1.17 / Review

Open Engagement: Making Things, Making Things Better, Making Things Worse

By Brian Andrews June 16, 2010

At first, it may seem odd to review an academic conference as a potential artwork. However, "Open Engagement: Making Things, Making Things Better, Making Things Worse," a conference on social practice and related art-making, begs the question. Asking such a question—or any question—at the conference would not have ended in consensus, as its heated dialogues created more uncertainty regarding the nature of social practice than they clarified.

Open Engagement featured presenters (from left to right): Nils Norman, Amy Franceschini, and Mark Dion at the closing panel. The panel was moderated by Nato Thompson (far right). Courtesy of Open Engagement Facebook Group.

The conference, held from May 14 to 17, in Portland, Oregon, by the Portland State University (PSU) Art and Social Practice program, was directed by Jen Delos Reyes in collaboration with Harrell Fletcher and a host of Portland cultural institutions. The keynote speakers, artists Mark Dion, Amy Franceschini, and Nils Norman, were often advertised above the conference title, a cultural position more akin to a rock-concert lineup than an academic roster of presenters. Each day of the conference featured a keynote presentation in the morning, followed by a web of concurrent panel discussions, performances, and installations in the afternoon. The featured presentations focused on the fascinating examples of each of the artists’ specific practices, with little time to expand the dialogue to the broader issues of the conference. In contrast, the cacophony of afternoon events spilled over into meaningful side conversations that frequently evolved into cantankerous discussions of the broad issues and concerns around socially engaged art practices. Like most conferences, these conversations found their footing outside of the meeting rooms and truly came to fruition in the local bar. In this case, the spirited debates flourished on the sun-drenched picnic tables of the lovely (and 1990s-pop-music-obsessed) Candlelight Café and Bar, located conveniently next door to the PSU arts building.

While drawing firm conclusions from the polyphony of voices became an impossible task, several themes consistently arose as key points of debate. The conference’s subtitle, "Making Things, Making Things Better, Making Things Worse," implies an awareness of the ethical challenges to socially engaged artwork, which frequently seeded the conversations. As the debates intensified, the scope of the inquiry spiraled outward to a point where questions could only be answered by additional questions. The simple query, “Do artists have an ethical obligation to the community with which they engage?” was answered with more questions: if so, what are their responsibilities? If a work successfully helps a community in need, is the artist obligated to continue the work indefinitely, or can he abandon the effort when the artwork has run its course? How is this different than political or social activism? If it is activism, then what separates it as an artwork? Can social practice exist outside of activism? Is there orthodoxy of left-wing politics that drives such practices? Has the professionalization of these practices by the art establishment corrupted these works? How can one critically evaluate an artwork outside of these frameworks? And if one can’t, can the artwork truly be understood? What are the boundaries of social practice, if we can define it at all? These rhetorical circles could have expanded ad infinitum, until the next conference event or a new round of cocktails was needed.

Where the action took place: The Candlelight Café and Bar, 2032 SW Fifth Ave., Portland, Oregon. Courtesy of Google Maps Street View.

Unfortunately, voices from other elements of the art world were missing from the conference; studio artists, media producers, gallerists, collectors, and the broader contemporary art audience are also impacted by the issues under discussion and have a great deal at stake in their outcome, but they were noticeably under-represented or absent at the events. This balkanization of the art world was not unique to "Open Engagement," but is endemic in art discourse; it contributed to the echo chamber that intensified the arguments while concurrently depriving them of fresh perspectives. The only conclusion that could be drawn from the debates is not really a conclusion at all: if one accepts the broad Duchampian notion that grandfathers any activity as potential art-making, "Open Engagement" was probably the largest weaving of social artworks ever presented. If not, then "Open Engagement" was a hard-fought, rollicking good time, which poured so much fuel on the proverbial fire that all corners of the issues were briefly illuminated. Or—evaluated as an event whose objective was complete engagement by the participants—a success.

Open Engagement: Making Things, Making Things Better, Making Things Worse was held at Portland State University from May 14 to 17, 2010.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content