Making art politically: a reflection on Open Engagement 2016
“…and when I say ‘political’, I don’t mean that one should make political art, but that one has to make art politically” – Thomas Hirschhorn, Letter to Thierry, 1994
Why and how do people gather? Specifically, people that share some thread of a common interest – in art, in art-as-doing-something-which-is-not-just-art, in art as a collective, community-oriented practice which often involves critical components of difference, privilege, access, inclusion and equity and who like to get together in panel form to speak on behalf of a practice. This form, aptly suited for professionals and those in their orbit, is the conference – most recently Open Engagement 2016. In thinking about conferences as a meeting structure, as a form that it is perhaps time to rethink, Open Engagement comes around again to challenge and provoke, to provide the opportunity to question where this field, which hasn’t quite congealed into a field, if it should at all, is headed.
Appropriately, the struggle continues as to who controls the narrative. By professing openness as a founding principle1, as a conference Open Engagement both represents where practitioners think the field is headed, by virtue of what they apply to talk about, and also an evolving lens through which we can sense what the organizing body sees as pressing. Over the past few years, the conference shifted from being rooted at Portland State University, where it had been housed since 2008, to now being rotated through different institutional hosts, mostly museum – this year was at the Oakland Museum of Art and California College of the Arts, next year at University of Illinois of Chicago and following that, to the Queens Museum where it was hosted in 2014, all with participation from consortium member A Blade of Grass. Both shifting geography and institutional context add an extra layer to its proceedings – how does city identity mark the practice? What relationships do these institutions have to their communities in order to fully represent the breadth of local activity? Whom should be the arbiter of a community’s history and practices?
These questions necessarily come attached to controversy. Notably, local artist Favianna Rodriguez shared on Facebook her dismay that, as an artist deeply involved in Oakland’s art and social justice world and founder of local arts organization Eastside Arts Alliance, she was initially asked to contribute contacts and advice in the planning process, then had her proposal to participate as a presenter rejected. Furthermore, many of those in her community, who had been doing likeminded work in Oakland for decades, were unaware that this nationwide conference, with seemingly much overlap, was taking place in their city. Adjunct professors, students and alumni from California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute also held a protest at the Oakland Museum of Art during Open Engagement pointing out “the hypocrisy of the schools’ public face in support of social justice issues while at the same time resisting the adjunct faculty unions’ core goals of job security and a living wage.2 As outsiders, it is impossible to know how the process went down internally or the relationship with sponsoring organizations, however when POWER is the stated theme, these local debates brought up by artists, organizations and cultural workers who speak from outside the institutional frame of the museum and the schools are important to bring to light.
When organizations like Open Engagement, who may have the best intentions in mind to support and make room for artists and communities who are working towards a more just world, work through questions around representation, the allocation of resources, institutional demands, privilege, accessibility, and dismantling white supremacy, still somehow see this work as being separate from or outside of the superstructures which allow it to exist, there is a problem. Museums and institutional spaces are complicated and certainly not to be shunned outright. However, if a value proposition is not presented that challenges the particular site or discipline’s exclusionary histories, or if there isn’t open recognition that anti-authoritarianism and anti-institutional ideologies are at the root of many practices and therefore always are resistant to the behavioral space of professional discourse of conference-making, then while Open Engagement may make room for conversations to take place, they ignore the ways in which that space is constructed, replicating the very thing that it’s meaning to dismantle.
Oppressive regimes are replicated in the conference format precisely because the conference as a form necessarily relies on representation as a linchpin of dialogue. Representation that most often takes the form of one to two hour long panels couched in identitarian terms that, due to time constraints, audience investment, and the pressure placed on panelists by competing panels to narrativize their work and experience in a compelling and coherent way. As a result of these obstructions the very identities that the conference intends to care for cannot express themselves or their projects in their full lived complexity. Add to this the high expectations which naturally arise when one calls to order a convening on Power, Justice, or Sustainability (the focus of this year’s and the next two years of Open Engagement) – and we can see why it’s so difficult to locate a sense of shared politics and shared action. What do institutional perspectives, grassroots activists, and contemporary artists hold in common, if anything? And what is the place of art in all of this? Is the conference form the problem or is it that conferences like these cannot decide if they are privileging art or social justice?
What we see is a middling effect that settles uncomfortably between these two spheres, and while they can co-exist in the right setting, what isn’t reconciled is that contemporary art’s reliance on authorship, art historical foundations, and a history of practice that draws strategies from conceptualism and historical avant-gardes is not the same legacy as histories of community-based activism and engagement that are also reacting to erasure, trauma and disinvestment. Bringing these worlds of contemporary and community arts together in conversation is essential and interesting but can’t be wished into being by holding concurrent panels at the museum. Both hold their own powers and privileges and we would do better to challenge what’s at stake – resources, discourse, future possibilities.
Though this problem is not subject to Open Engagement alone. As one of the founders and organizers of Hand-in-Glove, a conference centered on arts organizing, Abby and many others involved have also struggled with form, audience, and shared values. Last year’s conference in Minneapolis, organized by local artists Works Progress sited at The Soap Factory, an arts organization which served the local arts community, and included an advisory board of invested artists and thinkers from the area, made evident many questions around what organizing means in the context of social justice versus arts communities, as well as how nonprofit arts organizations and professional administrators can be both allies or barriers to progress. But, as Anthony pointed out in his article To Participate or to Self-Organize: Reflections on the Experience of Race at Hand-in-Glove 2015, even with those intentions, artists and communities of color were spoken of as non-present third parties, despite being present, resulting in the erasure of those in the room who live in complex identities and reenacting how their experiences are codified by others daily. Because even if a conference is organized within an alternative space by a local group of arts organizers in deep conversation with many across different communities, it can still read externally as the same as what happens at the museum or other institutions because the forms of representation reflect structural principles that are at play outside the conference room. How can we escape? What are the assumptions of whom is professional or not? Where are professionalism and community practices incommensurable? Is that an interesting place to work in?
“Why do you have to be so white?” asked Angela Anderson Guerrero, one of the self-identified people of color asked to respond to the white-identified artists who shared their coming to racial consciousness stories in White Privilege in Social Practice: White and POC Artists Share, further elaborating to say, “How do you all understand your positionality, what is a world without your whiteness?” Unfortunately, the panel had very little answers but it brings up the question – Why does Open Engagement feel so white? What does it mean to feel that Open Engagement is a white space, professed by many online and at the conference, yet many presenters are people of color and the conference itself was founded by a woman of color?
Michelada Think Tank, a group of socially conscious artists interested in facilitating conversation and community around issues facing people of color, originated with a critique of Open Engagement 2014 presenter demographics, pointing out that Open Engagement 2016 featured 51% white presenters (a decrease from 72% in 2014) in a city that is only 34.5% white. Hand-in-Glove also received its own criticisms about its whiteness, despite the concerted efforts of its Minneapolis organizers for broader representation in its speakers and in the planning process. Again, to go back to the internal process versus the public facing result, we are talking about well-meaning efforts to change presenter demographics but still run up against the issues of language and site. If a hosting organization is read within its own community as white space, if its language of the discourse is read as white and exclusionary, then even the people of color speaking or organizing becoming subject to to this call of overwhelming whiteness. What does it mean to create a space for discourse that is not white? It’s a structural question, as many emerging fields including social practice and new methods in art administration draw upon radical organizing histories but aspire to, or at least struggle with, institutional legibility.
One recent example of upsetting these dynamics would be a panel discussion at In/Out Symposium in 2015, organized by Moore’s Graduate Social & Studio Practices department in collaboration with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, in which Immigrant Movement International Corona presented on their recent activities sans Tania Bruguera in their native language of Spanish. The audience was presented with translation devices, effectively creating a space where those in the audience who didn’t have Spanish as a first language could for a moment feel what the presenters had been experiencing throughout the proceedings, and this brief intervention of language justice hinted at what it might mean to displace the authority of dominant ways of understanding and demands for legibility and immediate understanding. Instead, as an audience we experience where we are inside and outside their processes, where whatever limitations of cultural understandings that are in the room are laid bare as part of the process of understanding the work.
So the question becomes: How might we gather better?
In the days following the conference, as we decompressed and began to discuss what would eventually become this reflection, we stumbled upon a phrase, “We tend to ourselves”, which may be of use for us here as we consider how we might gather in the future. Behind this phrase is a feeling that how we care for our persons is necessarily a collective pursuit and requires us to conceptualize our individual personhood outside of colonial ideas of property and ownership – ideas which are reflected again in things like “Master” classes and other hierarchical conference structures – in favor of recognizing the inherent collectivity required to be in the world. In this way, we might deemphasize the individual and its sibling, exceptionalism, in hopes of replacing them with collectivity and mutuality. This is not to imply a homogeneity but rather a revaluing of ourselves and the social lives that they produce. To build a practice around removing, rethinking, and revaluing notions of the self and its relationship to others, necessarily requires that we rethink how we gather and for what purpose. Is there room for us together without purpose? To evacuate professionalism and careerism from our gatherings? To learn from the spaces in which our artistic and cultural practices emerge, the dance floors, the neighborhoods, the barbecues, the dinner parties, late night conversations, and on, and on? These are after all the situations and environments in which so many of us feel ourselves to be a part of a network of mutuality for the first time, and in recognizing ourselves in that space, feel other persons as our own and vice versa. It is from these situations that we feel those sensations (belonging, responsibility, etc.) that guide us through our work. Art can bring us together but it certainly does not automatically mean we share values, politics or identities. It’s a simple thing to say but as a strategy to enact, it can mean addressing that community engagement coordinators at museums, social practice educators at universities, activist printmakers, performance art historians, struggling artists, famous artists, students trying to figure out what’s going on, could use a framework to figure out why we’re all in a room together.
What would it look like for a gathering like this which proposes to bring us together under the auspices of art to become more experimental or even strident in its goals, to give up the pretense of openness as if we have a shared meaning behind it? Does openness and experimentation extend to an infrastructure, to site, to organizing principles? Often we separate the allocation of resources (space, money, time, etc.) from representation. We see them as two sides of the same coin, unable to face each other when the other is present, but this does a disservice to both and fails to recognize their interconnectedness. It is through one that we find the other. For if the conference is about representation and the institutional relationship is about resources (time, space, money, etc.), then by that logic, their overall interrelatedness is felt but not said. What if this relationship is rethought so that both operate in tandem – Greater representation of excluded communities in institutions, for example as Favianna Rodriguez is advocating for, can open the doors for those people to have access to resources that can shift the structures in power, and it is through the reallocation of resources towards excluded communities that greater involvement and representations might occur. Perhaps what is required is a difference kind of investment on the part of hosting and organizing bodies, an investment that requires both representation and resources be considered programmatically and structurally.
To be clear, as organizers, we understand that the logistical realities may determine at least part of the decision making and this is a process and is ongoing and hope we can offer this reflection as part of that process. But as Angela Davis stated in her keynote address, it is possible to be supportive and critical. Let us gather around the social justice principles which make up the work, and in doing so, incorporate them on a structural level. Let us gather in uncertain and generative ways. Let us build a practice of gathering around the decolonization of the self. Let us imagine beyond panels and keynotes. Let us be open to community and geographic pushback as necessarily uncomfortable and ultimately generative. As Angela Davis suggested when she said that sometimes the soft is what is needed in the face of oppression, we need to turn towards what we have ignored and excluded to build what is to come.
This response was written collaboratively by Anthony Romero and Abigail Satinsky.
Anthony Romero is an artist, writer, and curator interested in documenting and supporting artists and communities whose narratives and practices are often excluded from art historical narratives and exhibitions. His projects and performances have been executed nationally most notably at Links Hall (IL), Antioch College (OH), MASS Gallery (TX), and Movement Research at the Judson Church (NY). His writings have appeared in Poetry Quarterly, The Huffington Post, Performa Magazine and the recently published volume on Chicago social practice history, Support Networks (University of Chicago Press). He currently teaches in the graduate departments of Community Practice and Social Engagement at Moore College of Art and Design.
Abigail Satinsky is an arts organizer, curator and writer on socially-engaged art. From 2010 – 2015, she worked at Threewalls, where she edited PHONEBOOK (a national directory of artist-run spaces and projects), co-founded the Hand-in-Glove conference and co-initiated Common Field, amongst other exhibitions and programs. She was a co-founder of the artist group InCUBATE, which started the international micro-granting network Sunday Soup, and editor of the book, Support Networks, which chronicles socially-engaged art in Chicago over the last 100 years. She now lives in Philadelphia.