Welcome to day six 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.
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 six’s discussions, below:
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Trigger(Ed): Ethics of Witnessing, 4-5:30pm EDT
Live-blogged by Valentina Di Liscia
Speakers: Chelsey Webber-Brandis (Philadelphia, PA), Kristen Shahverdian (Philadelphia, PA)
4:01pm EDT: And we’re back. This session “explores trauma-informed practices through the lens of trigger warnings.”
4:03pm EDT: Breakout session questions for later are being shared now. Then we’re going to start with a grounding exercise. Some of the questions we’ll be addressing:
4:05pm EDT: The exercise we’re doing is the “5-4-3-2-1 coping technique.” It starts with diaphragmatic breathing as a group. We’ll be using our five senses to tap into the present moment, starting with identifying five things that you can see; then four you can feel; etc.
4:07pm EDT: Also, the speakers have shared a content warning for the session. I’m including it below here for our readers following online, too.
CONTENT WARNING: In our presentation we discuss artistic works that depict violence. We will warn participants before presenting graphic or visceral content and participants can opt in or out at will. While the nature of the meeting streamlines opting in or out, doing so while in quarantine puts pressure on our ability to provide care should one be affected by the subject matter. It is our hope to create a space where everyone feels supported to navigate the material.
Before each triggering slide, we will take a moment to acknowledge this with a HAZARD symbol: ☣️
When we move on to something that will not be triggering we will use the grounding symbol: ?
4:11pm EDT: Chelsey Webber-Brandis has worked as a dancer and art teacher for years, and in the last few she has been focusing on trauma as subject matter. She’s sharing an interesting history I didn’t know about the term “trauma”: it was traditionally used only for physical injuries. In the last century it has taken on another meaning, acknowledging that injuries can be emotional.
4:15pm EDT: What is trauma? Not only sexual assault, partner violence, and child maltreatment, but also war-related trauma, school bullying, natural disasters, and prejudice, just to name a few.
4:17pm EDT: Webber-Brandis is providing a lot of background here I think is worth mentioning. In the 1990s, she says, a lot of research began to look at people who had traumatic experiences as children and tracked specifically how they were impacted. (Among the best known was the ACE Study, or Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.)
4:20pm EDT: In the presentation, a few important terms are being defined: safe space, brave space, consent culture, call out culture, cancel culture, and trauma porn. These are so, so important to really understand:
4:21pm EDT: Kristen Shahverdian has the mic. She’s sharing a 2013 performance in which she rolled in the dirt until she was exhausted, sometimes bleeding. It’s very visceral.
4:25pm EDT: “How do we witness the pain of others?” asks Shahverdian.
4:26pm EDT: Photography played a role in how we learned to witness “distant others.” A lot of scholarship around witnessing developed around Holocaust survivors. On Shahverdian’s screen, she shares some profound and difficult questions: is bearing witness a moral responsibility? Does sympathy keep us from action?
4:30pm EDT: Among what art can contribute to these questions: acknowledge the inherent problematics of being a witness; emphasize image over words; and share non-linear experiences and memories (which is how trauma and memories work, in a non-linear way.)
4:32pm EDT: A content warning is coming up, for both the image on the screen and the accompanying audio to come. We can see the yellow “hazard symbol” on the screen.
4:33pm EDT: On the next screen is a photograph by Ana Mendieta, “Untitled (Rape Scene)” (1973). This is from one of Mendieta’s staged rape scenes. The subject’s hands are bound, her naked body exposed, covered in blood. If you’d like to see the photograph, click here.
4:35pm EDT: When Shahverdian first saw this image, she had a feeling of both wanting to look away and return to it, understand it. This actually sums up a lot of my experiences with Mendieta’s work. (And what makes it so alluring, at least to me.)
4:40pm EDT: Shahverdian wraps up her presentation with thoughts on how to engage audiences in her performances. That includes performing actions collectively with the audience, even small ones, like sitting, standing, walking. I can see how these simple movements bestow a sense of agency and control.
4:42pm EDT: Webber-Brandis is now delving into “the art of trigger warnings.”
4:44pm EDT: For one of her projects, she projected documentation of a domestic altercation onto herself. The recording was shaky and blurry, but the audio content was quite graphic. She used headphones so attendees walking around weren’t forced to hear this all day long; instead, they could choose to.
4:45pm EDT: (This is really important. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into a gallery or museum exhibition where a time-based media work was on view and headphones were not made available. I remember one very violent piece about war that I and other visitors were visibly disturbed by; we had to listen to it on loop if we wanted to see the rest of the show, which I found thoughtless.)
4:50pm EDT: Webber-Brandis shares consent and opting-in best practices in educational settings. For example, introducing the content and then asking students to leave the classroom for five minutes. They can come back if they want to, but this gives them the ability to opt out without others noticing. (Brilliant!)
4:52pm EDT: It’s important to have your own self-care (resilience) and safety (de-escalation plans). She shares hers, which involve essential oils and cat cuddles:
4:58pm EDT: We’re going into our breakout groups now.
5pm EDT: I’m in group 2, “Embodying the Pain of Others.” Our question is: “Is embodying the pain of others a worthwhile trade-off for gaining empathy and understanding?
5:02pm EDT: One of our group members brings up Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket.” When she faced controversy, the artist justified her connection to the work as a way of accessing (“embodying”) the pain of Emmett Till’s mother, she says.
5:05pm EDT: Another asks: but what does “embodying” mean to all of us? If an artist or writer expresses the point of view of another, is that embodiment? And if so, what are its limits?
5:09pm EDT: “Bearing witness is important; it’s the first step. Empathy is not necessarily a guaranteed feeling, but acknowledging is essential.”
5:13pm EDT: Someone else brings up a really interesting point. How to negotiate embodying pain and trigger warnings, especially if they dip into censorship (in this example, a video piece that was edited to remove graphic content that the viewer felt she needed to connect to)?
5:16pm EDT: In its typically abrupt fashion, Zoom has tossed us all back to the main room. We’re going to share our notes.
5:17pm EDT: Interesting that Group 1 also discussed Dana Schutz’s painting.
5:26pm EDT: Someone brings up the “Scaffold” controversy at the Walker Art Center in 2017, which centered around a gallows-like sculpture by Sam Durant. “The museum thought it had the right to start the conversation, but the elders of the Indigenous community essentially pushed back: this is our trauma,” says the speaker.
5:30pm EDT: We’re closing this session with a collective breathing exercise and some much-needed shoulder rolls.
Nomadic Art Spaces & Organizations: A Solution for Sustainability and a Progressive Vision for the Future of Grassroots Organizations, 2-3:30pm EDT
Live-blogged by Valentina Di Liscia
Speakers: j. bilhan (Houston, TX), Jessi Bowman (Houston, TX), Terry Suprean (Houston, TX)
2:01pm EDT: Waiting for the conference to start. This is a virtual Q&A that aims to “define what it means to be nomadic.”
2:03pm EDT: There are 137 people “here,” and counting.
2:05pm EDT: j. bilhan says this isn’t a lecture, it’s an active discussion. We’re going to talk about what nomadic space means and the implications of that model. The conversation will be broken up into 5 sections; after each section participants can activate their microphones and speak up.
2:08pm EDT: Jessi Bowman is introducing herself now. She is a founder and curator of Flats, a nomadic exhibition series. They create a platform for Houston-based photographers to show their work in more intimate, non-traditional spaces. It’s also a photo lab and community darkroom space.
2:11pm EDT: Terry Suprean comes from Civic TV, an interdisciplinary lab and arts space in Houston.
2:12pm EDT: j. bilhan starts by saying he is not an expert on the subject of nomadic spaces, which somehow makes me want to listen to him more than I do people who self-refer to themselves as experts.
2:13pm EDT: Nomadic spaces don’t have overhead so they can be more sustainable than other typical commercial spaces; in that sense, they resist the capitalist model.
2:19pm EDT: Something Bowman just said got my attention in a good way. She was talking about how Flats artists have also had shows at “more established spaces” and then quickly corrected herself: “actually, no, I shouldn’t say that, we’re established!”
2:22pm EDT: Suprean: Civic TV was founded in 2014. He rented out a warehouse on Houston’s East End, at the time full of abandoned buildings and very cheap. There were quite a few artist-run alternative spaces in that area. He actually didn’t set out to create a nomadic art space, in fact he was subletting some of the extra rooms to artists.
2:26pm EDT: Gentrification in Houston moves at increasing speeds, says Suprean. Alternative spaces get “gobbled up” by big corporations. They wanted to avoid that happening to Civic TV.
2:30pm EDT: “We wanted to operate without the need for regular funding.” They applied for small grants here and there when projects required them, but most of the exhibitions they put on came from a non-funded standpoint; Suprean lived in the space.
2:32pm EDT: “The reason for choosing that was that I saw a lot of small arts organizations dispersed after grant funding dried up. We wanted to be a no-profit arts space in a very practical way.”
2:33pm EDT: One key to this was community resource-sharing. A shared spreadsheet lists a network of people that can pitch in; that cuts down on the cost of exhibitions. Suprean describes it as an open, non-hierarchical collective; it does not rely on one individual and is led by the influences of all involved.
2:35pm EDT: I’m thinking one metaphor could be the arts organization version of a commune, which I’m personally all about.
2:40pm EDT: But ideals did not always match reality, says Suprean. After losing several locations they decided on a “roaming model” — note that they weren’t using the term “nomadic” yet.
2:41pm EDT: This new model “was what our ideals were leading to all along.” (I have to stop here and comment on how eloquent, ordered, and clear Suprean’s ideas are.)
2:42pm EDT: The floor is opening up for questions.
2:45pm EDT: Someone asks: why not operate as an independent curator? Why is “gallery space” as a model important?
2:46pm EDT: Bowman makes a good point: when you’re working as an independent curator you still depend on other institutions/spaces to host you and that means you may have to deal with some of their “red tape.”
2:56pm EDT: Another question is coming from someone who’s been an institutional curator and and independent curator, and now is interested in creating a new nomadic institution in her own community. “What stewardship policies or approaches have you cultivated around the use of spaces that don’t belong to you or rely on the trust of individuals? ”
2:59pm EDT: The chat is urging speakers to address artist compensation or the valuation of artists’ labor .
3:05pm EDT: The conversation has shifted to some of the practical aspects of nomadic spaces, such as: when do you need insurance? (Important!) How do you deal with conflicts between artists or exhibition hosts?
3:11pm EDT: Bowman says anytime she talks to someone who wants to host an exhibition, she lays out everything ahead of time, shows them pictures of other shows, and walk them through point by point. (She didn’t always do that before, which maybe led to some conflict.)
3:14pm EDT: A participant asks: how do these spaces deal with lack of consistency of programming? Is it possible for a space to exist if there isn’t the consistent programs of physical spaces (i.e., shows every month)?
3:16pm EDT: That question makes me think about the current state of self-isolation most of us are in, and how most organizations are operating without a physical space as employees work from home (myself included.) What are the limitations of not having a physical space? And more polemically, perhaps, what are the benefits?
3:21pm EDT: Bowman points out that the flexibility of a nomadic space, and the very lack of a strict programming schedule, can actually boost creativity and provide a workaround to burnout. “We handle what we can, and it keeps our audiences interested,” she says.
3:23pm EDT: The session is almost over. We’re moving quickly into talking about digital art spaces, which feels especially timely now.
3:24pm EDT: j. bilhan says that the idea of a virtual, non-physical gallery is becoming much more mainstream and commercially viable. You can buy VR headsets online, for instance. But it brings up issues of data poverty: who has access? (Really glad to hear this brought up.)
3:25pm EDT: Bowman reads my mind: she says she’s a little saturated of online shows. And I totally feel that. On one hand, I realize it’s important for art to find new platforms right now, but I’m also so tired of looking at a screen. What’s the solution?
3:27pm EDT: Suprean worked on a virtual tour for Civic TV’s last show, which can be accessed here. He says the online medium has opened it up to a larger audience, and hopefully a different demographic.
3:30pm EDT: “This was a big show and I would have assumed we would have gotten a great turnout for the opening. On the other hand, we’re getting hundreds of site clicks a week, which I know is more than would have been touring the space to see the show on a weekly basis.”
3:30pm EDT: The session is coming to an end. j. bilhan says there are lots of great conversations to be had, and good resources and questions on the chat. They hope to download the chat transcript and answer some of them personally over the next few days.