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Postcard from Portland

by Michael Birchall

All photographs courtesy: Mark Menjivar

I’ve heard so much about the Open Engagement (OE) conference since it was founded four years ago, but this year was the first year I was able to attend.

OE gathers artists, museum professionals and academics together for three days of presentations and discussions surrounding social practice, and was conceived by Jen Delos Reyes, Assistant Professor on the MFA Social Practice programme at Portland State University, who teaches with the course’s founder Harrell Fletcher. Fletcher is a prominent artist in this field, and remains best known for learningtoloveyoumore, a web, book and exhibition project he collaborated on with Miranda July; this month he is teaching a class on social practice at the Hayward Gallery’s Wide Open School exhibition. The MFA students are actively involved in the planning and decision making process of the conference and many of the key-note speakers had previously been guest lecturers at the university. Amazingly, OE is free to attend and speakers are usually hosted by artists and those associated with the university, thus reducing hotel costs and enhancing their experience.

Portland is laid back in a typical West Coast fashion, not so dissimilar from the satirical TV series Portlandia. Food became a major part of the conference with shared lunches, happy hour sessions and a closing dinner reception; the lunch-time activities included a variety of events, with artists creating various sharing-based projects. One such example was The Farm Studies Picnic Studies, a student-run initiative that promotes local food and the pleasures of eating al fresco. Local produce is bought from the farmers’ market and picnic blankets for provided for attendees.

What OE does, which is perhaps unique, is to bring people together to discuss the current issues emerging in the field of social practice. Most importantly, the voice of the artist isn’t drowned out, as can often be the case. In the US, social practice is becoming an increasingly specialist art form, reflected and enhanced by the proliferation of related MFA programmes. A panel of educators from several universities – Otis, PSU, MICA and UCSC – discussed the current state of these courses and how they view themselves in relation to the established studio model of MFAs. One interesting outcome was that it seems such programmes are popular with education institutions due to the limited amount of space they require in comparison with traditional studio-bound courses. According to Fletcher, this challenges the traditional notion of studio education and allows students to work in any place. I don’t see this as so radical, similar models of alternative art education having been initiated some 40 years ago at CalArts by Herbert Blau. Students should have access to a studio, especially if they are paying high fees. As Claire Bishop asserts: ‘What avant-garde we have today: artists using social situations to produce de-materialized, anti-market, politically engaged objects that carry on the modernist call to blur art and life.’ Bishop’s claim on the blurring of art and life is essentially what Fletcher is trying to achieve, with this in mind one would expect an entirely new art school to be established that truly works against the established system. In my view the studio still has its place as a site for production and the sharing of ideas with peers.

Keynote presentations offered a series of clear critical voices, with Tania Bruguera, Paul Ramírez Jonas, Shannon Jackson and Stephen Wright all providing a range of unique perspectives. Wright is Paris-based art theorist, and he positions art and social practice as possessing a ‘double ontology’, in that they should be evaluated for both the social and artistic functions. Ramírez Jonas’s triumphant lecture was devoted to the history of the public monument and its function as a marker of social and political history. According to past attendees, this kind of critical and theoretical conversation has increased as the conference has grown. While I found this to be sufficient this year, more would certainly have been appreciated. It’s not enough for artists to only talk about their own work positively – an element of critical reflection is also needed.

Carmen Papalia, Blind Field Shuttle. Photo courtesy: John Muse

Carmen Papalia’s Blind Field Shuttle is a non-visual shuttle service in which Papalia transports participants to and from given locations: galleries, restaurants, tourist sports. So far he has done this project in various locations in North America including Portland, the Mildred’s Lane residency in Pennsylvania, and Pro Arts in Oakland. At OE, participants were transported from one of the lecture venues to the Portland Art Museum to explore the collection. Papalia is a visually impaired artist, and he guides participants around using his awareness of the surroundings and a walking cane. I participated in this tour and had to work as a team with the people I held onto. We were dependant on Papalia to guide us to our destination safely, crossing several streets and passing messages down the line of approximately 14 people. Holding onto the shoulders of the person in front, I was reliant on him to bring to my attention any obstacles we may come across. Some might say this is insulting to the visually impaired community – as was expressed by a few of the participants, especially how we were temporarily impairing our sight, only to restore it again 20 minutes later. But for me, within this context it created a sense of social unity and collaboration that was in accordance with the ethos of the conference.

Artist projects were also part of the conference programme, in addition to the thematic topics across four areas: Education, Economies, Politics and Representation. Anyone could send a submission to be considered by the OE committee, and this meant the variety of projects also included curators and academics talking about their research and experience of initiating social practice. Recent graduate Cassie Thornton held a session title ‘If it Doesn’t it Should’, and invited participants to discuss issues surrounding student debt, particularly from MFAs. In a role-play exercise, participants had to act out one of three positions: debt, education and money as anthropomorphized characters. MFA Program leaders – Harrell Fletcher and Ted Purves were asked to talk about their thoughts on student debt and to assess the value of the programme. In actuality they avoided these questions by discussing other matters – it seems those educators are part of the system and are unable to change the larger institutions. I would expect some social practitioner to initiate their own art school at some point, as Henrietta Heise and Jakob Jakobsen did with the Copenhagen Free University.

OE is unlike any conference I have visited before. The entire experience is social, both during and after the daily sessions. To some extent social practice is developing – certainly on the West Coast of the US – into a very distinguished group, OE is able to provide a platform for a sophisticated level of discussion. While practitioners discuss current debates in their practice it is also important to think about other art disciplines and to not exclude these. Hopefully next year’s OE will include an extended programme including theatre, dance and performance art, so that issues regarding social practice have an alternative perspective. Likewise, as Tania Bruguera remarked at the closing dinner, as we were all talking about the communities we work with, why were none of them present at this event?

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