Would you consider the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests a work of art? Does it make any difference that they started, in part, because of a call from Adbusters magazine—which helped make altering advertisements and distorting mass-media messages a kind of rite of passage for young activists and artists—back in July? These are precisely the kinds of questions being asked by Creative Time's exhibition Living as Form at the Essex Street Market (through October 16). Nato Thompson, chief curator at Creative Time and of this exhibition, might not say that the Occupy Wall Street protest is art, but he probably wouldn't rule it out entirely either.
Living as Form is a survey of roughly 20 years of art and political practice that combines creative expression or the creative process with social justice activism. It features over 100 artists and projects, with a further 350 projects catalogued online—too much to take in a single visit. Laid out on utilitarian grey metal shelving and cinder block walls are documents and artifacts from over 100 projects, ranging from posters to video footage to political pamphlets asking you to take action. Near the back, a number of representatives from different artistic and political groups sit handing out literature and selling t-shirts. In some sense, it feels more like an anarchist book fair than an art exhibition.
Because so many of these projects are hard to summarize or categorize, much of the work of deciphering what you are looking at is left to you. You could be looking at images of the protests that took place earlier this year in Egypt's Tahrir Square, the spontaneous celebration in Harlem after Obama's election, or work by Allora and Calzadilla, who are representing the U.S. at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
What's most intriguing about this show at this particular moment is that governments, corporations, and political leaders (including many conservatives) have started to pick up on how effective creative social interventions can be in solving their problems, selling their products, and improving their images. Look no further than the National Endowment for the Arts, which in July handed out the first grants in its new "Our Town" program, which seeks to bring artists, local governments, and designers together to help reinvigorate communities and local economies. This program begs some big questions about the role the artists are playing in those groups, particularly when they're enabled by a federal agency still famous for rescinding grants to a number of prominent homosexual artists and others who dared to interrogate Christianity in their work.
We're just at the beginning of a long-overdue shift in the understanding of how the arts and creative expression are valued, and this exhibition, albeit a bit encyclopedic, raises some important questions about what we consider art, and what art is and is not capable of achieving.
(Photo: Installation view, courtesy Creative Time)