Open Engagement: Mary Coyne

“What is the role of artists in defining place and creating change in the world?” This question was posed to attendees of the annual Open Engagement Conference (hosted in 2015 by Carnegie Mellon University) who gathered to strengthen and establish networks of knowledge and information sharing, alongside the institutions whose role it is to support and foster these artists’ ideas for change. Artists, writers, curators, arts educators and community leaders from around the world gathered in Pittsburgh with open ears.

The conference’s theme, “Place and Revolution” was carried throughout with a series of morning sessions that highlighted a practitioner’s work that connected to this theme. As an independent curator and founder of a non-commercial art space who recently re-transitioned to a larger institution, I was interested in learning about how my peers both in small, artist-run spaces and international institutions were essentializing their practices to focus on giving artists the space and the support to create meaningful work. Megan Johnston, who began her “tell it like it is” biography with a short list of major institutions with which she began her career, presented a powerful solution. Johnston’s philosophy of “slow curating” (think cooking), is rooted in the “three c’s” of community, context and collaboration. Johnston’s personal practice, of putting her relationship with and belief in the artist’s vision ahead of her professional relationship with the institution was a powerful example of how an institution can be molded to fit new ideas. As director of The Model Sligo, a contemporary art center western Ireland, Johnston stressed a open mind to experimentation, allowing artists to see the galleries as an empty slate of support, not an barrier to new ideas. Her introduction of the center to the international artists community was the product of continually questioning why the institution was important, how it could be more interesting and with whom she could engage. As a curator, I found Johnston’s work inspiring, and the conversation that followed opened up many new ideas for myself and how I could help better define my own goals in curatorial projects, avenues of support and the assurance that “yes there are other people working in the world that think like you do.” I do not necessarily consider myself a social practitioner, however, mostly out of the belief that this form of practice should be, if practiced fully, aligned unselfishly with a social cause. My own interests in giving artists the opportunity and the space to experiment their work, engage in dialogues, while consistent with many of the grass-roots artist-run and non-profit spaces represented at Open Engagement has always been, for me, about a different kind of social need.

The conference was strengthened by artists and activists like Favianna Rodriguez, who, like many of the presenters at last week’s conference spoke passionately via Skype. Rodriguez employs tactics of activism, leading the organization she founded, CultureStrike, which unites artists, performers and activists around migrant rights. The realities of the issues at the heart of many of the practices like Rodriguez’s and #ChalkedUnarmed, which seeks to visually disrupt the urban space to call attention the killings of unarmed black citizens by police are so much larger, more horrific than the grassroots projects presented at Open Engagement can conquer. And this is the ongoing conversation around social practice as a practice—at the end of the day, what have we changed and what can be done? Can aesthetics be a solution to problems outside the cloistered “art world.” This is of course, a debate that deserves to be continued, however we define ourselves as artists, activists, curators or cultural practitioners. What we are doing and to what end needs to be honestly established. As Noe Gaytan, Mario Mesquita and Carol Zou, MFA students in Social Practice at the Otis College of Art and Design honestly reflected, how can social practice develop as an “art form” but also include the hundreds of communities who are creating meaningful, powerful work to whom conversations of the “aesthetic” are isolating. Is the institutionalization of social practice, through programs like Otis’s an avenue to funding and thinking more deeply about these issues? Or is it an elitism that will soon limit the conversation to trust fund artists?

Returning to the initial question, the role of artists is then perhaps to create a situation where the world could change. Although no one of their projects could change the world singlehandedly, the conference sought to analyze what could be done in a single place. Many of the attendees found ways to make small revolutions in place, to respond powerfully to the issues and conflicts that define a place. Artist and educator Suzanne Carte sought to make York University a place where students could identify and enact issues and communicate through making the campus spaces accessible to performances and temporary exhibitions. On The Map/ Over the Rhine works to unite and celebrate a gentrifying neighborhood of Cincinnati by encouraging residents to find the beauty in the area’s history. Catalyzing Communities, a model of creative social capital to economically and socially strengthen East Baltimore neighborhoods seeks to address historic issues of income inequality and racism in the city. These projects spanned months, or even years, engaging dozens, hundreds of people in different ways. How they stack up against work that can be talked about through a visual aesthetic or application of media, such as Vuskasin Nedeljkovic’s haunting photographs documenting the sites of asylum seeker’s temporary incarcerations in Ireland remains to be analyzed. Can work that seeks to literally make the difference between life and death and work that pointed at the existence of de-facto communities that cannot not represent themselves so different? Does it matter the background and training of the individual behind the work?

What Open Engagement does so well is bring together individuals representing numerous disparate missions from a wide range of communities very naturally. The wide array of practices that come under the umbrella of social practice felt fluid and honest in the conversations at Open Engagement. There are of course lessons we can all learn, ideas we can all share as citizens, as community members. Many of the attendees seemed slightly wary of the potential for professional flux within their field, and took an approach of welcoming inclusivity with urgent reminders that communities do not need artists to be messianic heralds. Working together as a community, with the individuals living, working and going to school in the neighborhoods in which we work was a fundamental tenant of Open Engagement. Listening first, speaking later was advice offered by many of the panelists. As artists and curators we often have a strong vision of how we want our work to appear, what we want to do provided a certain space or opportunity. Letting our environment guide what those visions are, one panelist offered a suggestion of the ancient Chinese philosophical tool, i Ching, as a method working with one’s surroundings and environment.

Working for a large art institution for the past five months, I have recognized all the more that personal and institutional issues can easily monopolize focus over social and local concerns. The conversations I heard and participated in at Open Engagement allowed me to start thinking about how the latter are all of our concern and within all of our reach. I don’t think this is the place, nor the argument in which it bring in a Beuysian “everyone is an artist” mantra, but everyone does have the ability to be a cultural worker, a social practitioner. Being around peers who shared a drive to address for larger, global issues as much as for their individual projects was inspiring, but self-congratulatory, that I had “made it” into a special club. Coming home, my challenge to myself is to continue to see my co-workers, neighbors, and members of my community as social practitioners. I’ll listen, and if I hear something I don’t like, I’ll try and help start a revolution.



Images courtesy of the author.

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