People are talking a lot lately about socially engaged art. I recently attended a talk on the subject by Nato Thompson, the Chief Curator at Creative Time—the organization responsible for organizing numerous public art projects in the city. In anticipation of their upcoming Living as Form exhibition at the Essex Street Market in the Lower East Side, he discussed how art creates new forms, some of which suggest and even demonstrate new ways of living in the world.
It seemed like the perfect entry point not only for the Living as Form exhibition, but also for other activities happening around the city recently, where organizations and groups that have been creating and supporting socially engaged art for decades are trying to figure out how to talk to and engage with emerging artists who want to start everything fresh. Both the veterans and the newbies recognize the importance of finding ways of making tangible and sustainable change in the world, but they’re still trying to figure out how to listen to and learn from one another.
The most interesting example of such an intergenerational mash-up is the Dream Up Festival, happening right now at the Theater for the New City (TNC). While this is only the second Dream Up Fest (through September 4), TNC’s history of producing work that seeks to have a direct impact on its communities is long and well documented. Since 1971, TNC has done everything from founding the Village Halloween parade with Ralph Lee to starting a program aimed at children living in homeless shelters and helping to launch the careers of such artists as Maria-Irene Fornés, Richard Foreman, Jean-Claude van Itallie and Mabou Mines.
With Dream Up, TNC is responding to cuts in arts budgets, trying to offer a platform for artists in the city and beyond who are losing opportunities elsewhere. Participants all cite the theater’s history as a major reason for their interest in joining the festival. The dancer and choreographer Jesse Phillips-Fein has been watching that history build over time: “I have been seeing work there since I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s. Every year my family sees the annual Bread & Puppet theater production, one of my oldest inspirations for politically engaged art.” Meanwhile Milos Sofrenovic, a Serbian performance artist and director based in Austria, only has the recorded history as his beacon, this being the first time he’s ever presented work in the US.
The work being performed this year is promising, like Puerto Rican artist Aravind Enrique Adyanthaya’s La Mano: Tales of the End of the World, which he said was inspired by the apocalypse, aging, and “living in Puerto Rico, where sometimes you feel that public policies are madness, that the sun engenders visceral violence, that the island is too small, and fluid reality is the only survival tool.”
We interviewed a handful of the artists involved in the festival, as well as TNC's Executive Director Crystal Field and the Festival's Curator Michael Scott-Price. These brief thoughts will give you a picture of some of the realities the artists participating in the fest face as arts budgets continue to shrink, along with some insights into the work they are presenting.