documentation and curatorial practice as political engagement

Art & Public Policy, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University


Documentation and Curatorial Practice as Political Engagement

Professor Adonis Volanakis

Fridays, 11am – 1:45pm @ Global Studies Building, 238 Thompson st. , Room 374


Office: 665 Broadway, 6th Floor

How are contemporary artists and curators documenting in ways that are politically engaged? In the context of rapid global socio-economic changes and urgent political conditions, what is the relationship between: 1) developing effective documentation methodologies; 2) curating projects that produce audio-visual archives and dialogical forums for dialogue, debate and other forms of exchange and 3) addressing the needs of undocumented/ underrepresented populations?

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Our loose collective

Yousra Y Amin, film maker,

Anooj Bhandari, performer/future social projectician,,

Amelia Ellis, singer/songwriter,

Israa A Ismaeil, writer/visual artist,

Cass Jacoby, film theorist/aspiring lighthouse keeper,

Rebecca Kenigsberg, director/actor,

Luisa Martínez, creative cultivator,

Maria Papanikolaou, artist/researcher/activist,

Tyler Thomas, art maker,

Adonis Volanakis, artist, social weaver, educator,

Joy Zimmerman, architect,

Abounadarra reflection

By Tyler Thomas

Building on my exploration of artist as producer and as citizen, I am interested in an understanding of the artist function, centrally, as documenter. And, in terms of human suffering, what are the ethics not only of witnessing, but also of reproducing, and of documenting in the first place? What is our complicity as both audience and creator? I think I mean to ask: how do we determine our social responsibility to the suffering and struggles of others, particularly across large geographical and cultural divides? How do we cultivate and live out a more patriotic sense of global citizenship (and an allegiance to deeper compassion)?

To return to this notion of the artist’s “immigrant drive,” I am interested in the artist’s practice of crossing borders, mastering the inside/outside position as a facilitator would, moving between participation and witnessing. It is what Dr. Aimee Meredith Cox refers to as co-performative witnessing or participant observation. When we observe, we become complicit in our new knowledge. When we perform the role of witness, we confess a certain type of (nonspatial) presence at the scene of the crime. In theater, the complicity is literalized, as audience and performer share in the retelling and reliving of an experience, happening in the present moment, together. I am interested in the spaces that allow us to recreate community, to share in the experience of Others. I suppose the documenting artist must involve themselves in the struggle (and hopes) of those they are documenting – this is the way we avoid exploitation. We become, as poet-organizer Mahogany Brown says, not just allies but “accomplices” – people who also “have something to lose.”

How do I, as an artist, enact such accompliceship? I make. And I make visible. And I create alternatives. And I wield imagination. I reconsider narratives. I oppose domination. I humanize (and defy victimhood). I report on truth. I tell my grandfather’s dreams.  I zoom in, to magnify the stories of the unheard, thereby expanding the frame of my compassion. Which doesn’t mean I don’t do the organizing. It doesn’t mean I’m not there for my neighbor. Or at the protest, or community center. But I do bring my skill sets to these places. And I listen, observe, testify.

How do we as ones “with the glasses,” “with the cameras,”— framing lenses—best take advantage of our dual positionality to cultivate critical seeing? I take my cue from Hani Sayed: “to photograph is to frame, to frame is to define boundaries of the real, of what is representable, what we are not allowed to represent and what is not worthy to represent.” Thus, the work of documenting is to, in effect, build value systems and convey narrative—in other words, to shape our notion of reality. Sayed concluded his opening talk by declaring the importance of “ending private censorship, [which was] a call to see the frame itself, to subject it to scrutiny and critique…changing the way we see.” These, quoting Judith Butler, are “disobedient acts of seeing.” To betray the impulse to look away, to resist cultures of passivity, to retrain muscles of courageous compassion. To make action.

Sayed also mentioned the idea of engaging images “more like literature.” And I am wondering: what does it look like to ask my audience to read my performance work? How can the literal storytelling conventions of literature be used to transform how we as audiences are trained to engage with image and sound? I think what I am circling around is a return, in some capacity, to newspaper theater.

Project row houses reflection

By Tyler

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we take the theater outside of the theater—how we move it, so to speak, or how it travels—and oppositely, how we invite the outside world in, in such a way that informs the theater (whatever “the theater” is) itself. Additionally, I’m perpetually thinking about space, home, art—and the flexibility and transformative potential of these things. I am particularly attracted to the ways we can launch projects into the middle of community, to address real need. What is the potential of art as shelter, as community center? As meeting, convening, organizing space. And oppositely, home as art space, house as art installation space. Row Houses makes an excellent proposal for this. The viewing of art as space of reconceptualization, and a host of transformative community and definitions of neighbor and hospitality. Reconsidering what it means for art product to be public good. How do I build an alliance, and cohesion, between the work of art-making and putting yourself on the line? I want to avoid work that talks about the world but yet fails to step into it.  work of putting yourself on the line.

I am also attracted to this idea of space as a container, revitalizing space, casting ourselves on our walls, creating our homes—reimagining what spaces of poverty look like, reclaiming the architecture of poor neighborhoods. In many ways, our social environment suggests our worth. In many ways, what we see around us suggests the extent of our possibility. How can we alter this to include maximal possibility? Row Houses also stands as inspiration on this front as well. In offering programs for youth education and neighborhood history preservation, their work affirms what is great about their people.

I think it’s also critical to foster more creative minds and creative strategy in low-income neighborhoods—which is seen in Row House’s example of increasing the visibility/training of black artists. It’s critical to make work that centers our experience, to make projects that confront our needs. It is the urgency of artists making work now, in the present moment. I am inspired by building projects of place that undermine oppression,

Problem solving in spaces of poverty. Social design. I believe this is my passion.  Home is my passion as well. Spaces that call folks together, in one room. Creative strategy and restoration. I am drawn to places and people that go neglected. I am drawn to things we write off. I desire to be a part of ushering something back to its original glory, bringing things to life. I think this is my central calling.


Definitions, second set by Tyler

Political engagement – to care intimately for and to respond thoughtfully to the way in which our world is being made. To be willing to place yourself, in some part, or maybe all, on the line for what you believe is just and/or right. To be accountable to the circumstances of our reality in action, knowledge, and awareness. Political engagement is to immerse yourself in the past, present, and future given circumstances of place and time. It is an outward evidence of citizenship. In some contexts, a risk or a privilege. Debatably a choice, arguably a duty. Can be performed in resistance to or in support of an issue, event, policy, or person. Can be performed by anyone in a manifold of ways. To be politically engaged is the very opposite of passivity or apathy. It is to have an activated opinion or point of view. It is to be responsible to the changing of times. To be politically engaged, one must believe change is possible and that individual effort matters to the collective movement and culture.

Curating – telling a particular story through the selection and organization of a particular set of things in order to convey a particular meaning. These things may be language, image, object, content. Curation necessarily propagates a particular subjective position. And in this way it can be a lie. In this way, it is always a devised narrative of a singular point of view. To curate is to promote a certain vision of the world, of how something came to be. To curate is to include somethings and not others. It is a position of power; it is the voice of the editor and the narrator. To curate is to sift through materials and create a relationship between the sediment. To identify (or force) patterns between. To reveal (or force) conversations between. And to propose an interpretation or meaning. They are meaning-makers.

Documentation – to record as evidence something witnessed. It is a form of participation from the outside. Requires distance between a thing observed and the observer. This is to say that documenting is an externalizing practice. It is a process of removing yourself from a reality, in order to then replicate it in a different form (through word, art, a camera, etc). Like curators, documenters are inherently a selective crew. It is to the discretion of the documenter that something is included or excluded. Theoretically, however, documentation would be an unbiased, neutral practice – a true account of what has happened. Documentation is an act of memorialization. It is a preservational tool, often combined with research and study. It is also a tool of historicization, as it marks the transformation of any present moment into past event. Is possible through any form or discipline.

Anton Kats Reflection by Tyler

Considering documentation as a form of curation, and curation as a form of storytelling, and story as a proposal for our real world, I am curious about how my art weaves together nonfiction and speculative fiction. I inherit the term “speculative fiction” from my afro-futurist come befores. And am left to question: how are we telling (and enacting) the freest true story possible? And how are we redesigning our world in terms of the un- or yet- seen, done, imagined? To live a life that is truly unhinged – I’m thinking of Amelia’s palimpsest – that operates on a deeper level of critical thinking and imagining and engagement. To in fact build the terms of our own existence. To remain faithful to an uncolonized future.

I am significantly inspired by the cohesive breadth of Anton’s work—his reoccurring radio projects in particular. (More particularly, Bloxburgh FM in Jamaica !!!) I am inspired by them as documentation of a community’s collaborative, political engagement. I am inspired by them as examples of how art practice invigorates collective social performance. By his intervention of art within the “everyday,” in a way that invites people closer to each other and to their world—and in deeper participation in its shaping. Leaving our program, I am seeking to develop a practice that meditates on the thing which connects us most visibly, most pragmatically, and most necessarily: living together. Perhaps this relates to my desire to travel and to make work that is site specific? Either way, I believe that change starts at the local site, and my dream is to apply creative investigation, strategy, and collaboration to its pursuit. (I think of Grace Lee Boggs’ words: “in order to transform the world, we must be transformed ourselves.”)

This notion of living together, of sharing space, of sharing home, I see as a sufficient prerequisite to conceive of ourselves (radically) as kin. And how do we speculate, devise, and enact radical forms of togetherness in the making, doing, and documenting of our work? This to me is a political practice of cultural meaning-making, of constructing our own world, with new politics of care relation. It is a creative social project, building complex grounds of politically engaged community. Which to me means collective, participatory work at is responsive to the problems we encounter.


I am coming to see my artistic self as a creative documenter of social, collaborative living, understanding that this work inherently brings with it the curatorial—the act of proposing a particular vision of our world, of reframing our reality through the lens of artistic intervention. This, I think, is to bend reality and how we operate inside of it. I think this means that I am primarily excited by transformation, but more specifically: growth, restoration, and healing. I am passionate about thriving and tall, fruitful trees.

I’m thinking of the artist as a dealer in time and in change. One with the capacity to envision the future, document and redress the present, and to reinterpret past. Thus I’m thinking of my art as an investigation of the evolutionary project of world-making, as projects of an intervention in change over time.

As a final note: I’m also really attracted to Anton’s language of “practice driven research projects.” I think it’s quite genius and have been trying to apply the model to my own work. (Practice driven community/kin building? I’ll keep discovering it.) I am also greatly impressed by the cohesiveness of his research interests in his practice so far (sound archive, research, care for elderly). In the context of my own work, I’m thinking that may be “found” material (text, movement, story, etc.). I also think it may be creative leadership. I think this may be how I intersect storytelling within artistic project and community building within the same.




Anton Katz, Cool Cat

(by Anooj)

I recently received an article from sex worker and activist, Laura LeMoon, saying, "An ally should be personally gaining NOTHING through their activism. In fact, if you are an ally, you should be losing things through your activism; space, voice, recognition, validation, identity and ego.”  I think this is the exact move to insignificance that I think of as essential; what are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of building communities around us?  

I was especially fascinated by the use of the kiosk as a container of memory in juxtaposition with memory as something imagined and as a non-linear reflection of the past rather than the past itself.  If memory itself is serving as a form of creating, how do we use that as an access point for communities to think about how to create in other capacities?  In the curiosity and wonder that seemed to be expressed by passers-by I thought back to an article from "Artists During Times of War," a collection by Howard Zinn.  There was an article that spoke about the origins of pamphlets and the wonder they used to elicit through their function of disseminating material that the public couldn't receive in other spaces.  I began to see the kiosks as a kind of pamphlet and then was reminded of the temporality of the pamphlet in its initial purpose... when pamphleteers are seen now, most people turn to walk the other way.  What used to represent agency of people to learn the truth now represents a lack of agency as many people feel pigeon holed into interaction with pamphlets.  How can our containers of memory harness agency and choice within its viewers? 

How can we be reminded that our memory is as time bending as the memories around us and that It is within the power of our the people to decide if the differences in how we remember are reason for conflict or reason for coming together? 

With the origins of Documenta14 being steeped in the master's relationship to art, hearing about Anton's art was extremely encouraging.  He seems very separate from his ego yet able to still watch himself from outside his work to be able to establish a need for sustainability.  I always wonder in these conversations and especially after our activity last week, about what people's bodies feel when they are talking about their projects with us.  We are only introduced to their faces for the most part, as social construct calls for, but that's what I have learned as the commodifying part of the body.  I would love to hear how people's entirety sits in position to the investments that they talk to us about.

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