Essay

Art-thinking: Mapping Stanford’s Creative Cities Project

by Peggy Phelan

When I became the director of the Stanford Arts Initiative (SAI) in 2015, the university was completing a remarkable ten-year focus on the arts. The financial campaign had helped transform the physical campus, primarily through the addition of three buildings devoted to the arts, while the educational campaign launched a new required undergraduate course in creative expression. [1] Entering the director’s position at the time of institutional success meant that my aims would be different than the roles I had taken in previous administrative positions, all of which had been akin to launching or consolidating “start-ups.” [2] In directing SAI, I was focused on building from a solid base. The four academic arts departments – Music, Art and Art History, Creative Writing and Theatre and Performance Studies – had each benefitted from the largess of the campaign and were in strong positions internally and externally. But I knew that it was (and is) crucial that scholars and students see how encounters with art-thinking offer important pathways into non-art fields as well, in part by exposing the creative concepts and protocols often latent in disciplinary formation itself. Art-thinking refers to the epistemological possibilities that art pursues as a mode of examining and engaging with the world. It puts pressure on the often-unexamined assumptions of linear logic and regards causality as one among many building blocks of rational analysis. Art-thinking is dedicated to expanding what counts as valuable information, often by harnessing bodily and emotional experience into knowledge that advances thinking as such. While most arguments about expanding the role of art in higher education concern the proposition that art-making will enhance students’ preparation for their future lives, for me, the more fundamental contribution art makes to higher education comes from its epistemological force, that is to say, from art-thinking.
     

Art-thinking, therefore, offers a powerful lens for thinking about cities as manifestations of urban design, social arrangements, and nodes of temporal traffic. Cities are dense instantiations of the past and aspirations toward the future. For these reasons, cities, which often seem paradoxical performances at the edge of human possibility, attracted me as a vibrant arena for experiments in art-thinking. I asked John Hennessy, Stanford’s then-President, for funds to host a Creative Cities Project in SAI that would include postdocs and a Working Group of interested scholars, artists, students and activists from the Bay Area. Between 2016 and 2020, the SAI hosted six post-doctoral scholars: Andrew Herscher and Johanna Taylor (2016-2017); Gulgun Kayim and Sam Franklin (2017-2018) and Magie Ramirez and Nick Gamso (2018-2019). [3] In 2019 I stepped down from the directorship, but SAI’s new director, Professor Jisha Menon, generously agreed to continue funding the Working Group, which was ably directed by Michael Kahan, whose deep expertise in Urban Studies was crucial to the sessions. In addition to pursuing their own research, the fellows participated actively in the Creative Cities Working Group and taught undergraduate classes exemplifying the interconnections between art and cities. In 2017, Herscher took a group of Stanford students to Detroit over spring break. Working closely with Rebecca Struch, who was then the SAI’s chief administrative officer, Herscher designed an immersive program that invited students to think about the role of art in urban renewal; race and social justice in Detroit. The six fellows had offices in SAI and participated in the life of the university by attending talks, offering seminars, and convening meetings. At the end of each year, we held a mini-conference to showcase the work of the fellows and other members of the Creative Cities Working Group. This Colloquy represents threads of the work we’ve done together.

Swerves

Rooted in Kant’s argument that art deserves philosophical scrutiny because of its “purposiveness,” art-thinking puts in motion several distinct intellectual currents that move both backward in time (for example, to Aristotle’s Poetics, Zeami’s Fushi Kaden, and the Natya Shastra) and forward into the future (perhaps best exemplified by new work in artificial intelligence, digital humanities, and machine learning). Threads from these traditions and aspirations helped me to pursue a mode of art-thinking that frays the border between philosophy and art, between prose and poetry. [4] These essays and performance scripts sought to expand the language of critical theory and philosophy to investigate the expressive possibilities of art-thinking as a mode of critical engagement. [5] In this quest, I was following the path outlined by Merleau-Ponty: “[I]t is a question of whether philosophy as reconquest of brute or wild being can be accompanied by the resources of an eloquent language, or whether or not it would be necessary for philosophy to use language in a way that takes from it its power of immediacy or direct signification in order to make it equal to what philosophy wishes all the same to say.” [6]

A resonant aspect of this effort, for me, was a gradual move away from critical and philosophical theory as my primary method, to a search for a poetics of art-thinking that would foreground bodily experience and emotional subjectivity as valid sources for knowing. This new direction was tentative, full of doubt and back-pedaling. Instead of trying to persuade my readers of the power of my critical argument, I wanted to explore and expand my own uncertainty. And in looking for a place to ground my writing even as I wanted art-thinking to help me fly, I (re)discovered cities. [7] Their empirical actuality and their constant ebb and flow led me to discover them as human oceans, and I did my best to learn from them, with them. Buildings became coral reefs, modes of transportation different currents. And powerful people and institutions came to resemble ocean predators. More than just mapping oceanography onto city life metaphorically, I was interested in thinking about porosity in general: how we seep into ourselves and into our thinking. [8] I had several artist-guides, two of whom prompted my interest in creative cities. Tehching Hsieh came to New York from Taiwan as an undocumented immigrant in 1974. He began making performances that took the conditions of the poor and the marginal as his departure point, using New York as both antagonist and shelter in durational pieces that literally explored the city and its secrets. [9] From his perch as King of Pop, Andy Warhol, beginning in 1976, began to use still photography as a way of mapping, documenting, and artistically framing urban life. Street performers, celebrities, damaged street signs, store windows and all matter of city life were framed by Warhol’s lens in a photographic catalog that surpassed 130,000 exposures. [10] Warhol’s embrace of still photography anticipated the casual but cherished relationships many of us have with the digital cameras in our cell phones. While we often don’t bother to focus carefully as we shoot, we nonetheless preserve all of our shots with storage plans and back-ups that often exceed the quality and the quantity of the frames themselves. Art-thinking asks: what does photography carry that exceeds the image it captures? If it is not the content of the image, what is it that binds us to the frame, to the shutter/shudder? Photography seems an especially powerful art medium for approaching creative cities because it mirrors and duplicates the double-temporality of the city itself. As noted above, cities are fecund instantiations of the past even as they continually stage aspirational futures. Photography, therefore, played a central role in SAI’s Creative Cities Project. Kahan’s collaboration with the photographer Janet Delaney captured on video here exemplifies the mutually informing dialogue made possible by bringing art to bear on discussions of urban design and development. 

The Creative Cities Working Group had two particularly influential scholarly guides, Richard Florida and Henri Lefebvre. Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, offered a bridge between economics, sociology and urban policy that helped me reframe some of the work of interdisciplinary artists such as Suzanne Lacy, Theaster Gates, Joyce Kozloff, Rick Lowe, Simone Leigh and Paul Chan (among others) who had approached cities as a vital place for public art. For a variety of reasons, Florida has since turned away from some of the claims he made in that text (see his interview with Sam Franklin here), but the influence of his work on contemporary urban policy remains strong.

Henri Lefebvre’s classic 1968 text, “The Right to the City,” frames the city as a worthy object of scholarship, political action, and artistic expressiveness. [11] Lefebvre argues that cities are not the exclusive domain of capitalists, geographers, and architects, but rather living entities devoted to enhancing human life. And – taking a page from Kant – Lefebvre makes clear that cities are more than physical spaces; they are conceptual categories that demand new philosophical and political thought. SAI fellows Herscher and Taylor collaborated on organizing a symposium under the rubric “the right to the creative city.” Advancing Lefebvre’s paradigm to include art in an expanded political and historical field, Taylor and Gamso (upcoming) explore what “the right to the creative city” might mean for those interested in addressing the systematic racism that has informed the framing of monuments and public space in this country. Kayim’s essay (upcoming) focuses on Minneapolis, the city in which George Floyd was murdered. She examines how this tragic event reverberates across the cultural and civic landscape of the city. 

For SAI, a focus on cities offered us a way to think about urgent questions in contemporary culture: what is belonging? How does place-making facilitate social life? What do we owe the unhoused? Located in Silicon Valley, we found the rising number of homeless people in the Bay Area an especially urgent issue, and we wanted to consider how we might embrace art in conversation with economically-motivated evictions and displacement. Gordon Douglas takes up some of the implications of this important topic and brings his own photographic practice to add visual detail to his commentary. As the United States as a nation became newly alert to the consequences of racism, historical legacy, monuments and the complex political role of art in nation-building, the Creative Cities working group looked beyond cities in the United States, to consider how cities in South Africa, India, Ghana and other parts of the world explore the vexed ways art can sometimes stymie and sometimes stimulate progressive political thinking. Articles in the Colloquy by Grant Parker, Sukanya Chakrabarti and Ato Quayson (upcoming) explore these topics.

Pandemic Cities

Cities bear the scars of the pandemic. Diffuse with vacant storefronts and empty squares, the pulse of city life was put on pause throughout the global crisis. Cities were not quite dead, but they were animated mainly by anxious essential workers and the unhoused. Without the sounds, smells and energy of pedestrians, vendors, traffic, tourists and most workers, San Francisco dusks were stained with the blurred memory of old photographic negatives, while mornings steeped in the blue bruise of grief. And now as I write this in the summer of 2021, amid the awkward dance of “re-opening” with and without masks and vaccines, I listen to podcasts about the new need for work-life balance, the end of office space, and the glory of remote learning. But I am skeptical about the degree to which much will change. As the pandemic continued to traverse the globe, the discourse produced by it ping-ponged from allusions to the Spanish Flu and to the future of m-RNA medical innovations. Epidemiological predictions were rough graphs of the reported past and the anticipated future. This double-temporality mirrors cities and photography. Cities make allegiances with the past even as they dream of life to come – driverless cars, new waterways, transformed transportation aided by flying taxis or motorized sneakers and robots to handle our waste. But the weight of death, the thirst for social justice, and the floods and fires anchor us to this vexed moment. The pandemic reminds us that we have so much more to learn, especially about our bodies, our environments, and our emotions. Art-knowing, as lens and method, has much to offer us as we begin the long work of recovery and renewal. As Zbigniew Herbert reminds us in his account of “The Besieged City,”:

...If the City falls and one survives
he shall carry the City within on the roads of exile
he shall be the City [12]

SAI’s Creative Cities Project produced a collective hybrid, a kind of dreaming that did not fully cohere into a singular “vision for the future.” That suits me as a scholar, a poet and an arts administer. Italo Calvino reminds us that the singular city is often invisible, a dream that locates us but perhaps never fully roots us. Calvino’s meditation on cities is re-imagined here by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Klaus and Michèle Audin. The lingering visibility and invisibility of the pandemic(s) will, no doubt, remap the complex relationships between human rights, cities and creative expressions. And as with all cartographies, we will (still) need to reimagine them in another dimension. Art-knowing offers us new ways to mark and measure what we have lost and what we might still gain from the upheaval. Grief, discovery, hope// lung, breath, saliva: these are the boulevards and alleyways braiding through creative cities to come. 

pphelan@stanford.edu


Notes

[1] For a concise summary of the Stanford Arts Initiative’s scope and success, see: https://arts.stanford.edu/about/. Accessed July 2021.

[2] I was the Associate Chair (1987-1992) and Chair (1995-99) of the Performance Studies Department at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU and helped consolidate the interdisciplinary graduate program, widely regarded as the leader of the field at the time. I was also one of the founders – and served in a variety of capacities, including conference planner, Treasurer, and President – of the Performance Studies institute (1997-2004). I was Chair of the Stanford Drama Department when it navigated the change to Theatre and Performance Studies (2007-2011). I was the Denning Family Chair and Director of the SAI from 2015-2019. In addition to leading Creative Cities, I also was the Principal Investigator for a Mellon Foundation Grant that helped the SAI establish an undergraduate minor in interdisciplinary arts. Thus, these two SAI undertakings were akin to the start-up spirit I have enjoyed in my leadership roles.

[3] The fellows joined the Stanford Humanities Center for its daily lunch and this allowed the Creative Cities fellows to meet and work with a wide array of postdocs and humanities’ scholars. My thanks to Professors Carolyn Winterer and Lanier Anderson for welcoming the Creative Cities fellows to the SHC.

[4] Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, 1993, and Phelan, Peggy. Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories, Routledge, 1997. 

[5] A few examples: Phelan, Peggy. “On Moving to a Hill.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, vol. 14, no. 1, 2004, pp. 15–24., doi:10.1080/07407700408571438; Eat Crow (performance), text by Peggy Phelan, performed by Lucia Sander and Peggy Phelan, The Fourth International Women’s Playwrights Festival, Galway, Ireland, July 1997; and Phelan, Peggy and Adrian Heathfield, “Blood Math.” Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, April 2001, pp. 242-258., doi: 10.1080/09502380110033537.

[6] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, et al. The Visible and the Invisible Followed by Working Notes. Northwestern University Press, 1968, p. 102-03.

[7] Phelan, Peggy. “Love's Geography.” Performance Research, vol. 5, no. 3, 2000, pp. 86–89., doi:10.1080/13528165.2000.10871751.

[8] Phelan, Peggy. "Freedom." Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, vol. 7 no. 2, 2020, p. 253-256. 

[9] Phelan, Peggy. “Dwelling.” Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh, edited by Adrian Heathfield, The MIT Press, 2008, p. 341-348.

[10] See Phelan, Peggy and Richard Meyer, editors. Contact Warhol: Photography Without End, The MIT Press, 2018.

[11] Lefebvre, Henri. “The Right to the City,” Writings on Cities, edited and translated by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, Blackwell Publishers, 1996. 

[12] Herbert, Zibigniew. “Report From a Besieged City,” The Collected Poems, 1956-1998, translated by Alissa Valles, Atlantic, 2008. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peggy Phelan's picture
Ann O'Day Maples Professor of the Arts and Professor of English

Peggy Phelan is the Ann O’Day Maples Chair in the Arts and Professor of Theater & Performance Studies and English at Stanford University. Publishing widely in both book and essay form, Phelan is the author of Unmarked: the politics of performance (Routledge, 1993); Mourning Sex: performing public memories (Routledge, 1997; honorable mention Callaway Prize for dramatic criticism 1997-1999); the survey essay for Art and Feminism, ed. by Helena Reckitt (Phaidon, 2001, winner of “The top 25 best books in art and architecture” award, Amazon.com, 2001); the survey essay for Pipilotti Rist (Phaidon, 2001); and the catalog essay for Intus: Helena Almeida (Lisbon, 2004).