Open Engagement 2015

I attended this year’s Open Engagement conference on social practice art, held at Carnegie Mellon University and at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

The week started with a day tour of various arts projects across the city, a day curated by the Office of Public Art, a public art consultancy based in the city and working across the region. 

The tour started at the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, an arts education establishment working across artforms with young people and adults at all levels of education through after-school classes, adult ed and summer schools. We then went on to visit the inspiring City of Asylum, a human rights organisation that formed to house asylum-seeking writers, the houses of which have been decorated with the artist’s work of poems and prose. The afternoon started at contemporary art museum Mattress Factory with presentations from a variety of social practice arts projects, including Side Street Projects, a mobile social practice placemaking group with an HQ in Pasadena; and the awe-inspiring research and practice project on I-Hotel, San Francisco’s anti-eviction human rights and race politics legacy. We ended the day at Spaces Corners, a photography publisher and gallery, talking about its social and crowdsourced project, A Peoples History of Pittsburgh.

The theme of the conference was ‘place and revolution’, discussion panels and presentation approaching this theme from as varied angles as social practice art is varied itself. Stand out session’s included that by artist Jon Rubin on the Conflict Kitchen project, using food to galvanise political and social consciousness across the globe; and the Ethics and Aesthetics of Place panel, which included meaningful discussion and case studies of projects with a clear ethical imperative matched with a high arts value, Public Matters and Skid Row Housing Trust; and presentations from USA projects On The Map|Over the Rhine in Cincinnati, Table Alchemy by Amber Arts in Philadelphia and Wassaic Project, NY.

The conference closed with a keynote from Rick Lowe, founder of the legendary Project Row Houses, artist and recent winner of a MacArthur "genius" fellowship. Rick talked with great humour, passion and compassion about seven things that he has been thinking of around social practice.

His thought of ‘learning how to see place rather than making place’ in particular is prescient for the placemaking sector, with many, and especially those from a social practice approach, questioning a dominant placemaking ideology that is ‘place-making’ rather than ‘place-led’; this comment in particular made me think if the variety of placemaking practice that I identify in the placemaking typology and the relative value in practices placed on working with the value already in place rather than placing value in place from outside. 

City of Asylum houses, Sampsonia Way, Pittsburgh. L: House Poem, Huang Xiang, R: Jazz House. 

City of Asylum houses, Sampsonia Way, Pittsburgh. L: House Poem, Huang Xiang, R: Jazz House.