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On Creative Time's Democracy In America at the Armory

There are socially conscious nonprofits which feed the hungry, house the homeless, work with runaway or HIV-positive youth, engage in natural disaster relief. And there are arts/cultural nonprofits, generally sharing a left-liberal orientation. The two should be sympathetic and cooperative. Artists, for example, are often moved to donate work to auctions that benefit socially or politically active causes. But as the economy shrinks, there will necessarily be increased competition for fewer dollars, and organizations dealing with subsistence and survival will likely be favored over artistic endeavors. This could endanger the natural affinity between good causes and good art.

The Democracy in America extravaganza is a "big tent" event at the Park Avenue Armory. Creative Time and curator Nato Thompson are to be commended for the ambition and timeliness of this effort, which mirrors the size and clamor of national party conventions in this election year, and gathers a lot of political art and partisan noise under the high, vaulted ceiling of the Drill Hall or off in side rooms and hallways.

This "Convergence Center" revisits public art projects previously done under the CT aegis. It gives Steve Powers' Waterboard Thrill Ride a new home after its Coney Island run, and includes a huge, two-screen projection of Mark Tribe's Port Huron Project, his re-enactment of radical New Left speeches of the 1960s by Cesar Chavez, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and others. Pia Lindman's Soapbox Event, staged on Wall Street back in April, gives speakers another chance to sound off, for one minute, with a big megaphone.

There is humorless, densely texted, self important post-MFA work here - it seems unavoidable in a group show of political art - but a preponderance of gems makes a visit to the one-week event (it closes on Saturday, September 27) essential. Don't miss Jon Kessler's brilliant, whirling thingamajig of doll torture, video cameras and a barrage balloon; Ken Tin-Kin Hung's Residential Erection, an obsessively layered, savagely funny animation that takes no prisoners in its caricature of the candidates; Duke Riley's aquatic adventure, his reconstruction of Revolutionary War submarine The Turtle, brooding here in lacquered splendor amid the trappings of other wars, but shown in action in a TV mockumentary as it performed an "attack" on the QE II in New York Harbor; the Center for Tactical Magic's anarchist ice cream truck, filled with Fudgsicles, progressive literature and surveillance equipment; Steve Lambert's interactive Pentagon coloring book, the doodled pages tacked onto a long plywood wall; Luca Frei's Bruce Nauman-ish spiral of neon letters that references Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti (tucked away in the mezzanine); and the Steve Kurtz/Critical Art Ensemble shrine to the fragility of free speech in our post 9/11 world and his reprehensible persecution by rabid FBI agents. In addition, a full schedule of speeches and performance events is listed on the Creative Time website.

So do go to the Armory. But when you go - and to my mind it's a very big BUT - you will probably be unaware (as most attendees are) that two floors of the building also house a Womens' Shelter. They might as well be living on another planet. The only interface between the privileged art world (which uses the front door) and the homeless (who enter from the side) comes in the elevator to Sharon Hayes' fourth floor installation. I am not suggesting an artwork "using" this homeless population; that would be exploitative and inappropriate. But the opacity, the lack of any acknowledgment that we are interlopers in the building and the homeless women its regular inhabitants, seems a glaring omission in the context of this sprawling, overtly political exhibition. It inadvertently provides a lesson in the gulf between social and artistic nonprofit efforts.

(This text was first posted as a comment on an Artworld Salon thread on Nonprofits.)