In an effort to further the conversations that occurred during the conference and share with a wider audience, we are initiating the platform OE Perspectives—first person reflections on OE 2016 provided from a select number of entrusted colleagues and friends of OE.
Collective Art Research and its Sharing Across Platforms
A Report by Pedro Lasch for 2016 Open Engagement: POWER
Since I had to visit the 2016 Open Engagement conference between a conference on Decolonial Thought and Aesthetics in Buenos Aires and another one on Art and Migrations for UNESCO in Mexico City, I will sadly have to focus this short report on the only panel I was able to attend. Entitled “Collaboration Across Research Platforms in Socially-Engaged Art,” this panel was organized and moderated by University of California Berkeley’s Shannon Jackson, and it happened on Sunday May 1st at the Oakland Museum of California. I was joined by A Blade of Grass’s Deborah Fisher, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Deena Chalabi, Open Engagement’s Jen Delos Reyes, Imagining America’s Jan Cohen-Cruz, and Kara Q. Smith from Daily Serving | Art Practical.
To provide context – and an ongoing invitation to anyone who may read this report – the lines prepared by Jackson for the invitation and panel announcement are worth citing here:
As artists and art organizations advance the goals and practice of socially-engaged art, many also seek to create and mobilize research platforms. Whether on blogs or in published books, through museums or universities, in journal essays or in databases, the discursive landscape around socially-engaged art is expanding. How can we make collaborative use of this proliferation? Do different kinds of organizations play different roles in this landscape? Do different agents—artists, critics, scholars, curators, policy-makers, program officers—have different professional connections to art research?
This great framework, as well as the institutional representation and weight of those gathered for the occasion certainly promised for a great exchange. The museum classroom was so full that those of us on the panel had to push back our table against the wall and literally sit on it. Who said research is boring or antisocial? When asked if linked to higher education, most people raised their hands and, as is the norm at ‘Open Engagement,’ there were as many fantastic people sitting in the audience as those sitting on stage (or the table, in this case). In attendance were the likes of artist/professor Paul Ramirez Jonas, artist/professor/journalist Gretchen Coombs, and philanthropist/producer Shelley Rubin. My contributions focused on ‘ART of the MOOC’ the recent/ongoing experiment in art and education I designed and taught for Creative Time/Duke University/Coursera (see images below). Other panelists’ remarks were similarly focused on their specific and vast experiences. With such a short panel, we were not able to chart out new paths for collaboration, instead focusing on ways in which many of us had already collaborated with each other and shared research and resources.
The brevity of this report does not allow for in-depth analysis of specific positions but, at least for me, the following notes emerged as a starting point for further discussion and collaboration beyond the immediacy of those who attended.
We may insist on different terms to speak of socially engaged art or social practices, but that does not limit our ability to share research and resources.
Art is (or can be) a legitimate form of research (social practice or not) and is a matter of survival inside the structures of the academy. But we also need to openly discuss the use and application of the term research, rather than assume consensus or agreement.
Rather than stress their ‘newness’ or an a priori rupture with the past – trends associated with avant-garde movements – social practice artists and their research benefit from studying their (endless) precedents. This may, in turn, help them to structure their own work more like an organization than a traditional solitary studio practice. These precedents may range from so-called non-Western cultural practices premised on ritual, ceremony, or the ephemeral; to research methods belonging to other artistic and academic fields; to non-profit mechanisms, grassroots methods, or simple strategies that bring together informal groups of people.
Social practice artists have found more of a home in the academy than in the art market and its associated galleries. The communities that we often work with are equally suspicious of the university as they are of the museum. This puts an additional stress on the importance of transforming these institutions on the one hand, and developing research platforms outside of them, on the other.
We may assume that those of us engaged in this conversation are serious about the intention of sharing our research and resources, but figuring out the best ways to do so is a labor of love that also requires great attention to detail and context. Some artists and scholars, for example, want all their work circulating for free, even if the institutions they belong to object to such sharing. Others insist that artists and researchers (especially when they do not hold a regular job in the academy) can only make a living if their work is remunerated. Neither position is wrong, but we must recognize these conflicting strategies as we deepen our collaborations and develop platforms that obliterate all difference.
I personally thank Professor Jackson for initiating this highly relevant debate and inviting us all to think together about it. I am also grateful to OE and Jen Delos Reyes for years of hard work producing the context for these kinds of exchanges, and all panelists for the intellectual, aesthetic, and political integrity of their work and contributions.
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