Superscript 2015: Marisa Mazria-Katz
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Superscript 2015: Marisa Mazria-Katz

Presented as part of the Artists as Cultural First Responders panel at the Superscript 2015 conference. To view the entire panel discussion playlist, click here.

Marisa Mazria-Katz is a New York–based journalist/editor and editor of Creative Time Reports, an initiative aimed at restoring the voice of the artist in society by pushing them back in the spotlight as critical thinkers who actively participate in the issues of our time. She has contributed to numerous publications and television channels on culture, politics and art, including the New York TimesTimeFinancial TimesForeign Policy, the Guardian, the Economist, the New RepublicWashington PostWall Street JournalVogueArt Asia Pacific (Contributing Editor), Wallpaper*Monocle Magazine, and Metropolis, among others. For four years, Mazria-Katz ran a US State Department–sponsored program in Casablanca, Morocco, which taught at-risk youth journalism and blogging.


Creative Time. So I’ve been with them for four years. And you know, there was something very natural you could say, inevitable about launching a platform for artists to weigh in on news at Creative Time. It’s an organization that has been commissioning artists to engage with urgent social and political issues since its founding four decades ago. So for instance, I like to look at this project. It’s a real inspiration for Creative Time Reports. So this is Gran Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Greed And Indifference Do. The Creative Time project was produced in 1989 at the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. The political art action appropriated advertising and media strategies to spread information about AIDS and its social ramifications to a vast audience by pairing the piece’s message with an image of three interracial couples, both same sex and heterosexual, kissing, the image appeared on postcards that were circulating through mass mailings and on posters affixed to New York City buses.

So how many of you know Creative Time, show of hands? OK. So for the very few that don’t, just a little bit of history. I want to talk about what our mission is. Which really underscores that artists are important to society, that artists should be weighing in on the times in which we live, and that public places, and public spaces are places for free expression and creativity. Now, with all of this in mind, Creative Time Reports genesis came about when our artistic director and president Ann Pasternak began asking questions. Questions like, if Creative Time believes the idea that artists matter in society, and if we want them to impact how we think about today’s most pressing issues, what are the public spaces that would truly magnify their voices? Where should they be participating? Where is public dialogue happening?

And the answer we arrived to was online. So we thought now if we’re going to work in this vein, it entailed expanding our definition of public space, beyond shared physical spaces, and entering into a dialogue with news media.

So we incubated this idea for a full year before the site’s launch in October 2012 and we decided it was going to be established and rested on several pillars, first that we would work with artists all over the world. And this really entailed me leaving my desk, so you know, every month or so I was in another country and several of which were you know, Tunisia Hungary, the United Arab Emirates, and Kenya. This wasn’t just to meet potential contributors but also to engage what does it project like this mean what does it mean for an artist to weigh in on the news? Than they confirmed early suspicions that a monolithic approach just wouldn’t work. The pieces we featured had to be as wide-ranging in form subject and language as the contributing artists were diverse. It also meant cultivating a deep sensitivity to geo political situations that have the potential to make our artist correspondents vulnerable. For instance, if an artist wished to remain anonymous, we pledged that we would hide his or her identity.

So this was one of the first pieces that we did with an artist that made such a request and this piece was published on the eve of the 2013 elections in Iran. We also knew that if we were going to successfully weigh in on the news we had to be timely and we had to publish pieces that we were certain would align with the news cycle.

So how do we, a staff of more or less two, sometimes three, you know, compete with megalithic media sites? We came up with a few strategies. First, we wanted to always stay abreast of upcoming events that have the foreseeable potential for life-altering consequences, like the 2013 Kenyan elections which came 5 years after a vote that sparked violence resulting in over 1,000 deaths.

We also wanted to unearth approaching anniversaries that resonate often bitterly with those who mark them like the 20th anniversary of NAFTA or the one-year anniversary of hurricane Sandy. It also meant consistently taking on issues that are significant, no matter the month, like global warming, race, surveillance or immigration. We would ask ourselves, which artists are most poised as Howard Zinn wrote in his book, Artists in Times of War, to think outside the boundaries of permissible thoughts and dare to say things no one else will say. The second critical component of Creative Time Reports was cultivating partnerships with major publications that would then co-publish our pieces, thereby distributing artist personal perspectives and critical interventions to thousands or even millions of readers.

So our first such partnership was with Foreign policy magazine which was based in Washington, D.C. and the occasion was the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken by Muslims as one of the five pillars of Islam. The photo essay was by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, who showcases the rapid transformation of a sacred city now flooded with multimillion dollar real estate developments and these are just some other photos from the photo essay. This is a hotel that was recently built that overlooks the Kaabah. This is a gas station that he often frequents or sees on his way home to Jeddah. A year later, one of our more memorable piece, David burn’s op ed on the effects of soaring, sorry, what’s what it looked like in foreign policy. David Burn’s op ed on the effects of soaring rents on creative life in New York. Went viral through our partnership with the Guardian and what was amazing about this afterwards is that the Guardian asks us to become part of their comment network, which means that we basically are in constant dialogue with them about upcoming pieces that we’re about to publish and very often they will take them and republish them. So since for foreign policy we’ve partnered roughly with 2 dozen publications including Al Jazeera America. This was with a story about a photographer who’s been documenting the lives of migrants who’ve moved from all parts of China to Beijing and live in bomb shelters beneath buildings, often illegally, and then we’ve also worked with the New Yorker. This is Sylvia Plachy photo series, images that she took from the first Gulf War.

So aligning ourselves with such outlets we initially released content as responses to the news. But this was hard for us, because it left us nipping at the heels of a fluctuating media cycle rather than determining our own publishing rhythm. So the shift in our strategy kind of came about, in 2013 with an artist we’ve all been mentioning today, with Trevor Paglen. He approached us with the idea of photographing the National Security Agency and other US intelligence agencies.

So the project required a tremendous amount of legwork. Even when we secured clearances from each agency, which was the National Geospatial Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office in addition to the NSA. We still had to find a helicopter pilot who was willing to fly above these institutions. One of which was located in a restricted flight zone. So I accompanied Paglen on the shoot and created a short film that, together with the text written by the artist, explains the impetus behind the project. The piece that resulted—it’s called Overhead—was co-published with the Intercept which was founded by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill.

So I’m going to show a little film about this. It’s the one that I was just mentioning it’s about 3 minutes long and it’s so much of what Creative Time Reports is about is we step out of the way of the artist within we let them speak, so I felt it was important that you hear a little bit about how this all came about from Trevor directly. If you could play the film, please.

Trevor Paglen (on video): One of the things that is happening in society right now that I think is quite dramatic is a real shift in the way that we understand what is a relationship between the state and citizens, what is the relationship between the state and people in general, and that is something that’s really changing as a result of new kinds of technologies that have been developed, new ways of surveilling people, and new ways of storing data, quite frankly, and so I guess that’s where my interest in these institutions comes from, is just trying to understand how they’re influencing the rest of the world and to try to help develop a vocabulary, a kind of visual and cultural vocabulary that we can use to begin talking about this kind of thing. It’s very difficult to talk about something that’s so abstract, so I feel like part of my job is to try to point at something, to try to make an image that can be a reference point for a larger conversation.

When we imagine organizations like the NSA or the CIA or the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, I think we tend to think about them as being very separate from the rest of the state and very separate from other civic institutions, and to a certain degree that’s true. These are secret agencies they have classified budgets; most everything that they do is classified. At the end of the day, however, these are not so dissimilar from your local library, and we have no problem going to the local library and saying what policies we want, what hours we want them to be open, have something to say about what the rules are. And we don’t feel that same sense of ownership over the agencies of the intelligence community and I think we should.

What I hope is that these images will be first of all helpful to people to just try to wrap their heads around what some of these agencies are, to just point to them and acknowledge the fact that they’re there, that they exist, that they’re doing work. Beyond that, I hope that they can contribute in some small part to a wider cultural vocabulary that we can use to try to see these institutions, to try to understand them, to try to think about what it is that they do. And to try to think about the effect that they have on the society around them.

Mazria-Katz: So this piece debuted as I mentioned before with the intercept, but it came on the day that it launched, it was a really big moment for us to be part of this endeavor. And there were—the ripple effects were just staggering and we really took note you know, so in addition to the press coverage that the project got, Paglen’s images have illustrated stories about surveillance in newspapers and TV broadcasts around the world. Human Rights Watch used his photo on the cover of a damning report on US surveillance and the journalist Tom Engelhardt’s book, Shadow Government, used the image for its cover. So realizing that our most impactful pieces are often the ones that take the most time to conceive and execute, we recalibrated our approach to how and when we published.

As a result of this thinking, we slowed down on how often we published and in a sense, we found ourselves working more along the lines of Creative Time, ensuring that our artists are grounded in communities they cover, to avoid the ubiquitous art world and media world in general pitfall of parachuting in to report on a crisis and leaving before any substantive work has been done. The slower pace essentially allows us to work with more integrity, to fact check all the more rigorously and take time to massage ideas that are still forming.

Simultaneously, we’ve cultivating new paths for expanding our out reach and Creative Time Reports added several regional editors this past year, from Istanbul to Nairobi to Vancouver, we see these editors as our eyes and ears in cities around the world. Not only bringing new artists contributors on board, but also deepening our sensitivity to local conditions. The first such piece we did was with our editor Sheyma Buali who is based in London, Sheyma helped us usher in this piece from Lebanese cartoonist, Karl Sharro, just days after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Creative Time Reports strives to present artists engaging with pressing issues in an expanded range of forms punctuating news feeds and home pages around the world, with unexpected stories and images. We hope that our signature mix of art, activism and journalism will become an increasingly visible and trusted source for unconventional forms of expression with real political impact. Thank you.

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