This week, the non profit arts organization Creative Time is hosted their third annual Summit in downtown Manhattan. The Summit brought together all kinds of cultural producers — curators, writers, artists, and human rights advocates — to present and discuss how their work is engaged with the pressing social issues affecting our world today. The presenters range from well-known to unexpected, including: My Barbarian, Laurie Anderson, Alternate ROOTS, United Indian Health Services, Atlas, Claire Bishop, Teddy Cruz, Hou Hanru and Decolonizing Architecture. It’s a diverse group, to be sure; the Creative Time Summit is the only event I’m aware of that hosts such an elaborate, ambitious, and unprecedented collection of art practitioners.

Not surprisingly, two California College of the Arts affiliates, Ted Purves, the Chair of the MFA department, and Elyse Mallouk, a recent graduate of the MFA and MA in Visual and Critical Studies department (Mallouk currently lives in LA), attended the Summit, presenting Landfill, their joint project. I spoke to Mallouk to get a better sense of the Summit, and its international implications for socially minded art practice.

Carmen Winant:This is the Summit’s third year. Have you been to any others in the past? Can you discuss how the Summit was presented to you (did you apply, were you approached, etc.) and what you believe are the implications of such a critical gathering?

Elyse Mallouk: This is the first time I’ve attended the Creative Time Summit; it lasts only one day, but this year it was planned to coincide with an exhibition, called Living as Form, which opened the following day and lasts three weeks. The exhibition contains newly commissioned works installed at the Historic Essex Street Market and at other sites around the Lower East Side, shelves documenting past projects, and an archive that includes short descriptions and photographs of 366 works. As part of the exhibition programming, Ted and I presented Landfill — an online archive and quarterly subscription service we launched last February that chronicles socially engaged projects by documenting and redistributing the materials they generate (postcards, posters, newspapers, buttons, etc). We spoke about why we started the project and how it operates differently from other forms of documentation, and provided empty plastic bags and an issue of the Landfill Journal. We invited attendees to build an issue of the Quarterly by gathering ephemera from other projects on view at the site. Participants brought their collections back to an ephemera photo booth where we took “portraits” and printed them on postcards for collectors to keep and trade. Those photos will also be added to the Landfill archive.

This is the first time the Summit is being accompanied by an exhibition. Ted was one of the show’s curatorial advisors, and he was invited by Creative Time to speak and to present a project in the exhibition space.

A gathering like this is significant because it sharpens the edges around a field, in part by questioning them directly. It also focuses attention within the field on certain issues: in this case, not only how socially engaged art is related to or distinct from other kinds of art making, but also how it might be related to other forms of social organization. Certain Summit presenters exist at the edge of art practice and protest (Tahrir Documents), activism (Russian collective Viona), or service (United Indian Health Services) — to name just a few.

Another potential effect of a survey like this is something Ted mentioned in his talk: It could serve to put a cap on things. If socially engaged practice becomes a cohesive and readily definable field, it becomes easier to set aside. We’re hoping against this, as we think this type of practice (if it can be called a type) has more to do. The Summit did some things to hold these questions open, such as including projects and groups that aren’t primarily oriented inside the art world.

CW: Your panel was two days ago. How did you feel it was received, and what was the experience of presenting like for you?

EM: Living as Form has its own massive online archive, so presenting Landfill in that context pointed up the differences between them: ours is much smaller and will continue to grow. It has different motivations and methods. The use of ephemera is central to Landfill. We use it for practical reasons — there’s an existing surplus after projects end — but also because leftover materials were once invitations to engage with a project, and can act that way again.

The exhibition is ephemera heaven. It reaffirms for me the idea that socially engaged practice is not dematerialized (though it’s often defined as such), but relies on these kinds of objects.

CW: I assume you attended/plan on attending other events and discussions during the Summit’s run. Which did you find the most interesting, or which are you looking forward to?

I really enjoyed My Barbarian’s performance first thing in the morning. They called on participants to come up to the stage and act out 24 hours of the day over the course of fifteen minutes, riffing on the Summit subtitle — “Living as Form” — and asking how the hours of the day structure the form one’s life might take. They closed [the performance] by asking audience members to create the sound of economic crisis by humming a particular note depending on how many jobs they held and whether or not they were insured. In Ted’s talk immediately following, he discussed “social forms” as a way of thinking through not only how socially engaged projects are identifiable as art (or not), but what their capacities might be.

Artist Katarina Seda talked about a project in which she collected information about the daily activities residents undertake in a small Czech town, and asked everyone in the town to participate in a scheduled, documented regime she created in response. For one day, they swept the streets at the same time, ate lunch at the same time, turned out the lights at the same time, etc.

Darren O’Donnell spoke about Mammalian Diving Reflex, and the ways in which the group’s performances and events (like Haircuts by Children) break down the barriers between segments of the population often kept apart — children and non-parent adults, for example.

The range of practices presented was what made the Summit compelling, and it’s one of the strengths of the exhibition, too. I’m looking forward to writing about what these projects propose as we add their ephemera to the Archive and the Quarterly: Megawords, OurGoods, Surasi Kusolwong, Temporary Services, and others will be part of Issue 2 of Landfill.

Living as Form: Two California Cultural Producers Head East 28 September,2011Carmen Winant

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