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Book Review
‘Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production’
A mystifying fog of images and information seems to have engulfed the creative, media and advertising world - from television, radio, documentary and film to the glut of data generated by the new economy. With the fast rise of social networks, even most of our contemporaries, friends and peers have all suddenly started to sell to each one of us the ultimate end product: themselves. In this context, renowned curator-critic Nato Thompson looks to interrogate the irreversible implications of these important developments for those committed to socially engaged art practices and conscious activism.

At a broader level, his experience of closely dealing with the complex intersection of politics and art is something that has acted as a lead for him to write ‘Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production’ (‘Pages: 176. December, 2012; Melville Publishing); it’s to do with he himself as an author, and also many artists he knows, grappling with these critical issues of representation and also how to make specific meaning stick, especially the holistic experience of not only complete co-optation, since that appears a rather simplistic term, but also the manner in which visual representation gets fast sucked into a machine of rampant power and sort of spits back. It has created a situation with vast distrust.

Artists try to make sense of it and grasp the world around them, and that is very tough today owing to an extremely coercive social landscape, he avers. A write-up to the book emphasizes: “How can really anyone find a distinct voice and make change when the world around is flooded with so much of information and images? And what is one to make of the endless machine of consumer capitalism, which has appropriated much from the history of art and, in recent years, the methods of grassroots political organizing and social networking? Highlighting the work of some of today’s most innovative and interesting artists and activists, he reads and praises sites and institutions that empower their communities to see power and re-imagine it. From cooperative housing to anarchist infoshops to alternative art venues, the author shows that many of today’s most innovative spaces operate as sites of dramatic personal transformation.”

The chief curator at Creative Time, New York’s prestigious art organization, Nato Thompson is also the editor of A historic Occasion - Artists Making History, ‘The Interventionists - A Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life’, and ‘Experimental Geography - Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography, and Urbanism’. Creative Time has commissioned as well as presented several public art projects with thousands of practitioners throughout New York, across the US, and all around the world. Its work philosophy is guided by three values: artists’ voices are important in shaping our society; public spaces are places for creative and free expression; and at the end of it all, art matters. Since 2007, he has organized projects like ‘The Creative Time Summit’, Jeremy Deller’s ‘It is What it is’, Mike Nelson’s ‘A Psychic Vacuum’ with curator Peter Eleey, and Paul Ramirez Jonas’s ‘Key to the City’. His writings have been published in numerous top publications such as BookForum, Frieze, Art Forum, Parkett, Art Journal, Cabinet and The Journal of Aesthetics& Protest.

One thing significant to him is that the language about art world is predominantly still operating as if we are back right at the start of the 20th century. Even as many theorists have constantly interrogated ideas of intrinsic beauty and so on, the lexicon used for discussing art has progressed, he asserts. In fact, it has become in some ways more conservative since the market has emerged as a major force, particularly in the US. Discussions regarding art tend to get stuck in what the mainstream market is willing to sustain and fund. In this backdrop, he hopes the book will produce the various different ways to think and discuss art - not simply whether it’s of good quality or bad - you can deeply think about what it actually does, different levels of engagement, and what pedagogy is. In other words, there is a whole other set of visual language skills as well as metrics for measuring success that can be applied to art, which is different from the typical language of poetry or beauty.

The kind of issue he comes at, going beyond art specifically, is to take a holistic view of cultural forces in the 21st century in comparison to those at the start of the precious century sans intrusion of radio, TV, and the Internet - that kind of very conscious manipulation of the symbolic visual and creative realm, which has dramatically changed the way we understand art, and even our everyday life cycle is understood. What is growingly universal is the realization that culture is an entity made by common people. Today everyone is a videomaker, a photographer, a creator. They routinely make and remake culture without even thinking or acting as an artist, the change that he tries to fathom in this thought-provoking document.