OE Perspectives: J. Soto & Anthony Romero

In an effort to further the conversations that occurred during the conference and share with a wider audience, we are initiating the platform OE Perspectives—first person reflections on OE 2016 provided from a select number of entrusted colleagues and friends of OE.

LATINX Dialogue: Open Engagement 2016

Anthony Romero: Perhaps we can begin by outlining some of the reasons why we have recently begun to move towards self-organizing Latinx peoples? At the time of writing this, we will be moving into the first full summer term for the Latinx Artist Visibility Award, a scholarship that we established at OxBow School of Art and that allows Latinx students to attend a summer class of their choosing, you will have just co-organized Open Forum, a sharing event that worked to network and map contemporary Latinx art making. I will be headed to Open Engagement, where I will report on some of the conversations that we have been having with your collaborators on Open Forum, including Mia Lopez, Josh Rios, Gibran Villalobos, and Brit Barton, around what a Latinx artist retreat might look like. When I think about this kind of work, and similar work that we have done in the past, I think that on the one hand it is an attempt to understand the internal diversity of groups that fall under the Latinx umbrella and on the other hand it is preoccupied with both the distribution of resources within and towards Latinx artist communities as well as how these communities are represented institutionally and organizationally. Underpinning this is the recognition that there are problems of access, visibility, and agency within these communities and that as Latinx people (first) and artists (second) we might be able to redirect resources, advocate for, or otherwise provide opportunities for our communities. For me, it is this recognition and the frustration that flowed from it that has motivated us to do the work but I want to ask you the question as well and maybe generalize it a bit more in hopes of expanding the conversation. Why do you think we moved towards self-organizing in this way?

J. Soto: Rather than move from a position of deficit, I think we found it more self-actualizing, more energizing, to move from a place of what is readily available and who is willing to listen and dream with you from a present place and present moment. This points to a sense of urgency and this is in response to the lack of access and visibility that you mention. I also think that it is tied to the electoral landscape of the last year, where some of the U.S. presidential candidates have been courting the Latinx vote and the term “hispandering” has reemerged as popular, which illuminates a discordance between white politicians and their desired Latinx constituencies. In response to this climate of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and general lack of visibility and access to opportunities in the arts, we began to self-organize.

Personally, I also wanted to create opportunities for Latinx artists that were not so influenced by institutional tastes that the artists receiving them needed to perform their otherness for the sake of outlining themselves as marginalized. One of my primary concerns is that as we move toward more inclusion, we begin to lose the nuances of the inter-cultural, inter-class, and inter-generational dialogue that is taking place. There is no single brown, no single experience that we can all speak to if we are really trying to listen to each other and take up space together. For this to happen, for the work that we do to attempt to make space for the complexities of embodied latinidad, it seemed that we had to do it ourselves.

A.R: One of the things that I am always wrestling with is how to articulate the complexity of latinidad, as you say. When I mentioned the internal diversity of Latinx peoples earlier, I was thinking of how difficult it is to understand Latinx peoples as a unified group when what we call Latinx actually refers to people who come from many numerous countries and speak several different languages; peoples who are, as you observed the other night, products of colonial histories which have given them a sense of being in-between, of being in the middle. The reality is that many Latinx peoples share more differences than they do commonalities, with migration and colonialism being amongst the most prominent shared experiences. In some ways, I think what we are trying to do with this kind of organizing is to build that commonality in a way that celebrates and incorporates those differences. For me, it is a matter, as you’ve said, of re-educating ourselves, of coming to a better understanding of the landscape of Latinx peoples, in order to better advocate for each other when we are in a position to do so. Were you thinking of the Open Forum event you recently co-organized in this way, as an opportunity to learn about Latinx art and artists?

J.S: Yes, I was. Open Forum: A Visual Conversation on Latinx Art, as we called it, was born out of several conversations that Minneapolis-based curator Mia Lopez and I had over the last six months. We wanted to come to a better understanding of the contemporary Latinx artist landscape and welcome the complications that are brought forth by an open-ended invitation to present contemporary Latinx artists. The terms were intentionally very broad. I feel like we are always battling invisibility and silencing and this was one way to push against that. Oversimplification is another form of silencing. And because capitalism stifles inter-cultural differences that cannot be bought and sold, and because of the practice of omitting the histories of colonized peoples and their descendants, the story of how our experiences intersect or the differences that we can build relationships around often get reduced to the single-symbolic in order to be easily consumable to audiences. With Open Forum, we wanted to counter those patterns and welcome complication by hosting an event that sat adjacent to and was programmed concurrently with the Latino Art Now! conference in Chicago.

For the event, any Latinx artist or cultural producer could present on their own work or on the work of another Latinx artist. We called it a “visual conversation” because we wanted to make it possible for presenters to say as little as they wished, verbally, and to intervene on the expectations of the traditional academic conference format. Here, images carried the same weight as words and the result was a very dynamic evening of sharing and emotion. The evening served as a way to gather together informally and welcome both the commonalities and differences of being Latinxs in the present moment.  By design, the presenters had some relationship to the idea of identifying as Latinx. I am being particular about the language here because not every presenter felt comfortable identifying as Latinx. For some, the pressure to identify as Latinx was an outside one felt only after living in the U.S. For others there may have been tension around moving from the widely-accepted masculine “Latino” to the gender neutral Latinx. A hope for that evening was that as these conversations emerged, so would the personal tensions around identification and language. I think it is important to listen to and honor these sentiments around language with each other.

Since Latinx is an umbrella term that feels applicable to many, I think we can run the risk of seeing it as simply inclusive. But one identifier may operate at the exclusion of another based upon the context in which it is being applied, and how one identifies is a very personal choice. I think it is crucial that we talk about these meaningful tensions in how we can identify both collectively and apart.

Also, I am interested in open structure systems that allow for many different outcomes depending upon the group that is in the room. I place a lot of trust in collaboration and on the fact that people who gather with intention, without a single agreed upon goal, with varied questions and a willingness to ask them publicly, is a deeply valuable thing. Fortunately we were able to find a partner to work with us and trust the structure of Open Forum. We approached ACRE and from the beginning they were on board, essentially turning over their programming space in Pilsen to us and providing tech support and staffing support.

It feels important to note that while the presenters that evening had a relationship to the idea of identifying as Latinx, essentially brown folks presenting on themselves or on other brown folks, the audience as well as the hosts were a diverse crowd including white friends and collaborators. It is also important to say that within the conversations about Latinx representation in the arts that Mia and I were having, was an additional, and equally important conversation about the lack of representation and opportunities for women. Organizing around this conversation is an ongoing goal and value within these projects.

A.R: I completely agree with you. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially after introducing the work we’ve been doing (Open Forum, panel discussions, etc.) in preparation or as a lead up to the retreat is to think about how non-Latinx folks and more specifically white folks fit into the events leading up to the retreat as well as the retreat itself. Given the grassroots nature of the event, it seems crucial the we have organizational and institutional partners that have resources that we may not have on our own as artists but the question remains: what is the place of those partners and allies within our desires for the retreat? Another question by extension would be: how do we create situations that respect the collaborations taking place between non-Latinx partners while privileging and claiming space for Latinx peoples?

J.S: I think it is a two-way street built on mutual respect. Allies and partners understand the urgency and necessity of Latinx peoples gathering and taking up space together. My best response to this thus far is to be transparent in your needs, transparent in your support systems, and clear about your boundaries. I once invited a new acquaintance to a POC gathering where we were considering separatism together and they politely said, “I am not a person of color, but I am happy to attend by taking notes for you all.” To me, this was very honest and generous, and an example of a white ally who is willing to help out and also understands sometimes the best way to help can be to provide a skill or a space. It also brings up the challenges of identification and passing; the many nuances of which are experienced across racial paradigms. As we continue to grow and gather collaborators in different parts of the country, and consider partnering with institutions, we want to prioritize open discussion around the values of each, not only envisioning ways to move forward together, but also around the varied resources which brought us into conversation with one another.

About the contributors:


J. Soto is an interdisciplinary artist and poet with a focus on project-specific collaborations in writing, performance and arts organizing. Most recently, Soto co-founded the Latinx Artist Visibility Award (LAVA) for Ox-Bow School of Art. Soto received his MFA in Performance from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He currently lives in New York. Image credit: Stephanie Acosta.

Anthony Romero is an artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities whose narratives and practices are often excluded from art historical narratives. He currently teaches in the departments of Community Practice and Social Engagement at Moore College of Art and Design.

Anthony Romero is an artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities whose narratives and practices are often excluded from art historical narratives. He currently teaches in the departments of Community Practice and Social Engagement at Moore College of Art and Design. Image credit: Dana Bassett.

Open Forum was held on April 7, 2016 Organizing presenters included: Mia Lopez, Brit Barton, Gibran Villalobos, Josh Rios  and J. Soto Image credit: ACRE

Open Forum was held on April 7, 2016
Organizing presenters included: Mia Lopez, Brit Barton, Gibran Villalobos, Josh Rios
and J. Soto
Image credit: ACRE

OE Perspectives: Pedro Lasch

In an effort to further the conversations that occurred during the conference and share with a wider audience, we are initiating the platform OE Perspectives—first person reflections on OE 2016 provided from a select number of entrusted colleagues and friends of OE.

Collective Art Research and its Sharing Across Platforms

A Report by Pedro Lasch for 2016 Open Engagement: POWER

Since I had to visit the 2016 Open Engagement conference between a conference on Decolonial Thought and Aesthetics in Buenos Aires and another one on Art and Migrations for UNESCO in Mexico City, I will sadly have to focus this short report on the only panel I was able to attend. Entitled “Collaboration Across Research Platforms in Socially-Engaged Art,” this panel was organized and moderated by University of California Berkeley’s Shannon Jackson, and it happened on Sunday May 1st at the Oakland Museum of California. I was joined by A Blade of Grass’s Deborah Fisher, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Deena Chalabi, Open Engagement’s Jen Delos Reyes, Imagining America’s Jan Cohen-Cruz, and Kara Q. Smith from Daily Serving | Art Practical.

To provide context – and an ongoing invitation to anyone who may read this report – the lines prepared by Jackson for the invitation and panel announcement are worth citing here:

As artists and art organizations advance the goals and practice of socially-engaged art, many also seek to create and mobilize research platforms. Whether on blogs or in published books, through museums or universities, in journal essays or in databases, the discursive landscape around socially-engaged art is expanding. How can we make collaborative use of this proliferation? Do different kinds of organizations play different roles in this landscape? Do different agents—artists, critics, scholars, curators, policy-makers, program officers—have different professional connections to art research?

This great framework, as well as the institutional representation and weight of those gathered for the occasion certainly promised for a great exchange. The museum classroom was so full that those of us on the panel had to push back our table against the wall and literally sit on it. Who said research is boring or antisocial? When asked if linked to higher education, most people raised their hands and, as is the norm at ‘Open Engagement,’ there were as many fantastic people sitting in the audience as those sitting on stage (or the table, in this case). In attendance were the likes of artist/professor Paul Ramirez Jonas, artist/professor/journalist Gretchen Coombs, and philanthropist/producer Shelley Rubin. My contributions focused on ‘ART of the MOOC’ the recent/ongoing experiment in art and education I designed and taught for Creative Time/Duke University/Coursera (see images below). Other panelists’ remarks were similarly focused on their specific and vast experiences. With such a short panel, we were not able to chart out new paths for collaboration, instead focusing on ways in which many of us had already collaborated with each other and shared research and resources.

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The brevity of this report does not allow for in-depth analysis of specific positions but, at least for me, the following notes emerged as a starting point for further discussion and collaboration beyond the immediacy of those who attended.

We may insist on different terms to speak of socially engaged art or social practices, but that does not limit our ability to share research and resources.

Art is (or can be) a legitimate form of research (social practice or not) and is a matter of survival inside the structures of the academy. But we also need to openly discuss the use and application of the term research, rather than assume consensus or agreement.

Rather than stress their ‘newness’ or an a priori rupture with the past – trends associated with avant-garde movements – social practice artists and their research benefit from studying their (endless) precedents. This may, in turn, help them to structure their own work more like an organization than a traditional solitary studio practice. These precedents may range from so-called non-Western cultural practices premised on ritual, ceremony, or the ephemeral; to research methods belonging to other artistic and academic fields; to non-profit mechanisms, grassroots methods, or simple strategies that bring together informal groups of people.

Social practice artists have found more of a home in the academy than in the art market and its associated galleries. The communities that we often work with are equally suspicious of the university as they are of the museum. This puts an additional stress on the importance of transforming these institutions on the one hand, and developing research platforms outside of them, on the other.

We may assume that those of us engaged in this conversation are serious about the intention of sharing our research and resources, but figuring out the best ways to do so is a labor of love that also requires great attention to detail and context. Some artists and scholars, for example, want all their work circulating for free, even if the institutions they belong to object to such sharing. Others insist that artists and researchers (especially when they do not hold a regular job in the academy) can only make a living if their work is remunerated. Neither position is wrong, but we must recognize these conflicting strategies as we deepen our collaborations and develop platforms that obliterate all difference.

I personally thank Professor Jackson for initiating this highly relevant debate and inviting us all to think together about it. I am also grateful to OE and Jen Delos Reyes for years of hard work producing the context for these kinds of exchanges, and all panelists for the intellectual, aesthetic, and political integrity of their work and contributions.

About the contributor: 

Pedro Lasch (US/Mexico/Germany) is a visual artist, Duke professor, and 16 Beaver organizer. Solo exhibitions and projects include Open Routines (QMA), Black Mirror (Nasher), Abstract Nationalism (Phillips Collection) and Art of the MOOC (Creative Time); group exhibitions include MoMA PS1, MASS MoCA (USA); RCA, Hayward Gallery, Baltic (UK); Centro Nacional de las Artes, MUAC, National Palace Gallery (Mexico); Gwangju Biennial (2006), Havana Biennial (2015), Documenta 13 (ANDANDAND, 2012), 56th Venice Biennale (CTS, 2015). Author of three books, his work has appeared in October Magazine, Saber Ver, Art Forum, ARTnews, Cultural Studies, Rethinking Marxism, The New York Times, and La Jornada.

Pedro Lasch (US/Mexico/Germany) is a visual artist, Duke professor, and 16 Beaver organizer. Solo exhibitions and projects include Open Routines (QMA), Black Mirror (Nasher), Abstract Nationalism (Phillips Collection) and Art of the MOOC (Creative Time); group exhibitions include MoMA PS1, MASS MoCA (USA); RCA, Hayward Gallery, Baltic (UK); Centro Nacional de las Artes, MUAC, National Palace Gallery (Mexico); Gwangju Biennial (2006), Havana Biennial (2015), Documenta 13 (ANDANDAND, 2012), 56th Venice Biennale (CTS, 2015). Author of three books, his work has appeared in October Magazine, Saber Ver, Art Forum, ARTnews, Cultural Studies, Rethinking Marxism, The New York Times, and La Jornada.

OE Perspectives: Dana Bassett

In an effort to further the conversations that occurred during the conference and share with a wider audience, we are initiating the platform OE Perspectives—first person reflections on OE 2016 provided from a select number of entrusted colleagues and friends of OE.

It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic is of altogether secondary importance, and that, in the end, progress is accomplished by the man who does things.

– Theodore Roosevelt

Wherever we land, we have to continue to move.

Angela Davis at Open Engagement POWER 2016

If nothing else, Open Engagement 2016 was a meditation on POWER, wielded both internally and externally in relationship to the conference (and it’s situation in and outside of the Oakland Museum of California). Opinions, one demonstration of power, were (and continue to be) available in abundance. As a matter of fact, you’ll find some of them in the upcoming Bad at Sports interviews I helped to create in and around OE.

Was it Frasier who once said “everyone’s a critic”? Ok, maybe not. But it definitely was Barbra Streisand who said, “I wish I could be like [Bernard] Shaw who once read a bad review of one of his plays, called the critic and said: ‘I have your review in front of me and soon it will be behind me.’” 

So in consideration of my own power, I’d rather take the opportunity to offer some visual meditations on the mediations and permutations of POWER throughout Open Engagement. And everyday, right? Power’s not just an OE thing.









About the contributor: Dana Bassett is an aspiring gossip queen from Miami, FL living in Logan Square. She writes a regular column Bad at Sports called “What’s the T?” and occasionally produces printed newspapers in collaboration with artists and friends.


OE 2016 Media Roundup

Below is a list of media coverage and responses to Open Engagement – Oakland, 2016.


East Bay Express – Art Off the Walls: A Guide to Open Engagement

Temporary Art Review – The Aguilar Family on Open Engagement 2014

Berkeley Center for New Media – Shannon Jackson in Open Engagement

Temporary Art Review – Who Speaks: The Power of Voice at Open Engagement 2016

Temporary Art Review – Making Art Politically: A Reflection on Open Engagement 2016

Open Engagement – An Open Letter on Open Engagement 2016 from Jen Delos Reyes

Glossary Magazine – Review as Dialogue: Angela Davis at Open Engagement, 2016, Oakland Museum of California

An Open Letter on Open Engagement 2016 from Jen Delos Reyes

Chicago, IL
May 14, 2016

Distant friends,

I woke up at 3:00 am this morning with the dream that we could write each other beautiful, thoughtful letters in which we share our thoughts, open up dialogue, and support one another. There is a way we can talk to each other here that is different than public address. I have my own letter writing practice that was inspired by the poet and Black Studies scholar Fred Moten. I was once at a talk of his where he read several gorgeous, rich, and vulnerable emails he had written to his friends and colleagues. It was a reminder of how I want to communicate and how I want to reflect on what I encounter in my life. I send these letters almost every week to a group of about twelve friends and those letters all begin with the same greeting I have used here. If you are reading this letter I assume you are a friend or acquaintance of Open Engagement.

From one of Moten’s poems,
the absence of your letter
shines in absent distance.

While this was not a letter I had planned to write it feels long overdue. It has happened almost every year since Open Engagement began in 2007: people love to point out the whiteness of the conference, whether it be the presenters, the attendees, or the content itself. I have learned that this will happen even when, factually at this point, by assessing the statistics of our 264 presenters, we are a minority white conference. Even though Open Engagement published our data on the breakdown of presenters and local representation, reviews continued to quote statistics that were collected from Google searches on presenters done by an artist group not affiliated with OE, instead of the self-identified information collected by the conference. The reviews of the conference this year, in particular ones that have run on Temporary Art Review, focused heavily on diversity, access, and inclusion. I witnessed through my own networks of friends and professional acquaintances how different the comments and posts were between women of color who shared the reflections from Temporary Art Review, and white colleagues. While the latter mostly wanted to make the space to share their critical insights, I want to thank the women of color who posted very different questions to their social media, ones about movement building, resources and allies, and who made visible in all of this a point that is neglected over and over: Open Engagement is founded and directed by a woman of color. In response to a reflection written by multiple authors for Temporary Art Review on Open Engagement 2016 my friend Kemi Adeyemi shared the article and some of her thoughts:

How many people of color does it take for white people to not complain about whiteness? Or, put another way, when is the unpaid work a woman of color puts into organizing conferences keynoted by folks like Angela Davis “too white”? Or, put another way, how confusing is it to have people of color operate within institutions? Do people of color thinking, writing, and making have to do so OUTSIDE of institutions *in order* to be legible as effective or legitimate? Or, put another way, why don’t white people just do (and pay for) this radical work themselves instead of waiting/watching/expecting for us to do it “the right way”?

Her point hit close to home because she knows through friendship, proximity, and personal experience the intimate costs of what it takes to do the work of organizing. She also knows explicitly that I am the only person on the OE team that is not being paid for my work on the conference. I made a decision to donate my time in order to keep our costs lower and therefore be able to charge a lower entry fee. This is a classic example of what artist J. Morgan Puett calls a “martyr-don’t”. Until this year Open Engagement had been a free conference and I was prepared for a challenging transition to a paid model. What I had braced myself for was a critique of the cost of the conference.

There were some who publicly lamented the move to a paid model, even some that actively protested. But the reality is that the conference has never truly been free. In Marilyn Waring’s 1999 book Counting For Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth, she examines the unacknowledged and unaccounted labor of women on a global scale and makes visible these contributions. Acknowledging this aspect of the conference is also to ask: Why is this the case? Why is it that more men are not contributing more time and energy to making this site possible? At the end of the 2010 conference the volunteer planning committee stood up for a moment of recognition—every single member of the team was a woman. From the direction, to the graphic design, social media, selection committee members, and volunteers, year after year the overwhelming majority of the people who pushed Open Engagement forward were women. A large part of how we were able to pull off the conference was that very few people were paid for their work. (Starting with the 2014 conference in Queens, all of the OE team members are paid for their labor, including myself for 2014 and 2015. It was my decision this year to not be paid.)

Working with allies like A Blade of Grass, the Queens Museum and the rest of the newly formed Open Engagement National Consortium—the Oakland Museum of California, the California College of the Arts, and the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago—we are working to move this conference forward in a way that reflects our values, commitments, and beliefs, and a large part of that means valuing the labor that makes the conference possible. These groups contribute financially annually to help realize the conference, as well as taking turns acting as host and contributing staff time. However, this alone is not enough to adequately support the conference’s growth, sustainability, or to properly support the OE team.

There are those who are critical of why we choose to collaborate with institutional partners, and the formation of the Open Engagement national consortium. These relationships are necessary in building a sustainable movement. These are allies who are working collectively because they understand that movement building takes resources, energy, and collaboration to achieve sustainability.

It is safe to say that most people who attended the Angela Davis keynote on Sunday night of Open Engagement 2016 left with an affirmation that the work of artists is crucial in the work toward social justice. How can one evoke the words of Angela Davis’s call for softness and care and not have the capacity to model the loving criticality this field and world so desperately needs? If we are truly going to be able organize and support one another so we can move toward radical change, we need to enact our values in the world through our actions. While it creates an important site of reflection, writing think pieces on radical organizing is not the same as doing the important work of building community. Over the years the conference has been praised for embodying its values. It is not a typical conference. It creates feelings of openness, support, and care. The conference values multiple ways of knowing and sharing. The work of artists is directly built in to the structure of the event. There is a focus on local and community investment. The conference is organized through an open call for proposals, which are selected by diverse committees comprised of artists, educators, funders, professionals, and community members. When the conference receives criticism delivered without properly researched knowledge of the planning process, compassion, or a spirit of camaraderie, it can impede a movement, instead of building up systems of support. As Angela Davis stressed, it is possible to have criticality and care.

At 5:30 am, as I began to wrap up this letter, my friend Randall Szott had just posted a quote from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s essay, “This Present Paradise”:

Knowing that paradise is here and now is a gift that comes to those who practice the ethics of paradise. This way of living is not Utopian. It does not spring simply from the imagination of a better world but from a profound embrace of this world. It does not begin with knowledge or hope. It begins with love.

Szott’s post reaffirmed my belief that Open Engagement continues to be a necessary and critical convening for all people who are engaged in transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination. What makes it so critical is not its ability to hold and generate academic reflection, but to serve as a site of care. Open Engagement operates from a place of love, and a desire to create space to build up a community of support for the people engaged in this crucial work. We are asking ourselves challenging questions around local context, representation, access, inclusion, diversity, and community value as we work with you to build this site. In our work it is necessary that we enact what we value and what we want to see in the world. To continue the above quote, recommitting ourselves to the ethics of paradise is just what we need now.

All love, always, in all the ways,



About the contributor: Jen Delos Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, radical community arts organizer, and author of countless emails. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially engaged art that has been active since 2007. Delos Reyes currently lives and works in Chicago, IL where she is the Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Jen Delos Reyes

Photo by Gemma Rose Turnbull

Jen Delos Reyes: The Power of Love

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Image: “Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self,” 2011. Courtesy The Estate of Susan O’Malley


“All the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic.”

– bell hooks

On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party (BPP) Open Engagement finds itself in the city that gave birth to this powerful revolutionary movement. When one thinks of the BPP one of the first things that likely comes to mind is that undeniably strong look—leather jackets, berets, button downs, turtlenecks, natural hair, shades, and the most important accessory—bearing arms. Originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the image of police patrols, armed protests, and training formations come to mind before we can conjure images of their free breakfast programs for school children, people’s health clinics, liberation schools, or community housing. All of these initiatives fell under the BPP’s Survival Programs, all of which were intended to help support individuals and communities meet the basic rights and necessities outlined in their Ten Point Platform, as well as provide the tools and resources for empowerment. Former BPP member Jamal Joseph has said that the guiding principal of the party that drove them forward was “an undying love for the people” (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution 2015). All of their gestures, whether rooted in protection, defense, or care, was about showing love for one another. The BPP was treated as a serious threat as acknowledged by the reactions of the US Government, police enforcement, and the FBI. I believe the most dangerous aspect of the BPP was not their power as a radical armed faction, but in their ability to harness the power of collectivity and love. Many of the people who convene at Open Engagement continue to work toward the equality and justice that they were fighting for, and do so with the same commitment to care and desire to serve the people.

Jeremy Deller said, “If pop art is about liking things, as Andy Warhol once said, then folk art is about loving things.” Given that the last Open Engagement took place in Warhol’s birthplace, I want to say instead that if pop art is about liking things, then socially engaged art is about loving things. One of the projects at the 2015 conference was a tour of Pittsburgh centered on the life and work of Mr. Rogers organized by Michelle Illuminato and Emily Blair. In 1969, Fred Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications to support funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In his senate statement I was struck by how clearly he defined the purpose of the work he was doing in creating his children’s program, “This is what I give, an expression of care each and everyday to each and every child. … for 15 years I have tried in this country and Canada, to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.” It made me realize that we could clearly articulate that the work of Open Engagement is about creating a space of care for the field of socially engaged art.

René de Guzman began this reader with a quote from Che Guevera, “… at the risk of seeming ridiculous, the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” I truly believe that the artists, activists, administrators, educators, and cultural workers who are engaged in transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination do so fundamentally from a position of love. What follows is a playlist of songs about love and my thoughts on these songs that connect power and love in relation to the individual, the collective, and their role in movement building.

Track 1: Tina Turner, What’s Love Got to do With It

Her hair is strong — a shield of peroxide, standing defiantly against gravity, it is a glorious, full and spiky crown that mimics the way an animal might puff up in size to assert its dominance. She is armored in slick black pointy stilettos, sheer hose, a leather dress swallowed by an oversized jacket. Her outfit takes a cue from Bruce Springsteen’s repertoire of American denim and says, I am the real BOSS. This is the image we get of Tina Turner in her 1984 hit “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

Tina Turner is a complicated note to start off this reflection on love and power. This song comes six years after her divorce from Ike Turner, and on the crest of her incredible comeback. In Ike Turner’s notorious interview with Edward Kiersh in the August 1985 issue of SPIN that ran with the exclusive on the cover: “IKE TURNER What he had to do with it: The flip side to Tina’s Story”, Ike reflects on the song, as well as the abuse:

“When I saw Tina do ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ I picked up the phone and called her. ‘Hey, Bo [short for Bullock, her maiden name], that’s a cute song. I really like it.’ … But it’s years ago that I had a temper. I don’t regret nothing I’ve ever done, absolutely nothing, man, because it took all of that to make me what I am today—and I love me today, I really do.”

As the SPIN cover promised, Ike indeed delivered the flip side to Tina’s story. While her song puts love at arms length, discounts love as a second rate emotion, and identifies love as vulnerability, Ike illustrates the dark side of self-love, individualism, and egotism. This might seem an unlikely starting place, but this song and these figures setup the foundation with which to grapple with some of the issues and struggles around power dynamics, collaboration, and the inevitable, necessary emotional investment.

Tina Turner’s body language in the music video for this song reads loud and clear — she is powerful. One of the most viewed TED Talks is about power poses. Amy Cuddy’s talk titled “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” has been viewed 8,755,987 times.  Cuddy describes the simple act of striking a power pose (think a gorilla with fists clenched raised high in the air arms out spread) as a life hack that can ultimately help you feel more powerful and increase your individual success, maybe get gainful employment over someone who hasn’t yet mastered the art of the power pose. Similarly, I recently heard a piece on NPR about online dating platforms and how more people respond positively to pictures of people with open poses, like power poses, arms outstretched, human flight clearly imminent. Not only can posturing your body in a certain way help you get the job, it could also help you be a more desirable mate. Cuddy’s talk is clearly a resource on power that has potentially helped millions of individuals, but what about power and the collective body? How does power play into movement building?

Track 2: Kathy Heideman, Move With Love

Deborah Fisher’s contribution to this reader considers Aikido. She wrote, “The purpose of Aikido training is to transform conflict into cooperation, even love for one’s opponent.” Her piece is an important reflection on collective power and the various means and methods with which to achieve it. While Cuddy’s Ted talk emphasizes the potential of a powerful individual and leader, one of my favorite YouTube videos is “First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy.” The video clearly shows that being a charismatic leader is overrated, and that it is really the first follower and ultimately collective energy that makes a movement. The video shows that while it is risky to be at the helm of a movement, the courage of the first follower is needed to make space for the collective. Collective movements need to be based on bravery, love, support, and understanding.

We need to move with love and risk ridicule by being the first one to stand up, or to be the courageous one that follows. To love and be loved is a often to put oneself in a vulnerable position that could be seen as compromising one’s strength, but I want to propose that there is no position greater than love.

Track 3: Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love

“I do not need to be powerful if my message is powerful.” Ernesto Pujol

Celine Dion has dozen of songs that remind us the power of love is an undeniable force. The lyrics of Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love,” in her signature schmaltzy style, pontificates on love. But unlike many of her love songs, such as the “Power of Love” which speak to a romantic love between two people, “Let’s Talk About Love” sees love as a powerful unifier and common language. From the “laugh of a child” to the “tears of a man”, love is there. While this song might not be to everyone’s taste, who amongst us would want to deny her message that love is the one emotion that can help lead to understanding? Dion reminds us that it is through love that we can work together and towards trust.

Track 4: The Brother Love, I Can Be

Open Engagement 2016 keynote speaker Angela Davis has said that our society does everything it can to foster individualism because it wants us to forget about the immense collective power we have for change together. The track “I Can Be”, by The Brother Love appears on the Free Angela LP that was released by Golden Triangle Records in 1971. This deep soul song describes a man coming up against potential criticism for his choice of who to love. He says that wrong or right, love is worth the sacrifice. Similar to Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love” love is described in the track as a great equalizer.

Track 5: Rihanna, Close to You

“I love in your direction hoping that the message goes somewhere close to you.”


Rihanna is tough. Bad gal Riri’s latest offering Anti is full of tracks that demonstrate that the classic love ballad, and even the classic storybook romance, is not what she is after: “I was good on my own… Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage? Fuck your white horse and a carriage.” Songs like “Needed Me” and “Consideration” disparages relationships and champions the ability to deflect connection. It is for this reason that a song like “Close to You” stands out on the album. It is stripped down, the absence of complex musical compositions and booming beats leaving little room for emotional camouflage. It is a love song that cannot hide behind the retro pastiche of a track like “Love On the Brain” that alludes in form to love being an old fashioned notion, or a song like “Higher” that feels the need to have expressing love be accompanied by excuses and apologies. The first time I heard “Close To You” I have no problem admitting that I got teary eyed. I loved how vulnerable how she was willing to be, how she would chose to put love in someone else’s direction, even if they were either not willing to receive it, she still hoped the message of love would reach them. To connect this idea to movements and social change, in Martin Luther King Jr’s August 16, 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here” speech he reflected on why he continued to love even his enemies:

“And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate.”

I know that love is not all we need (just one reason that no Beatles track appeared on this playlist), but I do believe love can help us get closer to equity, social justice, and a compassionate world.

Love is Worth Fighting For

On April 24th I attended a Fight Night at Soho House in Chicago. As part of the night artist and educator Cheryl Pope included poets from JUST YELL / POETRY as SELF DEFENSE. Founded by Pope in 2013, Just Yell is committed to confronting issues of inequality, abuse of power, and causes of gun violence and works with teens and young authors throughout Chicago to develop writing, installation, and performance. Interspersed between boxing matches young poets took to the ring to share their writing. The power of the work was palpable. As each poet entered the spotlight the frenetic crowd came into focus. Taking center stage in the dramatically lit ring, the power of their words exceeded the force of the fights that had just been contained within the ropes. The stories held the beauty, pain, and joy of their lives—they showed with full force the power of their experiences, and the transformative potential of art. At one point in the evening a small table was brought into the ring, and a microphone was set in front of a chair. Del Marie Nelson sat down, her gaze looking out at the crowd. She began to sing, “true love doesn’t die unless you crush it like clover.” Her song was punctuated with spoken word. With each return to her chorus it gained more weight and meaning as her words rolled over her own relationships, drawing in our own connections. The resilience of love felt galvanized with each syllable. Its ability to rise us up and bring us together rang clear. As the last of her prose echoed through the crowd, all of the lovers, and the fighters, assembled in the room rose to their feet and collectively cheered the power of being able to share love with one another.


About the contributor: Jen Delos Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, radical community arts organizer, and author of countless emails. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially engaged art that has been active since 2007. Delos Reyes currently lives and works in Chicago, IL where she is the Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.



Amy Balkin: POWER and San Francisco’s Prelinger Library


San Francisco’s Prelinger Library is self-described as an “independent research library…open to anyone for research, reading, inspiration, and reuse.” I posed a set of questions to Megan Prelinger, the library’s co-founder, as a way to learn about POWER in the context of the Library. Her responses reflect on and extend the work of the library’s twelve years of public access, marked by an ongoing commitment to the sharing of knowledge as co-production and exchange…

If I want to learn about POWER in the Prelinger Library, how would I begin?

Following a welcoming orientation, walk down our first aisle and stop in front of Electrical West magazine, the trade magazine that records the construction of hydroelectric infrastructure across the western United States in the 20th century. Electrical West has many photographs of power corridors under construction and articles about power grids and dams.

If I want to research POWER in the Prelinger Library, where should I look first?

Continue looking at the infrastructure section in the first aisle, and then stop for a minute. Reflect on the offering of the open shelves, and the prompt that you heard from your welcoming host to let your curiosity be your guide as your browse.

You then have a choice before you: You may continue, following Electrical West, to research physical power networks as they lay in the land. Or, you may take the mirror path and research how the Library itself exists to break down power hierarchies around access to historical resources. A third alternative would be to keep walking around the room and conduct a broad survey of the Library’s holdings, and draw a map of where the holdings empower historical memory in unusual ways.


If I want to learn about POWER in the model of the Prelinger Library, what do I need to understand?

Please understand, and share, our philosophy of sharing. The Library exists to model the gesture of sharing, which is an alternative philosophy of resource distribution to hierarchical models. The Library also exists to model a research and community environment where many of the mechanisms of controlled inquiry that dominate institutional research library environments have been removed.

As the Prelinger Library is a hybrid library located in San Francisco, (how) does it speak to POWER locally?

The Library is a twelve-year-long project that has many facets. One of those is an ongoing dialogue with power in San Francisco and the Bay Area, as expressed by our invitation to anyone to make any kind of nondestructive use of any of the materials for any purpose that serves the future, either “the future” writ large, or any project that is in development for the future. The Library exists to channel historical resources to all visitors in this manner, free of entrance criteria, free of even the prompt to pose a query, and free of any concern for how the Library came into being or how it is maintained. The open hours are structured as a conversation-friendly workshop environment, where people can engage with one another, friends and strangers alike, in a totally noncommercial transactional space.


Is the library is a response to POWER? If so, how do visitors encounter that in decisions you’ve made in creating and maintaining it?

The Library is a response to many conditions of its historical moment: One is the power of the prevailing political structures to enforce presentism — the state of mind in which the “now” is totalized, even idealized, to protect against the possibility of change. As a historical library (holding very few materials published since 1980), we exist as a counter-space to the force of presentism and its ally, historical amnesia. Another is the relative loss of power by institutional public-access memory organizations over the past half-century (museums, libraries, archives; historically-oriented academic programs); a huge proportion of these organizations in North America have lost resources and been reduced in their scope and ability to support change.


Does the use, distribution of or organization of knowledge (or materials) at the Prelinger produce any specific type of power?  A follow up: do you have an anecdote to share?

Knowledge itself is power, to some extent, so in that sense the Library gives away knowledge for free – generating power. It is also our hope and our belief that the use, distribution, and organization of knowledge at the Library produce the power of delight and the power released by the realization that such a place exists. Delight and realization themselves open up human powers of creative and intellectual energy that over twelve years doubtless have had an incalculable accumulated array of outcomes.

Anecdotes: People have walked into the Library and burst into tears at the sight of it… people regularly arrive straight from the airport, making the Library their first stop in San Francisco when visiting, even before their guest lodgings…we believe no one has ever stolen anything from the Library…people regularly bring gifts of food and drink to the Library as gifts to the founder/curators and volunteers. This form of expression is a symbolic recognition that the Library’s gesture of openness and communitarianism is more central to its signification than the specifics of its holdings.


Do the spatial and classification of the Prelinger Library address, inform, or exert POWER over research, use, or insights?

The classification system is designed to offer a counterpoint to conventional systems of organizing libraries. We believe that the two main established systems, the Dewey Decimal system and the Library of Congress system, each encode injustice in different ways. Our approach to a geospatial arrangement scheme is the working alternative: Formulated as a lay of the land, each subject area lays on the land at the same level as every other; it’s just in a different place. It’s a horizontalist system (in spite of how tall the shelves are). The spatial arrangement is designed to make each subject area visually browsable, removing the need for keyword searching and freeing a curiosity-driven mode of inquiry that is not limited by a cursor flashing in a box on a monitor.

library sign_localwiki

Is the Prelinger Library shaped by the POWER or influence of its users through use or contributions? How much?

Yes, the twelve years of users have had enormous power over the shape of the holdings, both through their use patterns that caused we keepers/curators to learn to understand different usefulnesses of different kinds of materials, and also through extraordinary reciprocal generosity and sharing. The Library’s holdings are about 25% – 30% different today than when the Library opened in spring of 2004, both through the generosity of institutional librarians and through the generosity of individual donors.

As the Prelinger Library has both physical and digital infrastructures, who hosts, serves, and powers the digital library?

The Internet Archive.


Can you talk about the POWER of discarding or discarded books?

We have come to think of discarding books as formative: Like pruning a tree to promote the growth of fruit-bearing branches. Our practice of offering our discarded books for free to any interested visitor is a very modest form of resource sharing. Discarded books are much more important: Many of the most historically and socially important materials in the Library were discarded by someone else before they came to us.

Are there any materials that current POWER structures prevent you from gaining access to or adding to the library’s holdings?

Not in particular. The Library’s holdings are quite full and over time have benefited from an enormous degree of wish fulfillment. We can’t always satisfy every researcher’s desire because some of the materials that people desire have hyperinflated value in various collectors’ markets. But more often those hyperinflated collectors’ markets disappoint our visitors, not we keeper/curators. [One example: historic photographs of San Francisco]


Does Prelinger Library speak truth to POWER? (If so, is it primarily through your choice of holdings that reflect on POWER, the power of classification, action towards enhancing access and re-use as knowledge production, or in the library’s social function in dialogues and community-building, or in some other way?)

Yes, the Library project speaks truth to power through all the ways mentioned in the language of the question, all the ways articulated in the above answers, and probably in other ways as well: Primarily we speak for the power of free access to information; the truth of the strength of noncommercial transactional spaces; the truth of the strength of gestures of community and collaboration; the truth of the strength of historical memory to make change to a society that is biased against memory.

Full Disclosure: The Library has supported, through holding and providing access, to the materials in my own project, A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting in 2014.

Visit the Prelinger Library at: 301 8th Street (near Folsom Street), Room 215, San Francisco, CA

For current library days visit http://www.prelingerlibrary.org

Digitized collections are at https://archive.org/details/prelinger_library

About the contributor: Amy Balkin’s projects propose a reconstituted commons, considering legal borders and systems, environmental justice, and the sharing of common-pool resources in the context of climate change. She lives in San Francisco, where she co-teaches Social Practice & Public Forms at CCA.

A Conversation with Suzanne Lacy

The longtime artist, writer, and social activist creates socially engaged art that stimulates dialogue about race, inequality, and social justice

This spring, the Oakland Museum of California hosts Open Engagement, an annual three-day, artist-led conference dedicated to socially engaged art. This year’s event, which takes place April 29–May 1, addresses the theme of power. Los Angeles-based artist, writer, and educator Suzanne Lacy will be one of the keynote speakers, along with political activist and scholar Angela Davis. Lacy is a pioneer in the field of socially engaged art—also called social practice—having created video, performance, and installation works that address issues of race, class, and gender inequality since the 1970s. She served in former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s education cabinet and as the dean of fine arts at the California College of the Arts. Here, Lacy discusses social practice with Senior Curator of Art René de Guzman.

Social practice is deeply associated with your generation of avant-garde artists. What were some of your influences?

I grew up in a relatively poor area. I was fortunate to be given an almost free college education by California’s Higher Education Act. At the time I went to college—along with other working-class people, people of color, women—there was an influx of artists like Judy Chicago and Allan Kaprow. They set the stage for a more radical art in California and had a big impact on me.

How do you describe social practice?

I relate it to the history of performance art, when art became dematerialized and artists began looking at different sources for their ideas. They started to look intensely at issues that really concern people and incorporated them into their work. Social practice emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, and sprang, in a way, out of the political and cultural movements of those times. Another way to explain it is that there is the art object and the art maker, and then there’s the space in between. What social practice does is focus on all three. The artist is no longer the mythologized crazy guy who whacked his ear off; he is moving into a form of engaged citizenship.

Much of your work seems to be about the coalitions you build and the people who are transformed by participating in them. Is the process more your focus than the final work?

Yes. I was doing community organizing even before I was an artist. And most social practice people are engaging, to some extent, in a form of community organizing, even if it’s for a small group of ten students. Those are skill sets that need to be brought back into the arts arena through education. That’s why Open Engagement is important, because it includes so many people in the arts and in education.

What are some of the challenges you face in your large-scale social practice works?

They can be difficult because they are sited in public and often deal with controversial subjects. Performance can be high risk, imperfect, and improvisational. Here is an example: Last fall, I did a project in Quito, Ecuador, called De tu puño y letra, diálogos en el ruedo [trans: Your handwriting, dialogues in the ring], which involved hundreds of men reading letters written by women about domestic violence. We held it in a bullring on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. And if you saw all these men reading those letters, you might think, “Wow, big outcome in the political arena! Wow, social impact!” But you don’t really know if that’s true. You have to know how your work fits in with ongoing societal practices and how engaged people are with these issues. You can know how many people sign up, but you can’t know if your work has changed people’s thinking.

There are a few panels at this year’s Open Engagement conference about institutional involvement in socially engaged art. Are you concerned that this attention might be at odds with social practice, which many see as an insurgent activity?

I’ve been through at least three major waves of funding for my practice. In the ’90s, the funding institutions were all hopping on board, and now they’re doing it again. So if you look at this over the long haul, no, I’m not worried that it will kill our creativity. And now that museums like OMCA are getting involved, I am convinced that social practice will continue to thrive.

To learn more about the Open Engagement conference and to register for Suzanne Lacy’s keynote address on Saturday, April 29, at 7:30pm, visit openengagement.info.

There are limited POWER PASSES available to attend keynote sessions.

This article originally features in Inside Out a publication produced by Oakland Museum of California.


Nato Thompson: Be Careful What You Wish For

I would like to take this opportunity to perhaps provide a few warnings to the phenomenally growing field of socially engaged art/public practice/whatever you want to call it. As many of us have seen, the conversation around art and community has grown, and with that growth has come some foreseeable and some not so foreseeable tensions that are worth noting.

The first tension of course is the knee-jerk response that most artists have to things that become popular. The ongoing hunt for “the new” must come equipped with myriad caveats, as some of those urges might be well-founded and others, well, not so much. Certainly the hunt for the new is important when it comes to an individual style, particularly in a form of cultural capitalism that deeply encourages innovation and personal articulation. For the field of contemporary art, the new is its sine qua non. In the mid 19th century, the search for the new and the breaking of tradition became an important aesthetic maneuver that disrupted the chains of power bound up in cultural traditions, but since that period, we see an increasingly capitalist-friendly language bound up in discussions of innovation and rebels.

That said, as things grow, one finds an increasing capacity of power to use the language of an art form, particularly one that possess a revolutionary capacity, and defang it. This ability of institutions to, for lack of a better term, co-opt political art work is certainly real to some extent. One will find that the more famous of the political artists, the ones that actually make a killing in the art market, will probably have the least revolutionary language around what they do. That said, feeling that everything that is popular is simply co-opted is just not exactly thorough thinking.

Finally, we must be aware of the dangers that occur when those in power finally have a language of utility in the field of art. Certainly, there is much to be gained from having useful methods for working on communities toward the end-goals of social justice, but these methods can also fall rather neatly into overzealous funding circles eager for quick fixes and politically over-simplified language. There is value in not always making sense. We see a growing interest in this field and I would say, with that, comes a responsibility to articulate a vision of social justice that appreciates the values, and power, of working in methods that not only resist the logic of capital, but also privilege the power that happens when people come together in an open-ended space of poetic ambiguity.

Working out methods that account for cultural difference and imbalances of power across race, gender, class, and sexuality is critical for the field. On a positive note, these conversations are becoming more frequent, and though very complex, are what is critical to making the field all the more meaningful and able to side-step some of the problems I have just listed.


About the contributor: Nato Thompson is the Artistic Director of Creative Time. Previously, he worked as Curator at MASS MoCA, where he completed numerous large-scale exhibitions. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, BookForum, Frieze, Art Forum, Third Text, and Huffington Post among them. In 2005, he received the Art Journal Award for distinguished writing. His book Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century was published in 2015.

The Hidden Curriculum Part 5: Karaoke

The Hidden Curriculum understands translation and language in the broadest, most creative and expansive way. This is the fifth translation made by The Hidden Curriculum, a project currently in its pilot form. This project assembles translations from a diverse set of texts that are deemed central to artistic production by individuals from different cultures, ethnicities, languages, gender identities, historical times, and geographies.

Our group was interested in the performative act on stage taking place during Antonio Negri’s keynote – Negri and the interpreter individually and their coupled dynamic. We were concerned what our roles and purpose were in extending this translation. In this way we explored the marginal and incidental performative acts of the video that happened during the “non-translation”––Negri’s hand gestures, head scratches, accidental microphone taps, nervousness, and page turning. We decided to create a score for others to perform via a karaoke video, for it to has the possibility of generating infinite translations. The audio was made from such de-constructed “non-translation” audio moments and was looped; the video was made in response to the audio and used generic video editing transition effects to enter the language of karaoke video aesthetics. The text was generated from an alternate translation transcript which took note of specific word use frequency and accordingly created the phantom “lyrics”. The product–– a confused space of visual gestures, fragmented sounds, and reconfigured sentences––resulted in an impossible karaoke, and parallels the perils of the act of translation.

Below is the karaoke video score and initial iteration performed during a meeting of the Hidden Curriculum – organized by Arkadiy Ryabin, Alix Camacho, Eric Magnus.


About the contributors: The Hidden Curriculum project being developed by a working group of CUNY (City University of New York) graduate students and faculty: Clara Chapin Hess, Adam Golfer, Miatta Kawinzi, Gabriela Vainsencher, Daniel Alexander Matthews, Ishai  Shapira Kalter, Paola Di Tolla, Arkadiy Ryabin, Alix Camacho, Estefania Velez, Eric Magnus, Katy McCarthy, Rebekah Smith and Paul Ramirez Jonas.