We Woke Up Like This: Reflections on Social Practice in the Sunday New York Times

February 11, 2016 · Print This Article


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?





Jen Delos Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, radical community arts organizer, and author of countless emails. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially engaged art that has been active since 2007. Delos Reyes currently lives and works in Chicago, IL where she is the Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago.



An Introduction to Relational Aesthetics and Social Practice

October 7, 2014 · Print This Article

By the title of this essay I imply not that I am providing an introduction to this topic, for the uninitiated, from the perspective of experience.  Rather, I intend to share the experience of my own introduction to this topic, in preparation for a course I will be teaching next semester.  Prior to beginning my research, I posed the following question to my Facebook friends; their responses follow.

Explain “relational aesthetics/social practice,” using only common language (no artspeak), and without bringing up Thai food. Go.

Jay Gallegos: Practical collaborative participation. It’s more like Ethiopian food.

Casey McGonagle: Do regular stuff, only it’s art.

Randall Szott: Art for artists inspired by Martha Stewart.

Chloë Rayson: One mans trash is understood by another man to be treasure

Richard Holland: Sometimes people make shit up.

Jennifer Reeder: Block party fantasy camp.

Albert Stabler: Making a blog about an ethically-motivated garage sale.

Randall Szott: Wait, that cuts a little too close to home there buddy.

Sherelle Castro: The kind that comes with cats and batteries.

Anne Harris: I have no idea. And I’m actually about to eat Thai food. Imagine that.

Kevin Freitas: Bullshit

Meg Duguid: The composition of moments and actions that shed light on a concept. You should be able to talk about this work like one might a painting or a composed photo, composition, movement, content. There should be a broad exposure to multiple practices from Mierle Ukeles, Mary Miss, Maya Linn, to Gordon Marta Clark and Rick Lowe. There should be a range of politically overt and implicit politic. I actually think that you could leave politics out all together and look at some of the work of the Judson Dance Group and some of Kaprow’s late performance work. I would liken some of it to the idea of found object as it is found motion.

Robert C. Anderson: Verbal self-abuse.

Mike Malorin: Peanut sauce… Dammit!

Kevin Freitas: Soup kitchen

Sarah Kaiser: compare visual stuff to the rest of the world

Michael Mlekowski: Stuff you look at and if it’s any good you get to take a free sample home!

Diana Dorwin: The importance of the object or action isn’t determined by the artist, or the individual viewing the artwork, but the viewing community as a whole.

Grub Fay: some young art student goes to a party where everyone is having a good time, and starts yelling, “look at us, we’re all art!” and of course makes the party less good, and ruins the art.

From this hyper-informal survey, it seemed that among my friends, many were not disposed to take the topic seriously:  not only in the humorous, playful responses to my question, but in their attitudes towards relational aesthetics as a serious practice.  Others recognized its legitimacy, and a few (e.g. Meg Duguid) spoke from firsthand experience working in this genre.

I’ll admit some past skepticism towards relational aesthetics; my perspective (thought not so eloquently phrased) echoed Casey McGonagle’s:  “Do regular stuff, only it’s art.”  I decided that I owed it to myself to learn more about the topic, to at least add some nuance to my skepticism and hopefully gain a greater appreciation for it.  To this end, I volunteered to teach a course on Relational Aesthetics next semester (Spring 2015), and began research in preparation for this.  The following essay is a summary of my initial readings.

The phrases “relational aesthetics,” “relational art,” and “social practice” have becoming increasingly common in the art world since the late 1990s, while their exact meaning continues to elude many of those not directly involved in this field. In order to study this aspect of art, we need to understand exactly what it is that we are talking about.

French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud defined the approach in 1998 in his book Esthétique relationnelle (Relational Aesthetics), calling it “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” He had coined the phrase two years earlier in the catalogue for the exhibition Traffic, curated by Bourriaud, at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux.

Relational aesthetics, then, can be understood as a way of looking at things, as a guiding principle, and as an approach to artmaking. An artwork can be considered “relational art” if it is essentially based on social interaction. In this way relational aesthetics is very different from traditional art forms such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography, which are defined by the physical materials and tools used in their production. Relational aesthetics may be more similar to a movement, such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, etc. Writer and director Ben Lewis finds many similarities between relational art and earlier “ism”s at their beginnings: relational art is often not considered art at all because it redefines the concept of art, many artists considered “relational” deny that they are such and relational art had a “founding” exhibition.

Since relational aesthetics is not defined by a single medium, it follows that relational art can be made in any media. And certainly, examples of relational art can be found in a wide range of media. However, certain media lend themselves to relational aesthetics. In particular, the best-known examples of relational art often exist as a subset of performance art. The poster child for relational aesthetics has always been Rirkit Tiravanija, and his best-known series bears a close resemblance to performance. Beginning with Pad Thai (1990) at the Paula Allen Gallery in New York, Tiravanija cooked and served the exhibition’s eponymous food for gallery visitors. The difference between this form of relational art and other types of performance is that in most performance art, the artist’s actions are the essence of the work; in relational art of this type, the essence of the work lies in the interaction between the audience and the artist. Cooking Thai food could be a performance; serving it to visitors moves it into the realm of relational aesthetics.

Other forms of relational art more closely resemble sculptures or installations. Some of Tiravanija’s works resemble installations, albeit installations inviting viewer interaction. One example, from Traffic (relational aesthetic’s seminal exhibition) was described in Frieze magazine: “‘Traffic’ predictably included the model practitioner of this kind of art – Rirkrit Tiravanija. Around the second floor viewing gallery he provided simple, user-friendly arrangements of tables and chairs made from brown packaging cardboard, each with a free mini-bar of red wine and mineral water.”

However, the clearest example of the sculpture/installation model of relational art is Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Nearly all of his work consists in some way of objects arranged in a space. Some, such as his stacks of printed posters and his piles of candy, invite viewers to take one of the component pieces home with them. In Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud describes the problem posed by these takeaways:

One is allowed to take one of the posters away with him/her. But what happens if lots of visitors walk off in turn with these sheets of paper offered to an abstract public? What process would cause the piece to change and then vanish? For this work did not involve a “Performance”, or a poster hand-out, but a work endowed with a defined form and a certain density, a work not displaying its construction (or dismantlement) process, but the form of its presence amid an audience [italics original].”

This problem is more a theoretical one than a practical issue; the medium of the work itself is described in this case as “Offset print on paper, endless copies.” The museum, gallery, or collector would simply order more copies of the poster made, and replenish the stack. Similarly, the piles of candy are replenished from commercial sources. The issue is not one of logistics, but rather of the interaction, via the artwork, between the artist and the viewer, who becomes a complicit participant in its creation. This is what places the work within the realm of relational art.

Gift-giving is only one possible mode of social interaction of course, and yet relational aesthetics often carries with it a presumption of generosity. Another mode is communication, often the transmission of information or the teaching of a skill. I think now of Hui-Min Tsen’s walking tour of Chicago’s Pedway. [http://chicagopedwaytour.com/Home.html] Tsen guides participants on a walking tour of this underground route through the city, a form of casual urban exploration, a better way of getting to know the place.

My wife Stephanie Burke and I created several artworks which, though we didn’t necessarily use the term at the time, are in hindsight relational in nature. In one series, called Shooting With Artists, we took Chicago-based artists to a shooting range in Indiana to shoot guns. For many, this was their first time shooting a gun, and their first exposure to “gun culture.” We thought this was interesting because art culture and gun culture generally never meet; they are seen as polar opposites politically and socially. The exceptions to these, where these cultures overlap, become nuanced and unexpected. These trips were documented with video and still photos, but the works themselves were essentially relational.

Another project, which was Stephanie’s concept, was called “Snow Coffee.” In our neighborhood (as in much of Chicago), people would claim “dibs” on a parking space that they had (ostensibly) shoveled clear of snow, marking it as their own private parking space with various items, most often patio furniture. Playfully interacting with this contentious practice, we would put on our bathrobes and take a carafe of coffee to enjoy while sitting in these impromptu cafes, consisting of no more than a pair of lawn chairs in a snow-free parking space on the side of the street. Eventually, following the epic snowstorm remembered as “Snowmageddon,” Stephanie spent the better part of a day digging our Jeep out of the snow. When we left the parking space thus created, we “claimed” it with two chairs and a card table, complete with tablecloth and a vase of flowers.

This essay documents the beginning stages of my research into relational art and social practice, in preparation for a course I am teaching next semester at Northern Arizona University. This research will continue until and throughout the Spring 2015 semester. Feedback is welcome; contact me through Facebook (Jeriah Hildine) or at jeriah (dot) hildwine (at) gmail (dot) com.

An interview with Adam Overton in his home

January 17, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by Jacob Wick.

The first time I went to Adam Overton‘s house, I sang a song. I don’t remember what song, but I remember showing up, sitting down, and Adam turning on a song, a hit song, something that probably had just been on in the car, as we were driving – there were about twelve of us, maybe sixteen, five in my car – and beginning to sing along, very tentatively. By the end of the song, all of us were singing, without any prompt or encouragement from Adam, without any internal discussion, without consideration of who would sing what, without worrying about whether or not we knew the song or if it was in our range, without giving each other puzzled or encouraging looks, without giggling, without any hesitation or embarrassment or even any thought. It was one of the most magical musical experiences I’ve ever been part of. The second time I went to Adam’s house, to conduct the interview that appears, with very little editing, below, he offered me some key limes – now is the time of year when citrus drops in southern California, baskets of oranges and limes and lemons everywhere – and some homemade ginger concentrate with seltzer water.

Adam’s dog sat on my lap for most of the interview that follows, and contributes in a minor fashion to our dialogue. Adam’s cat made a brief appearance to scuffle with the dog, but is not mentioned or referred to in the interview, although certainly at least one portion of our chat could be interpreted so as to refer to the cat. For instance, did you know that chat is cat in French?

This is the first in a series of interviews on the subject of listening.

JW: Hi Adam.

AO: Hi.

JW: Maybe we should just talk about your various projects before we get to anything else. Does that sound reasonable?

AO: Sure. Yeah, if there’s any…

JW: And also, like, kind of how you…well good, I didn’t bring my notes. So this will be less professional. Remember when like, the, uh, CCA social practice horde descended upon you?

AO: Oh so you were, oh so that’s how you know Dave…

JW: Yeah, that’s how I know Dave, and that’s how I know you, yeah…

AO: Oh!

JW: I mean, I don’t think I introduced myself then, umm, I don’t know.

AO: See that’s when I started loosening up about remembering faces was when I started teaching because it became so hard to keep track of…

JW: I think, yeah, I’m kind of losing my…yeah.

AO: Yeah. Don’t start teaching.

JW: Yeah, ok.

AO: Or, if you want to loosen up.

JW: See, ok, maybe we can talk about that: what’s been your, uh…maybe it’s a grass is always greener thing, like I’m not teaching now so I’d really like to teach and I keep thinking about classes I want to teach and thinking like “oh, that’d be really fun,” or interesting, or both, but you’re saying you’re tired of teaching…what’s the…why?

AO: Why am I tired of teaching?

JW: Yeah.

AO: I’m sick of dealing with shitty employers, basically.

JW: Yeah.

AO: And that’s ultimately what my regular, um, that’s the typical experience that I’m having right now, is working with shitty employers. Like really shitty employers. And, uh, the places that are really steady, in terms of work, are the shittiest, or have been, at least for the kind of work that I get, and the ones that are better are ones where I only have electives, and I come in and I teach a class and they’re like “wow that class was great, everyone really loved it, maybe you can come back and teach in in two or three years…” But there’s a big unionizing push going on right now, in Los Angeles and Boston and potentially nationwide to unionize adjunct professors, so I’m getting really interested in seeing how that goes…

JW: I’ve heard a bit about that. Are you teaching at multiple schools right now or just one?

AO: Uhhh, right now I just had my classes reduced from three classes to half a class over the holidays by one of the schools that I teach at.

JW: That sucks. Are you teaching arts courses or are teaching more like skills, skill-based…

AO: At one place, at the for-profit that I teach at, I teach mostly web-related programming skills. So that’s usually the steadiest stuff…I used to teach more like digital – like Adobe Suite – stuff at a community college, so that was also kind of steady, but more design-oriented than my background calls for…

JW: Yeah.

AO: And then the stuff that, uh, when I get to teach what I want to teach, or when schools offer me courses that are closer to the range of what I want to teach, typically it’s somewhere in the range of sound art, performance art, and/or um..uh… I got to teach this one class that was pretty fantastic related to activism and education and media…like streaming and stuff, technologies like that. And there’s one school that I teach at, that I get to teach about once a year and I get to teach an experimental video workshop there, and I hope they don’t read this, but I have no experience – like I don’t make video – but when I first signed on to work there about four years ago, I signed on and I realized I had this whole library of video art, and this whole background as a viewer of video art that was really influential on me as a performer, and it’s ultimately just a class where we look at stuff, we talk about it, and then they have a loose assignment based around an experimental strategy, which could easily be, you know, a performance class or a sound class or whatever, it’s loose enough that it’s about strategies, it’s not specifically about editing, and that class is probably the best class I’ve ever had my entire life, because it’s talking to commercial film kids about non-entertainment based, non-commercial work, and I want to say they love it, but it’s not that they love it…

JW: They love it!

AO: All the sudden they realize there’s this other thing and they’re hungry for something that’s not just commercial narrative. And it’s at a film school, so the students there are so much more interdisciplinary than any other school I’ve ever…

JW: In what way?

AO: At this film school, this is the only place – I mean, I’ve taught at other art schools, like Otis and elsewhere – but this is the only art school this is the only school that I’ve ever taught at where students will not only say “oh, I like to write,” but many of them identify as writers, so you can talk about text and they won’t rebel; almost all of them have experience editing video, of course, but because they’ve done that they also almost all have experience working with audio; and since some of them are coming out of an acting background, or have worked with actors, they also have connection to performance. And so you can come to them and do a movement-based workshop – like we always do a movement-based workshop based off on some Simone Forti and Hana Vanderkolk exercises – and they gobble it up. Whereas if you do something like that at Otis, I mean, sometimes half the class will really dig it, but I’ve had students come up to me and be like, wait, are you a sculptor, and I’ll be like no, and someone actually said like, “well then why are you here?” and it’s like “ok, because you’re in the Sculpture/New Genres department?” But so, but I’ve never gotten flak for, I mean, anyways that interdisciplinarity, and kind of confusion of where one lies in the medium spectrum, is particularly strong at this film school, which is great.

JW: But it probably doesn’t matter to them too much where they lie on the medium spectrum, I mean, am I generalizing too much, or…?

AO: Maybe a little bit? Just because it is a professional-track thing, and so they do identify as “I’m a director,” “I’m an editor,” “I’m a cinematographer,” so they do have these professional kind of things that they hump down into. And on their evaluations every once in a while you get, you know, “was this class valuable to you?” and someone will say, “no, because I’m a director, I loved it but it wasn’t useful because I’m a director,” which I still don’t understand. But anyways, yeah, I teach a lot of things at a lot of different places, and I’m trying to…ideally what would be best for me teaching-wise would be…what feels best is teaching classes where it’s this awesome conversation and people are experimenting and trying things out, but unfortunately those classes are just electives in my schedule and not enough to live off of. They just feel like little rewards, like a a mini-grant for three months. And so the regular ones are these kind of shitty corporate places that don’t give a fuck about you or the students. So that’s really where I am – that’s why I looking for other work. Other quote-unquote professional work. If anyone out there is looking for very talented uh…I’m really good at making cocktails…

JW: Have you considered applying at bars or anything?

AO: I’m really intimidated because I’ve never worked in restaurants or anything like that, but actually I’d be terribly interested to work as a barback or a cocktail apprentice, because I’m really into cocktails right now.

JW: I’ve been really thinking about, um…

AO: And I’m a night owl, so it would kind of work.

JW: I mean, I’ve been kind of getting into wine a bit more, and for a minute I was kind of thinking of opening a coffee shop, and now my pet dream is to open a cooperative grocery store, that would have maybe within it a coffeeshop/bar situatation, but I don’t know, whatever. But like I feel like there’s a lot of people – a lot of artists who are veering towards more service industry-related things…I mean, I don’t know, we don’t have to talk about that much, but I curious about that kind of transition of like, and it’s often people whose practices I really identify with, where generosity or collaboration or like a concern…

AO: Well, I think the language in the social practice arena primarily goes towards generosity, and I think that’s there, but I see it as desperation, like artists are trying to figure out how to fit in and find part-time and/or full-time work that feels useful or and is productive for them in some way, shape, or form. But there is a trend, because actually in the experimental music community in Los Angeles, what you’re talking about is very common. In terms of people brainstorming, but not necessarily following through. I don’t know if you know James Klopfleisch…

JW: No, but I was playing with Ted Byrnes on Monday and he mentioned James…

AO: Yeah, he’s involved with the wulf., and the Southland Ensemble…I think that’s what they’re called. But he for a while had an idea for, um…he wanted to do like an ice cream truck, except it was like a coffee, like an iced coffee, and like experimental music coming out of the speakers…and he seemed really serious about it, but then he went off on a cruise ship for a couple years.

JW: To play?

AO: Yeah.

JW: Oh wow. I’ve heard that’s like the worst thing to do…

AO: He loves it!

JW: I guess if you have the right kind of mindframe, it would be ok, but it just seems like…

AO: I think it fit his personality…he likes people, and talking to weird people…

JW: And yeah, that seems like a very weird place.

AO: Your background is as a musician, right? Did you do your undergraduate as a musician?

JW: I did, yeah. And a lot of people went to ships…

AO: Yeah, I was a jazz major in Atlanta, and a number of my friends did the ship thing. And I remember thinking about it…I never got the phone number. But it was very possible. It’s either you go to New York or you go to the ship in the Caribbean.

JW: Or both.

AO: Or both, yeah.

JW: And then you give up somewhere.

AO: Yeah. Oh there was one other precedent though, too, that actually got really close, there was a composer named Gary Schultz, who lived here, who now lives in Berlin, but he was gonna start, well, we joke that it was going to be “Gary’s Juice,” but it was really gonna be more of like “Gary’s Juiceteria,” and he was going to be doing the juice selection at a place, some health food store in the West Side, and he got as far as the designs and was setting stuff up, but I think the store closed before it open.

JW: Yeah I feel like there’s a pool of money that one has to have to open anything like that that I do not have access to that right now, but that’s also ok.

AO: Yeah. But actually that’s the next thing – it’s just dawned on me in the last two months – there was like the big wave – I’m 34 now – there was the big wave of “all my friends are getting married” and now the big wave is “now all my friends are starting businesses,” and it’s weird because when they were getting married I was like “oh, I don’t want to get married,” and now that they’re starting business I’m like “oh, should I start a business?” “no, I don’t want to start a business,” or maybe I should, or…you know, like…

JW: I think it’s still a bit of this desperation thing that you were talking about. I think it’s like “well, I don’t know what to do now, so maybe I should just invent a job, or…” So did you go to Emory or something?

AO: No, Georgia State. Georgia State had a really good program, at least for Georgia. And it was situation downtown, which was the only place that jazz existed in the state of Georgia, except for Valdosta, I mean there was one other jazz program in Valdosta.

JW: Where is Valdosta?

AO: It’s on the border with Florida.

JW: Are you from Georgia?

AO: Yeah, I’m from the suburbs of Atlanta.

JW: One of my best friends lives in Athens.

AO: I would never go to Athens.

JW: Oh.

AO: I mean, it was kind of like a high school angst-ridden principle, that UGA and Athens represented high school part II, and I was very anti-high school and that point, and so for me going to school in the city that was…

JW: He grew up in Athens, and I think he feels that way…he has a very clear marker, or at least he did until a couple of years ago, of a street that he would not cross, because that was the UGA side of Athens.

AO: Right, yeah. I’m much more grown up about it now, and I feel like I missed out on a really beautiful town that I could’ve visited more, and a music community that was probably worth checking out when I was there.

JW: It’s still there, it’s still good. So when did you move to California?

AO: In 2003 I came here, to go to grad school at CalArts.

JW: Was it all CalArts or partially the allure of California?

AO: Well I actually almost went to Mills…I thought I wanted to go to Mills more because I thought I wanted to go to the Bay more and I’d only ever heard bad things about Los Angeles, but in the end I ended up going to CalArts because I realized I wanted to go to an art school, not just a music school, and then when I got there I found out that LA is fucking incredible and I found out that San Francisco is really provincial and very un-integrated, so it ended up being a really fantastic decision for me.

JW: So did you go to grad school for music?

AO: Yeah, I was in the music school there. But I figured out really quick how to get out of the music school and into other departments, which was ultimately the most useful for me.

JW: Did you head to CalArts with an idea in your mind that you were going to move out of music?

AO: I know going into CalArts, or into grad school, that my practice was….that I considered myself…well one I didn’t consider myself a composer heading in…

JW: [coughing]

AO: Do you need some water?

JW: Sure! Maybe I’ll eat a mint, too, that’s what my mom does when she starts coughing uncontrollably. I guess I’m just curious about the transition between, for you, the transition between, for you, the transition between being a composer and, sorry buddy…

AO: Is he getting annoying?

JW: No, I just sat on his tail.

AO: I didn’t consider myself a composer. I mean, I had taken some composition classes and I was doing computer music, but you know I got to grad school and I met composers and they’re the kind of people that could look at notes on a page and hear them in their head, and I didn’t have that ability and I didn’t have a background in harmony, and I knew I was going to an experimental school so that wasn’t necessarily a requirement when I got in, but I thought of myself as a sound artist and even more so as a performance artist who was using sound.

JW: Ok.

AO: So I was doing work that involved attaching sensors to my body and the work that I was looking at was not sound art necessarily, but I was really attracted to body artists at that point, like Carolee Schneeman, Marina Abramovic, the Vienna Actionists, Fluxus, et cetera, like that was what I was looking to, at least right before I got into school. And doing my sound things as kind of like looking into the performance of the body.

JW: Yeah.

AO: My whole experience, though, is just one of transitioning from one medium to another and feeling like there’s a thread running throughout all of it and therefore I don’t know this thing anymore. So for instance, you know I was a jazz drummer, and there were many moments where I just realized once I got into the computer, doing computer music, that I don’t need drums to do the thing that I want to do. And with jazz, one of the attractions was this notion of moment-form, like being in the moment, and this notion of working intuitively or even psychically with other people, and working within constraints or structures together and seeing what happens, and those sorts of things have continued in some shape or form throughout. So the mediums keep shifting, but…the general progression is like jazz drums, sensors attached to the body, then there was a big breakthrough halfway through grad school where it was, um, what I call biometric pieces, but minus the sensors where we used our fingers instead, where it was like checking someone’s pulse at the neck and watching their blinks. And all the sudden the tunnel vision got like this because all the sudden you’re staring into someone’s eyes for sixteen minutes in a piece and it’s really intimate and it was like “wow, this is amazing and it’s so much fun and really weird and I’m falling love with people just looking at them,” and it’s really uncomfortable…so I dropped the electronics at that point and I was writing text scores, just instructions for how to perform things, and that brought in – you know, I’ve always enjoyed words, so – it was just like coming out of the closet as someone who likes text. And ever since then text and writing has been a really big part of my practice no matter what. There’s a lot of different places we could pop into whatever…

JW: How do you view the relationship between writing and – because I too have a penchant for setting up bureaucratic entities or…I guess, yeah I don’t know, I don’t know how you want to talk about Guru Rugu, or the Bureau for Experimental Meditation, or…

AO: Well what were you just about to say, though, about your practice?

JW: That I have a penchant for creating these kind of bureaucratic organizations or pseudonyms or things like this and I always kind of wonder if that’s tied to  an improvisational approach to composition where it’s composing not as “here’s this set thing that everyone has to this” but “here’s this structure that a bunch of people can be part of”…I don’t know, I’ve always just kind of wondered why I started doing that. And I’m wondering if there’s anything that you can see…

AO: Well the kind of flippant answer for me would be that it’s genetic. My dad’s professional was that he was a copy-editor in the sports section of the newspaper, and I remember very vividly growing up and being little and him talking about headline writing as a form of haiku, you know, and it’s not like we did exercises, but that kind of attention to what a few words can do, how they can resonate together…

JW: Have you ever read the book How to Do Things With Words?

AO: No.

JW: Neither have I, but it’s a great title! And apparently it’s also a really interesting book. It’s by this Oxford philosopher and Judith Butler writes about it a lot…uhh, but it’s sort of…there’s the performative, there’s the something else…like, you know, there’s things that you say that you do while you’re doing them, like “I name this ship blah blah blah” or “I now pronounce you man and wife” or blah blah blah and there’s things that you say where they’re referencing an action that happened before, or, whatever…I don’t remember the terms so it’s kind of not worth talking about.

AO: Yeah. Some other ways I think about it is, like, for me, coming into writing text scores…Text scores, ultimately in the tradition of them, they’re like prompts, and especially Fluxus and that tradition it’s like one-liners, it borders on humor or punchlines, and there’s this sense that through a single command or prompt there can be…there’s like an activity or process or group activity lying beyond that statement that’s much more complex or interesting and fun, or just something to do. Another thing that you probably know from the realm of music is that it’s really fun coming up with band names, that’s a really big tradition, but also band names have a huge influence over…ultimately they can be prompts for a certain kind of action or performance demeanor…

JW: Or the people that are in a band can be sort of the limits of what that band is or what it can do or what direction it’s going. Do you think of the Bureau of Experimental Meditation as a band?

AO: Well, it’s actually the Experimental Meditation Center of Los Angeles, and the Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses.

JW: Right, sorry.

AO: They do, I mean when I started creating some of them, especially Experimental Meditation Center, cofounding it with Guru Rugu, or BESHT with Professor Padu-Paga, like, I didn’t think of them as band names, but I don’t know, it’s just fun to invent names…or sometimes it’s you invent a name and you’re like “what does this thing do,” but other times it’s like “what sums up this thing that we want to do together?” and like you kind of said, with a band, when you create a band name the identities of the people in the band kind of get subsumed under this, so you can be a guitarist or a drummer in a band, or you could be in multiple bands, but it’s not necessarily your band, it’s that thing. And so these platforms – I think of them as platforms, ultimately, they’re platforms, they’re prompts, for people to come in and do things that they wouldn’t normally…that might be part of their practice, but might not…one of the first ones where I consciously had an experience was that was with the Eternal Telethon. I don’t know if you know them…

JW: No.

AO: It came out of CalArts, and it was a group who started doing these fundraisers, these telethons, of varying durations, at different locations, that were streamed online using Ustream when it first came out, and the goal was to raise money for a convalescent home for retired artists, and it would located be at the Salton Sea, and so the hope was that anybody who became part of it would then be a part of Telethon and would one day be able to retire along with us at the Salton Sea.

JW: That’s a great idea.

AO: A lot of the people who got involved – it was basically a variety show with MCs ranting in between – and a lot of the people who participated were not performance artists. It was primarily a performance thing, but a lot of people were not performance artists. So you saw a lot of artists who didn’t typically perform doing performances, you saw writers performing, you saw people – just creative people…and so that of course seemed really exciting. The stakes were really low, like it was broadcast online, but nobody’s watching, and I’m interested in that phenomenon, and you can see it very clearly happening again in a much larger way at KCHUNG radio right now, because they’re broadcasting, there might not be anybody listening, it’s a radio/sound thing/phenomenon with primarily a lot of artists doing stuff, many of whom have never done anything with sound before, or even performed before, so I don’t know, I like that kind of experiment or that kind of platform or that kind of theme-based thing. You see that happening with theme-based shows, theme-based group exhibitions, too, you know like, “hey Jacob, do you want to be in this show about dogs and cats?” and you’re like “I don’t really make work about dogs and cats, but sure.”

JW: Well, I like this dog.

AO: Yeah.

JW: There’s also something really interesting about having a broadcast that everyone is part of that brings people together to make this broadcast that everybody knows nobody is listening to.

AO: Well, some people do.

JW: Well, but something about the direction towards a public that doesn’t exist that allows people to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.

AO: I mean, in LA too, there’s a tradition of, like…like people here don’t come out to performances the way they do in New York. In New York, or even Berlin, when I go see friends’ performances, there are lots of people there watching who are not their friends, and the tradition that I’ve witnessed in LA, at least among experimental arts stuff, is that typically the people who are watching are your friends. And it’s less and less so, places like the wulf. are growing, and people go there more regularly to see things by people they don’t know, and same thing with Human Resources there’ll be like a hundred people now for something, but my experience with it here in LA and in Atlanta is like “I’m doing this for and with my friends,” and I’m neither for or against either model, but I come out of being interested in this kind of, what kind of things that can happen in that sort of space.  I mean, when you don’t know people, there’s a certain kind of vulnerability that can take place when things are more anonymous, which is similar to the kind of things that can happen on craigslist or on dating sites, because you can do certain things there that you wouldn’t normally do. But there’s also things you can do with friends that you wouldn’t do with strangers.

JW: Yeah.

AO: A lot of my work, at least with the Experimental Meditation Center of Los Angeles, or Signify, Sanctify, Believe, the stuff that kind of focuses on ritual or religious or spiritual technology, kind of focuses on like what kind of things happen within the privacy of a concert hall or what I would call a magic circle or something.

JW: Well, maybe that’s a good transition point to start actually talking about listening, which was sort of the pretext of our conversation. So I’m really excited about listening as a – we probably have like 10 minutes, right?

AO: No, well 10 minutes until the alarm, 20 minutes until I need to…25 minutes. Sorry about getting bookended.

JW: No, it’s fine, it’s really fine. So I’m really excited about listening as an aesthetic activity that places the agency to have an experience on the listener, the viewer, the participant…somebody else who’s not like “here’s this experience you’re having,” but also that’s not a new thing, that’s what really excited El Lissitsky about exhibition design, or what excited some conceptual artists about making non-existent work or whatever, it was always this excitement about bestowing upon the viewer this magical agency which is, you know, I think I have to think about it more to really kvetch about. I mean these spaces – the concert hall, magic circle, any kind of religious situation – there’s a lot of ritual things happening, but there’s always this practice of listening.

AO: Well I mean broadly, my notion of listening is not ear-based anymore. I would like to say that it’s focus-based, like I would like to say that listening is about focusing on something, but even that is too narrow, like as someone with an undiagnosed form of ADD, some of my biggest breakthroughs in listening to experimental music have been when I let go of trying to focus and allowed my mind to bounce around the room and, you know, quote-unquote not pay attention, and release from the shackles of having to focus in what I thought was the right way.

JW: Yeah.

AO: So I’m definitely interested in a more embodied notion of listening. One that’s maybe more about presence more than anything else. Which was actually my approach to Occupy…for Occupy LA or Occupy Wall Street, I didn’t necessarily find all the entryways I wanted to in terms of political stances, but I felt it was really important just to be there, just to follow that prompt and to Occupy, be present, whether I agree or disagree or whatnot. But similarly, there’s this…I don’t know. I think that’s a period there. I was going to say something else, but I forgot.

JW: Was it about…I was reading this, that you wrote for East of Borneoand I really enjoyed it.

AO: Thanks, thanks for reading it.

JW: So you’re talking a bunch of the intersection ritual practices and music and you say this one line in here that…what do you think about it? I mean it’s really interesting to read and it’s a very nice history of these practices, but you…

AO: What’s the line?

JW: “LaVey’s one-man band demonstrates satanism’s infatuated embrace of uncompromising, self-satisfied, alienated individuality, similar in some ways to ahbez’s lonely wanderer. These albums, then, are the egomaniacal satanic masterworks of one man in a recorded universe where he is finally the king of his own masturbatory, musical jungle.” So it seems like you almost have a contempt for these practices that like…

AO: Contempt? No. Masturbation is great!

JW: Yeah, ok, that’s true.

AO: No, yeah, that line in particular is about the embodiment of…like LaVey’s thing – LaVey and Satanism – is this complete self-centered ego…like it’s just about satisfying your own ego, not anybody else’s, and it’s about self-reliance, it’s about DIY, it’s about doing it yourself, not doing it together, doing it by yourself, potentially, unless you need someone else, and you get it from them, take it from them…it’s very objectivist and it’s very egoistic and egotistic. But I don’t mean those necessarily in bad ways. I identify with those on certain days and on certain subjects. His thing is about selfishness, and not being ashamed of that. It’s about the worship of being a sensuous being and about obeying these emotions and drives that you feel. That’s the way he thinks and talks about it. And actually I used to be really interested in Ayn Rand’s writing. Because in high school I loved her writing, because I had a lot of self-doubt and I had a lot of angst, and I had a lot of…what’s the word…you know, I just didn’t like myself. And her books actually helped me learn to like myself and to have pride, and so in that way that stuff was actually very useful, like for someone who’s depressed, but later on I moved into Buddhist and other things, but Anton LaVey pulls out of the ultimate kind of selfishness of pride. Which becomes misanthropic and angry and…

JW: Maybe what was interesting…Whatever, I don’t know what I was thinking when I brought that up. But maybe something that is interesting, that’s even related to what we were talking about just before I brought that up, but it seems like…I’ve never listened to LaVey’s music, I mean I’ve seen a YouTube video of him playing organ, which is incredible…

AO: He’s an amazing musician.

JW: But it seems like that would be kind of a debilitating musical experience, like there would be no room to hear anything else besides Anton LaVey.

AO: You mean at one of the services he did?

JW: Or maybe just listening to the recording. But probably moreso at a service. Which I think points out a little bit of the silliness of my dream of listening as this radically active thing, where sometimes there’s actual no other alternative but to hear what’s enveloping you. But I feel the total opposite might be Pauline Oliveros…[loud noise]…oh, I think I got a text message. Yeah, I did.

AO: What I would say is…if we’re just going to talk about listening, I would say that while yes I agree with the notion of like placing this agency in the listener, ultimately what I feel like is if we’re still going to enjoy this division of the listener and the performer or the listener and the artist or the observer and the artist – which is fine, it’s a fun kind of role-playing to do ultimately – it’s not that the listener/viewer has all that agency, it’s that the artist has the opportunity to facilitate a kind of listening, or a kind of framework to see things through, and for me listening has never just been about just sound, or sight has never been about light, it’s always based on information that one has while one is listening to something, and by information you can also think of it as a framework, so this article is a framework through which you can listen to this music again. I have a very vivid memory, in high school, when I was first learning how to play jazz drums, my teacher gave me this jazz video, and I remember watching it – and we had been doing the ding-ding-da-ding thing on the cymbal – and I watched it and I literally cried out of frustration – tears down my face – because I could not follow a single beat of it.

JW: Was it a drum video where you were supposed to follow along?

AO: No it was a performance. And it was absolutely frustrating because what was happening was I had a little bit of the framework – I had the ding-ding-a-ding – but I didn’t yet have the jazz framework of listening to that. And now…I mean, I can’t remember if I ever listened to it a year or two later, but now I would be able to listen to that and I would probably be able to appreciate it, or not appreciate it, but still because I knew about the politics that it represented, within the jazz world or whatever. So Anton LaVey’s work is actually really horrible to listen to if you’re listening to it for sonic qualities, but if you know a little bit about his history and whatnot, and if you see him play, too, it kind of damns the music, you know what I mean? And so ultimately if you’re talking about a framework of listening, you’re talking ultimately about a belief system, right? And even if it’s a temporary one, it’s still like, “I believe that music is this right now, and because of this my constitution tells me that I need to listen for the harmonics.” Because I’m listening to James Tenney or Cat Lamb, and if you’re listening for the fundamental pitch – which I’ve done throughout all their concerts – you’re missing the concert. But all the sudden if you believe in all these angelic harmonies, or these harmonics, or these weird physical things that are happening in your ears that aren’t even in the room…and I’ve had that experience, like listening to music once and having no idea, or listening to the wrong part of it, and listening to it again, or listening to that kind of music again, and being like oh, duh, why didn’t anyone tell me that before? It doesn’t have to be a belief system, but it’s related to one. Because a belief system gives you a way to view the world, a way to be an observer and an agent in the world, just as activism does, and politics does…

JW: That makes sense to me. The idea that listening allows for being aware that there are multiple different frameworks through which to have any kind of given experience.

AO: And it’s totally fun subscribing to those things, too.

JW: Yeah, but I think what’s exciting, that’s maybe available in music, especially in improvised music, that might not be available everywhere else, is the constant knowledge that there might be something else you could be listening for, or another way to experience a given thing, so I’m much more open to intentionally having the wrong experience. I find it really generative. I mean, I don’t know, Claire Fontaine came and talked to the CCA Social Practice class, and I don’t know, I was late and a little hungover and they were tired and the discussion was not very good, but it was a really – because it’s two of them and they have a child and for some reason the entire time they were at at CCA only Fulvia was talking and James wasn’t saying anything and the baby was just screaming a lot – and I started experiencing the discussion as a performance rather than a discussion and it was infinitely more satisfying. I mean, it was great.

AO: I feel like there’s no reason to be disappointed – I mean I get disappointed all the time – and I have a piece called Listening Performances, and it’s just a list of different ways to be at a concert or whatever that you’re not digging or whatever. When I teach I actually talk about this a lot, just as an introduction if someone’s coming from one medium and moving to another, but there’s this quote from Alan Kaprow where he says “what if I were to think that art is just paying attention?” and it’s this notion of art begins with me focusing on something. I like to replace his “think” with “believe” and say “what if I were to believe art was just paying attention?” which moves it into this notion of that you’re kind of creating this universe and through this process you’re beginning to include things into what you’re seeing, but you’re also excluding things. For instance, to kind of wrap this around in a weird way, I have plenty of friends who are really angry about being brought up as Christian, like they were hardcore believers and really mean to people as a result, up to a certain point, and then they stopped. And when they stopped being mean to people they ultimately stopped being a certain kind of Christian, or Christian whatever. I kind of feel the same way about drums, like that was my religion growing up for ten years, and I love drumming, but I’m a little bit bitter because there was probably a period of four to six years where I only listened to drummers on recordings, and so there’s this whole period of a half decade or more, where I witnessed so much amazing music and I totally lost out because I didn’t even listen to the piano player, or I didn’t listen to the trumpet player. There was a moment where I actually tried listening to a saxophone solo, maybe seven years in, and it really felt like I had never listened to a saxophone solo. So I don’t know, I’m interested in that kind of focusing…

JW: Not just focus, but believing. Believe is a different verb than focus.

AO: No, exactly. For instance, we use the term belief, because at least in cinema, but in other things too, we talk about the suspension of disbelief, which I translate as temporary belief, belief that’s bookended, potentially by your entering the space. And it is…you’re becoming vulnerable, you’re going into a suggestive state hypothetically, you allow yourself to listen, you go through the program, you see the title, maybe you listen to it based on what the title says, you look at the name under it…that’s a huge thing actually, really interesting thing, actually, my friends love their friends music, and many of them hate strangers’ music.

JW: I’m the same way.

AO: But as soon as they meet somebody and get to know them, they become huge fans of their music, when they hated it before, and you see how just a name can change the way someone listens to it, or knowing someone’s background, studying their history – who was Anton LaVey, you know? – so listening is just so…what’s the word…it’s just so easy.

Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles.

Adam Overton is an experimental and conceptual artist based in Los Angeles who works between performance, writing, publishing, experimental music, workshops, event production, and massage.

“All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey…”

September 20, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Jacob Wick.

it's my party and i'll cry if i want to

From Jacob’s Party in Elysian Park.

Before we begin, perhaps it would help to get acquainted: in what follows, and in what follows what follows – over the next few months, or however long Bad at Sports allows me to report from my swiveling office chair in Little Bangladesh – I will be concentrating on what I would say is my main area of concern, or perhaps, to be redundant, a concentration of mine: the support.

Thinking about support originates, for me, with Shannon Jackson’s book Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, which I read two or three years ago and which burned a hole in my mind as I drove, with Marc Riordan and Frank Rosaly, around the Midwest and Southeast on tour with Tres Hongos. Driving the potholed and congested interstates of America through climate-changed constant downpour, hating everyone on the road and being hated by everyone on the road, arriving in what might as well have been safehouses in Lexington, Columbia, Asheville, Charlotte, places where I used to be surprised but now am simply glad to arrive…

From what I can remember, and from what I can glean from skimming the book again, three or two years later, Jackson points out that much recent performance work, “relational” work, socially-engaged work, “social practice,” and so on depends on a paradoxical relation to the conditions that make such work possible. A free school might, for instance, fill a vacuum left by a closed or too-expensive school; it might also absorb energy that might otherwise be used to advocate or agitate for better public access to education. The free school then either functions as a boon or a leech or both, a condition that many such attempts happily ignore. In any case, what stuck with me about Jackson’s thesis – which of course is, as she writes, inherited from Marcel Duchamp and Bertolt Brecht, among others, which I write not so much for the currency of either of those names but to point out that this, like so many other “contemporary” issues, is not new at all, or is related to the period directly before the Great Depression, or, again, both – is this focus on the support rather than the effect. Instead of bitching about a free school as too aesthetic or too political or not aesthetic enough or not political enough or some combination – a, b, c, d, all of the above, none of the above – it behooves us to wonder why on earth such a school might be necessary or appealing in the first place.

Nato Thompson’s recent piece in e-flux appears to be the beginning of a process wherein he either compares the strategies of socially-engaged artists to those of the US military in “counterinsurgency” mode, or compares them with the sorts of insurgent groups that counterinsurgency aims to eliminate. Regardless, I would write that what is most interesting or alarming about this comparison is not that it is possible to make – the similarities between insurgent practice, counterinsurgent practice, and “social practice” are stunning, in fact – but that the conditions that allow insurgent groups like Hezbollah or the US Army to function exist not only in what used to be the Third World but also in what used to be the First World: in Oakland, in Chicago, in rural Ohio, pretty much anywhere, even in Los Angeles. These conditions amount more or less to a vacuum of support.

In his alarming book Brave New War, published in 2006, military theorist John Robb makes an example of Hamas. Writing that Hamas thrives “in the vacuum created by failed states,” Robb points out that Hamas’s validity emanates from the social services it provides: education, food distribution, youth recreation, elder care, public safety, religious services, health care, grants to students and small businesses, and so on. Robb goes on to present a more-or-less identical model as an ideal model for security services in a post-nation-state age: something decentralized, something specific to its locale, something transparent: something rhizomatic, something site-specific, something participatory. Robb calls this the resilient community. The resilient community, in its very organization, builds the notion of resilience “into the fabric of everyday life,” so that, when presented with a threat – a threat posed by more-or-less identical groups like Hamas or the US Army – it responds in “what seems like an effortless way.” The idea seems to be to subsume ideology into everyday life, to make it seem not only beneficial, but necessary; not only ideal, but inevitable. Whether that ideology is that of an Islamic republic or that of neoliberal/-libertarian “resilience” or whatever ideology a given socially-engaged artwork might wittingly or unwittingly transmit, the methodology is the same: provide support where it is missing.

When I moved to Oakland two years ago, I read a book – American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, by Robert O. Self – thinking I was going to take a class at CCA whose purpose was to create some sort of site-specific project in West Oakland’s historic rail terminal. I did not end up taking the class – which, by the way, failed in its internal negotiations and negotiations with the relators at the terminal, who were/are intent on it becoming yet another yuppie mall in yet another tedious yuppie development in West Oakland – but I did read most of the book. As one can imagine, the history of Oakland is not pretty, and books like this tend to weigh heavily. Self focuses on the lead-up to the overwhelming passage of Proposition 13 – arguably the beginning of the nationwide tax revolt that led to the election of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent gutting of social services – as a turning point in the city’s history. Beginning in the 50s, white residents in and around Oakland – with an emphasis on around, since many white residents simply left Oakland for whiter hills or whiter pastures in surrounding San Leandro, Hayward, Walnut Creek, etc – began a campaign of racist real estate practices against black and Latino populations, ghettoizing them to tiny neighborhoods, shuttering or draining business districts, reducing civic services to a bare minimum or below.

It is too tempting, at this point, to not bring up the striking similarity between the services Hamas provides and the services the Black Panther Provided in Oakland in the 70s, as described by Thompson and others, and to marvel at the implication that the Panthers, too, operated in a vacuum created by a failed state. West Oakland, at this point, had been ghettoized by racist real estate practices; physically separated from the rest of Oakland by a highway; and had lost its historic business and cultural center to the development of that highway. I suppose here the state did not so much fail as leave, or actively act against the people that constituted it (or decided, more accurately, that these people did not belong in the state and tried to make them disappear); the effect, though, was the same. The emergence and subsequent demonization of the Panthers made the “grassroots,” “populist” campaign of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, a wealthy white realtor and a wealthy white former realtor, appear logical to white people across California; Proposition 13 passed with overwhelming support.

Proposition 13 limits property tax to 1% of real property value. Cities use property taxes to fund civic institutions: public schools, libraries, transit systems, and so on – even the police. When Proposition 13 passed, California’s public schools were ranked among the nation’s best; since the passage of Proposition 13, California’s public schools have scuttled down to 48th. Which brings us, finally, to my swivel chair in Little Bangladesh.

Since moving to LA, I figured I should start reading City of Quartz, a sort of go-to history of the city by Mike Davis. So far, I’ve read the preface, which is a sobering catching up of the first edition of the book, published in the late 80s, with the second edition of the books, published in 2006; and the Prologue, the first chapter of the first edition, which relates the history of the early-20th-century (1914 actually, the same year as Bottle Rack) socialist Llano community, its demise, and Davis’s discovery of and conversation with two undocumented itinerant day workers in its ruins. For now, I’ll focus on the preface, which makes the case that the conditions that produced the riots of 1992 – which I think went all the way up to my neighborhood, here in the north of Koreatown (here in Little Bangladesh, in the north of Koreatown, between Historic Filipinotown and Thai Town/Little Armenia) – persist. Since the early 90s, manufacturing has continued to decline, corporations have continued to not headquarter themselves in LA, and

real household incomes fell throughout much of Southern California, but the worst drop in the median income was in the City of Los Angeles, where it fell by 9.1 per cent. At the same time, the percentage of households in poverty increased from 18 to 22 per cent, while the percentage with an annual income of more than $100,000 increased from 9.7 to 15.7 per cent. Almost 700,000 working adults in L.A. County have incomes below the poverty line, and seven of the ten fastest-growing occupations in the city, including cashier and security guard, pay less than $25,000 per year. (xvi)

If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably been listening to NPR or reading the news lately. Both Morning Edition and To the Point – produced here in LA! – have featured segments on growing income inequality recently, spurred by figures published last week by the Atlantic that show that the very richest Americans got even richer, richer than almost ever even, last year, richer than they’ve been since right before 2008 or right before the Great Depression. Davis places the blame largely on Proposition 13, writing that its effects ensure that

the greater part of the real-estate windfall annually passes through the economy, on its way to buy Hummers, Laker tickets, and vacation homes, without paying a tithe to schools and the creation of the human capital on which the future of California will rest. Luxury lifestyles are subsidized, as it were, on both ends: by a seemingly infinite supply of cheap service labor, and by the tax advantages that accrue to real-estate and sumptuary consumption. (xvi)

In the seven years since Davis wrote this, not much seems to have changed: Bentleys and helicopters shuttle the rich (or the police, or the news) across Los Angeles’s jumbled civic topography while precarious service workers cram limited and inefficient public transit and the rest of us in the ever-growing swath between stew in traffic. If anything, these conditions have simply spread across the US. The evaporation of traditional middle-class jobs – manufacturing, teaching – means that a huge range of people are clamoring for the same unpredictable and unreliable service sector jobs. As one of the commentators on the To the Point broadcast mentions (I think), the evaporation of the middle class means also the evaporation of class or income mobility. The poor will stay poor; the indebted will stay indebted; the rich will stay rich.

In the months between when I decided I was going to move to Los Angeles and the day my boyfriend and I actually did move to Los Angeles, I think the most common question – after, perhaps, a disgusted “have you been there?” – was a disgusted “why?” To which I would reply something vague and unhelpful about Los Angeles being ludicrous, fun, etc. Something about the discombobulated setup of the city being exciting, full of holes in which to do something. Perhaps also I would say something about LA being a place where dreams go to die and that I was interested in being in a place where dreams died and seeing what happened next. Actually, I probably never said that; I think I wrote it in a grant application though.  Since moving here, I’m beginning to wonder if Los Angeles is just a microcosm – I hate that word, but there you go – of the US generally. In Los Angeles, there is a horrific gap between the rich and the poor; general public disregard for public institutions; shitty public transit; overwhelming belief in outmoded or disappeared dreams. Proposition 13 heralded a nationwide tax revolt and subsequent gutting of social services, leading in part to the evacuated and disjunct nation we have today. And if art can do anything in LA, perhaps it is a signal of what art – or anything, or anyone – might be able to do in the US generally, across all of its destroyed or depressed cities and towns.

Writing seven years ago, Mike Davis argued for a “more, not less, ideological politics.” Perhaps this is analogous to means more, not less, awareness of the ideology or ideologies buttressing a given socially-engaged project, relational event, or what-have-you; a focus on the support. What’s interesting about Los Angeles and the projects being undertaken here is not that they exist or that their structures might be analogous to those of Hamas or the Black Panthers (or InCUBATE), but rather the ideology being communicated by their action, the thing that they aim to build into everyday life, the thing that will appear effortlessly; what’s interesting about Los Angeles and undertaking a project here is not how hard or easy an environment Los Angeles is to undertake such a project, but rather if one can be organized in such a way that transmits an alternate ideology, something that focuses not on the same old neoliberal catchphrases - innovation, progress, a new vision - but on support, on fostering the conditions where mobility might have a chance to begin to occur again. We’ll see…

Jacob Wick is a conceptual artist based in Los Angeles. For more information, visit jacobwick.info.

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.