I first met Jen Delos Reyes during a residency at The Wassaic Project in upstate New York. She joined us for a weekend as a visiting critic, and I was immediately inspired by her lecture on community engagement. I welcomed her to my studio, thinking we would talk about my artwork. Instead, we discussed the transient lifestyle of artists and how conversation relates to improv comedy. I am thankful that our conversation took place at just the right moment for me, and I still think about the insights we covered that day. A year has passed since we first met, so I was happy to sit down with Jen to discuss her plans for 2017. We spoke about this year’s Open Engagement conference.
Mark Reamy: What is Open Engagement? What inspired you to create it? Was there a void in the art world you were trying to fill?
Jen Delos Reyes: Open Engagement (OE) is an annual artist-led conference dedicated to expanding the dialogue around and creating a site of care for the field of socially engaged art. I created this conference because I saw a need for a community, support, and a site for the political potential of art and dialogue.
Organizing around socially engaged art has been part of my practice since 2006. Open Engagement happened for the first time in Regina, Saskatchewan. The conference began as a student project; it was my graduate thesis work. “Open Engagement: Art After Aesthetic Distance” was a hybrid project that used a conference on socially engaged art practice as its foundation and incorporated various elements, including workshops, exhibitions, residencies, education, curatorial practice, and collaborations. The community of artists doing socially engaged work needed support.
The conference puts emerging and established voices side by side and highlights different ways of knowing and learning. Artist projects are woven throughout the conference. The conference feels relaxed, like you are meeting your people. And its presenters are generous, candid, and truly invested. Open Engagement is one of the rare situations where the structure of the thing mirrors the ideas and ethics it represents.
MR: How has Open Engagement grown or changed since its inception? It sounds like the scale has really evolved over the years. How would you say the momentum has influenced the way the conference is organized and/or how it functions?
JDR: When the conference began, it was comprised of about one hundred people coming together on the prairies in Canada. Since 2007, Open Engagement has produced nine conferences in two countries, in six different cities. We have been home to more than 1,400 presenters and hosted more than 5,000 attendees. We became a site of care for the field, reflecting many of the issues emerging about socially engaged art, and were made a continued meeting point.
The most important and enduring quality of Open Engagement is that it is artist-led and -organized. Practitioners are at the core. The conference’s mission has always been to expand the dialogue around socially engaged art, as well as the structures and networks of support for artists working within the complex social issues and struggles of our time. This conference is an essential resource that delivers content to provide attendees with skills and tools that support their work in communities and embedded contexts.
One of the biggest changes to the structure of Open Engagement is the national consortium of partner institutions and organizations dedicated to supporting socially engaged art. Representatives from A Blade of Grass, California College of the Arts, Oakland Museum of California, Queens Museum, and University of Illinois at Chicago School of Art & Art History work closely with the Open Engagement core team to shape and situate the conference each year. Expanding this national conversation will ensure that OE is a site that more holistically represents and supports current work and practices in this country.
Last year marked the beginning of a three-year trilogy for Open Engagement. Each year will focus on a theme, to explore the major issues at play and at stake in socially engaged art. The three themes are: “Power” in Oakland, 2016 (on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party); “Justice” in Chicago, 2017; and “Sustainability” in New York, 2018.
MR: What inspired you to hold Open Engagement in Chicago this year? Why the theme of “Justice,” and how does that theme relate to Chicago?
JDR: Each theme of the three-year cycle was selected specifically with each location in mind and the work and legacies of each location. There is no better time than now, and no better city than Chicago, for examining pathways to create justice and for exploring the manifold artistic strategies that demand and enact fairness and equality. Chicago is a city under the spotlight and in the news for its horrific gun violence, devastating public-school closures, and police brutality carried out with impunity.
OE is working with partners spanning the breadth of Chicago’s neighborhoods to represent the work being done at the intersection of art and activism across the city. We will be working with local activists to provide intensive training sessions throughout the conference on restorative justice, community organizing for social change, and youth leadership. In addition, queer-inclusive nightlife organizers from Chicago will host evening celebrations, guided by the belief that transformative acts of change are deeply indebted to these marginal spaces of collective joy.
MR: Many people felt disenfranchised by the election results of 2016. How has the current political climate influenced the proposals you have received this year?
JDR: Our call for submissions closed long before the 2016 election results came in, so there were no direct responses to that, but, given the theme, there were many proposals exploring collectivity, direct action, and creative reform.
MR: Who should attend Open Engagement? Is there a specific audience that you hope will participate? How can artists, organizers, curators, and other culture-creators get involved?
JDR: The conference brings together artists, educators, cultural workers, community members, funders, and activists. That is one of the most exciting parts about the conference: it brings together a whole ecology of the people involved in making this work a reality. Our open call for submissions is now closed, so the best way to get involved is to attend the conference.
MR: Any final thoughts?
JDR: I am looking forward to OE 2018, when we explore the theme of sustainability. I am especially interested in the sustainability of this way of working for artists because I think it is critical that we continue to find ways to create change in the world.
Open Engagement 2017 — JUSTICE will take place April 21–23, 2017 at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at constellation of sites across the city. This year’s conference, guided by the curatorial vision of Romi Crawford and Lisa Yun Lee, will feature presenters including Theaster Gates, Maria Gaspar, Maria Varela, Ai-jen Poo, Marisa Jahn and Laurie Jo Reynolds.