What Happened at Central Time Centric?

That’s a question a few people have asked me, and that I’ve asked myself a few times since returning home from the Central Time Centric symposium at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo earlier this month. I’ll tell you up front that I don’t have an answer, but I do have more questions that I hope we can continue to raise and discuss.

Described as an opportunity to build a network and community of practice around ‘social practice art’ (one term that the organizers used as an umbrella for many others) in the Midwest, this four-day conference brought together a group of artists and arts leaders from across the region for a series of panel discussions on themes and topics related to their work. By my estimate, there were about 100 people in regular attendance, a nice sized group for what was planned. Some came just for one day or one session, which meant that ongoing discussions were fragmented; And though people came from all across the region, there was a large contingent from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

We were each there for various reasons — many of us were paid to participate as panelists, myself included, for example — but our shared goals seemed to be to discuss projects, practices, and other resources, and to build relationships and networks with people in our speculative field.

I say speculative field, rather than emerging, because I think this is exactly the point: We’re talking about an area of socially engaged practice — not just art, but also public design, arts organizing, and community development to name just a few other threads—that is so broad and multifaceted, with so many different histories and goals and strategies, that attempts at centralizing a shared meta-narrative of its practices and principles is only going to turn up complications and contradictions.

Is this actually a good thing, a productive tension? What would happen if we stopped trying to define the field as central, and instead spent more time understanding our own motivations for participating in our work — and how and why and when we need to be in connection and conversation?

Conferences like this are just one example of a way that specific interests begin to stake their claim on an evolving paradigm, by being the ones to convene and frame-up the questions whose answers will begin to constitute the field itself — What should we call it? Who is the vanguard? What are its best practices? How should we measure and communicate its impact? How can we build networks of practitioners? Who will fund it? But we rarely ask: Why should we build networks of practitioners?

From individual practitioners building careers, to peer-t0-peer networks advocating for autonomy, to non-profit organizations raising their profile in order to raise more money, to museums and funders and cities and governments and corporations… We should be asking: What interests do you have in being part of a conversation that defines a field of socially engaged practices? Are you willing to participate with those interests clearly on the table? When is field-building a kind of colonial enterprise? When is it not?

North Dakota as the setting for this conference and what transpired is itself interesting. How many of us got to Fargo, and immediately asked about the impact of the oil boom on the people, the economy, and the ecology of the region? It came up again and again in side conversations, and was invoked directly or indirectly by at least a few panelists, yet we hardly talked within the conference proceedings about what this large-scale project of resource extraction, and wealth accumulation, and environmental destruction might mean for the urgency of our collective work. Nor did we acknowledge the connection between that way of approaching resources — be it oil, or creative labor, or public participation — that has led to the despair many of us feel when thinking about the future.

Yesterday, Julia Cole, who was also at Central Time Centric, published this thoughtful piece reflecting on her experiences. In it, she points toward a palpable sense of frustration that seemed to permeate much of the symposium:

“Arts and cultural workers who engage in critical practices are directly or indirectly confronting a social system that is not just broken but in crisis. There is passion, resentment, anger and tenuous hope flowing through this space, and it is by its nature a territory of dispute.” (Occupy Yr SoPra)

Julia goes on to diagnose what she believes preceded and finally sparked an unravelling of that passion, resentment, anger and hope in the final hours of the symposium. Specifically, what happened when a panel about arts ecosystems in the midwest, and a presentation by an artist named Watie White, led to a very honest and direct conversation about racism and colonialism in our socially engaged artistic projects and communities of practice — and about the real culpability we all have in sustaining these broken systems, whether we acknowledge it or not. In Julia’s words:

“We squirmed at but did not question a presenter who appeared to be working in exactly the colonial model that had been identified in our earlier conversation (and who had not been present for that discussion). The burden consequently fell to people of color in the room to object, and quite reasonably they resented this. We were all tired: anger popped, compassion withered, handshakes were refused.” (Occupy Yr SoPra)

A lot of what Julia observed, and her reflections about what led to the breakdown of that conversation, really resonate with me. There’s a lot more to be said about the ways that we, as individuals and through our practices and projects, reinscribe hierarchies of power and oppression even as we try to resist the effects of those hierarchies on our own lives and communities.

I agree with Julia that it’s time for an honest inventory of the ways these systemic power structures and related issues permeate our work, our lives, and ourselves. This kind of deep reflection isn’t going to be easy or quick, but I believe it’s necessary if what we hope is to evolve as individual practitioners, and as a collective, a movement, a field, a culture, a country, or just as people who live in a finite world.

Are we willing to be open and share what we learn when we dig deeper? Are we ready to be more critical in our communities of practice and in public when we see these systems at work in ways that cause harm? Can we cut through the bullshit and bluster and be honest now?

These realizations about how we exist and operate within hierarchies of power come to many of us over time, through individual experiences, successes, and failures. For some, these experiences lead to shame, or despair, or real trauma, or anger, or a more humble sense of ability and purpose. For others, these realizations go largely unexamined, or in some cases, are exploited to further advance a career or project or organization.

Conferences like this, and other public forums, rarely open a space for examining and addressing together what these experiences and their reflections mean in practice, beyond what should be obvious and up front in all of our public discourse: Racial and economic inequity, as well as environmental injustice, are impacting all of our lives and communities, but in markedly different ways.

So my third question goes hand-in-hand with that idea of an honest inventory: How does racial and economic inequity, as well as environmental injustice, impact your artistic work, your community, and you? And… What are you doing about it?

I think the value of these moments is really in their dispersal — how we carry these questions forward in our own lives and work.

I hope that the organizers of Central Time Centric know that it was not a failure, but rather, an important moment in a much longer process we’re all moving through, probably at different speeds. I’m grateful to the folks at the Plains Art Museum for being so genuinely welcoming, and supportive, and also for letting the conversation go when and where it did. At one point, Colleen Sheehey, Director and CEO of the Plains, was in a position to stop the conversation and reroute us back to our planned agenda, which included a final panel on building networks. But she didn’t, she let the symposium end there. That was the right choice.

For me, the important thing about what happened in Fargo was not so much the formal conference panels and events, but the conversations outside and afterward, and how these relationships — now complicated by a shared experience, and a moment of honest reflection — may ultimately deepen our work, and our connections to each other, shaping what is possible in the future. We have new points of reference, and people to reflect with.

This is not network building, or movement building, or any of those other buzzy terms. We’re beginning to see how we are already connected, and this is complex, and uncomfortable for some. We have to sit with that for awhile. Hopefully, with time and honesty, we’ll be better equipped to see each other, and to work together, and to be prepared to step up when the moment demands it.