WHAT IS YOUR REVOLUTION? The icebreaker question, raised by Field Foundation president Angelique Power during last week’s Practicing Utopia over Breakfast program, gets at the aim of this year’s art and social practice Open Engagement conference: critically examining and supporting social-justice-oriented artmaking and administration. The forward-thinking morning event took place at Tricia Van Eck’s 6018North, a dilapidated mansion brimming with art installations in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, just one of the more than twenty locations throughout Chicago—“our beautiful, scarred, complicated city,” as Power called it—partaking in the itinerant Open Engagement conference, now in its ninth year.
The following morning, I found myself in a more harrowing context: lying on the floor of the black-box theater at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in a chokehold with Jorge Rojas, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ director of education and engagement. Far from antagonistic, the confrontation was structured as part of artist Shaun Leonardo’s “I Can’t Breathe” self-defense workshop. Conceived just months after the murder of Eric Garner by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, Leonardo’s instructive workshop provided hands-on techniques to protect oneself against violence and to resist arrest. Dozens of participants paired off, switching roles between aggressor and defendant; the final stance found Leonardo instructing us on how to tuck our chins to allow for breathing in the same chokehold position that took Garner’s life as he gasped for air. As we practiced the defense maneuvers, Leonardo read from Nina Simone and concluded with Garner’s last words, speaking the refrain “I Can’t Breathe” eleven times. “It’s about locating it somewhere else,” Leonardo said of his workshop, which shifted the ubiquitous video of Garner suffocating into a space of tense, physical experience.
Theaster Gates, whose creative project speaks volumes to the potential of socially engaged art, also discussed location and trauma in the wake of police brutality during a keynote conversation. In a forthright dialogue with Open Engagement Chicago curators Romi Crawford and Lisa Yun Lee, Gates spoke about being approached by Samaria Rice regarding the relocation of the Cleveland gazebo in which her twelve-year-old son Tamir Rice was fatally shot by Cuyahoga County sheriff Timothy Loehmann. When the city looked to remove it, eradicating any material trace of the site of urban trauma, Ms. Rice reached out, and Gates responded. With Ms. Rice’s blessing, he arranged for the gazebo’s deinstallation and transport to his studio in Chicago’s South Side, where it remains as he and his collaborators carefully consider next steps with Ms. Rice.
The conversation took place within the impressive Stony Island Arts Bank on Chicago’s South Side, which had remained vacant for decades until it was rehabilitated by Gates and his nonprofit, Rebuild Foundation. The bank now holds the Johnson Publishing Library, Frankie Knuckles’s vinyl collection, and other cultural archives of the black experience and more. Gates spoke candidly about the limitations of his relationship to the gazebo as a “complicated, loaded object that is distinctly not about art,” while Lisa Lee pointed out that Ms. Rice perhaps wanted to have the structure considered by the radical imagination of an artist. When the conversation turned to the contours of Gates’s restorative project on the South Side and how it exists between his practices of urban planning, ceramics, and religious studies, Gates concluded emphatically, “As artists, sometimes we need to know a little bit more than how to make a fucking pot.”
Lee directs the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois, Chicago, the headquarters of this year’s Open Engagement, and she emphasized the centrality of care communities: “It’s about practitioners coming together, saying we believe in socially engaged practices and in one another to ask the questions creating critical inquiry and care.” Consciousness-raising and movement-building were paired with supportive uplift throughout, including a “Sappho & Sweat” embodied movement seminar with Chani Bockwinkel, involving somatics, poetry, and aerobics, as well as “Beauty Breaks: On Tender Resistance,” a workshop for people of color based in meditation and writing exercises with Sojourner Zenobia Wright, Jade Perry, and Amina Ross.
Gates’s conversation was followed by the rousing JOY party, presented by Party Noire, and each subsequent Open Engagement evening featured queer-inclusive nightlife parties centering on communities of color across Chicago, including TRQPiTECA (wth DJs CQQCHIFRUIT and La Spacer) at Co-Prosperity Sphere and Slo ‘Mo at Reunion. Spearheaded by Latham Zearfoss, these considered nightlife contexts were “guided by the belief that transformative acts of change are deeply indebted to these marginal spaces of collective joy.”
While “self-care” is a buzzword of late, artist Marisa Morán Jahn advocates for the rights of domestic-care workers who aid others, including nannies, elderly and disability care providers, housekeepers, and more. Her keynote conversation with MacArthur Fellow Ai-jen Poo highlighted domestic workers as among America’s fastest-growing workforce yet one of its most overlooked and undervalued labor economies, excluded from the federal 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Jahn’s social practice centers on the CareForce, a “superhero team behind every individual who needs care,” which she creatively imagines alongside domestic workers themselves.
Jahn’s wide-ranging presence throughout Open Engagement combined art and advocacy within and beyond gallery walls, exemplifying the possibilities of art as social practice. Her collaborative animations, policy posters, and outreach materials—all designed as know-your-rights tools—were on view in the illuminating Columbia College Chicago exhibition “Revolution at Point Zero: Feminist Social Practice,” curated by Neysa Page-Lieberman and Melissa Hilliard Potter, which “position[s] the feminist art movement as the progenitor of contemporary socially engaged art.” Meanwhile, parked outside the gallery was the CareForce One, a souped-up car that functions as a mobile studio for distribution of advocacy materials to caregivers at worker centers, bus stops, and other public places. Finally, the tireless Jahn concluded her weekend at the progressive Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, where bilingual tours of workers’-rights issues were followed by the CareForce Disco. Jahn collaborated with domestic workers to choreograph the participatory dance, narrating actions such as sweeping and voting in a powerful display of collectivized efforts toward sustainable care solutions. Coincidentally, Illinois is the seventh and most recent state to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, ensuring minimum wage, protection against sexual harassment, and more.
Imperatives for progress were considered across the conference, with much transparency about access and the difficulty of transforming institutions. A lack of staff diversity within museums and cultural organizations was a major topic. Surveys cited included a 2013 Americans for the Arts study stating that 86 percent of executives at local arts agencies are white, as well as a more recent 2015 Department of Cultural Affairs initiative noting that 74 percent of senior staff at NYC cultural groups are white.
For “Whose Museum? Our Museum. How Contemporary Art Museums Can Create Justice,” Amy Sadao (ICA, Philadelphia), Barbara Hunt McLanahan (Children’s Museum of Art, NY), and Lisa Dent (Creative Capital) talked openly about committing to diverse hiring practices, mentorship, and professional development with the solution-based aim of breaking down barriers. Dent was reminded of a conversation with Arthur Jafa in which the filmmaker spoke about the “discriminatory” collecting practices of museums, which seems to have extended into hiring practices. In another useful conversation, speakers from the MASS Action (Museum as Site for Social Action) project provided resources for further reference around these issues, including museumhue.com, museumsandrace.org, visitorsofcolor.tumblr.com, #museumsrespondtoferguson, and #museumworkersspeak.
“Within the last ten years, it seems there has been much evolution within the field of social practice and individuated artist practices,” said Romi Crawford. Indeed, looking at Open Engagement’s and Theaster Gates’s contributions over the past decade, it’s hard to disagree. “It’s now about remaining open and receptive to those adaptations,” Crawford continued. Looking to the future, the Open Engagement team—founder and director Jen Delos Reyes, Crystal Baxley, Latham Zearfoss, and Alexandra Winters—outlined sustainability as the theme for the 2018 edition, to be held at the Queens Museum in New York. Beyond that, a question remained for the conference and the field: Who is going to support socially engaged work in the years to come? Open Engagement’s artist-led ethos sets it apart as a valuable coming-together and context for social engagement. Yet as Coya Paz said during the Funding Social Justice conversation, “Social value is not social change. We are trying to think radically and comprehensively about social change here, and that is often not a cute conversation you can Instagram.”