The Vera List Center for Art and Politics develops our programs in cycles, habitually identifying a topic of particular urgency and broad resonance that brings together artists, scholars, activists, public intellectuals, and political and cultural leaders to discuss and explore thematic issues and questions, curating a wide-ranging program over the course of four semesters.
What commits us, and what joins us? In its 21st year – as our planet enters the Age of the Anthropocene, where everything is infused by human activity – the Vera List Center embarks on an extended investigation of Alignment, usually referred to as the "proper or desirable relation of components." As distinctions blur between nature and culture, individuals and groups, and the political and economic spheres, we explore how alignments take place and why. Art provides the transdisciplinary lens for this examination.
Over the next two years, the center will address the formation of alignments in science, law, and politics and, in so doing, will ask where correspondences are sought and found and how individual entities relate to larger bodies. Such discussions will encompass those about democracy and the newly emerging regimes in the Arab world; about purpose and usefulness – ethically, politically, and otherwise – and whether intentional communities can be defined through notions of alignment; about entitlement and rights; about theory and practice; and on the space of alignments and how the term might be applied to an enhanced definition of civic space. Alignments, or correspondences, require translation, and with it a reflection on language, interdisciplinarity, and cognition. They can be organic or artificial, We propose Alignment as the term that supports an expanded, comprehensive examination of how the parts of this world fit together and how they exist in symbiosis with one another, to a limited extent, for a limited time. Art allows for such an examination.
At a time when faulty oil rigs can create overwhelming natural and economic disasters, when concrete barriers brutally define boundaries, and when engineered food is forever altering what people eat, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics embarks on a two-year exploration of the material world. In the face of virtual realities, social media, and disembodied existences, the center hopes to turn our focus back to the material conditions of our lives and examine "thingness," the nature of matter.
Russian Constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko once declared that "our things and our hands must be equal." More recently, political scientist Jane Bennett has spoken of "vibrant matter" and called for a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between objects and people that may provoke more responsible, ethical and ecologically sound politics. Over the course of four semesters, "thingness" will be dissected, and thematic program clusters will be formed around topics such as forensics, ecology, speculative materialism, and biology.
We will be asking: How can the conventional dichotomy between subject and object be overcome? What is the impulse sustaining this separation? What is the relationship between material commodity and immaterial network? Since the past shapes the future—down to the chemical exchanges in our brains that develop the pathways of future exchanges and therefore determine our thinking—how do we account for simultaneity of consciousness (memories, knowledge, projections), and what role do physical objects and phenomena play? What interventions are possible in systems of objects? This far-ranging inquiry will involve New School faculty and students with scholars, thinkers, and artists from outside our community, and, as always, all conversations will involve the public and serve the VLC's mission to facilitate new forms of civic engagement.
Speculating on Change
By virtue of their public nature, the Vera List Center programs suggest some form of collective experience. The question of change thus calls for a discussion of perceptions, descriptions, quantification and understanding of change that inform collective action, whether political, scientific, or cultural. Explicitly tied to difference, change is most easily measured in terms of chronological time, comparing a "before" to an established "after." Speculation on change, however, entails projection, prognosis and risk, and reflects perhaps most clearly the fluid, divergent and simultaneous time space continuum of our contemporary existence.
Increasingly, artists and others speak of "peace time" versus "war time," or "the recent past" and the "immediate future." Economically, politically, and technologically, we are experiencing change as never before. The Vera List Center's goal with the present theme is to contribute to a multi-disciplinary conversation about being in a state of change, in a continuous projection into the future. The programs invariably attempt to define President Obama's "change we can believe in," building on the previous program year's exploration of democracy as an eternally deferred state. The "Speculating on Change" cycle addresses topics as diverse as momentum and political movement; institutional infrastructures and collapse; speculative urbanism and design; humor; performance; credit and risk; the moment of environmental crisis; and the global economy.
This program cycle has received the generous support of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
For the 2008-2009 annual theme, the Vera List Center gathers thinkers from the arts, law, the social sciences, the media, and other fields to engage in a multi-disciplinary investigation of "Branding Democracy," positioning this form of governance in terms of marketing and market shares, design and visual concepts, and consumer culture and agency.
At a moment when the catch-word "democracy" is ubiquitous and evoked by a plethora of regimes internationally, this year's programs and exhibition look at the design and packaging of the notion of democracy, and how it became a consumer brand. Practitioners from various fields examine this phenomenon and uncover possible reasons for it, thus indirectly also indicating a way out.
For the first time, Vera List Center public programs are accompanied by an exhibition presented at Parsons The New School for Design, "OURS: Democracy in the Age of Branding." The exhibition is complemented by a range of lectures, talks, performances, workshops and participatory events, many of which take place in the gallery, within an "open" structure designed for this purpose by British artist Liam Gillick.
This program cycle has received the generous support of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
While the concept of "Agency" lends itself to multiple interpretations within multiple contexts, the word and its varied meanings possess an intriguing specificity: the very idea of agency exists as a challenge to power, and probes where power rests, and how power shifts over time. At its core—and through its philosophical reiterations by pillars of Western thought ranging from Kant to Marx, from Descartes to Althusser—agency refers to the dynamics of human social relations, the relationship between object and subject. Our agency is unearthed at the intersection of our awareness, our identity, and our efficacy.
For some, people are agents of change in the same way that they are carriers of disease. Others define the subject as moral agent, and subjectivity as the coincidence of knowledge, identity and agency. This year's theme is intended to provoke and stimulate, asking not how we can structure or assemble meaning, but, rather, how meaning is being implemented and applied, what the effects are of our being.
Questions of action and intervention in social relations and political life will be at the core of this year's multilayered expeditions into the concept of agency. A growing number of artists and thinkers create their own language in exploring agency, and in so doing touch on ideas such as responsibility, consciousness, connectivity, ecology, and momentum. As participants in the Vera List Center's programs, they develop and showcase innovative models for collaboration and engagement.
Public space is traditionally defined as a domain of free exchange, welcoming the participation of all citizens: meeting places in the city, the market, newspapers and other public media. The rise of digital technologies has a great influence on the structure of this space. Is today's "public domain" more scattered or broader and richer than before the "digital revolution"? This question is crucial in debates about architecture, urban planning and art, and about the roles they play in society. Is the public domain still a place for acting and intervening? Where does the "public" take place nowadays and who shapes it by developing spatial and cultural strategies? How can one claim these new public spaces?
To define what's public, and to name and identify what and who is considered to be part of the common cultural and intellectual heritage of humanity, is a fundamentally political act that affects humans and matter in different ways. While copyright or patent restrictions may expire and be renewed, the opportunity for an individual to integrate (or reintegrate) into a community may not present itself as easily. Arranged around the topic of the "Public Domain," many of this year's programs will consider notions of the public and how they relate to objects, people and knowledge in terms of economics, law, politics, religion, culture and psychology.
Political engagement is rarely viewed in terms of forgiveness. The willingness to confront injustice—to name and identify it—is by its nature a bold act. But since injustice (and justice) are controversial concepts that involve highly polarized parties—the accuser and the accused—forgiveness encompasses a vast range of emotions and procedures, and constitutes one of the most complex forms of human commitment.
The first step in this process is a review: what actually occurred needs to be established both historically and emotionally. With history never completed, the work of remembering becomes an act of the present and a blueprint for the future. In considering the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, art historian Andreas Huyssen states that it examines the "unbearable tensions between the terror of German history and the intense longing to get beyond it." It is in this confrontation between the past and the future where forgiveness lies.
This year many of the Vera List Center's programs are dedicated to the activity of "Considering Forgiveness." Offering neither calls for forgiveness nor a granting thereof, participants examine this form of commitment in interdisciplinary terms.
During the year 2004-2005, many of the Vera List Center's programs are dedicated to an interdisciplinary exploration of the theme of "Homeland." Topics of inquiry include the effects of the war in Iraq on American political life; the history of the concept of Homeland Security; the émigré experience and the state of being between two "homes"; contemporary and traditional perspectives on homeland in a Native American context; and the debate surrounding what constitutes a country.