Portland based Physical Education (P.E.) is comprised of dance and performance artists keyon gaskin, Allie Hankins, Lu Yim and Takahiro Yamamoto. P.E.’s vision is to offer performance audiences, artists of all mediums and curious individuals, immersive methods of engaging with dance and performance. The group sat down for a fun and enlightening conversations about the origins of P.E., and the role it plays in each of the dancers lives.
Spencer: So to begin, I’m curious to hear how PE started? What is the origin story for the collaboration?
Silence, then everyone bursts out laughing….
Allie: That is pretty much it in a nutshell.
Lu: It started out of conversations in 2013 about wanting and needing to engage with dance and performance more critically during a project that Taka, keyon and I were involved in. We decided to start a reading group and Physical Education was the first name that came up for it. And Allie was like, hey I want to come.
keyon: No, that’s not right. Because y’all met and then I was like, “hey I want to come.”
Lu: Oh yeah yeah, so we had decided to meet, and I think you (keyon) were out of town for the first one so you knew about it but you were out of town.
keyon: no it was maybe just you two (lu and taka) and then we joined.
Allie: And it was really like: would choose an essay to read and then another one. And we would get together and talk about them, and we would also drink and eat and go off on whatever tangents. Just let it go as long as it went. And then at some point we said “oh, what if this became an open public thing where people could just come and discuss?” There is no rigid sort of way to talk about these texts, and we can just be in a room with a bunch of people. Then we got the Precipice Fund and that’s when things went public.
keyon: At its core was this thing of “come as you are,” and all levels of engagement are valid, and it was really fun. That was a big part of it too, it was super social, amongst the four of us, and kind of like an alternative criticality where we could really be able to go deep. And that was the thing about keeping it small, at first, was to not have that kind of pressure to say the right thing. Really being able to be with friends and talk shit and recognize that “I don’t know how much farther the conversation can go when the structure is so lucid and social and always so layered.”
Spencer: Were you responding to the lack of something in Portland, or the lack of something in the dance community through its inception?
Taka: I think we liked the fact that we geeked out on Martha Graham.
Lu: I don’t know what you are talking about.
Taka: You don’t know what I’m talking about? We were talking about martha graham, and I didn’t know much about her, but for Light Noise we geeked out on it, and we read something. And we talked about how she was a force of presentation. Something like that. Right?
Lu: Yeah yeah we naturally started to talk about the research that was behind that project. And I don’t think that was something I had personally engaged with so much in other dance processes and that was exciting.
It wasn’t so much out of response to lack but it was more, “oh, this is nice, we need to keep this going.”
Yeah, I remember being really excited about the idea because I think many of us, when we make work, were reading a lot of material. That peripheral inspiration that comes into the picture when you’re making a thing, and just sort of just being able to process through the ways we got to different ideas. This associative thinking that often happens in making work, and often trying to read pretty heady texts around performance. And I don’t really consider myself an academic or anything like this, and so sometimes being like, “oh this is hard to read alone because I wanna try and talk through this with other people, but who can I do that with?” And this seemed like a really good opportunity to do it with people that I trust who I can ask questions around, and I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room or anything like this or already know the answers. And that’s what was exciting for me.
And keyon introduced the component about the video, not just the reading.
It was also nice to have a group of folks that were interested in be just working, everyone was kind of thinking in other ways and some of the texts that we were using were by architects, and it felt like a group where we could really push our understanding of performance and these sort of things to allow more space within that. I don’t really feel that it really felt like a lack of Portland, I also feel like it feels very of Portland in a way. Because I do feel like a lot of times there’s more crossover between disciplines and genres aren’t so important. There’s more room to play in between them and I feel like this group was generative for me for that.
Somebody said, “when we went public.” What led to PE going public and how did it change the nature of the group, do you think?
People were knockin’ on the door asking, “you have a reading group? How come I can’t come?” And we were like, “well, you can’t come because this is just something we do! ‘Cause if we let you come, then we’re gonna have to let everybody come and then we’re not gonna have this nice, intimate group anymore.” I can’t remember if Precipice Fund sort of came up and then we thought, “oh, actually, what we’re doing could really work with this grant.”
We changed it a lot. I mean, we haven’t had an intimate, just the four of us, reading group since then. I don’t think.
We had our beach week.
Oh we did. We had our beach week. Yeah, that was cute.
And I miss that dynamic a little bit. I mean, none of us are ever in town anymore anyway. It’s interesting thinking in terms of fun and leisure versus work, the way it’s gotten a bit muddy. One unspoken agreement that we’ve all had is, we’re not gonna do things if it’s not fun. But, that being said, it can sometimes be a little stressful or unwieldy because we’re like, “oh shit, this fucking deadline and I’m in New York and I’m in Stockholm and I’m in Japan and I’m in Minneapolis and who the fuck’s gonna do the Google Doc?” And it can kind of become this scramble which I think can be stressful but also it’s fine. We’re not professional. This is not a professional organization, we’re not a fuckin’ 501(c)(3), we’re not tryin’ to have this cohesive way of working. We’re just trying to make it work when it can. But sometimes it does feel like, “oh, I wish it could just be us in a room, drinking wine and talking about whatever… more… fun.”
I have this question around workshops in general and the idea of that form of the workshop or even the name of the group, Physical Education. Who’s teaching, who’s learning, and what has the project taught you over the years?
Well there was a class that I wanted to do, and then Physical Education was the perfect excuse to put it out in the world as something that could be associated with reading, performance, and artists lectures. That it can exist in the same sort of realm and programming as these other things and that a physical embodiment of whatever ideas that get presented in that workshop can then lead to a different type of understanding of the other events going on around it.
So a class might be like: have a conversation about some essay, and then we also hear Samantha Wall talk about her process and then we have this artist share and then we’re gonna go get really sweaty in an aerobics class, but then all of those ideas are carried with you through that class and maybe they’ll come up or maybe you’ll think about them differently after you’re sweaty and tired. You might take your own physical embodiment of ideas to a performance that weekend that you then watch and maybe all of these things kinda can get carried through those various experiences so you’re coming to a performance with new lenses. So that was TRANSCENDENTAEROBICOURAGE. But we’ve taught a lot of different workshops.
I’ve been thinking about the workshop versus the formal performance, too, and how those things might relate to each other, build off of each other or be in contrast…
I definitely feel like this group, I’ve been thinking about the name, and just over the years thinking about how things have shifted and changed, in my work, and especially in relationship with this group. I think for me, something that I’ve really been coming to a lot lately is less delineation between all of these things: between my living experience and my work, sales, and art. It’s also heinous that art, in this very Western way of looking at it, separates everyday living experience. It’s interesting to think hoow so much of what we look at are objects from the past are functional objects as well.
I think this group and Physical Education thinks about how our bodies are always teaching us and this way in which we can always be learning. Thoughtfulness and conceptuality and all of these things exist in the world that we’re in all of the time. It doesn’t have to be this kind of elite or separate kind of way of thinking about work and art in relationship to the body and embodiment and these practices. I don’t know, that’s kind of all over the place, but I do feel like this group has helped me… we talk about it as a support group sometimes. And I think there is space for all of that to kind of be in there and mix around and chew on.
It’s not just people asking me what is Physical Education, it’s the fact that I’m actually wearing a PE shirt as a form of my outfit (points to shirt). We sold 30 shirts last sale, which is kind of big but we are not making a lot of money off of it, so it’s more we’re having fun with the designs, and that’s actually what you kind of talked about?
I’m also thinking about something you (Lu) and I talked about when we were out one night. Something that happened in Amsterdam. Someone had brought you out to teach a workshop and you showed up and you did something very unconventional: you didn’t structure it like a typical workshop. And you showed up in a way that they kind of questioned you about it, like, “oh, but aren’t you going to teach them something? Aren’t you going to do something?”
We had this conversation around the notion of “you asked me to come engage with these people and I’m gonna do that and it’s not my fault that you wanted it to look like a lesson plan. I’m bringing myself and my experience to this room right now and so are they and we’re gonna go ahead and do that thing.” I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something around that, which I’ve been thinking a lot about since Physical Education began. What is it to get hired to come and teach a workshop? What’s the responsibility in that? How have I been thinking about that responsibility? How have I been taking on so much… I get so stressed about the idea of teaching, because I’m like, “what if I’m not smart enough? What if they hate it? What if they don’t have a good time? I forget that just the act of showing up and bringing all of my years of experience in this field to the room with other people, there’s already so much there, there’s more than enough there, and to be able to be flexible in that environment instead of grasping on to some lesson plan for the sake of controlling the situation. I’m thinking a lot more about that in terms of teaching.
That idea of expectations is really rich. It’s something to play with too. And just challenging people’s expectations of anything, especially around teaching and the labor because so much of it an honorarium or whatever and it’s underpaid for what really is. I’m curious, how much space do you want PE to take up in the bigger picture of each of your lives? Where do you see it fitting?
I mean, it’s shifted a lot over the years. It’s different all the time. I was just watching this video montage of this performance that we did in 2014? thinking to myself, “aw, look, we’re babies!”
We were really actively working through ideas and trying things out and for all of us. Those things developed into what our next work was going to be. There’s something potent about that time we formed and when we started doing stuff together that has had such an effect on all of our practices that I think now when we get together it just feels different. We’re just, not so young anymore.
Hate to go there. Not that we’re old, but it is a different kind of support and a different kind of decision to come back together and keep doing things together then it was.
When I think back to that time I’m like, “Look! Think about the potential here. Physical Education is going to become this giant, wonderful sustainable thing that’s gonna support our work and support us as friends and it’s also gonna bring a bunch of people together, and it’s gonna be this vehicle for all these things to happen all the time. There’s a future here.” And then years go by and then all of the other things that have to happen in life start to happen and you’re just like, “oh, it’s just kinda gonna look like this for now. And oh, then it’s, oh, it’s gonna look like this today…”
This is the part about getting older?
I don’t have that much time or energy anymore, but I really like these people, so I’m gonna keep investing in it in whatever way feels reasonable. I was thinking about your question of how much space do I want this to take up and I think the answer to that for me is I want it to take up more space because I want to remember what that energy felt like. But I also sometimes need it to take up a whole lot less space. The administration that has to go on around it. I’ve never been good at that, and I forget that when I have these big dreams, I’m like, “oh no no, but I hate admin work.” Physical Education’s always somewhere around here, and then every once in awhile, I’m lucky enough to have it be the focus, but it has to be super flexy.
I love that about it. I feel like I never really had expectations at all of what it would become, although I’ve always been like, “oh, we’re doing this?! Yes! Sure!” It’s this fun, mad, flexy thing.
It feels like it does take up the amount of space that we have capacity for. So sometimes it is smaller, and it isn’t happening sometimes because we don’t have the capacity. But I like that, I think it is a different thing that keeps bringing us back together but I do really like these folks. I love the stuff we do and it still feels like a space that even though it’s a very different way of pushing back or doing things. Think about the works we did at Composition. How different, and similar. But it is still pushing, it’s still a generative ground. It still feels like a generative playground in that way.
Things always happen when we come and do these events and spend a substantial amount of time together in a space–it feels like a magic. Sometimes trouble comes through and we’re not quite sure what’s gonna happen. We better be ready. This time there better be a nurse practitioner in the audience-
Everybody knows that Physical Education is something that we do, but we are not of it. I was thinking about it. It’s like, “remember Allie of Physical Education?” And nobody’s gonna say that to us. So this entity is so interesting because the sense of belonging is so not, it is a part of our life.
I kinda like the idea that everybody’s in Physical Education, whoever is engaged with it. Maybe we’re the little nucleus or something that’s keeping it going or maybe the heart of the thing, but everybody engages, you’re always kind of a part of it.
Well and it’s definitely kind of a lens, I think, or a method of thinking that once someone understands a lens, they can then apply it whenever. It’s like that idea, there’s new ideas around exercises or it’s actually any steps or exercise or going up the stairs once is technically exercise, so you can kind of claim it in that practice and extending that to art I think is really empowering to say, “actually, this is performance, or this is an artist’s practice, even if it’s just sitting in a room and talking or something.”
Or microdosing on mushrooms on the coast in a cabin.
Yes. In a wetsuit.
Wearing a wetsuit.
Those fucking wetsuits.
So for the third issue, I’ve been interested in this idea of recreation. I’ve been thinking about projects that are recreational in certain ways either through using forms of play or relaxation or leisure in what they’re actually doing. From there, I got more into this idea of what does recreation actually mean to artists? Are artists, on some level, always doing both work and leisure? As an artist, the assumption is that you’re doing what you love.
I wanted to start there, thinking about your book I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song, and thinking about that idea of an artist’s life, and what that means. Maybe you would want to talk about the genesis of that book and how it came about?
Jen Delos Reyes:
For sure. In the intro to that book, I talk about hearing this song for the first time when I was in graduate school, which was written by Thomas Dorsey and performed very famously by Mahalia Jackson. She’s singing clearly from a voice which is her own, but a perspective which the listener could read as the space she occupies in her life. The song is about a gospel singer who is talking about the fact that in her work, her craft as a gospel singer, that she can’t sing these beautiful songs and then live a life that doesn’t feel like it actually upholds the art that she’s putting in the world. The refrain is that “I’m gonna live the life that I sing about in my song.” That felt like a complete revelation hearing that in grad school, and saying, “Yeah, actually 100%. I want the exact same thing. That what it is that I do in the world as an artist, I want it to be completely in line with my values, all my values. And my life practice.”
I guess it was at that point that it really felt like it was a goal. It felt like something almost impossible in some ways. It was definitely in my mind from that point on. I think it’s hard to disconnect that too, especially when, as an artist, a lot of the work you do is about lived practice, lived experience, and being with others in a lot of ways. I think that was really the first seed of that project, and I didn’t really realize it at the time, other than just having this general admiration for that way of living and working, and that connection to what you do in the world, especially as an artist. I also mean that for everyone. I don’t think it’s just for artists at all, to be able to live in that way.
Fast forward years later, half a decade later, and I’m invited to do a residency as the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. I’ve been working with this great coordinator there, she’s fantastic. I’m actually really struggling with what I want to do at this residency, like what is the frame for it, what is the structure? At one point she asked me, “Well, what could you do, or what would you do if you could anything? If you could really do anything, what would you do?” My sincere almost immediate answer was that I just want to live. I meant it, but I meant it in this way that I was I want to live with intention and with value, in the vein of I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in my Song. It ended up that I started using that residency, which I think was in 2013, on doing research into intentional living, intentional communities, and utopian impulses. Groups like the Shakers, for example. Other groups in the US, especially that were easier to research and very possible to even visit.
In particular, I wanted to connect those sorts of groups and impulses to artists who are clearly inspired by some of those radical approaches, or different ways of being in the world, and with each other. That came together in the form of the book. In a lot of ways, I feel like the book is a failure. It is an interesting series of cases studies of artists who I really feel do justice to that Mahalia Jackson song. They’re people whose work I admire greatly, I also admire them as people, and what they have set up is incredible and completely inspiration, and so different. The main people in the book were J Morgan Puett, and looking at Mildred’s Lane, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and looking at the work she did with the New York City Department of Sanitation as the official artist in residence. Then Ben Kinmont and his Antinomian Press, and his work as a bookseller. David Horvitz, and I just feel like everything in his practice is so just emergent from his personal life and relationships in this really beautiful way. And Fritz Haeg, and his embodied practice, but it’s also his communal practice and how he builds community, especially for artists.
All of these people were inspirational for me, and in very different ways. I showed a lot of examples of how an artist could be in the world. Basically everything I described in terms of their primary activity is not necessarily what most people think of as art: like running an art school in your home or starting a bookstore, or foraging for mushrooms, or whatever. All of these things aren’t necessarily the things that we think of when we think of artists, but they’ve been able to structure their lives in a way in which that is something that they get to do. I had hoped and intended that the book would serve as a roadmap for anyone to be able to take inspiration from that and do it, but the truth is, it doesn’t feel like that and it doesn’t read like that.
It’s fine, because in life, there are always more opportunities, and I feel like that to me, has then given birth to this new book that I’m working on that I actually feel will do that thing that I wanted it to do, that is about like, well how can we all live lives of meaning and value and look at our daily activities, and really keep them in connection to what is happening in the world, and not separate them because we are in a moment of social crisis, economic crisis, environmental crisis. We should all be crushed under the weight of how horrible things are in the world right now.
I’ve been reading your lecture What We Want is Not Free, which mentions all of the unpaid labor you put into Open Engagement. I think dovetailing with that, I’ve been thinking a lot about labor, and how normally we have to do stuff that we don’t want to do because it’s what pay the bills, or it’s what basically helps you survive. How do those two things relate to each other? There is this balance between precarity on the one hand, and utopian aspirational values on the other hand. Where do those two intersect, and how do we shift from one to the other?
Jen Delos Reyes:
What a big question. I feel like I have so much to say about that right now, that I’m a little bit like, “Well, where do I start?” One of the first things I’m thinking about is this idea that … and this is a little bit like some of the feedback I had gotten from the I’m Gonna Live the Life book, this idea that to be able to operate in the way that these artists operate from, is a privileged position. That not everyone gets to make these choices and to live in these ways. Which isn’t necessarily wrong, in a lot of these cases, there are instances in place or structures in their life that allowed them to do work for free. Here’s a great example: when I was talking to Mierle Laderman Ukeles, I asked her, “How were you able to be the unpaid artist-in-residence for 40 years?” The reality is that her husband, Jack, helped to support her and make that possible. I think that there’s just not enough transparency around economics, around the problematic structures especially in the art world, around class and privilege that people don’t talk about. This makes it possible for certain people to do unpaid labor, that then helps them to get better jobs within the system.
Let’s talk about unpaid internships. Those are very privileged positions, you can’t be someone from a struggling economic background and think that you can do an unpaid internship and live in London or live in New York or in LA doing this great internship with the Getty or something, and just be able to live. Think about the amount of privilege that one needs to have to be able to do that. When I would talk about, and this was actually with that same amazing residency coordinator, Megha Ralapati. That I was, “Talk about how I want everyone to be able to take inspiration and live these lives, like their lives, with integrity and with purpose and to have a life philosophy that guides what you do in the world.” She’s like, “That feels so privileged. What about the people who are working these jobs that they can barely pay their rent, there’s so many unpaid bills. There is a way in which some of the models, the case studies are not feasible for most people, but I think what is actually possible is that we can still make small and micro decisions within our lives that are within our value structures.
It might not just be on the same scale, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do that because I do believe it will still have an impact. For example, here’s one that I actually think works with this okay, well economic pressing matters of daily existence. Someone like Fritz Haeg is very critical of fast fashion and over consumption, and is someone who’s making and knitting their own clothes. That is not a thing that every single person can do. One, because maybe you might need to gain that skillset, you never learned how to sew, or you don’t have the hours and hours and hours it takes to be able to sew a garment, or knit something. But, you do have the ability to say, “Okay, I do not agree with the exploitative labor practices of fast fashion, and I don’t want to go into one of these chain stores and buy something that I know is basically made by someone who is not even paid close to a living wage, is essentially a slave in another country, and be a part of this chain.”
What can you do to actually stop that cycle? One, you could not buy new clothes. It would actually be cheaper for you to go to a thrift store, to go to a Goodwill, to buy clothes in that way. Everyone would be better served if they also had a better understanding of who they were as an individual and what they wanted to communicate in the world, and not be so seduced by advertising, honestly, and current trends because then you’re in this other cycle of trying to purchase things that will make you feel a certain way because it’s like you haven’t … this sounds so new-agey, but I think it is part of it, like that’s a lot of the inspiration behind some of these artists that I’ve been so enamored with in this book. It’s about actualization. It has a little bit to do with actual knowing yourself and what that means, and then your messaging. I actually think that it would be such a radical act if people took aesthetic control of their lives in the same ways that artists do, and would define what it is that they put out in the world in a daily, every day way.
I wanted to pull back for a second and go back to this question of how do we quantify the work we do as artists? I wonder how we cash in on this work we do just to survive in the first place.
Jen Delos Reyes:
Oh my God. Okay, thank you for bringing us back to this survival question ’cause it got lost in that storm of soap box passion.
I’ve been thinking about this book by Julie Rose called Free Time. I don’t know if you’ve read it, it’s pretty remarkable. Her position is just not one that I had ever heard before, but it made so much sense. She’s framing free time as a social justice issues. She’s says, “The same way we think about the distribution of wealth and resources, we need to think about the distribution of free time.” It gets very complex in terms of how she defines free time, and how that’s measured. It’s a beautiful book. I can’t recommend it enough.
Then it’s like, how do we think about our work as artists? I definitely want to answer that question. You already have a little bit of insight into where I’m at in terms of a position on free labor and needing that to shift. How do you even look at all the problems around being an artist and labor? One, I’ll say that in this country in particular, there is this expectation that artists will work for free. That we are not valued, like people are not valued who are artists, but art objects are. I’m like, “Can we get that to shift a little because if you don’t care for the people who make the work, then you don’t get those beautiful objects or experiences.” Part of caring for artists is actually being able to pay them a living wage.
I guess I don’t like the framing of how do we cash in, or capitalize? Because those reinforce problematic structures of capitalism that I wish we never had. I think it takes radical imagination to be able to think differently about what those governing structures are. Let’s not go into fantasy world. Although, I do think that science fiction and fantasy are very important because it does get us to exercise our muscles and think about other ways and other worlds, which I think we desperately need. We do live under capitalism, we do need to survive, so how can artists ensure that they are paid for their work?
Look, in our world right now, there are actually countries where this happens already. I am like, “Hi, I’m from Canada. We have CARFAC, artist run culture, artist led culture fought for this, and then it became government sanctioned.” Now this is the set regulation of how artists are paid for all their labor, and it’s incredible. It breaks down what an artist should be paid for a workshop, for an artist talk, for a group show, for a solo show, for a write up in a publication, for this, for this. It goes over all these different forms of labor, and then it says like what the percentage rate should be. Then the great thing is that it’s scalable, so it’s not just like an institution looks at it and they say like, “Oh, that’s a shame ’cause we don’t have $1,000 in our budget to be able to pay for a workshop.” It’s scalable in that what the artist is paid in based on what the annual operating budget is of the institution. If it’s a bigger institution, then you get paid more. Then also it’s a pay range based on if it’s a solo show, you get paid more than if it’s a group show. Just all these things that take into account how much labor is expended and how an artist should be compensated.
I think that we need a system that is more like that here. People need to operate in that way. There are amazing groups like Wage, who are advocating for those sorts of structures. I think it starts, also this goes back to this, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter. These systems are so strong, the institutions are so strong. I just have to do it.” I’m like, “No, actually, you don’t. You can bring up for yourself as an individual, as an artist, what your value is, and the fact that you can resist. If an institution is not going to pay you for you work, you can say, “thank you, but I actually have decided to make a choice in which I no longer give my time for free. This is not free.” I guess I’ve gotten to a place of deep frustration around that, and that has come out of years and years of free labor and being exploited, honestly, by large institutions and doing work that no one really told me that I shouldn’t be doing, or that should be only the work that a full time tenure track or tenured faculty does, that’s not your work, you don’t do that ’cause that’s not paid. You’re just adjunct, you’re responsibility is just that one class.
Then we get so, I don’t even know. I think that yeah, it begins with artists actually making demands and then resisting institutions, and calling out and calling in institutions to be able to join and to make this right. For me, part of how I’m making this right is that Open Engagement should actually be a model of sustainable artist led culture. I do not want to do any work anymore for Open Engagement in which like if we were to be transparent about it, and you were to see the inner workings, I want to feel good about it. I don’t want to feel like, “Wow, we really modeled a piece a shit.” No one needs to be working for free. That’s not what I want. Why would we model that? I want us to be an example, and I want us to show larger institutions that these changes actually can be made. Part of that change is valuing artists for their labor.
The other thing too, is like I don’t know, this like, “Oh, well, you could commodify the thing that you do in your life that brings you joy and does this thing, and sell it to an art institution.” Yeah, you could, but you could also just do it for yourself and for your life. I do a lot of these things that yeah, I guess I could do that as public programming somewhere, but I’ve just made that choice that it’s like, “No, I don’t frame it as ‘this is an art project.’” It’s just part of my life practice. I think that that is actually important for us to be able to do, that you don’t have to commodify everything in your life. You don’t have to make everything a project. I think that’s part of what we need to model, maybe as artists for other folk, is that it’s like we can just do these fun and creative things, and you don’t have to call it art. They can just be like what you do because it’s what you want to do in your life.
Yeah. It gets so confusing. Thinking about transparency around boundaries, too. The willingness to say that even if something looks like an art project, to say like, “This isn’t art. Or this is just part of my life practice, I’m not trying to think about this in terms of that bigger, that labor piece, or something.” And setting boundaries where you are able to not so much clock out, but check out from thinking about the thing … or check out from relating to the thing as labor because ideally you want it to be a source of strength, inspiration, resiliency, fun, any of these other things also.
Jen Delos Reyes:
Oh my God, yes. I’m happy to hear you say that because part of the definition of recreation is well, one, you can look at it as like re-creation too, to make a new, to do over. It’s like this practice that’s a constant re-creation. Then it also is supposed to be restorative and revive, that that is like it when you break down the definition. It’s from these words that mean those things. It’s like it is something that we need to do for ourselves to I think, be able to do the work better. It should not be seen as frivolous. I don’t think it’s frivolous. It’s like insert Audre Lorde quote here about self-care being a form of revolutionary practice. It’s guerrilla warfare in a way, because if we care for ourselves, we can do that important work in the world.
Yeah, and it’s only frivolous in the capitalist lens of the important thing is the work, and then the free time is where you get to mess around and do whatever you want. That speaks to a lack of intention, where you’re not thinking about either necessarily, in a very wholistic way.
Jen Delos Reyes:
I just had one last question. What do you like to do in your free time?
Jen Delos Reyes:
I wonder if part of this is about a mind shift, just that even to say like, “Okay, well there is a certain amount of time that is “free time”.” Maybe that’s not even the best way to look at it. I often think about this Annie Dillard quote that has been something that helps guide what I do on almost a daily basis, and was thinking about it even this morning walking to work. The quote is also so simple, you’re like, “Yeah, I know. That’s basic math in a way. That’s basic time math.” What Dillard says is that what you do every day, every hour, of course becomes how you live your life. To think about all time as being equally important and how your life is lived.
I do try to have everything feel values aligned for me, and part of that is why am I here at this job right now even? I’m here because I believe in this mission of urban public research university that it is a majority minority, and it is about access and the most affordable education possible. That that is important to be here and to support that. Or-
On spring break, no less.
Jen Delos Reyes:
Yeah, on spring break, no less. I don’t know, I guess I’m just trying to think of all time as so valuable. The other thing that I’ve often said, now I can’t think of who said it, is that time is the most valuable thing we have to give each other, and that that is so meaningful. I guess I try to think very intentionally about how I spend all my time, not just the time we like to think of as free time. I want to be able to look back on my life or have other people look back on it, and for there to feel like there was meaning and purpose and value in all of it, in all of the time that was spent here and with other people.
The Portland Museum of Art & Sports was located at Portland State University’s Rec Center. An institution within an institution, the museum was founded in 2015 as a dynamic space dedicated to the exploration of two subjects that are rarely paired together: contemporary art and recreational sports. Through installations, events and programming that showcased local to international artists the museum explored unconventional situations for engagement to activate the spaces where art and sports intersect. Anke Schüttler and Lauren Moran, the founders and curators of the museum, reflect on the process of bridging divides, pitching art projects, and recreation in art.
Photos by Anke Schüttler
Lauren: We were talking about recreation.
Anke: Yes, I realized that both sports and art can be seen as a means of recreation.
Lauren: For most people, yeah.
Anke: It’s funny because when we were thinking about this museum we were saying sport and arts do not really go together so well or they are usually not seen together, though there is this connection that I actually have never thought about before. And also ironically when we were talking about doing this project at the rec center, we were both saying ‘I’m not exercising a lot at the moment and maybe that’ll get me into exercising more’ and then we actually never got to it really.
Lauren: Yeah, we were so busy working on all the projects and installing all the art and working with all the people at the rec center that we left out the recreation part.
Anke: The fun part… I mean it was also fun to do the project obviously. Earlier I was asking you about your relationship to art and if you would think that art is a form of recreation for you?
Lauren: When you said that it made me think of how it’s probably just as likely to be a famous artist as it is to be a pro sports athlete. They’re probably both as rare, but I’m sure athletes make more money.
Anke: And also probably they wouldn’t say “yes, I do sports for my recreation.”
Lauren: I would do art for my recreation. Right now I don’t think I would do social practice art for my recreation. My recreational art is making things out of clay.
Anke: Oh, yeah. Me, too. Thanks for reminding me!
Lauren: Forms of art I find relaxing are not the kind that I do for my work lately. It’s a little too much like a real job now. I actually started off this year thinking about this topic, maybe recreation or our discussion last year about what you would do for fun and how you could make it into a project? When I did the karaoke project here, or a walk in the woods, various things, sometimes it started to feel like work and I’ve been contemplating that. It was fun, it just felt like the expectations were different … And also I wasn’t consuming it. I was creating the experience, which is a lot more work.
Lauren: Anyway, exercise and sports is something I was always an observer of and that continued with our project. We were looking at it through this conceptual lens.
Anke: I really liked how this serendipitously came together, being offered the residency at the Rec Center. We went to have a look at what we could do there and while walking around you pointed out how this looks like a museum building-
Lauren: Right, it felt like a museum tour.
Anke: Yeah. I really liked that and ever since you said that I thought “for sure, there are so many aspects to that building that have a similarity to a museum.”
Anke: The concrete walls and all the coloring.
Lauren: I wonder if a sports person would go to an art museum and be like ‘oh, you could really play basketball in here.’
Anke: That’s such a funny idea, yeah.
Lauren: It’s interesting to come at non art things from that lens of everything is you know-
Anke: An art space.
Anke: I definitely have that lens a lot and I really love that.
Lauren: Me, too. So that’s how it started. We took the tour and we were like “Oh yeah, this is like a museum tour. What if we make it into a museum?” And then we-
Anke: Slowly took it over.
Lauren: Slowly developed these personas, right?
Anke: Yes, thinking about our role and deciding that we were both co-directors and co-curators for the museum. And when I started having that as my signature in my email people from Germany were like “What? You’re a director of a museum now? That’s so cool.’ I really love how that took this extra turn that I didn’t expect at all.
Lauren: I remember Harrell even saying, “you know, PSU doesn’t have a museum yet. Now it’s getting one, I guess.”
Lauren: So we were really asking what do we do as museum directors and curators … in this museum that we just decided was a museum?
Anke: Yeah, and finding all the artists was fun, thinking about the artists we know that work in that intersection between art and sports. It’s exciting how many things we found and so many different, very diverse works.
Lauren: Right, at first we thought these topics don’t have a lot of overlap, but then we found so many overlaps.
Anke: I really enjoyed when we were taking care of where the art would be, relating the art to the space. That’s a thing that you can’t do in a museum because the museum is just empty and without any personality before you put the art in, and I think that made this project so strong for me.
Lauren: Yeah, yeah.
Anke: Like putting the work that Adam Carlin did about lifting heavy things into the weight lifting room or –
Lauren: The videos with the ping pong balls with the ping pong table. That’s a good point. If it was just a regular museum we wouldn’t be able to make those connections at all.
Anke: And then some people got really into it even though they’re maybe usually not into art or wouldn’t go to a museum, but suddenly they got really excited about the work being at the rec center.
Lauren: I think that happened a lot. With the art and the context, I think it worked both ways. Sometimes we asked:’What can we fit into the space?’ and then sometimes we would find the artist and decide:’ this art would fit perfectly here’.
I think about how combining the two things or maybe inserting the art and deciding it was a museum in a non art space, when we gave the tour it just had this amazing sense of magical realism, you know? That was really special. I always try to seek that out in projects and that was one of the times I feel like it was really successful. Especially with the water dancers in the pool…
Anke: Or the runners…
Lauren: Yeah, with the treadmill pieces.
Anke: Yeah, the treadmill pieces were amazing.
Lauren: And just everyone being active in the space, doing their thing at the gym.
Anke: Activating it so nicely without the intention of activating it. That was very magical.
Lauren: There was definitely just a magic to that that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I feel like I learned a lot from.
Anke: I guess it goes both ways, right? Because it’s an already active space, the running would happen with or without the art, but it’s funny when then you have someone coming in for the art and wanting to look at the art, and they obviously also have to look at the runner in front of the art. Suddenly you end up with this combination of something that’s intended to be art and something that’s just an everyday life activity but in that context you cannot separate it from the rest. You cannot not see the runner in front of the art.
Lauren: So it just becomes all part of the experience.
Anke: It’s sort of like we were seeking out the side noise, which in more traditional art is usually excluded, right?
Lauren: That’s interesting because if all the stuff had just been in a blank space it would have been way less interesting. It needed the people around it to be fully experienced really. It just needed the place itself.
Lauren: This is a different topic, but something that I really liked about the project that I’ve thought about ever since is how we worked with really famous artists who are internationally recognized, like Hank Willis Thomas for example, and actually, officially got permission from him to recreate that exhibition. But then we also worked with local artists. We worked with students at PSU. We worked with people that we met in the Rec Center that happened to have some sort of connection to art or wanted to try something out. Like Konani with her body drawings. She just wanted to try that and we made it happen. We had this complete collapsing of art world hierarchies where we were mixing all these things together, which is something I always try to think about, too: collapsing the hierarchies or questioning hierarchies of cultural capital. Also the people looking at the art in the Rec Center who are there maybe they know about art, but maybe they saw it all as the same. Probably not that many people knew who Hank Willis Thomas was. That’s more of an art world context and in the Rec Center the artists were on a whole different playing field with a different audience. I appreciated that combination of a range of different artists being put on the same level.
Anke: Which probably not all artists would like or agree with, but I can relate to that idea and have been experimenting with that a lot in more recent projects, too. It wasn’t something that I was thinking about in that moment as much, but now that you point that out it becomes very clear to me that that’s maybe the first project where that just happened.
Lauren: Yeah, same. I don’t think we were doing it intentionally at the time. I think we were just trying to find whoever we could in all different capacities that was related to sports. Also wanting to work with the people in the space as part of the residency. It kind of just came all together naturally, which is cool.
Anke: Totally. Do you want to talk about how this project influenced you?
Lauren: I think it was one of the first times I had to pitch art to a non art institution and audience. Which is something I’ve engaged in since then and it’s always an interesting challenge to convey a conceptual art idea or to make sure it works on all the different entry points, of how people can access it. You can be an art person and appreciate it and you can not know anything about art and appreciate it. Navigating those conversations with all the people we worked with at the Rec Center, convincing them of certain things that maybe they didn’t fully understand or us just not thinking of things that were important to them in those negotiations was educational. When we had the Museum logo and they wanted to put the PSU logo on it and we had to say no. Or when we wanted to put all this controversial art in the lockers and they said ‘well, you know, you really gotta think about people just opening their locker and wanting to have a recreation moment and then maybe they don’t want to see really shocking art about racism’, which is fair.
Anke: Yeah, that was one of the first projects that we did while being in the program and you saying that makes me realize how much more I’ve been thinking about interaction with the people that I’m working with or working for in my projects since. I think we had a long phase of being on the nerves and frustrated, wondering how we could navigate the situation working with all these people or make everyone happy. We were less attuned to talk to a person and listen to what they want. Also somehow there was this clash between us being artists and them coming from the sports side and a funny misunderstanding about aesthetics. Having very, very different aesthetics often was problematic. We wanted things to look contemporary.
Lauren: We didn’t want it to look like an advertisement for the Rec Center. Even if there was a lot of crossover, I think we were still having different intentions within our institutions. Not in a bad way, just coming from different worlds.
Anke: We had another magical moment when we were doing this participatory piece where we were asking people to write notes about crying in sports and so many people were excited and responded to the prompt.
Lauren: Oh yeah, that was amazing.
Anke: Which seems so unusual, and made us realize: ‘Something that really works here are participatory projects.’
Lauren: There was always the question: ‘is it gonna work?’ The crying in sports project got us started. It was a very encouraging start because we got so many good submissions.
Lauren: What influenced you about the project?
Anke: I feel like I’ve done other projects a little bit like this before where I would be in a non art space, inserting art that’s related to the space. But I think it was the first project where that was really clear and really intentional. We’ve talked about this in the beginning. That was one of the parts that I enjoyed a lot and have been thinking more about since, it has been one of the main aspects of that project that worked well for me. And the activation part is interesting to me. I like that we had scores for people to activate and it really depends on the space whether you can do something like that or not.
Lauren: I liked the project when we asked people what reminded them of art. You could do that anywhere and it’d be great.
Anke: Yeah. It’s funny because it’s very related to us noticing that this space reminds us of a container for art.
Lauren: Right and actually it’s interesting because that was the last project we did so we really brought it back around.
Anke: Oh, I never thought about it that way.
Lauren: I didn’t either.
Anke: That’s a cool thought. Going for a loop.
Maria del Carmen Montoya is an exuberant, warm and concise artist whose desire to create meaningful connections with people is contagious. I was lucky enough to talk with her about her creative passions and to learn what motivates her work as a collaborator in Ghana Think Tank and educator at George Washington University Corcoran School of Art and Design.
Within the world of Social Practice, Ghana Think Tank is a renowned international collective that flips the script on traditional international development by setting up think tanks in “third world” countries and asking them to solve the problems of people living in the “first world.” Carmen joined Ghana Think Tank founders Christopher Robbins and John Ewing in 2009 and since then they have founded think tanks all over the globe and at home in the US, always challenging the common assumptions of who is in need and inverting the typical hierarchy of expertise. For example, in the Mexican Border Project, Ghana Think Tank collected problems on the theme of immigration from civilian “Minutemen” and “Patriot” groups and brought them to be solved by undocumented workers in San Diego and recently deported immigrants in Tijuana. When Ghana Think Tank looks to undocumented workers, deported immigrants, Moroccans or Iranians for solutions, they elevate their knowledge, a wisdom often dismissed by systems of power in the name of “progress”. Ghana Think Tank’s act of listening is radical, deeply affecting both the interviewee and those who are seeking solutions to their problems.
At the start of our interview Carmen told me about a very important aspect of her identity: where she is “from.” Having grown up on the northern outskirts of Houston, TX in a neighborhood she called the barrio, gave her rich and complicated experiences of both belonging and exclusion, often being seen as the indigent other. She draws upon these experiences when doing her work. She has returned to Houston, a number of times creating work there with Ghana Think Tank.
Currently, Carmen loves living in Washington, DC, a city that is “ostensibly, the seat of political power in United States.” Here she holds a post as Assistant Professor in Sculpture and Spatial Practices at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of Art and Design. Carmen is married to a supportive artist and has two young children who can often be seen helping with her art projects.
TK: I would love for you to begin by talking a little bit about what you mean when you say that you are “interested in the communal process of meaning making?”
CM: Yeah. It’s kinda meta right? As far back as I can remember in my life, my experiences have felt most real when they have been shared with other people. For me, participation is critical to understanding the world I live in. I learn by doing. But I’m not naive about this idea of participation, especially in the context of socially engaged art. We’re all at different places in our lives. Sometimes we can’t come to the same place, emotionally, physically, conceptually for so many reasons like our access to resources, our age, our daily routines. I believe artists must work to create opportunities for people to be present and to bear witness even when participation is not an option. Sharing an experience makes it possible to refer to it with other people. If you did it alone, then you have yourself. But if you did it together, there are all these other eyes and minds on this thing that happened. When we share a moment, whether as participants or as witnesses, we can try to understand it together. For me it is the most honest and effective way to know things. This shared knowing sets the stage for collective action.
TK: Yes. That resonates deeply with me. And given this experience it makes sense that your work is based in conversation with individuals and groups. Can you share with me a particular conversation in your life that was catalytic for you?
CM: Oh yes. So we [Ghana Think Tank] were working in Corona, Queens as part of the Open Door Commission at the Queens Museum. John [Ewing] and I had gone to a community teach-in for young men about how to act when approached by police on the street. Police harassment of young Black and Latino males in Corona continues to be a huge problem. We were still in the research phase of the project and we wanted to learn about how community members were coming together to help each other address this issue. The room was full, interestingly enough, of grandmothers. John and I didn’t look like anybody else in that room. We were definitely the outsiders, a position we often find ourselves in when implementing the Ghana ThinkTank process.
After the presentation one of the women, came up to me and she introduced herself. She was very proper and well spoken and she said, “Good evening, my name is Violet. I’m an octogenarian. Do you know what that is?” I thought to myself (Thank god I know what that is!) I said, “Yes, Are you 80? Or 81? Or 84?” She smiled and she said, “What are you doing here?” It was such an open, honest, but pretty aggressive question. And she was looking at me; usually people look at John but she was interested in what I was doing there. I responded, “Well, I’m an artist and I’m here to listen and to learn about the concerns of your community.”
And she said, “Oh, an artist! So are you a painter?” And I said, “No”. And then she said, “Oh then you draw really well?” And I said, “Well, not really, I mean I draw ok but not great.” That seemed to peak her interest. “So what kind of an artist are you?, “ she asked. It was such an intense, existential question to have in that very moment. I don’t know where it came from – but I said, “Well, think about what a painter is doing when they render a landscape, it’s never exactly like the thing that’s out there in the world. The artist is asking you to look at the fields, the sky, the horizon in another way. And, that’s what I’m asking you to do, only we’re talking about people and relationships.”
She took a moment to think and she said, “Oh! Well, then I see you are an artist.” I felt so entirely validated in that moment. This brilliant, engaged woman understood the value of work like this and that it is art. I am so grateful to Violet for asking her questions in an such an exacting way. She wasn’t trying to make me feel good or give me an opportunity, she wanted to know for herself what on Earth I was doing there. That exchange gave me the understanding and language to express what I’m doing in a way that nobody had ever done before.
TK : You mentioned your work in Queens, but you also have spent a lot of time in conversations with your think tank teams in so called “developing” or “third world” countries. Can you share an example from a specific team that you have worked with closely?
CM: Sure, in 2013 the US State Department and the Bronx Museum selected Ghana Think Tank to do work as cultural ambassadors in Morocco. The idea was to activate a full range of diplomatic tools, in this case the visual arts. American artists were sent abroad to collaborate with local artists on a variety of community based projects in hopes of fostering greater intercultural understanding.
We arrived in a small Moroccan village, just about 45 minutes outside of Marrakech. And there we were working with the really lovely folks, at Dar al-Ma’mûn, an international residency that focuses on artists and literary translators. They have one of the most active translation centers in all of that region focusing on French, English, Arabic, and Spanish. And they connected us with a group of artists and teachers that were working in the area. This group melded magically.
As part of the project we transformed a donkey cart into a solar powered mobile tea lounge. We used to travel around the more rural areas asking Moroccans for help.
One of the problems that we brought with us to Morocco was that even in cities people find ways to isolate themselves from each other, the doors of home are hidden by shrubbery, they tend to face away from the street if possible. The Moroccans were really interested in this issue of social isolation. They said, your culture is totally obsessed with single family homes and maybe it’s really your architecture that’s your problem. You should have architecture that’s more like ours. In the Moroccan riad doors all face a shared central courtyard and you can’t help but see each other when coming and going.
This suggestion became one of our most ambitious and far reaching projects ever, The American Riad. We’ve teamed up with Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, the North End Woodward Community Organization, Central Detroit Christian CDC, and Affirming Love Ministries Church, to build a Moroccan style riad in the North end of Detroit. This art and architecture collaboration will transform abandoned buildings and empty lots into affordable housing around a shared courtyard filled with edible gardens. The site will be deeded as a land trust and an equity coop to ensure that the homes remain affordable in perpetuity. One of our main goals is to create an art based model for introducing art into a community while simultaneously resisting gentrification. As you can imagine taking on this complex solution really intensified our relationship with the Moroccan Think Tank.
TK: How does this team and other people you know in that region of the world perceive and understand Ghana Think Tank’s work?
The Moroccan Think Tank was really interested in why outsiders were there, in their rural communities, asking for assistance. Some found the process novel and an opportunity to take a stab at American culture, most were truly interested in trying to help. They also found it very interesting to consider the heterogeneity of the United States.
For example, during another session in the mobile tea lounge, we found ourselves once again analysing this problem of social isolation. One woman brought forward a beautiful quote that said that a neighbor is your responsibility and that includes anyone living up to 40 doors in any direction. Many people that day suggested we look to the Qur’an and the Hadiths to find our answers. This project was the first time that we had been able to discuss the solutions with a think tank face to face in real time and ask immediate follow up questions, “How can we bring the Qur’an as a recommendation to people living in America?” I asked. “ People follow so many faiths and belief systems it will be difficult for them to accept.” To which she replied aggressively, “You, in America, don’t even know our book. Americans don’t read the Qur’an, they burn it!” The conversation suddenly became very intense with people yelling angrily in many languages. I remember Sarah, my translator, putting her arm across me and yelling, “Don’t blame her, she’s not even really American, she’s Mexican.” Some people seemed confused. “No, no, I am American, well, sort of, Mexican-American. It’s complicated.” I interjected. Abid, the donkey cart driver, whistled loudly and we all quieted down. Then the woman asked me if I had ever read the Qur’an. “No,” I admitted. This was a real wake up moment for me because I had studied philosophy and theology as an undergraduate and had read many cultures’ holy books. “Well, why don’t you start there,” said the woman. What a beautiful, gentle and potentially enlightening intervention. This solution resulted in a series of Qur’an readings all over the country in libraries, schools, and homes (starting with my own) and on one windy roof-top at Portland State University as part of Open Engagement 2013.
Another exchange that might help answer this question took place in a rural olive grove on a warm afternoon. The project was being funded in part by the US State Department and there was significant oversight by that office. Several of the problems that we proposed taking to Morocco were considered “inappropriate,” problems like childhood obesity, lack of political freedom in the US and PowerPoint as a brain-numbing presentation tool. The reasons varied with the most common being that “The Moroccans just won’t understand. They don’t have the context for this.” This type of paternalism is a big part of what Ghana ThinkTank is responding to and we were determined to bring the problems that Americans had submitted– all of them.
We often try to work with groups that already have a relationship with each other because it tends to create a comfortable scene and fuels conversation. That afternoon we had been invited to meet with a philosophy study group. As we sat among the trees, the participants slowly passed the problems around the circle, really pondering the issues. After some time one young man stood up and said, “I see! For Sartre, the other is hell but for Ghana ThinkTank, the other is the solution!” What a moment! This was the most succinct and accurate statement ever made about our project.
TK: Your Mexican Border Project differed from many other Ghana Think Tank projects because many of the people you were working with were in precarious legal situations and much of the work had to remain anonymous. One aspect of this project included collaborating with Torolab, and award-winning Mexican art and design group to “create a border cart designed to help people cross the US/Mexican border. Outfitted with interactive screens, the cart allowed people to present problems and give solutions pertaining to immigration and the border, creating a public think tank about the border, at the border.”
What surprised you most about working on the Mexican Border Project?
CM: It was so surprising. It was really, really surprising what happened when we went to the border. We were on the Mexican side of the border and we wanted to cross with the cart into the US, so we were traveling against the power dynamic. We had worked on the border cart for months and not just us, all the wonderful people at La Granja, Torolab’s community base. Through all this work, the object had become quite precious. All the times I’ve crossed into Mexico, it’s no big deal. The lines are short and move fast. But getting in to the US is a lot harder. We were concerned that the cart would get confiscated and we wouldn’t be able to complete the think tank session. Add to that that every single time I cross into the US from Mexico, I am “randomly selected for additional screening,” every single time. What if they confiscate the cart? What if one of us, probably me because I’m the Chicana, gets arrested? We made copies of passports, had important numbers set in our phones. We had this idea in our minds that the border patrol were going to make things really hard for us.
So there we are with the cart and we’re pushing it along the pedestrian lane. It’s brightly colored and we’re talking to people, inviting them to sit and chat, to have a drink– creating quite a ruckus. Of course the Border Patrol stop us and ask us what we are doing. They are armed, in riot gear, because I guess that is what they wear all the time now and not smiling. I took the most honest route I could and I just said, “Well, we’re here on the border, we’re artists, we’re trying to open a critical dialogic space about immigration. And we want it to be in conversation with the people who are living their daily lives on either side of these issues. And so we thought the best place to do that would be here on the border itself.”
It was amazing. The Border Patrol guys looked at each other and they were like, “Wow, yeah. We really need that. We REALLY need that. Nobody is asking us about that.” One guy got on his walkie-talkie and called up ahead to ask for help. “Where do you want the cart?” he asked me. “Uhmm.. up there?” I said. Just then two other border patrol showed up and the four of them hoisted the cart up and over the barrier and we were on our way. It was AWESOME. I was completely set to be detained, to have my passport confiscated, to have the cart impounded and to have to call my husband from a border town jail. None of that happened. All we did was talk to real people in real language. For me, it was one of the most enlightening moments of this project and there have been many.
TK: Did, that cause any shift in the project? Was there any action that changed because of that experience?
CM: I don’t think it shifted the project at all because we were set to do this one way or another. Our plan was the same as always– be respectful, try really hard and deal with the consequences of whatever happens. What I do think it did in that moment, when people saw the border patrol agents carrying the cart, is that it lifted some of the fear of interacting with us. I think on some level it might have even given us a little bit of legitimacy. A lot of people were really suspicious. It’s a scary topic, immigration and one’s status.
TK: Based on your diverse experiences, what advice you would give to young social practice artists?
CM: Pose your own questions. There is something very different at stake for participants, for community liaisons, for institutions, and for the artist. And I think it’s really important to do as much as you can to bring those concerns into conversation with each other. I always try to be honest about what is at stake for me personally in any project. So when we worked on the issue of climate change, when we worked with the immigration conundrum on the border, when we addressed police abuse of power in NYC, I look for my own story in that. And I am prepared to be the first to share. What is at stake for a participant is real. What is at stake for you is real. What’s at stake for the institution is real. It is essential that everyone is bringing what’s at stake for them to the table in an open, honest way.
The other thing is that I think it is important to create more space than you take up. As socially engaged practitioners, working in communities, we are taking up space. People have things to do and they are taking time out of their lives to speak to us, to participate, to contribute to our projects, they help us build them, to implement them. And so it is important to not be in denial about that, about the space that we’re taking up in people’s lives. I think one of the ways that we create space is when we pass the mic. By that I mean when we create a context for people to talk about what’s really important to them. This is what allows the work to become their work too.
A Conversational Interview with Jennelyn Tumalad, current Project Coordinator of Education at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, CA.
You focused your Master’s thesis at Pratt Institute on “Socially Engaged Art and Educators in the Museum” and have worked within many institutions, specifically within the educational programming and public programs departments. How have museums and institutions perceived your “socially engaged art practices”, specially related to your different projects like “College Night” at the Getty and others?
Socially engaged practices to me, are practices in which programmers/educators/artists are responsive to the needs of a community and work with them to create resources, programs, experiences, and opportunities they feel they most need. This is not unlike museum programming, especially for education departments. Museums identify as public educational institutions that serve their community. I started creating parallels between the two practices–museum education and socially engaged art–while I was working as an educator in museums in NYC and studying art history, focusing on contemporary art movements such as activist art, art and social practice, and socially engaged art). I chose this due to seeing a lot of parallels with the work that I was doing as a freelance educator.
As far as how museums have perceived my socially engaged art practices… I think it’s important to acknowledge the difference between supporting change and radical ideas, and actually committing to the time, energy, persistence, and self-work that actually goes into making long-term systemic change.
I think the most directly related project I’ve developed in hopes to really trying to incorporate socially engaged practices into museum programming is one that I’m about to implement this January. When I say “socially engaged practices,” I’m referring to ways in which socially engaged artists involve the communities they work with. My program structure uses “YPAR” Youth-led participatory action research. In the original curriculum that I developed, the participating youth in this program are active agents in identifying problems within their community and coming to answers they felt would help “solve” these issues. I pitched this program and had incredibly positive feedback about it being “youth-led” and that students would feel empowered and become active agents in this program, but ultimately the core of this program ended up changing a lot from original inception of the idea to actual implementation.
How do you see socially engaged art functioning within an institution?
It’s hard, you know, because museums exist within the art world, which in and of itself likes to exist outside of the real world, but ultimately the art world is within the real world, which has its own systemic injustices. I think what is really dark about the art world is that it likes to portray that it’s different. And it’s not. And I think that’s one thing it needs to own up to and stop performing. Many art spaces profit on being viewed as an activist and progressive space, but the reality is that many institutions are ultimately funded by the 1%. That’s something that I’ve had to come to terms with when working within museum spaces.
The goals that museum educators have are a lot of the same goals that socially engaged artists have. Pablo Helguera’s piece, Librería Donceles, was a travelling spanish-language bookstore and community space that hosted programming that was responsive to the spanish speaking community of each city it occupied; a project like this is exactly what museum education and public programming seeks to accomplish. It creates and strengthens the local community, it connects people closer to art and ideas, it develops empathy and critical thinking about the world around you. It is not surprising that Pablo Helguera is both a socially engaged artist and the Director of Adult and Academic Programs at the Museum of Modern Art.
Another example of the blurry line between artist and educator is a teacher’s resource guide from the Guggenheim’s education department for their exhibition, “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today” that helps teachers and visitors with different ways of navigating the gallery space. It was entirely comprised of conceptual art and felt like an instructional fluxus piece. I said to myself, “this is literally art. What is the difference here?”
While attending the NAEA conference a few years ago, I attended an a presentation from an art education PhD candidate on the topic of how K-12 art educators can lose their identity of being an artist once they start teaching. It made me realize that many art educators have such a traditional view of what art is. And it’s really not in line with where art history is in the moment at all. It’s very confusing. It made me think, “So we expect everyone who teaches foundational k-12 art education to have a really traditional viewpoint of what art is, such as drawing a still life, one point perspective, or essentially that art is how accurately you can draw something, or even that art can only be an object. And drawing it accurately…”
What you are saying makes total sense.
And yet everyone who teaches at the college level are all practicing artists. They all know art history in its entire scope. This guy was talking about his research to a bunch of very traditional K-12 art educators. He said that art educators normally define artists as those producing artwork and showing at a gallery. They see art as only making a product. He asserts that art educators would continue to identify as artists if they start to expand their viewpoint of what art is, which has been something that’s been happening, since the 60s or earlier (remember anti-art and Dada?). And everyone’s mind was blown: “wait what, art and social practice?”
Ultimately, socially engaged artists and educators within institutions can learn a lot from each other. Educators can become inspired to think more about their practice in a creative way and allow themselves to see that the work that they do is artistic in itself when approached with purpose and creativity. But, socially engaged artists can strongly benefit from some of the very practical methods educators implement in their discipline: things like measuring impact, applying standards to their work, and developing pedagogical strategy.
Continuing with the perception of institutions on socially engaged art… How have any of your socially engaged art practices within institutions changed their perception in a new way?
I think it’s important to think about who is making up an institutions’ perception. If it’s the people funding the museum or the higher powers of the institution, I wish I knew! I’m still quite young in my career, and have only been able to “sit at the table” with director’s and decision makers a handful of times. I think it goes back to being patient for change and back to the ideas I mentioned before that long-term systemic change takes time. So it’s important to see small wins and remember that those small shifts can build up to create the change you want to see.
For example, the longest I’ve worked on administrative staff at a museum was at the J. Paul Getty Museum for 2 years in varying capacities (moving from Graduate Intern to a Program Coordinator in those two years, always focusing on college audiences and public artist programs). I worked tirelessly to incorporate a College Advisory Board to help plan their annual college night. In this board, I involved as diverse a range of students that my one man operation could recruit. I built out a program where we met weekly to discuss and think critically about what College Night meant to them and their community and how we could make it a program that truly represented the diversity of interests, needs, and work happening in college audiences in LA County. This involvement and collaboration caused the attendance to skyrocket compared to the previous year: the number of participants rose from 1600 to 2600 in attendance. It was as simple as involving the community, valuing their perspective, and nurturing the relationship so that they all felt a stake and desire to see this event be successful. From that experience, the College Advisory Board’s involvement continued, it allowed for the museum to provide travel stipends for future College Advisory Board members, and increased the event’s program budget for the next fiscal year.
Again, museums are really quick to say, “Yes! Let’s do it,” when they hear about programs and initiatives that mention social justice, equity, or incorporate any of the strategies that are informed by socially engaged art. They want to quickly flip a switch to say, “yeah, we are equitable, we serve the local community, and we are diverse.” To get to this point, it takes real patience and systemic change, and having every single stakeholder that’s a part of the program actually being committed to the work of making that change.
Conversational Interview with Dr. Laura Burney Nissen, Dean of the School of Social Work at Portland State University and Professor
Definition of Social Work (from Google): Social work is an academic discipline and profession that concerns itself with individuals, families, groups and communities in an effort to enhance social functioning and overall well-being.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how this plays into your current perception?
I studied art as an undergrad and was raised by artist parents, and then later, “switched” to social work out of a deep desire to make the world a better place. I never stopped having my own art practice though…it has been a cornerstone of my life. Somewhere along the line, we bought into this false choice that we had to choose “you have to be an artist” or “you’re a social worker” and that’s an unacceptable choice. I reject that choice. But, now I’m 56. I wish I would’ve rejected it sooner. The last couple years, I’ve been exploring the intersection of the arts and social change, and community wellbeing and individual well being.
Last year, the Social Practice Program started to attract me for lots of reasons. The future of social work and the future of most professions is interdisciplinary work. No one group has the answer and the answer to many of the challenges we are facing are the spaces in between our profession lenses, the ways of thinking, and our community partners.
I’ve heard that the School of Social Work has collaborated a few times with the Social Practice Program.
So, last year, I invited the Art & Social Practice students over to the School of Social Work just to have dinner with some Social Work students who were also very intrigued by this. And we just talked and nothing really came of it per say beyond a deep desire to “do more” and get to know each other better. But we are going to do another one this year. One thing the students said last year was, “let’s do it again, and next year, let’s talk about how would we both tackle a social problem, like, let’s say… homelessness.” So how would Social Workers approach that? But how would artists approach that? And is there more that we can learn from each other about how to be more creative and effective through learning from each other.
To get two different disciplines to think about the same idea or project…
Right. And I have loved being a social worker. I’ve had incredible experiences and it has been deeply professionally rewarding. I don’t have any regrets. And all of the things I am grateful for, I am grateful for my art background as I’ve been a social worker. I actually think my art background did more to prepare me for the kind of problem solving I do in social work.
That’s inspiring to hear as creativity is something often undervalued. But, to me, the most intelligent people are often the most creative.
Yes, I totally agree. And I valued the Social Work education, but I’m glad it came after my training as an artist. Because I approach everything with an unlimited amount of problem solving energy. Too many people look at a problem and think “there’s 3 ways to solve this.” No there’s really not. There’s really an unlimited number ways to solve an issue, but we’re just not always using them.
So with your experience in the School of Social Work… what is yours and the school’s perception of the Art & Social Practice program?
Last year I was able to get an article published about art and Social Work together. I was waiting to write that academic article for 20 years and I finally did it. When we started our 2018-2019 academic year, we had a big event to welcome the MSW students. I mentioned that this is a big passion of mine (art and social change) and I’m doing a lot of thinking work about bridge-building between these two areas. I really am a bridge between two areas because I understand both languages. I developed a shortlist of several students that were also interested in this, who were also artists… musicians or visual artists or actors. There’s always intensely creative souls that become social workers. So I didn’t have to do much convincing with these people.
The bigger challenge is, and what I have to figure out now is this something that every Social Worker can benefit from? And yeah, I think there is. I think people who don’t see the connection is my next big challenge. Because I think a lot of people look at it and think, aw, that’s cute. They don’t take it very seriously.
I can tell you that I don’t know a joint degree program anywhere in the country that you can get an MFA and an MSW together. But, you can get an MSW and a law degree. You can get an MSW and a Public Health degree… and several others. (Art and Social Work) is not a combination that is well understood or well recognized. But, maybe someday we’ll find a way to do that here at PSU.
I’d be very interested to see what a someone would do with both a Social Work degree and an Art degree. To me, those are two very powerful people and a powerful combo.
What do you think are the parallels between the two?
Social work definitely is a profession, but it’s also a passion. Nobody is in Social Work because they go into it for purely intellectual reasons. Social Work is a passion. People are passionate about wellbeing. They’re passionate about injustice. They’re passionate about healing and advocacy and problem solving. Artists are similar. Art is a profession; you have professional artists. Art is not just a profession, it is also a passion. People who are artists are also interested in a different lens. I don’t want to say all artists are interested in social justice and wellbeing, but I think all artists are interested in problem solving and communication, and many artists are interested in a lot of the same things as Social Workers: they’re interested in the meaning of life, what creativity contributes to the human experience. Both disciplines seek for their work to mean something and both professions are very creative.
Because so much of Social Work is done within bureaucracies and within rigid cannons of theory about theory, sometimes Social Work can be uncreative. It can suffer from a lot of bureaucracy and I have some deep disappointments about that – that is how social workers burn out. I don’t know much about how artists can get burned out – but I know they do too. Through my own process making art, I know that you can have ups and downs. You’re not highly successful all the time. But I don’t think both groups get burned out in the same way – maybe there is something we can learn from each other about burnout and renewal as well.
I don’t have all the answers. Right? Where exactly is the bridge? One thing in my heart that I feel deeply about is that creativity is really good for people and really healthy. Where art is thriving in communities–those are little pockets of wellbeing. And Social Workers really care about how to help individuals, families, and communities to be well. As I’m looking over a person’s life, a community’s life, as much as I’m checking on poverty, illness, and mental health, I should also be checking on the presence of art or creativity in these spaces and asking if it is possible that those things can help. I deeply believe they could and there’s increasingly sound research supporting that these are really powerful sources of healing energy.
We need more bridges.
More bridges and less walls.
Any last thoughts on the Art & Social practice program?
I have a deep respect for the arts and a deep respect for artists. I think the people that are doing the Art & Social Practice program are amazing and committed. I think this is one of the cutting edge areas. This is very much about the future. This program is visionary and exciting and has so much to offer the world. I’m really excited about it and I celebrate it, but most of all I respect it. I don’t think it’s fluffy. I don’t think it’s easy. I think it’s hard work. Hard intellectual work. Hard community work. I just have a deep respect for it. I’m glad it’s there.
My speciality is addiction, so I know how mental health and addictive health works. I am committed to finding new kinds of solutions and building more opportunities for systems to reflect what works. I’d love to see art become more a part of that. In many of the spaces I occupy, I don’t think the arts get adequate respect for the kind of problem solving that we engage in on that front. All of this work I want to do I do because I respect it, and I respect the people who are doing it.
I have a friend who is working through the questions “Is all social work art? And are all Social Workers artists?” Well, I don’t think they are. I don’t actually. I think artists are artists and social workers are social workers. Like, I happen to be both. And you are both. But, if you are both, you have to really dedicate yourself to both. Art is not easy. It takes courage and dedication.
Laura is going to be spending her upcoming sabbatical exploring and studying the intersection of art and social change in New York, Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and Portland.
An Interview With a Dog About Art
Towards the end of December, 2018, we set up a unconventional sort of interview to further expand the lines of inquiry towards the perception of art. We contacted Dr. Deborah Erickson, a parapsychologist and animal communicator, to conduct an interview with Matoska, the companion of Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., a member of the PSU Art and Social Practice Program. We asked a series of questions to Matoska, through the facilitation of Deborah, to try and learn what are Matoska’s perceptions of art, whether they consider themselves an artist, and where they draw inspiration in the world.
Deborah: Just to frame this session for you, I’m sitting in my meditation room with a blackout mask over my eyes. I’ve spent about the last 20 minutes or so in conscious breathing, yoga breathing, visualizations, getting myself cleared of negative energy, negative entities, and asking for help from the perfect powerful Source, the Diva of animal communication, and from Matoska’s angels and archangels, to help me get clear messages from her.
Deborah: Okay. Can you see her? Sometimes you’ll see a physical reaction when I connect to animals in their heads. Not always, but sometimes. I’ve talked to a friend’s cats who said her cats were stomping around the house trying to figure out where I was.
Deborah: So, who’s asking questions? I’d like to take ’em just one or two at a time.
Michael: Sure. I’ll go one at a time, ’cause that makes sense.
Deborah: Okay. Let’s get started. What’s your first question for her?
Michael: The first question is, “What kind of art do you like?”
Deborah: Okay. Hold on just a sec. She’s been waiting for me, by the way. Hold on.
Deborah: So, in one of the photographs sent, Michael, her front feet were crossed. Was it posed or did she do that?
Michael: That was Matoska in her finest.
Deborah: Exactly, ’cause that’s the picture I just got when I connected with her. Very regal. Very smart. And so I introduce myself and I say, “Michael asked me to talk with you. Is that okay with you?”
Deborah: And she says, “Of course. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Deborah: For the question, “What kind of art do you like”. She kind of looked around and thought, she finally said, “Well, nature is art.” To her, the outside is art to her. And I said, “Well, okay. Do you like sculpture?” Has she ever seen sculpture? I don’t think she really understood what I meant by that. So, I think if anything, her “favorite art” would be natural things portrayed on canvas or a picture or something like that. I mean, she kind of didn’t know how to answer that question, I don’t think. And from her perspective, nature is art.
Michael: So, the question is, “Do you like social practice art?”
Deborah: How has she been exposed to this? Would she know what that means?
Michael: Well, I guess you can convey, which more questions will come up about it. She attends class with me, so for all intents and purposes, my understanding is Matoska’s also pursuing her Master of Fine Art in art and social practice. She’s never missed a class. Then often when I’m practicing, the photo of her in front of that cart, is activated by young people serving food out of it and she has been present for both iterations of that, among other interviews or meetings or engagements that are part of my practice, or others’ practices.
Deborah: Good. That helps. Hold on.
Deborah: Well, she wants to be one of the participants, one of the collaborators. She goes to class with you, but she says she just sits on the side and watches. So, she feels like she’s been sort of shuttled to the side of participating in these exchanges and she doesn’t get to play. Is she normally included or excluded from these collaborative efforts?
Michael: That’s a really great question. She, in class, definitely is kind of more just present. Sometimes she’s kind of bouncing around doing her own thing, but mostly is just relaxed. I have brought her to some of my projects, and again, she’s more present. It’s more of like a social experience for her but non-collaborative creative.
Although this article, originally, the thought was maybe interviewing the dogs who belong or are in partnership with the director of our program. But they just stay at home. Matoska’s much more present in the culture and within that, I have been thinking about collaborating with Matoska, to kind of help develop their practice in their own right.That is kind of oncoming or has slowly begun, and this interview and article is kind of part of that, kind of validating their interests as an individual. So, it’s good to know that they enjoy nature. So far we’ve done some feather collecting together. But I’m looking forward to more, for sure.
Deborah: Good. So, yeah, she wants to be engaged in these events as well. Okay, next question.
Michael: Do you consider yourself an artist, and if so, what sort of work do you want to make?
Deborah: Yeah. Hold on.
Deborah: Well, when I asked her that, I didn’t really get an answer for a while. She’s thinking about it too, and the image I got was like her splashing through a puddle. So, maybe getting her feet wet would enable her to create something. And then I got image of her walking through wet sand. Things that would imprint her footprints, that kind of thing. I sent her a picture of … You know, these elephants or animals that hold a paintbrush in their mouth?
Deborah: And put color on a canvas, and she seemed intrigued but not that interested. It was like the kind of answer, you know, it was sort of a reaction of, “Really?” That was kind of farther than she could think, I think.
Michael: Yeah. The next question is, “What are your major influences as an artist?”
Deborah: So the question is what has influenced her?
Michael: Yeah. “What are your major influences as an artist?” Should be interpreted by however she sees it.
Deborah: Okay. Hold on.
Deborah: Well, she said, “Michael … ” You, of course, as a guardian, she said, “I learn something every class,” that she has with you. Then just engaging with your friends.
Michael: Right. Well, that’s excellent. She’s got a lot of good mentors.
Michael: The final of the easier questions is, “Are you interested in collaboration in your artwork?” Which you kind of mentioned, but I don’t know whether Matoska has more to say.
Deborah: Okay. Hold on.
Deborah: Well, dogs never want to do anything alone. They always want to be engaged with us, with people. And if it’s not with us, then with other dogs. I mean, does she have a “practice” now? And if so, what does she do?
Michael: That’s a good question. I think there’s two pulls. Me trying to deduce what existing parts of her lifestyle is part of her practice. And then also what are ways that I can participate with them that feel collaborative and generative for us both? Well, I mean, again, kind of drawing from nature and pre-existing forms. Sometimes Matoska will find feathers and I’ve begun to collect them for some other purpose in the future. I also was thinking about when she was younger, they would always run to puddles, now then tend to avoid them. But we did … I would think not out of disinterest, but out of respect for my desire to not always have a wet dog. But now, we went to this place at Thousand Acres. I’ve been trying to find it again, but it was kind of like a water dirt bike park for dogs and that may be one of the happiest play sessions I’ve ever seen. So, it would be interesting to work with something there.
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Deborah: Okay. So, what have we got left?
Michael: How do you feel that the social practice program has made space for animals to be seen or heard? Also, something you kind of mentioned, but this is a more specific inquiry.
Deborah: Well, yeah, I kind of got the same. She doesn’t feel that she’s been invited to collaborate or to be part of the action or to be part of the exchanges. So, her answer to, “How do you think animals have been involved,” she’s like, “Well, I haven’t been.”
Michael: Right. Yeah. Cool. I will have to share that with the group. The next questions is: “what is your favorite work of a student that involves animals?”
Deborah: Well I can ask her and just see what I get, and sometimes I’ll get nothing. Okay. Hold on.
Deborah: Well, what I got was an image of a short woman. She has dark hair, very dark. Almost black. Cut very short, with a paintbrush in her hand, doing something on a canvas.
Michael: Hmm. Well, Xi Jie is very short and has dark hair and also Brianna is semi-short and has dark hair. Could be one of them.
Deborah: I don’t know if that matches anyone in her group that she’s ever seen or not or whatever. But Matoska wouldn’t know that. I mean, what she’d see is just a gathering, right?
Michael: What has been your favorite art exhibit and why?
Deborah: Art exhibit and why. Okay. Hold on.
Deborah: The image I get is her sitting in front of a canvas that’s pretty big. I mean not huge, but rather large, and it’s got really brilliantly blue color on it. It’s like, I don’t know, maybe an abstract? But that she remembers, that one was the image that I got from her. Don’t know if that’s anything she’s seen or not…. but that’s about all I got.
Michael: Maybe she sees water as art and the brilliant blue is the ocean.
Deborah: I don’t know.
Michael: So, does the social practice program respect a variety of animals?
Deborah: Hold on.
Deborah: Well, respect, yes. She’s allowed to attend, so she knows that that’s a privilege. So she’s respectful, yes, in that she’s allowed to attend the classes, but she hasn’t been invited to be engaged.
Michael: Right. It seems to be a common theme that needs to be addressed.
Michael: Getting to the end here. How have you grown as a dog, from watching the social practice program over the past year and a half?
Deborah: Okay. Hold on.
Deborah: Well, she said, “Everything has expanded my world.” Dogs that are regularly exposed to new experiences become very accepting and tolerant of their experiences. I had a dog trainer tell me that as a puppy, a puppy should meet 100 people before they’re three months old. That’s a lot of people. So, that’s how she feels that she’s been privileged to be exposed to all these different things that have expanded her world.
Michael: Next one is, In what ways would Matoska like to participate in the program more?
Deborah: Okay. Hold on.
Deborah: Being more engaged in the sense of people saying her name and inviting her response to something that’s going on. I don’t have any experience in trying to describe to her. I mean, she knows more than I do about what these classes are like. But nobody says her name. Nobody invites her in. Right?
Deborah: I mean, so she attends, but, again, she just feels like she’s on the sidelines.
Michael: I love it. All right. This is our final question. How do you feel about food in the program and the inclusivity of people with food? Are you included in this?
Deborah: Okay, so how does she feel about food in the program?
Michael: Yes. And the inclusivity of people with food? And then does she feel included?
Deborah: Okay. Hold on.
Deborah: Well, the image I got back was her licking her lips. But she says, “No. Nobody ever offered her anything.”
Michael: Right. That’s true. We’ll have to do a dog food event.
Deborah: Well, yeah, if her diet is strictly limited and you can still use what is her normal diet and work with it that way.
Michael: Yeah. I think it’s very possible. It’s ripe for a collaborative figuring out between her and I.
Michael: I did realize one of my partners was going to be on the call and couldn’t, but was curious about this question. The question that she has for Matoska is how my energetic and emotional state affects her.
Deborah: Oh, gotcha. Hold on.
Deborah: She says, “You get prickly when you’re angry. And you’re hard to soothe.” But she wants you to soak in her calmness and her soothing presence, when you’re upset or angry. She also said, “He’s mostly pretty even keeled.”
Michael: That’s true, but sometimes there’s times. Excellent.
Deborah: So, now you know. When you’re angry or frustrated or whatever, how she perceives you as being prickly.
Michael: Prickly. Well, I’ll have to get my calm on. She’s pretty calm, unless she’s being really excited. So, that’s all of my questions.
Deborah: Okay. So, I’ll close with Matoska and thank her for talking to me, and ask her if she has any messages for you.
Deborah: She said, “I love our life.” She feels extremely lucky to have such a wonderful life with you, and to be taken as many places and have as many different experiences that she has had. She really loves her life. And she would like you to absorb more of her calm in your life. And just recognize her, the calming presence that she brings to your life, that you should be more aware of that and more cognizant of it and take more advantage of that.
Michael: Excellent. Tell her I appreciate the message.
Deborah: She knows!
Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem sits down with artist Beth Grossman to talk about doors, seats, civics and conversation as an art form.
Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem: So, let’s jump to your work that’s specifically situated in politics and even more specifically in different forms of civic engagement. Let’s talk about what the first project was, and how that unfolded, and has informed, and continued to inform the work that you do. Like “The Bureau of Atmospheric Anecdata”, and “Washing the Wall Street Bull”, and “Table Talks”, “Seats of Power”, which are all sort of your more recent works. Not all of them, but some of them.
Beth Grossman: Well I think just in terms of where it started, I think that I was, even with the Passages Project, it was already happening there.
Shoshana: Oh, interesting.
Beth: I’m a really social, interactive person and there’s a lot of times I’ve wondered why did I decide to be an artist because the sort of stereotype is the artist that goes off into the studio alone to, you know. The carriage house or whatever, and comes out with a masterpiece. I’ve wanted to have my work be some kind of impetus for building community and creating conversations and making relationships and that kind of thing.
So, when I started my Passages Project, I was working alone in my studio, and it was super tedious. I was also leading this organization called No Limits for Women Artists, which is probably a whole other story I won’t go into that too much. But I was building a community of women artists around me at the same time as I was doing that big project.
It was my first really big project out of graduate school. I had worked in political theater at La MaMa Theater, doing set design, and some acting and dancing, in New York. I had done a lot of crossover theater work, then I went to graduate school in NYU in Performance Studies. My focus was feminist performance art, and political theater. The personal is political, you know, working from that perspective.
And my thesis was a really cool project called “Window Piece,” about fifty women artists who each took a week in a window of a comic book store, just on the edge of SoHo on West Broadway. Each of them had a week to do whatever they wanted as installations to address the nuclear war build-up, to all kinds of social-political issues. Some did more political things to greater and lesser degrees. And it was really “problematic” having a woman in a window, with the male gaze, and all that kind of stuff.
So I had a lot of theatrical background, and I wrote my thesis, and then I got out of grad school. I kind of had to undo all of that learning in some way, and figure out what my own path was. That’s when I started my Passages Project, and then going into my family and the narrative of that. Then building the women’s artist community at the same time.
Shoshana: Was that all in New York?
Beth: No. No, I had moved out here already, to Oakland.
Shoshana: Okay. In what year? Just to give a context.
Beth: I did my undergraduate in Minnesota and I graduated in 1980. As part of that I was an exchange student to Malaysia, and I studied shadow puppet theater. My focus was on how they used shadow puppet theater as a way to disseminate public health information. So the kind of educational, social-political tool, even though it was a traditional art form. So you can see it’s like, it was all kind of moving in that direction anyways.
I was always trying to find, as a kid, going back and forth, bridging between art and theater and puppetry, and then actually doing demonstrations, then moving into undergraduate, where that was my focus. Using art forms as education, public health and political propaganda. And then in my graduate degree, I was at NYU in Performance Studies in ’85 through ’87. That’s when I did my thesis on feminist political theater art.
Shoshana: Then you went west.
Beth: And then I moved out here right after I graduated in 1987, and that was when I didn’t have the Jewish community in California. I was just trying to figure out what I was doing here. I had started a graphic design business to support myself, which is what I had been doing in New York. I had a freelance graphic design business.
So I was doing that, and then I started the Door Project, but then I had this, as part of No Limits, the idea was that you would come up with a largest vision for yourself, something that you wanted to work for, and think about next steps, and how to set up support to keep going, and then you would get together with these women every two weeks. I was leading two groups, so I had a lot of … I kind of wanted to put the whole process, the support group process, to a test and see if I could actually pull off a really big vision.
So at the time, I had this idea that I wanted to bring my doors to Ellis Island. Given my lack of any kind of resume of shows and things like that, that was about as ridiculous as saying I want to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, or something like that. It was huge. It was huge.
Anyway, I went out there and met everybody, and I put it together, and they said that they were into it. I wanted to use these old dormitory rooms that were not exhibition spaces yet, and then they said, it was the time of multiculturalism, and they’re like, “Don’t you know some Native Americans, and some African Americans, and maybe you can do a project on immigration with them”, and I’m thinking, ‘well yeah, but they didn’t actually immigrate here.’
Shoshana: Oh my God. I cannot believe they said that to you.
Beth: So I said, “Absolutely not. But I will do one on Jewish women’s immigration and family history.” So they agreed, and I had six rooms, six old dormitory rooms, and I invited six Jewish women artists to create installations based on different basic scenes that told the narrative of the immigration story. It was an amazing exhibition.
Shoshana: Did those women also create on the doors? Did they each do their own installation in another medium?
Beth: Yeah, they each had their own room, their own mediums, and I just gave the theme, like arriving in a country, continuing family tradition. I can’t remember them all. There were like six different themes, and each person got a theme to work on.
Shoshana: I’m looking at it now. Do you have more documentation? Do you have images of the work that they did?
Beth: Yeah I do. It’s not online, though. But I do have it.
Shoshana: You should put it up there. Okay?
Beth: Yeah, it feels like it was ages ago. For me, it wasn’t enough to just have a show at Ellis Island. It was like no, I want a dialogue with other Jewish women on this, you know? And the other part too is that, it was a really big deal to be that visible with, not just Jewish history at Ellis Island, but women, Jewish women’s history. And so that was in, I worked on it for five years, in 1995. I had to fundraise for it. It was a huge, huge project. It was one of those things where, if I had any idea of what I was getting into, I would have never done it.
Shoshana: I”m familiar with that experience.
Beth: I really have to say that was the beginning of my realizing that it wasn’t just about making art. I really wanted a conversation with my work.
I don’t think I got as aware of it until I came up against the changing economic times, in terms of … so my doors traveled for 12 years to museums all over the country. Every time they moved, it cost three thousand dollars, plus insurance, and they’d have to fly me out there, and the museums actually had some budgets. I had room in my studio. And as time has gone on since 1995, the economic situation for museums is tighter in terms of their budget. My space is tighter, and that’s when I think I became really aware of what I was doing.
What do I really, really, really want to do with my art? I want the conversations. I want to be building community. I want to be in situations where we’re mutually turning light bulbs on in each other’s heads, that kind of thing. Once I became clear about that, I really moved away from the large object making, that was the doors, or the Virgin Mary project, or even “The Sabbath Has Kept the Jews”, where I would … or “First Comes Love.” Now I have crates and boxes and shipping, and crazy stuff. I just got like, I don’t want to do that anymore.
So when I’m developing a project, the questions are, can I roll it up and put it under my arm and take it on a plane? Is the purpose of this work going to be able to have a low infrastructure but high impact? Will it allow me to set it up and create a situation or a space where people can be in a dialogue about issues that I care about?
Shoshana: Right. And you chose the latter.
Beth: Yeah, that’s the direction that I’ve come to in recent years.
Shoshana: So can you talk about what you call conversations? What has been the most meaningful and impactful for you?
Beth: Yeah. Well, I mean I think in a way, conversation has become my medium now. It’s interesting, when people ask me, “Oh, you’re an artist. Do you paint or do you sculpt? What medium do you do?” And I used to say, “All different mediums.” And now they’ll be like, “What’s your medium?” Ideas! I just hate when people ask me that. But somebody just pointed out to me the other night that no, your medium is conversations.
I’ve had so many. I don’t really know where to begin, but I think the biggest part is that listening is a key component. I talk about conversation so the other medium is listening. Because I think I just try to create a space … and I don’t even need art really to do it, but sometimes it’s just kind of, you know, it’s a way to get people to walk into a situation.
Whether I’m having an opening at a city hall, or at a community center, or a synagogue then the audience is actually invited to something and they come into there, into a space. They often think that they’re gonna stand around and look at art, and maybe have a glass of wine, and all of that. But usually I try to create some kind of point of entry where there’s going to be something that happens where they actually become part of the art and interact with each other.
Some of it is like framing a key question in a really, really open way, that I don’t even have the answer to. And there is not one answer, but it’s just gonna give people an opportunity to think, and think together, and realize their intelligence and creativity and having to put different things together, and different ideas together in some way. That hopefully, and this is the point of a lot of branding agencies now, that everybody wants these projects, which is funny because I’ve been doing it for so long. And back in the day, there was no funding for this. Now they want measurable outcomes. Then it’s not art, okay? Then it’s social services, or something like that. The art part about it is when you set something up and you have no idea what’s going to happen. And you’re unleashing something that it’s going to be a journey and an adventure. It might come up with nothing. You have to be willing for that too, you know?
Shoshana: Yeah, every week we talk about all of these things in our practice, as a cohort, wrestling with a lot of these things. Measurable outcomes, engagement, and all of those things. So it’s not unfamiliar. It’s a big and important conversation.
I’m curious about the civics piece, if you could pull out any project that you feel like – maybe “impactful” is not the right word, because they’re all impactful in different ways and they all have different meanings and reach different audiences to different degrees – but one that you feel that is current, or that you feel particularly drawn to. You can talk about what that meant, from a civics perspective.
Beth: I guess I’ll talk across three projects that I think they all led one to the other. I’ll start with “Seats of Power”. “Seats of Power” happened because I’ve been really involved as a community activist and an environmental activist in my town. At the same time, I’ve also been an arts activist organizer. And that’s been kind of one of the ways that I feel like I differentiated myself from the other environmental activists, in that I made relationships with our elected officials and our city staff.
Actually when we were deciding where we were gonna live, and the kind of life that we wanted, one of the things that I wrote on my list was that I wanna be able to walk into my city hall and have everybody know me, and be happy to see me. Nobody wants to see environmental activists at City Hall. Yet, I’m 100% committed to that role.
But what I did was, I came in as an arts advocate, and basically had to make a case, and kind of educate our city about why a really active and vibrant arts atmosphere was going to be important for the city, in terms of not just feel good community building but in terms of economics, in terms of real estate, in terms of schools, in terms of having a sense of place, an identity, and making it a place that people want to come to, and do business in, and stay. And so it was kind of a long process over the years, and then also lobbying them to make an art space.
I did all that through this idea that I proposed to our mayor – to do this art-sharing evening every year. It was kind of like a really well-produced talent show. I borrowed it from what we used to do in our No Limits group. When we would do our weekend workshops everyone got five minutes to share what they were working on. So this was way more formal than that but I got our city to allow me to do it and that created an artist community. And it also gave our community a sense of the amazing talent that people are living amongst – their neighbors. And it gave people a chance to connect. “Oh, yeah you’re the guitar player”, and “You’re the mosaic maker”and that kind of thing. “You do fabulous weaving; I want to commission something.”
It really made a sense to have everybody knowing everybody beyond the fighting that was going on in our city over this constant struggle against the vicious development that was happening. And is still happening.
Shoshana: How big is this city where you live?
Beth: Four thousand.
Shoshana: Oh, okay.
Beth: We’re right smack in the middle of the Bay Area, and we are on a mountain that is a county park, and it has three endangered butterfly species. It has some of the best views of the Bay Area. It’s ten minutes from downtown San Francisco. Also, part of Brisbane is the former San Francisco dump, which is an extremely toxic wasteland and now has radioactive waste. It was a Super Fund site. They want to force us to put in four thousand houses to help with the housing crisis in the Bay Area. But that’s a whole other longer story that’s kind of the back picture of what’s been going on since 2004 and what I’ve been fighting against for a really long time. It’s really weird to be in a situation of fighting against affordable housing which is not going to be affordable because it’s so toxic and because of what they’re going to have to do to remediate it. But it’s a really weird situation. And not on our watch do we want people living on that toxic waste dump. It’s really serious.
So, anyways. That was the context, and I started coming in and really showing that I was a person who wanted to contribute to our community. Not just try to stop development and argue with City Council. So when I would get up to talk about the environmental issues I felt like they listened to me in a different way because they knew of how much I’d done and contributed to the community.
And I have relationships with every single person in the City Hall. We all know each other by first names. That was my goal. It’s been fun. And when I walk in there, I almost feel like I work there even though I don’t.
Shoshana: Do you want to?
Beth: People have asked me so many times to run for mayor and do all this and that, and no, I absolutely do not want to. I’m way more effective on the outside, doing what I do best rather than try to read through all that stuff about parking spaces and all that.
So but anyways that was the context of how I ended up getting involved. And because I made all of those relationships our City Hall decided to renovate and when they were reopening it they asked if I would be willing to do an art show in the conference room as a way to kind of welcome people back into City Hall. And I said, okay sure. And I got this idea for “Seats of Power” because I’ve sat in that conference room with those chairs. And I thought, you know when I’m sitting in a forest and I wonder, if the trees could talk what would they say? I realized that these conference seat chairs had heard everything over all the years of Brisbane history and that those were the seats of power, and I had actually had the opportunity to sit in them, and that I wanted to know what they would say.
I had this totally goofy idea that if I could get the Council members to let me photograph their butt, I could turn them into chair seats of power. The thing that was really cool about it was, the most important thing about it was, again, not the art objects. It was going to each one of their houses asking them to bend over and taking a picture of their butt. I wanted to have them sit on the Xerox machine but that didn’t work out because some of them are a little too heavy and it would ruin the Xerox machine.
So we had to revamp, and I had them squish a piece of Plexiglass against their butt so that I could get a squished butt, because I wanted the view from the chair. But the best part was that while they were bent over, I asked them what it was like to be in power.
So, it was just so fun, and of course they just couldn’t resist making puns and jokes. Then the puns became the titles for their piece, or their butt, and I turned the photos into upholstery, and upholstered the chair seats. I had them up in City Hall.
I was thinking that I wanted to have a way to involve people to come into City Hall and see the new renovations. But also I wanted for them to have a sense that the City Hall is theirs and there’s a lot of people in Brisbane or in any city that have never walked into a city hall before. And also kids. And I wanted them to feel as comfortable as I felt. I thought that, ‘wow, isn’t it amazing that our City Council has not taken themselves so seriously that they wouldn’t participate in a project like this?’
I wanted the public to get a chance to both interact with the Council people but also to see what it felt like to sit in a seat of power so I had a red carpet and I had a throne. I asked the general public to come and sit one at a time in the throne, the seat of power, and to make decrees. To say what they wanted to see happen in their town and how they were going to go about it and the support they were gonna set up. Basically, I was asking the largest vision questions.
Shoshana: Like what?
Beth: A lot like the largest vision questions that I used to do through No Limits for Women Artists. But I wanted to give people a sense of their own empowerment. A lot of people would say, “I’ve been saying we need a dog park and nobody listens to me and nothing ever happens.” And it’s like, well that’s not how local politics work. You want a dog park, you get a bunch of people together and figure out how to make a proposal to City Council. It takes a lot of time and there’s a process. You have to learn the process.
So, I think that’s the other thing too, that I was lucky about. I figured out how to get people to support me and teach me and show me when I was a kid.
One of the first people that I met when I moved to Brisbane was the former City Manager and she became a good friend of mine. Through some other environmental issues, she coached me about the whole process of how to approach our City Council. It’s very formal and you have to play by those rules. There’s not a class in it usually, so I was just really lucky that she mentored me and was like, “Okay, here now, go talk to this person, go meet this one, and go take this one out to lunch.” I would not have known how to do all that stuff.
Shoshana: Right. It’s a whole language.
Beth: Yeah, and most people don’t speak it, so I was really, really lucky. And so what I kind of wanted my project to do was give people a sense of: ‘Come on into City Hall. This is yours. These are your representatives. Here’s the City Clerk, here’s the assistant to the City Manager. It is their job to walk you through how to do this. These are the people that you need to get to know. And I think that most people don’t have any idea about that. So I wanted to try to use my project to be an education vehicle and a point of entry into the City Hall.
Shoshana: Fabulous. Super inspiring. I actually wasn’t aware of that. I’m so happy to hear about how it’s been used as a catalyst for this kind of conversation and dialogue. It sort of deepens the whole meaning, and, quite literally, the power of the project.
Based in San Francisco, Beth Grossman has collaborated internationally with individuals, communities, corporations, non-profits and museums. She uses art as a creative force to stimulate conversation and focus attention on the environment, history and civic engagement – all aimed at raising awareness, building community and encouraging public participation.
Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem is an interdisciplinary artist, traditional Torah scribe and educator. Immersed in Jewish tradition and ritual, embracing institutional critique, inspired by craft and beauty, her studio and collaborative works invite participants into intimate and unexpected borderlands. Shoshana is the founding artist of Women of the Book which premiered at the Jerusalem Biennale 2015.
When I think about the systems offered to people living in the United States by established institutions, I find myself frustrated with their lack of human-ness or recognition of what it means to be a whole person. Interactions are meant to be sanitized, ‘professional’, and access to resources or opportunities are based on privilege and positionality. It is becoming more obvious that the systems we are floating around in today were not designed with us in mind (by us I mean anyone who is not an able-bodied, heteronormative, wealthy white male), and we are given options to adapt. Often these options are inadequate and disabling.
Working in three different states in the Developmental Disability (DD) system over the last six years, I’ve learned a lot about how workers and those served by those structures are treated. There is often inadequate pay all around, complete absence of reliable transportation, scarce opportunities for meaningful work, physically restrictive or clinical spaces, and lack of respect for work created by artists. I’ve seen employees mistreated by the state and the management, and then they in turn flex the power they have to dehumanize or take agency away from the people they are working with. There is a ton of resilience, dignity and dedication brought by people on all levels, but it often seems to be swallowed up by the chaos and impossibility of sustainably being a whole human. In some places I’ve worked, I never felt safe to report injustices I witnessed for fear of losing my job, and I knew others felt the same. I don’t want to discredit the smattering of amazingly supportive, progressive and holistic programs out there, but they are rare birds and they are usually only one part of a person’s daily life, not all parts. Working with Public Annex, I’ve realized how we can change the game, functioning adjacent to this system, but distinctly separate.
There are many long, multi-layered stories about how Public Annex formed and why, but a general idea we talk about often is a dissatisfaction with the systems we have been offered to function within. We have created Public Annex in an attempt to work within these systems in a different way, and to build community together in small steps that we can manage in between our day jobs. We are trying to figure out ethical and good feeling ways of doing things together across the ability spectrum. We talk a lot about accessibility, and people often misinterpret what that actually means. It doesn’t mean simplifying things, or being reductive, it means creating multiple access points and flexibility in ways to engage.
In an article about Public Annex for Oregon ArtsWatch, artist and writer Hannah Krafcik used the phrase “alternative value systems” to describe what we are creating. That has really stuck with me. While functioning within these oppressive structures created by a capitalist, colonizing, nation-state, we are managing in small ways to create new methods of working. We do value things differently than the systems we are offered to participate in. We like hanging out together and are passionately supportive each other’s practices. We want to take care of each other beyond labor roles and build community. We hope to slowly influence institutions we interact with and create new ones.
I had a conversation with DB Amorin and Rachel Mulder, founding members of Public Annex, about some ideas, frameworks, motivations and foundational concepts that drive Public Annex.
DB Amorin: The impetus of Public Annex was to, like you just said, kind of subvert the prevalence of care within a contemporary art context, because we were/are all working within this really rigid social work environment where there are so many “rules” that are completely arbitrary and invented by the non profit industrial complex. Obviously there are protections in place for people that matter, but it’s also predicated on this weird hierarchical kind of system where there’s a “patient” and there’s a “caregiver” and there is this really clinical distinction between the two.
Lauren Moran: And there’s always bureaucracy and hierarchy created around labor positions like, I’ve been told in jobs that I wasn’t allowed to be friends with people and stuff like that, people are clients. I feel like it gets in the way of meaningful relationships and I’ve seen people set up in those situations act dehumanizing towards each other.
Rachel Mulder: Right, like your not even supposed to style someone’s hair. That was a rule when we were working, but it was never enforced…
DB: Because it was known we had a different culture at Project Grow. We made a stand and had to sell it saying that’s what they were buying into or had purchased.
L: Right, Project Grow was set up as a separate entity originally, very intentionally nonhierarchical (by social practice artist Natasha Wheat).
DB: But yeah, those types of directives are common within the care field, right? Because they want to maintain this like sanitized air of “professionalism”. It really destroys some of the natural, organically formed relationships that people create. If each person, in reality, had to eliminate their workplace as a place to gain relationships and form friendships? If you were literally told you were not allowed to be friends with people you work with, how many friends would any of us have? I would have zero. And half the reason I get employed is to make friends, at this point. That’s why I have so many goddamn jobs, I just want to have so many friends (laughs).
L: Right, I know, same, besides trying to survive. (laughs)
DB: You know what I mean? Really that’s what it comes down to. Then there’s this whole other portion of it, like this idea of what does it mean to support the artistic practice of people with disabilities? What are the existing structures of that? They are problematic as well and they’re problematic, in part, because the general structure of the art world, in terms of monetizing people’s practices, is problematic to begin with. It’s all hierarchical; there’s the artist, there’s the curator, there are these institutional leaders.
L: Right, and institutions often seem to benefit more than artists by being able to claim ‘diversity and inclusion’.
DB: It really robs a person of very much agency to begin with, let alone having to be forced into this category of “outsider art” or whatever it’s called. Public Annex wanted to address all of those things. How can we rethink disability itself? We try to reframe our thinking of it to see it as a spectrum instead of a black or white, yes or no kind of definition. Also, how can we reposition ourselves and what we do within the greater context of a contemporary art system that is wrong to begin with.
L: Yeah, the art world and the disability system are both functioning improperly in our opinion (laughs). And they seem threatened by the fact that we are critiquing them.
DB: But they also see us as necessary. One of the reasons we did form classes and do the things we decided to do was because we could, like you said, funnel money and resources away from those institutional systems into practices that don’t necessarily have to meet the same types of weird medical or institutional regulations that they fall under. Because of the changes in state funding, day programs have to seek these outside organizations for programming. And because (pause) they had to be told how to treat people. Someone had to slap someone’s hand and be like, “you can’t hide people in a warehouse and pay them less than minimum wage, so please go outside and mingle with the rest of the world!” (we laugh, but Oregon is one of the only states where sheltered workshops have been outlawed) Which is still not quite a right concept to function under, “let’s go out and into another person’s space in coordinated groups, let’s occupy different places.”
L: It’s still pretty stiff, every situation is ‘safely’ orchestrated, but I guess that’s the reality of functioning within that system.
I am interested in civic engagement, or civic resistance that is working towards building a new society, one where the starting point revolves around accessible systems and institutions built by EVERYONE. This may seem idealistic, given our current situations, but when I am in a workshop at Taborspace with the Public Annex crew and everyone is laughing and singing, or when Lawrence Oliver drives his remote control trucks through the Portland Art Museum or when we are all pulling mustard flowers together out of a garden bed or when Ricky Bereghost teaches a weaving workshop or when we sing karaoke, it feels possible.
Public Annex is a collective and volunteer-run 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon that provides accessible urban farming and arts programming, focusing on inclusivity of artists and farmers with developmental disabilities. Our mission is to break down systemic barriers that prohibit marginalized populations from inclusivity by building a community around accessible farming and art programming. Programs we offer include but are not limited to weekly art classes, urban farming, lectures and workshops, artist residencies and artist representation. Why art + farming? Both art and farming are trades in which there is not a single defined approach; they can be accessed by all. We believe that art and farming can act as forms of communication – forms that cross barriers of language, culture, physical and cognitive ability. These are our chosen entry points for the change that we strive to see in our society. We work to empower and connect people – of all abilities and mobilities, people who share a passion for art and/or farming – to learn from each other, find meaningful connections to “work” and define their chosen identity within society. We utilize the spaces of other arts organizations around Portland, Oregon and operate our urban farm project on the Side Yard Annex Farm to provide our programming. We believe that in partnering with other established organizations, we can further our mission of helping marginalized populations become included in communities and spaces that they have not historically been able to access. Learn more at publicannex.org
Lauren Moran wants to put relationships at the forefront of their artistic concerns. Creating interdisciplinary projects that are often participatory, collaborative and co-authored, they aim to experiment with and question the systems we are all embedded in by organizing situations of connection, openness and non-hierarchical learning. They are interested in developing sites for accessibility and are an active member of Public Annex. laurengracemoran.com.
Rachel Mulder earned her BFA in Printmaking from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and has since adapted those printmaking techniques and processes into other art forms, namely drawing. She has been an art-assistant with a passion for working with people all along the ability spectrum, focusing on facilitating art-making for people based on their individual desires as well as in workshop settings. She currently works with local nonprofit Public Annex where she assists with their daily inclusive workshops and serves on the founding board as Social Media Director. She is a Midwestern native and lives and works in Portland, Oregon.
DB Amorin is an artist from Honolulu, Hawai’i currently living and working in Portland, Oregon USA. He works within video, expanded audio and augmented environments, drawing upon DIY experimentation and using lo-fi techniques or open source technology to create mediated experiences. He is a founding member of Public Annex, an arts organization that aims to break down systemic barriers that prohibit marginalized populations from inclusivity within contemporary arts.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program