New Interfaces in Social Practice at Open Engagement

Open Engagement, an annual conference at the Queens Museum, brings together dozens of scholars, artists, curators, advocates and social workers to share ideas and generate conversations across geographical and professional boundaries. Building from the theme of live/work, attendees were continually challenged to consider methods of seamlessly connecting art with life.

Sunday programming at Open Engagement brought a focus on pedagogy and what each of us, as individuals, can do. The potential of each of our contributions to a critical discourse and positive change was highlighted in each of the presentations and panels, closing with the ultimate testament to individual social practice, a keynote speech by Mirele Laderman Ukeles.

The conference featured a series of speakers as a part of an Open Platform who shared their projects in 10-minute presentations.  As presenter Joseph Krupczynski quoted, “teaching is learning and learning is teaching.” Each of the projects shared methods by which pedagogical practice could often function as a work in and of itself. For example, Nina Bellsio of St. Thomas Aquinas College formulated a requirement for her design students to create and brand a completely sustainable product with packaging. In challenging her students to consider these aspects of newly introduced products, Bellsio fostered a macro concern for resource conservation, and encouraged an internalization of outside-the-box thinking. While many of the  projects and ideas presented throughout the conference excelled as social practice and communal leadership, Bellsio’s work allowed a momentary return to actual formal art production and the way in which the aestheticization of life could simultaneously advance a greater concern for life and sustainable manufacturing.

This fundamental act of challenging the way we approach the world around us likewise defines Joseph Krupczynski’s teaching practice. In his program at UMass Amherst, Krupczynski’s students engage with the development of real-world social practice projects, such as running a community book-trade shop. These projects are actively recorded in blogs and online journals, which Krupczynski believes encourages community connection in addition to the development of his student’s self-awareness and writing skills. Much like Bellsio’s initiative, Krupczynski stressed the importance of developing a society in which social practice was not as much an isolated artistic activity but a way of life.

This systematic wearing away of the boundaries between art and life came to the fore in James McAnally’s I am for an artist who vanishes, a presentation to be given by the Temporary Art Review editor. Electing to remain invisible, it was announced that McAnally had chosen to instead have a third party present the talk just before he was scheduled to appear, separating the content from the artist’s identity and intentionally blurring the individual voice.1

Grounded in Claes Oldenburg’s manifesto, I am for an art, which proclaims: “I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself,” McAnally’s writing addresses this utopian musing of an art that could exist completely independently of the mechanisms of the art world.

These themes were revised again in an open workshop titled Curating for a Socially Engaged Art featuring Bill Kelley Jr, curator of the Getty Pacific Standard Time series LA/LA (Los Angeles/Latin America); Josh McPhee, founder of Justseeds Cooperative; and Erin Sickler, curator of the Queens International and member of Arts & Labor. Although not directly addressed, each of the curator’s projects towards collective and social practice that fundamentally challenged the traditional role of curator and impresario to the virtuoso artist.2  Instead of acting as director of a cast of artists, the curators forming the panel, together with moderator Prerana Reddy suggested options for understanding the curator as collaborator or sponsor to greater vision. As Kelley explained during the panel, the curator could act as an agent, restraining his or her individual vision into a supportive infrastructure to allow greater ideas to flourish.

By re-phrasing the relationship between art and life into that of art and work, we can consider not only how art can enter into daily habits and experiences, but also how to more fully examine the complex ways in which art and our means of earning capital are intertwined. Through both the conference and discussions generated over the course of the weekend, Open Engagement suggested alternative ways of infusing work with life, life with work and forging new interfaces within artistic social practice.

  1. Mary Coyne was both the presenter and the author of this review. To avoid conflicts of interest, this review was edited and published by a third party to preserve some separation between the talk and publication of the review.
  2. Art Historian and Curator Jan Vermunt’s consideration of the artist/curator relationship was defined at a talk given at the New Museum at the “These Things Called Exhibitions” symposium on April 19, 2014.

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