NATO THOMPSON INTERVIEWED BY ASHER PENN

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Portrait by Asher Penn

Nato Thompson is a curator and writer whose participation in political and public art have innovated the form. Coming of age in tandem with the evolution of Socially Engaged Art’s various formations, Nato Thompson’s work spans protest movements, art institutions to community engagement. Currently Artistic Director of Creative Time, and author of the books Seeing Power: Art & Activism in the 21st Century and Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life, Nato Thompson’s output is a refreshing hybrid of populism and critique that brings public art back into dialog with the real world.

I like your name. What the story was with it?
It’s actually Nathan. When I was 9 I switched it. I just had no intention of having a name that would be easy to find on the internet. Now I can use it and switch back if I wanna go anonymous.
Where are you from?
A lot of places. My parents lived in a Dutch commune when I was little, then Idaho, Oregon, and Southern California in the suburbs. For college, I moved to the Bay Area.
What did you folks do that you moved around so much?
Most of that moving was just being wandering nomadic souls. When my parents met, in the early 70’s, they were very rooted in Christian utopianism. As a kid I just travelled around with them. My dad was in the air force- his draft card was coming up, so rather than get sent out to Vietnam he enlisted, and worked on jets at a military base outside of Holland for four years. My mom’s a writer, my dad was a painter and then got into film. There’s a certain bohemian artiness to my family’s ilk.
Were you an arty teenager?
I was weird, which I guess can be “arty”. In my high school years in the suburbs outside of Los Angeles the closest to art you could get was hanging out with punk rock kids. You just understood that the suburbs were the urban version of hell.
You’re talking about late 80s suburban hardcore punk?
Yeah, but it was kind of split. I had this interest in speed metal, Slayer, The Damned and Possessed, goth bands like Christian Death, Siouxie and the Banshees, even Depeche Mode and punk groups like DRI, Minor Threat, Suicidal Tendencies.
Were you in bands yourself?
I was a singer with no skills in a lot of bands. I was in a band called Cows on Acid that no one ever saw play. I was in another funk meets punk group called Nicholas Tea. When I went to the Bay Area I was in a band called Turket Corpse. It was so much fun.
Was that your first gateway into art and performance?
My gateway to the arts was disillusionment in political organizing. The band thing was related, but I got more into early 90’s Bay Area rave culture. Rave culture vs rock culture was invested less in the band and more in a de-centered aesthetic experience. more about dancing, not famous DJs. I had no idea who was playing. There was less of a cult of personality.
What was your focus at Berkeley?
I changed my major numerous times but ended up in Political Theory. At the same time I was doing activism and developed an interest in “Lifestyle Anarchism”: kids setting up pirate radio stations, or Food Not Bombs where people recycled food from dumpsters to make it edible to give to the homeless or anyone that wanted it. I really enjoyed those activities and friends with a lot of artists.
Was that how you got into “Socially Engaged Art?”
It was a long time coming. I was part of this co-op in Berkeley called “The Chateau” which was pretty cheap student run housing. There were about 88 people, one of whom was very famous at the time- Andrew Martinez, the naked guy. He was a celebrity on talk shows, in newspapers and magazines. He just walked around campus completely naked, this enormous man with a small penis… I just loved him, thought he was absolutely incredible. So this house really this kind of a safe space for a lot of lunatics.
It sounds cool.
It was a very dynamic place and garnered my interest in alternative social spaces. After I moved out of that house, me and a bunch of artists friends moved into a warehouse where we hosted alternative noise music, exhibitions and other kinds of cultural programming. So there was of merging art and politics in the Bay Area, but it was never as defined as “Socially Engaged Art”- just a hybrid of social space for art and politics.

The Real World 7, Spin Magazine, 2001

I read you also protested MTV’s The Real World and were arrested?
That was at the tail end of my graduate school experience. I’ve been arrested a handful of times at protests but that was the most bizarre. It was kind of the most fun too. The Real World was shooting in the neighborhood Wicker Park so me and a bunch of friends thought of a campaign to give them hell. We handed out flyers around campus that there was free beer and cast party at the house and people made all these banners saying “WE’RE HERE TO LIBERATE YOU REAL WORLD FROM YOUR UN-REALITY”.
Haha, unreal.
The protest wasn’t even real! But it gained a lot of traction in the media. The police came in and tried to shut it down, wrote us up for writing in chalk on the sidewalk and we were thrown into jail for a night. Then, all kinds of media outlets jumped on it and we became known as “The Real World Seven.” It became a great opportunity to talk about the spectacle and gentrification and the reality of urban lives vs the mediated urban lives. It was all entirely stupid and poignant at the same time.
What did you do after school?
My plan was to actually find a way to economically run an alternative space combining art and politics. When we started looking at different the models for starting non-profits, many of them were started by people with means, privately. Rich kids were able to get it off the ground – and I certainly wasn’t that.
So having your own space didn’t seem realistic.
I come from very humble means- I’ve been poor most of my life and it informs my outlook and politics deeply. When I went to grad school I’d been working for two years as a temp worker in so many horrible jobs – Kinko’s, UPS and was determined to not go back to that. I wanted to be really practical about my plans. The fear of living that 9-to-5 on a horrible job was so deep in me – which is funny, because when I saw kids going immediately from undergrad to grad school, I could look in their eyes and see that some of them didn’t have the proper amount of fear. I was like “Oh, you really need that to encourage you to do well!” I didn’t want pie in the sky plans that wouldn’t work out, and be thrown to the wolves again. I wanted to work somewhere where I had a team of people to raise the money and I could just do the programming – and that’s the direction I went into.
What was your focus on in graduate school?
I went into a program called “Arts Administration” which was not the most romantic of fields. At the same time in Chicago there was this incredible political art collective called Temporary Services that was deeply inspired by the kind of social aesthetic that was coming out of Scandinavia- groups like Supermarket and N55 that were much more design-oriented, aesthetically clean and more conceptually driven. That was when the form of Socially Engaged Art really started making its way in my life.
How would you define “Socially Engaged Art” ?
Even when I was in grad school that wasn’t the term – there have been so many. I discovered it as a kind of artwork that is really interested in the social relations around it- there was also a movement called Relational Aesthetics, spearheaded by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija – he did a project in a gallery in the early 90s where he cooked Phad Thai and people came and ate it. The artwork wasn’t the food, but the social experience that surrounded it. It’s much more about the relationships between things.
Did you start working at MASS MoCA in graduate school?
It was one of my first jobs out of grad school. I never thought I would ever get hired because I was on trial as one of the Real World 7, had this sorted anarchist background that wouldn’t sit well with an institution. Then when I got hired I had a lot of anxiety about the art world not being compatible with the radical politics. But I learned a lot. The director had started two years prior to when I arrived and the chief curator had been a graduate school intern. The team was very young and up for anything.
MASS MoCA is in a small town right?
Yeah, it’s in North Adams, which has a population of 12,000 people. The director had a populist belief that art shows had to be about connecting to everyday people- it would never survive if it was a pretentious institution. The museum had to be family friendly, which struck a chord with me because certainly I had a populist streak too.
Do you consider yourself a “creative” curator?
I got into curatorial work because I’ve always been someone who appreciates artists and enjoys weaving ideas together. I like to think of the curator as an aggravator of ideas, thinking about display and audiences. I want to find new forms to reach people.
Were you aware of Creative Time before you started working there?
I met Peter Eeley, the curator at a panel about the Sheeps on Parade… He was being kinda caustic about the vernacular of corporate sponsored art while I was being somewhat sympathetic to post-manufacturing towns trying to get some sort of populist entertainment culture. Then I met Ann Pasternak, the director, at a retreat for the organization there Creative Capital. We got drunk on a bottle of vodka and took a canoe from the roof of someone’s car and rode it down a grass hill. Somewhere along the ride she pitched the idea of me coming over to work at Creative Time.
Did Creative Time really open up what you up to be able to do?
The thing that took some time to get my head around was the most exciting part: Creative Time could in essence do just about anything. The doors were wide open. The real mandate of public art is not to be limited. When you look at a museum, the curation is driven by empty galleries. You’re filling space. The arena of public art is so broad and exciting. It’s also a pain in the ass. I mean [laughs] I could have chosen the museum. Museums are tough but it’s nothing like public art.

Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, Creative Time, 2006

What was the first project you did there?
I had already been working on it before I started working at Creative Time. It was a project with Paul Chan, where we staged Waiting For Godot in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
That project was incredible. Were you a producer?
I was a curator. We do have producers on staff. On that project I worked with an incredible producer who navigated a lot of the logistics. My role on a lot of public projects is both listening to the practical constraints -which are myriad- and simultaneously thinking through the processes to land them. We talked a lot about how to do these pop-up gatherings in advance of the project, discussing who the community relations were, sitting down with different stakeholders in neighborhoods. Thinking through those things there’s so much practicality- you have to somewhat protect the artist from getting buried at all and to make sure that the best parts of the work shine out.
Did that project set a new standard for you going forward?
Of course. In particular around race and community organizing. You know, the art world can be very white. I’m always trying to crack the code how to work across racial barriers in a radical way. That New Orleans project worked across a lot of lines. A lot of people told us no one would come and it was interesting to see this disproven.
It seems like a lot of Creative Time is about collaboration.
Totally. It’s a team sport, far away from the artist alone in the studio, more in the style of working in theater or film. Of course the artist is the driving force, but there are all sorts of insights, professionalism and net practical constraints that push on it. I’ve learned that the picture in my head is never gonna be what actually happens. Thinking that way gets you on the wrong path. You have to let the project emerge in a collaborative relationship, rather than trying to get somewhere- the thinking is so very different. Some projects do work out better than others. Life is like that.
I was curious how closely you involved in Occupy Wall Street?
Very closely. There was this space 16 Beaver where a lot of the conversations began. A lot of the activist artists who were kind of the driving force are dear friends of mine… I would never say “We did that” at all but I do think that all of us contributed to certain kind of atmosphere that put things into motion, paved the course we would take… I mean you could say Wall Street is the ultimate cause of Occupy. [laughs]
How did you see it playing out?
It’s interesting because Occupy epitomized the spirit of the times in both good and bad ways. There is so much that was born out of it. It was great that it pushed back against capitalism. It’s great that the idea of The 99% is now common. You would never have Bernie Sanders run for president or hear the word Socialism in political discourse. There’s a much more radical voice that has been publicly accepted. At the same time it had a lot of ideological messiness. It was a very paranoiac movement, very concerned about being co-opted, and also attracted a lot of Libertarians. It had a lot of flaws.

Seeing Power & Culture as Weapon, Melville House, 2015 / 2017.

Before your books, you were writing articles. Why go long form?
It was an active decision. After writing for art magazines, freelancing and trying my hand at stuff, I felt that I was writing towards what the editors are looking for- instead of building up the kind of cogent analysis. The writing was reactive to whatever the job opportunity was. The book form allows me to develop an argument more and to concretize some ideas I’ve had.
Was Seeing Power a book you had been thinking about for a while?
Yeah. I had finished that book a while before it came out. It got slogged down in an editorial mess process, but I had started working on that when I was at MASS MOCA.
It’s like a guide for people who grew up on apolitical art.
It’s funny because I used my own life and the lessons I learned along the way. Also operating within art activism I’d seen certain kind of roadblocks emerge time and time again that I really wanted to wrestle with. The classic conversation of the Poetic versus the Didactic, whether art should be ambiguous poetry or direct, propagandistic and active. I tried to unpack the problems of both of those styles to resolve them. Really, the book is a way to get people who are interested in the field of art politics to think more carefully about the work they do and encourage people to do more effective work.
It goes beyond art politics towards cultural production.
I try to put art in the context of larger cultural forces like capitalism as opposed to thinking of art in and of itself in a gallery. I understand the gallery has an economy, and those things aren’t bad – it’s just better to understand the economy in which your work and life are situated.
That reminds me of an article I recently read that said objectivity in journalism is dead.
Makes sense to me. It’s useful to acknowledge people’s position within power to see where they’re coming from. The head of the EPA is a lobbyist for oil companies – it’s useful to know that when dealing with climate change. It’s useful to understand where people are positioned. Certainly within the art world itself it’s somewhat tricky because people are very reluctant to reveal that part of themselves.
I like that Culture As Weapon really goes beyond Art.
This book is much more cultural criticism than an art book- it applies to a lot of different fields. As a result it’s been featured on a variety of spaces outside the art world- It has the broad audience I was hoping for.
Is that why it’s written in such a direct manner?
Both of my books are theoretically informed, but I try not to talk that way. I try to use everyday vernacular so people can understand it. I grew up reading theory but felt like it never reached a big enough audience. If you want to switch the way we think about things that requires some creativity. I have a lot ulterior motives that are never overtly laid out in the book – but certainly if one looks how I jump from Apple to the Military to Starbucks to the demonization of Islam… These are phenomena that are quite separate but bound together with a kind of theory or cultural production and excess.
You speak a lot about the book Rise of the Creative Class. Was writing Culture as Weapon a way of competing?
I would love that. The problem of course is that book works very closely with the needs of capitalism. It tells people that making money will help people- that kind of news tends to sell better while critiques of capitalism with a nuanced contextualized argument is more difficult for broad distribution. The argumentation is a bit trickier and pushes up against the dominant patterns where information is flowing.
You also discuss PR a good deal. Were there things you couldn’t speak about because of your job with Creative Time?
I’ve worked with a lot with the PR machine and know the way it plays out. With Creative Time, we’ve come to grow with the rise of social media, which I think benefits public art. We are an organization that doesn’t even advertise anywhere and still get all kinds of press. That said because I work at Creative Time, like anyone who has a job, you can only go so far. I will never pretend I can be completely transparent. I try to push it as far as I can, in my life and my writing. It amazes me I can do the job being this critical, but it’s good to challenge power. :)