Open Engagement 2014: Life/Work

“Open Engagement is an international conference and artist project that sets out to explore various perspectives on art and social practice and expand the dialogue around socially engaged art making.” –Wikipedia

I just got back from the Open Engagement conference in New York this week. The theme of the conference was Life/Work and offered and opportunity for artists working in “social practice” to consider the seams, edges, overlap, torque, and friction between these two realms of Life and Work.

Day 1

The Curatorialization of Activism in Art as a Neo-Avant-Garde at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in Brooklyn. The panelists addressed “the theoretical idea of the neo-avant-garde and the practical nature of social practice and the political exhibition.” Gregory Sholette (artist and writer) shared his publication from The Interventionists, a 2004 exhibition by MASS MoCA exploring art and activism. He also mentioned a few other projects and exhibitions:

  • Culture in Action in Chicago 1992-1993, (“Aimed at bringing art to urban communities not considered part of the museum- and gallery-going public, each of the eight component projects involved the collaboration of an artist and a particular community with whom the artist chose to work.”)
  • Oakland-based Aaron Gach’s Center for Tactical Magic (“A fusion force summoned from the ways of the artist, the magician, the ninja, and the private investigator, Tactical Magic is an amalgam of disparate arts invoked for the purpose of actively addressing Power on individual, communal, and transnational fronts.”)
  • SPURSE (“a creative design consultancy that focuses on social, ecological and ethical transformation”)

Most interesting panelists were Elissa Blount Moorhead (Blount Moorehead is the Arts and Cultural Management Educator at Pratt and Parsons) and Arthur Jafa (Jafa is a cultural critic, visual artist and cinematographer whose work includes Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, and Manthia Diawara’s Rouch in Reverse.”) . I don’t know if the video from the panel will ever be made public, but I did find this interview with Blount Moorehead on WNYC and this fairly weighty presentation of Jafa’s (which I emphatically recommend) from MIT’s Art & Technology Symposium.

Together, they presented some really striking video and were the only presenters to closely address the terms of the panel–art, activism, and neo-avant-garde, which they did with direct elegance. Here is what I managed to capture in m notes:

  • neo-avant-garde: advanced positionality to effect radical alienation from familiar intensities
  • art: to create for the purpose of aesthetic effects
  • activism: effecting challenging social, political, and economic change.

They likened the pairing of art and activism to “serving two masters” with “mixed criteria or intention” which they connected to experiences of bi-raciality (!). The curating of these “two masters” was compared to musical conduction, DJ-ing, or the role of the Reggae selector. Jafa also had some interesting things to say about the film stock for Daughters of the Dust, the material and economic pre-conditions for film production and visual art and how they compare to music and performance.  (More about this in his MIT presentation.) Someone also used the term “production of euphorias” but I can’t recall the context though I really wish I could.

Day 2

Edgar Arcenaux presented on New Financial Architectures for Creative Communities. Arcenaux is a exhibiting artists and former Executive Director of the Watts House Project. The presentation compared our understanding of the creative limits of an artist’s tools (e.g pencil, ruler, camera) and the impact these tools and limits have on shaping the work of art to the creative limits of the financial tools artists use to support and shape their work. In particular, Arcenaux focused on the 501c(3) as the common but imperfect go-to for creative communities. The 501c(3) comes with inherent limits that may often contradict creative community values and characteristically has the effect of turning artists into program mangers, fundraisers, and administrators. He is currently in the very early stages of research with the Illinois Institute of Technology (?) for developing alternative financial architectures that are designed to be more aligned with the temperament and values of creative collaborations. His key question: “What tools of financial support can we create that align with creative community values?”

I felt pretty proud of the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism and the structure we’ve devised so far. The Model C Fiscal Sponsorship we have with SOMArts Cultural Center provides a lot of the financial benefits of the 501c(3) but with fewer administrative responsibilities and more structural flexibility. Our structure is *not* the radical “architecture” that Arcenaux is looking for and still involves typical grassroots, relationship-building and fundraising work. But I think his question about how tools influence collaborative arrangements is worth some thoughtful consideration was the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism grows and experiments with new strategies.

Day 3

On Sunday I was pleased to catch at least part of the “Family Life and Socially Engaged Art Panel” including the  Aguilar Family and Brooklyn Hi-Art Machine. Later, I had a lovely conversation with the mom, Sonia Aguilar who was incredibly encouraging about the integration art and parenting. She referred me to Cultural ReProducers for more online discussion and resources about art and parenting. (“Cultural ReProducers are an evolving group of active cultural workers who are also parents. This site is for anyone interested in making the art world a more inclusive and interesting place by supporting arts professionals with kids.””)

 “Support for Socially Engaged Art” was moderated by Tom Finklepearl (newly appointed cultural affairs commissioner of NYC) and the panel included:

  • Deborah Fisher of A Blade of Grass – A sponsor for Open Engagement and funder for social practice art projects. (Eligible organizations for their Project Grants for Organizations are NYC only but their Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art for individual artist and collectives is nationwide!) Recent grantees include The Center for Artistic Activism founded by Stephen Duncombe & Steve Lambert.
  • Michelle Coffey of the Lambent Foundation – “Lambent Foundation leverages the critical role of arts and culture at the intersection of social justice. Through our grantmaking and creative programs we explore the impact of contemporary art as a strategy for promoting sustainable cultural practices in New York City, New Orleans and Nairobi.”
  • Judilee Reed of the Surdna Foundation: Thriving Cultures program – “We support the potential of artists to be catalysts for social change and to promote the cultural traditions of their communities.”
  • Edwin Torres of the Rockefeller Foundation
  • Some guy from the NEA



Thank you, Christine Wong Yap and Eric for encouraging this stay-at-home momma to fly to NYC for the conference and supporting Miranda and I every step of the way. Also, Martin Rosengaard and Wooloo‘s Human Hotel were kind enough to pair our family with the incredibly hospitable Natalia Roumelioti for the first part of our stay. It was a great welcome to NYC and OE. In addition to being such excellent company, Miki Foster lent a huge hand during several days of our trip hefting the stroller in and out of the NYC subway.

Posted in Artist-Activists, Curating, Posts, Social Practice
One comment on “Open Engagement 2014: Life/Work
  1. Elizabeth Travelslight says:

    Keynote from Open Engagement 2014 by Mierle Laderman Ukeles:

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