Essays

Reflections on a Weekend Devoted to Socially Engaged Art

Panelists at the Ethics and Aesthetics of Place talk at Open Engagement (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Panelists at the “Ethics and Aesthetics of Place” discussion at Open Engagement 2015 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BRISBANE, Australia — On the flight between Pittsburgh and Detroit, I felt art’s potential: Open Engagement 2015’s socially engaged projects had responded to the national discourse on social and racial justice. This promise felt amplified by the vitality of spring in the once great city of Pittsburgh. From Detroit to Los Angeles, my optimism gave way to seeing these interventions as distractions from the complexity of institutionalized power. Finally, somewhere over the Pacific on the way back to Australia, this cynicism fell away and settled into the in-between space of travel, from departure to not yet arrived.

It is this same in-between space that the Open Engagement conference (OE), and perhaps the entire field of socially engaged art, occupies. It may never be aesthetic nor activist enough. The practitioners may never fully dismantle the entrenched neoliberal structures that are part of its creation; its resistance will always be provisional, contingent on site and audience. This year’s OE conference was not quite grassroots, as it was at its inception in 2007, nor fully institutionalized and polished like its slick cousin the Creative Time Summit. It’s mature enough to have listening capacity, but still young enough to foment the optimism that spilled out of the studios at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Art and Design.

Sign for Open Engagement
Sign for Open Engagement

I spent the weekend of April 17–19 in Pittsburgh for OE’s seventh iteration. The theme was place and revolution. Here, artists and their allies moved between ethics and aesthetics to find themselves at the intersection of politics and art. There were murmurs of revolution but certainly no shouting or sign posts. Projects were situated in place, but not always located in history.

Artist Emily Jacir launched the conference on Friday night with a survey of her work, ranging from a collaborative sewing project that addressed (mis)representation and agency among the Palestinian community in New York to the pedagogical approaches (long walks) she takes with art students in Ramallah. Jacir’s work articulates refusal, and she discussed some of her strategies — in relation to her work for the Venice Biennale — to resist art world structures that increasingly set parameters for socially engaged artists. A theme throughout her talk was how amnesia can paralyze activist efforts.

For the next two days, artists, activists, educators, critics, students, and curators stuffed into Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art studios to take in the offerings of 207 presenters. These came in various forms, from longer, 90-minute presentations and panels to 15-minute deliberations, to the ongoing creative projects sprinkled around the campus. Whiteboards, butcher’s paper, breakout groups, and circles of solidarity were among the formal strategies to engage participants. There was a Conversation Series at the Miller Gallery, while bus tours showed off the diversity of Pittsburgh’s social practice, surveying neighborhoods and historical sites of note.

Documentation of Public Matters' Market Makeovers
Documentation of Public Matters’ Market Makeovers

Panels such as “Touching Revolution: Radical Visions and Creative Responses to Mass Incarceration” discussed reducing recidivism by redirecting representation of former inmates; the Emerging Veteran Artists Movement explored creative responses to American militarism; the “Ethics and Aesthetics of Place” panel outlined tactical approaches to increasing health and food availability in underserved areas of Los Angeles (Public Matters’ Market Makeovers). A session titled “La Ruedada: Embodied Stories of Places and (Dis)belonging” started with a traditional Casino Rueda (sometimes known as “Cuban salsa”) performance, followed by a reworking of the Rueda’s calls based on La Ruedada collective’s stories of immigration. Artist Lexa Walsh detailed the value of social practice’s ephemera and workshopped ideas for archiving non-material forms. In a conversation with Queens Museum Director Laura Raicovitch, artist Jon Rubin revealed how he has navigated uncomfortable zones through such projects as his Conflict Kitchen, and explained that for him this occupation is necessary for art to exist.

The conference also covered a range of issues regarding the increased professionalization of the field: funding, for example, which Rubin has so deftly navigated by transitioning Conflict Kitchen — a restaurant that serves foods only from countries with which the US is in conflict — from institutional support to self-funded. OE embraced its own complicity as well, addressing head-on the critique of social practice as a white middle-class profession. Michelada Think Tank’s feedback from last year — a guerrilla tally on the presenters’ diversity — was incorporated and helped make the conference more inclusive (36% non white; 40% international; 62% women) than it had been in previous years. In a session called “Creating a Global Network: Social Practice in Higher Ed,” panelists and audience brainstormed pedagogical strategies to accommodate the professionalization of social art practices. The FIELD Editorial Collective led a compelling session where art writer James McAnally (Temporary Art Review) asked whether writing about socially engaged art is critical to it (the field) or critical of it, and suggested the open form of the field be mimicked in the writing.

Participants in the "Talk is Cheap – Unicorporated Language Laboratories" session
Participants in the “Talk is Cheap – Unicorporated Language Laboratories” session

Artist Rick Lowe rallied everyone to finish off the weekend’s events. He reminded us to ask who gets to determine what qualifies as art. He detailed some of the challenges he faced with his nonprofit Project Row Houses (patronage vs empowerment), and in an unrealized project: learning how to see a place instead of making. He explained how reading Aristotelean ethics solidified his notions of justice. Lowe sees social practice art as a “sustained movement of empowerment of the powerless” — the end goal for him is justice.

I missed many panels, but from what I did experience, the conference was less discursive than it was expository; as a result, most projects had less visually oriented outcomes in favor of a process whereby the creation and development demonstrated activist interventions. The assembled practitioners often work alongside established institutions, NGOs, or other social services organizations that are overlooked in the art world for being either too politically transparent or not artistic enough. And yet, frequently heard was the complaint that a number of projects presented had only a tangential relationship with art — the well-rehearsed debate between art historians Claire Bishop and Grant Kester.

Open Engagement Founder and Director Jen Delos Reyes (click to enlarge)
Open Engagement Founder and Director Jen Delos Reyes (click to enlarge)

OE founder and director Jen Delos Reyes does not make clear her parameters for what qualifies as art or its relevance to the conference. The projects she and her team curated seem to rely on how art can be used as an instrumental strategy to ameliorate social ills through intervention and alliance building. Is it less important to count these as art than to see what a project is capable of accomplishing in the end? Value comes with process. But other questions arise: Who is the conference for? Is it meant to build a movement through coalitions of allies? To showcase best practices in socially engaged art? To open up a discursive space that allows for criticality, questions of ethics and efficacy?

Before traveling to OE 2015, I was in Los Angeles and heard the term “tea cozy art” used in reference to the tendency of some social practice art to present convivial situations and facilitate agency in marginalized groups without ever really dismantling the institutional structures that create oppression. I wouldn’t devalue this work altogether, but I do see a risk in these contexts to obscure the complexity and pervasiveness of inequality. Some framing around the conference’s theme of place and revolution would have grounded many of the projects in social and political histories, in the tangled economic realities that so many people face; without such frameworks, the terms remained vague. Was this a missed opportunity, a resistance to strict definitions and their literal interpretations, and/or a result of the broad, inclusive nature of OE? I don’t know, but finding constructive ways to respond to history, place, and the intersection of economics and politics remains a critical component worthy of its own conference.

Micheleda Think Tank
Micheleda Think Tank (click to enlarge)

Like the Creative Time Summit and A Lived Practice symposium in Chicago, Open Engagement needs to answer for its audiences. While building a sense of community and solidarity, as all of these do in their own way, the conferences remain insular, needing many more people of color and members of the queer and disabled communities. A good number of projects seemed to take inspiration from grassroots organizations engaged in this larger question, but it remains important to speak to institutionalized power, which holds at its center art schools, funding agencies, and museums. The presenters often presumed that we all shared left-leaning politics and middle class values, but with that comes a whole bag of assumptions. And such insularity is a vulnerability. Challenging some of those assumptions would flesh out the stickier aspects of the field — how can this art movement continue to reach beyond itself?

As OE moves into its next phase — a three-year cycle that will take it to Oakland, Chicago, and back to the Queens Museum in New York — it will no doubt continue to offer support and opportunities for these communities of practice to showcase the tendentious relationship between art and politics (after all, not everyone wants politics mixed with their art and not all politics are served by art). As the field grows, OE will also become more institutionalized, more polished, and more accountable to how this discourse unfolds. Can socially engaged art move from a consequence of gesture to gestures of consequence (artist Daniel Joseph Martinez, A Lived Practice 2014) while remaining ethical and variegated? Can we appease the ghost of Bishop by creating what curator Nato Thompson described at OE 2014 as aesthetic opacity with political transparency? These perennial questions need to be interrogated, and answered, with nuance and rigor.

We need moments in social and cultural life when we catch glimpses of utopia, when other possibilities of being are imagined and even partially realized. OE was an inspiring gathering for anyone who recognizes that something is missing and desires to be a part of creating the future — an imperfect but necessary assertion of what is not yet.

Open Engagement 2015 took place at Carnegie Mellon University and other sites throughout Pittsburgh from April 17 to 19.

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