Last month I attended Open Engagement, an informal conference on social practice art (or Socially Engaged Art) that is produced by Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA students. This was my 2nd time (I threatened last year to do a cartoon on it but only had time for one– feh).
OE is interesting to me because there are questions and challenges that social practice artists engage with which parallel what I strive to do in my work: a focus on manifesting ideas for inventive engagement, and smart participation. In addition, there is often a historical context to “participation” which surfaces in the course of the keynotes or discussions. Context that is largely absent in other conferences and the museum blogosphere. It also provides a language to talk about work that is evolving, and struggles with its inherent intangibility.
There were three projects or talks that stood out:
Claire Doherty talked about their Situations project “Nowhere Island”, conceived of by Alex Hartley and produced for the UK Olympics. My knee-jerk reaction was “oh god, really?” when I heard they discovered a piece of exposed arctic landmass, and put together a proposal to tow it around the UK. What emerged, however, was a story of joyous and thoughtful social impact. The island it created a sense of expectation as it moored off towns around the coast. They developed a mobile embassy, the cumulative results of which deeply engaged the public in discussions and activities around citizenship and sovereignty. A dear and fraught topic. There is more, so go to the website and check it out, along with their other amazing projects.
The social practice artist Heather Zinger presented her smart, fun, and impactful work with cancer patients through the Embrace Center at Sanford Health in Fargo, ND. She developed a series of projects that corralled, animated and soothed staff and patients.
“(Oncologist) Terstriep sees Zinger’s addition to the staff as the first step in creating a dynamic arts program that “taps into an artist’s expertise” to create an environment of healing and well being that wouldn’t be attainable otherwise, and it’s bearing out in patient reaction.” (Source)
She also put together an amazing slide that showed the complexity (and power) of her network. I think we could all take note of this approach:
There was a delightful project out of the Richmond, VA public library system called “The People’s Library.” A team of artists (Courtney Bowles, Riley Duncan and Mark Strandquist) took hardcover books that were about to be tossed, gutted them, put new (handmade) paper inside with letterpress prompts. These books were given out to the community to journal. When they were done, they were brought back into the library collection for others to check out, and learn what their neighbors were thinking about. Simple and interesting engagement, that leverages existing social phenomena.
Of course a panel I participated in was one I got a lot out of. Organized by Stephanie Parrish and Mike Murawski (Portland Art Museum) and Kelsey Snook (Daily tous le jours), it was called “Art Museums and Social Practice: Where Are We Now?” It was a panel in two parts. Part one consisted of a dinner discussion with artists, museum directors, curators, educators, designers, and educators from the Met, Walker Art Center, Hammer Museum, Queens Museum and beyond. We were there to ostensibly think about what’s next for events such as Shine A Light event, which was held during the conference. What emerged was a discussion, debate and overall thoughtful exchange around the feasibility, utility and possibilities of doing this work in and around museums. The next morning was part two- a panel where we opened this conversation up to the conference.
I left for #aam2013 before the conference was over to present a second take on the Experimental Museum projects panel from last year- where I also launched a (soon to be) multi-author blog called The Elastic Museum to explore this work with others. I’ll repeat a graphic I posted there which sums up this focus that brought me back to Open Engagement: