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Curating Activist Art at MASS MOCA

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Nato Thompson speaks to F

Nato Thompson is a writer, activist, curator of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), and School of the Art Institute (SAIC) alumnus. He visited his alma mater in October and spoke to students about “Seeing Power: Radical Visual Culture and its Discontents,” as well as to the first-year Arts Administration graduate students about his career.

After graduating from SAIC’s Master’s program in Arts Administration, Thompson started out as an assistant curator at MASS MoCA in September 2001 and was promoted to curator last year. He has churned out four large-scale and dynamic exhibitions, “Ahistoric Occasion” (current), “Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom” (2005), “The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere” (2004), and “Fantastic” (2003). His writings appear in numerous contemporary art journals including Tema Celeste, Parkett, Art Journal, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. One of his many political involvements includes the 2001 protest in front of MTV’s The Real World house in Wicker Park; he was arrested after writing slogans, such as, “What is real?” on the sidewalk. “It was a very successful protest,” which Thompson described as “literate action from [the cast’s] unreal reality.”

When asked how his interest in politics and art came about, he responded, “It began very easily. I lived in a weird Christian community. In the [San Francisco] bay area, there was radical political activism. I lived around arty people and activists/anarchists. I was attracted to an arty lifestyle. I lived in CalArts housing in Jr. High [because] my dad went to grad school there.” Thompson continued, “In undergrad [at UC Berkeley], I got into activism.” He wanted a way of approaching art and politics; that was when Thompson decided to go to SAIC. He explained, “I wanted to do something practical like arts administration [since] I had been impractical most of life. I was scared that impracticality would work me into a low-pay, exploited life.”

He came to SAIC intending to give back to the Bay Area and to start his own space. He realized, however, that it was not his calling, because he would need “a super wealthy art person” and “was weary about the art model.” Thompson started writing for the New Art Examiner and “picked up an activist area space.” He worked with quite a few activist projects in Chicago, such as the Department of Space and Land Reclamation. On mnartists.org, an online forum, he said, “I’m deeply committed to social justice and find the arts, at times, a great forum for acting in this world.”

Due to his extreme views and “left-leaning” ideas, Thompson thought that his “thoughts on art resonated more for a large contemporary art institution,” though his views were not embraced by all institutions. “The museum is a legitimate form, a powerful force in the dialogue,” said Thompson.

MASS MoCA is indeed large. It sprawls over 13-acres in northwestern Massachusetts. Its renovated 19th-century factory buildings house 19 light-filled galleries, over 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, not to mention a gallery the length of a football. Each show stays up for a year.

Thompson believes, “Art is the veneer of elitism and class” and wants to “demystify that.” He gears shows for the visiting audience and believes that “relevance to people’s lives” helps contribute to a show’s success.

His current exhibition, “Ahistoric Occasion,” “takes events of the past and brings them to life now,” said Thompson, and in doing so, focuses on the “growing interest in historic reenactment and revisions in contemporary art,” as described on massmoca.org. Historic reenactment is “an emerging art form that takes a nontraditional view of history to explore what the events of the past might actually mean,” explained Grace Glueck of The New York Times. Thompson’s idea of this exhibition was inspired by artists, such as Jeremy Deller and Allison Smith. For instance, Jeremy Deller’s film epic re-enacts the miners strike in England in 1984 that “is disappearing in history,” he continued. The strike was an important event in England’s labor history, reports Glueck. Other artists’ works include that of Greta Pratt, Paul Chan, Peggy Diggs, Felix Gmelin, Kerry James Marshall, Trevor Paglen, Dario Robleto, Nebojsa Seric-Shoba, and Yinka Shonibare.

As for his most successful exhibition, Thompson said it was the “Interventionists: Art in Social Sphere,” a brief survey of political art practices. When coming up with the idea for this show, he said that it involved “artists he had worked with and admired. The greatest hits of political art.” The intervention is a “form of culture. Look at political art of the ‘90s. A lot of artists were great.”

The exhibition opening on December 16th is “Trading Ground for Democracy.” Thompson said, “We asked people [to give] MASS MoCA things they don’t want.” Artist Christoph Büchel will turn MASS MoCA’s largest gallery into an imagined temporary community. Examining the current political landscape, this installation “will be a maze of democratic civic life drawn from politically charged Internet, magazine and newspaper images,” as stated on massmoca.org. It will be so vast with “two mobile homes, “full scale cinema, and two jeeps,” said Thompson.

Thompson admitted, “Shows have grown in scale as I become more comfortable with the institution and as the institution becomes more comfortable with me.” As for his future goals, he hopes to double scale of museum. When asked if MASS MoCA would have a permanent collection, Thompson would call it “large scale works on long-term loans.”

Greta Pratt’s 19 Lincolns in the exhibition “Ahistoric Occasion,” curated by Nato Thompson.

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