“The arts alone will not save the world, but art will provide us with the tools necessary to create impact; when we are not invited to sit at a table to dialogue, then we must create a table ourselves.” – Salomeh Ahmadi
TORONTO – If people are the process from which global ills will be brought to light, art can carry that message. But art can’t do this alone. With global warming, income inequality, and human rights violations – our futures can be painted as the impossible or, as possibility – or some stratum in between. Art as a market commodity has not lost its sway, people will always be willing to pay for an idea, but art as a catalyst that is responsible for stimulating the imagination, remains a hope for us all.
On Friday June 12-13, 2015, The Creative Catalyst Symposum, held at the Ryerson University School of Interior Design, brought together Canadian artists, students, activists, designers, researchers, and various professionals, to uncover ways in which arts and culture could catalyze social innovation.
In the face of [insert buzzword here] social problems, the symposium proposed that “radical innovation” was required to shift perspectives and culture – despite the fact that of all four, albeit great, keynote speakers respectively, none were a person of colour. When society knows who disenfranchised groups are, yet people are unwilling to acknowledge that gap, how can a symposium truly be radical if the status quo is maintained? The radical aspect of the symposium left much to be desired. I commend the organizers however for their hard work in attempting to grasp the multiple crises that arts and radical innovation face behind the only lens in which they were able to see.
In a world where arts and culture knows no bounds, legitimacy is still prescribed by institutions, those who hold power and determine what “great” art is, i.e. what does and does not hold up substantial space in academics, galleries or conversations. Not surprising, since many Toronto Arts Boards lack diversity, jurors for Art Basel are lacking in diversity and the significant imbalance of women in the arts versus men – that has been voiced since 1985 by the Guerrilla Girls, and never mind the lack of representation of other cultural elements such as race, sexual orientation, or identity. Why don’t black people go to galleries for example? And how exposing working class people of colour and their families to leisure and arts can make a radical impact in determining how exclusions of cultural value are deep seated.
Apart from those criticisms, and I don’t want to digress into hyper-criticism, as the arts and symposium in general, both work in a larger sphere of institutional confinement, there existed a fair group of people, great insights and thoughtful interactions that weekend. The moderators’ and audiences’ questions were exceptional and enlightened. Sometimes in institutional spaces certain grey areas are watered down, and the perils of being too nice for self-preservation or the sham of respectability politics can tempt me to harangue others about the redundancies in how we approach a problem only to create (or avoid) new ones. One panelist, for example, kept mentioning the word ethics without elaboration, however, when an audience member asked what equity meant and what an equity framework was, if the panelist had one, only one person (a person of colour, interestingly enough) responded to the audience by sharing that he is constantly checking his “own blind spots.” Perhaps due to time or some other variable at play, what was talked about or avoided, demonstrated how certain spaces have yet to delve deeply into risque topics such as equity and diversity, the -isms, and intersectionality.
While the symposium provided poignant moments when those aforementioned topics were brought up briefly, the event left me wanting more. Since I had heard about another phenomenal event, Truth is Concrete, a 24/7 marathon camp on art and strategy, in Graz 2012, I have been wondering ever since: why can’t we host something like that in Toronto? Is Toronto ready for such a visceral experience, after all people go to Nuit Blanche only for the Tiny Tom Donuts.
Creative Catalyst did what it aimed to achieve, the event brought participants forward on the conversations of art, activism and social innovation and the challenges faced by artists. The event offered a new doorway into conversations often absent that try to tackle systemic and cross-sectoral issues. The breadth of conversation the group had and the ways in which people approached their craft and questioned ‘the way things have always been done‘ brought hope to my cynical heart.
An interactive art installation called ‘Art Can Change‘ by The Bodhi Collective, and the breakout sessions, were a nice touch to enhance the visceral component between observer and art. Whether arts innovation will grow through business, for e.g. Artscape, or further made problematic, through gentrification; they all shed light on the ways in which initiatives are approached and are constantly changing. It is no accident that while much work remains to be done in order to achieve radical innovation – the symposium provided just that platform, to engage in a discussion in how we could see the world, and not necessarily how it is. As artist Patricio said in his break out session, ” how do we prevent reproducing things we don’t want to repeat?” a vital step in developing a praxis for ones own practice.
How can we envision a future where Art is legitimized and not co-opted? Where STEM possibly becomes STEAM (arts added) in a horizontal and democratic manner? We need the very fabric of grassroots ideology, where impact is achieved through meaningful resistance of the colonial mechanisms that de-legitimize arts and culture on one hand, then go on to capitalize off it in one fellow swoop, all before we recognize the limits of our own processes. While capitalism has profit and fluctuating power under its belt and can purchase ideas, capitalism can not make an idea possible, because economics will never be more portable than an idea from which it stems. As Farrah-Marie Miranda, mentioned on her panel, while “500 years of colonialism has existed, there has also existed 500 years of resistance.” We cannot ignore this fact.
The imagination of possibility, envisioning ideas and concepts not yet captured, both of artists and observers, will always be at the forefront of communicating the unknown, of unearthing how we perceive things as different and subsequently lead to a change in ideology. Most importantly, imagination defers judgement and allows us to open up space for critical reflection and dialogue through layered perceptions. While money alone will not save the world, for the absence of ethical deliberations capital will flow, the humanity behind the art that drive its motives, will move move us closer to rearranging the set of expectations when envisioning a radical world for all.
Creative Catalyst featured keynotes by Edward Burtynsky (Canadian photographer) in conversation with Sophie Hackett, Judith Marcuse (Founder & Co-Director of the International Centre of Art for Social Change; Ashoka International Senior Fellow), and Stephen Duncombeand Steve Lambert (Co-Founders, Center for Artistic Activism).