Open Engagement: Art + Social Practice

Fritz Haeg lecture, photo by John Muse

Last week the Open Engagement Conference gathered artists, critics, curators and one museum director to discuss an emergent field, Art and Social Practice. It was organized by Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice faculty Jen Delos Reyes and Harrell Fletcher along with their MFA students. This is the third iteration of the conference and it featured Julie Ault, Fritz Haeg, and Pablo Helguera – all of whom work across platforms such as art, architecture, education, curatorial practice and publication.

The structure of the conference included lectures by these artists as well as panels that addressed the relationships between Social Practice projects and museums and educational institutions with social practice programs such as CCA, PSU, OTIS, MICA, and UCSC. There were also a number of breakout sessions, performances and exhibitions.

Open Engagement, Elyse Mallouk presentation on "Landfill" photo by John Muse

Elyse Mallouk presentation on "Landfill" photo by John Muse

One early breakout session was a presentation by Elyse Mallouk, a CCA visual and critical studies MA student, on Landfill – a new project designed to archive the ephemeral detritus of Social Practice projects. The website emphasizes posters, pamphlets, maps and objects that were used in projects by artists such as Jeremy Deller, Santiago Sierra, and Superflex. One issue brought up in the discussion about this project was how to address the tension between fetishizing objects around ephemeral projects and treating ephemera in terms of their materiality and aesthetics. Another was about PLAND (Practice Art Through Necessary Dislocation). This project, run by three women who have worked as curators, artists and writers, is an off-the-grid residency program in Taos, NM. Their mission is to produce “open-ended experimental projects that facilitate sustainability, collaboration, and hyper-local engagement.”

Open Engagement, Photo by Jason Sturgill

The Museum summit included discussions about Social Practice projects at the Walker Art Center, the Hammer Museum, The National Gallery of Victoria, the Portland Art Museum and the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Larry Rinder, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum, noted that he wished that more museum directors were there to discuss the issues around Social Practice. One reason for the importance of this was drawn out in the discussion, where there was often a clear tension between curatorial and education departments when it comes to projects that don’t focus on objects. One potential problematic was the tendency for Social Practice projects to serve as merely peripheral or interpretive events that exist in a decorative manner, around what is perceived to be the primary programs of the museum.

Rick Lowe, Fritz Haeg, Harrel Fletcher, Julie Ault, photo by John Muse

Rick Lowe, Fritz Haeg, Harrel Fletcher, Julie Ault, photo by John Muse

The artists’ lectures and their final panel discussion revealed some lingering questions that were only touched upon by the conference. What is the relationship between Social Practice and other art practices that have long historical and theoretical trajectories such as conceptualism, performance, institutional critique and the wide range of artistic engagements with art and politics? What is the relationship between the mostly American examples presented and other global models of socially motivated art practices? And finally, is there an aesthetic to Social Practice projects that involves groups of people gathering around and doing something?  As one community organizer from the Queens Museum of Art pointed out – maybe these will serve as the basis for next year’s conference.