Open Season: A Reflection on Open Engagement

July 6, 2013 · Print This Article

by Jen Delos Reyes

OE BaS Reflection

Photo by John Muse

Two countries. Five conferences. Seven years. 14 partnerships. Over 700 presenters. Over 1600 attendees. Since the first Open Engagement conference in 2007 this event has become a key meeting point for people interested in socially engaged art. Open Engagement: Art After Aesthetic Distance began as a hybrid project that used a conference on socially engaged art practices as its foundation and incorporated elements including workshops, exhibitions, residencies, pedagogy, curatorial practice and collaboration. I wanted to foster a different kind of conference—one that worked in the way I wanted to see it work: with a sense of togetherness, putting emerging and established voices side by side, highlighting different ways of knowing and learning, and serving as a site of production, as well as reflection. I wanted to contribute to the discourse on socially engaged art in a meaningful way. When Open Engagement began it was a student project. I was a graduate student. The conversations that I wanted to engage in were not happening at my school in Saskatchewan, so I decided to create the situation that would allow for me to have these discussions with people doing similar work. Open Engagement was the basis of my education, and 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 up—in 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. In the day to day of the event itself I get to attend very few sessions, usually only the opening and closing sessions, keynote events, and a hand full of other projects and for a limited amount of time. My time during Open Engagement is mostly spent assisting and making sure things are running smoothly. But in that way of moving through the conference I intersect with people all throughout the day that I ask what they have attended, and what their thoughts are on the experience at the conference so far. This idea of needing to talk to others to fully experience the conference is intentional. Because of the parallel programming no one person can take in all of the projects and sessions that form the event on their own. We need to work together, and see from multiple perspectives to get a full sense of the field.

In 2010 at Open Engagement Pablo Helguera said that he had always heard that a conference is meaningful in as much as it generated new questions to follow up. If you didn’t find new questions then maybe it was not successful. I had a similar feeling about conferences, and it had been one of the ways I was measuring outcomes. The conference begins with a series of calls and questions, and throughout the course of the event and the conversations there are undoubtedly more that are generated. At OE 2013 we were making a concerted effort to capture that questioning throughout the weekend, and on Sunday before Tom Finkelpearl’s keynote talk were reminded by Michelle Swineheart of one of Sister Corita’s “quantity assignments” of generating 100 questions when embarking on intensive work and research. With this in mind, as well as earlier feedback from the day at a session between the Creative Time summit and OE where I heard from many participants that they wanted to work together to generate something during the conference and that in general there was a desire for sessions that allowed for formats other than being talked at, I decided that the final event would be an opportunity for just that.

For the closing event of Open Engagement 2013 instead of having a panel discussion between only keynotes and curatorial representatives we instead set out to collect 100 questions generated by the group assembled to further get a sense of what is emerging, what people are thinking, and where this conversation is going. The Sister Corita assignment felt fitting for a group of presumably invested individuals, who wish to continue to be involved in research and practice, to take this on together. It was a hope that as we would move out into the world after the conference that we could then reflect on this list of the questions we are currently asking ourselves about socially engaged art. The format was that each of our six panelists joined one of six seated groups that each had about 40 chairs (based on past years we were planning for between 200-300 people at the final panel), and we then had about 35 minutes to work together and for each group to write 17 questions and then we reconvened and the panelists shared the group work. After the instructions were given, at least 20% of the assembled group left instead of joining the break out groups. As I stood at the front of the room watching people choose to stream out, I wondered if I had made a mistake. The people that remained formed groups and were led in discussions to generate questions. There was one group in particular that voiced resentment, yet not enough resentment for them to have just left. This all came out in sharing of the questions at the end of the session. After many weeks I heard from someone who was part of that dissenting group how difficult it was to contribute questions, to have a discussion, and to feel like they could share. Days after the conference I heard some thoughts from Michael Rakowitz (who was the person facilitating that group) on the conference and the final event in general and he said, “You created a space for people to get upset, and that opens up possibilities for things that haven’t been done yet.” While I had no doubt that we had created a place for people to get upset I wondered what else the space was a possibility for. I thought of other conferences and their goals, Suzanne Lacy’s City Sites: Artists and Urban Strategies (1989), and Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (1991), the Creative Time summits that began in 2009, and the more recent Homework conferences organized by Broken City Lab. Lacey was trying to create a space to develop language for socially engaged art that went beyond the limitations of forms like performance and conceptual art, and with the latter intended that the activities of Mapping the Terrain would come together as a publication. The most simple way to describe the Creative Time efforts is an attempt to become the TED talks for socially engaged contemporary art. The latest incarnation of the Homework conference takes a similar approach to Mapping the Terrain with a end goal of a collectively generated publication, and 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 party for the conference. I showed up after a late dinner and took a seat behind the DJ booth where Paul Ramirez Jonas was virtually spinning tunes for the party. I was approached by a woman I met earlier in the day who is a funder at an arts organization dedicated to supporting socially engaged art. I found myself captive behind the DJ booth during a moment of celebration hearing out her frustrations with the conference. The parts of her dialogue that rang out the loudest in my mind were, “I am not here to learn with you, I am not here to generate your content.” I nodded 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, and how at least for this person how much of a radical departure it was from what I thought people 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 and engaged simultaneously? Openness is honesty, generosity, a sense of possibility, freedom, free of boundaries and restrictions. To be engaged is a promise. It is a commitment, an obligation. It is also a sense of involvement and participation. To have an “open engagement” implies a commitment that is potentially limited or short lived. But what if the two terms once united could keep their respective definitions making openly engaged a term that would embody an obligation to honesty, sharing and possibility? 

It happened, we did create a place of possibility, a place for honesty and sharing, one where many boundaries and expectations were crossed and left behind. What should Open Engagement be? Who should it be for? How can we adequately capture what is generated? Over the last few days I have been thinking about the possibility of an online community archive for Open Engagement that would be a collective effort that would be open for all to share their documentation, writing, thinking, and stories related to the conference.

I had always seen Open Engagement as a site of learning. In an online video conference with Ren Morrison from the Atlantic Center for the Arts weeks following the conference he off handedly referred to Open Engagement as being his “education”. The conference has for the past four years been a site of convening for many of the MFA programs with a focus on publicly/socially engaged art. The fact that this conference is so embedded in the structure of an MFA program makes the very nature of it educational, as well as the fact that even the very beginning was in an educational framework. In my mind we were all working together, learning together, and teaching one another. How we organize this conference collaboratively echoes the spirit of our program and our approach to learning. An education in our program is emergent, unorthodox, and at times unruly. This translates into Open Engagement feeling slightly unkempt, and in flux. And while this might be a point of criticism for some, I would not trade this instability for rigid professionalism or a set structure. It is important that we remain open to this conference and this conversation shifting and developing in unexpected ways. It is also important that we remain open to the realization that this may no longer be a site that is necessary, or that it might need to take a completely new form and possibly a new grounding. I hope that whatever becomes of it, that Open Engagement can be a site to work together, learn together and see what we are contributing to the field of socially engaged art from multiple perspectives. I am open to whatever comes next.

Jen Delos Reyes- Assistant Professor, MFA Art and Social Practice Program Chair

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 artists’ 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.

10 Picks for the Gallery Season Opener

September 9, 2011 · Print This Article

The Search & They Both Ride Horses

Work by Jason Lazarus and Cody Hudson, respectivily.

Andrew Rafacz Gallery is located at 835 W. Washington Blvd. Reception is from 4-7pm.

Culte

Work by Rob Carter.

EBERSMOORE is located at 213 North Morgan, #3C. Reception is from 6-9pm.

Homework

Work by the collaborative Public School.

The Family Room is located at 1821 W. Hubbard St. Suite, 202. Reception is from 6-10pm.

Overkill

Curated by Jefferson Godard, with work by Candice Breitz, Manon de Boer, EJ Hill, Diego Leclery, and Casilda Sanchez.

The Mission is located at 1431 W. Chicago Ave. Reception is from 6-9pm.

Untitled

Work by Ed Valentine. Tom Van Eynde in the project space.

Linda Warren is located at 1052 W. Fulton Market. Reception is from 6-9pm.

Dazzling and Bright, Alexandra Walrus, and Outlaws and Patriots

Work by Lorraine Peltz, Doug Smithenry, and Bill Harrison, respectively.

Packer Schopf is located at 942 W. Lake St. Reception is from 6-9pm.

Lovesick

Work by Nathan Vernau.

Robert Bills Contemporary is located at 222 N. Desplaines St. Reception is from 6-9pm.

Mystical Outlaw Rebel Baaddaasss Drawings and Mutinous

Work by Jason Robert Bell and Bret Slater, respectively.

Thomas Robertello Gallery is located at 27 N. Morgan St. Reception is from 6-8pm.

Ineluctable

Work by Barbara Kasten.

Tony Wight Gallery is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception is from 6-8pm.

Stan Shellabarger & Maria Petschnig

Western Exhibitions is located at 119 N Peoria St. Reception is from 5-8pm.

Bad at Sports “covers” the 2008 Art season opening night

September 7, 2008 · Print This Article

The term “covers” is used very loosely and I have been reminded that the ratio of footage taken to usable footage is not 2:1 but more like 10:1. Mix in Johnnie Walker Blue, York’s Peppermint and enough people to ruin any shot over 4 seconds in length and you get this masterpiece. It’s only “literally” up from here.

I hope everyone had fun cause we certainly did and enjoyed seeing everyone.

News from NYC: Queens Museum Re-Opens on November 9

October 30, 2013 · Print This Article

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Queens Museum

This has been a pretty great fall in the borough of Queens.

From the NY Art Book Fair and Maker Faire earlier this season, to the ambitious Empire Drive-In that just closed 10 days ago, Queens – typically perceived as the dowdy counterpart to Brooklyn’s thriving culture of creative professionals – is loudly staking its claim as a cultural destination in NYC.

And now the icing on the cake: the Queens Museum will open its newly renovated and designed facility on November 9th. Doubling in size to 100,000 square feet, the building, which was originally conceived as the New York City pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair, has expanded to include the space of a former ice skating rink, with a soaring, light-filled, 48-foot ceiling atrium.

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Panorama of New York City

The inaugural season at the QM includes solo exhibitions by Bread and Puppet Theater Founder, Peter Schumann, Pedro Reyes and Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao, as well as the sixth installment of the Queens International. New installations of the permanent collection galleries impress – including, of course the panorama of New York City, easily one of the museum’s greatest assets.

Peter Schumann: The Shatterer is incredibly staggering, both in scale and aesthetic prowess – and in the museum’s visionary curatorial decision to highlight work that is often dismissed by the mainstream, as their blockbuster opener no less.

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Peter Schumann: The Shatterer

Other galleries featured works representative of the rainbow of cultures in Queens including an exhibition of Cuban artists from the collection of Don and Shelly Rubin (major benefactors of the museum), and a gallery dedicated to the work of artists from Taiwan.

The museum – which has also changed its identity from the Queens Museum of Art to simply the Queens Museum – follows a one-word mission statement: Openness. As an ideology, the museum has been pursuing this purpose aggressively during the tenure of Executive Director, Tom Finkelpearl. Now, it has the physical space to complement it.

The museum will also include a branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, planned to open in 2015. This smart partnership is indicative both of the radically shifting roles that museums and libraries are evolving toward, and the leading role the QM has taken in creating a hybrid, inclusive, social space that will soon become the model for cultural institutions. From their characteristically large focus on service-based public programming and community involvement, to their collaboration with Queens College (CUNY) and the community of Corona on Social Practice Queens (SPQ) — an MFA with a concentration in socially-engaged practices — the QM is setting a high bar a new museum standard.

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 The view from the atrium

Week in Review: Searsucker Season

May 26, 2013 · Print This Article

Jennifer Monson and Jeff Kolar, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Yi-Chun Wu)

Jennifer Monson and Jeff Kolar, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Yi-Chun Wu)

It’s been a bit of a slow week — what I attribute to the extra week in May, and the general shuffling of summer. I at least have been travelling quite a bit, and tend to recognize the same in my peers. People are getting ready to go to residencies, negotiating familial and/or friend visits, stealing long weekends for a holiday, or simply just slowing down at work. It is napping season. A season for tank tops, cut off shorts, and shoes-without-socks. Something of that energy is evident here as well. We have slowed down. There are ebbs and flows on this blog like anything else. To that end, I recount three posts — all in depth, and reflective in different areas: curatorial practices in hindsight via Germanos’ series of images from New Capital, a post that asks “Are immigrants better at putting deconstruction to work?” from Gene Tanta, and lastly a marvelous, in-depth essay from Meredith Kooi wherein she continues her study of the body and performance. Stay tuned next week, on the other side of this holiday, for more accounts of summer.

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Chicago ART IN PICTURES comes to you this week from Paul Germanos, who offered a reflective series about New Capital’s curatorial project:

Six months earlier, the proprietors of Chicago’s New Capital Projects, Ben Foch and Chelsea Culp, began a twenty-five day round-the-clock closing event for their gallery. Foch and Culp had, from the outset, planned a limited, two-year run of public exhibitions at their venue. And having reached the end of their finite schedule they threw open the doors to everyone interested in one last collaborative endeavor entitled “24HRS/25DAYS.” Whither came the funding for such a spectacle? In 2011, the Propeller Fund announced that Foch and Culp were recipients of a 6000 USD award.

Rather than being a survey of contemporary programming, this installment of Chicago Art in Pictures is a historical offering. If New Capital Projects’ success (and it was a success) seemed contingent upon its engagement with artists, its monetary subsidization, and its relatively brief public existence, then maybe too it was the case that only an informal, ethical consensus allowed for a momentary sort of Utopia within the city’s crumbling West Side.

This just in: Poetry is Dead, or so says our poet-in-residence, Gene Tanta. Writing from Bucharest, he asks about the distancing affect of second-languages:

To strategically essentialize based on my experience, I would agree that ESL poets see and hear English from the outside as a strange and awkward medium because learning to communicate with a new language demands more sensitive attention to its materiality than it does for native speakers. The shock of the idiomatic phrase delights the foreign tongue because the foreigner hears (as does John Ashbery) in the wisdom of slang and clichés the horded culture of a people, a zeitgeist or an essence of a place in time, a myth of origin. The foreign poet takes delight in these loaded everyday dictums and listens with his tongue.

Jennifer Monson, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Paula Court)

Jennifer Monson, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Paula Court)

Meredith Kooi writes about the “Live Dancing Archive”:

Jennifer Monson premiered her latest evening-length performance Live Dancing Archive at The Kitchen in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood for a two-week run February 14th – 23rd, 2013. The project Live Dancing Archive comprises three components, which consist of three different archival practices: dance, video, and digital archive. The “Program Notes” for the performance states that “Each of these captures how bodies hold, transmit, and convey experiences and understandings of ecological systems as they relate to human movement through the specificities of their medium.” [1] Monson’s work explores the ability of movement itself as an archival practice; she is interested in the particular capability movement has to archive, record, and store the ecological systems that we experience.