The three days I spent in Portland for PSU’s Open Engagement Conference were blessed with perfect weather, and the city seemed lush and magical. I’d never been there before, and the public space, preponderance of bike racks, walkability, used bookstores, independent coffee shops, and general greenness seemed like some kind of fevered wish fulfillment. By day three, I have to admit, it started to make me a little uncomfortable – and I began to notice the homeless people, the pervading slacker attitude among youth, the distinct lack of creative industry, the claustrophobia. Still, Portland to me seemed like an natural fit for a conference on socially-engaged art practice, and such a livable, participatory, socially-conscious city (at least on the surface) is a fitting incubator for the students of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program, started by artist Harrell Fletcher three years ago. I only hope that such students make it down to Los Angeles after graduation, after their teeth are cut. We could use them in this messy, unplanned, dystopic concrete jungle.

The conference itself was a noble endeavor and a mostly fun gathering, albeit imperfectly organized. But what isn’t? There were probably a few too many parallel sessions and a few too many dispersed and too loosely connected artist’s projects on the program – if anything Open Engagement was maybe a little too open and could have benefitted from some focus and editing. There were great people at the conference that I would have liked to talk to, but once the big sessions and talks were over, everyone seemed to dissipate into the Portland ether, and I ended up hanging out with the same five people for most of the weekend.

The space for thought and the sharing of ideas around this nebulous term “social practice” was created, and organizing the conference under the term itself allowed a like-minded group of people to explore common experiences. As Harrell Fletcher put it, it was a place for social practitioners to have some “alone time” without the studio people. I enjoyed my first day, particularly Mark Dion’s keynote talk about cabinets of curiosities. Although I didn’t feel it was revelatory in any way, it covered an anthropological/library science practice of object collection and display that I find pleasing. He made an interesting point at the end that touched upon a core theme that would arise over the course of the conference – the idea that the artist is a dilettante in the oldest sense of the word, i.e. curious about everything. Dion cautioned that it is dangerous to have a society where only experts can talk to each other, and that social practice artists, who often work within other disciplines as well as art (sociology, ecology, architecture, urban planning), must learn the discourses of these other fields and create bridges. On the other hand, this provoked for me an episode of “This American Life” from the past year called “A Little Bit of Knowledge,” in which the dangers of only knowing a little bit (about finances, about real estate, about science) can get you into a whole world of trouble and depress high levels of discourse on a grander political scale. This is indeed a conundrum that is underscored throughout many of these social practice projects.


The next panel I attended could not have been a starker contrast – called “The Ethical Implications of Social Practice.” The introduction by Connie Hockaday, a documentary filmmaker and artist, jumped right into a highly questionable reading of social practice and why it exists. She made the point that the rising interest in social practice is due to the ineffectuality of protest and dissent in this country – but whereas protest and dissent functioned within an ethical framework, social practice (and art in general) does not. I found this essentializing view of social practice quite disturbing. This type of art practice is inherently complex, and is taken on for a number of different reasons. Though many practices that fall under this rubric are politically motivated (as protest would be), such practices have existed alongside rather than in place of protest for decades. Not only that, this art functions under the same ethical system that guides the justice system in this country, and does not exist in some otherly, nebulous realm. I take issue with critics who frame arguments in this way, like Claire Bishop, who popped up again in Matthew Rana’s presentation as the panel got started. Aesthetics vs. Ethics, social practice should not be judged on an inherently Christian set of ethical values alone, because then that privileges the intention of “goodness,” so then there is no bad social practice. This kind of argument gets you into a theoretical head space that removes you so far from these actual practices that little is applicable or relevant to the practices themselves. I maintain that social practices must be experienced and then written about as case studies that embrace all the complexity of the work. Only then can ethical implications be picked apart and revealed.

Needless to say, I got a little red-faced and worked up, and then I just became so utterly bored hearing the same old Claire Bishop run-around, I had to get up and leave.

I made it back into the panel just in time for the wonderful Ted Purves’s explanation of storefront project called Temescal Amity Works involved in the distribution of free fruit and exchanges of information and services in a diverse Oakland neighborhood. One audience member took issue with his point that because the project took the form of a storefront, everyone could access it, and it was unnecessary to explain that it was an “artist’s project.” The woman in the audience angrily asked why Purves and his collaborators would keep the “artist” angle rarified, and not engage in a discussion of why the project was or was not art with the general public. Purves’s answer highlighted the problematics of critiquing social art in this way – the project has gone on for two years, and obviously it is impossible to characterize every exchange as one thing or another. Doubtless there were MANY conversation dealing with the meaning of art in the project over that time period. But the bigger question that arose, in this panel and throughout the conference, was “why not get rid of the art altogether?”

I have heard this refrain over and over, from multiple people and contexts at this point. If you get rid of the art, it uncomplicates things, the division of art world vs. real world knowledge disappears, it is easier to raise money (in some cases), it erases the elite status bestowed upon artists – they just become regular people trying to help rather than imbued with some kind of special insight. These “art world” complications are uncomfortable for many young artists working in this field, and many are figuring out different ways to deal with them.

I didn’t have a good answer to this question at the time, and it wasn’t until a week later, at the American Association of Museums Conference back in sunny LA, that I began to feel strong conviction in the negative.

Next week: A Tale of Two Conferences: Part II, or Don’t Get Rid of the Art.