OE Ten Year Reflection: You

In the countdown to Open Engagement 2018 we invited 10 friends to reflect on the past ten years of OE.

For the last and final installment of this series we have reserved the last spot for you, as a friend of OE, to share your reflection with us.

As Open Engagement embarks on a research year to re-assess and evaluate what the field needs now, we would love to hear your reflection on what OE has meant for you, and your hopes for the future of this site. We will publish a selection of the reflections we receive through the OE blog.

You can submit your reflection to director@openengagement.info

OE Ten Year Reflection: Crystal Baxley

The 9th reflection in our blog series comes to us in the form of a video made on vacation post #OE2018 by Open Engagment Associate Director Crystal Baxley.

If anyone deserves a vacation following the conference I can’t think of a more worthy person. This pat (that is the word for a group of flamingos if your weren’t in the know!) of flamingos feels like the perfect echo to a weekend of togetherness.

Crystal Baxley started working on Open Engagement when she was 22 years old; in January she turned 30. In addition to her work with OE, she pays her bills by providing administrative assistance and grant writing for artists and arts non-profits. She is currently seeking opportunities to make a living wage, write for television, spend time in nature, travel, drink natural wine, and collaboratively work to dismantle white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

OE Ten Year Reflection: Latham Zearfoss

The 8th reflection in our series comes to us in the form of a playlist made by Open Engagment Assistant Director Latham Zearfoss.

The mix is a soundtrack for the frustrated fantasies of arts administrators. These songs are femme-centric meditations on money, revenge and living a life of purpose.

These are songs are our anthems as we head into Open Engagement 2018 this weekend. They ring true with the reminder that All Labor is Emotional Labor.

Latham Zearfoss works in Chicago, where they produce time-based images, objects and experiences about selfhood and otherness. Outside of the studio, they contribute to collective motions toward joy and reflection through social projects such as a queer dance party (Chances Dances), a critical space for white allyship (Make Yourself Useful), and an itinerant conference on socially-engaged art (Open Engagement). lathamzearfoss.org


OE Ten Year Reflection: Jen Delos Reyes

Ask Me About Sunsetting

Sunsets are beautiful. It is unclear whether or not this statement is operating as an affirmation or an incantation. I am telling myself this because I need comfort. I need beauty. I need to come to terms with the fact that I am about to sunset a project I have been working on for the past 12 years. I have spilled a lot of ink on the subject of Open Engagement since 2006, the first being what felt like endless revisions of my graduate thesis paper picking apart every aspect of the first conference in 2007. This was followed by years of writing materials for the conference, essays, chapters, introductions, blog posts, and emails ad infinitum. The last thing I want to do is write something that might end up in the wasteland of TLDR.

I have been trying to write this reflection since December of 2017. I kept avoiding it. The truth is I am only working on this now because I am flying back to Chicago after giving a workshop to the Public Practice MFA students at Otis and the WIFI on the plane is not working. These are the kinds of details I like to know about writing. Why did someone choose to face it? What are the real conditions of creation?

The final form that this ten year reflection has taken is inspired by a field trip I took my ART 101 students on this spring.  This class is full of all of the newly minted art majors at the school and as such I think it is important that they visit the wide range of arts institutions in our city. One of the more unorthodox museums that I take the class to is the Busy Beaver Button Museum. Located in the office of the modest button operation is the world’s only button museum. The collection wraps around the walls of their main office and is organized by types and tropes of buttons from political, self-referential, art, entertainment, to “Ask me about…” buttons.

We were given a tour of the collection by the two founders of the business who were friendly, open, and enthusiastic. After the visit a student told me the most meaningful part of the experience was encountering these two people who were clearly so passionate about what they do, and what they put out into the world. I am grateful for the reminder. Inspired by that experience I have decided to make my ten year reflection a series of buttons which are ultimately short lessons I have learned each year of the conference. The lessons themselves are footnotes to my life, but also to these badges.

Every single staff member I saw at Busy Beaver was wearing a button of their own choosing. This did not feel mandated, their selections felt like they resonated with joy, and also with personal meaning and significance. There are a total of eleven buttons produced for this reflection on Open Engagement. The first serves as the title of this essay*. The other ten buttons each correspond with a specific year of the conference and the most important personal lesson or memory from that iteration of the conference. I could see myself wearing each and every one of these. For me they represent growth, power, vulnerability, and acknowledgement. I hope that these statements will also connect with you, and that if I see you out in the world wearing them I will know that we share a belief, an education, a community.

Right now I am in the habit of talking about Open Engagement in terms that feel final. I know that stems from exhaustion and burnout. The reality is that this not truly an end point—collectively we are taking time as an organization for deep reflection. We are checking in with ourselves, each other, and the field. The earth will complete a rotation and morning will come again. What that new beginning will bring we can’t know, and that is part of the beauty of it. If you see me in New York at Open Engagement 2018 wearing an “Ask me about sunsetting” button, talk to me. I hope I tell you it is more beautiful than I could have even imagined.

Somewhere between sunny Los Angeles and a snowy Chicago,

Jen Delos Reyes

April 18, 2018

*The limited edition print of this essay and all 11 buttons are available for sale at OE 2018



Made something from nothing

This was the first year of the conference and the final year of my MFA. Open Engagement was my graduate thesis project. I learned through doing. It was the most important part of my graduate education, and it was self-organized. It was something I had never done before.

That structure for personal education ultimately became the foundation of collective learning and doing. When I was at Portland State University co-directing the MFA in Art and Social Practice from 2008-2015 I incorporated organizing OE as a pedagogical framework.


Women are the workers of the world

At the end of the first  OE conference at PSU all of the volunteer organizers of the conference were asked to stand for a moment of acknowledgement. Every single person identified as a woman. OE has since it’s inception been largely woman powered and femme fronted.


Public is powerful

The Paul Ramirez Jonas lecture from OE 2011 continues to be the most powerful artist talk and reflection on the idea of “public” I have seen.


Embodied knowledge

I have said many times that OE values multiple forms of knowledge, including embodied knowledge. For Fritz Haeg’s keynote lecture he requested a set up in which we removed a large portion of chairs and replaced them with yoga mats.


Tell me how you really feel

At the final celebratory moment of OE 2013 I was approached by a conference attendee. It was a dance party, the room was filled with energy and a levity until the person confronted me with brutal criticism of the event (which was of course framed as coming from a place of care). I left the party in tears. I am thankful for all of the call-outs the conference has received over the years, we have grown from it, but there is a time and place for this to happen. Some moments should be reserved for collective joy, it is a principal OE stands by.


We are the institution

This year felt like the first time Open Engagement was seen and framed as an institution. We were the target of institutional critique.

This statement on the button is taken from my favorite Andrea Fraser essay, “From the Critique of Institutions to an
Institution of Critique.” It for me is a reminder that we all are responsible for the institutions we uphold.



This was the year that the Open Engagement national consortium was founded. It brought together organizations and schools from coast to coast to move the conference across the country to explore a three-year trilogy of themes: POWER, JUSTICE, and SUSTAINABILITY.


Support Magic

This was the turn of phrase we used in our first, and only, fundraising call to the OE community.


Always for love

Never for money, always for love. I continue to donate my time to make Open Engagement happen. But as we asked in our curatorial statement for 2018, “ What happens to our labors of love when love is no longer enough?


Nothing forever

OE 2018 does not need to be over for me to know that “nothing forever” is the most important lesson and statement for me at this moment in my life.


Jen is a creative laborer, educator, writer, radical community arts organizer, and author of countless emails. Jen missed her calling as a stand-up comedian, and should definitely consider a career change as a personal stylist. 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.


OE Ten Year Reflection: Lexa Walsh

Education, Labor and Sustainability

Lots of notebooks. I kept lots of physical notebooks during my ‘Sopractical’ graduate program at Portland State University, where Jen Delos Reyes shared her radiant self with us all. As an educator, she went beyond her call of duty, finding artists and books to offer each student after we presented an idea or a project for critique. Critique was not really what one could call what our program offered; instead it was idea generation, thoughtful notes on context, and a sense of collaboration, group work, and multiple authorship. We learned little through theory. Instead we learned through practicing the social, making projects, and labor.  Open Engagement (OE) was one of the most important of these learning tools, at the time unique to our program.

Organizing came naturally to me, and volunteering for a worthy cause was the only way I knew how (I hadn’t yet been indoctrinated by the Creative Capital boot camp). The payback was rich: an intimate knowledge of who was making Socially Engaged Art across the country and the world, a chance to work with phenomenal artists and thinkers, an opportunity to dream up the ideal experience for each new conference, thoughtfully taking into mind the feedback offered from previous years’ attendees. Looking through my stacks of notebooks marked for having Open Engagement content, I found quotes and artists and projects to look up, but mostly, I found to-do lists.

My labor, like everyone else’s on the all-woman team, including Jen’s, was exploited by a system that does not value it. I remember in 2010 gathering a crew of about twenty volunteers to help make tote bags designed by Helena Keefe and Lea Redmond, who lived in Oakland. Inviting Portlanders to draw their favorite food carts, Helena and Lea designed a pattern from their renderings. With Ariana Jacob’s help, we found a skilled printmaker to lead a slew of us through the multicolor screen print process. Somehow we finagled a completely unrelated sewing studio to train another ten student volunteers to sew the bags in their studio. The beautiful bags were given out for free to conference goers, who paid nothing (other than travel expenses for some) to participate in this three-day extravaganza of renowned artist-speakers, idea generators, participatory projects, organized bike rides, home stays, and meals.

It is not new that arts labor, and women’s labor, is both underappreciated and under recognized. Jen realized how unsustainable it was to continue in this vein for both her team and herself and planned on writing an essay “What is the Value of a Free Conference?”In 2014, she sent an email to the OE team, asking each of us to count our roles and collective hours for every year up to that point. 2010: Project manager, organizer, presenter, 80-100 hours, unknown emails as account had expired. 2011: Party planner, Field Work manager, presenter, 80 hours, 114 emails. 2012: Hospitality, Portland Art Museum liaison, presenter, 80 hours, 66 emails. 2013: Organizer of attempted then aborted (due to logistics/funding) dinner, food-based projects manager/curator, presenter, 80-100 hours, 196 emails. These hours weren’t counting the conference weekends, and weren’t even close to Jen or Crystal’s, however there were several other team members whose hours (and emails) were comparable with mine. While we were happily donating this work, knowing its rewards were great, Jen wanted something different for us.

In 2016 Suzanne Lacy asked OE participants to air suggestions at the post-conference master class. To my disbelief, tens of complaints were angrily shouted out about the conference because for the first time in seven years, it cost attendees money to attend. $50 now bought you 4-5 days jam-packed with speakers, projects, workshops, tours, and parties, including talks by Suzanne and the inimitable Angela Davis. The conference was still free to presenters, who were the only people present this day. Volunteering still bought you access. I looked over at Crystal Baxley, the most under recognized and hardest working laborer on OE’s team, her exhaustion peering from behind her glasses and unusually messy hair. She was too tired to defend herself. That year, for the first time, many of us were finally getting paid for our labor. After six or so iterations of OE where my skilled labor was utilized, I was getting paid a symbolic fee for months of work. We were finally getting paid for our years of labor, yet our labor was completely unrecognized and unappreciated by these conference presenters. I stood up and announced this fact. Eliza Gregory stood up and suggested if these people wanted a free conference, they could help volunteer, help fundraise for it, or become a fellow Open Engagement worker. Suzanne, realizing she had created a bit of a clusterfuck, eventually tried to facilitate reconciliation with the rowdy crowd. I might have said, too, “… guess what everyone, conferences cost money and work to produce… If only you knew how much!”

This crowd, like many before them, were given an opportunity to offer critical feedback a few weeks later, an opportunity OE offers to all of its attendees, which results each year in applied changes whenever feasible to make the conference as open as possible. One of the legacies of OE for me is to think about sustainability, not only in how be malleable, but also in how to organize a conference, and my practice. Thanks to the work of artists and advocates like Creative Capital, W.A.G.E. (whom I learned about at OE) and The Present Group, I’ve become skilled at getting paid for my labor as an artist. I still joyfully volunteer when it is appropriate. I’m happy to report Open Engagement is paying its team better than ever. Sustainability has more than just money at stake: there’s also the sustainability of self and practice, particularly as we live in times of crisis. To make Socially Engaged Art sustainable for myself, I have to get off the computer and back into the studio. Hopping into the sauna at the Y a few times per week helps too. I look forward to hearing about what you are all doing to keep yourselves and practices alive as we move onward, bidding a fond, sweet farewell to OE.

-Lexa Walsh is an artist and cultural worker based in Oakland, CA, and a long time agent of Open Engagement. www.lexawalsh.com  


1 Below is the unfinished essay from 2014  and notes by Jen Delos Reyes referenced by Lexa Walsh in this post.

What is the Value of a Free Conference?

Jen Delos Reyes

What is the real cost of a free conference? This question was put forward at the close of 2012 at our closing panel discussion by a group of students who were involved in organizing a line of programming at Open Engagement that explored economies. The question was met with uproarious applause. We were asked to evaluate what does “free” really mean? Someone is always paying, and who pays has significance. There are underlying issues that have a reach far beyond a conference on socially engaged art: Who is paid? Who is not? Who is valued? How does one pay? At what cost? Examining the conference year by year, these questions will be explored through looking at the funding, support, and personal costs that have made the conference possible. What follows is an examination of the labor, cost, and contributions that made open engagement possible since 2012.

I want to re-frame the original question from 2012 by asking What is the real value of a free conference? How can this conference on all levels be a proposal for a structure that does not yet exist, and model how to be in our world in a different way. We need to address the deeper economies at play. As Open Engagement moves forward it has the potential to not only highlight, mobilize, and strengthen existing networks of support through a receptive mobility, but to also in itself serve as a model. There is much work to be done for this conference to reach that state, the first step toward forward movement is acknowledging where we are.

I do not wish that the conference continue in solidarity as a precariat, as I hope that this state is one that will not continue to be the case for so many of us artists and adjunct laborers. Let us think of what sustainability can mean for one another. I believe that Open Engagement does have value, but a question that must be asked is what is that value worth if the cost is continuing to perpetuate economies and systems of labor that are untenable? The emergent value that Open Engagement has the possibility to embody is to become a model of sustainability for socially engaged art practice, institutions, and workers. Open Engagement is not about an exodus from institutions, or the creation of a new one. It is about working with institutions to realize sustainable models for socially engaged contemporary art practices.

What model can we present for 2015?


Since 2007 Open Engagement has maintained its position as a free conference. How this is possible is a combination of resourcefulness, shifting what a system can do/who a system is for,  institutional support, and countless hours of invisible and uncompensated labor. What kind of space does something that is free create? What does it mean that what creates that “free” space is an art practice? What are it’s unique potentials? In Irit Rogoff’s essay Free she outlines several relevant questions:

  1. First and foremost what is knowledge when it is “free”?
  2. Whether there are sites, such as the spaces of art, in which knowledge might be more “free” than in others?
  3. What are the institutional implications of housing knowledge that is “free”?
  4. What are the economies of “free” that might prove an alternative to the market-and-outcome-based and comparison-driven economies of institutionally structured knowledge at present?


In relation to OE from 2007-2013 this “free” site of knowledge was hosted by universities that otherwise charge for the distribution of knowledge. Funds were redistributed in order to create an institutionally supported site of public knowledge sharing. This created a shift the economy of knowledge sharing. The conference being free has the ability to emphasize a different kind of exchange. The exchanges we seek to further is the conference as a hub for the transmission of knowledge and site to the further support artists working in these ways.


Open Engagement, like many of you who are reading this, sustains a precarious existence. The conference has no guaranteed income. It is important to keep the perspective that Open Engagement, while it stems from an artistic practice, is ultimately a conference. It is not an exhibition. Artist fees, and speaker fees (with the exception of keynote presenters and often workshop leaders) are not usually compensated within this model. What is standard practice is that conference presenters and attendees pay fees to the conference to attend and participate as a speaker. Unlike the standard conference practice of charging presenters a fee to attend without compensation, Open Engagement has intentionally chose a position different than that model. When WAGE breaks down the payment of artist fees and compensation they do this in relation to an institutions revenue and operating budget. Open Engagement is a non-revenue generating operation. Every year that I have organized this conference I have done it like it was going to be the last time. This was not just in the spirit of doing things to the best of our abilities, but mostly the reality of not knowing if there would be funds to continue.

In 2007 the funds for the conference came from a grant to support my graduate work and research, which I chose to conduct in the form of a conference on socially engaged art. The conference was realized for under $10,000 plus non-monetary support from partnering organizations and individuals. In 2010 the funds for the conference came from a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland, OR. The conference was realized for $6000 plus non-monetary support. In 2011 I made the case to Portland State University that Open Engagement is a site of education, both for the students involved, and the public. It made sense to me that I program focused on socially engaged art could work to create a site that would widen the field and make this free and public. The university created a $10,000 budget to make Open Engagement more sustainable. In addition to this budget we sought sponsorships from other programs focusing on socially engaged art. The conference was realized for $15,000 plus non-monetary support from partnering organizations and individuals. In 2012 and 2013 the PSU support continued, we received another RACC grant, and continued sponsor support. Both conferences were realized for between $18,000-$20,000 respectively plus non-monetary support. Now in 2014 thanks to primary support of our partners the Queens Museum and A Blade of Grass, as well as with contributions from sponsors, and early bird registration donations we are working with $23,000 and offering an expanded conference program and compensating almost all of the people working on the conference.


We get by on very little, and we are without a doubt working too much. There are monetary costs, the cost of support that is donated, and personal costs. I don’t want artist run, and artist supported culture to be synonymous with little pay, or no pay. For myself personally one of the biggest personal costs has been that  I  have worked uncompensated on Open Engagement, no fee taken as director, and no compensation or release time from the academic hosts. I don’t do this because I have money or generational wealth to sustain myself. I was raised by a poor immigrant mother who to this day does not have savings. We moved 18 times in 23 years because of housing insecurity. I am the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college. As an adjunct and then fixed term (and then adjunct again) faculty I did not even receive the “value” of the conference being seen as “institutional service” or padding for tenure review.

One of the most important things that have changed with the move of Open Engagement to the Queens Museum for 2014 is that there are now more paid staff working on the conference than ever before. Thanks to the paid staff labor from the Queens Museum there are now only five people who are donating time to OE, where as in the past there were not even five paid staff, in fact, there was usually only one and that was a paid graduate assistantship. In addition the Queens Museum is also paying for invited workshop leaders through their Open Air program.

These graphs chart the expended labor and contributions of a selection of people who have worked on and are currently working on Open Engagement.

*These numbers account only for personal email from my own account and does not account for the emails sent to the conference email address.

*This number is as of 03/26/2014. I receive between 10-25 OE emails per day on average.



As you might have noticed from the charts of contribution of labor, there are a lot of women that work on Open Engagement. What does it mean that the labor for this was done primarily by women year after year for free or for less than minimum wage? From the direction, to the graphic design, social media, committee members, and volunteers year after year the overwhelming majority of the people who push Open Engagement forward are women. Open Engagement year after year is driven by women, volunteering their time, or being under-compensated. A large part of how we are able to pull off Open Engagement for so little is that very few people are paid for their work aside from the keynotes, designers, and now Program Coordinator and the director. 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. Part of what this reflection seeks to do is take a closer look at what makes this conference run, and at what cost. 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?

2012 Planning Committee

Jen Delos Reyes-Director

Crystal Baxley- Assistant-director

Travis Neel and Grace Hwang- Administrative Assistants

Ally Drozd, Sandy Sampson, Lexa Walsh, Ariana Jacob- Facilitators

2013 Planning Committee

Jen Delos Reyes-Director

Crystal Baxley- Assistant-director

Grace Hwang- Administrative Assistant

Lexa Walsh- Food programming coordinator

2014 Planning Committee

Jen Delos Reyes


Kerri-Lynn Reeves

Programs Coordinator

Mirana Zuger

OE Assistant/SPQ

Sandy Sampson

Laura Sandow

Housing + Transportation

Gemma Turnbull


Alex Winters

Social Media

Ariana Jacob



Sheetal Prajapati

Lunch convos

Eliza Gregory

Welcoming Committee

OE Ten Year Reflection: René de Guzman

9 PM, May 1, 2016

An image comes to mind of Jen de los Reyes sitting with Angela Davis in my office. Angela had just finished giving her keynote speech at the Oakland Museum of California’s Open Engagement 2016. I was impressed but not surprised by Angela’s sophistication and charisma. She talked about art’s radical role in society. The job of the artist is to imagine possibilities never before seen and, in so doing, can provide alternatives to existing inequities. She asked the audience—largely made of young artists and organizers—to be mindful of how we think of time. The need to act is urgent yet she advised patience and wisdom. The impact of our actions can come to fruition generations from now.

Jen and Angela had never met before. There was immediate warmth between them. I suspected meeting Angela was a personal thrill for Jen. I was grateful that bringing Open Engagement to Oakland resulted in Jen being rewarded by connecting with someone she admired. Jen is owed so much for establishing, growing, and sustaining Open Engagement all these years.

In turn, I believe Angela’s comfort with Jen indicated a recognition that Open Engagement aligned with her values in some fashion. When I invited Angela to speak months earlier, I was concerned I hadn’t adequately explained social practice in a way that naturally connected it to the social justice work Angela is known for. Angela’s experience of Jen and the remarkable Open Engagement community that night may have proven my point for me.

This memory of Jen and Angela helps me now that I reflect upon what it means to have Open Engagement end. There’s some irony here because the last three years can be seen as an accomplishment of sorts. A scrappy artist led initiative that started ten years ago has, in the last three years, been embraced formally by a national consortium of institutions—the Oakland Museum of California, University of Illinois at Chicago, the Queens Museum, and A Blade of Grass. I’ve also seen Open Engagement’s participants broaden and expand. In additions to artists, Open Engagement now serves and gives sustenance to educators, curators, funders, activists, and other kinds of cultural workers worldwide.

Like many others I’m sure, I cling to the hope that some unforeseen set of circumstances and people will take up what Open Engagement has established. There remains a need for the care of socially engaged art. Realistically, however, we have to prepare for the eventuality that nothing like Open Engagement ever arises again. So it’s time to keen. The Open Engagement community will need to mourn its loss and grapple with being a diaspora. Despite this, there is still a chance to seed the future. We can acknowledge and support each other wherever we cross paths. We can find opportunities to build enclaves where Open Engagement’s brave and generous spirit is kept alive and nurtured for the benefit of other generations.

—René de Guzman

Director of Exhibition strategy and Senior Curator of Art

Oakland Museum of California

OE Ten Year Reflection: Gretchen Coombs

Two Images and Ten Years Between

This my favourite picture of Jen Delos Reyes–I love the “you are interrupting me and I am busy, look.” In this context I am assuming that she needs no introduction, she is the reason after all that the Open Engagement (OE) conference came to be. She’s up on  a ladder tracing the wall text for “Our Inconvenient Truth” for the finale of Come Together, a three week residency at the Kitchen in the summer of 2006 that brought together over a dozen socially engaged artists from all over the world to work together, learn together, and maybe most importantly for Fletcher, play together. Harrell Fletcher’s Come Together had us sitting in circles, writing on butcher paper, bending and folding in yoga classes, eating raw vegan food, playing basketball and baseball.

Many claim that artists are bad at sports, but I would qualify that by saying some are awesome at team sports: collaboration––in whatever form––is a team sport, and it formed the core of Come Together (of course, it’s implied in the title! nevermind the Beatles reference). We worked with each other and with the more established artists who inspired our projects. Our lectures came from artists such Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Emily Jacir, Paul Ramirez Jonas, all of whom have been keynotes at OE. They spoke about their work in the world, and we all debated what was at the time a nascent field and discourse––what is community, what are the techniques of engagement and so on. We hung out in Chelsea and walked under the High Line, which had yet to be redeveloped into the gentrified theme park of condos it is today. We collaborated with seniors from the local senior centre for our remake/re-enactment of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Harrell assigned us each parts of the documentary to recreate in whatever way we and our resident collaborators saw fit. Emily Jacir and Lee Walton gave us assignments. Jen’s project was called Lost Dogs based on a quote Emily had given her. It was Jen’s way of connecting place––Chelsea to Palestine–to what we hold dear. Ask her about it when you see her; it’s pretty poetic.

Several artists from Come Together have made careers for themselves—Aaron Hughes, Macon Reed, Sam Gould, and many more. Jen stands out to me for obvious reasons now but at the time she was unassuming. But I remember her as quiet, and I understand now it was because she was the one listening, gathering thoughts, making connections to community organizing, radical pedagogy, all which would contribute to her master’s project––Art After Aesthetic Distance, the first iteration of OE. Come Together may have been Harrell’s brainchild, but Jen’s vision and organizing grew Open Engagement into a site where she could bring people together who were working in similar capacities with their art and community work. Conferences are usually pretty dull, but with OE she offered an alternative to the traditional conference format in favor of new forms of exchange––games, singing, and potlucks, for example.  She related this to me: “at the time there wasn’t a site to discuss this work, there wasn’t support for these practices, I was engaged, other people are doing it, I needed to make that space.”

Soon after Open Engagement and when Jen started teaching at Portland State University, she and students participated in “Social Practice West” at SFMoMA. Jen and her crew were fondly called “the quirky ones”, in contrast to the CCA “heady ones,” lead by the late, great Ted Purves, and Suzanne Lacy’s Otis students who focussed more on social justice. This trifecta built much of the foundation of this “new” field of practice.


I took this picture 10 years later at OE in Oakland, 2016. I imagine that Jen’s watching art creep up on utopia at the horizon.

Much has changed in those 12 years. OE has grown, had growing pains, and has begun aligning itself with urgent social and political concerns. Some of the more prominent debates have faded into the background, some remain. Sometimes it feels less like art and more like politics or activism, but that’s OK. Artists think of efficacy, ethics, and social justice more now, which they should if they work with communities or form provisional publics.

A few times over the years I’ve caught Jen in momentary repose and asked her to reflect on OE’s development and her role as its founder and director. The conversations haven’t always been comfortable, and at times she seemed guarded, less playful than I remembered. I imagine this has to do with constantly having to defend herself or her choices (or her team’s) curatorial choices or omissions. OE has been responsive to critiques (such as MTT tally), but some of us also lament the whimsy and intimacy lost over the years. The quirky ones have grown up with the field.

Working with institutions becomes a necessary for sustainability. And while this may take the perceptible edge off radical practices, it also advances and funds those practices. Artist Jeanne van Heeswijk famously declared, “Instrumentalize me!” and Nato Thompson works strategically with institutions to push art and politics onto different registers. To think that OE could have stayed grass roots seems naive, to think that social practice wouldn’t grow in popularity through educational programs, conferences and residencies dismisses the urgency in which artists view the world. Jen works with institutions and sees them as a medium. This way the field grows in ways that support new and emerging cultural workers, and creates spaces where they work alongside more established artists in the field. In this way OE has not changed. In this way, the residue of Come Together remains.

I pulled a thread from a discussion from Social Practice West when I asked Jen about “the agency of the artwork.” She replied, “the ability of artwork to do something beyond what the artist can do, to affect change, to change people.”  Jen feels the fact that OE keeps happening tells her it’s doing what she wants it to do – “bringing people together, people finding their people.” She now sees OE as less of an art project but more as an extension of her community organizing and expansive pedagogical approaches to life and art. I want to consider for a moment Open Engagement as an artwork so I can understand how its agency forms its legacy––a space for other people to speak, for others to listen, and for everyone to act.



Gretchen Coombs lives and works in Brisbane, Australia, where she teaches in the School of Design at Queensland University of Technology. Her interests include art and design criticism/activism.

OE Ten Year Reflection: Pedro Lasch

Ten Times Sustainability, Justice, and Power

Pedro Lasch / March, 2018

The 10th edition of Open Engagement – also the final one as the conference so many of us have come to know and cherish, will no doubt provide a great opportunity to take stock of its impact, the role of social art practice, and the development of related areas. Going against the efforts of manufactured amnesia, and using the conference’s most recent yearly themes, I would like to offer the following contextual notes to complement and nurture our many conversations.


In the national political landscape, at least as determined by presidential politics, this period may be said to have very dramatic bookends. At its origin, 2007-2008 presented as big a ‘surprise’ with Obama winning the nomination and final election, as its final stretch did with Trump doing so in 2015-2016. While Obama had an actual mandate and Trump was the second Republican in a generation to become President without winning the popular vote, neither one of them was thought to have a chance of winning by most people when they first announced their campaigns. Now characterized as an era of growing polarization and tribalism, the period’s early symptoms were presented as liberatory by Chantal Mouffe and other intellectuals arguing for an implosion of the center. It is hard to remember how promising this proliferation of the margins seemed at the time. Differences aside, the key point here is that both Obama and Trump came to power through genuine grassroots movements, and it is this same practice of grassroots organization and energy that has been integral to all ten editions of Open Engagement. Especially with this year’s topic of Sustainability, however, we must also point out that, unlike either Presidential Campaign, Open Engagement has never been backed by wealthy donors, corporate backers, or political financiers like the Koch brothers or George Soros. Is it just a matter of scale, because we want to avoid the political compromise that comes with such moneys, or because such interest groups simply think whatever we are doing does not matter? Should the theories, practices, and individual energies regularly represented at Open Engagement yearn for a more sustainable political structure for their work, or would this cancel out its grassroots spirit? I personally subscribe more to the first tendency, and I find great hope in the fact that an early supporter of this conference, champion of socially engaged art, and past keynote speaker Tom Finkelpearl can head the Cultural Bureau of New York City, the largest of its kind in the entire country. Open Engagement may end in its current form, but I have witnessed firsthand how the communities it has helped create have become part of institutions with significant political and cultural impact.


An international scope and perspective may seem out of place for a self-organized conference with limited travel funding like Open Engagement, but those attending any of its editions know the great efforts and success its organizers have had in bringing diverse cultural and global perspectives to the foreground of the conversations. Taking the last decade again as a frame of reference, we could characterize this time as the global ripple effect of the fraudulent and criminal US invasion of Iraq. In 2006-2007 the US media finally recognized its poorly ‘embedded’ judgment and every US politician suddenly claimed to always have been against the war. Between then and now, when hawks like John Bolton are back in government, and the Obamas are best buddies with W – the creator of the disaster, we must count close to a million fellow human beings killed in Iraq, countless others in Libya, Yemen, Palestine, and Syria, not to speak of the millions displaced from the region by what Condoleezza Rice cynically described as a deliberate policy of ‘constructive instability.’ With keynote speakers like Angela Davis, Michael Rakowitz, Suzanne Lacy, Emily Jacir, Theaster Gates, and so many panel participants involved in local and global social justice struggles, Open Engagement has provided throughout this period a much-needed platform to connect these international injustices with those in the US that have given rise to movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Many art critics love to hate socially engaged art, citing its homogeneity and its most visible white male stars. I would argue that this representation of the field is either ignorant, or a deliberate distortion that can only be maintained by looking exclusively at the minority of artists that are anointed by the still mostly retrograde art market and museum sphere, confused and upset as they are when no commodities are offered. Such a representation attempts to erase contexts like Open Engagement which, more often than not, are directed and maintained by women and artists of color. This does not mean we should not support intelligent critiques of the notion of social practice or even argue for the use of radically different terms (Dan Wang’s writings and many other great ones come to mind), but in a time when women, LGTBQ individuals, and artists of color are finally getting the recognition they have long deserved, we need to celebrate the organizations that, like Open Engagement, have done so from their very creation.


2007 also marked the transition from the Alan Greenspan’s era, best characterized by Wall Street’s ‘fear and greed’ index, to the biggest financial crisis in recent history. In this regard, it may be worth remembering that, had it not been stopped, George W. Bush’s final big drive for what he called the ‘society of ownership’ would have led to an even greater crisis. With rampant financial corruption and mismanagement in the global real estate and banking sectors, a direct government complicity or lack of oversight, and a series of bailouts in Obama’s administration that were paid for with our taxes but mostly benefited the wealthy, this period would also become known as the era of dramatic healthcare reform, Occupy Wall Street, economic recovery, and a new left supporting Bernie Sanders and other more radical candidates. It is hard to beat reality at times and, while the Electoral College did not bring a first female President Hillary Clinton, this period is literally framed by the election of the first African American President in US history, and the subsequent election of a white nationalist real estate mogul. It is tempting to interpret such facts with a certain fatalism, or a sense of radical rupture, for those of us who have regularly come together for Open Engagement in different cities across the country. I would look instead at the signs of continuity that this recurring conference provides. It is about building forms of power that can be shared between more and more of us, and how we stubbornly fight against the forms of it that, in extremely different guises at times, seek to concentrate it among the top few. With keynote presenters like Rick Lowe, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Mel Chin, this kind of sustained and patient work for and against power has always been at the center of Open Engagement. It is now a time of reinvention, but also one of continuation.  


The above retrospective framework of events for the history of Open Engagement appears connected with mostly political themes from recent conferences, but we should not forget that art is central to it all. The period we are remembering also marks the rise of socially engaged art and its mainstreaming into different kinds of institutions, with all of the positive and negative developments that this may bring. In this regard, Open Engagement has remained solid to its commitment for the grassroots, democratic, and self-organized forms of social art that keep making its community so rich and special. But even just a quick look through the archives of its ten editions will show that the characters assembled at this conference are incredible artists, curators, scholars, and activists who have been transforming their respective fields. I am sure I speak for many when I say that we are deeply grateful to Open Engagement’s many organizers over the years, and most especially its founder and director, artist Jen Delos Reyes. Your generous spirit, powerful ideas, and tireless work for more just relationships between artists and society have enriched us in ways that will likely require another decade to absorb.



Pedro Lasch (US/Mexico/Germany) is a visual artist, Duke professor, and 16 Beaver organizer. He is also director of the FHI Social Practice Lab at Duke. Solo exhibitions and presentations 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); Prospect 4 Triennial New Orleans (2017), Gwangju Biennial (2006), Havana Biennial (2015), Documenta 13 (ANDANDAND, 2012), and 56th Venice Biennale (CTS, 2015). Author of four books, his work has appeared in numerous catalogues, as well as journals like October Magazine, Saber Ver, Art Forum, ARTnews, Cultural Studies, The New York Times, and La Jornada. His online pedagogical artwork ART of the MOOC has had over 23,000 enrolled participants in 134 countries since it launched in 2015.


To learn more about his work, visit:



OE Ten Year Reflection: Deborah Fisher 

An Aesthetics of Overcoming

Deborah Fisher

The prompt asked me to reflect on two very basic questions about the state of socially engaged art: where we are, and what we need. I want to start by honoring the vastness of this. I promise in this writing not to write what I always write. I promise to roam and indulge.

This part is important because roaming and indulgence is how Open Engagement has tended to work for me. The value OE has provided me over many years has been exactly this kind of opportunity to shift my thinking from strategic to existential, hierarchical to horizontal. To take risks.

In the last year of OE, and my last contribution to it, I can honor OE and its effect on me by writing the way OE makes me think and feel. OE is a permissive space. So I can give myself permission to go on a more speculative, personal journey about the very things I am tasked with making relatively concrete, small-bore decisions about every day.

Where are we?

We are in a moment in which cultural power is being expressed intensely.

For one thing, a B-list reality TV celebrity is running the United States, mostly by raging on Twitter. I’m not going to address how this is working out because I’m supposed to write a short essay and I do think we have good reasons to stay positive, if not optimistic. What I think is relevant the way 45 is effectively wielding cultural power—stoking white identity politics, building on celebrity, pushing the envelope of what’s possible and permissible by shifting our emotional response to news and social media. It’s relevant that this aggressive display of cultural power feels very much in our faces right now, and has concrete effects on people’s lives. It’s not “just” tweets. It’s a legitimate threat. Culture is powerful—we are feeling it as a weapon.

This wielding of cultural power isn’t just something that’s being done to us. I think we are all more interested in wielding it. There’s a lot of activist and movement energy, the NFL has become a site of social conscience, heads are rolling in Hollywood. There’s some serious power exchange going on, and I believe in a lot of it. But at the same time, I’m concerned about the  dualistic and partisan nature of all this activity, and wonder whether we might do something more interesting with power than simply pass it, more or less willingly, from one tribe to another.

It’s a crazy-feeling moment, and I don’t know what you’re doing in response, but I’ve been carefully tending my own relationships. It’s an accessible way to change my world, so that it’s less and less like the rest of the world. There is no relationship that is free of the power dynamics, interdependencies, and transactions that are being so intensely expressed right now. I can’t make them go away, but I can make my dynamics, interdependencies, and transactions more intentional and loving.

In this work, I’m discovering that attending to relationships does not scale, exactly, but it does network in a way that satisfies my sense of ambition. How I approach difficulty with my lover directly informs the way I will treat my employees, the artists I work with, and will also form the basis for my relationship with the chair of my board. Compassion begets more compassion, makes an increasingly compassionate system. The results I am just barely starting to get from this work on my own relationships makes me believe that Ghandi quote for the first time in my life—the one in which he says that you have to be the change you want to make in the world.

This year or so of considered attention to how I handle my own relationships has sharpened my understanding of what art has to offer this moment. The more attention I pay to my own relationships, the more I see how much of the relating I do with others relies on a set of undeclared, culturally programmed assumptions about power that take more than negating or dismantling. They don’t go anywhere until a conscious, positive alternative is co-created.

I can be more specific about this. Winning in a relationship is a really good example. Do you know how hard it is to honestly and truly give up winning in a relationship? For me anyway? There is no winner and no loser most in most interactions. But I can’t help myself. The notion that I am either winning or losing is a very strong assumption I have about power—I have a lot of images and myths about it. So when I get threatened in any way, I get protective, combative, and judgmental in an effort to win, and not lose.

I can notice this, and argue with it—dismantle the logic of it. But it doesn’t change until I painstakingly create a conscious alternative to winning and losing in full collaboration with a partner. Winning or losing goes away slowly, only when it is replaced by a new set of myths and images about sharing. These new myths and images take trust, time, and tremendous courage to create.

This is art. Creating a new way of being that changes how we wield power is art. I knew that intellectually and acted as an advocate for this idea before everything went all sideways last November, but now I am incorporating it as a practice, in my own little way, into my life. And I have to say, admiring this thing art can do is really different than enacting it. My small contribution to this art—carefully building better relationships with a handful of people—is a tedious, scary, incremental process that I lose and regain faith about on a daily basis. It’s also bringing me a lot of joy.

This contribution is changing my relationship to my own work. I am more connected to the stakes artists are working with, and this is making me less inclined to come at social practice projects with a detached or analytical “art” mindset. When I work with artists, I’m finding myself increasingly…


Vulnerable, even. I’m more vulnerable to the projects I am working with because I am more openly striving toward what some of them are striving toward. I am paying a different kind of attention to the intentional communities and life-practices artists are making that decenter the individual, and reframe power and resistance in shared, non-dualistic terms. And I’m more attached to the way this art thrives on difficulty, inserts itself into complex political situations, and builds trust incrementally, or patiently injects doses of compassion into institutional settings that long for it.

In some ways this vulnerability is making me act less like an arts administrator and more like a creative person who is craving models, inspiration, and affinity at a powerfully hard moment. The questions I ask artists are changing. I’m less interested in the big ideas and more interested in craft. I want to know the specific leadership decisions artists are making, how they manage people and relationships on a practical level, how much they are sacrificing, how they feel about that, and the work they are doing on themselves in order to make the kinds of changes they want to see in the world. I’m finding that these sorts of questions yield richly textured conversations about whether artists need mission statements; how values become shared; experiences with non-violent communication workshops, anti-racism training, and mediation classes; spirituality; meditation and other regular practices; the history of religion; the health and wholeness of the artist; how to make life choices when you’re an artist; how art and life feel like they compete with one another when they actually can’t; how we all grew up; and, of course, therapy.

I like these conversations. They are so whole. So full of life.

What We Need

As I reflect on my own little project and these great conversations I have been having, I am reminded of Hakim Bey’s assertion that art is all too often death-reproducing and death-affirming, and that the power derived from that death obsession is mere “smartness.”  And I’m reminded of his frenzied call to “build an aesthetic on the overcoming [of death], rather than the fear.”

It is an appropriate moment to boldly choose between an aesthetic that morbidly fetishizes (and then preys upon) our fear, and an aesthetic that embodies and enacts the overcoming of that fear. And I think it’s worth saying that overcoming is totally different than resistance. It feels like most of the world is saying no to this moment, pushing against it. I certainly empathize with why. There is certainly so much to say no to right now. But pushing and resistance—these are strength contests that ultimately affirm the idea that there is a winner and a loser. What if we can get somewhere far more just, more loving, and more interesting if we can figure out how to be brave enough to stop exchanging power, and instead change how we wield power together?

An aesthetics of overcoming would let this moment in, accept it completely, and allow it to change everything except our compassion, our values. Our love.

I know. It’s a tall order. It would require a lot of trust, and that is a commodity that is in very short supply right now. And I can admit that all this talk of love absolutely offends my own need for “smartness.” But if I am going to take a risk in this space, and honor the shift from strategic to existential that I love OE for, then I’ve got no choice but to stick to my guns.

We need this.

I look at the artists I partner with, and my own life, and I see that building the trust we need requires superhuman patience. How patient are going to have to be, and how utterly wrong is that patience going to feel in this moment of genuine urgency?

While this trust is slowly building, how are we going to find the courage to choose an aesthetics of overcoming anyway?

How do we build this trust and really work together when some of us are so much more threatened than others by this thing we have to overcome? How do we accept how slow, awkward, painful, and necessary the work of building trust across the unique way race and class inform one another in America really is? I grew up relatively close to the Mexican border, in an openly racist environment, surrounded by a colonial version of the white identity politics that are dominating our politics right now. And you know, it’s very obviously a classist trick, intended to separate me and my tribe from the people of color in my own community who share my economic fate. I question the power of identity politics to bring us together and am motivated to overcome in large part because this is where I came from. But one of the first things an actual aesthetic of overcoming needs is me and folks like me recognizing that this is all very easy for me to say because I don’t feel particularly unsafe; that this thing that looks like a political trick to me looks more like deportation, incarceration, and getting murdered by the police to the very folks I am trying to connect with—that I do not understand, and that we don’t go anywhere together until there is understanding, and until those who legitimately feel unsafe simply feel more safe.

Among other things, this boils down to what we do with privilege. How do I make my relative privilege more of a shared resource? How can those of us with more privilege and safety listen to, and move at the pace and depth of, and actively protect, the most vulnerable among us, so we aren’t forcing an overcoming on a bunch of people in a misguided effort to do what we think is the right thing?

It’s also about how love is expressed and cultivated in our culture. We can’t see so much of the violence that we live with because it is normalized. We don’t quite have enough loving behavior to throw the violent behavior into high contrast. What parts of our souls and psyches must we care for in order to overcome instead of resist? What does that care taking look and feel like at work, in a hospital, in a prison? We are going to have to love one another so much more openly, and so much more, in big ways and small. What is our personal commitment to this? What are the cultural opportunities to do that loving? Who are we going to have to love that doesn’t feel lovable right now? How are we going to reach beyond our tribes?



Deborah Fisher is a creative leader and the founding Executive Director of A Blade of Grass. She advocates for artists working in the expanded field, and is an avid student of the divinatory arts and a first degree black belt in aikido. She serves on the board of the Center for Artistic Activism.


OE Ten Year Reflection: Randall Szott

In the countdown to Open Engagement 2018 we have invited 10 friends to reflect on the past 10 years of OE.

Our first reflection comes to us from Randall Szott. Randall is the director of a small public library in a small Vermont town. He is on his town Planning Commission, Development Review Board, and Middle School/High School Board. A former chef and merchant mariner, he is likely running for a seat in the Vermont General Assembly and assures everyone there is NO COLLUSION.

“Being a fake is what I do best.” – Andy Farmer (Chevy Chase in Funny Farm)

“The one caveat is that it must not be called art.” – Allan Kaprow

In 2014, when I was first invited to write for Open Engagement, I was given a question to consider: “Do you need to distinguish art from life?” In many ways this question remains both the most important, and least important question for social practice and for OE’s legacy and future. I originally answered it by juxtaposing a Chevy Chase film (National Lampoon’s Vacation) and some writing by Allan Kaprow (Tail Wagging Dog). In reconsidering it, I turn once more to Kaprow and Chase, but a different essay (Just Doing) and a different film (Funny Farm).

I choose Funny Farm, not because it is a particularly good film (Fletch or Foul Play might be the only Chevy Chase films that come close to being good), but because it parallels certain aspects of my own life/art conundrum. It is a typical fish out of water tale, with Chase and his wife moving from city life to rural Vermont, “hilarity ensues” as they say. My wife and I also moved to Vermont from Chicago, and true to the idiom, significant adjustments followed. In many ways my life has been a perpetual fish out of water tale – in the art world, but not of it; nine years as surely the only merchant mariner with an MFA in Art Critical Practices; sixteen years as a chef with no interest in being one, etc. All of these things engaged life in a particular way, with a particular experiential frame. Was it art? Was it life? Yes. And no. There was always a wink to be made, but not the ironic wink of pulling a fast one and asking for folks to go along with the scam. It was rather a wink that acknowledged the contradictions, but asked for more time to play the game. It may have been fake, but sincerely so. I was doing something. I was, perhaps, just doing.

That brings me to Kaprow:

“Today, we may say that experimental art is that act or thought whose identity as art must always remain in doubt… The experiment is not to possess a secret artistry in deep disguise; it is not knowing what to call it at any time! As soon-and it is usually very soon-as such acts and thoughts are associated with art and its discourses, it is time to move on to other possibilities of experimentation.”

Although I certainly make no claim to be speaking for OE or its multiple contributors and organizers, I think that this dillema has always haunted the conference, and perhaps now it is time to “move on to other possibilities of experimentation.” This assemblage of under-recognized, amazing (mostly women), deserve our deep gratitude for their perpetual efforts. To the degree that any of us took those efforts for granted, they also deserve our deepest apologies.

Sometimes we intend to honor folks by saying “gone, but not forgotten.” In this instance, perpetually hovering the art/life paradox, we might need a new tactic, that of Kaprow’s experimental artist:

“[one] who plays with the commonplace..in the very midst of crossing the street or tying a shoelace. There is no excerpting and reenacting them on a stage, no documenting them for a show. Art is thus easily forgotten. And that is the condition for experimentation: the art is the

forgetting of art.”

In this case then, Open Engagement might move on. Forgotten, but never fully gone.


Works cited:
Kaprow, A. Just Doing. The Drama Review, 41(3), 101-106.