Image courtesy of freeDimensional
Yulia Tikhonova: Interview with Todd Lester, August 22, 2011
What is fD’s mission?
To support art spaces hosting activism, and strengthening community engagement. fD is tactically a 501c3, nonprofit organization; it is a ten-year initiative that seeks to build a movement whereby art spaces perceive the legitimacy of being a first responder and critical hoster when concerned citizens (often artists doing the work of activists) are in trouble … and artists understanding and knowing about resources that professional activists already have access to when those artists use creativity to fight injustice.
Sidd Joag, Program Coordinator
Ângela Destro, Sao Paulo Correspondent
Adham Bakry, Cairo Correspondent & Graphic Designer
Anne Dunning, Organizational & Professional Development Consultant
What is your institutional status?
fD is a US 501c3 non-profit, this was created to help with raising money. In our actions we don’t fit into a concept of institution. When we have an artist or an activist in a particular region in distress we use the urgency of the situation to activate our network, and to instigate action by a member-sensitive set of contacts. Networks are not non-profits and non-profits are not networks. Basically non-profits and civil society systems in the West can’t accommodate the radical potentiality of a network. You have to be a bit schizophrenic.
We act as if we are US non-profit but we are in fact a bigger organization which does not fit into a common institutional structure.
How do you measure risk-factors for artists and activists?
Artist residency programs are exclusive – often there is a jury, which makes a decision. We start with a basic idea that artists in distress will never be selected into a residency in a timely fashion. Our position is that we need to be reputable, global and international and non-nationalistic because what we want to do with our residents is to move ahead without the jury panels—as their activist work is very time-sensitive. We see each case as being outside of the art word; as a case of the life and a death. On the other hand, there is a latent activism in the art world that you can activate; there is a hunger by art spaces for doing something less abstract and more engaged with communities.There is a demand for what we do by the art spaces. When we receive a case we typically ask several art spaces simultaneously, so we can receive their answers more quickly. We have an Advocacy committee, and a Services committee. If there is a cartoonist from Iran in a situation of danger, we are going to ask someone we know from Iran, but we are also going to ask someone from a field of cartooning. We bring each case to the art spaces really quickly; we are trying to act really fast.
Who do you collaborate with? (ie other sectors, other organizations, etc)
Where do you position yourself, i.e. as: artists / social workers / activists etc?
I am a knowledge worker and a systems thinker. I created a system of Safe Haven that addressed a need within the human rights sector and used a surplus value/resource (apartments / hosting) within the arts sector.
What is your relationship to the art market? Do you have a relationship to commercial art and the gallery system?
Well, many of the artist-stakeholders, who face danger due to their use of creativity to fight injustice, do engage/participate in the art market, but usually not at the same time as their distress.
How do you engage with the political system?
Artists are smart, innovative; actually they reflect society and when they do it well they capture the heart of the community. Usually the artists don’t move people to action by their conscious decisions. Usually they create an art work so strong that it moves people for actions. To quote Art and Upheaval by William Cleveland, I would say that the totalitarian regimes always make it their first business to eliminate the intellectuals and free-thinkers. We don’t need to question that there is a fear by politicians of the artists who can bring precision and clarity into politics. The artists are different from the professional activists; artists don’t know how to be political, but they reflect life so well—and this is political art on its own. When we learn about an artist in danger we only consider danger from the political side, we don’t take up this political issue, and we do everything to tone down his or her specific political situation. We use an effective space to invite an activist but we don’t take sides. We want to take pressure away from the political side and to give time to heal. When artists do the work of activists, they face the same (political) dangers as professional activists challenging the same political systems/regimes.
How do your practices negotiate between self-reflectivity and serving the needs of the artists that you are engaged with?
We invite artists to every level of our decision making: steering committee, annual meetings, program design. For the first five years we were a direct service, intermediary provider, reactive when artist-activists were in danger. Now, in our next phase, we are using what we learned then in order to be proactive: to inform, co-learn and reduce the number of assaults on artist-activists by strengthening the field (art spaces, community arts practitioners) and working with regional networks who can help us to tailor our model(s) to specific regional conditions and cultural specificity.
There is a legalistic approach that complicates free expression and continues to wedge artists and professional activists further and further apart. So, basically, artists will find it increasingly harder to locate distress resources and to ‘locate’ their work in the definition of a ‘human rights defender’ than in the broader frame of ‘activist’.
What are your relationships with grass-roots organizations?
FD is a horizontal network, and will last 10 years: we will disband. In justifying this 10 year span we attempted to create an intersection of arts and human rights movements; whilst artists are granted a studio space, the human-rights defenders have places to stay. There are older examples such as SFAI which has a history of making large investments in the situations at risks, and goes back to hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the housing market crash, etc. The reason why I am saying this is that this practice existed before, that the avant-garde intellectuals were hosted in exile, but what I would argue is that the new emerging grass-roots institutions will be more adaptive to an idea of hosting. Because, the new art spaces will see themselves as doing emergency programs like this on their own, and our mission will not be needed any longer. I would point to spaces such as Caravansarai in Turkey, and the Center for International Art in Community (CIAC) in Guapamacataro, Mexico.
How do you measure your success?
We have helped to provide safety to over 200 artists, citizens, journalists, cultural workers. Half of them were placed through providing a housing solution, and others were helped by finding solutions such as lawyers or social workers who were able to help the artists to deal with the trauma. If we don’t have money we can nominate them to the rapid response agencies, simply make a helpful introduction. The nature of the horizontal network is that we measure this success by practical and concrete examples.
What is your mega goal?
My mega goal is that the art spaces will receive their legitimacy to be active members of their communities; that they can unleash their innovative energy and allow their legitimacy to be experienced. Art spaces can do what we have been doing. If our first 5 years of our work were to build the program and teach the art spaces about rescuing measures of the artists and activists in danger, the next 5 years will be stepping back and supporting the spaces which are doing this already. We see the critical hosting as a something positive, as encouraging the art spaces to take up an important role in community, and cease their two- dimensional existence.