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G-Sync: Creative Time Summit View (from GR)

The Creative Time Summit is an international event that selected Grand Valley State University’s Office for Public Culture as a host for a remote screening site. Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen attended this two-day event and later met up with the moderator (and former Grand Rapids resident) Anthony Stepter to get his reflections.
Artists over time have been intrigued by the birth of the new, and at times even shocked at how far they themselves were willing to push the boundaries of the commonplace in the attempt to break from convention, hoping to unlock something meaningful.

When I entered my art piece The Kissing Booth (2009 – present) in the inaugural ArtPrize, I had no idea exactly how it was going to fit in with the other works, much less create the impact that it did. I just knew, like many artists before me, that after much soul searching, sometimes it is better to enter into the unknown and hope that on the other side the results are there. In 2009, I was feeling more like a social scientist than an artist trained in how to harness technology through a series of steps, producing a predicted outcome. I knew I just had to do it, so I rolled the proverbial dice of chance.

Five years later, the Kissing Booth still resonates with people who stop me on the street or drop me an email. It created a temporary welcoming environment, radically open to disrupting the implied societal norms, by offering people a democratized space where they were free to interact through the permission of the comfort of the booth.  

It was a pleasure for me but also for those who participated or helped create a tiny wave in our society. Literally, hundreds would pass through the booth, often captured by my camera and later becoming images distributed freely as a testament of their mutual affection in public, thus smashing stereotypes of a place often seen as a mystery or through the filter of only a few voices.  

Later, while conversing with Scott Hessels, then a professor at the School of Art, Design and Media at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, he helped me to better understand that what I was creating was a social practice artwork due to the participatory aspects the piece demanded of the public to be complete.

Social practice or participatory art has been described as a form that seeks to challenge other dominant forms of art. Often, accessibility to art is viewed only as what is available to one through entering a museum's front door or within a public place for 3-D art. Participatory art needs the public in some fashion to interact with the piece in order for it to exist. Its definition is fluid, belonging to those who create it and those who carry it with them after it is complete. Ownership is multi-layered  -- and purposefully so, by design.

Recently Grand Valley State University’s Office for Public Culture (OPC), through an arrangement with Creative Time of New York, procured the blessing to broadcast the Creative Time Summit (CTS) at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The Creative Time Summit is an annual event devoted to looking at the details of where we are as artists. It's also for those who employ creative means within their practice as they examine those of us who labor in the public sphere and around a singular topic.  This year’s theme was Art, Place, and Dislocation in the 21st-Century City.

Creative Time, which has enjoyed more than four decades of commissioning and presenting public art projects in our world and even outer space, organizes their projects by focusing on three key areas: “Art matters, artists’ voices are important in shaping society, and public spaces are places for creative and free expression.”

For the local presentation of the Summit, OPC invited Anthony Stepterto act as moderator over the course of the two-day event. Stepter is the Coordinator of Museum and Exhibition Studies at MUSE @UIC. MUSE@UIC is the Master of Arts in Museum and Exhibition Studies of the University of Illinois at Chicago - an interdisciplinary program with a social justice focus.

Stepter led the local break-out sessions that included a veritable revolving door of artists rubbing elbows with urban planners, scholars, change agents and community organizers. And as he connected the internationally curated topics and concerns of the speakers and presenters on the big screen to the local audience, it became crystal clear to Stepter that our local community was in many ways connected very closely to what was happening.

“The thing about the Creative Time Summit is that sometimes it resonates with you and at other times you find yourself questioning the selected topic, forcing you to probe a bit deeper about the meaning or connection to the theme,” says Stepter. “The problems of New York are sometimes just different from those of New Orleans. But in other cases it was very clear from the stage that artists are working more and more with communities to converge around topics like the democratization of societies, creating space for diverse opinions and the individual’s role in the city.”

Anne Pasternak, President and Artistic Director of Creative Time, shared her thoughts at the Summit opening, echoing others in our world who are now asking, as cities prepare for the massive migration of individuals to their borders, deeper questions addressing the topic of who has the right to the city.

Presently 3.6 billion people are living in cities and, if migration patterns hold, by 2050 more than 6 billion people will be living in an urban center -- or about 75 percent of our world’s population will be our neighbors.

According to Ann Pasternak and the many artists who presented at the Summit, artists can have a key part and play an important role in what our cities will emerge to look like in the future.

On stage, artists, community organizers, cultural producers, mayors, policy folks, and scholars convened to help us better understand the complexities of our cities. Stepter led our group through discussion. Later, he made the following observations:

“I have tried to stay connected to the city over time,” says Stepter, who is a Burton Heights native working at Chicago’s MUSE. After departing Grand Rapids in 2006, he left to work for the largest arts advocacy group, Americans For the Arts in DC.  

“Within the space at the GRAM, OPC was able to provide a place for people to share their social based projects that are impacting the community,” says Stepter.

Stepter, while encouraged by the individuals attending, also offered some observations as well as some challenges to those living in our community.

“It is really important for artists to not become that individual who simply inhabits the studio space operating like a hermit,” says Stepter. “Artists need to remember that they are citizens, too. They can be engaging in so many ways as we have witnessed over the years. We are moving away from the concepts of how we see ourselves and how we are seen as artists. It is an exciting time."

His challenge echoes that of artist Laurie Jo Reynolds, co-prize winner of the 2013 Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, presented on stage at the CTS.

While accepting the prize for her role in working to shut down a Springfield, Illinois TAMMS prison facility where inhumane practices of incarceration were taking place, Reynolds remarked what she was really practicing was  “legislative art” – a practice where she channeled her creativity to harness the imaginations of those around her as they sought to bring about positive change to a very negative (and near-impossible-to-solve) situation.

Because of his scope of work here, Stepter knows us well as a community, so I had to ask, "What could we do to improve if, as you say, we are actually farther ahead than most cities you have encountered?"

This is true when you consider that Grand Rapids has been a leader of sorts in Social Practice Art. Civic Studio, started via Office for Public Culture’s and GVSU Professor Paul Wittenbraker, was one of the earliest art courses developed in the US in what is now referred to as Social Practice Art.

Civic Studio has been experimenting with various approaches to making art in public contexts since 1999, well before the current wave of new MFA programs in Social Practice.  Locally a few names who have participated in this course include Civic Studio alums Anthony Stepter, George Wietor, Jenn Schaub, Geoff Holestaad, Ryan Ditmer, Ryan Greaves, Anna Marie Buller, Ben Schaafsma, Amber Stout, and Mike Wolf.

“While it was interesting to hear what the local people are thinking and struggling with, many of their issues are deeply intertwined -- from displacement to income inequity to concerns over gentrification,” says Stepter. “Many of these items can be alleviated from individuals or institutions who feel free to be able to speak up on sensitive topics and for those on the other side to receive feedback. As it stands now, one key problem I have observed is that you don’t have that critical dialogue here, but need to make even more room for diverse views or diverse voices to be heard in order for authentic place making activities to work"

And this is something many have echoed over the years and (sadly) often right before their moving van pulls away. Maybe it is time to begin to unhook this item from our past as just "the way things are" and begin to imagine a new future based on radical democratization of our urban landscape where all voices have a chance to be heard. We saw on CTS's stage that this is possible and do-able -- and artists share a critical role in bringing these voices forward to be heard.

This Friday night, an exciting feedback session in the theatre at UICA will revisit an overview from a team of documentarians and curators who recently staged the Avenue for Arts’ project Free Radical Gallery.  Part of the goal of this event is to begin a critique of our community’s artists in a positive and open forum.

The feedback session will also give the audience a chance to understand a bit more about the art they see. Even though last weekend it rained, the Avenue’s event was bustling with people migrating up and down Division Avenue.

This one-night, education-focused event at UICA will also give all of us across many generational lines the opportunity to contribute to a brand-new mapping project being launched the same evening. This new mapping project will allow attendees to place on a map those off-the-path venues that exist here in our community.

This night is a greater opportunity to deepen connections to the arts of Grand Rapids but also a moment in time where we, as citizens of the city, begin to engage our area artists in the hopes of creating greater connections with the billions who will soon be neighbors in the urban centers of our world. What we learn here and now helps prepare us better for their arrival.

You can roll the dice and gamble on a host of events this week, but I dare say, you will be hard pressed to find one as impactful and rewarding as this one.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Oh what a weekend we have for you. Here are the Top 4 G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This!

Photo Credit: Image of Stepter by artist Laura Hart Newlon.
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