(An excerpt from a white paper presented at the 2012 Res Artist Conference in Tokyo for the panel New Strategies for Creative Platforms and updated this July)
When we are designing an artist residency program with a creative organization and with artists and creators, we talk about how to organize a creative residency by looking at the creative practice first. I feel the role of an artist residency program in the larger arts ecology is so critical. And our discussions start with understanding what is underlying the artistic/creative practice that often has no clear outcome. We talk to arts administrators and program officers about how they can look ahead to anticipate what creative practices may be in all forms; what they will need to develop creative platforms for artists to formulate ideas and disseminate them; what tools will they need to be successful; and what unforeseen partnerships can be encouraged and made room for to reflect the desire on the part of the large creative community to connect and break free of the silos they have working in due to inflexible notions of specialization?
It is difficult to project direct answers for some of these questions, as contemporary artists and creative practices are malleable and fluid, changing rapidly. There are no answers for some of them, there is only process. So it is appropriate to talk about how contemporary artists and creators think, and then act upon that. We speak to organizations about learning from this and respond to the demands, opportunities, growth and challenges that artists engage and struggle with. We all learn how to anticipate and be part of the creative process, turning the institution into sustainable infrastructure for inspired action and reflection.
A fundamental characteristic of contemporary artists is their use of ‘divergent thinking’ as a cornerstone of creativity. Divergent thinking is the process of always re-thinking any question and refusing to accept at face value whatever proposition has stimulated the question. In contemporary artistic practice and behavior, divergent thinking is the trigger for creative innovation. The tendency to challenge the given question and thereby reshape the investigation at hand is characteristic of the pluralistic, decentralized practice of international contemporary arts, which simultaneously witnesses and foments change in the cultural paradigms to which societies adhere.
Contemporary artists are hard wired to challenge established cultural canons. Their creative skepticism might seem to be an unrelenting process of tearing down and building up; as soon as one set of assumptions are arrived at, creators quickly move to challenge them. Innovation cannot remain static, as creativity like knowledge is an infinite activity, as limitless as human potential. Entropy and denial of possibility becomes the enemy of creativity to an artistic sensibility. The restlessness of an intellectually nomadic generation is a hallmark of contemporary arts and a tech-savvy generation increasingly conversant in networks of virtual communities.
When divergent thinking extends to every aspect of cultural and artistic production, it can generate enormously exciting and unpredictable possibilities. Yet, the rate of change and acceptance of the fruits of divergent thinking is much slower in society as a whole than among communities of artists and creators. The best ideas for improvements in the general quality of life proposed by artists and creative thinkers are confronted by political, religious, economic and social bias, which may allow change only at the cost of great resistance and violence. While artists may upend a paradigm, we realize it is not always welcome. Lets call it the Galileo Syndrome.
A broad example is the way artists (amongst others) during the Vietnam War era proposed the renunciation of violence as a means of instilling order and rule through force, and one new idea artists proposed was the promotion of communal networks as necessary and vital for the free flow of information. The benefits would include respect for diverse cultural viewpoints and traditions and creative collaborations between distant communities. International contemporary artists (generations since the 1960s) sought to build bridges of cooperation by adding voices dedicated to supporting gender, race, class, and economic equity. In the United States, this is when numerous vital collaborations with international artists began to take shape. We began to see networks formed and residencies taking shape and an entire new area of the arts began to grow. In this dynamic moment of experimentation artists invented new ways to express, demonstrate and deliver positive, non-violent values through their practice, often in public. As this work evolved into a formal discipline of “public practice” some artists also began challenging market capitalism on the grounds that it is antithetical to their ideas and production of them because as a system it was co-opting ideas and ultimately stifling creativity by applying arbitrary controls over the distribution and access of intellectual property. And in an equally profound sense, artists began challenging cultural infrastructure in which artists did not have a leading voice in policy discussion and decision-making. We still are, there is much to be done in terms of true inclusion and opportunity. I encourage creative persons to begin their own residency centers, join networks, to make their own opportunities, imagine their own creative platforms and then make them, and to stop waiting around for permission.
Obviously much happened, a generation took shape, and the war ended. What occurred after that and why? The answers to this are the subject of another day, another conference. Clearly amazing things have happened and there has been a blossoming of arts and culture. Yet the arts is not our nation’s metric for a successful society, is it? It is still our wars, our dominance as a democratic enterprise and our military might that determines our success or failure as a civilization. So what did we really do with our new affluence and is it sustainable? And where is the creative practice and our creative institutions, our artists and their residencies, in all of the new complexities? That is worth evaluating, and I think, very soon. I feel the answers we receive will surprise us because they would derive from the creative practice, which never fails to surprise.