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.
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.
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?”
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.