Interview by contributor Mariel Tepper
ANTE Mag is focusing on ten projects that span creative disciplines and seek to build wider community ties between creative disciplines in our new series of interviews, 10xCommunity. Featuring artistic projects, community-building initiatives and interdisciplinary platforms, ANTE is sharing these interviews on the mag and across social media that spotlight these endeavors through the current social crisis to pivot to sharing positivity and uplifting creative news to our audience. We here at ANTE have long been fans of Culture Push, a New York City-based nonprofit that unites art and social justice through its programs, including fellowships, an online journal, exhibitions and much more. Below we caught up with Artist, Professor and Culture Push Co-Founder Clarinda Mac Low for insights into the current events and initiatives Culture Push is moving ahead with in the time of CoVid-19.
ANTE: So tell us what inspired the creation of Culture Push, and how did you envision this organization as a way to foster artistic initiatives through public participation?
Culture Push: Dreaming up Culture Push was always a collective endeavor, because everything good, for me, happens in conversation. When the first glimmerings of Culture Push started, in 2008, I had been in conversation with many different people about the lack of space for hybrid artforms. At the time I was mostly situated in the dance and performance world, but not really fitting in there anymore (if I ever did) and talking to other people who felt the same way. I wanted to create a home for ideas that didn’t fit anywhere else. The name “Culture Push” came to me after a few conversations I had with Alejandra Martorell and Paul Benney, my partners in the collective TRYST. Culture Push was a name that left room for interpretation, but conveyed a sense of urgency. Then, after a series of conversations with Aki Sasamoto and Arturo Vidich, recent graduates of my alma mater, Wesleyan University, the first form of Culture Push was born. All three of us, though we were from different generations, had expertise both in dance and performance and in other disciplines and sectors, and an abiding interest in how art practice could function beyond the black box and the white cube. We could see how, by creating an entity, we could make a home for hybridity by creating an institution that was expansive in intent and encouraged cross-sector, public-facing conversation.
We saw the institution itself as the art material, so, when we began, we didn’t actually know exactly what our focus would be. We were performance-makers, so we decided that the form of the organization would rise from experimentation and trial and error–our first step was just to create the institution–the entity–and then the form would emerge from action. So, in 2009, with the help of our amazing initial Board, we incorporated as a non-profit, and because of our Board member Michael Yi it went quite smoothly.
As movement artists we were committed to corporeal practice and knowledge, and we began with a set of broad principles–our programs would bring together different sectors, would involve “hands-on” public participation and horizontal knowledge share, and would allow for collaboration. The first programs that we devised proceeded from these principles, and from our desire to nurture a fluid culture where the lines between art, politics, daily life, and social experiment could blur, and where challenging the lines between disciplines leads to challenging the form of society.
ANTE: During this difficult time of the COVID-19 crisis, what are some ways that your organization plans to continue its mission in helping artists and communities affected by the pandemic?
CP: We currently have two major programs–The Fellowship for Utopian Practice (our bedrock) and the newer Associated Artists program. All of the artists we serve are in precarious situations financially and socially. Most of these artists also work as independent contractors, often within an arts context where they are facing cancellations, postponements, and lay-offs, as well as loss of future work. Many of these artists also act as community supporters, and are donating their time and energy to creating space and providing essential services to their fellow New Yorkers.
To support our artists, we are working with our funders to expand the financial support we offer our current Fellows and Associated Artists, as well as our recent alumni, by offering expanded funding for their ongoing projects and funding for the projects they have begun during this crisis. We also want to offer them opportunities to share work and be in community with each other and with the wider world, and will be brainstorming about how to re-cast their projects for the current time. We are also planning on offering new opportunities, like paying them to give online workshops or presentations, or setting up networking events. The bottom line is to support these important voices in any way we can–they are the voices that will help us remake the world in a better form as this crisis develops and (hopefully!) resolves.
ANTE: Can you talk about how Culture Push has been able to amplify initiatives that have been started by individuals and groups to help artists and others who have been financially impacted by COVID-19?
CP: The people who are connected to Culture Push tend to be self-starters and community responders. In the initial shock of the shutdown, for example, Shawn Escarciga – at the time Assistant Director of Culture Push – reacted as an individual concerned for the impact that the loss of work would have on people who are already living precariously and responded by immediately starting a GoFundMe, the NYC Low-Income Artist/Freelancer Relief Fund. He was immediately joined by Nadia Tykulsker, one of the current Culture Push Board members. This was not an initiative begun by Culture Push, but, early in the process Shawn and Nadia reached out to Culture Push staff to talk about fiscal sponsorship for the Fund. I had also been thinking about this, and it was great to come together and offer this fiscal sponsorship to a fund that was addressing such urgent need. The fund has, to date, raised over $150,000.
At Culture Push we often talk about the “performance of institution”: that is, we are very small and barebones with a modest budget, but, because we are in good financial standing and our organizational bona fides are strong, we are able to act as a institutional partner when people require a financial or otherwise established entity to get what they need. So, after the success of the partnership with the NYC Low-Income Artist/Freelancer Relief Fund, we decided, for now, to expand our fiscal sponsorship program to include emergency funds independently initiated by staff, Fellows, and other artists in our community that serve low-income, BIPOC, and queer artists, and artists and others based in vulnerable New York City neighborhoods. So far, besides the NYC Low-Income Artist/Freelancer Relief Fund, we are also acting as a sponsor for the Dance Union’s NYC Dancers Relief Fund (COVID-19), started by J. Bouey and Melanie Greene, and for the North Bronx Collective, a group of activists in the Bronx (Alicia Grullòn, a Fellowship alum and current Board member, is a member of the group). By serving as a conduit for higher levels of funding from foundations or individuals, this fiscal sponsorship has so far enabled these emergency funds to greatly expand the financial support they can offer to the people they serve. We don’t take an admin fee, so all funds go directly to the people who need it.
ANTE: In your most recent exhibition, RE-TOOLING, artists developed multidisciplinary “practical tools” for resistance and social change, incorporating dance, performance, installation, and writing. A tool was redefined as a means for “individuals to change their environment (socially, politically, physically) or engage with it in a new way.” Can you speak on the power of creative tools and outlets to help us cope in times of hardship/uncertainty?
CP: Culture Push is grounded in the conviction that having space for imagination is as important to survival as more tangible resources like food and shelter. Indeed, imagination is how we figure out how to gain those resources under difficult circumstances. Imagination allows us to create work-arounds and new situations when a situation is challenging, but also gives us space to be present, or to escape, or to fully realize ourselves as individuals or as members of a group. It allows us to transcend difficulty, to connect to each other and to the other creatures we share space with, to invent new ways of being.
So having access to creativity is imperative for all people, especially people in difficult circumstances. And everybody is creative–whether the results of creative endeavor are recognized as “art” by a mainstream art world is immaterial. Sometimes it takes a nudge here and there for people to find a voice, but it’s always present. The artists in the RE-TOOLING show have developed some nudging tools par excellence, and there are many important voices that are born from their experiments. I’m also reminded of Claudia Prado, who has devised a writing workshop that she runs with working-class Spanish-speaking immigrants (documented and undocumented). The work these people, mostly women, come up with is gorgeous and valuable, from voices we don’t hear often enough. The voices come out easily–they just need the right opportunity and the right catalyst.
ANTE: In addition to physical exhibitions and public projects, Culture Push also features the online journal PUSH/PULL. Can you explain how this publication is integral to the Culture Push mission, and how digital publications/exhibitions could be a way for arts organizations to adapt in the time of social distancing?
CP: This is a great question, and definitely one we have been thinking about a lot. From the beginning we have seen some form of publication as an asset to the Culture Push community. The first version of this was IdeaNEWS, a publication that reflected on the year that had passed through its form rather than its content. IdeaNEWS was active from 2009-2011. Then, in 2015, our then-Assistant Director Madelyn Ringold-Brown, proposed starting an online publication as a supplement to the Fellowship–a place for Fellows to publicly share their process, work with collaborators, develop ancillary philosophies… basically another part of the public square. It’s since evolved to be a venue where our Associated Artists engage as well.
CP artists usually bring together groups of people as an integral part of their projects, but now that physical distancing has become a norm and so much of our lives are happening online, we will need a different venue for gathering and creating community. Since PUSH/PULL is already there, and is already known as a venue for quality content, we plan to expand it as a platform, and bring in as much of our community as possible. It’s an exciting possibility, because, while it has been an effective venue for writing, because it lives mainly online it also has been a repository for video, images, graphics, and other media. We are also exploring how it can be interactive.
ANTE: One of your organization’s early projects, ArtCraftTech, brought together several creative disciplines (artists, scientists, technology experts) to find artistic and practical solutions to short-term problems, like waste management, through collaboration and dialogue. What are some takeaways on how creative, publicly engaged projects like these can help us deal with real-world problems and inspire collective action for change?
CP: When we first established Culture Push, all three co-founders started different programs. ArtCraftTech was my “baby,” so to speak, and the form of the program reflected both my experience in devising collaborative performance and my experience working in microbiology laboratories.
I have a desire to address so-called “real-world” problems directly, but I am also suspicious of the abbreviated process that many cross-sector endeavours seem to engage in. With ArtCraftTech, I gathered people from different professions together and acted as a facilitator as we decided, all together, what problem(s) we wanted to take on. Once we determined that, we decided what questions we wanted to ask, but were not expected to come up with workable solutions–it was clear that solving the problems we were taking on required deep systemic change and far more resources than we had on hand. We did generally end up coming up with some very concrete possibilities for mitigating the problem, but also more subtle approaches, and projects that were provocations as well as “solutions.”
Engaging in this process, which was a series of meetings that took place over several months, really showed us all how a long, slow, thoughtful process of development can illuminate different aspects of a problem, and bring new ideas to the fore that may have been hiding underneath the more obvious solutions. This was reminiscent of (good) laboratory research, where repeated experiments and the data they bring leads you into unexpected territory, and shows you where you need to go. It’s interesting to think about this now, because, when I was working in laboratories, I was working with HIV, and there is a delicate tension, in disease research, between the urgency of cure and the need for caution and careful observation. I think we’re all being gripped in that narrative now–so much desiring a quick fix for this overwhelming pandemic, but in danger of grabbing on to the first dubious solution that comes along…
Anyway, I digress. 🙂 This understanding of the importance of process imbued all of the co-founders’ programs, and it definitely influenced the form for the Fellowship for Utopian Practice. We were clear from the beginning that the Fellowship needed to be at least a year long, and it needed to privilege process over product, or, as I eventually said, “Process is our product.” This was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also true–we are advocating for an arts ecosystem that privileges and supports a thoughtful development process as much as if not more than a specific product or object. Only this will truly allow for deep conversation and lasting change.
ANTE: Can you tell us about some of your recent initiatives and where Culture Push headed in the near future?
CP: Currently our big project is Walking the Edge, a project we’re doing in collaboration with Works on Water and the NYC Department of City Planning. The two arts organizations are working with the Waterfront and Open Spaces Division of the NYC DCP to create a durational artwork that invites everybody to walk all 520 miles of New York City’s coastline, to get people involved with thinking about NYC as a city of water, and to gather deep engagement around the DCP’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan for 2030. That walk was supposed to start on May 1 (520 in 5/20, get it?) and continue for 24 hours a day until the whole coast was covered. So yeah. We are adjusting. It’s interesting, actually, and not entirely bad, to slow down and reconsider. So, instead of the walk this year, now we are launching prompts and questions and suggestions and performances about our waterfronts, by artists from Culture Push and Works on Water, every Friday at noon on Instagram (at @works_on_water, @culturepusher, and @nycwaterfront).
Also, we have gathered all the materials for a 10th Anniversary publication that featured several Fellows writing about subjects related to the projects they did with CP, and we were planning to publish and print in April and distribute in June of this year. Of course now that timeline has shifted, but we will be making that available soon as a downloadable .pdf
For the future? Interesting question. There was the Plan for the Future Before, and there’s a Plan for the Future Now. We were finally thinking about creating a hub space for Culture Push (we have been an itinerant organization this whole time, with no fixed physical location or office). That’s still our desire, but, because so many things are so up in the air, how that will play out is very much an open question. Regardless, we will continue supporting artists as they collaborate with communities and create spaces for imagination and solidarity.