“Open” is the key word this spring and summer. Shanai and I recently attended Open Engagement, a conference in Portland, Oregon about art and engagement. Hosted by Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA and organized by Jen Delos Reyes, this four-day annual event has grown over the past three years into a national gathering place for artists, arts administrators, and cultural programmers who share an interest in engaging their colleagues, audiences, and communities in cultural production. The parallels to the Walker Art Center’s summer-long experiment on the cultural commons here in Minneapolis were obvious and Sarah Schultz asked if we might report our experience at the conference back to the Walker blog.
“Art and life have finally merged. The only problem is… life sucks.” – Gregory Sholette (As quoted by Nato Thompson at Open Engagement)
The quote above, my favorite from the conference, has special relevance for Shanai and I. Allow me to explain: A couple of months ago, we began brainstorming travel plans to Open Engagement with our friend Jeff Hnilicka. We already knew a handful of people across the East Coast and Midwest were making similar plans so we decided to consolidate our efforts and organize a group trip on Amtrak’s Empire Builder line. Call it a pre-conference conference on wheels.
Fast forward to last week and we’re hurdling west with a fifteen person posse from across the country. Amongst them are independent arts administrators Bryce, Abigail, and Matthew from InCUBATE in Chicago, artists Jeff, Jen, and Sarah from Hit Factorie in Brooklyn, George who helped found the Division Avenue Arts Collective in Grand Rapids, artist Kate Strathman, and many more. The two-day trip gave us plenty of time to connect about where we were coming from and where we were going, both literally and figuratively and usually over whiskey in the lounge car. Hit Factorie used infrequent smoke breaks to organize mini PE sessions and practice their dance chops (they performed “100 Dance Moves for Portland” on the last day of the conference).
If you haven’t been lucky enough to ride the Empire Builder, you can glean a bit of the the experience from a group blog chronicling our exploits (click here). Please note: our blurry phone pics don’t do the scenery justice. Impassioned conversations about collaborative work, social practice, and the difficulties of running DIY art spaces were punctuated by extended moments of silence. The enormity of the great plains and the striking beauty of Glacier National Park will quiet even the most social group.
On the last full day of travel we decided our Amtrak experience wouldn’t be complete without a meal in the dining car. Vegetarian lasagna seemed like the safest bet but within thirty-six hours, after having already arrived in Portland, seven of the ten that ate that fateful meal had become violently ill. I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say, Shanai and I found ourselves unexpectedly preoccupied and ended up missing about 60% of the conference. Take note readers, your Amtrak experience will be just fine without a meal in the dining car. We were able to make the keynote panel discussion on the last night. Featured speakers were Nils Norman, Mark Dion, and Amy Franceschini (whose collective, Futurefarmers, is coordinating one of the Walker Open Field artist projects). Nato Thompson from Creative Time moderated the panel. The following is a summary of the Q&A portion of that event.
ON MAKING A LIVING : The age old question: How do you support yourself as an artist? Amy, Mark, and Nils all had similar answers: a mish-mash of things. Commonly in the mix: teaching, gallery work, public projects, graphic design, grants, and residencies. Everybody is keeping busy! Amy was once told “At the rate you’re going, you’re going to be sick and dead by the time you’re 65.” She stressed the importance of slowing down, drawing boundaries around your life and work, and learning to say no to projects that aren’t a good use of her time.
ON COMMUNITY : Mark talked about the importance of practicing your art within a small community of colleagues and that the only way to sustain this community is to share your successes with this community. Nils said that his work is often for a very small and trusted audience, sometimes just a handful of people.
ON ETHICS : Nils talked about honesty in authorship and talked about the difficulty of this when work is collaborative. His closing comment: “Don’t @!#$ each other over.” Mark stressed transparency and talked about how the economic and academic art worlds favor the “genius of the individual artist”.
ON MAKING AND ON OBJECTS : Amy talked about the trance-like state you can enter when making something that involves repetitive action. She talked about the positive social aspects of sharing this type of work with with friends and collaborators. Mark stressed that objects are inherently political and cautioned against taking them out of the equation completely.
ON SOCIAL PRACTICE : All three wanted to be very clear about one thing: they’ve never considered themselves social practice artists. Amy summed things up nicely: “When your whole life becomes a project, you lose something in the experience of it.”
A conference of this type offers opportunity to make new friends while connecting with old ones in a new context. Minneapolis had an especially strong presence in the Open Engagement audience. A list of artists and organizers from MPLS that Shanai and I ran into over our 4 days in PDX: Marcus Young, Christine Baeumler, Peter Haakon Thompson (the only Minneapolitan to be featured in the Open Engagement program), Andy Sturdevant, Sergio Vucci, and Broc Blegan. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there are some that we missed!
Though bedridden for much of it, Shanai and I return to Minneapolis inspired by all of the work being done around this country. If you’d like to hear more about the conference from other perspectives, we are hosting a brunch for conversation and reflections on Open Engagement at West Bank Social Center on Saturday, May 29 at 11AM. Email me at colin [at] worksprogress [dot] org for details.