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.