Two art groups have come under fire for taking a traveling exhibition to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, an Israeli university with strong ties to the Israeli military and its occupation.
A handful of art collectives involved with Creative Time’s and Independent Curators International’s (ICI) traveling art show have pulled out in response, and an open letter signed by intellectuals Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and others criticized the exhibition for violating the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) call.
Since 2012, the “Living As Form (The Nomadic Version)” project has traveled the globe, showcasing what the curators call “an unprecedented international project that explores over 20 years of cultural works that blur the forms of art and everyday life, emphasizing participation, dialogue and community engagement.” The traveling art show is the result of a partnership between Creative Time and ICI.
“Living As Form” was showed in Tel Aviv at the end of last year. Nobody noticed. But it was the exhibition’s jaunt to the Technion that caught the attention of artists and activists, some of whom have worked with Creative Time. Now, Creative Time is caught between the demands of pro-BDS artists and their commitment to what they say is a need for dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.
The artists involved with the project were unaware it was traveling to Technion, a major target of academic boycott campaigns that has developed drone technology for the Israeli army, as well as unmanned bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes. The current controversy comes two years after a similar dust-up, when Egyptian media collective Mosireen and rappers Rebel Diaz pulled out of a Creative Time summit in New York because the state-linked Israeli Center for Digital Arts was involved.
Most of the attention this time has focused on Creative Time, which is well known in progressive activist circles.
“People are really angry with us. I’ve worked for 20 years to build a really close, supportive, trusting relationship with artists–and this completely undermines it,” Anne Pasternak, Creative Time’s president, told me. Still, Creative Time has no plans to pull out of the Technion show. “As a cultural organization, we believe in the role of people coming together to share ideas…We may recognize the legitimacy of cultural boycott, but we absolutely cannot participate in any cultural boycott.” Pasternak says that in hindsight, the group should have made sure that ICI told artists where the show was going to be taken. Creative Time has no say in where the exhibition goes, though they did reach out to ICI when they found out about the Technion show and urged the group to talk to participating artists.
The controversy got rolling when Amin Husain, a Palestinian-American activist, found out about the exhibition at Technion. He sprung into action, issuing an open letter that quickly spread on Facebook. “What justice is the show facilitating in this context? It is, in fact, legitimizing an ongoing annihilation of a defenseless people,” wrote Husain, whose work, along with Nitasha Dhillon, has been published by Creative Time’s news and analysis outlet. “The art may seem to be dealing with issues of justice in the abstract, but operationally it is normalizing that exact injustice it is dialoging about.”
The story grew bigger when art news outlet Hyperallergic’s Mostafa Heddaya began reporting on the issue, and artists involved in the project soon began to withdraw. An ICI staffer then released a letter to the artists involved in the exhibition, informing them of the travel to the Technion and said:
ICI’s broad network of curators, artists and art spaces from around the world encompasses different positions and responses to Israel and the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. While ICI does not take part in the boycott of Israel under BDS or other frameworks, we feel strongly about the right of others to boycott. So if you would like to discuss your participation in this presentation of the exhibition, please contact me by email or directly on my cell phone at [Redacted] so that we can make sure that your positions are respected
The curator of the show, Nato Thompson, also issued a response to Husain’s open letter. “Creative Time, and I include myself in this, do make mistakes. The Living as Form show is being toured by ICI and we did not, much to my embarrassment, catch this breech of the BDS. That said, as has been stated, ‘the commitment to the free exchange of ideas has always been central to Creative Time’s mission, and thus we do not participate in cultural boycotts,'” he wrote.
Husain and other artists were not placated by the statements. “Anyone who talks about dialogue right now as one alternative to boycott really either wants to offer cover or doesn’t understand the circumstances on the ground,” Husain told me in a phone interview. The controversy led to the creation of the BDS Arts Coalition, a group of cultural workers dedicated to Palestine solidarity and the BDS movement.
The latest salvo was published in the form of an open letter signed by intellectuals and artists addressed to participants in the art tour:
As admirers of your work and this critical exhibition—which includes so many exemplary projects that imbue our everyday actions and lived environments with community participation, imagination, and political commitment—we are concerned about the disconnect between the artists’ orientation toward social justice and the exhibiting institution’s central role in maintaining the unjust and illegal occupation of Palestine…
Creative Time and ICI are, according to their statements, choosing to disregard the BDS call and unwilling to withdraw the exhibition. They have placed the responsibility on artists to do so. We ask you, as artists whose imaginative and committed work we deeply respect, to stand in solidarity with Palestinians resisting the continued colonization of their land and to stand against the tacit legitimization of institutions which develop the technologies and infrastructures for maintaining the occupation.
In total, six art collectives have withdrawn from participation in the tour.
The heat on Creative Time has pained Pasternak, a prominent figure in the New York art world.
“While we don’t sign on to cultural boycotts, we’re certainly sensitive to issues of oppression and the freedom of the Palestinian people, and we want to…support their work towards freedom and equity,” she said in a phone interview. “So anything that we’ve done that would undermine our feelings of respect and support for Palestinian independence and freedom is difficult for us. It’s very painful for us, it’s not what we intended to do.”