5 days & counting

…and I’ll be up-in-the-air on my first flight to NYC.

I’m attending the last iteration (in its current form) of  Open Engagement:

Open Engagement (OE) is an annual, three-day, artist-led conference dedicated to expanding the dialogue around and creating a site of care for the field of socially engaged art. The conference highlights the work of transdisciplinary artists, activists, students, scholars, community members, and organizations working within the complex social issues and struggles of our time.


What follows is an abridged account of the blog post published by Gretchen Coombs, titled: Two Images and Ten Years Between:

‘Open Engagement (OE) has grown, had growing pains, and has begun aligning itself with urgent social and political concerns. Some of the more prominent debates have faded into the background, some remain. Sometimes it feels less like art and more like politics or activism, but that’s OK. Artists think of efficacy, ethics, and social justice more now, which they should if they work with communities or form provisional publics.


Working with institutions becomes a necessary for sustainability. And while this may take the perceptible edge off radical practices, it also advances and funds those practices. Artist Jeanne van Heeswijk famously declared, “Instrumentalize me!” and Nato Thompson works strategically with institutions to push art and politics onto different registers. To think that OE could have stayed grass roots seems naive, to think that social practice wouldn’t grow in popularity through educational programs, conferences and residencies dismisses the urgency in which artists view the world.


I want to consider for a moment Open Engagement as an artwork so I can understand how its agency forms its legacy––a space for other people to speak, for others to listen, and for everyone to act.’


You can find a fuller account of all the featured practitioners essays here:





Gretchen Coombs lives and works in Brisbane, Australia, where she teaches in the School of Design at Queensland University of Technology. Her interests include art and design criticism/activism.



Before attending Open Engagement 2018 I shall be reporting back on:

‘Origins of Control / Soul Summit School ‘

‘Creative Time, in partnership with The Fortune Society, is proud to present Bring Down The Walls, a three-part public art project with artist Phil Collins in collaboration with over 100 individuals and organizations.

Setting the stage for Bring Down The Walls, this first week we look at the origins of the prison industrial complex, inviting global, historical, and personal perspectives that question how and why our current culture of systemic control and punishment exists. Conversations will introduce the abolitionist perspective, as well as explore the intrinsic links between the current prison industrial complex and America’s history of racial exploitation, economic discrimination, and other oppressive cultural practices.
Participants include Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations, a global investigation of prison conditions; The Rikers Island Debate Project, dedicated to teaching people at Rikers Island the skills of competitive debate; professor and ethnographer Reuben Miller, who follows recently released individuals on their journeys back home; and many more.’

Further info / Baz Dreisinger:

‘Dr. Dreisinger works at the intersection of race, crime, culture and justice. She earned her Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, specializing in American and African-American studies. Dreisinger’s book Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World (2016) was heralded by the New York Times, NPR and many more, and was named a notable book of 2016 by the Washington Post. Her first book Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture (2008) was featured in the New York Times and on NPR and CNN. Together with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Peter Spirer, Professor Dreisinger produced and wrote the two nationally aired documentaries about hip-hop, criminal justice and the prison industrial complex. She regularly speaks about justice reform and prison issues on popular news media and in international settings.’

Further info / Reuben Miller:

‘Professor Miller’s research examines life at the intersection of punishment and social welfare policy. His project, an ethnography of prisoner reentry in Chicago, Detroit, and New York, demonstrates how emergent techniques of state and third-party supervision have transformed citizenship, activism, community, and family life in the age of mass supervision.’


“All social interactions are inherently political. Historically, house culture has often been a mode of resistance, opening up new understandings of community and solidarity. Its radical proposition of simply being together offers another way of engaging the conversation around the prison industrial complex, which sentences discriminately and disproportionately, but impacts us all. Even after their release, people remain confined and punished by invisible barriers — physical, emotional, economic. The very real human cost of systemic regressive policies comes sharply into focus through sharing time and space, and in direct exchange with one another.”

Phil Collins / Artist

Bio: Often working with disregarded or marginalized communities, Collins looks past conventional media portrayals, aiming instead for a more nuanced and empathic vantage point.



More about Creative Time:

‘Over the past four decades, Creative Time has commissioned and presented ambitious public art projects with thousands of artists throughout New York City, across the country, around the world—and now even in outer space.

Our work is guided by three core values:

  • art matters
  • artists’ voices are important in shaping society
  • public spaces are places for creative and free expression

We are committed to presenting important art for our times and engaging broad audiences that transcend geographic, racial, and socioeconomic barriers.’




I’m 15 days away from departing on my development bursary and it’s a time of R&D, confirming tickets and sorting out commitments at home.

For those involved in the last ten years of Open Engagement it’s been a time of reflection.

What follows are some abridged thoughts shared by those involved in the process over the last 10 years since the conference began. You can find a fuller account of the practitioners essays here:



“[one] who plays with the commonplace..in the very midst of crossing the street or tying a shoelace. There is no excerpting and reenacting them on a stage, no documenting them for a show. Art is thus easily forgotten. And that is the condition for experimentation: the art is the forgetting of art.”

Kaprow via Randall Szott: http://openengagement.info/oe-ten-year-reflection-randall-szott/




An Aesthetics of Overcoming

Deborah Fisher http://openengagement.info/oe-ten-year-reflection-deborah-fisher/

Q: Where are we?

A: ‘The prompt asked me to reflect on two very basic questions about the state of socially engaged art: where we are, and what we need. I want to start by honoring the vastness of this. I promise in this writing not to write what I always write. I promise to roam and indulge.

This part is important because roaming and indulgence is how Open Engagement has tended to work for me. The value OE has provided me over many years has been exactly this kind of opportunity to shift my thinking from strategic to existential, hierarchical to horizontal. To take risks.

The questions I ask artists are changing. I’m less interested in the big ideas and more interested in craft. I want to know the specific leadership decisions artists are making, how they manage people and relationships on a practical level, how much they are sacrificing, how they feel about that, and the work they are doing on themselves in order to make the kinds of changes they want to see in the world. I’m finding that these sorts of questions yield richly textured conversations about whether artists need mission statements; how values become shared; experiences with non-violent communication workshops, anti-racism training, and mediation classes; spirituality; meditation and other regular practices; the history of religion; the health and wholeness of the artist; how to make life choices when you’re an artist; how art and life feel like they compete with one another when they actually can’t; how we all grew up; and, of course, therapy.

Q: What we need?

‘…It is an appropriate moment to boldly choose between an aesthetic that morbidly fetishizes (and then preys upon) our fear, and an aesthetic that embodies and enacts the overcoming of that fear. And I think it’s worth saying that overcoming is totally different than resistance. It feels like most of the world is saying no to this moment, pushing against it. I certainly empathize with why. There is certainly so much to say no to right now. But pushing and resistance—these are strength contests that ultimately affirm the idea that there is a winner and a loser. What if we can get somewhere far more just, more loving, and more interesting if we can figure out how to be brave enough to stop exchanging power, and instead change how we wield power together?

‘It is an appropriate moment to boldly choose between an aesthetic that morbidly fetishizes (and then preys upon) our fear, and an aesthetic that embodies and enacts the overcoming of that fear. And I think it’s worth saying that overcoming is totally different than resistance. It feels like most of the world is saying no to this moment, pushing against it. I certainly empathize with why. There is certainly so much to say no to right now. But pushing and resistance—these are strength contests that ultimately affirm the idea that there is a winner and a loser. What if we can get somewhere far more just, more loving, and more interesting if we can figure out how to be brave enough to stop exchanging power, and instead change how we wield power together?’




Ten Times Sustainability, Justice, and Power

Pedro Lasch / March, 2018


‘…Open Engagement has never been backed by wealthy donors, corporate backers, or political financiers like the Koch brothers or George Soros. Is it just a matter of scale, because we want to avoid the political compromise that comes with such moneys, or because such interest groups simply think whatever we are doing does not matter? Should the theories, practices, and individual energies regularly represented at Open Engagement yearn for a more sustainable political structure for their work, or would this cancel out its grassroots spirit? I personally subscribe more to the first tendency, and I find great hope in the fact that an early supporter of this conference, champion of socially engaged art, and past keynote speaker Tom Finkelpearl can head the Cultural Bureau of New York City, the largest of its kind in the entire country. Open Engagement may end in its current form, but I have witnessed firsthand how the communities it has helped create have become part of institutions with significant political and cultural impact.’


‘…Many art critics love to hate socially engaged art, citing its homogeneity and its most visible white male stars. I would argue that this representation of the field is either ignorant, or a deliberate distortion that can only be maintained by looking exclusively at the minority of artists that are anointed by the still mostly retrograde art market and museum sphere, confused and upset as they are when no commodities are offered. Such a representation attempts to erase contexts like Open Engagement which, more often than not, are directed and maintained by women and artists of color. This does not mean we should not support intelligent critiques of the notion of social practice or even argue for the use of radically different terms (Dan Wang’s writings and many other great ones come to mind), but in a time when women, LGTBQ individuals, and artists of color are finally getting the recognition they have long deserved, we need to celebrate the organizations that, like Open Engagement, have done so from their very creation.’

On Power:

‘It is about building forms of power that can be shared between more and more of us, and how we stubbornly fight against the forms of it that, in extremely different guises at times, seek to concentrate it among the top few. With keynote presenters like Rick Lowe, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Mel Chin, this kind of sustained and patient work for and against power has always been at the center of Open Engagement. It is now a time of reinvention, but also one of continuation.’


The Wiki definition of sustainability talks of a biological entities ability to ‘remain diverse and productive indefinitely.’ 

Having just completed my 2017 – 2018 tax return (& subsequently reviewed the previous ten years of accounting records) this notion of ‘indefinite productivity’ is prominent in my minds eye. Despite working both nationally and internationally with a roster of clients that spans national charities and county council collections, sites of listed significance and regimental museums, I am still earning way below the National Minimum Wage in the UK. Add to this the fact that I have studied for the same number of years as a Doctor (2 x BA’s and an MA by Research) and you begin to see that being ‘productive indefinitely’, within a framework of sparse financial resources, is incredibly challenging.

But this is a notion that impacts upon not only my own personal and professional sustainability as a practitioner but to the materials that I use within my large-scale installations, with particular reference to plastic.

Plastic is a material that’s very close to my heart, it’s political and personal and I’ve written posts previously regarding its potency:


It’s a body of work that’s seen me install 3.6 tonnes of plastic waste next to ‘The Falling Warrior’ by Henry Moore at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool during 2013 with ‘Strangers in a Strange Land’. As well as working with 45,000 plastic bags (the average number an adult will use in their lifetime) to name just two projects. It’s a material that’s infiltrated both our consciousness and our environment:

‘Plastic pollution, which is set to treble between 2015 and 2025 without intervention, has a physical presence in the oceans, and can accumulate on the coasts or in particular areas of the sea.

While animals have been documented consuming or becoming entangled in plastics, the toxic effects they have when they break down and end up inside marine organisms are still not clear.’



Sustainable working practises impact upon the third-sector organisations I engage with as much as the government funded youth services that commission me too. Just this I contacted a youth service regarding a project I worked on last year and I asked the youth leader if they were still facing the government cuts that we talked about previously and he said: ‘Still here presently, no definite news as yet, still keeping the much needed support going with our young people.’ And this is in an area 1.6 miles away from a town where drug possession is said to have nearly trebled in the last five years, according to statistics from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.


It’s against these frameworks of reference and more that I’ll consider the following questions when I travel to New York next month:

  • The conference will prompt me to not only question my own personal sustainability but my global framework of activity as a practitioner.
  • It will provide a location to consider systems thinking, ecological perturbation and the disjuncture inherent between profit & value in potentially resource scarce environments.