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Creative Research Center

The Newfound Excitement of “Finding Our Public” – by Neil Baldwin

Posted in: Director's Essay

Jumping feet-first into the vast, swirling Web-ocean a mere month ago, almost immediately the Creative Research Center started to hear from all kinds of energetic and imaginative people.  I’m going to pry open our international “Virtual Mailbag” in a moment and link you to some unexpected and new colleagues — but first, I want to share a particularly relevant quote from a  book I’ve just finished reading called Pop or Populus: Art between High and Low (Sternburg Press, NYC) by Bettina Funcke, independent curator and editor, formerly of the Dia Art Foundation.  “However large or small,” Ms. Funcke writes, ” a public basically needs to be invented, since we can never assume it already exists.” [CRC editorial comment: Boy, is that ever true!].  She goes on to qualify: “Potentially an audience already exists, but one needs to capture its attention.” [CRC editorial comment #2: ditto to the foregoing.] “So one addresses somebody or takes part in an existing debate, reaching out to be heard or seen; or uses mass media to reach out to the broader anonymous and heterogeneous public beyond one’s grasp.”

Bettina’s observation got me thinking about how replete the blogosphere is with one-directional, outward-facing speakers compelled to express their points of view and/or vent about an endless variety of subjects. A secondary characteristic of the sphere, it seems to me, is the desire to in some way “monetize” the act, so as to make one’s efforts into a commercially-viable metier.  As will be obvious to our visitors, The Creative Research Center is not characterized by these ambitions.  Self-promoters, by nature, do not have time to reciprocate. They are not so much interested in communication as they are in declamation. Our platform here at the CRC is open-ended and mediacentric, not a soapbox. Of course we want the hits — but we have to see and feel more gratification than mere contact; we need content that leads to further content – leading, in turn to substantive, passionate interaction.

Hard to believe it was twenty-five years ago this fall when I was working as a diligent proposal-writer in the Development Office of The New York Public Library on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue;  I remember standing at the arched, high threshold of Room 315, the Public Catalog Room, as the seventy-five-year-old archival card-catalogue was about to be dismantled and the old worn wooden drawers emptied.  In their stead would be situated ranks of IBM computer stations, home for the high-tech, online CATNYP catalogue system.   Our President, Dr. Vartan Gregorian, delivered inspirational remarks to the assembled multitudes, even as he cautioned, as we opened the door to a vast, uncharted realm,  “Information is not knowledge.”

All this by ruminative way of preface to opening our “Virtual Mailbag” and digging in to a selection of the informed and knowledgeable generosity we’ve received this month. One of our first – and most distinguished – responders was Gary Hall, Professor of Media and Performing Arts at Coventry University, co-editor of Culture Machine and co-founder of Open Humanities Press. “Many congratulations on the launch of your virtual centre,” Gary wrote. “It’s certainly very exciting — and I’ve already been making use of your Web Bibliography.”

“Congratulations on this new initiative of yours at Montclair State,” wrote Laura Brown, an old friend not seen in many years,  now the Executive VP for Strategy and Research at Ithaka, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping the academic community take full advantage of rapidly advancing information and networking technologies.  “You are working in a space that is dead center to the kinds of issues Ithaka works with every day.”   Warren Sack, director of the Social Computing Lab at UCSC, from whom I gratefully appropriated the prophetic concept of Very Large Scale Conversations, was next to check in with an update on his new work in Conversation Mapping. I was also heartened to hear from the iconoclastic Australian artist Simon Penny, who has taught in the USA for more than two decades and until recently was founding director of the Arts Computation Engineering Program at U.C. Irvine.  Now he’s about to join the Segal Institute for Human Centered Design in Northwestern University: “Interdisciplinarity lives on,”  Simon declared, “and clearly at Montclair State!”

Ramsay Burt – author of the definitive study of  The Male Dancer as well as a recent, provocative piece on “The Specter of Interdisciplinarity” – reached us from the Dance Department at DeMontfort University in Leicester in response to the CRC’s prominent mission to help revivify dance documentation. “I certainly do look outside dance studies because we are a very small field,” Ramsey writes, “and we need to look at what other people are doing. Most people are stuck in their disciplinary boundaries…[I am trying to] get people outside dance studies interested in the ideas about the body and its creative potential for radical change.”

And we extend special thanks to three leaders in the field. Julie Thompson Klein, known to all as the pre-eminent scholar and editor whose personal bibliography is far too long for the confines of this blog – sent “congratulations” within a week of the  CRC launch.  We will look forward with great anticipation to her massive Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity coming in August. We were also pleased to hear from Jonathan Reams at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, editor of the Integral Review, a fascinating transdisciplinary and transcultural journal, who called the CRC  “indeed full of possibilities.”  And last, but most certainly not least, we thank Prof. William Newell of Miami University of Ohio, Executive Director of the Association for Integrative Studies, and his assistant, Phyllis Cox, for listing the Creative Research Center so prominently on their Interdisciplinary Connections Resources Page.

We are very proud to be in this distinguished company.

Keep those (virtual) cards and letters (and links) coming!

Yours, NB


Flash Update  6/13/10.  The Summer 2010 issue of ARTFORUM arrived in my mailbox yesterday and it is so compelling I haven’t been able to put it down. It is a special double-issue — Tim Griffin’s last one as editor after seven years at the helm — called The Museum Revisited. This astonishing and provocative section can be found on pp. 274-335 with commentary, images and essays by Kathy Halbreich, Jeffrey Deitch, Tino Sehgal, Manuel Borja-Villel, Rem Koolhaas, Ann Goldstein, Oscar Ho Hing-kay, Helen Molesworth, Pawel Althamer, Joanna Mytkowska, Roman Ondak, Ann Philbin, Tania Bruguera, Daniel Birnbaum and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Olafur Eliasson, Andras Szanto, Ann Temkin, Jeffrey Kastner, Lars Nittve, Adriano Pedrosa, Ines Katzenstein, R.H. Quaytman, Julian Rose, Chantal Mouffe, and Pi Li — and a valedictory Postscript by Tim Griffin.

This deluge of critical thought has resonance for me because the section so thoroughly interrogates the viability of the museum as an institution in today’s decentered and fragmented culture in much the same fashion that the Creative Research Center is trying to forge its own path as a new virtual gathering place.

Kathy Halbreich was for many years the Director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a place I visited regularly and came to love for its seemingly-effortless blend of user-friendliness and curatorial openness. In the pages of ARTFORUM, Ms. Halbreich is still looking for better ways to connect with her public now that she has become associate director of MOMA.  Meanwhile, Jeffrey Deitch has made the transition from gallerist to director of L.A. MOCA where he, too, speaks of wanting to engage a broader constituency. Manuel Borja-Villel, who runs the Reina Sofia in Madrid, wonders whether museums have lost a degree of “mediatory power” in the multiple networks of creative industries. Ann Goldstein moved from L.A. MOCA to the Stedelijk in Amsterdam where she presides over a museum under perpetual construction, suffering from the extended absence of its home base and resulting public backlash. Helen Molesworth at ICA in Boston speculates about the sheer volume of artistic production in today’s world and how museums are supposed to accommodate and cope with it;  Ann Temkin at the Met confesses to her mortification at the amount of artwork in storage that never sees the light of day.   Ann Philbin at the Hammer Museum has noticed that visitors now crave more participatory experience when they walk through the doors, not only reverent looking at a distance. And so it goes.

Many of you reading this post may have grown up, like me, in the old world of material culture where you visited a museum of a weekend afternoon to meander through the galleries and observe beautifully-lit artifacts under the “do not touch” eye of vigilant guards. The ambiance was appropriate to the ritual; there was no other Reality in those archaic times. The thing itself was “it.”

Needless to say, the arts currently inhabit an utterly revised and dispersed range of perceptions and experiences. So many of our waking hours are spent in virtual places where nothing is out of range.  So when we make the shift from digital to analog, there is a perceptual phase of adjustment, unconscious but obligatory. People enter the foyer of a museum with their sensoria predisposed to expect more. Museums — as institutions that need to survive and still honor their (antiquated? nineteenth-century?) missions as cultural repositories — are looking inward to determine how best to respond.

This introspective mood is one of the enduring forces behind the star-studded ARTFORUM gathering. The Cuban artist Tania Bruguera weighs in idealistically — if a touch hyperbolically: “I would like to see a museum in the not-so-new XXI century,” she declares in an outspoken sidebar, “that abandons the idea of looking for the idea of activation; one that is not a building or even a fixed space but a series of events and a program; one where the institution gives up authority; one that is dedicated to research into the practical usefulness of art; one where art entails actual social transformation, instead of providing merely highly speculative strategies for bringing about such transformations. One where things are not excised from their contexts — where objects are contextualized instead of historicized. One that is not a structure, but a moment; that is not a place to visit but a presence…

…A museum that is more a part of the Internet, open-source, and Wikipedia culture.”