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Searching for Words at Open Engagement 2015

Last year, at Open Engagement 2014, the conference theme of “life/work” offered up two words that socially-engaged artists were more than ready to tackle.  J. Morgan Pruitt and Mierle Laderman Ukeles intimately offered their work-as-life stories, and over the course of a weekend of conversation, I felt the hyper-professionalization of art-making dissolve a tad through the co-witnessing of experimentation and resistance. But that is social practice’s raison d’etre, right? What’s the life and what’s the work, anyway?

This year, “place and revolution” was our theme, but I think we were less prepared to explore it. I departed from the conference Sunday night feeling that place and revolution had been dragged to the table, where they stared silently at the brussels sprouts of social practice, wishing they could be out in the yard – living life, doing work.

In the conference schedule, a presentation’s description was often sure to mention a project’s location or site, that work’s “place.”  These place-specificities may actually have reinforced the sense of non-comparability (and thus non-share-ability) that we gather together from so far to unravel, making it even harder to reimagine the idea of “place” than if we had approached it accidentally. Without violating the realness of everyone’s where, I longed to broach the questions that “place,” as a topic, begs.  For example: if we are engaging the social domain to make art, where are we really?  Where is our “studio?”

Emily Jacir, the first of two keynote speakers for the weekend, is perhaps not the best artist to help us answer this question, as she is a fairly traditional studio artist.  The single video clip she showed us was sited in her own studio, where participants were gathered to embroider a refugee tent – an object that would then be sited quietly, though controversially, in a regular  museum context. Jacir seems most interested in objects and words – a greeting card, a bumper sticker, Arabic translations of signs – and where she places them. Perhaps she is the Palestinian activist version of Jenny Holzer, which is something I hope many artists are striving to be. Yes, all artists are working to express a vision, a version, a definition of social change, and no matter the materials used, that is a struggle. But I came to Open Engagement to investigate the nature of our struggle when our primary material is the social, not to wonder if I might need to pick up a studio practice if I want my vision to be legible.

Revolution certainly wasn’t investigated much either, though it was sometimes stuttered, or glossed over as the assumed end-goal of our collective energies. By the end of the conference I was lulled – we’re all revolutionaries in the making here right? We’re all touching the elephant of revolution, so it’s ok we don’t know what it looks like, right? This is not unlike enjoying the classic satisfaction of attending a rally and then failing to plug into the movement. But then, right at the end of the final keynote speech late Sunday night, Rick Lowe finally addressed revolution head on when he encouraged his audience, us, to “get out of the urgency of revolution needing to happen in our lifetime.”

Yes, he said that.

Perhaps the word revolution befuddles or oppresses Rick Lowe. I do believe that words can block us from the good ideas flowing freely just beyond them. He questioned how honest we can even be about revolution when we are existing on patronage, which is a pretty great accidental definition of revolution itself. He then offered justice as a more productive word to serve as our guide, suggesting we replace “social change” with “social justice,” asking, “if I believe that justice is the end of the work, when can I claim justice?” “After the revolution,” I thought-yelled to myself. Lowe’s slippery searchings certainly brought my own sense of urgency to the surface, and it was incredibly surreal to look around at an auditorium of sleepy listeners who then disbanded into the rainy night without any opportunity for reaction or synthesis. Plus, the museum was in a hurry to lock its doors. That was the end of the conference.

I traveled to OE this year with my dear friend Chris Bouza, who built and now solely operates Cubana Social, a “locally-sourced island-inspired” restaurant that fosters community with integrity and warmth in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Sometimes I take a bus all the way up from Philadelphia just to read poetry at her coffee counter for the afternoon – it feels that good in there. But Chris is searching for ways to guide Cubana Social toward much deeper resource sharing and collective identity than she can envision on her own, so we sojourned together, taking lots of picnic breaks to stay grounded.

On our way back east, Chris asked me what it would mean if Conflict Kitchen shared their model, or if folks in many cities just went ahead and mimicked it in their own way. Would Conflict Kitchen like that? Would it work? Is Conflict Kitchen more effective as a symbol or as a way of engaging? What is the quality of its impact and what conversations have grown from it? Almost because I feel like Jon Rubin was the shining voice of the conference – liberated, rigorous – I come up against my worries regarding him most: If we each have our own vision of social change, how will we share and build together? Do we, as artists, even really want to? And should we? And toward what …revolution? In a panel about our “value proposition” as social practice artists, the phrase “the airbnb of…” was used. Chris noted that that happened because we lack vocabulary for sharing models.

The other notable thing about airbnb as a reference point is that it’s a business model, not a social engagement model. Chris struggled with the conference’s overwhelming reinforcement of the current systems of profit that she is working to think beyond, and she helped me to see through her lens, in brief and bright flashes. But my inherited missionary mentality, both as gifter and receiver of resources, debilitates my inner revolutionary even as I write this. I feel fear of speaking around what I don’t understand about money in a way that I never do about art.

For a long time, I’ve held up Claire Pentecost’s concept of the “public amateur” as my idol – we can learn from each others’ learning when we do our learning in public. I saw many thrilling examples of that at this year’s conference: Hope Ginsburg’s research-oriented “Sponge HQ,” the instructive possibilities of Sarah Lewison’s “melting exercises,” Maria Möller’s open-eyed hopes for her “75° West/75° Oeste” collaboration, and especially Transformazium’s vulnerable meditation on “language” as “the doing”: who and what do we include and exclude with the words we use about our work? (Transformazium’s invitation to an open circle of sharing was the absolute highlight of the conference for me.)

But there were also some presentations that yielded examples of the “public amateur” at its worst – wheels being awkwardly reinvented, systems being perpetuated unknowingly, projects using the social as material arbitrarily – with no facilitated space to process these problems together, and no formalized dialogue toward feedback and co-evolution. Open Engagement 2015 revealed to me that I do need to search beyond “public amateur” and clarify what marriage of imagination and action I’m really looking for. I’m grateful for that. But the conference also revealed itself as a foggy and treacherous landscape for an already guide-less search.


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


Image courtesy of Conflict Kitchen.

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