On Sunday February 7, 2016, the date that will now forever be known as the day a politically aware and majestic Beyoncé won the Super Bowl, an article written by Daniel Grant ran in the Education/Life section of the New York Times titled “For These Pieces Hold the Paint: Social Practice Degrees Take Art to a Communal Level.” The Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University (PSU), where from 2008-2014 I taught and was for the majority of my time there the Co-director and Chair, was heavily featured in the article. Before joining the faculty at PSU, I also founded the largest annual international conference on socially engaged art, Open Engagement. My background as the director of this conference, my intimate knowledge of the program at PSU, and my position in the world as a woman of color led me to read the article (one of the first circulating these ideas to a broad and mainstream readership) and wonder who gets to speak for socially engaged art? Whose voices are privileged? And what types of projects get circulated?Social practice feels as though it could hold the potential to change the world. As Harrell Fletcher stated in the article, many artists working in this way could be described as politically progressive, some “fairly extreme in their anticapitalism.” I would say that much of the ethos behind this way of working as an artist is about re-evaluating and challenging systems of power. It is about the value of art in daily life and the belief that art is for everyone, not just the elite. Its commercial value can be slim as much of the time this kind of work might not look like art at all. This work promotes agency in artists, it is made alongside and with it’s intended audience and necessitates being in the context of the world.
Because social practice can be so seemingly outside of what we have traditionally framed as art it often has a problem with tone and form. Artists wishing to tackle the most pressing and serious issues of our time sometimes land on a dinner party, or a walk as a way of addressing these problems. While I believe that real change can emerge from seemingly small gestures, it is undeniable that there are clear tropes that have emerged in socially engaged art. One of the most troubling things for me in the New York Times piece was that while Grant talked about social practice’s historic connections to figures like community organizer and agitator Saul Alinsky—whose work was able to help lend power to the voices of so many who have been disenfranchised, that one of the main projects of graduates of the PSU MFA program that was featured was “Grocery Stories”, a project installed at a locally owned Portland boutique chain grocery store, giving voice to artisanal cheese makers. I know from first hand experience that the PSU MFA program has produced projects and artists that deal with immigrant rights, housing justice, shifting institutional power, LGBTQIA communities, and media access. As I read I wondered where was the radical work? Why were only white students highlighted? In addition to this omission of these student projects, there was a lack of diversity in the interviewed leaders in the field ranging from program directors, to chief curators—many of these voices representing the usual suspects for social practice.
Grant’s article ends with a sentence that is undoubtedly supposed to elicit a response and understanding in the reader about the new level of awareness that the students and artists working in this way have achieved, “They shuffle, reach, grasp the air, and ultimately open their eyes.” If this is a practice that is truly woke I would hope that it would not continue to perpetuate the models of the dominant art world that continue to exclude women and people of color. In 2013 The National Museum of Women in the Arts estimated that 5% of artwork currently on display in the United States was made by women, and the famous Guerrilla Girls poster outlining the breakdown of artists in the 1991, 1993, and 1995 Whitney Biennials show that the numbers of women of color included in the art world are significantly less. Jillian Steinhauer’s article for Hyperallergic titled, “The Depressing Stats of the 2014 Whitney Biennial” shows that sadly little has changed in almost two decades.
In April the 8th Open Engagement will feature Keynote speakers Angela Davis and Suzanne Lacy. This edition of the conference is the first in a trilogy that will explore the themes of POWER, JUSTICE, and SUSTAINABILITY, 2016 in Oakland at Oakland Museum of California, 2017 at University of Illinois at Chicago, and in 2018 back at the Queens Museum in NY. Open Engagement has worked alongside practitioners and institutions to make sure that the conference symbolically and literally is as capacious as the art by spanning geography, recognizing spaces both inside and outside the academy, and embracing all people who are engaged in transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination. These struggles are continual and each year we acknowledge that this work is never done—that is the nature of social change. As the Associate Director of the UIC School of Art & Art History currently developing socially engaged curriculum at a large public urban research university, I hope that within this freshly institutionalized area of art making that has its roots in activism, social justice, and community organizing, the promise and values that I see in social practice will hold space in the art world for all of us. Before my own time at Portland State University ended I was told by an older white male tenured colleague that I had, “become too visible, and was taking too much credit for the work I was doing.” If we can’t shift these paradigms of oppression and fight these inequities within our own field, what hope do we fare when we take on the world?
I first met Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen as they were carting a tank of helium into the desert. The Portland-based collaborative had been deployed to Camp CARPA by The Craft Advanced Research Projects Agency to distribute airborne leaflet propaganda on the unsuspecting town on Joshua Tree, CA. Their project, Instead of Pleading Up: Improvised Airdrops and the Seizure of the Vertical, employed gratuitous slingshots and cheerful party balloons as vehicles to distribute their collateral. Historically used to threaten, bribe, and confuse enemy lines, Anna + Ryanâ€™s dissemination drew from the festive, confetti-like tactics used by the military in order to subvert and counter the message. Instead of Pleading Up opened up vertical airspace for democratic participation both literally and conceptually. The project reflected on past (and present) histories and dominant ideologies while simultaneously building a counter-narrative that was produced by the structures of powerâ€”activating agency from withinâ€”opposed to creating a position from the ineffectual site of binary opposition.
Much of Anna + Ryanâ€™s artistic practice intervenes within the language of prevailing systems in order re-imagine them otherwise. Often leveraging the visual and conceptual language of play, their work is cheeky and unassuming, drawing you in with a collective laugh, and retaining your attention with its poignant bite. Targeting systems of labor and production, artistic value, and academia, their work unpacks the undeniable shittiness of the current moment with a holistic approach to art making and life building that resonates with Julia Bryan-Wilsonâ€™s notion of occupational realism, defined as the collapse of waged labor and art to give rise to art practices that raise â€œquestions about the potential strategic or operational value of precarity: its capacity to redefine social relations, aesthetic and affective production, and class structures.â€
Anna + Ryan function as a truly united collaborative. Their work, life, and art are bound together by their shared home/studio, adjunct teaching gig, and three-year-old son, Calder, and their public identity is often presented as a single artist under the combined name Ryanna. This all-encompassing integration means that Anna + Ryanâ€™s practice is inherently political. As participants within dominant systems, their activities both explicitly creative as well as mundane are constant interrogation of larger structures of knowledge and economy. Whether producing text or performance, playing pirate or pilot, Anna + Ryan, (often joined by Calder), explore the potential within ways of working, knowing, and living through active participation. Even within the very regimented space of the gallery, the collective is able to playfully package antagonism within the commercially viable object. Much like the stones wrapped in chevron friendship bracelets that they produce, Anna + Ryan skirt what could be viewed as gestures of impertinent rejection under the guise of revealing the potential within the familiar to shift one’s purview to imaginative alternatives.
I spoke with Anna + Ryan over coffee in a cavernous academic building about their most recent exhibition, A Series of Rectangles, on view at PDX Contemporary Art through November 30, 2013.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: How did you come to make and co-produce together?
Anna Gray: We met in 2005 and we started helping each other make projects, and at some point probably around 2008, we realized that we were involved to such a degree in each otherâ€™s projects that it didnâ€™t make any sense to continue differentiating who did what work. At that point, we decided to put all of our projects under our combined names. Now, weâ€™re truly overlapped in terms of our teaching, our art-making, and our personal life, so there are times where we have to ask: where does our work start and family life end? Sometimes itâ€™s a hard division, and other times, itâ€™s not, and we want it to be.
Ryan Wilson Paulsen: Our working practices changed dramatically when we had [our son] Calder. It ended our studiomate-ness. Now we delegate the physical in-studio tasks, which changed our process of because weâ€™re no longer as able to make decisions during the execution of a piece as easilyâ€”weâ€™re often not producing the material work together, but thatâ€™s more true to conceptual art, I guess.
SMP: What is productive about combining this space of artâ€”or world makingâ€”with home making?
AG: Homemaking is world-making. We devise most everything we do artistically through conversation and so doing that while all three of us are in the same spaceâ€”negotiating emptying the dishwasher, pretending weâ€™re pirates, and thinking about how to make some sort of visual work engaging labor and politicsâ€”is a particular method that can be really dynamic. I donâ€™t know that it is a productive way of working necessarily, but we feel like there is entirely too much emphasis on production these days anyway.
RWP: For me, the chaos is invigorating, but it can also lead to frustration very quickly.
SMP: Your most recent exhibition, A Series of Rectangles, features work produced during a residency at the Bemis. Going into the residency, did you have a particular project in mind? How did that location inform the work that was produced there?
RWP: We wanted to continue the Object Indexes, which involve taking a text, inventorying and collecting the material objects that are mentioned, and arranging them so we can make a photograph. We knew we were going to do that going in, but we also knew that we didnâ€™t want to go in knowing much else.
AG: I think it was important to us to be able to use the time to work on things that didnâ€™t have a place yet. There was an openness to the experience of not making things on demand, for a particular exhibition or deadline. There was a similar openness in our experience of the landscape of Omaha that Ryan especially fell in love with. The landscape is really different than Portland, which we feel is becoming more and more over-designed architecturally and a bit claustrophobic in terms of the high level of aesthetic consideration of everything. There was a feeling of space in Omaha; firstly because we didnâ€™t know the city, but also because there were a lot more abandoned houses and empty lots within the city, that felt full of possibility. I think thatâ€™s why we were attracted to making work with bricks and rubbleâ€”these things that are found in those places became markers of a certain destructive potential.
RWP: Omahaâ€™s sort of like Swiss cheese and Portland is like a block of cheese. Thereâ€™s no contested area hereâ€”everything is regimented and owned and marked. In Omaha, there are these neighborhoods and alleyways that were like no-mans-land. It felt more expansive. There was more potential for things to happen and for things to happen in secret.
SMP: I read this idea of potentiality in the series of cairns, Verb I â€“ Verb XVIII. Even their titles tie them to this sense of activation. Looking at the bricks though, I didnâ€™t intuit any real violence in the installationâ€”disgruntlement, maybeâ€”but Iâ€™m curious where the aggression comes in for you?
AG: The brick works, [Adjunct and Double Negative], as they are installed maybe seem more fixed, like they are saying rather than suggesting. But, weâ€™ve thought about the Adjunct bricks functioning in accordance with a number of different motions or uses. Weâ€™ve thought about them being useful as doorstopsâ€”something to remind you whose keeping the doors open at the university. But they could also be commemorative paving stones; we could organize a brick-buy to fund raise for adjunct wage increases and benefits. We could also build our own unaccredited institution with them, or throw them through the windows of the old institution because itâ€™s pretty fucked right now.
RWP: They could have suggested that more if they had been installed differently, but it was our decision to install them as they areâ€”partly for visual cleanlinessâ€”but it was nice to invoke both the building up and the falling down of the institution of education by making a sort of crumbling corner. The way that they â€˜re installed also makes their proportions a bit difficult to read, but it was important to us they represented the ratio of adjuncts to full-time faculty in the university system nationally, so 75% of the bricks there are inscribed ADJUNCT while the other 25% are blank.
AG: I think the aggression we feel about our positions as teachers is a complicated one because crossing through our relation with the bureaucratic education system and the aggression we feel there, is the care for students and enthusiasm for the ways that art could have a potential to make something different happen within the space of a classroom.
SMP: I didnâ€™t realize the cataloging series was something ongoing. When did that body of work start?
AG: It started from making various text-based indexes for the same text as a way to create many ways of looking at the same thing: like an index of all the metaphors, all the colors, all the numbers etc.
RWP: It was with the color index that we began overlaying actual color fields over the text to create a visual graphic rather than a secondary text, and from there we moved into the objects.
AG: Looking at the objects authors use was particularly interesting in terms of reading philosophy. Scavenging for philosophical object lessons became really interesting to us because of the difficulty of reading that kind of materialâ€”thereâ€™s a certain level of abstraction. I would feel myself really grasping for those material examples to try and understand, and sometimes they wouldnâ€™t be really actually be that palpableâ€”theyâ€™re imagined or metaphorical things, and thatâ€™s where the interest in doing the object indexes and also the drawings emerged.
SMP: How do the photos and drawings relate?
AG: We were noticing that the speculative object examples were more interesting and evocative. For example, a knot of two concepts or something is more interesting than a knot of rope. It seemed interesting to focus on trying to render those thingsâ€”literalizing them. Itâ€™s also kind of jokey. Peter Kropotkin wrote about the old institutions falling under the proletarian axe, and we got this image in our head of an axe branded proletarian on the handle. That experience told me something about the distance between our time and Kropotkinâ€™s time. What arises in the public imagination is wildly different. The old institution of capitalism branded the axe that will be its own destruction? I donâ€™t know, literalization always kind of makes a circle.
SMP: How did you come to the work of Simone Weil, whose pervasive reputation is as a complete crazy person?
AG: She was so frequently quoted by other writers we were reading and I was curious about her influence on other thinkers. Maybe she seems crazy cause she just hasnâ€™t been historicized and sanitized the way that so many other writers have. She did die really young, and everything she wrote seems very forceful and maybe extreme, but I like that her writing seems of a fierce human-ness. Itâ€™s idiosyncratic and contradictory too.
RWP: We love contradiction and paradox. Giorgio Agamben and other theorists who we really love tend to define things from their paradoxâ€”everything comes down to it. And thereâ€™s another piece in the middle [of the gallery] thatâ€™s a loose sculpture with branches and an open paper book. Within the piece is the sentence â€œThe line that runs through the middle of each of us is beginning to itch,â€ which is a note about the internalization of power and oppression: Thereâ€™s no exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed anymoreâ€”there are no clear divisions because theyâ€™re both contained within us. We are our own worker and our own managers, especially as artists.
AG: Simone Weil has that great line about contradiction that when a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then you know itâ€™s really a door.
SMP: Why take your process of translation as far as you do: text, to concept, to object, to image? What does the image making do for the work that is different from presenting an assemblage of the objects themselves?
AG: By photographing them weâ€™re putting the objects in relative scale to each other within the space of a picture plane, which is relative to the space of the page. Thereâ€™s a looseness to the acquisition process of the objects, sometimes they might be a bit inaccurate to the texts, but they are accurate to our reading, so putting them in an image keeps them within the symbolic or speculative realm versus being isolated and presented in their singularity and specificity as artifacts. Plus I think there is something interesting with the repetition of certain objects across different indexes of different texts. They reveal certain common metaphors, or objects that have a charge or convenience for particular authors: knots, stamps, screens, and bread for instance.
RWP: When we make an object, weâ€™re trying to emphasize the use value of the thingâ€”the ways it could be performedâ€”but when we make an image, weâ€™re encouraging its contemplative value over its use value.
SMP: Has this interest in cataloging and creating systems been something resonant throughout your practice?
AG: Definitely. Part of that is an interest in understanding how knowledge is organized and how those systems can tell you something about power and perception and tools during different times. I think weâ€™re interested more and more, along with everyone else, in how power obscures and encloses certain kinds of knowledge and information.
SMP: You also tend to serialize. What is your motivation to work in series?
AG: Maybe itâ€™s a defense mechanism. You can get away with more if you are presenting 100 of something than if you are presenting 3 of something. But it kind of goes back to this thing of play. If you allow yourself the number 100 and make as many variations as you can within that set, youâ€™ve given yourself a useful bounded arena where you can experiment and stretch or break the rules of the original form or concept. For us, the true play happens within a space that is somewhat systematized, or organized by a given form but then we get to warp the system, interrupt it or evolve it through use.
RWP: In some ways, our tendency to serialize is lamely idiosyncratic and not worth talking about. Weâ€™re fidget-ers and totally anxious and creating multiples is a way to give us something to do outside of the conceptual work.
AG: Yeah, maybeâ€¦Everywhere Ryan went for the last three months he was knotting cotton for the friendship bracelets.
RWP: Well, if I wasnâ€™t doing that Iâ€™d be chain smoking.
SMP: I think there are many makers out there who can relate there, and it is interesting this idea of balancing out the rigor of your conceptual work with the ritualized monotony of creating craft-based objects. Has craft and this particular way of making been something consistently present in your work?
AG: Itâ€™s always been there, but at the same time, half of us is always talking about how we wouldnâ€™t make the work if we didnâ€™t have toâ€”if we could get someone else to do it. But itâ€™s really important to me, because doing the teaching and the conceptual/pragmatic side of the work we do at the same time is really exhausting. Itâ€™s really nice to have a craft-based alteration from that kind of thinking and planningâ€”craft-based in that youâ€™re following a set of steps to produce an expected product, which gives you an opportunity to think and make and move at the same time.
RWP: Things made by hand are cool right now because we largely donâ€™t have them. Â People can connect with something made by hand precisely because they notice its absence in their day-to-day life.
SMP: Weâ€™re still in this place culturally though being so distanced from systems of production that the unassuming gallery go-er wouldnâ€™t necessarily equate the traditional chevron and rainbow-patterned friendship bracelet with something handmade.
RWP: But in that case, it doesnâ€™t really matter because so many of us have the associations of what friendship bracelets signify from grade school and summer campâ€”we all understand that itâ€™s something we make, and not something we keep but give away. The idea to make them for this project came out of another text, Beyond Predicates, which talks about the revolutionary cells of today. We no longer have the party, the union, or the guerrilla army, we have the clique and the gang, which are based on friendship and have the potential to produce mass change. We started thinking about thatâ€”this very insurrectional textâ€”and about weaponizing friendship in that way. Or friendship-izing weapons. A friendship is a certain formulation where like-mindedness is not a precondition for friendships. My friendships are my most diverse body of relationships.
SMP: I know that your work tends to be heavily text-based and cheeky, but the bricks and the towel piece, We Already Quit, donâ€™t have a lot of subtlety to them.
AG: Maybe they are less subtle in relation to each other. We Already Quit has multiple meanings, but the piece gets a lot more specified in the context itâ€™s in right now, and with our two names on the wall opposite. Weâ€™re saying we already quit for a lot of reasons. One idea we had about that statement was about the inability to stop participating. You canâ€™t really quit working, there are really no ways of opting out, and fewer ways of choosing alternatives within the expansive network of global capitalism because we are all so dependent on the system that is exploiting us. So you can have quit already, but youâ€™ll still be here participating and maybe even looking professional while you do it.
And the systems and ethics around work, especially in this country, are really detrimental and limiting. We titled that banner Working Towards Non-Work, as we are trying to find a vocabulary for working and artistic activity that isnâ€™t about productive ends, but about positively reproductive ones. Thereâ€™s a lot expected of artists at this point in terms of levels of productivity in academia, in shaping the quirk and brand of a city, in participating nationally or internationally as a creative contributor, and in maintaining an exhibition and/or studio practice. How are other artists managing this workload, which by its very design seems to prevent the best work from being made?
RWP: Alternatively, that statement could be about the tendency to treat struggle as something one tries for awhile along with youthful idealism but then gives up for a form of rationality later in life. Like: â€œyeah…we used to use cloth diapers, but it was just too much so we quit and disposables are so much easier.â€ Power makes certain things easier for a reason.
SMP: Iâ€™m wondering if you can unpack your project statement for this exhibition: nothing can be what it is anymore.
RWP: First of all, that came together very quickly. It was one of those cases where we were approached about the show and they needed the title and statement in a couple days. It can be as simple as it sounds: Everything has implications that transform it, and nothing can be what it once was or what it seems.
AG: We also thought about it in terms of societal norms. We make norms and we operate with norms as a form of language and judgment and coping and ease. But itâ€™s important to be constantly suspending those norms in order to question them, reassert them in a more egalitarian or positive way, or to do away with them all together. I think it really has been since Calder was born that we both paused and were like: do we really want to accept these forms of normal? It suddenly was urgent to re-articulate what we hoped and envisioned for the world our kid and kidâ€™s kids might inhabit, and the first step is in understanding how to analyze the world we are currently living in.
Thatâ€™s somewhat selfish and personal, but our lives are not just our lives anymore, and having Calder has made more sensible the extension of my life by years, because Iâ€™m now bodily connected to subsequent generations and it is up to me to pass on a particular representation of the possibilities and actualities of the world.
SMP: There are moments in cultural history where the trueness of reality can be stripped away and platforms like imagination and fiction become all the more poignant as venues to open up potential for what can be otherwise. For me, nothing can be what it is anymore, invokes the idea of a clean slate, and Iâ€™m wondering if you can speak to how you leverage imagination and fiction within an art making practice that is simultaneously very critical?
RWP: We talk about imagination in contrast to creativity a lotâ€”creativity being tied to production and imagination not necessarily so. This is something thatâ€™s important to us and weâ€™re still trying to think about. When imaginative work is not tied to any type of production thereâ€™s a way that weâ€™re able to let ourselves improvise thatâ€™s not predicated on some type of rational logic. Â In the absence of this rational logicâ€“which we see as a justification system developed alongside an exploitative economic structureâ€”there is the chance that we might make astounding intellectual leaps.
AG: The other thing about making the distinction between those two terms is that creativity is a word thatâ€™s been highly corrupted and used interchangeably with words like innovation, or alongside words like entrepreneurship, which are very much in the service of profit. And this is where ideas like anti-work and the suspension of productive ends becomes really important. And to be perfectly frank, I donâ€™t feel like Iâ€™m very good at the work of imagining. Ryan has a better imagination than I do in so many ways, and I think that thereâ€™s an interest in making work around those notions because I feel particularly deficient. I watch our son too and wonder: how does he do it?
SMP: Does humor come into most of what you do and how are you using it?
RWP: As a coping mechanism.
AG: Desperation…or as a way to make things easier for a viewer, or sometimes not intentionally. Most of the drawings are literalist jokes, but they werenâ€™t all intended as suchâ€”itâ€™s just an inclination that we have. But thereâ€™s also maybe humor or at least frivolity in, for example, our use of bright party balloons to drop militarized leaflets versus using a weather balloon or something more scientific, because thereâ€™s something catching at a first glance.
RWP: The balloons say: this artwork wants to have fun with me, so Iâ€™ll take a second look at it. Also, the Adjunct bricks are intended to be funny, and when you make a joke with an artwork and the viewer gets it, thereâ€™s a base of camaraderie because youâ€™ve shared somethingâ€”this inside joke.
SMP: What are your thoughts on social practice, specifically, how itâ€™s been canonized and how your work is often categorized as such?
AG: I have a slight revulsion to the term because it seemed to originate as if it didnâ€™t have a history or precedence, and because it seems like a weird redundancy or something.
RWP: Iâ€™m not interested in participating in the fixing of subjectsâ€¦But I think Claire Bishop sort of had it right when she said that if youâ€™re going to engage in this type of practice youâ€™re going to be looked at aesthetically as well as socially, so you have to deal with that.
AG: Basically, what sheâ€™s calling for is an evaluation of art that is based on ethics as well as aesthetics and that combination seems so important in terms of any kind of critique youâ€™re going to bring to an artwork. I also appreciate how she is often evaluating why certain works are happening in our particular historical moment, rather than trying to assess whether they are good or bad. But, going back to the term social practice I think it can be a useful classification to identify certain inclinations or tendencies or methodologies that have taken hold. We see how in our present moment those tendencies point to specific lacks in the world at largeâ€”social lacksâ€”and thereâ€™s been lots of words to describe them from alienation and isolation, to disenchantment, disenfranchisement, or the loss of the commons. The point is that people largely feel that they canâ€™t represent themselves politically or socially or even if they can, theyâ€™re misrecognized or ignored. It makes sense that social practice projects emphasize building relationships, sharing economies, and alternative structures in a world where those things are being more over-determined and enclosed upon everyday.
RWP: The problem is in isolating social practice as a specifically contemporary movement because that hides the ways that art activity has always been social, and maybe it also hides certain histories of resistance that connect a lot of the socially engaged artworks of today to a rich past of struggle in and out of the discipline of art proper.
AG: We wouldnâ€™t describe ourselves as social practice artists, but then again we sometimes donâ€™t even like calling ourselves artists, but rather people who make artâ€”finding a definition through process and activity rather than by an externally affixed label or level of professionalism.
Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen are a collaborative artist team whose current interests center around reading and writing holes into the political and institutional predicaments that make life worse. Their pieces and projects have been seen at PDX Contemporary Art, CampCARPA, The San Diego Art Museum, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Publication Studio, PICA’s Time Based Arts Festival, and in the pages of NOON Literary Annual. They live in Portland, Oregon where they teach at Portland State University and try to spend most of their time pretending with their 3-year-old son Calder.
Itâ€™s that time again. Each fall, Portland wakes up from its bucolic, sun-soaked summer reprieve just in time for Portland Institute for Contemporary Artâ€™s (PICA) annual Time Based Art festival, or T:BA. The only thing that can compel Oregonians to put away their tents, hiking boots, and kayaks each September is the promise of a healthy dose of culture served by PICAâ€™s Artistic Director, Angela Mattox, along with visual and performing arts curators, Kristan Kennedy and Erin Boberg Doughton.
Now in its 11th year, T:BA:13 has become a mainstay of the regional arts calendar, bringing a litany of international artists to Portland to present performances and exhibitions, as well as a robust program of workshops, talks, and late-night happenings. The festival is purported to seek out interdisciplinary art practices, supporting artists who challenge the notion of performance by transcending dan ce, music, theater, visual art, and new media to interrogate how the genre can engage contemporary audiences. For Portlanders however, T:BA brings a much needed glimpse of the outside world in. Marooned in the Pacific Northwest, the city tends to be a world unto itself, where imagination abounds but criticality is often in short supply. Presenting projects from Morocco, Algeria, Sweden, Argentina, Chile and beyond, T:BA transforms Portland into a thriving mecca for international cultureâ€¦ At least one week per year.
Presented in this post and in a follow-up next week is my T:BA rundown of select performances and installations in this yearâ€™s compelling, (pleasantly overwhelming), lineup. One of the annual highlights of the festival is late-night programming at The Works. Organized in the spirit of the contemporary experience-driven cultural economy, The Works presents spectacular events of mass-appeal including an opening night performance by Julie Ruin and a Drag Ball moderated by Portlandâ€™s own Kaj-Anne Pepper and Chanticleer Tru. Oh yes, and thereâ€™s definitely a barâ€”a few in fact, along with a nightly selection of snacks prepared by some of Portlandâ€™s most celebrated culinary superstars.
The Julie Ruin, (Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli, and Sara Landeau) at The Works, 9/12/13
The Julie Ruin opened T:BA:13 with a much-anticipated performance that left me nostalgic for my late-90s collegiate self in the best way possible. High-energy dancing, getting fired-up on feminism, and poising oneâ€™s self with some weeknight boozing were mandatory. Former Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna is ever spectacularâ€”even the hipper-than-though art crowd couldnâ€™t help but shake-it. And Cathy Whimâ€™s Hawaiian hot dog was the delictable cherry on top of the already kickass sundae. Wins all around.
Trajal Harrell, Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M), 9/13/13
The question Trajal Harrell posed when creating this piece was: What would have happened in 1963 if one of the postmoderns went uptown to Harlem? The answer: a drawn-out, hypnotic chant of, “don’t stop the dance,” that progressed from a static aural performance to utter ecstatic dance chaos.
I’ll admit: the first half of the performance was uncomfortable to say the least. At one point, I was scanning the room for fire exits and contemplating the point that discomfort transitions to become legitimate torture. The second half however, was joyfully absurd. Sampling sound and gesture across decades — from 1960s glamour to 1990s hip hop, the piece became about the evolution of culture and its re-contextualization with every emerging age.
Meow Meow & Thomas M. Lauderdale (of Pink Martini), co-presented with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, 9/14/13
Meow Meow is simply fantastic, “exquisite sack of a body,” and all. During the performance, she swilled wine, went through numerous on-stage costume changes, ordered around young men with the utmost commanding shrillness. As part of the grand finale, theÂ incomparable diva crowd surfed across a sea of aging Oregon Symphony Orchestra season ticket holders.
Critical Mascara: A Post-Realness Drag Ball hosted by Kaj-Anne Pepper & Chanticleer Tru at The Works, 9/14/13
The only spectacle that could adequitely follow Meow Meow and Pink Martini is, of course, a drag ball.
Lola Arias, El Ano en que naci (The Year I was Born), 9/15/13
The Year I was Born was a poignant reflection on Pinochet-era in Chile that had me weeping in my theater seat like a complete wuss. The narrative was unpacked through memories and ephemera shared by 11 Chileans born between the mid-1970s to late-1980s during the Pinochet regime. Each cast member reflected on his/her parents, individuals representing every aspect of the social and political spectrum, many of whom fought each other during that contentious and bloody time. With youthful zeal, the Chileans mapped epic journeys across continents, read letters, told stories of love and regret, and put on the garments worn by loved ones. The performance was a heartbreaking reminder — punctuated by folksy musical interludes and poppy American Bandstand-esqe dance moves — of the many micro-narratives and everyday happenings that, cumulatively, add up to revolution.
Linda Austin & David Eckard with music composed by Doug Theriault, Three Trick Pony, 9/16/13
Linda Austin‘s choreography combined with David Eckard‘s sculptures make for disconcerting and vaguely perverse antics to ensue. After viewing Lola Arias’s performance the night before, Austin’s dance transported me right back to Portland: where stunningly-crafted objects set the stage for imagination, absurdity… And something curiously close to twerking.
Getting to Know You(Tube) presented by Crystal Baxley & Stefan Ransom at The Works, 9/16/13
Much to my disappointment, I missed this event, so I asked my friend and colleague Emily Henderson to reflect:
Crystal Baxley and Stefan Ransom’s projectÂ Getting to Know YouTube (GTKYT) invites people to make 15-minute presentations utilizing YouTube in any way with a Q&A after each presentation. The result ends up offering a unique perspective and commentary on YouTube videos if not the culture it generates. The program kicked off with Andrew Ritchey presenting a selection of various people doing covers of Taio Cruz’s Dynamite. It offered a funny and interesting glimpse into wanna be star culture and also people who just wanna share their obscure musical abilities. Dalas Verdugo introduced some rare gems in what I would call some of YouTube’s greatest hits in the lower views range. Jen Delos Reyes’ selection was the heartbeat of the evening sharing videos dealing with Buddhism, education and compassion, Sister Corita making an appearance in the lineup. Jamie Edwards closed out the program with a hilarious monologue of YouTuber comments read alongside alien videos. The comments alone were priceless in the battle between different commentators regarding the validity of alien videos. The evening ended with a small dance party mixed by GTKYT’s Baxley and Ransom alongside audience selected videos.
Laura Arrington & Jesse Hewit, ADULT, 9/17/13
After 45-minutes of wild dancing and beautifully sultry tabletop humping, Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit served the audience cereal and Jack Daniels and proceeded to get freaky with duct tape, face paint, and glow sticks. This performance, billed as â€œacting out collective fantasies on death and dying,â€ did not exude the anxiety that the subject of morbidity and mortality generally inspires; rather, the choreographed frolicking expressed a rampant release of id, complete with allusions to masturbation and other physical discharges. Invoking gestures and sentiment of children through the bodies and desires of their fully-grown selves, the performers articulated a truth that has become increasingly clear as years pass: thereâ€™s no such thing as an adult.
As promised, more to come on T:BA:13 next week! To view the full line-up of T:BA:13 events, go to the T:BA calendar.
Thanks to Emily Henderson, Gia Goodrich and the PICA Press Corps, and Patrick Leonard.
July 31, 2013 · Print This Article
When I was in college, one of my classmates petitioned to declare an independent major in Menâ€™s Studies. True story: he went so far as to stand up in front of a faculty review panel, plead his case, (something as base as: â€œif I can major in Womenâ€™s Studies, I should be able to pursue Menâ€™s Studiesâ€), and was promptly laughed out of the classroom. One might assume that given the context, (Vassar, c.2001), it was some sort of performance piece or screwball stunt; but I can claim with near certainty that this request to study the work of Men was delivered with the naive seriousness that only a 19-year old can muster.
I have to admit that Iâ€™ve always been grateful for my classmateâ€™s momentary mental lapse, because it was out of this campus drama that I recognized my academic career as a veritable homage to Menâ€™s Studies. Since that time, days rarely pass that do not serve-up some small reminder of the maleness of the universe, from a feature on Janet Yellen or Denise Scott Brown, to an all staff meeting where the divide between upper-level administration and lower-level cultural worker is clearly demarcated by gender.
Recently, I was thrilled to learn about rufÂ·fle, an exhibition organized by Portlandâ€™s League of Awesome Women Designers, (LAWD), that opened earlier this month at the University of Oregonâ€™s White Box Visual Laboratory. Even in a town like Portland, where inclusive design firms seem to outnumber coffee shops, women are underrepresented in the fieldâ€”statistically in number and in rank, but perhaps more importantly, women are less visible as a driving force behind the innovation that Portland is celebrated for. In her essay â€œMen Explain Things to Me,â€ cultural critic/historian Rebecca Solnit employs the phrase archipelago of arrogance to describe an inflated self-confidenceâ€”a distinctly masculine phenomenaâ€”that is so aggressively assured, it keeps women bound in self-doubt, inhibiting them from speaking up and, in turn, from being heard. In an essay written for GOOD, Alissa Walker seemingly responds to Solnit by encouraging women in design to use social media as a way to assert oneâ€™s voice in the field. She writes, â€œin this age, women can’t wait for someone else to organize the event or to curate the museum showâ€¦ Creating a rich narrative, illustrated with videos, photos, blog posts, essays, is something I don’t see nearly enough from women in the field. Their numbers may be small, but it’s the responsibility of that 10% to tell at least 50% of the story.â€
Founded by industrial designer Kari Merkl, LAWD was established as vehicle to promote visibility by cultivating connections between women in design, providing a space for discussion and critique, and supporting a network for professional and creative opportunities. Merkl has since moved to Chicago and LAWD has been temporarily relinquished to Sara Huston, a consummate maker and interdisciplinary creative, who conceived and organized rufÂ·fle in collaboration with the eleven LAWD members featured in the exhibition. The word ruffle forms the pith of the project and, explored as both noun and verb, becomes the meeting place where twelve very disparate design practices meet. Defined as disorder, disruption, and perturbation, but also as ornament and frill, the term provides ample fodder for design work that is not outwardly gendered, (no “shrink it and pink it” tactics employed here), but undeniably, is laced with a feminine sensibility that illustrates how women are actively engaging and innovating the field of design today.
I spoke with Sara Huston in her studio that she shares with her partner John Paananen. Together, Huston and Paananen make up the collaborative interdisciplinary design studio, the last attempt at greatness.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What is it about Portland that draws designers?
Sara Huston: Portland is a great incubator, but unfortunately, itâ€™s not the best business atmosphere if youâ€™re looking to sell work. Â At least thatâ€™s what weâ€™ve found. Â A majority of the things we make are sold outside of Portland. Â We have a creative and supportive community here, although maybe a little less critical than weâ€™d like. Coming from the Midwest/East Coast and the rigor of Cranbrook, weâ€™ve found that there is a lack of critical feedback, and competition in the city.Â So far, we have been able to sustain our practice here, but itâ€™s been difficult.Â I try to seek out specific people in Portland to help fulfill the need for critical feedback and conversation, people that push me to create better work.
SMP: Was it from this desire to cultivate a critical community of sorts that produced League of Awesome Women Designers, (LAWD)?
SH: Kari Merkl, a designer who lived and worked in Portland for almost a decade and recently relocated to Chicago, started LAWD. Â She started the group in an effort to be less isolated as a one-woman design studio, meet more women in the design community and foster a network of like-minded designers. Â She has subsequently continued this idea in Chicago as well. Â Right now, the Portland group is at a tipping point, leaders are stepping down and the group is shifting, into what?Â I am not sure.Â This shift and theÂ rufÂ·fle exhibition sparked a branding exercise to explore the identity of the group and to discuss what we are really about and how we want to operate going forward.Â We soon realized that there is no one unifying voice or identity other than the fact that weâ€™re all women located along the art-design spectrum participating in monthly meetings that are run casually by whom ever wants to take the lead.Â The women in the group come from a diverse set of backgrounds and professions, and I feel that is a huge strength of the group. Â I have found that every woman participates in LAWD for different reasons, some are interested in connecting to find job opportunities, for networking, and others, including myself, are interested in critical feedback and discourse.
SMP: What do you mean by critical discourse?
SH: In-depth discussions about how and why we create things that involve going deeper than the surface.Â Some topics I enjoy are process, technique, material culture, design/art philosophy and theory, identity, emerging technology, the integration/rejection of technology, social justice, and the battle of sustaining an independent practice in the US. Â The group in the past has taken on conversations about what it means to be a designer/artist professional today in the midst of disciplines merging, and more of an emphasis being put on having a socially or environmentally focused practiceâ€¦ When I stop to think about it, gender issues rarely come up, if ever. Â In smaller settings outside the meetings it seems like women are more open to discuss these deeper topics and gender topics like the representation of women in the field, pay structures, and other traditional â€œgender politics.â€Â It might be that the larger group setting and the casual nature of LAWD discourages conversation from going deeper more often.
A lot of us work and collaborate with men, and with disciplinary and professional boundaries dissolving, many LAWD members feel that defining oneself as a woman designer needs to give way to just designer; adding the word â€œwomanâ€ amplifies the differentiating factor if itâ€™s continuously referenced. Â But, at the same time, we still feel underrepresented in the field at large. There is a group called ForWARD in the city that was formed by a few women architects that meet monthly as well â€”theyâ€™re less casual than LAWDâ€”but clearly, thereâ€™s a need for these formations and discussions.
SMP: You, and Iâ€™m guessing many of the women in LAWD, are not your traditional designers. What was your entry into the field?
SH: After receiving my BFA in sculpture, Â I applied to graduate school in a variety of different disciplines.Â I applied at the University of Cincinnati for architecture, Yale for sculpture, RISD for furniture, and Cranbrook for 3D design. Â I was admitted to all but RISD. The minute I walked onto campus at Cranbrook it was obvious, I belonged there and the reminder of the dayâ€™s visit only confirmed that initial feeling.Â Cranbrook is known for its rigorous studies, interdisciplinary environment and the pushing and blurring of boundaries.Â A majority of the work I experimented with at Cranbrook was meant to challenge the language and intersection of art and design through mediums and visual languages that fascinated me.Â I was interested in challenging what one thinks they know, what they expect, and where they think disciplinary boundaries lie.Â I wanted to provoke people to think about objects in a new way.
At one point while studying at Cranbrook our artist in resident, Scott Klinker, pegged me as an artist with a furniture/storage fetish.Â At that point, it was a perfect way to explain who I was and why I was using the language of furniture in a visually expressive way.Â There really was no logic of it other than a fascination, a fetish.Â My love for boxes, jars, tins, etc., probably has a bit to do with being obsessed with organization and an interest in the placement of objects in a space.Â Organization allows my overly busy mind to find peace.Â A lot of my work in grad school was also inspired and driven by these obsessions and fascinations with certain objects. Â I feel like I explored these areas more as an artist than a designer, but it crosses over so much and it is hard to say that I do not also look at objects from the standpoint of a designer.
SH: Iâ€™ve just always been inexplicably drawn to objects, whether decorative or functional, and I think this is what drew me into design when I was studying art. Â I became interested in the perception of the object, the usage, and the misusage of the object, which is also a focus in design.Â I was never taught to separate the two disciplines or felt a need to separate them. They share so much and I was interested in, and still am interested in existing in that shared space, the space between. As the distinctions of a discipline blurs new potential and meaning emerge.Â It is who I am and how I identify myself, and always will be â€¦. even if it is hard to answer the question, â€œwhat do you do?â€
SMP: But youâ€™re definitely working at a certain scale relative to the human body that speaks more to furniture than the handheld crafted object.
SH: So far anyway. Â I expect there to be a movement towards smaller containers and larger livable structures in the future, itâ€™s been on my mind a lot. Â I donâ€™t limit myself because I donâ€™t think I can work in a smaller/larger scale, my work just has yet to go thereâ€¦ When I initially relocated to Portland, my work shifted from sculptural pieces and into collaborating with John [Paananen] and working on projects together that were more design orientedâ€”the sofa, rockers, and lamps.Â It was a natural progression considering we met at Cranbrook, we were interested in the same design/art conversations and were now in a relationship and living together. Over the past year, we realized that we donâ€™t work well when we start projects together, but instead we worked best when independently pursuing work and then collaborating once a project is started. Â This realization birthed a whole new series of work in our studio, [the last attempt at greatness]; for example, John is working on a series of 12 structures that are meant to be quick physically built sketches which will culminate and inspire the creation of a larger project.Â Â Iâ€™m currently working on an audio piece that will be included in the White Box exhibition, rufâ€¢fle. Itâ€™s about disciplinary boundaries thresholds and categorization. Â I am ruffling my own sensibilities in terms of process and medium with this piece and John has been a great sounding board and source of critical discourse for the project, pushing me to do even better work.
SH: The audio piece is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Itâ€™s a door that Iâ€™m opening for myself and thereâ€™s been a lot of hesitation. Â I donâ€™t practice as an audio artist specifically, but I see myself as an artist who can use any media to express what Iâ€™m trying to do, much in the way that designers are not limited by a singular material, but use what ever is needed to accomplish the job. Ultimately, what this piece has done is create a bridge into the new media/digital realm that Iâ€™ve been dreaming about.Â Â I am used to working as a visual artist and once the visual component is taken away, my senses are heightened, and new ways of working develop. Â New ways of forming audio and experiencing audio start to develop and I have found myself creating a new relationship to a medium that I had not paid much attention to in the past.Â It has been very liberating and inspiring to work with audio. Â Itâ€™s been a huge challenge, and thatâ€™s what I was hoping the show rufâ€¢fle would do.
SMP: What is the content of the audio?
SH: The audio states in my own voice: â€œI am a designer. I am not a designer. I am an artist. I am not an artist,â€ and the phrases are overlapped so you can distinguish individual words, but thereâ€™s a lack of clarity and definition of what I am saying I am or am not. The need for classification and definition is called for in academia and when trying to find a place for myself professionally. Â I run across this when in social situations or meeting someone new when I am asked, â€œwhat do you do?â€ When you exist in the in-between space, this liminal state, what you do can be difficult to communicate. Â Thereâ€™s Art and Design and I am always in the middle. Â
SMP: How do you relate to craft?
SH: To me, and in my work art and design rest on top of craft.Â I was taught in school to always focus on making something with an attention to detail and with the rigor of a crafts person no matter what medium I was working with, and how much experience I had with it.Â Â This was referred to, by my instructors, as â€˜considering the crafting of the objectâ€™, and their standards were very high.Â Â I use the same principles to this day in all my work and when creating the audio and floor object for the rufâ€¢fle show.
SMP: Iâ€™m guessing youâ€™re still pushed into one camp or the other, despite all best efforts.
SH: Iâ€™m often referred to as a furniture designer, at least 50% of the time. Â Part of my thinking going into the rufâ€¢fle show was in reaction to that.Â I was looking to provoke those who view me as a furniture designer, among other things.Â I see myself as a provocateur of thought and visual language. Â The motivation for the work is to disrupt people who come into the gallery looking for clarity, definition, comprehension or an established meaning behind the work they are viewing or assumed discipline of the person who made the work.Â I am not interested in providing clarity, definition or something the viewer can comprehend, but instead I am interested in creating a situation that challenges their expectations, induces reflection and opens them up to new ways of thinking. Â If they walk out frustrated, or confused then Iâ€™ve accomplished what I set out to do. Those moments can evolve into acceptance and a higher level of realizationâ€”they donâ€™t alwaysâ€”itâ€™s a tipping point. Â I see my work as being the pusher.
SMP: Is this your way forging a new language, or at least initiating conversation, and does this conceptually feed into the way youâ€™ve framed rufâ€¢fle ?
SH: Yes.Â The exhibition statement and title is a collective look into interpreting one wordâ€”ruffleâ€”to motivate and inspire 12-women to create work. Â Some women are considering it as a literal ruffle of fabric, others as a disturbance of a surface, or as in â€œruffling oneâ€™s feathers.â€Â I chose a disturbance or â€˜ruffling of ones feathersâ€™.Â The ability for that word to be interpreted outside of the feminine is huge, and thatâ€™s part of the reason why we chose it. It inherently seems very feminine, but the interpretations that are coming out elude gender-specific connotations.
SMP: Itâ€™s interesting that you chose an indirect way to address gender by using a term where the feminine connotations are pervasive but can go easily unacknowledged. Seems tellingâ€¦
SH: Thereâ€™s definitely diversity in how the women see issues of women in design. Â There was one conversation when we were looking at the identity of the group, the question was raised of whether or not the group needed to go on being women only. Â There are a variety of viewpoints, generations, and professional fields involved in the group.Â It would be interesting for all the women in the group to sit down and have a focused conversation on issues that surround women in design.Â The younger women in the group are definitely tending towards wanting to emphasize the gender issues and even going so far as to bring up inviting men into the group.
SMP: Oh, wow. Do you have to fall back on the old argument: every group and industry is run by men for men, canâ€™t we just have this?
SH:Â The group was started with that in mind and I think it is important.Â Exhibitions like rufâ€¢fle and the group LAWD are opportunities to express: weâ€™re here, weâ€™re doing stuff, and it canâ€™t be ignored; but, being a group composed solely of women somehow allows women-focused issues to fall by the wayside during meetingsâ€¦ Iâ€™m interested to hear women designing in Portland discuss whether they consider their work as distinctly feminine, or if itâ€™s gender neutral. When I stop to consider my own practice, I try to strip personal narrative or my identity away from the work.Â I do not see my work as specifically feminine and when I create, I do not put an emphasis on being a woman who creates. Â I give my students articles about gender issues in design and put an emphasis on knowing that the conversation is happening and has not ended, which I think is very important and part of ones education.
Is it important to thinking about gendered design when making or does that reflection come after the fact? Is it something we do intuitively? Is the entire conversation merely reflective? Just exploring that idea and how it relates to action is compelling in itself.
Sara HustonÂ is a Portland-based artist, designer, maker, and educator. She and her partnerÂ John Paananen make up the collaborative interdisciplinary studio the last attempt at greatness, which explores subjects of progress, expectation, liminal space, categorization, perception, value, and the intersection and language in art and design. Huston and Paananen’s work is aimed at provoking discourse and contemplation in the viewer or user in an attempt to disrupt conventional ways of thinking, induce reflection, and challenge the boundaries of what is known.
rufâ€¢le is on view at the University of Oregon’s White Box Visual Laboratory, (Portland), through August 24, 2013. The exhibition includes: Natalie Barela, Albertha Bradley, Noelle Bullock, Lydia Cambron, Flo & Goose, Alison Gradischer, Sara Huston, Kate MacKinnon, Kari Merkl, Diane Pfeiffer, Jennifer Wall, and JJ Wright. Organized by Sara Huston,Â Lydia Cambron, and Flo Truong, with assistance from Ashley Gibson, Manager, White Box.
Introductory photo is courtesy of Vassar College archives.
All other photos are courtesy of White Box, (c) Sara Huston, 2013
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.