some of the most talented artists in terms of social change work, internationally.

Mel Chin is one of the great pioneers of art and social practice. Tania Bruguera is an absolute legend from Cuba and is working internationally. Superflex from Copenhagen is working with indigenous people from developing nations. Laurie Jo Reynolds is lesser known, but has one of the more radical and more talked-about projects, in terms of her practice, which she calls "legislative art." She's succeeded in shutting down a supermax prison in Illinois.

These are artists who have done some radical, profound, compelling, provocative, important projects that ask fundamental questions about who an artist is, what an artwork can be, what forms and materials artists can work with and what impact art may have on the world beyond moments of individual reflection and wonderment.

Then we also have the extraordinary artist and also Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen, whose work is less about social practice, though he's dabbled in that area with at least one project that I'm aware of, but who believes that for him, film is a great forum to be able to engage hearts and minds in some of the difficult subjects of our time, such as slavery, oppression and racism.

Can you unpack the term social practice?

Social practice is an imperfect term for a growing national and international momentum of artists who are working socially. They are social in their form. It involves organizing and gathering and sharing and learning.

Social practice is collaborative and participatory. As my co-curator Nato Thompson says, "It's living as form."

Where does the idea of art fit into political organizing strategies? Where are the lines separating art and organizing? Are there lines?

I don't see that there are lines. I always say that there is no door an artist shouldn't kick open. Not only is that in terms of content and ideas, but it's in terms of the forms that they use.

There is a long precedence of so-called "social practice art." You have to think about Joseph Beuys and what he referred to as "social sculpture" in his performances and other kinds of organizing activities. He was also one of the early founders and pioneers of the Green Party and ran for political office as an artistic practice. He's not the only one, but he was an early one.

A lot of people say, well how is this art? That's because they think about art as something that hangs on a wall or sits on a pedestal. But the truth is art is about a great idea and any medium is possible for a great artwork.

Holland Cotter, who is participating in this seminar, said in one of his articles -- very poignantly, "Can we let go of this question: 'Is it art?' History tells us it is art."

Art is based on great ideas. It's about whatever form is necessary to convey the idea.

Read on for more from Anne Pasternak.

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