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art + technology in the age of activism

May 17, 6:30 PM
Boston Room of the Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston Street in Copley Square

Nicco Mele and Theaster Gates present the keynote address for AIC's Connected and Consequential conference, and will participate in audience discussion afterward.

Theaster Gates is an artist living and working in Chicago. Labeling him an artist does not capture who he is and what he does. He is often referred to as an activist, community organizer, and performer, among other things. When asked about his art practice and all the labels attached to him, he responds by saying he is a problem solver. His interests are broad, and his solutions lead him into a variety of genres and material. Theaster is Director of Arts Programming and Lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. Using performance and installation, urban planning and design, and the traditional fine arts, Theaster moves between many communities, sharing creative practices and presenting a platform that allows communities to understand how they can successfully sustain themselves. The Dorchester Project(2009),which involves the acquisition of an abandoned 2- story property for reuse as a library, slide archive and soul food kitchen, is an example of seeing the value of your own neighborhood and investing in that. Currently a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Theaster is concentrating on cultural development in underserved communities and how relationships between museums and other local cultural institutions can advance cultural activities in various communities.

Nicco Mele is a leading expert in the integration of social media and Web 2.0 with politics, business and communications. As webmaster for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential race, Nicco and the campaign team pioneered the use of technology and social media that revolutionized political fundraising and American politics.  Nicco also founded EchoDitto, a leading internet strategy consulting company, which consults with Fortune 500 companies and nonprofit groups. As an adjunct faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Nicco teaches graduate level classes about the internet and politics.  He also was named the Spring 2009 Visiting Edward R. Murrow Distinguished Lecturer at the Harvard Shorenstein Center for the study of Press, Politics and Public Policy. Nicco co-founded, which used the internet to change the advertising concept by soliciting creative content online in an open and collaborative process. He also launched, an online resource for proxy voting and shareholder resolutions.

Marc Zegans' Summary

Download pdf here

Presentations, Conversation and Audience Discussion on necessary imagination, truth and power Nicco Mele, webmaster for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential race and adjust faculty member and Harvard’s Kennedy School and visual artist and urban planner Theaster Gates, director of arts programming and lecturer in visual arts at the University of Chicago joined with audience for a spirited discussion on art, activism, technology and change, the hybrid forms emerging in this space, and the skills needed to be effective in these technically accelerating times.

Nicco’s and Theaster’s presentations on technology and political change, and art and change, respectively, and the ensuing discussion brought out four themes that entwine the work, methods and responsibilities of artists and activists, and that define, in part, the substrate on which the rapidly emerging field of hybrid artistic practice is built, and on which artistic and activist collaboration foments.
These are:

  • The shared role and responsibility of artists and activists in creating the future;
  • The construction of new aggregating moments and methods;
  • Mobilizing the system in ways that make new social arrangements possible, and
  • Acquiring the resources of durable institutions-political office, museum shows, buildings—using novel tools and strategies, and in the process displacing established players, protocols and assumptions.

Theaster’s work and Nicco’s work each focuses on creating new aggregations of people.  They operate though in strikingly different ways.  Theaster forms aggregations around “curious social moments”, creative reuse of the built environment, and reclaimed objects.  Nicco uses networked computing and social media to create mass aggregations of voters who can tip the electoral balance.  Both forms of aggregation, however, operate outside conventional establishments and both engage durable institutions in novel ways.  This shared outsider perspective and common practice of inventing unconventional means of mobilization as instruments of change explains thematic coherence of the conversation and points to the robustness of these themes as means of understanding and operating in the activist space.

That these ideas are robust underscores two principle shared by both speakers: 1) technology is simply a means; 2) meaningful social change requires, effort, imagination and struggle.  Computer technology makes it possible to quickly destabilize and replace regimes, but unless this change is accompanied by results that enrich life and improves people’s life chances, it is simply an exercise in rapidly rearranging the deck chairs.

The challenge then for artists, activists and those working in hybrid space to work to bring imaginative depth to their interventions, and to marry technology appropriately to their intentions.  This means in part adopting an historically and imaginatively richer conception of technology.  Just as social nets and distributed computing provide rapid and cheap means of aggregating groups around common interests, ideas, actions and candidates, there is power in tangible experience, as illustrated by Theaster’s commitment to an artistic practice which moves between formal institutions and ordinary places. The tools of generating such experience vary dramatically from those required to aggregate interests via the web.

(Such practice is beautifully illustrated in this video of Theaster’s “Shine” project, which bridged a neighborhood shoeshine emporium, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the 2010 Whitney Biennial.)

Their comments and the ensuing discussion were also useful in identifying core skills and competencies requisite to the integration of technology in this broader and more nuanced sense into the realm of art, activism and hybrid productions.  These include:

Money skill.  Money is a crucial currency in the accumulation and exercise of power.  Obama was able to overturn the democratic establishment and defeat Hillary Clinton during the democratic primaries in large part to his web-based fundraising capabilities.  Theaster has been able to bring about neighborhood change by developing novel means of financial community focused real-estate development, and has found means of altering the contours of museum exhibitions and culture by mastering the politics of commissions.

Technology skills.  Activists and artists must know what tools they need to accomplish their purposes and they must know how to use them.  Theaster expands the technologies of city, neighborhood and place.  Nicco expands the technologies of political discourse and choice.

Relational skills. Nicco and Theaster’s accounts both emphasize the importance of weaving a compelling story, of engaging people with stakes in the outcome, of talking with people, and giving them compelling reason to assemble.

Systems skills. Nicco’s work requires an understanding of the mechanisms of power and how social media are reshaping the power map.  Theaster’s work depends on knowing the social, mechanical, political and financial systems of the city and those of its cultural institutions.  Such knowledge permits artists and activists alike to diagnose how they can achieve the leverage required to make real their dreams.

Sustainability Skills – The speed of technical change alters constantly the landscape of art and of politics. Artists and activists must be able to negotiate this rapidly changing terrain, and to understand how their art can be effective in realizing socially imaginative ends.  Such skills include clarity about values and vision, building relationships with groups that can serve as platforms and as links for reaching networks and moving resources, and blending art world tactics with real world skills to create new forms and practices.

AIC’s “The Connected and Consequential Conference” to be held in Boston, June 10-12, 2011 will provide a space within which to expand on these themes, and lend greater definition to the skills required for effective hybrid practice by bringing artists and activists together in an environment where they can learn more about each other, overcome stereotypes, and forge new collaborations.

~Marc Zegans, May 27, 2011

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