Curator and writer Nato Thompson works between the spheres of art and social activism. He came to prominence in 2004 with The Interventionists, a publication and exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCa), where he worked as a curator for six years.

Thompson joined New York-based Creative Time in 2007, where he curates major socially-engaged public projects and the annual Creative Time Summit.

Initiated in 2009, the summit highlights the work of politically-engaged artists and social justice activists, drawing connections between the local and the global. It brings the arts together with other arenas in order to ask pertinent questions and present strategies for change.

As an undergraduate student at Berkeley in the 1990s, Thompson was profoundly influenced by groups such as Food not Bombs, Free Radio Berkeley and the playful tactics of anarchism, which he sees as a form of socially-engaged art.

His latest publication, Seeing Power, explores how power operates, drawing on his political and curatorial experience of working between the grassroots and the institutional, and local infrastructures and global networks.

Navigating critical theory, recent art history and an analysis of the changing climate of activism since 2001, this beautifully written book offers a series of practical critiques for negotiating, reclaiming or sidestepping the infrastructures that the arts operate within.

This year Creative Time has developed two summits, both titled The Curriculum, in two very different contexts and infrastructures. The first was in Venice as part of Okwui Enwezor’s curated programme at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
I was always very influenced by Okwui Enwezor, particularly with his Documenta 11 in 2002 where he had what he called a series of ‘platforms’; it inspired the summit itself. He produced an alternative form of politics – he had philosophers, politicians, literary theorists, activists, all weighing in. It was the first time I’d seen something done like that. I saw this parallel political sphere emerge through the arts.

He produced his own kind of art world and took it seriously and had rigour. In many ways I think those are the tenets we try to put forth with the summit, which is producing an alternate political reality. [In Venice] one of the big victories for me was to have Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! actually televising her show from there. It’s always been a goal to take the pragmatic left of the world and the critical left of the art world and get them to get on the same page, or at least in the same room. I think there’s a lot to be shared across the board.

The second is in New York at the Boys and Girls High School Campus in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
This neighbourhood [Bedford-Stuyvesant] is – as most African-American communities in the city are – affected by deep structural inequities created over the last 150 years. The high school itself becomes a crucible for thinking through the conditions that education and the students are facing. We have artists who are working in the neighbourhood, and community organisers and activists on these round tables to try and build on the capacities and resources of the local community. I don’t want to fetishise locality, because of course, it’s also important to have an international dialogue, so that the conditions of the local are also understood in light of the vast global structural forces.

How did you become involved in socially-engaged practice and art for social change?
I’d say a lot of anarchism is in essence socially-engaged art – it’s politics through doing. I just preferred that style of working and living, which was living the politics you wanted. That disposition has stayed with me since. I have no problem with theoretical discussions, but I like to live that change as we go. I’ve also just seen more success from that style of working, in general.

You write about how in 2015 it is now much easier to see and understand power than at any previous point in history. So, how would you describe seeing power?
A lot of times when you talk about political art, we think of art about politics, but I’m not necessarily just talking about art about politics, but that the form is a politics as well. So, for example, a painting that is about the Iraq war, that’s in a gallery like White Cube, has a different understanding of politics than a painting of a flower that’s in an anarchist co-operative. One is about politics, one’s form is in politics. There’s a dissonance there. And that helps us understand that there’s an infrastructure behind things. Thinking in terms of infrastructure is what I mean by seeing power; that we in fact must understand that the mechanisms of distribution and the political economies behind our symbols are very much a part of the conversation around art and politics, and radically shifts our notion of what art and politics is.

In your book you also question why so many political artists have given up on the existing infrastructures rather than trying to change them.
Let me give an example: Guggenheim Abu Dhabi [and the activist campaigns of] Gulf Labor. Not only do they protest around the working conditions of people in Abu Dhabi building a museum, but they continue to show up, and while they were also showing up in the halls of the Guggenheim in New York City and getting all this media attention, they simultaneously are meeting with the board of the Guggenheim to discuss how to get through this. They’ve been really consistent and dedicated, but also working through nuances. It’s been hugely transformational for that institution. In the arts, it’s at a scale where you can actually make impact: the museum in your city, where seven people are in charge. You can impact seven people through conversation… these are spaces of possibility.

The summits and your book are both about art and social change. What are your immediate and long-term hopes for change?
Effecting actual political change. The oil industry, finance capitalism as it moves across borders – these are two giant forces that we need to get a grip on. In many ways, our social movements have historically always had a tough time actually getting their hands on those forces and we still are organising on a national political level, whereas these forces are deeply global and move from boundaries to boundaries.

In terms of the arts, I really think that great things are happening right now, there’s a deep destabilisation of the centre of the art world; there’s a lot of power in the margins. If anything, I’d say stop hating on the centre so much and just build your own worlds. I think that the arts spend a lot of time hating the centre, but I think it’s more productive to just build alliances and allegiances of like-minded people, particularly internationally, and also locally.

The Creative Time Summit NYC 2015 takes place on 14-15 November at the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. An archive of summit presentations is available online

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