Getting It Right: Claudia La Rocco talks with Marisa Mazria Katz about Creative Time Reports
During its five-year run, Creative Times Reports was a deeply exciting interdisciplinary experiment, offering artists the space to address the urgent issues of our time through their own voices. The platform married journalistic rigor with artistic freedom, partnering with various news outlets to place these works in front of as many eyes as possible. A few examples: Trevor Paglen’s photos of the NSA at night, Ai Weiwei on censorship, and Sophia al Maria’s video on the disappearance of the Arabian humpback whale. As CTR comes to a close, Claudia La Rocco spoke with founding editor Marisa Mazria Katz about this important work.
Claudia La Rocco: Creative Time Reports was founded in the wake of Occupy, yes? We’re now in the wake of this election and arts institutions, mine certainly, are asking, what is our role in this culture? What is our responsibility? Could you describe how movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter have shaped Creative Time Reports?
Marisa Mazria Katz: Creative Time Reports was founded to be a platform that could quickly respond to what was happening all around us. It’s an international platform too, so the Arab Spring very much was something we were thinking about when we launched. The idea was, as an organization that puts on these very large public programs every year, that tend to be based within the United States, how can Creative Time connect with artists around the world whose practices are responding to what’s happening in their local communities? A lot of the movements that erupted during the formation of the site and the ones that have subsequently arisen gave Reports an opportunity to be very nimble — a kind of agility that allowed us to take what we saw and immediately work on it, whether it was text, photos, or video. The idea of Reports as the name of the project was that it took out the middleman and only featured artists as reporters on the news that surrounded them.
CLR: The middleman being? The reporter?
MMK: Being the reporter. As a journalist I had been covering issues at the intersection of culture and conflict. I was in Haiti after the earthquake writing about what was happening there with a lot of cultural institutions. I was in Afghanistan talking about cultural heritage, and working in the Middle East and North Africa, trying to cover a lot of artists working in that region in particular. I saw myself as the middleman. And so with this project — and I was very serious about this — there wasn’t editorializing happening on the site. It was always in the artist’s voice.
CLR: Or if there is editorializing happening, it’s the artist doing it.
MMK: Right. The contract with the artists was that they were the authors. It was always in their own words; the editors were there to help make that as succinct as possible.
But then it was also, in terms of Occupy’s influence, the idea of speaking truth to power. What did that look like for an artist and how could we have facilitated that? Another huge part of the project was placing these pieces we created in major, mainstream publications — Guardian or Slate, Al-Jazeera, Foreign Policy — to reach audiences that might not necessarily come across these artists or understand their work, but would benefit from their different point of view. So I think that’s how we embraced these activist movements.
CLR: Obviously Open Space and Creative Time Reports are very different. But there are connections and kinships. Certainly what you were doing was a big inspiration for me, in terms of alternate models. And that idea of getting out of the way as an editor is crucial at Open Space: the contributor’s voice as the most important thing, and as an editor you try to anticipate what direction(s) that artist / writer / thinker is going in, versus lots of publications I have written for, where there is a house voice and you as the writer go toward that.
MMK: That was the biggest adjustment I had to make as a journalist/editor when I came on. You have to ensure the artist feels the piece that they’re publishing is true to who they are, whereas as a journalist I think you sometimes sacrifice that a little bit in order to meet the editor halfway. It’s a very different thing; all of the artists we worked with, they saw everything as their art, so they may not be text-based but they saw the text that they published with us as a different, I don’t know if iteration is the right word, but they saw it as a different form that their practice is taking on.
CLR: Iteration makes sense to me, as the word. One area I wanted to discuss with you is the artist versus journalist, though I don’t know if versus is quite the right word. It’s not that oppositional — anyway one of the things I believe you said in your Superscript talk was that the artist is someone who can think outside the boundaries of permissible thought. To say what no one else will say. I’m curious why the artist was the person you saw as best filling that role? One can also think of the art world as a place where it’s about herd mentality and fashion and not thinking for oneself.
MMK: I started off in my life as an artist. I was a theater major and then I went into film and what I loved so much about that were the limitless possibilities: anything could be written about or filmed and there was so much freedom in that. When I shifted into journalism I saw that sort of taken away. Of course we are free to come up with ideas, we are free to ask certain people to tell the stories of others, but we’re really conscripted. The work has to read in a certain way, it has to tell a certain story, more or less; you’re not handing in stories that are breaking certain rules.
And then you talk to an artist who doesn’t have any of these rules. That’s why I felt like they’re really the perfect group to speak to a lot of the issues that we were reckoning with, constantly, because they don’t have to think in the box the way that journalists do. They have this opportunity to tell the story in so many different ways. Like Trevor Paglen telling the story of our intelligence agencies by flying overhead and taking photos of them at night. I mean, he upended the way all of my journalist colleagues were talking about Snowden, basically. Or what Snowden’s trove uncovered.
CLR: That makes me think of course of the soul-searching on the part of journalists that’s happening right now in the wake of the election and how all of them seem to have gotten it wrong. A lot of that critique from within and outside of journalism has been about well, yeah, you stayed inside a certain box, you parachuted into the Rust Belt or wherever, and you got certain results. But then it also makes me think of a lot of the criticisms of social practice artists, also parachuting in and not being beholden to conventions, whether restrictive or useful. That creates space but it can also create bad activism masquerading as art.
MMK: Parachuting in is something I completely participated in as a journalist. I’m guilty of that. But with this project we were insistent that that not be the case. There’s a couple of ways that we addressed it. Geographically speaking we always picked artists who are located in the areas that they addressed. We wouldn’t bring an artist who had never been to Saudi Arabia to take a look and assess the transformation of Mecca. No, we had somebody who lived there, who had been working in the city for years and really brought a unique perspective to it. The other thing is, we never commissioned artists whose practice hasn’t been devoted to the issue we asked them to talk about. I wouldn’t have had somebody talk about environmental degradation whose focus was on, you know…
CLR: Institutional critique.
MMK: Yeah. It didn’t happen. Because what I needed to prove every time I approached an editor at a big publication was, why was this person uniquely suited to address this issue? And they have to feel and we have to feel very confident that this person has years under their belt working on this issue and that they can speak to it from a perspective that we can trust.
CLR: Another thing that I’ve heard you talk about in the past is being interested in real political impact or real social impact. How do you measure that?
MMK: Such a good question.
CLR: I think a lot about just how much noise there is in the world, how much there is online.
MMK: I was really sensitive to that at the start of the project. There is an oversaturation. Can’t deny that. So, how does an organization which is tiny, like Creative Time, have an impact when there was such a minimal staff who worked on this project? It really came down to this idea of co-publishing. More or less people have a daily diet of sites that they visit and we saw this working best if the pieces that we commissioned ran on one of the five sites people like to visit every day. That’s how we thought we could measure impact. If we had a piece that ran in the Guardian, we knew that the Guardian has roughly thirty-four million visitors every month. And we know that this page that we’re being featured on is a highly trafficked page. Then of course you also have these great pieces that happen once in a while where they launch, they generate lots of conversations…
CLR: They take on their own life.
MMK: Yeah, that was always so exciting for us when that happened. But the project itself was about working in the public sphere, the online sphere. I wouldn’t say that my overarching goal was how many people are visiting Creative Time Reports homepage, it was more about finding those partners who can really elevate those artists’ voices and make sure they’re seen. And that their ideas seeped into people’s consciousness.
CLR: Which is a much harder thing. It’s something I think about so much at Open Space. You can track numbers, you have analytics, you can see “oh, this got so many clicks” or whatever. But that feeds into this horrible social media bullshit: “It’s working if it got attention, it’s working if it got numbers.” But what are the quieter ways that art, that thinking can influence, and then how does one quantify those? Or if one can’t, how does one anyway try to go after that?
MMK: For me success was two-fold. One was getting a partner on the piece and then if it was a piece that didn’t run with a partner, what kind of conversation did it generate online? We got leaner in terms of the pieces we published and tried as much as possible to make sure that what we did was co-published, because those really had a big impact. That was something we decided midway, to pull back and be more focused. So frequency dropped but it meant investing more time in pieces, which then mostly started to find homes in other big partners.
CLR: Doing fewer things and doing better, it feels like an urgent thing for everyone who is producing or commissioning to understand. It’s astounding that we’re all scurrying along on these treadmills — we have to make, we have to make, we have to make — and then none of us has time to deal with and think through the stuff that others are making, or even what we ourselves are churning out.
MMK: I think about the talk I gave at the Walker Superscript conference a lot. I think I didn’t answer the question that was being asked of me, which was artists as cultural first responders or something. I don’t think artists should be first responders: one of the best things we’ve ever done was slowing down and not being the first people to put something out. Artists need space and time to process and then produce and I think getting something out right away could effectively shave off the impact that it could have.
As a journalist I was very excited by being the first one to report on something or being able to turn something around really quickly, but the faster everything got the more fear started to creep into my own work: I’m doing this so quickly, am I doing it right? Am I saying the right things? The pressure of being the first to respond meant that I might not be doing the best job. There is a high level of sensitivity that a lot of these artists are bringing to these subjects and to get them to just turn it around quickly, where’s the art in that?
CLR: It’s a hard thing to unlearn, right? If we do. We both have these big stretches of journalistic training in us. It also feels like a deeply political thing right now, where the immediate response, the response before the thing has even stopped happening, is where so much of our discourse is poised. I had that thought after Trump won the election: “Oh, we don’t have anything planned on Open Space. We should have someone talk about this.” I was thinking that even as I was reading all of these sloppy responses coming out in the media days after that just… weren’t helpful. That still aren’t helpful! One of the other big shifts you talked about was with the Trevor Paglen piece, wanting to move away from the very idea of only reacting and responding.
MMK: That piece had so much impact and it continues to be felt and seen: it’s used on book covers, it’s used in articles, it’s everywhere. That was the goal and that was really exciting. After that, we experimented and took a full year of working with the Guardian, publishing op-eds once a month. Some of them really hit and resonated with a lot of people and others … not all artists can write and to have artists, to get them to produce these pieces, sometimes it just wasn’t working so well. And then also, some of these publications don’t understand the rhythm of an artist. They want your content and they want it in a certain moment and if you missed that moment then they don’t run it and so you’ve spent all this time working on something and it just doesn’t go anywhere.
CLR: When I was working primarily as a critic for daily newspapers, I used to think that criticism functioned as something of a Trojan Horse inside of journalism. It’s ostensibly reporting, but it isn’t. There were ways in which you could exploit that tension but there were also ways in which it was detrimental to criticism, or the form of it that I was interested in. Did you see Creative Time Reports functioning like that ever? Have you explored placement that’s outside of a journalistic platform, or is the best delivery mechanism still journalism?
MMK: I think art outside of the journalistic platform would be what the other parts of Creative Time — our public programs — do. The mission of the Reports section was to really tap into online possibilities. Journalism was chosen because it seemed like the most natural fit with the issues that the artists were being asked to discuss. Anne Pasternak came up with the idea many years ago because she felt like so many of the issues that we were all dealing with, artists were already talking about it. But unless you were able to go see their show or hear them give a talk you weren’t encountering their ideas or their work. And so, journalism or these publications that we teamed up with are a way for mass audiences to come into contact with artists. And I think we chose news organizations versus other online platforms because they had these built-in subscribers that we knew were going to come to them every day and were seeking updates on issues that were important to them.
I think it was always about puncturing that ecosystem. Artists continue to be relegated to the fourth section of the publication or the cute little photo in the back of the paper about the project. It doesn’t get the attention that it deserves and so this project functioned as a way to shatter that and get into the A1 section or on the homepage of the op-eds for instance.
CLR: I’ve been thinking about these questions of audience. Open Space is housed within SFMOMA’s department of Community Engagement, which I lead: what are my assumptions and blind spots about community, and all the communities I am meant to serve? What are the best ways to engage?
MMK: It’s something that Creative Time takes very seriously. With every project, every single one of our public projects has that component to it. And now with the election I wonder, we worked with certain publications that got a lot of it wrong, you know? Were we just speaking to “ourselves,” even though it’s one half of the country?
CLR: Right. So many colleagues inside of arts institutions now are talking about what sort of outreach makes the most sense. I see the need to both create networks with other like-minded institutions, and also to do just the opposite, to reach out to institutions that are in this “Other America.” What does it mean to be a public institution if you assume these very specific things about your public and to what extent does that compromise what you’re doing before you’ve even done anything?
MMK: If you just choose one I think you’re going to fail.
CLR: And also to go back to something you said earlier, avoiding a first-responder mentality.
MMK: I just don’t think it’s the most effective way for us to work. Of course there are artists who are really brilliant at doing that very quickly. I think Molly Crabapple who we worked with in the past manages to very quickly turn around pieces that really resonate and are thoughtful, but she’s kind of an anomaly.
CLR: You come in part from a background of citizen journalism. Could you talk about the ways in which Creative Time Reports is that?
MMK: Yeah, absolutely. It’s one of the pitches I made when I wanted the job. I was very fortunate to have reported on the story for Time magazine about a community organizer in Casablanca who was working within a very marginalized part of the city. Morocco used to have some of the worst slums in the entire Arab world. And this meant a lot of people living without running water, living in homes that weren’t homes, they were like cinderblocks basically. I wrote about this organizer; he was focused on the kids in these communities, and we discussed how I could work with him on a project. A lot of local journalists were ignoring what was happening there. A lot of them actually feared working in these areas and then they also just didn’t see this as an urgent story. Politicians would come to these areas, make a lot of promises when they were campaigning but then they wouldn’t really talk about it once the election was over. And so, together we decided OK, how can we make sure the issues that they are dealing with every day have more attention? I worked with these kids, most of them were between twelve and eighteen, to write about what was happening. And that was a really good foundation for this project; while we weren’t placing these pieces in major newspapers, they were being picked up by major newspapers and shining a light on what was happening there. The project that I worked on got attention from publications including Vogue magazine, and the New York Times wrote about it. There was a great opportunity to talk about what was going on in this country and it was always told through the perspective of the kids.
I see the work I undertook for Creative Time Reports being an extremely similar process. The difference between the two obviously is that I was working with these kids; I was always in the field with them, teaching simultaneously. I didn’t just give them an assignment and have them go off and do it. But I do see a little bit of what I did with Creative Time Reports being similar in the sense that we very much worked together on shaping each piece into something that the artist feels, first and foremost, very good about disseminating. Like those kids, they are non-traditional reporters, and are uniquely capable of talking about these issues because they are not removed from them in the way that a journalist would be. There’s no parachuting happening with both of those constituencies.
CLR: Another thing that I so appreciate about Creative Time Reports is your approach to labor.
MMK: Yes. We worked hard to ensure that people were paid fairly for their work. It is a very personal issue for me. I was never able to take on free work as a journalist. I had no support outside of my own income, so if I wanted to pay my rent I didn’t have time to do things that didn’t help go towards that. It was very touch and go for a really long time, especially when the crash happened in ’08 and a lot of things dried up. I didn’t know how I was going to actually stay being a journalist, continue doing that work and then also —
MMK: Yeah, eat. It really, really came down to that. A lot of that weighed in on how do we create something that’s sustainable for artists to partake in? And when you slow down and you produce pieces that are a little bit more labor-intensive, then you have to adjust for that as well. And we did, I think.
CLR: There’s the ethics of it. Working inside SFMOMA, I wouldn’t sleep well if I were asking people to write or to make a sound score or make a drawing for basically volunteer labor, which many big institutions do. But also there’s that old cliché, you get what you pay for. And if you’re asking people to go through a rigorous editing process —
MMK: They’re not going to want to do it. That was something that was important for me from the start.
CLR: W.A.G.E. Certification has been my greatest accomplishment here so far, and it was crazy to find out that we became the first museum department ever to officially take that step. Who do you see as your peers? Are there other outlets, other institutions, other individuals you feel you were in conversation with? Or did you feel lonely in what you were doing?
MMK: I think I have peers in different ways. I think of Paul Schmelzer and the Walker Reader as being really aligned, I find a lot of creative inspiration from the pieces they commission. And then there are people like Ben Davis who I feel understood the project and talked about it in a way that was helpful for me. It’s such a good question. Sometimes it felt difficult to get attention for the work because we had this weird way of operating — a kind of incognito approach to publishing. It’s like, “Oh you didn’t know we did that? That was us!” Even in the New York Times they didn’t realize it was us who did this big David Byrne piece, they thought it was only the Guardian. I kept having to tell not only them but many others, the Guardian did do it with us, but we did it from start to finish, we commissioned it, and edited it. So that was a little hard for me.
Ivan Sigal at Global Voices has this network of citizen journalists around the world and he also is very much about getting their voices into mainstream media. I have learned so much from him and how he’s negotiated that. The amount of countries and the languages, but also maintaining that goal that it not just live on his own platform but be seen in others, was a huge source of inspiration for me. Who do you think would be the peers though? In terms of the art world, I think Blade of Grass is doing some really interesting work that I find to be exciting and inspiring in terms of profiling a lot of the artists that we’ve worked with too.
CLR: I think of historical movements and moments like ACT UP as peers, in a very oblique way, if you’re talking about conversations across history and the idea of artists being uniquely situated or having exactly the right skillset to take on what seems like an intractable set up of issue. There’s different types of peers, right? There’s peers who are really supporting artist production in an expanded field and are doing it with fair compensation, but could be going after totally different content. And then there’s people you’re in political conversation with. I think that’s what’s interesting to me about what you do, is that I can’t just say, “Oh it’s right over here in this box.”
MMK: Yeah, it’s interesting and it’s infuriating at the same time. I had a very hard time explaining what I did for Creative Time Reports. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing sometimes. I wonder about that.
CLR: Messaging is king.
MMK: It really is! It’s become more so the older I’ve gotten. I don’t remember it being that way, even a decade ago.
CLR: It drives me crazy when people say “Open Space, it’s SFMOMA’s blog.” And then I say, “well, it’s not a blog,” and they say, “what do you do?” and I say “um, we’re a hybrid digital publishing platform.” And I think of course the next time they talk about us they’re going to say, “Oh yeah, that blog.”
MMK: I know! I hate the word blog and it sometimes is ascribed to the work that I do too and it has such a negative connotation to me —
CLR: — and class connotation.
MMK: It to me symbolizes unedited, you know, drivel a lot of times.
CLR: I like that your voice dropped when you even said that.
MMK: Why I challenge it so much is this project was very stringent in terms of what you needed to do in order to get published. We went through so many layers, so many steps in order to get there. We didn’t just take something and throw it up. My colleague Kareem Estefan, who was the first associate editor and then became the editor at large, along with Laura Raicovich — there was of course a real building of this project together and we each brought something to the table, in terms of what it looks like today. I think that the thing that we were very serious about from day one though is we cannot send a piece to the Guardian that has not gone through many rounds of editing, copyediting, and fact-checking. I felt that that was key because we are always just on the edge of being dismissed, as esoteric or not relevant; people may hear the word artist and think, skeptically, “Oh artists, reporting on the news? What’s that?” So if we ever gave any of the critics an opportunity to point to one of those mistakes… And while all of these publications are dropping their fact-checkers or their copyeditors are being fired, we had to make sure that we maintain the highest levels mostly because I didn’t want to give anybody an opportunity to dismiss us as frivolous. That’s what kept me up at night most of the time, is if I knew we were going to publish a piece: making sure that I thought through how the facts are presented. Did I go at it hard enough?
CLR: Is that sentence in the fourth paragraph that mentions this, does it do it in the right way?
CLR: Am I sure of that fact?
MMK: And are these sources the right sources? I just felt like if we made a mistake we would lose our credibility. And I also want to say that this idea of fact-checking, it only comes in when an artist is presenting a fact. I want to also leave room for the artistry and for the whimsical because I think if you take that away, it just sounds like any other pundit. So we have to leave those kinds of sentences in. But! If the sentence has a lyrical vibe to it but it mentions the number forty-four, we have to make sure that the number forty-four is right.
CLR: That brings me back to journalists’ projections for the election, how incredibly wrong they were.
MMK: I see that big failure as a result of all of the bureaus that have been shut down and all the reporters that are now full-time freelance. Of course these cuts are responding to the economics of the field and I understand that you can’t necessarily sustain the organization at the employment levels of the past but really if you don’t have people on the ground reporting you’re going to get a take on the issues that isn’t as informed as it might have been.
CLR: Absolutely. You’re going to get these wrap-up pieces that are, “Here’s what the Rust Belt thinks.”
MMK: Yeah! From my cozy little Brooklyn apartment…. I’m not quick to assign blame on that one, I just think that people want to read their news for free and advertising isn’t paying the bill the way it used to. You have this model that’s falling apart, then you have reporting that’s also not up to snuff and how do you fix that? I actually think you fix it by having more of these non-profit journalism sites that are devoted to filling the holes. Like the ProPublica model — in terms of peers, I guess you could say that that was one that we really were pretty excited about. We paid very close attention to how they worked and tried to emulate that.
CLR: Yes it’s a great model. I do love running a publishing platform that has room for the gamut, from abstract art to serious reporting; I’ve been really trying to move Open Space to an ever more interdisciplinary space — first, because it’s how people are working. But also, there is so much writing, and does the internet need another 2,000 word essay, if it’s not really, really good? As well, if we’re not going to be an actual print publication then we shouldn’t just be a print publication that you look at on a screen. We should exploit what the internet can do.
MMK: I think there’s a lot of reevaluation happening, not just because of the election. This was definitely something that was happening before. But “impact” is such a buzzword and it feels harder and harder to gauge what it means and how to achieve it. We were most effective when we partnered, or knew that the piece had a built-in audience because the contributor had a following. It keeps coming back to that; otherwise we couldn’t truly compete and stand out in a way that the work demanded.
CLR: Looking back now, what feels most important about Creative Time Reports?
MMK: I truly feel we connected artists’ work to large and diverse audiences around the world. And, yes, there were so many moments when people focused just on the ideas and not on the entity that was delivering it to them. But in many ways that might be one of our biggest achievements — we slipped in and lived among journalists and famous pundits and no one ever seemed to discount the power of the words because it was an artist who crafted them.