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Live Blogging Discussions of Community Engagement, Environmentalism, and Social Practice

Check out Hyperallergic’s live report of day two of the Common Field Convening.

From the 2019 Common Field Convening in Philadelphia (photo by Constance Mensh, courtesy of Common Field)

Welcome to day two of the Common Field Convening, originally slated to take place in person in Houston, Texas. The gathering of more than 500 arts organizers in the US includes panels, workshops, and conversations touching upon topics of equity, collaboration, and sustainability across various arts fields.

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the conferences have shifted online, taking place on April 23-25; April 30; and May 1-3. A full program, along with links to sign up for each conference, can be found on Common Field’s website

Hyperallergic will be live-blogging select conferences on every day of the convening. (Read our commentary on sessions from day one here.)

The ongoing health crisis, which has had a devastating impact on the cultural sector, means some of the issues addressed in the Common Field Convening are more urgent than ever before. Read about day two’s discussions, below:

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People and Place – Social Practice in Practice, 6-7:30pm EDT

Live-blogged by Jasmine Weber

Speakers: Carol Zou (Los Angeles, CA), Carrie Schneider​ (Houston, TX), Ryan Dennis (Houston, TX), Sixto Wagan (Houston, TX)

6:10pm EDT: The conversation is off to a late start, but there are nearly 350 attendees on the Zoom so far — it’s heartening to know how many people are interested in learning about and expanding social practice.

6:14pm EDT: The panelists are discussing the history of the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts – Project Row Houses Fellowships and its development. Dennis is giving a breakdown of Project Row Houses, a 27-year-old organization in the historically Black Third Ward of Houston.

6:21pm EDT: “This fellowship wouldn’t exist without relationships,” says Sixto Wagan, inaugural director of the Center for Art and Social Engagement (CASE) at the University of Houston. In Houston, the arts community has a noted history of relationships between people and organizations, he adds.

6:23pm EDT: The inception of the fellowship, Wagan says, included discussions of whether there “was there a way for us [University of Houston] to model what social practice or responsible community-engaged practice might look like, as a university program.” Another guiding principle was to amplify the work of Project Row Houses as a pillar of the community.

6:26pm EDT: Dennis is discussing the issues that spring up with some social practice artists who don’t do the necessary work to learn about the community. She is explaining the way the Project Row Houses fellowships push against this, saying: “We wanted to develop a kind of learning process that we could kind of build up with the artist and allow for something that was really organic and responsive. We also wanted, as a guiding principle, to be respectful and responsive and really move with the idea of inaction, doing no harm, to the communities and the individuals that we were connecting with.”

6:35pm EDT: Schneider shouts out adrienne maree brown’s book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. I’ve heard so many great things about this book, I need to add it to my list ASAP. She posits a great question: “Where does great creativity come out of? Does it come out of dire circumstances, like in the petrochemical belly of the beast, Houston?” Earlier, she explained that she came from a conservative, racist town outside of Houston. After attending art school for undergrad, she ended up choosing to further her practice in her hometown rather than pursuing an MFA, and was backed by Project Row Houses “to root in my own hometown, instead of chasing itinerant project-based accolades. I could really develop my research.”

6:40pm EDT: Zou, from Dallas, says she was initially hesitant to accept the fellowship as Project Row Houses is “so deeply rooted in Houston” and “so deeply rooted in Black arts and culture.”

6:45pm EDT: I’ve always wanted to learn more about Project Row Houses, so learning about the impact it has in its community is really fascinating to me. It’s rare to find an organization so genuinely embedded in and concerned with its community.

6:53pm EDT: Zou and Schneider found a common love in Korean Spas, and have been working on a project called “Spa Embassy” which “was premised as spa days for activists.” Um, as an enormous fan of spas, count me in. Now, however, the project has taken new shape post-COVID-19, and they’re thinking of ways to transform what sounds like, to me, an incredible idea.

6:57pm EDT: I just noticed that Zou changed her background from an image of Project Row Houses to a really incredible looking spa.

7:00pm EDT: We’re moving on to the Q&A.

7:05pm EDT: Zou is talking about the polyvagal ladder — a stress response theory about how our bodies respond to trauma, which I had not heard of before today. She makes a poignant comment that will resonate with me for a bit after this panel: “In my experience working in communities with a lot of high trauma, I find it necessary to make space for what that traumatic aftershock might be. Like, what happens when we’re no longer ready to go. […] And so one of my curiosities right now is: How do we understand — how do we integrate this understanding and ritual of healing in the public sphere and in the public consciousness? And actually make it okay for us to stop and take stock of what is happening to us?”

7:11pm EDT: Someone asked a great question regarding how to negotiate partnerships between small and large organizations.

7:13pm EDT: Wagan’s response: “I think when we talk about most of the interactions between small organizations and large institutions, I’m not sure that there’s always a shared purpose. I’m not sure that there’s always a shared value system. And I think that with this fellowship, it is very clear about how we are positioning it, and in what ways those elements are significant to the values and the mission of Row Houses and the values and mission of University of Houston.” My takeaway: when partnering, organizations need to push one another forward to both of their benefits, and find the most productive way to highlight both of their values, rather than privileging one over the other.

7:16pm EDT: The speakers are discussing the idea of community accountability generally, as there are a number of questions on the topic.

7:20pm EDT: Dennis says: “It’s important to recognize what your intention is. Starting with some intention, a little bit of self-awareness about what it is that you are interested in doing in said community […] I just think it’s important to kind of ask some serious questions.
 Are you starting with a project that you just kind of want to live in this space, and you wanted to live in this space because aesthetically it looks good?” There are so many great, poignant quotes coming from these presenters.

7:22pm EDT: Dennis adds another important note, that artists invited to work with communities should consider what the organization’s relationship is to that community and its residents.

7:23pm EDT: Schneider: “I’ve never known a creative practice outside of responding to emergency.” This is a great thought to start winding down with.

7:26pm EDT: Wagan is wrapping up with a discussion about the program’s next steps, like a plan to measure community response metrics. Overall, the stream was a great experience to learn more about the arts community in Houston.

Art & Environmental Activism from the Frontline, 4-5:30pm EDT

Live-blogged by Hakim Bishara

Speakers: Cara Despain (Miami, FL), Franky Cruz (Miami, FL), Misael Soto (Miami, FL), Monica Peña (Miami, FL)

4:03pm EDT: Monica Peña opens the meeting after some technical delays. Peña oversees the WaveMaker Grants at Locust Projects, Miami’s longest-running alternative art space.

4:04pm EDT: WaveMaker is part of the Andy Warhol Foundation’s regional grants program.

4:07pm EDT: Peña is is joined by a group of Miami-based artists who engage with climate change and other environmental issues in their work.

4:11pm EDT: Misael Soto starts his presentation with a project in which he used gas-powered water pumps to generate fountains at a Miami beach.

Misael Soto used gas-powered water pumps to generate fountains at a Miami beach

4:15pm EDT: He has also built an amphitheater using flood sandbags. The sand comes from Miami soil.

Soto has also built an amphitheater using flood sandbags from Miami soil

4:23pm EDT: Cara Despain is speaking about “Golden Spikes”, large-scale geologic events that lead to long-lasting global changes and mark a shift between epochs. A timely term.

4:27pm EDT: Her challenge, she says, is “how to visualize things that are still invisible to us.”

Despain speaking about “Golden Spikes”

4:30pm EDT: “Miami Beach is not a real beach. The sand was brought from elsewhere and it created a mess,” says Despain, criticizing romantic views of the “Miami paradise”.

4:33pm EDT: Despain shows a photo of cow feces that she captured at a dried-up Miami aqueduct. She later created a sculpture modeled after the cow’s excrement.

Despain shows a photo of cow feces

4:38pm EDT: Franky Cruz’s practice involves capturing and rearing butterflies to make paintings and performances. “I brought the caterpillars into my studio and they never left,” he describes the beginning of his project.

Franky Cruz chasing butterflies
Butterflies at Cruz’s studio

4:47pm EDT: Cruz says he once raised 800 butterflies in his studio for a performance.

4:50pm EDT: He raises the caterpillars in his garden, then moves them into “mesh quarantines” at his lab/studio and feeds them (with two specific types of plants) until they release the butterflies. Their discards become artworks.

Cruz raises caterpillars in his garden, then moves them into “mesh quarantines”

4:58pm EDT: Peña asks Despain about parallels between Miami and the Southwest, which is also featured in her work. The similarities between environmental calamities in these two locations are greater than people think, Despain says.

5:06pm EDT: Answering a question from the audience, Soto talks about the “Department of Reflection” that he launched at the municipality of Miami as the city’s artist in residence.

5:11pm EDT: “Look at what’s happening during this pandemic,” Despain says. “The sky is blue, the water is clear … change is possible.”

5:14pm EDT: Continuing the optimistic tone, Soto says, “People are suddenly engaged, because it’s a matter of survival, and they’re looking for something better. Artists can lead in presenting alternatives.”

5:20pm EDT: A climactic moment is approaching: Cruz is about to release butterflies to the outdoors for the audience.

5:21pm EDT: Anticlimax — the butterfly he picked refuses to fly.

Cruz’s butterfly refuses to fly.

5:23pm EDT: But a second one does.

5:29pm EDT: The webinar has ended, but the participants are sticking around to answer more questions from the audience.

 

Let’s Get Real about Community Engagement – Sharing Lessons, 2-3:30pm EDT

Live-blogged by Valentina Di Liscia

Speaker: Sarah Peters (St. Paul, MN)

2pm EDT: And we’re off! Sarah Peters is introducing herself. She’s the executive director of Northern Lights.mn, a nonprofit that helps artists create art in the public space.

2:08pm EDT: There’s 94 people here! It’s inspiring to see so many faces showing up for these issues, even if it’s online.

2:13pm EDT: Peters is describing one big festival they work on every year called Northern Spark, a two-day late-night public art event with video projections, temporary installations, and performances.

2:16pm EDT: Something that literally NEVER HAPPENS in the art world is happening: Peters is listing the ways in which the organization has not been a good community partner. As a kind of “here’s what not to do.” This is incredibly refreshing.

2:20pm EDT: For Northern Spark 2017 the festival took place along the Green Line in Minneapolis and St. Paul, spanning some historic black neighborhoods. The festival was not an “equitable partnership,” says Peters, adding that some of those involved did not know the community in-depth. “An example of moving too fast, not having enough conversations, and plowing ahead because of a timeline we felt we had no control of,” she says.

2:25pm EDT: Part of the problem was communication/transparency…indicating that there is a collective decision-making process “when we’re really the ones making the decisions,” says Peters. Art world/nonprofit professionals are trained to hold their cards close to their chest, not share budgets, etc., but we need more information sharing. Well said. Lessons were learned for future festivals (i.e. Northern Lights 2019, which worked with Native American communities.) 

2:3opm EDT: Just have to share this list of lessons on her presentation. So many organizations could benefit from these:

A screenshot from Peters’s presentation.

2:32pm EDT: The conference is now shifting to breakout groups (for those not Zoom-fluent yet, that’s when a panel breaks out into smaller groups of participants for more intimate discussion sections.)

2:36pm EDT: I am in “Breakout Room #4,” obviously the best breakout group of all.

2:38pm EDT: We’re going around the circle introducing ourselves. My new friends include Lauren, an art education professor at the University of Idaho and chair of her town’s arts commission, and Bora, who runs the residencies at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in New York. I hope they think I’m cool.

2:45pm EDT: Another member of our little group, Anita, is a visual arts archivist who is building a public archive of female artists in Miami. She’s talking about advisory boards and their roles. 

2:46pm EDT: Sarah Peters, who is acting as a moderator for our group, is stepping in to talk about her org’s advisory group. Here is something I found surprising: they are paid. It was important for her that they compensate those people.

2:49pm EDT: Bora is jumping in. “I’m always mindful of how we ask people for their expertise.”

2:50pm EDT: Peters: it’s important that we are actually open to the input of those we ask to be on our advisory group. “So many artists say to me, ‘I’ve been on so many of these advisory boards and they’re bullshit. Nothing ever changes.'”

2:55pm EDT: This has turned into a really interesting conversation about advisory council members (read: people compensated to give their expertise to make the org better) and board members (usually giving to the institution, stakeholders.) I.e., how do we broker those two relationships?

3pm EDT: Another member of our group, Kristen, says we need balance of power. People who have money can’t just have all of the decision-making power.

3:04pm EDT: Now we’re nerding out on advocacy resources for public art / community engagement. One standout for Peters: Forecast Public Art.

3:10pm EDT: We are now all being returned to the “main” room automatically. I love this conference, but this Zoom breakout room thing makes me dizzy.

3:17pm EDT: The different breakout groups are sharing their conversations/findings. Interesting to note how we were all talking about power in different ways, or who gets to make the decisions. That question seems to have come up in all of the breakout groups regardless of what the focus of the conversation was, from board members to mutually beneficial partnerships to metrics.

3:25pm EDT: Wrapping up. Overall an amazing group of people from all sorts of organizations. It does seem like a lot of good dialogue was going on in these breakout meetings that got cut short, unfortunately. One group asked themselves: if you had as much money as you wanted for your organization, what would you do with it? I wish I had gotten to hear those answers!

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