How do movements grow? How do they relate to established institutions? Today we had a case in point at the Creative Time summit under the title “Confronting Inequity.” Creative Time, the well-established and regarded arts agency with a social justice mission, has held these events for the past four years. This year’s event incorporated a theme on “Occupations,” involved many social movement activists, but also got itself into an entanglement with Israel. Aside from the issue itself, the ramifications created a form of Rorschach test for how people feel about the movement.
So first the issue. Creative Time (CT) announced that it had a series of “in-depth partners” for these events. One was the Israeli Center for Digital Art. While the ICDA seems relatively progressive by Israeli standards, it is funded by the Ministry of Culture and Sport and the town of Holon. This connection was first discovered by the Egyptian video collective Mosireen, whom I have often written about here, and I was really looking forward to meeting. In a statement that was widely circulated on sites such as Electronic Intifada, Mosireen announced that they could not participate:
The invitation to participate that we recieved from Creative Time initially impressed us with its language, claiming to be a response to “a growing community of cultural practitioners working in the realm of social justice and socially engaged art practice” and exploring “the impact of wealth inequity across the globe as it engenders totalitarianism and undermines democracy.” This language and other similar statements about democracy, equality and revolution were encouraging to us. We believed that the discourse around these topics was finally shifiting from its traditionally unjust and orientalist political coordinates.
It’s true that no money directly came from Israel to New York and a rapid name change to “screening partners” was implemented. Mosireen were nonetheless not arguing about equivalency. Their attention was on the Israeli Center for Digital Art and its involvement with the state:
After the Second Intifada [ICDA director] Mr. Danon said “we started doing projects that were aiming at communicating with artists/curators working in similar conditions in the region (Palestinian authority, Arab states) as well as in the Balkan area.” This inappropriate emphasis on symmetry runs through their work ever since. The deaths of 13 IDF soldiers (4 from friendly fire) during the 08/09 assault on Gaza is not a “similar condition” to the killing of 1,417 Palestinians, of which at least 313 were children.
You might not agree with this argument. There has nonetheless been an ongoing call for “Boycott Divestment and Sanctions” since 2004, supported by major US intellectual figures like Judith Butler, as any progressive person must be aware. If I was organizing an event calling “Confronting Inequity,” I would not go anywhere near a partnership with an Israeli group. If for some reason I had to do so, I would surely have wanted to have many Palestinian organizations involved as well but CT missed that call, although there were screening partners in Morocco and Abu Dhabi.
Unnoticed by Mosireen and others, there was also another partner in Israel at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, founded by the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, which seems fully integrated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has had the Prime Minister visit in 2006, and so on. More than the ICDA, this partner seems troubling.
Following Mosireen’s withdrawal in regards to the ICDA, the hip-hop duo Rebel Diaz withdrew in solidarity.
So at the opening of the Summit, CT president Anne Pasternak had the difficult task of announcing these withdrawals but did not do so in a way that made it clear to the audience what had happened, other than that it was over Israel-Palestine. Curator Nato Thompson followed and said that while CT “get it” about the issue, they wanted “to get everything on the table” and discuss it. Which would entail a screening partner in Palestine, even if you accept that argument.
The issue was widely discussed on Twitter (#CTsummit) but did not make the platform until the editorial team from Tidal, the OWS theory journal that I have again often discussed here, had their moment in the segment called “Occupations.” Amin Husain, a well-known figure at OWS, talked from his own background as a Palestinian. He recalled debates over whether to use the name “occupy” that had been decided in favor of reclaiming the language but not, as is often suggested, without being aware of Palestine. He noted that Israel is an “economy set up to benefit the elite at the expense of the indigenous,” while pointing out from direct experience of the negotiations that nationhood for Palestine has always come with conditions of subscribing to neo-liberalism. Tidal raised the question of the boycott but did not call for people to walk out. They used the remainder of their time to discuss what they had wanted to talk about: the Strike Debt campaign and a video they had made to show, which is below:
In a keynote in the afternoon, Queens Museum curator Tom Finkelpearl tried to intervene into the debate by sniping that if you boycotted a Creative Time event, there was really nowhere left for you to go. There were those who clearly agreed with this sentiment (see here, though, for notes on later presentations that supported the boycott which I didn’t see–scroll all the way down).
Before this view could take hold, it was undermined by the Spanish artist Fernando Garcia-Dory, winner of a prize for Art and Social Change. Garcia-Dory, who has done remarkable work with shepherds, giving attention to the Spanish Federation of Shepherds, which he describes as
a social system design that allow[s] an excluded community to get together, share worldviews and problem analisys, pose alternatives for action and unite[s] voices to get listened [to].
He further suggested that the assemblage formed by the activist artist working on a social justice project in a given community constitutes the artwork in itself, which has further mutual relations with questions of audience and content. Nowhere present in the diagrams he used to visualize this relation was the art gallery, museum or institution. Such realizations lie behind both the turn to performance and the occupy movement. If we have already seen a vogue for institutionalizing performance, to very mixed effect, we should be cautious about institutionalizing occupation.
That’s not to say that the social movement has to stay literally and metaphorically outside, but that, in the manner hinted at by Garcia-Dory, we have to build our own institutions. How those institutions are funded and networked cannot be treated as matters of convenience, as we have so often done in the past. We should not be preachy about it but we have to consider the much harder question posed to us by Slavoj Zizek in his keynote: what kind of future is that we want? And by Occupy lights, that means we have to act as if the future is now.
In short, it’s not just debt abolition. It’s what does a world without debt look like? How do we start living it? Who should we talk to in this discussion? The real shame of the whole imbroglio at the Summit was that the conversation could not begin there. But it will begin tomorrow across the world with the 13O day of action and week against debt. Get outside.