Anne Pasternak has been the Executive Director of Creative Time since 1994. During her tenure, she has shepherded projects like Tribute in Light, Art in the Anchorage, 59th Minute, Vik Muniz’s Clouds and Jenny Holzer’s current program being projected tonight at NYU’s Bobst Library, For the City.*
Gothamist spoke with Anne about past, present and future Creative Time projects as well as her feelings on the Freedom Center and the privatization of arts funding.
What is Creative Time?
Creative Time has been around for over 30 years. We commission and present adventurous art in the public realm, which could range from the Tribute in Light, the two beacons of light in lower Manhattan after September 11th, to a skywriting project over Manhattan to laying artist carpeting down in Grand Central for four months. It takes many forms, in many places.
What’s the difference between Creative Time and Public Art Fund?
We are sister organizations and our missions and interests are very compatible. Recently, I think it’s become less clear the distinction. In the past, Creative Time was more multidisciplinary and tended to work on emerging artistic practices. Public Art Fund has started to get into some of the same territory. They are best known for presenting large scale celebrated sculptures in landmark destinations, but they have been doing that and other things too. But in general, they tend to be more sculpture-based and we tend to be more multimedia. And some would say, and I would agree, that Creative Time is more innovative.
One of your current programs is Jenny Holzer’s For the City. Can you explain what that project is about.
Jenny Holzer has been working with language to express poignant ideas and truths that the public might not commonly see in the media. She presents them in an insightful, concise and provocative way. Since 1996, she has been presenting xenon projections of text throughout the world in locations like the oceans in Brazil, mountains in Switzerland, and on parliament buildings in Europe.
Last year around this time she came to us and said, “I feel like the debate in the media around the election issues, not the candidates but the election issues, is really polarized. There is a much more nuanced debate that should be taking place. Can we project some poems in New York City that talk about our love of home and reflect on various global conditions and the way they relate to home.” We turned that around in about three weeks. We projected up Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, on St. John the Divine’s, Cooper Union and Penn Plaza. But, that was really just a teaser for what our real ambitions were, which was to present the project with more time, get more people aware of what was going on and do it on some centrally located landmarks in New York City.
Our initial passion was to project poems by award winning poets from around the world on the New York Public Library. We wanted to illuminate it and make it a space about dialogue and discussion; it’s not just what happens inside but it’s happening on the outside as well. The idea is about transparency, engagement and making a more nuanced dialogue possible. So we are projecting poems on the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center.
You are also using NYU. What will you be doing there?
At NYU, we aren’t projecting poems but instead are projecting recently declassified United States government documents. These are documents that Jenny has poured through, literally tens of thousands of pages that are public information at the National Security Archive. She wanted people to know what they actually look like and to make this connection between transparency and secrecy. It’s important that these works are projected publicly rather that viewed in a gallery or museum kind of environment. It’s out there for everyone. It’s freedom of information. Inevitably because Jenny chose them, they may have a certain kind of interest especially around global policy and current events, but whether it’s the poetry having a connection to global events or the documents, they are not polemical. They’re not intended to be a conservative or liberal reading. It’s just the opposite. It’s about nuance.
How is the project being funded?
It’s not easy to raise money for a project like this. We are very fortunate that the panel at National Endowment for the Arts understood the importance of presenting Jenny’s xenon projections in America. They were the first to contribute significant support. As much as they are a disempowered agency, they are one of the most thoughtful and informed funding bodies in this country. Creative Time and Jenny put together what we could from where we could to make up for the rest.
How cooperative has the City been?
The City’s been fantastic; this is a really wonderful administration. It’s the most transparent government I have experienced in my history of presenting public art.
Is there anything going on to complement the light projections? Will there be any discussions?
Despite everybody’s best efforts, this project came together kind of late in the day. We got final permissions for all the sites mid-August. As a result, there were no conferences put together, and Jenny doesn’t like doing public lectures or talks.
I didn’t know that about Jenny. What is it like to work with her?
Creative Time has a long history of working with Jenny Holzer but I had never had the privilege. We usually don’t go back in our history and work with somebody we’ve already worked with. The idea is that there are so many artists out there we should work with somebody new. I’ve always loved her work passionately and then I was in Bilbao at the Guggenheim where she has a permanent installation. It was one of those profound moments that you have with art that you never forget and you say, this is why I do what I do. I then vowed to myself that I would work with Jenny Holzer.
I don’t get star struck at all by artists, this is my field, but I really was star struck by Jenny. She is somebody of extreme thoughtfulness, sensitivity, intelligence and absolute integrity. She is an extraordinary person to be working with. I learn so much from her everyday.
What about her process, how does she work?
Well, I haven’t sat with her when she’s reading tens of thousands of pages of declassified documents so I can’t really speak to that, but she is constantly working. Her travel schedule…I mean, I’d like to have her give me a gift of her frequent flyer miles. She is on a plane to a different country at least once or twice a week. I don’t know how she does it. She always maintains this sense of balance and calm. She’s just incredible.
What was the response like to Jenny’s project last year?
Since we turned it around so quickly, most of the responses we had were from people passing by saying “Hey, what’s this?” “How beautiful and breathtaking.” There were people who would ask, “Is this conservative or liberal?” And then there are always people that expect that it’s something commercial. It’s got to be a Nike Ad or something like that, so it takes conversation to sort of engage them.
Creative Time also did a project with Vik Muniz in 2001 called Clouds. How did that come together?
That came out of a 7-year conversation. I’ve known Vik since he first moved to New York as a young artist. When I came to Creative Time I said let’s work on a project together. He was like, “I’m a photographer, what kind of public project am I going to do?”
Then during one of our once every 6 month dates he said, “Actually I do have an idea.” Literally on a proverbial napkin at lunchtime he drew a cartoon shape of a cloud. “I would like to have a skywriter draw this over New York City.” I was like, “I’ve never done a skywriting project before, sounds like fun.”
He was interested in how we take basic forms and read symbolically into them. What would happen when this cartoon figure appeared over the city? What would people read into it? The response was fascinating. I remember the first time we did a test I was at a cocktail party and people were like, “Oh, did you see the penis in the sky?” After that test the skywriter got a little better at making the cartoon cloud, which is actually very hard to do.
What were some of the other responses?
We got poems, paintings and drawings. People didn’t know anything about us but they saw the project out their window and were inspired. One of my favorite stories was a three-page letter from a woman whose son, who was about 40 years old, suddenly died of a brain aneurism. He owned a number of restaurants in New York City and was a huge Yankees fan. Anyway, he died and they had the funeral service in Manhattan and then they drove out to Westchester past Yankee Stadium for the burial. While they were driving, they saw what they thought was a sign from their son, a big baseball mitt in the sky. Everybody was so touched. It wasn’t until she read about the project in the New York Times Magazine that she knew it was a cloud. You’ll get those kinds of stories and Vik’s project is one where we were just inundated with fabulous responses from the public.
Following Jenny Holzer’s For the City, you have a show dealing with the High Line. What is Creative Time’s involvement with the High Line?
For years and years artists have been coming to me asking to have access to that elevated industrial railway that cuts through the Westside of Manhattan called the High Line. I’ve always said to them it’s not possible, there’s no access to the space.
A few years ago a group of young citizens came together, called themselves Friends of the High Line, and advocated for the site’s preservation and reuse. From the beginning I have been a supporter, an advisor, and a friend of this organization. Last year when there was a call for proposals for the design of the site, we were on 4 of the 5 finalist teams, and I’m pleased to say, are also part of the winning team. Our role is to advise on cultural and artistic possibility for the site.
What is the exhibition about?
The show is not about the High Line itself, but the High Line’s condition was inspiration. The exhibition is about our desire for inaccessible spaces (there’s no public access to the High Line) and our interest in sites in transformation and transition.
We can’t have access to the High Line, but we did find the building in the West Village where it either begins or terminates depending on your vantage point. It’s an old former meat refrigeration warehouse owned by the City. It’s been unoccupied for years and may be the future home of the Dia Arts Foundation. We had been looking at the space for a very long time. One, because of its location in physical connection to the High Line and two, because its structure is sort of in transition itself. Artists don’t have opportunities to work in vacant old warehouse spaces in Manhattan any longer, so we thought this was an interesting moment to invite artists to come create some thoughtful works in this 60,000 sq ft space. The show opens October 14 and runs through November 20.
You mentioned the Tribute in Light project, which was a response to 9/11. How have the events of that day affected your organization both positively and negatively?
I am proud of the programming we did in response to 9/11, from Tribute in Light to our poster projects with artists like Hans Haacke, who is also a hero of mine. But there have also been profoundly negative effects. There are some very pragmatic concerns, like our insurance tripled, at least. Over national security concerns, we lost our lease to the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, which we had for over 20 years.
Personally, I think our culture is much more nervous and fearful of just about everything. The kind of renegade, anything is possible, let’s just do it attitude has become much more difficult to maintain.
How familiar were you with the plans for the Freedom Center at Ground Zero? How do you feel about the project being scrapped?
I’m not intimately aware of what the Freedom Center was going to do. I do know that it is really polemical to have any kind of cultural center or dialogue on that site and I find that absolutely heartbreaking. Whether or not I was excited about the Drawing Center or the Freedom Center, it doesn’t matter. The fact is, people do not want to tolerate any kind of real conversation and understanding, and that is very disturbing.
You mentioned that the Government helps fund your projects. Are you aware of Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s remarks from a couple weeks ago? He said that the government shouldn’t fund the arts or if they do, “withholding funds from art it disagrees with is perfectly acceptable.” How do you feel about this? What are the implications?
I got an email last night that to help pay for Katrina, Congress is cutting the fat on the government, which could mean the end of the NEA, the NEH, and lord knows what other agencies.
Government support for the arts is fundamentally about supporting freedom of expression. If you take away government programs like the NEA, you start to take away a diversity within our culture that makes us a civilization and instead you become overburdened by the pressures of the free market system, which, by the way, ain’t so free.
Lets take museums in New York City for example. They are primarily funded by private individual donors. As times goes on, one can imagine a scenario that the more these institutions are privately funded, the more the curatorial and executive staff are limited to the interests and tastes of their donors and trustees. The difference between what is happening in the commercial marketplace and what is happening in cultural institutions starts to get blurred and self-censorship begins to go on. People don’t want to offend their donors let alone their larger constituents. This is a very big problem that in my opinion our field is not grappling with. It’s like the white elephant in the room.
Can you talk about the relationship between New York and Creative Time? Do you think the organization could exist in other cities?
Creative Time has a New York attitude. By that I mean it’s very creative, it can be provocative, it’s surprising and it has humor. I think New York is a great landscape for the kind of work that we do. It would be harder to do what we do in terms of public acceptance in most cities throughout this country, but it actually makes me more and more interested to try.
Is that something you’re exploring?
Yes. In fact we just finished a business plan and we are moving in that direction. Of course New York will always be our central focus.
*For the City will appear on NYU's Bobst Library, October 3-5 and on The New York Public Library, October 6-9. Each night, from dusk until midnight, the projections of documents and poetry will scroll over the cultural sites.