Dearest friend of Open Engagement,
While the conference might look polished, well funded, and fully staffed, the reality is that the conference does not even have one dedicated full-time staff member, and our operating budget is 1/3 that of convenings a fraction of our size. The primary team of OE is only four people. With how much we have done with so little I think we might be legitimate witches.
It is almost springtime in Chicago, and that magical feeling of rejuvenation and transformation is in the air as we ready ourselves for the 9th annual conference, set to take place in Chicago on April 21-23 2017. We are steeped in the details and logistics of realizing what has become the largest artist-led and operated conference dedicated to socially engaged art. Last December we met with over 25 artists, organizers, and community members to program the conference through our open call for proposals that generated over 300 submissions. We are thrilled and excited about the quality of programming, the projects from around the world, and the critical conversations and performances that we have lined up for Chicago.
Open Engagement in Chicago is the second in our three-part thematic trilogy that is taking the conference from Oakland (2016 –– POWER), to Chicago (2017 –– JUSTICE), and ending in New York (2018 –– SUSTAINABILITY). As founder and director, and with OE’s ten year anniversary coinciding with our last scheduled conference in 2018, I am thinking about the future, and where our values, punk ethos, centrality of weirdness, collective care, love, dreams, and magic may take us.
Since 2007, OE has grown and evolved in so many ways. We have worked on nine conferences in two countries and six cities, hosting over 1,600 presenters and over 6,000 attendees. I started work on this conference in 2006 because I saw an urgent need for community, for support, and the political potential of art and dialogue. It has become a site of care for this field. We have formed a national consortium of five organizations and institutions who also believe in the power of art and artists to enact creative change in the world.
Open Engagement began as a student project, as my graduate thesis. It was made possible because of a DIY spirit, and an incredible group of community members who rallied around the idea and worked hard to make the conference happen with wildly limited resources. The small core team that on a part-time basis make the day-to-day workings of Open Engagement happen, are Assistant Director Crystal Baxley, Alex Winters on social media, and Administrative Assistant Latham Zearfoss.
Recently three of us connected in Chicago for a few days of intensive OE work. One evening, following our work day, we went to a premiere screening of Open TV’s second season of Brujos, a web series chronicling four gay Latino PhD candidates who are witches. Similar to OE, Open TV is a space that values, centers, and respects voices and individuals that are often marginalized. Following the screening of the first episode, writer/creator/director/lead actor Ricardo Gamboa noted that POC and WOC are not represented in popular televisual media centering on the occult and supernatural magic. Gamboa noted the inherent irony, arguing that we must be magic to have not only endured, but to have survived, occasionally even thrived. With how much OE has done with so little, I feel a similar way: magic that has allowed us to get to this point. We have made a space within the art world that more accurately represents the one we would like to see, and conjured a community to exist there with us—you!
Magic is essentially about transformation and power. OE has been able to continue for nearly a decade, in part because we have been able to navigate institutional partnerships. In so doing we reassign value and resources, creating new hybrid space of material and psychic support. Socially engaged artist, writer, and educator Ted Purves has been present at Open Engagement from the very inception of the project. He served as my external examiner for my graduate thesis work, which happened to be the very first iteration of OE. He affirmingly described Open Engagement as a “punk” conference. This description without a doubt captures the scrappiness of piecing things together, but also, and more importantly, the urgency and the desire to make our own institutions that enact our values. As we turn the corner towards a decade of this endeavor, I want to ensure that we do not lose this self-actualizing sensibility.
Our recent OE intensive work session ended with the three of us in a nearly completely empty karaoke bar on a Tuesday night with me singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” to Crystal and Latham. Before this, we had dinner together and discussed our dreams for the future of the conference. The conversation explored radically different forms, long-term options, satellite models, more distributed weight and labor, chapters, rural locales, and more. Unifying these disparate tracks is a need to fortify OE as a site that imagines and realizes what does not yet exist, that we can be radical, and that above all that we care for and support this field.
Latham mentioned a piece of advice that he received from a mentor that he often returns to. The sentiment is simple: if you are working collectively, and not everyone is in agreement, there is always a better idea. You all are our collaborators, our co-conspirators. We exist because of you. We are excited about the next two years of Open Engagement with you, as well the potential that the future holds. What do we need to do next? What work is not being done that we can manifest and conjure for the field? We cannot continue to serve as a site of care for the field without your help. Please know that when you choose to contribute to Open Engagement we see it as a confirmation of the beloved community that continues to work hard, fight for change, and show up for one another in the continued struggles of our time. We ask that if you are planning to attend OE 2017 that you donate what you can during the registration process. Register for OE 2017 now! If you cannot attend and still want to make a contribution we ask that you do so by April 15th. Information on how to make a donation is below.
OE needs your support, let’s continue to make magic together.
To all the weirdness, magic, care, and love our hearts, minds, and spirits can muster,
Jen Delos Reyes with the Open Engagement team—Crystal Baxley, Alex Winters, Latham Zearfoss