Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Creative Capital: Same stories, different models?

I spent yesterday in a conversation at the Berkman Center about possible models to support “difficult” journalism – important news reporting that’s hard to support fiscally. Today, I’m at an event at Williams College, my alma mater, at a meeting of Creative Capital, a summer retreat for over 200 artists, consultants and advisors.

Creative Capital is investigating alternative models to support innovation in the arts. Supported by the Warhol Foundation and other arts funders, CC gives money to artists in a very interesting way. They give modest grants to artists throughout their projects, in the early phases of planning, to support a premiere or opening, and to promote the work. At the same time, CC gives lots of professional support and training, helping artists develop technical, business and professional skills neccesary to succeed. For artists who are succesful, there’s an expectation that CC’s investment will be treated as a loan and paid pack.

My friend Lewis Hyde is a board member of the organization and he told me, “After a day of presentations, you’re going to have a much more complicated definition of what constitues ‘art’.” That seems likely, just given the sheer volume of projects we’re seeing – something like six hours of presentations today, with a different grantee every seven minutes. Mel Chin, one of the first artists funded by Creative Capital, seems like an excellent person to make this point. He rapidly presents three projects, the most striking of which is Fundred.org, a project that encourages children to draw currency, hoping to collect $300 million in child-designed money, which he hopes to trade to Congress, for real money spent on lead abatement. Talking very briefly about a dramatic cartoon about 9/11 and a widget designed to help people track their carbon impact on their iPhones, it becomes pretty clear that Chin’s ideas and projects span a wide range of interests. Thanking CC for their support, he declares, “I in turn will support any wild-ass thing you come up with.”

A lot of these wild-ass things are connected to war, terrorism, 9/11 and surveillance. Hasan Elahi, a Bangladeshi-American artist, monitors and publishes online enormous amounts of data on himself and his movements, down to the food he eats and the toilets he uses. It’s a response to a six-month ordeal he experienced when detained at DTW under suspicion – completely spurious – that he was involved with terrorist activities. Elahi now tries to overwhelm the FBI with data about his life, calling attention to the absurdity of perpetual surveillance.

Cat Mazza’s project, Stitch for Senate, offers a more participatory response to the endless war on terror. She hearkens back to Eleanor Roosevelt’s wartime effort, “knit your bit”, which encouraged ordinary citizens – not just women and children, but off-duty firefighters – to knit gloves and helmet liners for American soliders. She’s now recruiting knitters to produce helmet liners for US senators and displaying them on busts organized in the seating pattern of the senate. “I just dream of seeing Hillary Clinton wearing one of these.” They’re tangible manifestations of an earlier idea of war, one that seems archaic and surprising when looking at modern war.

Naeem Mohaiemen, a Bangladeshi audience who works both in New York and Dhaka, is interested in the post-9/11 security environment, but approaches the issues less directly. His new film and installation examines failed revolutionary movements, looking in particular at a Maoist guerrila movement in Bangladesh between 1972 and 1975. The installation includes clothing, diaries, weapons and other items from the time, as well as video footage from propoganda films, overlaid with audio of Maoist “training tapes”. One of the messages is that these movements have unintended consequences, strengthening the right-wing, supporting efforts of the government to surveil and monitor populations. Mohaiemen wonders about moments in history when these utopian movements seemed possible, not doomed.

There’s a wealth of pieces focused either on Iraq or Katrina – Iraqi artifacts reproduced as Iroquois beadwork, films about Guantanamo and New Orleans. There’s another large set focused on political issues that artists feel a deep, personal connection to – an audio installation about civil conflict in Cyrus, Anita Chang’s Tongues of Heaven, a documentary about disappearing languages in Taiwan. At a certain point, I found myself wondering about the blurring line between art and journalism. It’s not hard to imagine some of these pieces succeeding as magazine articles or videos on Frontline, rather than in galleries or art festivals. I can’t tell if this is good news for journalism or for art.

Two of the pieces that struck me were ones where it was harder to understand the historical or personal narrative that led the artist to make a piece. Kianga Ford’s work focuses on walking. “The Story of this Place” is a set of walking tours of small corners of Baltimore, less traditional histories than invitations to contemplate people, places and the musical score. Her new project is called Walking Home, and involves her… well, walking home. She plans to walk from LA to central Florida, taking video of the entire trip and inviting veejays to remix the footage. Why? It’s about migration, segregation, exile, and, simply, about walking home.

The piece connected, for me, with Braden King’s film HERE, a “road movie” about an American satellite mapping engineer, who’s travelling in Armenia, checking the accuracy of satellite images via a process called “ground-truthing”. The film is a romance, not just between two characters who meet, but betwen the filmmaker and the landscape. I liked wht I saw not just because I love the Armenian landscape, but because it wasn’t obvious to me why King chose to tell this story.

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