9.1 / Shotgun Review

From Portland: Open Engagement 2012

By Joshua Kim June 14, 2012

The tattered flag of social practice waved high in Portland, Oregon, at the fourth international Open Engagement conference. Organized by founder and director, Jen Delos Reyes, the conference took place in a range of institutions around Portland, with Shattuck Hall at Portland State University providing a discursive center. The majority of the conference dialogue focused on finding the boundaries of the form and reached toward the subjects of documentation and representation. What emerged were the values of intersubjective exchange between the artists, collaborators, audience members, and institutional representatives, each group dialed into its favored symbolic language to describe the social process. While presentations by Tania Bruguera, John Spiak, Allison Agsten, Rene De Guzman, and other contemporaries deserve attention, this review will concentrate on two: Shannon Jackson and Paul Ramirez Jonas.

Shannon Jackson explicated her conception of social practice by staying close to the framework of her recent book, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (Routledge, 2011). Jackson’s presentation methodically pinned critical theory to social practices, based upon opposing but interwoven structures of autonomy and heteronomy. With this concept and the application and observation of what she called “supports,” Jackson  scrutinized the practices of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Elmgreen and Dragset, and Paul Chan’s Waiting For Godot in New Orleans. Jackson’s view, which prefers the institution that works without a gallery, looks to stages, cities, underused zones, and urban infrastructures to appeal to viewers outside the art audiences.

Paul Ramirez Jonas’s unfinished PhD thesis presentation was a multi-format performance that looked at the historicity of aestheticized common spaces. Ramirez Jonas’s curation of information could be read on multiple levels and used sped-up searches, animated Photoshop macros, and embedded video of Occupy Wall Street activities. Ramirez Jonas merged his oration with a video of Slavoj Žižek’s mic check. Ramirez Jonas’s use of the Žižek video not only undermined his position as the speaker, by referring to the voice of another (presumably smarter) person, but also created a psychological disruption for the audience, effectively bridging a past audience (Occupy Wall Street) with a present one


Paul Ramirez Jonas. Keynote lecture, Open Engagement 2012, Portland, Oregon, May 19th, 2012. Photo: Grace Hwan.

(Open Engagement). Ramirez Jonas’s analysis of the recent destruction of The Pearl Roundabout, a key location of the Bahraini uprising, was a razor-sharp demonstration of the imploding dialogue between public institutions, governments, and peoples.His electronic media stream stitched together issues of various publics and the temporal commons, raising questions about ephemeral versus permanent representations. The information, though curated, felt raw and inspired both the senses of empowerment and vulnerability.

At Open Engagement 2012, the question “ What is social practice?” was manifested by a variety of voices and revealed the conference’s pertinence. Bruguera made one critical admission in the form of a question—“Where is the community?”—a reflexive challenge to reconsider the importance of our own institutions. 



Open Engagement took place in Portland, Oregon, from May 18-20.


Joshua Kim is a writer and artist. He is researching for his second publication for ONTOLOGUE.

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