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
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.’
‘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.’