It Takes a Village

As much as artists look to stand in as the revelatory mirrors of the world, their art is born of a need to be understood. Maybe most importantly, it is born of the need to be understood by one’s own self. In that domain, “creative types” need to understand that they are not a minority; people at this very instant are travelling their own course of self-discovery without a textbook interpretation of Cubism or Neoclassicism, and yet make up the vast majority of the human experience. To be a successful socially engaged artist, one needs to understand that it takes the collective experiences of a community to raise art and the artist. Not the other way around.

Take Damián Osta, who in Uruguay created a media platform known as la diara (the daily). Though not directly an artistic enterprise, la diara serves as the perfect media blueprint for socially engaged art-makers.

Driven by the desire to give unrepresented young Uruguayans a much needed voice, la diara is breaking longstanding traditions in the newspaper world. Beyond being the first newspaper in Uruguay to instate an ombudsman in order to ensure the accountability of its creators, it has sought to replenish a sense of civic engagement in the Latin American nation. Its name, purposely in lowercase letters, is a shining example of its mission to break down cultural institutions, since to Osta, uppercase letters would be a sign of pretension. More importantly, la diara has aimed to break the hold of media conglomerates in Uruguay that shamelessly pander to the aged elite and who are endlessly out of touch with the 15 to 30 year olds that make up one-fourth of the population.

Image Via Jimmy Baikovicius / Flickr

la diara’s success?it is now the second most read daily newspaper in the country?has come from its unwavering commitment to community. Operating as a cooperative, its controlling shares are owned by its 120 staff members who have gained economic independence by providing the daily directly to its 7,500 subscribers. And as a means to further tap into the Uruguayan community, and to allow for the creation of news to serve an entire “village” of news readers, the newspaper created café la diara.

Picture of café la diara / Via

In this space, Uruguayans can congregate to discuss pressing social and political issues. Alongside journalists, politicians, and citizen organizations, a civically engaged community can help dictate the policies that drive the news. Equipped with an exhibition hall, media library, and showroom, the cafe provides a physical space for any of the daily’s subscribers that are looking to engage in the news beyond just reading it in the paper. Just as is needed in the world, Osta and his crew are creating their work through the active involvement of local communities.

Like la diara, CNN has tapped into a similar though less exhilarating enterprise with CNN Trends. The news discovery dashboard curates the stories getting most attention through social media into easily digestible snippets.

Screengrab of CNN Trends Interface / CNN

CNN Trends is not exactly civic engagement on par with what la diara is promoting, but it does signal a growing desire to give communities a greater say in media creation. The fact that a leading global news agency like CNN has ventured into the mix should prove promising.

With the unveiling of their new website Creative Time Reports, Creative Time has ventured into the world of news-as-extension-of-community. But unlike la diara, Creative Time Reports will rely on the capacity of a worldwide network of socially engaged artists to weigh in, as Editor Marisa Mazria Katz so eloquently states, “on the times in which we live.” Although principally a digital forum, Creative Time Reports will “provide artists with a space to voice analysis and commentary” that generally deal with issues neglected by mainstream media.

Delivered in videos, podcasts, photographs and writing, The Reports do not only provide a deeper insight into global current events, but overturn “the misconception that artists are isolated from society.” A misconception that at times can certainly prove to be true. But as Marisa Mazria Katz told GalleristNY, “artists [might be] seen in society to have hermetic existences but so many are on the front lines of the Occupy movement.” Many others are also politically involved in their local governments and national movements.

Marisa Mazria Katz on Assignment / Creative Times Reports

Contributors have so far produced articles dealing with corruption in Kuwait, dissent in Mexico, and the community relief provided by Occupy Sandy to those affected by the hurricane.  But although Creative Time Reports offers a forum for artists to comment on issues that directly or emotionally impact them, it is not without its potential pitfalls. Art in America briefly contemplated the dangers of a non-trained, partly-citizen journalist foray, as best expounded by David Simon, a former reporter and also the creator of the HBO crime drama The Wire, “the very phrase ‘citizen journalist’ strikes [my] ear as Orwellian.” Perhaps to combat this potential criticism, Creative Time has wisely looked into starting a partnership with The Nation to pair artists with Nation investigative fellows.

License to Kill, License to Expose Killings is one of Creative Time Report’s latest dispatches. In the video, multimedia artist Thierry Geoffry ruminates on the misaligned values placed on fictional spies like James Bond—who currently dominates the window displays of the famous department store Harrods—and real spies like Julian Assange. Reporting from outside of Assange’s political prison, the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Geoffry wonders if perhaps more fair treatment of a real folk hero, like the war crime-exposing Assange, should be celebrated over a film character known for his violence and womanizing. Though the video is effective and necessary, it is short on facts and exposé. In contrast to la diara’s hardnosed reporting on the Uruguayan government’s failure to adequately and accurately report homicide numbers, in the form of the article Slight Tuning, Geoffry’s dispatch is sloppy and rambling. But what License to Kill, License to Expose Killings lacks in proficiency, it makes up in conviction and engagement. While I admittedly skimmed over Slight Tuning’s finer details, I was thoroughly engaged while watching Geoffry.

It should be noted that Creative Time Reports doesn’t look to fill in a gap left over from the fall of journalistic outlets, but rather provide an alternative to the “disciplinary and institutional restrictions of journalism,” as told by Katz. So then, Thierry’s dispatch is to be treated as a complementary piece to traditional, though balanced, reporting, as best executed by la diara. Perhaps a brave step would be for la diara and Creative Time Reports to unite in creating a partnership that could serve as a template for endeavors that mix civically minded news with the work of socially engaged artists. Or at least, Creative Time Reports can look into providing their own physical spaces, as exemplified by café la diara, to the areas from which their artists will be reporting, in order to further foster agents of change.

But in any case, as artists, or even large conglomerates like CNN, slowly turn to the value of “the village” or broader community as art-maker, a new world will surely emerge. People will be less inclined to site a disinterest for art when they are actively included in its making. Instead of being an agent of unchecked capitalism, art can reemerge as the community glue it was born to be. No longer will your loved ones, in some cases even your own mother, emotively state that they’re “looking to understand what it is that you do.” As a blueprint for this new venture, la diara and Creative Time Reports are but just two examples of what can be accomplished as a result.

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