Open Engagement: Place and Revolution

This spring was my first time attending Open Engagement. As a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon, I was invited to participate in the selection process, so my introduction to the conference came months before, reading hundreds of proposals. During the conference weekend, I attended the keynote presentations, panels, workshops, participated in other artists’ projects, went to several of the off-site events and hosted two Venezuelan artists in my home. I also worked with one of my classes to make a public print project. While standing in line at Conflict Kitchen, I met some out-of-towners and chatted about panels we’d seen and speakers we liked. We also talked about Pittsburgh, the glorious sunshine, our work, the definition of social practice, clean water and the virtues of falafel. After the weekend there was post-game talk in classes, hallways, coffee shops, the library and while waiting for more falafel, with grad students, other faculty and artists. I got around to reading Open Engagement in Print. I re-read my notes and tried to summarize my experience. This wandering process all contributed to what Open Engagement was – its process, project and the notes it left me with.

I thought the conference was remarkably well organized. Jen Delos Reyes and her crew did a fine job of arranging a dense array of speakers and panels, from the selection process all the way through. Many folks who call themselves social practice artists are people whose work often functions as a platform for the work or voices of other folks – Open Engagement is Jen’s platform and she seamlessly arranged funding, facilities, sponsorship and participants to make a pretty inventive thing happen.

At the conference I took in a lot. Coming from a background in drawing and print, I was deeply inspired, but I also felt like I’d shown up at a costume party dressed for hiking. For all I know, everyone felt that way but this response comes from feeling slightly outside the crowd. Over the course of the weekend,  I went to Conflict Kitchen three times and ate a lot of falafel; I made a mildly dissatisfying project with my class; and came away with a better understanding of what social practice is or can be – the marriage of artist, audience and place. It can be communal, collective, contextual, interactional, relational or public. From a critical perspective, the conference and social practice in general seemed to be:

1) A little too serious. The artwork and conversations could be so earnest and humorless at times that it felt like activism and social justice work were using art and spectacle as another platform for progressive politics. While I am a fan of progressive politics, one of the things I like about art is that it can provide a different, indirect, nuanced, absurd, baffling, disturbing entrance point. Sometimes projects felt self-serving for the artist and other times they seemed to be more about the issues and community than art at all. I was left wanting a balance, and on balance more art.

2) Defiant. In the discussions, workshops, Q&As, even in The Questions We Ask Together – OE in Print 001, one participant after another disassembled or poked holes in the questions, rather than answering them. Sometimes it seemed that deconstruction itself was the point. It was hard to talk about institutional structure and funding when the question is being dismantled before the question it is fully formed. At the same time, I appreciated the way some folks were so impatient, engaged, so hungry to take things apart that their work energetically revealed their institutional and socio-economic frameworks to anyone who would look; a bunch of awakened Keanu Reeves ready to show us all the mechanism behind the Matrix. I got more from this twitchy eagerness and edginess than from other projects or conversations I heard described as folksy and charming. A friend remarked that in Europe and Russia, Marxists are snappy dressers, wearing well-cut pants and architectural eyewear, whereas in the US, as a generalisation, Marxists defy fashion trends in favor of the utopic hippy ‘60s or the punk ‘80s. This is not fashion-forward, but while it may be nostalgic, it is not cynical. Defiantly anti-establishment retro-fashion could be interpreted as hope.

3) Too engaging. Walking back from a presentation, I saw a several artists sitting outside the Miller Gallery where more participatory activities were happening. A guy in a white t-shirt and black boots said to the others, “I’m having a social practice overload. I talk to enough people in my own art I don’t want to talk to more people here.”

4) Successful. On Friday I went to the Veteran Artists Movement workshop at SPACE gallery. I went with a friend who is a veteran but who is not an artist and realized that going with him was like bringing a civilian into the art arena that so much of social practice is trying to open up. At the gallery we met Aaron Hughes and he walked us through the Iraq Veterans Against War portfolio. The thick stack of silkscreened and letterpress prints became a vehicle for him to tell us stories about the artists. Afterward we looked at the work in Unloaded, an exhibition organized by Susanne Slavick that explored the availability and impact of guns. While some of the work struck me initially as reductive, my companion found it riveting and powerful and our conversation helped me see the work with fresh eyes. These conversations gave us a walkway, a door, a bridge or any number of metaphors to try to understand another person’s experience.

5) Revolutionary. One of my favorite moments of the conference was during Rick Lowe’s keynote address on Sunday night when he talked about the conference theme: Place and Revolution. A gifted speaker, he described the way we tend to think of revolution as something that happens, once. A shake-up or a shakedown; an uprising; a coup. But Lowe drew out the way that revolution actually is always happening, not just the big explosive events, but constantly. Linguists tell us that words don’t have finite meanings, but are constantly on the move, shifting; perhaps revolution is the best adjective to describe this constant state of change. “Social practice” isn’t static and neither is the language; it both describes the way artists use social space as material and it means nothing at all. It is a phrase you roll around on your tongue, a new flavor that’ll soon become a bit sour and be replaced by something else. But still, for now, it describes art that challenges the conventions of what can be art, who can be an artist, when and how art gets made and does it involve making anything anyway. Maybe social practice is the phrase au courant for the ongoing revolution.

The artists who stayed at my house, Helena Acosta and Violette Bule, spoke about teaching photography in Venezuelan prisons. Run by gangs of inmates, the prisons are extremely violent, full of weapons, even guns; their project succeeded when the prisoners took hold of cameras, smiled, stood arm-in-arm, a bunch of buddies sitting around, not gangs of violent men or women, but family. A week or so later the photographic prints were taped up to the inside of cells. The act of taking pictures allowed them to reimagine who they were, to create mirrors of who they wanted to be. And only artists like Helena and Violette could have accomplished this. Revolutionary. In the last several years, the prisons there have grown so dangerous that the project could not be done today. Indeed, both artists are now living in NYC on artist visas, exiled from their country by nearly impossible living conditions, tightened government controls on freedom of speech. They are left wondering how to make work, how to address the context of their country in the US where the public mind and news space is capricious. Thanks to Open Engagement, I met these two artists; we shared coffee and bananas for breakfast. They were patient with my new puppy and we hugged goodbye outside the Greyhound bus station. I don’t know if I’ll see them again but I’m grateful for our conversations, the mirror they’ve given me of who I am and who I might be. As the days pile up after the conference, with their sheets still to wash, I’m wading through my notes scattered in multiple notebooks and untangling my own uncertainties about art.

This piece is a part of a larger ‘social response’ to Open Engagement 2015. Please read the full text here.

Image:  CPH IVAW- Winds of Change – Aaron Hughes & Jesse Purcell for Iraq Veterans Against the War


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