Back Talk: Nato Thompson

Back Talk: Nato Thompson

A conversation with Nato Thompson on experimental geography, Trevor Paglen and the outlook for the arts.


Nato Thompson is a curator and producer at Creative Time, a New York City-based arts organization that promotes experimental and site-specific public art. He is also the curator of "Experimental Geography," a traveling exhibition sponsored by Independent Curators International, which features an examination of the history of the Hudson River, a mobile parking booth and alternative maps, among other things. (A catalog of the show is available from Melville House; $29.95.) From February 7 to April 18, "Experimental Geography" will be at the Rochester Art Center in Minnesota.
 –Christine Smallwood

What is experimental geography?

Well, I stole the term from a close friend, an artist named Trevor Paglen. He has a PhD in geography from Berkeley, but he comes from an experimental art background. In general, the term "experimental geography" is a catchphrase for an emerging genre, where academic influences blend with an acute sensibility for contemporary art skill sets: visual, spatial. But at the same time, there’s rigor. Academic rigor. A real desire to know. There’s also a performance element that’s influenced by the Situationists, a kind of walking tour. Then there’s the more academic approach–people who are in fact architects.

Would you consider the project you worked on with Paul Chan in New Orleans last year–the outdoor production of Waiting for Godot–a kind of experimental geography?

Sure, absolutely. Godot happened in the Lower Ninth Ward, a very famous site, and also in a not-so-famous neighborhood called Gentilly, but both sites are laden with historical machinations, from the ecological to the racial to the urban. Those politics are right under the feet of people, producing an extraordinarily tragic and somewhat absurd play by Samuel Beckett. There’s a phrase that’s often used–"Knowledge is a performance." That is to say, you must, to some degree, seduce the reader. You bring knowledge slowly into light. What artists have always known is that ambiguity is a space of thinking. That’s what I think Beckett understood in Godot. You can’t tell anyone anything down in New Orleans. The reality is too intense and too illegible to ever make comprehensible. And it’s too pedantic to say, This is what’s wrong. The trauma is so vast. You need a project of ambiguity, where everyone brings their experience to the table. So I think the Godot project was very much in that tradition.

Would you say more about Trevor Paglen’s work?

He’s been doing the geography of places that people say don’t exist. He has taken telephoto lenses used for photographing stars and used them to photograph places like Area 51 [a support facility in Nevada for U-2 spy planes] or, more recently in Afghanistan, to photograph Bagram Air Base and the secret prisons there that, at this point, are no longer secret. Three years ago they were still a secret. He’s currently doing an art project where he’s tracking secret intelligence satellites in the night sky, using visual art tricks to make visible things meant to be invisible. It’s photographs of the night sky, but it’s all this secret stuff that’s up there. And there’s lots.

Do you expect more government money for the arts in the coming years?

I think after the culture wars of the late ’80s, the lesson for the Democrats was that arts funding is just too risky. It’s not worth it. The damage that can happen to an administration over a $10,000 grant is potentially too big for what you might get in return. I think those lessons are not gone. The NEA still does not give individual artists’ grants [in the visual arts]. People still see the arts as risky. I think they are right. And I think that’s good. In terms of funding art, people say the economic collapse to some degree is going to assist risky work, because galleries and commercial art inevitably make the work that people produce inherently conservative. At Creative Time we’ve shifted our focus from the idea of quality to the idea of importance.

What’s the difference?

I think quality is rooted in the history of beauty and taste, both extraordinarily conservative lenses for viewing aesthetics. I think importance is viewed from the lens of history, site, legibility and efficacy. Those categories are much more in keeping with the models deployed in grassroots organizing. We’re doing a collaboration now with the New Museum and an artist named Jeremy Deller. It’s called "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq." We’ll be hosting conversations at the museum with different experts–anthropologists, archaeologists–about the war in Iraq as well as the country and its culture. After the New Museum show has closed, me, Jeremy Deller, a military officer just demobilized from Iraq and an Iraqi refugee are going to travel across America from town to town with a car that was blown up in Baghdad, and we’re going to talk to people about their relationship to the war.

Are artists picking up the slack for a deficient public sphere?

It’s hard to know. I think there’s an evolving understanding that we speak through culture now. We don’t just speak with words. We speak with images, we speak with space, we speak with social relations. There is a form to communication. And artists have long deployed form as an arbiter of meaning. I think these tool sets are not just the purview of the arts. Clearly advertising uses them. And the left, to be frank, the more traditional political left, has been very slow in keeping up with people like Karl Rove and his deep understanding that culture outpaces class as a lens of analysis. It’s not just us who have to be aware of the need to seduce people as well as bring political realities to the table. It comes with writing; it comes with everything. The arts have had that kind of awareness built into them. I think those are incredibly important political tools.

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