A New Census Wants to Hear From You: What Future Do You Want for the Art World?

What do you feel is most important in culture right now? This is the driving question of the Art & Society Census, a new project launched by BPL Presents — the arts and culture division of Brooklyn Public Library — together with writer and curator Laura Raicovich and in partnership with Hyperallergic. Together we’re taking stock of changes in culture by hearing from anyone who wishes to participate in the census, beginning with a survey that can be accessed here.

The results of this short questionnaire will provide material for the formation of working groups made up of members of the public, organized by Brooklyn Public Library over the winter and spring of 2021. Both the written feedback and the outcomes of the working groups’ discussions will be presented at an expanded convening — inviting NYC residents, artists, art appreciators, national and international arts workers, museum and public institutional directors and staff — with the aim of spurring new ways to share art and culture in public spaces that will best serve the broadest collective imaginable.

In this interview, Laura Raicovich, former Emily H. Tremaine Journalism Fellow for Curators at Hyperallergic, joins Brooklyn Public Library’s Vice President of Arts & Culture László Jakab Orsós and the library’s visual arts curator, Cora Fisher, to talk about how the project came about and where they hope it leads.

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László Jakab Orsós: So, we’ve been working on the Art and Society Census for months now, amidst the very real challenges the world is putting before us today. But just imagine a paradise, a future of the art world we wish to invite into being. In that new framework, how do you see a classic institution (theaters, museums, research centers, libraries, galleries) positioned?

Laura Raicovich: My first instinct is to say that classical institutions have to understand critiques as forms of radical care, rather than as occasions wherein they’re forced to defend themselves. Maybe that’s not quite paradise, but a step towards paradise: to actually receive critique and protest in an entirely different way, rather than triggering the kind of monolithic, public-relations-fabricated response and only kind of hearing what union organizers or protestors or even just your staff have to say.

Further, perhaps that paradise requires another way to imagine the publics of cultural institutions. Right now, there’s a lot of great programming happening, but it may not be happening in a way that centers care for audiences, publics, workers, artists, etc. Or maybe it only exhibits care for some sub-segment of that population. To me, the paradise experience would be to be able to realize projects that are deeply meaningful, that join art and life in some way, but are also highly sustainable for everyone involved. And that’s where the census comes in. How do we know what people want? Maybe we just ask?

Cora Fisher: I tend to see this dilemma in a really structural way. In an ideal world, one step to paradise would be for institutions to really sit and think about what sustainability might look like — not just in terms of who’s sitting at the table, but how things are economically structured — to heed these very potent social and economic critiques that artists are offering to society at large and try to model the changes. Of course, to do that, the larger economy implicates philanthropy and the foundation worlds and federal support and all of that, but maybe even a bigger reimagining of how we do things, including looking to other countries for case studies of what could really work in an American context.

The process of us working together has really tracked with the whole pandemic in the sense of you just don’t always know, and the best that you can hope to do is clarify intent, using this pandemic to reassess how we can reshape the institutions we intersect with, work with and for.

LJO: We can describe capitalism as patterns closing in on us and on our lives and leaving no oxygen, no room for failure, no room for non-expectations, no room for losing yourself in anything, in your own life, or in any experiment. And that, I think, is hugely dangerous. And this pandemic really shed light on this. If you talk to friends, everyone goes through the same trajectory: fear and revelation … It’s still a very amicable reminder to change, which we may immediately forget after the first vaccine.

LR: At the end of the day, I really believe in art, because art has the capacity — the experience of art in whatever form you might enjoy it or decide to engage with it — has the capacity to remove you from those constraints on your imagination that capitalism imposes. And that it is very difficult — having all aspects of our lives defined by capitalism in this moment in history, it’s very difficult to come out of that. And this has been the only moment in my life when I’ve ever felt — it sounds like such a horrible thing to say, because so many people have died and so much terrible has happened, but it also is one of the moments — one of the only moments in my life, where I feel the potential for actual shifts in how we imagine the world.

“A Night of Philosophy and Ideas” at the Brooklyn Public Library (2017) (photo by Gregg Richards)

LJO: So, in that new era, the new world, how do you see yourself? We are all doing similar or roughly similar things. We call ourselves similar names: curators, presenters, art leaders, executives, whatever. Does hierarchy have a place anymore? Can hierarchy be eliminated in that world? And ultimately, what would you call yourself in that new system?

CF: I have been thinking about this question through this whole pandemic, because there have been so many examples of mutual aid and cooperation and support. But I really keep returning — and not just in the context of art, but in life, to this question of: What is power without hierarchy? Just asking the question opens for me a kind of well of excitement. And I think that within that new world, it would be more about creating networks of relationships that are truly collaborative and horizontal and where we would absolutely have to undo a lot of the ranks and titles and names. So, I guess, in that space, I would want to be an ally to artists and a facilitator. That maybe would be one way. But maybe it would be possible to come up with even more poetic names for each other: listener, mediator. I don’t know what they would be.

LR: I feel like my practical self thinks about hierarchies as they can be useful, right? Like, for example, when I was working at the Queens Museum, when I started, it was a very flat staff structure. What I found was that some staff didn’t have enough people to ask what they needed, to get answers to do their work. And so, we created hierarchy, to empower the people who were in need of support; assigning people who were “above” them on the hierarchy to support them. It wasn’t using power to exert influence on those people who reported to you, but to provide support for your team in order for them to accomplish their work, to provide them more of what they needed.

LJO: We try to imagine how we can think of art as a phenomenon without obvious boundaries. How does this happen today given the corporatization of nearly all facets of culture? And as we are talking on the library’s behalf, I have to say that it was just announced that Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster are merging — talk about superpower, talk about the corporate structure descending upon art. Do you think there’s a way to avoid this or is it built into the system that we need to see it rotting away before we can start building a new one?

LR: Or resist it? Or what we envision maybe just happens in a parallel universe? One thing that drives me crazy right now is all this talk of post-election unity. People who are like, “Oh, we need to talk to Trump supporters and understand them and blah blah blah,” and I’m like, “No fucking way!” That is a waste of time. It’s everybody else we need to talk to. In a way, there’s a parallel to this in the art world. There will always be different types of art, and I guess I want to locate spaces and realities that may just function on entirely different registers than the rest. In no way are these exclusive locations, but they are fundamentally different. And they’re always going to come with a very particular point of view.

CF: Is it possible to imagine a kind of utopia for arts and culture that is distinct to our specific historical moment where we face some of the same challenges that other countries have faced/face: disinformation and a swerving to the political right and a very strong consolidation of power to very few people? Do we have to re-imagine utopia itself?

LJO: I don’t think that utopia should be re-imagined, but our expectations definitely need to be reassessed — meaning, what we expect from art and ultimately what we expect from one another, how we want to live together. And that’s a huge task that has an effect on everything. It definitely takes courage to immerse into our own life more and also in the life of others —fully taking part in society and politics. It obviously means taking risks. Our lives under the duress of capitalism became too sanitized and overly precious. We need to engage more and eventually suffer the consequence of this immersion. Delve into life more, emerge from it and get ready for another life experience. We need tools for this trajectory and art can certainly offer some very useful ones. To me this is a utopian vision. 

LR: I love that — a visual of people diving in and delving in and emerging and re-engaging, because I think that in a sense the desire — understanding what is desired from the publics that we’re asking to participate in the census — is, in a way, trying to imagine what invitation would bring somebody to delve and emerge and re-delve again, right? I think where we are now is in this pre-enactment phase where we’re trying to imagine the things that will produce this kind of iterative, collective activity, cultural activity.

“A Night of Philosophy and Ideas” at the Brooklyn Public Library (2017) (photo by Gregg Richards)

CF: What do we need to do ourselves?

LR:  I always go back to artists with whom I’ve worked for answers to questions like that. I worked on this really amazing project with Jeanne van Heeswijk called “Trainings for the Not-Yet” at BAK in the Netherlands. These trainings were wrapped around how we sit together or make room for each other and how we hold back the things that we desire in order to be able to re-prioritize how we enter a room, how we sit together, or how we share space.

This thinking is part of a lot of anti-oppression work and anti-racism work. Recognizing our own individual positionality within a given context and confronting it. Seeing that positionality is key to understanding what kind of an impact we have, beyond even our intent, if we speak now or if we delay and just hold off on what we might desire personally to find something else that’s far more important to collective well-being.

So, I think this idea of engaging in a very self-aware sense fits with my desire for a self-reformation in terms of how we’ve been taught to behave as a leaders, as culture workers, etc, in order to be ‘successful’; the things that we are taught to by society and actually attempting to embody something quite different. I’m not interested in the Marlboro Man, the lone victor.

LJO: In that ideal world, I think we constantly have to learn and relearn and watch one another learning. It’s a tribal experience.

LR: Yeah, I mean, that immersion is a privilege. And so how do we make that accessible?

LJO: Through our census survey questions, actually, we are aiming at this, when we ask people to name an experience that they recognize as being an art form. Cooking at home, or remembering that dinner years ago, is to me the perfect embodiment of what I’m expecting from our survey.

“A Night of Philosophy and Ideas” at the Brooklyn Public Library (2017) (photo by Gregg Richards)

LR: And what kinds of answers would surprise you most to the Art & Society Census?

CF: Precisely those that I can’t expect, that are outside of the bounds of the prescribed questions. Perhaps it’s a word, an articulation of a possibility that can surpass a little bit the limited vocabulary of the existing discourse around the problems that we need to address.

LJO: I’d be really surprised if people would come back to us saying that they don’t care. Meaning that what we are trying to suggest here to people as a common ground would fall flat, and they would say, “It’s irrelevant. I don’t want to go to see any shows, any events … I don’t even want to think about these questions. Thank you.” I’d be very surprised, because I think we are doing this in the hope that we are tapping into a mutual, almost visceral ground. And if that visceral realm proves to be nonexistent, then I’d be devastated.

LR: I also think that the answers that we’re not expecting will also point to our collective blind spots.

CF: And I hope they illuminate some relationships between art and life that, you know, are emergent and that are happening right now. Like just thinking about mental health and how precarious people’s lives are right now, can we still hold the space of culture, the space of collective shared ritual and art as a space that matters—

LR: Or are we just too exhausted by the rest of what life is demanding at the moment to be able to respond that way?

There’s something to me that’s in some ways very hopeful about the pandemic in the sense that it has created some space and time, although not if you look at my calendar, it has created a sort of wedge for hope, because things stopped or slowed down enough to imagine that they could be different. And of the BLM protests, the solidarity actions for frontline health care workers, the mutual aid projects that have emerged have been so hopeful. So, in a sense I want to take advantage of this moment, and I think that maybe for me has been what’s shifted most.

LJO: The entire pandemic helped me to underline, corroborate, if you will, my obsession that our work and life overlaps in that nostalgic sense that art is always there to help us to negotiate our questions and doubts. And in this we are in the company of others. The pandemic made me physically crave for this experience. So much so that I tend to believe that this is what art is about. The individual in the reflection of others. This nearly sacred phenomenon will not tolerate the rules of corporatization.

LR: I love that. It’s funny, I was talking to a friend, the other day, and we were discussing this exact thing. It’s not just about missing friends, it’s missing the chance encounter, you know? The chance conversation that’s going to make the penny drop in a way that’s both/and.

CF: Well, we’ll see who’s going to respond, right? It’s certainly not going to be populism with a big “P,” but it might be some other kind of really interesting slice of life, right?

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