by Jen Delos Reyes
Two countries. Five conferences. Seven years. 14 partnerships. Over 700 presenters. Over 1600Â attendees. Since the ï¬rst Open Engagement conference in 2007 this event has become a keyÂ meeting point for people interested in socially engaged art. Open Engagement: Art After AestheticÂ Distance began as a hybrid project that used a conference on socially engaged art practices as itsÂ foundation and incorporated elements including workshops, exhibitions, residencies, pedagogy,Â curatorial practice and collaboration. I wanted to foster a different kind of conferenceâ€”one thatÂ worked in the way I wanted to see it work: with a sense of togetherness, putting emerging andÂ established voices side by side, highlighting different ways of knowing and learning, and serving asÂ a site of production, as well as reï¬‚ection. I wanted to contribute to the discourse on sociallyÂ engaged art in a meaningful way. When Open Engagement began it was a student project. I was aÂ graduate student. The conversations that I wanted to engage in were not happening at my schoolÂ in Saskatchewan, so I decided to create the situation that would allow for me to have theseÂ discussions with people doing similar work. Open Engagement was the basis of my education, andÂ now is a major foundation of my work as an educator.
This year as in most years my experience of Open Engagement happens mostly in the lead upâ€”inÂ conversations with students to determine the themes of exploration for the year, in the selection of keynote presenters, in the scheduling, planning, writing, partnerships, and all things organizing. InÂ the day to day of the event itself I get to attend very few sessions, usually only the opening andÂ closing sessions, keynote events, and a hand full of other projects and for a limited amount of time.Â My time during Open Engagement is mostly spent assisting and making sure things are runningÂ smoothly. But in that way of moving through the conference I intersect with people all throughoutÂ the day that I ask what they have attended, and what their thoughts are on the experience at theÂ conference so far. This idea of needing to talk to others to fully experience the conference isÂ intentional. Because of the parallel programming no one person can take in all of the projects andÂ sessions that form the event on their own. We need to work together, and see from multipleÂ perspectives to get a full sense of the ï¬eld.
In 2010 at Open Engagement Pablo Helguera said that he had always heard that a conference isÂ meaningful in as much as it generated new questions to follow up. If you didnâ€™t ï¬nd new questionsÂ then maybe it was not successful. I had a similar feeling about conferences, and it had been one ofÂ the ways I was measuring outcomes. The conference begins with a series of calls and questions,Â and throughout the course of the event and the conversations there are undoubtedly more that areÂ generated. At OE 2013 we were making a concerted effort to capture that questioning throughoutÂ the weekend, and on Sunday before Tom Finkelpearlâ€™s keynote talk were reminded by MichelleÂ Swineheart of one of Sister Corita’s “quantity assignments” of generating 100 questions whenÂ embarking on intensive work and research. With this in mind, as well as earlier feedback from theÂ day at a session between the Creative Time summit and OE where I heard from many participantsÂ that they wanted to work together to generate something during the conference and that in generalÂ there was a desire for sessions that allowed for formats other than being talked at, I decided thatÂ the ï¬nal event would be an opportunity for just that.
For the closing event of Open Engagement 2013 instead of having a panel discussion betweenÂ only keynotes and curatorial representatives we instead set out to collect 100 questions generatedÂ by the group assembled to further get a sense of what is emerging, what people are thinking, andÂ where this conversation is going. The Sister Corita assignment felt ï¬tting for a group of presumably invested individuals, who wish to continue to be involved in research and practice, to take this onÂ together. It was a hope that as we would move out into the world after the conference that weÂ could then reï¬‚ect on this list of the questions we are currently asking ourselves about sociallyÂ engaged art. The format was that each of our six panelists joined one of six seated groups thatÂ each had about 40 chairs (based on past years we were planning for between 200-300 people atÂ the ï¬nal panel), and we then had about 35 minutes to work together and for each group to write 17Â questions and then we reconvened and the panelists shared the group work. After the instructionsÂ were given, at least 20% of the assembled group left instead of joining the break out groups. As IÂ stood at the front of the room watching people choose to stream out, I wondered if I had made aÂ mistake. The people that remained formed groups and were led in discussions to generateÂ questions. There was one group in particular that voiced resentment, yet not enough resentmentÂ for them to have just left. This all came out in sharing of the questions at the end of the session.Â After many weeks I heard from someone who was part of that dissenting group how difï¬cult it wasÂ to contribute questions, to have a discussion, and to feel like they could share. Days after theÂ conference I heard some thoughts from Michael Rakowitz (who was the person facilitating thatÂ group) on the conference and the ï¬nal event in general and he said, â€œYou created a space forÂ people to get upset, and that opens up possibilities for things that havenâ€™t been done yet.â€ While IÂ had no doubt that we had created a place for people to get upset I wondered what else the spaceÂ was a possibility for. I thought of other conferences and their goals, Suzanne Lacyâ€™s City Sites:Â Artists and Urban Strategies (1989), and Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (1991), theÂ Creative Time summits that began in 2009, and the more recent Homework conferences organizedÂ by Broken City Lab. Lacey was trying to create a space to develop language for socially engagedÂ art that went beyond the limitations of forms like performance and conceptual art, and with theÂ latter intended that the activities of Mapping the Terrain would come together as a publication. TheÂ most simple way to describe the Creative Time efforts is an attempt to become the TED talks forÂ socially engaged contemporary art. The latest incarnation of the Homework conference takes aÂ similar approach to Mapping the Terrain with a end goal of a collectively generated publication, andÂ a similar format to Open Engagement with three keynote presenters and framing devices.
My last memory of Open Engagement took place at Boxxes, the club that hosted the wrap partyÂ for the conference. I showed up after a late dinner and took a seat behind the DJ booth where PaulÂ Ramirez Jonas was virtually spinning tunes for the party. I was approached by a woman I metÂ earlier in the day who is a funder at an arts organization dedicated to supporting socially engagedÂ art. I found myself captive behind the DJ booth during a moment of celebration hearing out herÂ frustrations with the conference. The parts of her dialogue that rang out the loudest in my mindÂ were, â€œI am not here to learn with you, I am not here to generate your content.â€ I noddedÂ throughout, and thanked her for so openly sharing her criticisms. I meant it. I still do.
This encounter made me think of who was present Open Engagement, and what they expected,Â and how at least for this person how much of a radical departure it was from what I thought peopleÂ were there for. I revisited some writing from 2007 that I had done after the conference:
What does it mean to be open? What does it mean to be engaged? What if one were to be both open andÂ engaged simultaneously? Openness is honesty, generosity, a sense of possibility, freedom, free of boundariesÂ and restrictions. To be engaged is a promise. It is a commitment, an obligation. It is also a sense ofÂ involvement and participation. To have an â€œopen engagementâ€ implies a commitment that is potentiallyÂ limited or short lived. But what if the two terms once united could keep their respective deï¬nitions makingÂ openly engaged a term that would embody an obligation to honesty, sharing and possibility?Â
It happened, we did create a place of possibility, a place for honesty and sharing, one where manyÂ boundaries and expectations were crossed and left behind. What should Open Engagement be?Â Who should it be for? How can we adequately capture what is generated? Over the last few days IÂ have been thinking about the possibility of an online community archive for Open Engagement thatÂ would be a collective effort that would be open for all to share their documentation, writing,Â thinking, and stories related to the conference.
I had always seen Open Engagement as a site of learning. In an online video conference with RenÂ Morrison from the Atlantic Center for the Arts weeks following the conference he off handedlyÂ referred to Open Engagement as being his â€œeducationâ€. The conference has for the past four yearsÂ been a site of convening for many of the MFA programs with a focus on publicly/socially engagedÂ art. The fact that this conference is so embedded in the structure of an MFA program makes theÂ very nature of it educational, as well as the fact that even the very beginning was in an educationalÂ framework. In my mind we were all working together, learning together, and teaching one another.Â How we organize this conference collaboratively echoes the spirit of our program and ourÂ approach to learning. An education in our program is emergent, unorthodox, and at times unruly.Â This translates into Open Engagement feeling slightly unkempt, and in ï¬‚ux. And while this might beÂ a point of criticism for some, I would not trade this instability for rigid professionalism or a setÂ structure. It is important that we remain open to this conference and this conversation shifting andÂ developing in unexpected ways. It is also important that we remain open to the realization that thisÂ may no longer be a site that is necessary, or that it might need to take a completely new form andÂ possibly a new grounding. I hope that whatever becomes of it, that Open Engagement can be aÂ site to work together, learn together and see what we are contributing to the ï¬eld of sociallyÂ engaged art from multiple perspectives. I am open to whatever comes next.
Jen Delos Reyes is an artist originally from Winnipeg, MB, Canada. Her research interests include the history of socially engaged art, group work, band dynamics, folk music, and artistsâ€™ social roles. She has exhibited works across North America and Europe, and has contributed writing to various catalogues and institutional publications. She has received numerous grants and awards including a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant. Jen is the founder and director of Open Engagement, a conference on socially engaged art practice and herself speaks widely on Art and Social Practice at conferences and institutions around the world. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Portland State University where she teaches in the Art and Social Practice MFA program.