Be Here Now: The conference that never was and maybe couldn’t have been.

This conversation between Randall Szott and Jen Delos Reyes is published as part of a series of conversations on social practice, criticism and the professionalization of art that took place between Randall Szott and a group of artists, organizers and collaborators over the course of several years.

Unbeknownst at the outset of this conversation Open Engagement would change form and grow immensely over the course of the next three years. This conversation took place in 2013, ending in late spring of that year. At the close of this conversation there was extreme doubt that the conference should continue. Ultimately it did, but only because it radically changed its form and how it moves through the world in order to hold these conversations.

The close of 2013 marked the last year that Open Engagement would take place in collaboration with Portland State University. In 2014 OE became an itinerant conference making its move to the Queens Museum in New York, and then in 2015 taking place in Pittsburgh, PA. This change in form allowed the conference to better hold space for  the dialogues around the making of socially engaged art, and to strengthen networks of support for this way of working across the country. 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.

As part of its new approach Open Engagement created a national consortium with members on the East Coast, West Coast and in the Midwest in order to achieve a coast-to-coast representation of socially engaged art practices in this country. The three upcoming landing points are already centers of socially engaged art activity: the Bay Area, New York, and Chicago. The three-year rotation cycle will begin with the Bay Area in 2016 in partnership with the Oakland Museum of California and the California College of the Arts, Chicago in 2017 in partnership with University Illinois at Chicago, and returning back to New York at the Queens Museum in 2018.

2018 will mark the 10th iteration of the Open Engagement conference.

Randall Szott conducts mystic experiments in divination (writing), conjuration (design), evocation (aesthetics), transmutation (cooking), illusion (philosophy), and enchantment (regenerative agriculture) in a small grey house in a small Vermont town. He was a merchant mariner for nearly a decade and now is the Chef and Farm to School Coordinator for a tiny village school. Szott is currently developing a ten acre parcel of land into a functioning agroecological system and as a possible site for ongoing seminars in #soilpractice + #socialpractice.

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.

Randall: We met in 2009 in San Francisco. We were both on a panel called Social Practice West which was part of a series of events related to the exhibition The Art of Participation at SFMOMA. To this day I’m still not sure how the museum was bamboozled into extending an invitation to me. Whatever the reason, it was fortuitous, as our lasting friendship has emerged from their mistake.

I barely remember the panel, aside from an intensely hostile audience reaction to a piece I read critiquing the professionalization of art. What I do remember however was all of the stuff that happened outside the museum – a fight erupting at the Korean restaurant that illicitly served us beer in a teapot after 2 am, escaping from a bike messenger bar, hotel bar drinks, Southern Exposure name tag fun, etc. In many ways this emphasizes a quote I opened my talk with – “After the conference papers are over, we go slumming in their bars.” And it is that “slumming” where so much vitality circulates rather than the professional discourse of the panel. One thing that emerged from the slumming was the idea of you and me putting a conference together. It was a brilliant idea, with a brilliant title and in the end, that’s all it ever was. “Be Here Now” never happened, but in some sense it didn’t have to – we were nowhere and we are now here.

Jen: The name tag you made for me for the Southern Exposure event read, “Party Moderator “Sensitive.” This emerged from a conversation we were having in which I was trying to key you into the fact that I am more sensitive than I let on, likely provoked by one of your now endearing to me ornery remarks.

The idea that we hatched for a conference later that evening taking its namesake from Ram Dass’ new age bible surely solidified my position as someone who has a certain kind of sensitivity, or at least an openness to the universe.

I want to share with you a story about Ram Dass that Mark Epstein wrote about. He wrote that he knew the moment that he walked into Ram Dass’ office that the encounter was going to be unlike any therapeutic encounter that he had before. After the most minimal exchange of greetings Ram Dass just began to look intensely directly into his eyes. He would not break the gaze. Epstein would try to engage him, smile, look away, talk to him about his problems and why he came to see him, but Ram Dass remained, silent, and not breaking the stare. He felt he had said everything he could possibly say and still no return. Out of desperation Epstein just began to return his gaze. It then became clear, he had been given the room to be and he realized they could be together. After a few minutes of this Ram Dass broke the silence. He said, “Are you in there? I’m here.” he added as he pointed to himself.

Connection and the capacity to be present and to be with another can be challenging, awkward, even painful. Connection and separateness simultaneously. Thinking about some of the reasons Be Here Now was a conference that maybe never could have been for me is a question of engagement and capacity. I often think about socially engaged art that is criticized for a lack of meaningful engagement. Lately I have been thinking it is really a lack in general that people are not able to have meaningful connections to themselves, let alone another person, let alone with an “art” experience. Then to add to that the context of a conference as we were hoping to plan. Conferences can be an environment that can be so full of posturing and polishing and presenting that I wonder how conducive it could possibly be to real connection, vulnerability, and sharing.

If Be Here Now was to happen, if it could be possible, how could real connection between people be fostered by us as organizers?

Randall: It is interesting to hear that Ram Dass story as it brings up a vexing question for me. You see, as much as I love and support much of what came out of his work, and of all the other human potential and Esalen folks, I could never abide that encounter. This is similar to how I feel about many of the social practice projects I find myself defending – I would never actually participate in them, but I’m glad they exist. So it makes me wonder if I’m too awkward or obstinate, or is it really just more of a disposition (which I tell myself it is)? I believe I am open to being “present” with others, open to connecting, possess an “openness to the universe” as you put it, but it just can’t feel contrived for me.

I think we both know that it isn’t social practice’s lack of meaningful engagement that is the problem for many high minded critics. It is the type of engagement that is often the problem. Current groupthink in the academic establishment still yearns for some kind of avant garde ambition in art projects, or at least something critical or political. Carl Wilson, in Let’s Talk About Love makes a similar point about music:

“...double standards arise everywhere for sentimental music: excess, formulaism, two-dimensionality can all be positives for music that is not gentle and conciliatory, but furiated and rebellious. You could say punk rock is anger’s schmaltz…Morally you could fairly ask what is more laudable about excess in the name of rage and resentment than in immoderation in thrall to love and connection. The likely answer would be that Céline [Dion] is conformist, quiescent, unsubversive. “Subversion” today is sentimentality’s inverse: It is nearly always a term of approval.

Meaning in the academic art world needs to come from some kind of intellectual experience, or through some kind of ironic distancing. Despite all the theorizing around “the everyday,” very little has changed. Your value in the academic economy is determined by “posturing and polishing and presenting” as you put it, and not by the fuzzy, indeterminate sense of connection to students, colleagues, or others beyond the professional community. Being a thoughtful, sharing person is great, but smashing capitalism or reading a paper in a room full of like minded people is more valuable, more “meaningful.”

How could we foster real connection at a conference? I honestly don’t know. To me, it is like asking how you can host a “successful” dinner party. Creating certain conditions of hospitality is key, but so is an “openness to the universe” from your guests. Unfortunately, the art world is still filled with people open to only certain aspects of the universe, open to highly specific forms of meaning, open to experiences that meet their professional expectations – in short, they are too often bad guests.

Jen: This idea of inviting the right people for a “successful” dinner party makes me think of a criticism I have heard many times of Open Engagement, the lack of non-art attendees. Where are the activists, community organizers, social workers, farmers, and so on? Where is the AND social practice represented? Sure, we have had some representation from the above groups, but by and large, it is a gathering of art minded people, or as you allude to, bad guests.

What makes a good dinner party? Good conversation is a must. A diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, but the group can’t be all strangers. A pleasant environment and the opportunity to indulge (or even over indulge). A lot of this boils down to control, organization, and orchestration.

A criticism, or perhaps a backhanded criticism  I have often heard of Open Engagement is that things feel slightly disorganized, scrappy, or “spirited”. I am trying to shift my perspective on this and see this as an approach that allows for unknown quantities, flexibility, and openness. This is definitely a way of being that has become easier through a meditation practice. In my own practice I often reflect and return to the word “open”, if my mind wanders—open, unwanted thoughts—open, revisiting negative thought patterns—open. As this happens in the process of sitting, undoubtedly some thought related to the conference will seep in, and then once again—open.

To return to my previous question, maybe it is not so much about creating meaningful connections through this conference between the people assembled, but to have people just be more present in themselves—maybe this would help with the quality of guests? But then how can you strike a balance of having things at the same time not go too “out there” and stray from professional expectations?

Randall: As you know, “professional expectations” are the last fucking thing I concern myself with. You raise a question though that constantly nags at me – how do you make an activity legible enough? That is, how do you have a dinner party that is not just a dinner party? And yet is still just a dinner party? I think those are questions that Ram Dass and Allan Kaprow could have a very fruitful conversation about. The answer is likely found in meditation as well – you are not just sitting, but you do have to just sit.

This conversation itself treads the same territory as the sitting, the dinner party, and the conference. It is more than just two friends talking, but it is also just two friends talking. Maybe this is all a kind of elaborate rationalization, a scam, at least for me. Much like I say nothing I do is art, maybe everything I do is art. Then again, maybe all those things you do that you say are art, aren’t. I think this kind of inquiry though is a trap. There is no need to settle the issue. To stay within my Zen lingo, I think it is best to stay in “beginner’s mind.” As Shunryu Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Jen: I like thinking about professional expectations in relation to beginners mind. To bring it back to Open Engagement, I feel like when the conference started in 2007 that it felt like that – so many possibilities.

Right now one of the things that we are working on planning for the next conference is a conversation with the organizers of the Creative Time summit to reflect on the two gatherings and think about future directions. Some of the topic areas include:


It is funny that while preparing some questions in advance of this that one of the questions put forth from Creative Time was about continued professionalization for the event and how to do that without losing the “grassroots feel.” It took me a little by surprise that this was a goal, as I was not sure how much more professionalized that summit could be, I think especially in contrast to Open Engagement.

I think that this upcoming discussion is coming at a really good time for us, especially with thinking of what it is we want both of these events to do. While I used to be really bothered by feedback about OE that described it as unpolished, or slightly messy, I think that these are not actually as dire responses as I initially thought. I would now rather think of those aspects as openings, or space for other possibilities outside of the push towards professionalization.

Just a few weeks ago after a meeting with some colleagues who work in the museum world they were talking about how they have really been encouraging people that they know in their field to come to Open Engagement, especially while they are at other conferences. One of them called it the “antidote” for all of the other conferences they attend. That really stuck in my mind, and as we move forward I want to think about OE as a counterpoint. A breathing space. Maybe even a break from professional expectations, and to take that even further.

Maybe what I really want OE to become is a meditation retreat? But joking aside I do want it to be more of a site of care.

Randall: I’ve never been to one of the Creative Time events and have no plan to ever do so. I find them too narrowly focused, too limited in what their idea of “social” and “engagement” are, or could be. And the fact that it is in New York likely plays no small role in my decision – the city itself invites a kind of intense, professional leisure. It is too frenetic and expensive to be a slacker there – the crowded bars, the hurriedness, the small spaces conspire against the kind of lazy after hours “slumming” that makes conferences worth going to for me. I’m sure plenty of people would disagree with my characterization, but it is my experience, and I’ve had plenty of seasoned New Yorkers as guides that were incapable of dispelling my impression.

For me, the meditation retreat would be interesting as an idea, but I doubt very much I’d participate. I do like the idea of being more radically open about what a “conference” might be. What would it be like if a conference just skipped the conference part altogether? What if there was just an agreement to show up? It would likely be a disaster for many, especially all those academics so disciplined into expecting a certain kind of structure to interface with, needing something to talk about. What I’m imagining here though is not an anti-conference, but something more in the spirit of Kaprow an “unconference.”

Predictably though, the term has already been usurped by corporate event planners, team builders, and consultants. I don’t mind keeping odd company – bring on the self-help gurus, the mercenary mystics, and other assorted “kooks.” I hate the idea of social practice being left in the hands of the academic/artist/activist mafia. I prefer the weirdness of real participation, real inclusiveness, rather than the controlled, easy comfort of contrived engagement (even though it would drive me mental).

Jen: I think it is important to mention here that I just took an almost six week break from this conversation. It started because Open Engagement 2013 was just around the corner, and then the hiatus continued out of sheer necessity and the need for mental distance from even thinking about any conference ever again. I must say that this past version of Open Engagement felt more challenging than the first one I organized.

Your last comment, and my recent experience with conference organizing has made me wonder if what is wrong is the very form itself. Whether it is a conference conference, an un-conference, or an anti-conference, is it all just not the right shape? I thought that it was based on the idea of shared interest, but maybe the formality and the expectations are too much, no matter how you try to dodge them.

I am really feeling at a loss when thinking of what is the form that makes sense for this conversation on socially engaged art? Do you have thoughts? This failure makes me wonder if maybe it is not a problem of form, but of content, and that maybe this is just not a conversation that needs the kind of work and investment of a convening anymore…



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