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: