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. Shelly & Donald Rubin Foundation, The 8th Floor is a platform for socially engaged exhibitions and programs featuring artists of diverse backgrounds involving communities in dialogues around a range of social issues. ANTE contributor Mariel Tepper touched base with Executive/Artistic Direction at The 8th Floor, Sara Reisman, in order learn more about what types of initiatives they are enacting and following during CoVid-19.
(Lead image credits: Jane Benson. A Place for Infinite Tuning, 2014. Plywood, steel, mirrored plexiglass, wooden vase, latex paint, hand-cut artificial flowers, hand-cut oud and viola Photograph by Matthew Johnson, courtesy of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.)
ANTE mag. How did The Rubin Foundation’s The 8th Floor get its start? What was the initial vision for how The 8th Floor could explore the intersection of art and social justice?
Sara Reisman. The 8th Floor was founded in 2010 by Shelley and Donald Rubin to showcase their private art collection, which, at the time, was focused on contemporary Cuban art. When I started at the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, as Artistic Director, in 2014, part of my charge was to help refine the mission of the Foundation, which was founded in the mid-1990s. The Foundation had supported arts and cultural organizations – ranging from visual arts presenters in New York City, to Himalayan art projects – as well as social justice organizations advocating for freedom of expression, gun control, and access to health care. In the process of identifying that the mission could be more precise in its support of organizations in New York City that were bringing art and social justice together, we determined that The 8th Floor could become a platform for art and dialogue around social justice themes. Initially, I thought there would be a few shows to articulate the Foundation’s interests. The first show I curated at The 8th Floor in 2015 was Mobility and Its Discontents, which included artists Jane Benson, Ángel Delgado, Lan Tuazon, and Javier Téllez, whose projects expressed the impacts of borders and strategies for transcending them. As we – my colleagues George Bolster, Anjuli Nanda Diamond, and I – continued to develop ideas for exhibitions, it became clear a series of shows on social justice themes, building upon one another, could be ongoing. In addition to the exhibitions, public programs and workshops are integral to providing audiences and the communities we serve with a discursive environment that is both communal and supportive of free expression. Without public programming, I think the effect of the exhibitions would be very different, less engaged.
ANTE mag. The COVID-19 crisis has deeply impacted our society and the art world in unprecedented ways. What are some ways that the Rubin Foundation will stay connected and active in the arts community during this time?
SR. We recently launched a virtual series called Performance-in-Place, which we thought of as a way to engage with artists, providing them with support and a platform, to present new performances generated by the new social distancing measures (whatever that might mean for each of them.) Performance-in-Place will happen every third Tuesday evening (times depending on where the artists are located), our first event was led by Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful Espejo, in the Bronx, with two collaborators Anna Recasens, and Laia Solé, who are based in different parts of Spain. Their conversation, On Art and Friendship, also showed excerpts from a new video piece they began working on in February to document the aspects of art praxis, that are often not shown in art spaces. For our team, it was moving to see how the three artists facilitated a discussion of sharing and connecting with a group largely consisting of individuals who are often in attendance at The 8th Floor. Forthcoming performances include presentations by Alice Sheppard with Kinetic Light (June 9), From the Collection of Eileen Myles (June 30,) Maria Hupfield (July 11,) a new piece titled Hotline by Aliza Shvarts (September 1,) and Latasha N. Nevada Diggs (September 22.) To complement the performance series, we are hosting monthly talks online as well. On May 28, I will moderate Places of Isolation and Healing, a conversation between Edgar Heap of Birds and Douglas Miles, and on June 18, I’ll be in conversation with artist and activist Carmen Papalia on facilitating accessibility in virtual spaces.
Initially, I felt that the pressure to generate programs for virtual experiences was uninspiring. But two months into this, I’m realizing there is great potential to connect people internationally, across geographies. Of course, more than ever, the notion of the digital divide is an issue, but I can see that as we learn to operate virtually, there is an opportunity to approach accessibility in new ways, online and eventually as we make the shift back to doing programs in person.
ANTE mag. Your organization’s past exhibitions explore pressing social issues and concepts, from healthcare to mass surveillance to “different modes of resistance” in the series Revolutionary Cycles. Why is art and culture necessary in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic?
SR. Revolutionary Cycles was conceived as a series of six exhibitions to examine the instruments of social and political transformation. In the first exhibition Revolution from Without…, which opened in January 2019, artists featured in the show – Chto Delat, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Dread Scott, and others – expressed how change often comes from those on the margins of the polity, and the condition of being without – without rights, without representation, and without capital. It’s clear to me that in the current climate, a crisis of a failing health care system, capitalism run rampant, and rights being stripped away in the name of national security, art is essential for its capacity to communicate conditions that would otherwise be obscured. I also believe that even as the decision to make art is perceived by many to be one of privilege, being an artist is a precarious existence, and yet, artists constantly take risks in representing unpopular ideas, that question authority, that challenge the status quo. The next exhibition in the Revolutionary Cycles series, To Cast Too Bold a Shadow (originally scheduled to open on May 14 and postponed until at least the fall) is focused on entrenched forms of misogyny in our culture, and will feature works by Betty Tompkins, Joiri Minaya, Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Aliza Shvarts, among others. With support from the Italian Council (a funding body of the Italian government) we are commissioning Maria D. Rapicavoli to make a new film, The Other: A Familiar Story, about immigration based on the life of a close relative. The project charts the oppression of a woman who emigrated to the U.S. from Italy, forced to leave her children behind, surviving an abusive relationship in the process. A Familiar Story becomes more timely given the immigration crisis we’ve been witnessing over the last decade, and now with the pandemic in which domestic abuse is compounded by quarantine. The logic behind Rapicavoli’s film demonstrates how artists are often thinking about what is below the surface.
ANTE mag. What have been some of your organization’s narrative goals with past exhibitions and programming, and how might those narratives come into play after this crisis?
SR. We obviously have no real idea what the outcome and conclusion of the pandemic will be, but our exhibitions together present a narrative in which questions of equity and human rights – whether they be LGBTQi rights, disability rights, or to do with reparations – are at the forefront. Regardless of what happens after this crisis (if there is a distinct ‘after’), I hope politically engaged art discourse can continue to be more grounded – as I feel we have been since the pandemic took hold – in the realities we face as cultures, as communities, as a country. And to understand that reality is not always pleasant, or fair, or aesthetically digestible – but that by addressing real life in our work, there is more potential for change.
ANTE mag. Public events and programs are a vital aspect of The 8th Floor, with frequent artist talks accompanying exhibitions. During this time is your organization considering any alternative types of programming such as virtual talks or exhibitions?
SR. As I mentioned, last week (on May 19) we launched Performance-in-Place as a virtual series, and monthly talks, which right now feel like a good alternative to the fact that we can’t gather people in real time and space. With that in mind, if the pandemic means we can’t return to doing in-person programming in the fall, or by the end of the year, we will have learned how to conduct virtual programs. We are taking the time to do certain projects that are less immediately visible. For the last year we’ve been hosting a series of closed conversations called Access Check: Mapping Accessibility 2.0, which actually started with a public program last July at The 8th Floor. Organized in collaboration with choreographer and artist Jerron Herman, the talk brought together a group of artists, activists, and educators who have consistently advocated for disability rights and access in the cultural sector. We quickly realized there was a need to continue the discussion, and now we’re in the process of finalizing a survey for the field, split into two tracks: one for artists with disabilities about what is needed from institutions in terms of accessible and equitable programming; and another geared towards organizations and institutions, to understand what their capacity is in terms of facilitating accessible cultural programs. We hope the survey raises awareness about what institutions can do to become more accessible, while helping to formulate tools and language for artists with disabilities to advocate for what they need, similar to the way in which WAGE guidelines provide artists with talking points about payment for their work.
ANTE mag. Are there any current projects, funds or resources you would like to promote for artists or fellow organizations who have been impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns?
SR. There are so many incredible efforts that have emerged in response to the pandemic. Here are a few that have impressed me in their concern for vulnerable communities:
- COVID-19 Dance Relief Fund – Linked here.
- Tri-State Relief Fund to Support Non-Salaried Workers in the Visual Arts – Linked here.
- Artist Relief – Linked here.
- The Crip Fund – Linked here.
I’m also impressed by mutual aid efforts that have emerged. The Sunview Luncheonette set up a fund for workers at the Met foodmarket in Greenpoint – Linked here.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us about your recent initiatives and what projects may be in store for the future of The Rubin Foundation?
SR. After To Cast Too Bold a Shadow, we will stage the fifth exhibition in the series, titled In Kinship. The show will look at alternate family structures over the last 30 years, expanding the notion of family beyond heteronormative, nuclear, or government mandate, in the contexts of queer culture and immigrant communities. The sixth and final show of Revolutionary Cycles is After the Fall, which will reflect on the political moment to consider methods for the societal change needed to move beyond the political binaries that currently shape U.S. culture. The exhibition is conceived to anticipate various outcomes in our collective political future as articulated by artists and cultural producers, while simultaneously recognizing the need for spiritual transformation in times of crisis. Originally, After the Fall was meant to open around the time of the next presidential inauguration, with ‘the fall’ being open to interpretation. It makes me think of one of Dread Scott’s artworks featured in Revolution from Without…, titled Overthrow Dictators, which was made as part of the J20 inauguration protest in 2017. It’s a stencil with the phrase: by reading this, you agree to overthrow dictators.
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.
This opinion piece represents the views of the Editors at ANTE. Mag. It was written as a direct response to the Whitehot Mag article, “Kill Your Darlings: The End of the White Male Ally” which in turn was a response to the NY Times’ “The Dominance of the White Male Critic”
-Ed.s, ANTE. Mag
There is nowhere to begin this article.
There is nowhere to begin – because the subject of this article is all around us, it is limitless, boundless. It affects what we say in polite society, what we talk about with museum funders, collectors – those in positions of power. But power is bounded by silence: the type of silence that reifies the entrenched systems of oppressor and oppressed that has persisted since the first Portugese slave ships set off from the island of Goree off of the West coast of Senegal, and long, long before.
It is wrapped in the embrace of those same systems of power that enable police officers to turn off their bodycams and plead innocence even while causing suffering to our brothers and sisters, like Eric Garner – it spans far and wide in underground networks, supporting entrenched inequality from homeownership and credit to college admissions, the use of public space, the right to assume a place in the art world. The right to have a voice – any voice, much less to assume a position of authority. The right to exist alongside and in spite of a culture rooted in hatred for the very autonomy of others. The right to not be questioned or accused of representing a “threat” to an established majority.
When allies demand to be recognized for their efforts, they undermine the very platform for marginalization they purport to support. When ego overcomes the hard work put in to empathize with those whose experiences in life have not been defined by the lines of privilege, they lose the ability to be true advocates.
What angry white men, whether in Congress or in Art Journalism, conveniently ignore is this: there will never not be room for white cis male writers in the art world: in every aspect of our world. By insisting otherwise, these critics undermine efforts to recognize and confront the persistent, inevitable influence of white supremacy continuing to determine the trajectory of our culture and the world at large.
By ignoring that the pathways are already uneven, that our very foundations are built upon the flawed premise of white supremacy, these “saviors” of cis, white male art critics everywhere deny a pervasive force – they may as well deny the existence of the magnetic field. Just because a force cannot be made manifest, and remains invisible, does not mean that it effects are not seen.
When hegemony exists – that-which-must-not-be-named, white supremacy – it is our duty collectively, as marginalized voices, as allies, to call it out. To provoke it, not to pacify it. To question it, not to submit to it. There is no reason to support a status quo that continually dampens the spirit of those bright voices who have always existed and who form our future – people of color, women and non-gender conforming folks, those of diverse sexual orientations, religions, backgrounds.
Too often, those who have privilege never understand the effects of everyday life that terrorize those who don’t “present” like them. Those who have experienced these effects are often silenced or disparaged when they present their truths to a wider public – they become Anita Hill’s, Christine Blasey Ford’s, the greater “radical other” in our collective consciousness. They become widely disparaged, threatened – challenged.
Here is a great barometer for equality: would this collective Shunning or “Other”-ing happen to someone who represents a white, cishet male member of the hegemony? Would they be run out of town, have their lives threatened, be demonized and disparaged for daring to stand up to a power structure that – oh wait, they are the power structure. The fiber of their own, elevated histories sustains and supports that same, buried power structure that subjugates those who do not subscribe to a white, colonizer patriarchal mentality.
This mentality feeds an endemic system of thought that silences voices from the margins, holds back new ways of seeing and processing: prevents new connections to form between underrepresented voices and those who represent them and – even more critically – prevents us all from reaching our true potential as a society by stifling voices of genius through fear, coercion or threat. This process is fundamentally de-humanizing to those who have keenly felt the piercing threat of white supremacy.
Venice Biennale Golden Lion Award-winning artist Arthur Jafa notes that his practice centers around the idea that empathy is key to his practice. “The people who are dehumanizing others are trying to maintain or hold onto the sense of their own humanity,” reflects Jafa. “Ultimately it comes down to the relative presence or absence of empathy. You cannot oppress people without expending a certain type of psychic energy, unless the whole mechanism, the whole superstructure is supporting that understanding of the other as being less human, less feeling than you are. I think you learn empathy. I think it has to be taught.”(1)
A self-appointed savior is not exercising empathy, and their remonstrations of justice or demands for consideration for the pitiable, cishet white male – those who have never tasted the angry steel of prejudice – smack of hypocrisy and egotistical protests. The measure of the threat they perceive is in direct response to the lack of their own ability to empathize with the internalized oppression that marginalized members of American society – of our world at large – have unfortunately learned to anticipate every day.
Colonizers and white saviors have no place in guiding us forward in a realm where ingrained prejudice is giving way at slow, small intervals to inclusion and diversity of opinion – so slowly that the monolithic cliff face preserving colonizers’ value systems is still firmly recognizable.
The perspicacity of artist Titus Kaphar’s insights in 2017 holds true today. He notes of the criminal justice system’s glaring inequalities that a careful and circumstantial examination of the realities of the existing system must be dealt with in order for evolution to have a firm foundation to rest upon. “I’m heartsick and sorry about it at the same time,” notes Kaphar, “because in the justice world it…a deeper investigation of the issues is standard. You dig deep to find out answers, and you look more into the issues, and you try to come to some conclusions. Then you try to work towards change.”(2)
Kaphar continues, “The art world is not like that, and that’s where my fear comes from. The art world can be extremely fickle. The art world is often about just what’s novel. I don’t want this to just become one of those issues that’s in fashion right now, and therefore we’re making art about it. That would be disheartening.” (2)
Too often, subtle changes and improvements in social justice for minorities are measured in relation to a majority: we ask, why there is a need to place distinct populations in direct opposition? Why is an increased presence of POC, non-male identifying, LGBTQIA+ art critics such a threat to an entrenched bevy of white cis-male art critics?
Where does the threat lie for a hegemony that feels happy to highlight artists and creators of diverse backgrounds, but suddenly chafes at the idea that they may not be in the best position to do so?
In seeking answers to this frequently occurring yet problematic phenomenon, I came across a formidable article written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. – hardly an unrecognized voice in contemporary American culture. His reflection on the period of Reconstruction, a bright and shining moment between the defeat of the Confederate states and the rise of Jim Crow laws in the United States, merits particular scrutiny. “Reconstruction, the period in American history that followed the Civil War, was an era filled with great hope and expectations, but it proved far too short to ensure a successful transition from bondage to free labor for the almost 4 million black human beings who’d been born into slavery in the U.S., “(3) notes Gates. He continues on, tracing the rise of overzealous white supremacists who had suddenly found the foundation of their very existence shattered by the insistence of another population of American society that they were equal to them in every way despite the atrocities of bondage they had been subjected to in this country. Gates reflects on this period of promise in American history. “Reconstruction was fundamentally about who got to be an American citizen.”(3)
One wonders whether the same white men who had dominated American society to that point were protesting, ultimately, whether this was all too much. Were they wondering if they were being erased, much as contemporary white, cishet male critics now argue today?
Reconstruction is a particularly dirty word in the South, where I was born. As a white women descended from a firmly middle class, non-plantation owning family, it never occurred to me that I was heir to a force that was tearing apart the very fabric of what it meant for Americans to feel free. There were the hesitant looks of the older black man who worked with my grandfather, who kept his eyes bowed when I was around, as well as the firmly segregated church congregations that still (for the most part) continue to permeate Southern society. Born and raised part-time a stone’s throw from where Arthur Jafa is from – Jafa, a Howard-educated, prize-winning, internationally recognized artist – I rejoice at the prominence of an African-American artist on the world stage who has known the darkness of suspect glances and long stares in the Mississippi Delta – and I find myself destroyed by the fact that he, or the millions of other descendants of Africans kidnapped by Europeans and brought to the new world, have ever had to inhabit a world that told them they were not good enough.
The world changes, but never soon enough.
Jubilant periods arrive – the era of Reconstruction, a black American president – and are followed by suspicion, threats to “whiteness”, perceived enmity.
The pendulum never swings one way.
Thankfully there exists a long legacy of cultural criticism of colonization. I won’t flatten it here for lip service, though it spans the many paradigm-shifting theorists ranging from Frantz Fanon to James Baldwin, to Deborah Willis, to Kellie Jones. Who is to argue that there wasn’t a need for cultural criticism and engagement with diverse art theories, for educated cultural theorists who are not white cis-het males, to comment on an expanded view of what constituted art and cultural heritage?
How poor would our legacy of cultural criticism be today without these formidable thought leaders! And who take up the mantle now to argue that there is “enough” now – that there doesn’t need to be an ever-expanding, level playing field for art critics and cultural producers of diverse viewpoints to continue to grow, engaging with a range of cultural contemporaries far beyond the prominently white, cis-het male artist-dominated era of, oh I don’t know, every century before this one?
I see color. I recognize the significance that two prominent cultural figures, Okwui Enwezor and Audre Lorde, have continued to influence how I approach cultural criticism and art theory. I appreciate the efforts it has taken for them, and other public figures of diverse backgrounds, to emerge on the international stage to a place of prominence.
But I recognize I am not the sole reference point of iconic thought leaders like these – there are rising, marginalized voices in art criticism and cultural theory who are able to learn from and identify with those who have come before and paved the way, seeing those who have come before – those who have achieved all this while looking like them. This is far more valuable than any tired platitude, repeated bon mot or expression of encouragement. This recognition that greatness has come before – this is even greater than the promise of tomorrow. It is, in fact, the proof that tomorrow can exist beyond the concept of “whiteness.”
In the words of the incredible Betye Saar, “It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.”(4)
By confronting the past, present and our future with honesty, clarity and humility – and most of all, with empathy – we can recognize that as allies, it is only by taking the time to pause – taking the time to listen – that we can allow space for the tired epithet of “white savior” to finally wither away, crushed under the weight of its own bloated fallacy.
1. Jafa, Arthur and Tina Campt. “Love Is the Message, The Plan Is Death.” E. Accessed July 09, 2019. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/81/126451/love-is-the-message-the-plan-is-death/.
2. Keller, Bill. “Titus Kaphar on Art, Race and Justice.” The Marshall Project. February 02, 2017. Accessed July 09, 2019. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/02/01/titus-kaphar-on-art-race-and-justice.
3. Jr., Henry Louis Gates. “How Reconstruction Still Shapes Racism in America.” Time. April 02, 2019. Accessed July 09, 2019. https://time.com/5562869/reconstruction-history/.
4. Artist Statement by Betye Saar. Accessed July 09, 2019. http://www.betyesaar.net/.
Miami Art Week is nothing if not overwhelming: a comprehensive survey of the contemporary art market on an international scale, there is something to distract and enthrall even the most casual visitor. For fans of fashion, fine art and sustainability, however, one exhibit is paramount: RE-THINK, the Arcadia Earth-curated project taking place at Istituto Marangon Miami (IMM). Featuring thrilling installations and immersive art experiences, RE-THINK is a fearless, vibrantly contemporary showcase of artists whose works demonstrate aspects of re-using, re-purposing and upcycling materials.
After a VIP opening December 3rd, the exhibit kicks off Dec 4th and will remain on view through December 16th at 3700 – 3740 NE 2nd Avenue in Miami, Florida. An exhaustive survey of artists including Tamara Kostianovsky, Cindy Roe, Samuelle Green, Etty Yaniv, and more work across recycling and conservation in partnership with Arcadia Earth, Oceanic Global and IMM. These organizations have joined powers in support of these artists to produce sweeping vistas of recycled paper in cave-like rooms and vibrant banquet tableaus crafted with upcycled objects.
Etty Yaniv‘s installation, “SIRENS”, recreates an ocean wave out of plastics and fragments of artworks that deeply impact visitors to RE-THINK as to the overwhelming sense of the scale pollution plays in our planet’s oceans. Directly in conversation with nature while simultaneously referencing the power and impact of Hokusai’s graphic woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Yaniv produces a powerful composition simultaneously evoking the power of nature and the increasing amount of plastics and other trash and debris comprising the oceans. Created mainly of plastic remnants, for SIRENS at Arcadia Project in Miami Yaniv accentuates the push-and-pull drama extant between nature and man-made artifice, a complex co-existence which has resulted in unprecedented pollution of our oceans and rising sea levels. Balancing the organic and the artificial, Yaniv’s “SIRENS” provides a subtle yet impactful elegy to the power of the Earth’s oceans and our role in creating a new a natural environment, whether for better or for worse. In addition to “SIRENS”, nearby “Manifestation of the Paper Cave 2” by Samuelle Green and “Alchemy” Tamara Kostianovsky align with the exhibition themes of sustainability and environmental protection. Tamara Kostianovsky’s site-specific work draws attention to the need to up-cycle everyday objects, and eyeing new means of regeneration and sustainability while Samuelle Green’s “cave” creates a visual dialogue with art forms present in the natural world. Overall, these environmentally friendly installations work as a cohesive whole, and are supplemented by mindful panels related to sustainability efforts which take place in the center of these massive art environments.
Visit RE-THINK soon – before December 16, 2018 at 3700 – 3740 NE 2nd Avenue in Miami – to experience this limited time immersive exhibit thoughtfully highlighting environmental issues and the simple daily solutions available to create a more sustainable planet through augmented reality, experiential installations and curated educational talks and panels.
Culture Push, an innovative NYC-based nonprofit arts organization promoting civic engagement, is hosting their annual benefit on Tuesday, June 26 from 6-9 pm at the Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street (#201) New York, NY. This fundraising event honors Art in Odd Places Founder Ed Woodham while raising funds to support one of the nonprofit’s central missions, the Fellowship of Utopian Practice, which funds artists to create socially-engaged projects across a range of mediums and with a variety of audiences in mind. Tickets are still available here – there’s still time to join in and be a part of innovative and experimental social practice Culture Push brings to life! Tickets to the party start at $25, with a $75 option to enter the raffle and leave with a fabulous limited edition artwork!
Works are available in the raffle by innovative artists such as Chloë Bass, Caroline Woolard, Aricoco, Todd Shalom and so many more! The Benefit not only continues to support Utopian Practice fellows including Clarivel Ruiz, Chris Ignacio, Kanene Ayo Holder & Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, Theodore Kerr, Hidemi Takagi, the Chinatown Art Brigade and more. All artists call attention to the intersection between social and civic participation and the arts. This is a sentiment also advanced by Art in Odd Places founder Ed Woodham, the honoree of the event. Art in Odd Places, a nonprofit arts festival taking place along 14th street in New York City, is in its 14th year and has allowed experimental practice along the length of this public corridor in Manhattan.
Imaginative problem-solving and the genesis of social art lie embedded in the foundation of Culture Push’s mission. Flexible, responsive and avant-garde, Culture Push is celebrating its ten-year anniversary of producing innovative art projects in public for a wide audience. Founded by Clarinda Mac Low, Aki Sasamoto and Arturo Vidich, the founders have mined their respective backgrounds in visual and performing arts to create a platform for artists engaging with creative expression within the public context. Come and attend the Culture Push benefit, win a great artwork, meet inspiring artists and celebrate what is almost ten full years of experimental public art – with many more to come!
In an era of rising nationalism and public displays of fascism in America, how can the arts unite as a cohesive front to defend its most vulnerable citizens? In a field known for its open approach to free speech topics, how can leaders in the visual arts – museum directors, curators, artists and others – face up to the mounting threats of ultraconservatism and “fake news” as they relate to everyday citizens? What about mounting threats to de-fund and otherwise censor the arts? The School of Visual Arts’ Master’s Program in Curatorial Practice has produced a full day of programming centered around how leaders in the visual arts are working to combat these forces threatening our freedoms. The day-long summit, Curatorial Activism and the Politics of Shock, will take place on Saturday, November 18 from 10 AM – 5 PM. It features a carefully curated cohort of formative curators and arts leaders who will engage in conversation and present topics related to the needs of art leaders to stand up for a free society.
Leaders engaged in the discussion include Tensta Konsthall Director Maria Lind, Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic, Director of La Panacée Nicolas Bourriaud, Serpentine Galleries Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist, and many more. The event is formatted as a series of eight minute presentations by clusters of art world thought leaders interspersed with question and answer rounds occur in roughly 90 minute cycles.
The event is currently at capacity; however, the entire event will be livestreamed in its entirety on the MA Curatorial Practice YouTube channel. To learn more about how we can improve cultural initiatives to support a free society, tune in and join the conversation!
It’s undeniable: the world is a bit more magical with A Blade of Grass in it.
A Blade of Grass, with its focus on promoting social change through social engagement and dialogue in contemporary art, is one of a kind. It has continually pushed the envelope by empowering artists through fellowships and providing platforms for dialogue on improving social conditions and inclusivity.
Nowhere will this mission be better celebrated than in the organization’s annual benefit, Night of Alchemy, this November 7, 2017 from 6:30 – 9:30 pm at the Prince George. Honoring renowned artist Ross Bleckner, Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak and Laundromat Project founder Risë Wilson, MC Shaun Leonardo will lead festivities in a night of vibrant festivities. The evening will also include a performance by Dancing Earth’s Rulan Tangen.