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

Creative Time's current exhibition is Kara Walker's Dominio Sugar Factory Project.
Creative Time's current exhibition is Kara Walker's Dominio Sugar Factory Project.
Kara Walker, 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.

Anne Pasternak is the artistic director at Creative Time.
Anne Pasternak is the artistic director at Creative Time.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Where does aesthetics fit within this genre?

I think it's one of those fundamental questions a lot of people talk about in terms of social practice. I don't know that aesthetics are the end goal of a lot of art.

When you take a look at an artist like Laurie Jo Reynolds who succeeded in shutting down a supermax prison through the tools that she's learned as an artist and you think about the men who have been removed from solitary confinement, some of them for nine, ten, eleven or fourteen years and all the men who won't have to go into that supermax prison and be in solitary confinement, that is beauty. That's absolute beauty, which is different from aesthetics. It has a profound impact on our society.

There are many ways to look at this idea of aesthetics. There is no easy answer to that. It's a very complex question that requires some very deep, thoughtful responses. But I think it's a mistake, historically, in modern and contemporary work, to only think about art in terms of formalism or aesthetics. Artists have been proving over and over again, especially through recent decades, that it's beyond that.

How relevant are art and political organizing to mass society? Are the two rescuing each other, making each other more relevant?

Those are three separate questions and huge questions. I'm not an expert on political organizing, but what I can tell you is that we tend to think about history as very specific events. Political change happens with these very specific events, like Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech or Barak Obama's hope campaign or being elected as the first black president.

The truth is that actually there is a momentum like a wave that starts hundreds and hundreds of miles out in the ocean before it crests like a tsunami and crashes onto the shore. Culture contributes to that change. Political movement contributes to that change. Legislation and political movements all contribute to that change that creates that tsunami moment, if you will. And art is part of that ecology.

Talk about the conversations that you imagine will emerge over the next couple days at the seminar.

Each of the artists is giving a case study on one project, and then we're going to have a dialogue on stage and with the audience. I think a lot of people are going to ask the kinds of questions you're asking. I hope that they will be moved to share these conversations and questions with other folks and to contribute to our culture's understanding about how artists are radically shaping change in the world and hopefully get behind some of these practices.

Making the Change They Want to See runs Wednesday, August 13 and again Thursday, August 14, from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Anderson Ranch, 5263 Owl Creek Road, Snowmass Village. Tickets cost $500 for the general public and $250 for students and faculty.

Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris