Sofa Issues

Risks in Public with People

“Some people make art with paintings and some people make art with sculptures and some people make music and I like to make things happen. I like to take risks in public with people. I like to make magical things happen – unexpected happenings.”

Constance Hockaday

In August 2022, I initiated Green Flash Projects, an art project that kicked off with two site responsive works on the Rockaway Peninsula in New York City. The project is a place for queer artistry in natural places, and explores belonging through this lens. On September 18th, Ralph Hopkins, Halo Kaya Perez Gallardo, and I collaboratively created the social sculpture known as Ralph’s Neon Oasis Beach Party on Riis Beach, New York City’s gay beach. We envisioned a historic re-enactment for the project based on the participatory public fashion shows that Ralph created in the nineties in the same location (see “SOFA Journal: They Call Me The Mayor at Riis Beach,” Fall 2021), with an emphasis on providing beach goers with spontaneous opportunities to walk the mylar runway on the sand in clothes made by fashion designers and to bask in community joy. As the event took shape, we realized that it wasn’t a re-enactment so much as it was a re-creation: we functioned as more than a group of viewers of a “past performance.” We were a community of queer artists shaping the physical and social world around us, and in turn, the ideas, behaviors, and meaning of the physical environment surrounding us. Through the process, the hundreds of people who participated that day established a force of magic at a crucial moment on this historic patch of beach where gay people have come together to be free together publically since the 1940s, and a place that may be threatened due to an upcoming demolition project (see: NYTimesReuters). Maybe we became our own kind of arts commission within the city, even just for that moment. Through this work, I am interested in breaking down the distinction between the centered and the marginalized to focus on what it really means to be a beacon of community. 

In 2011, Constance Hockaday created an interactive installation in the form of a hotel on the Rockaway Peninsula in Jamaica Bay not five miles from Riis Beach, where they worked with storytellers, nautical enthusiasts, and city planners to host overnight visits, performances, and movie screenings about the water and water identities. The intensity of the pavement/ocean divide in Rockaway emphasizes the relationship between urbanness and nature.  Constance’s installation, called Boatel, created a queer infrastructure on the open waters surrounded by laws of the land, like gentrification and displacement, sexist, ableist, racist, and classist housing policies, the tragedy of the commons, false public space, outrageous rent costs, lack of resources, media censorship, and all the other structures upholding the state of the ongoing housing crisis. Constance’s art practice is a tool for understanding how and in what ways the land does or does not support the development of thriving non-capitalistic and sex positive, queer culture and art spaces. 

In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ book Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Animals, she asks, “What do we need to remember that will push back against the forgetting encouraged by consumer culture and linear time? What can we remember that will surround us in oceans of history and potential? And how?”. She traces the ecologies of marine animals by observing their migratory patterns, echolocation, and other elements of their submerged wisdom, looking to nature for cues around how we can re-create paths for wild and ordinary magic in our communities. This work helps manifest a shared belief that communities can come together to create worlds where we belong. 

In this piece, Constance and I discuss specific works from their practice that call attention to the relationship between nature, art, queerness, and living in the age of climate catastrophe. I think this set of works function together to hint at some of the richness behind why I decided to initiate Green Flash Projects— a collective of queer artists creating spaces for belonging in nature with community. These works inspire me to think more deeply about how sites for art in nature can function as spaces where we can wake up to our innate power, imbuing natural sites with collective meaning, and ultimately encouraging stewardship of the land.

Gilian Rappaport (she/they): How do you explain social practice to non-artists?

Constance Hockaday (she/he/they): I don’t like the term social practice. I prefer social sculpture. When I make work, the audience is almost always a part of the work and social sculpture makes that more explicit. 

Some people make art with paintings and some people make art with sculptures and some people make music and I like to make things happen. I like to take risks in public with people. I like to make magical things happen— unexpected happenings. 

If I’m inviting a bunch of people to a floating peep show in the middle of the San Francisco Bay (see ‘All These Darlings,’ a Floating San Francisco Peep Show), the audience is just as much a part of the spectacle as anything else because they’re all having to take their shoes off and get on this boat. And there are sailors and sex workers. And they’re all in a little boat together. And they’re being taken out into the middle of the water. It’s about getting the audience to take the risk with you, and that implication. 

Gilian: I resonate with what you’re saying about risk taking. 

Since I am a resident of the Rockaway Peninsula in NYC, I’m especially curious about The Boatel project. Was that a big part of your motivation for that project at that time, the magic of taking a risk with the public? 

Constance: There are not a lot of venues where something can happen that we didn’t plan for: that type of adventure, surprise, or possibility. Capitalistic, socially constructed, well-worn paths of predictability don’t really make me feel very alive. 

I’m asking, Can we create infrastructures for moments of suspension? For expanding our ideas about what is possible?

In Santa Cruz, California, there are staircases that go straight into the most raging Pacific Ocean waves. People walk down those stairs and get in the water with their children. That infrastructure is telling those people your body belongs in this place. In other places, there isn’t that infrastructure signaling that your body is allowed, belongs, or can explore this place. 

The Boatel was about creating access and infrastructure into a world of this is also possible. A temporary space telling my body that I can belong and interact with people in a different type of way. That is what the waterworks are almost always about. 

The Peep Show was also asking, If the rules of the land do not allow for my desires, then can we move into another space where the rules at least temporarily do allow for that thing to happen? Private property and its rent raises and gentrification do not mesh with thriving non-capitalistic queer culture and sex positive, queer art spaces. The water allows you to own the space that you’re occupying in that moment in a way that land does not. 

Gilian: Are these projects always designed to be temporary? Having spent some time living on a houseboat in Marina 59 where The Boatel took place, I know a little bit about the huge amount of maintenance that goes into those projects and making them feel inhabitable. 

Constance: Most of my ideas want to exist at scale and are difficult to execute. There are very few supporting arts institutions that will support this kind of work. So, to make work at scale with support, it’s like you have to win the lottery.  I have gotten almost to the finish line with large museum-type institutions working on some massive project, and then they pull the plug for liability reasons. The water really scares people. 

I have project ideas that are more like permanent infrastructure that would exist along the LA River or in a decommissioned ship in a port city somewhere. I’d love to make something durational and semi-permanent— self sustaining, even, just to get out of the begging for money cycle that all us artists are in.  Most of what I have created has always involved creating a small business around the work so that the work can support itself. The Boatel was able to support itself, and The Peep Show too. 

But this kind of social sculpture is a herculean effort— especially when you are trying to create it on your own, and only for a short moment in time. People asked me to keep doing The Boatel, and I was like, I’m not a hotel mogul. Now it’s been almost 12 years, so things are different and I actually think I could sit with a really durational piece about infrastructure for togetherness or infrastructure for communion with a certain type of watery space. I’m not looking for temporality, it’s just an ingredient that makes it possible for me. 

And on the other side of my thinking, I try to remember that just because it’s temporary doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value to my community. Because once you have that experience of opening a hotel in New York City and no one telling you that you can’t do it, even if it was temporary, you have that in your body now. Now you know and I know that we actually can do it. Next time you feel like doing something like that, you will try. 

Gilian: I’m curious about your musings on temporality. 

Constance: I think about the water as fast land. When you’re on the water, the land is moving faster so in order to engage with the space, you are required to go through a physical process of habituating the movement. I think that is an important exercise— being able to make clear and top of mind the fact that the world, the land, all of it is changing and moving all of the time. 

In the book Water and Dreams, Gaston Bachelard talks about love of the water as a participatory type of love. With something like water, which is in constant motion, you have to participate in order to continue loving it. In order to love the water, you have to love the shape that water makes in one moment, and at the same time, love the fact that in the next moment that shape is now dead, and that the next shape will come. In that sense, you can understand that temporality is a state of being. 

I can’t get too excited about it in this certain housing climate though because I believe that people deserve to have a sense of place and deserve to marry themselves semi-permanently to a piece of land that is always changing. I think that we as a species need that, and the world is making that very difficult right now. We all need a place to live and belong to, no matter how much it’s changing around us. For now though, if we can sustain the water’s rocking, we are able to hold on to a space there. 

Gilian: Do you see your work as examining a kind of closeness with nature in the midst of our climate catastrophe? 

Constance: I think about disasters and the future a lot, and the problems that we have with scale. Climate change is a problem of extreme proportion that we, for the most part, experience on a conceptual level. So it’s a relationship to faith: to believe this thing is happening, and live your life as if this thing is happening on a daily basis even if you can’t always see it. 

We have a normalcy bias that we cannot escape. It is the same thing that allows for me to be able to stand on a boat and habituate that movement. Your body says, Okay, this is normal, I’m just going to run this program,of balancing on a moving vessel, so that you can focus on something else. Normalcy bias is an important thing to have but it’s not going to help us face climate change. 

I was reading this survivalist memoir guy (Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales) who shared a case study of an airplane crashing into the ground. There was a split-second moment after the crash where some people were able to escape and they did. But there were also a bunch of people who also just stayed, sitting on the plane with their hair on fire, continuing to drink their tea because their brain couldn’t see that the entire world around them had changed. They couldn’t see that things were not normal and therefore they could not change their behavior. Researchers found that you actually have to practice escaping normalcy bias. 

In the world of climate change, everything seems normal and then suddenly, it’s not and then it goes back to being normal again. That’s very confusing for us as people aka animals. And so I see it as a weird exercise in faith, in practicing a break from our normalcy bias and in believing in something so much larger and scarier than what we have to face on a daily basis. 

I’m working on a project now called the Disaster Furniture Showroom. I’m creating disaster furniture that responds to people’s fears. If you’re afraid of a pandemic and not having toilet paper, let’s create a side table that’s filled with toilet paper. Putting the comedy and the satire aside, which is a big part of that project, it’s an object that brings something into your intimate space that starts to normalize the fact that a pandemic could happen. There’s also this notion of self-sufficiency: as we head towards disaster, more and more people are less and less self-sufficient, and do not understand how to interact with the world around them or build anything that IKEA didn’t put together for them. 

And this stuff is hard to talk about directly. The furniture is a third object that can help us have intimate discussions around what we’re most afraid of in the world. We’re projecting our thoughts/feelings onto a third object so we’re sort of separate from it and more intimate with it. It’s more effective than me looking at you and saying, “What have you done to prepare for this disastrous future?” 

Gilian: Is the furniture for specific people and their specific fears or are they more general? 

Constance: As of right now, it’ll probably be both but that could change. 

I realized a few years ago that it was time to start leaning into my own thoughts and ideas as opposed to making work that is highlighting someone else’s experience. I don’t think that all social art is extractive, but there is a way that some of that type of project can become extractive. It was time for me to implicate myself in this stuff. 

I’ve been asking myself, What do I actually think? What is at stake for me? What am I bringing to this table? Like, I’m not a journalist, so you know, how do I know that I’m not going to Japan and just extracting people’s ideas about disaster in the future. It brings up some questions for me. I’ll say that.

Gilian: Tell me about Old Man, Dance.  

Constance: I wanted to create a movement piece with old white men. Because that’s the “worst” thing that you could be right now. I think we’re all walking around with a lot of paradoxes, we are all both good and bad. I was feeling very aware of the moments where I was the dumb white lady, or the dumb white lesbian, or somebody’s major eyeroll. I’m walking around and I’m triggering other people the same way that old white men who stand too close to me in the grocery line, or get in front of me, trigger this whole thing in me. 

I decided it was time to embrace this compartmentalization. I selected this category of person that really activates me, and pulled them close. I wanted to try to create an image of old white men trying. I was challenging myself to find a way to use their bodies in a way that was somehow cathartic and healing for people, while also respecting them. 

Going back to my comments on extractive social art, at the time I was creating Old Man, Dance I was an artist-in-residence at a women’s college. My first idea was to bring in young women from the college and incorporate their feelings about old white men and translate some of their desires into the movement piece. I had also hired a DEI consultant to help me explore my whiteness and my role as a white woman working with these white men. She pushed me and said, Why are you looking to these young women to tell you what to create? Why don’t you just focus on what’s happening for you and the challenge that you have within your social position to work with these men? It was the first time that I had put myself inside my work in that way.  I was always in this producer/director role, bringing together different types of people to make the thing happen, but this time it was me. I was live-directing it and in the middle of it and struggling with all my own shit. And that felt like a really valuable step for me. I think it’s something that we should talk about more in social forms of art. I’m not going to say one thing is better than another but I did feel honest in that piece in a way that I really needed. 

Old Man, Dance is not finished. I started it, and COVID happened and I couldn’t rehearse with those guys anymore. 

Gilian: Will you say more about putting your own body and your own experience in the work?

Constance: Yes. Let’s use this Disaster Furniture Showroom example. If I take all these people’s ideas and their fears and translate, recreate, and show them back to you, I am a big part of that. I am a huge factor that is translating the material for the audience, and this complicates the whole notion of ownership. It puts me, the artist,  in this position of, You people over here haven’t been considered, or you don’t have the same kind of access to voice, and I somehow will be THE ONE to take this information and give it voice or give it life in a way that you otherwise couldn’t. I don’t like that relationship. I think I need to find more explicit ways to make myself visible. It feels more honest. 

To continue using the Disaster Furniture example, I grew up with a survivalist father and he taught me to think about the world in a certain way. For example, I think about what’s going to fall on my head every time I walk into a room because I live in an earthquake state. I have all of this personal baggage and I need to own it. 

Old Man, Dance was a convenient way for me to “own” that I’m exploring my inclinations towards white men and their performances of power. And my ability to challenge them in light of being socialized to protect their white masculinity. 

If I’m live directing and taking on all of the risk, then the audience is experiencing the risk too. I wanted the way that I’m (me, the artist) taking the risk to be visible.

We have to be accountable for our work especially as socially engaged artists because no one else is going to do it for us. In academia, for example, you have to go through a Human Subjects Panel,  a whole board and process of review where colleagues look over your work and make sure that you’re working ethically with people. This type of review has to happen before ever starting working with human subjects. We don’t have that in socially engaged art, there’s just a lot of room for us to be clumsy and miss opportunities to examine ourselves.

Gilian: How do you get to these topics that you value as an artist, for example, making yourself more visible?  

Constance: Well in Old Man, Dance, Dia Penning, a DEI consultant who works mainly with white women, challenged me. I would not have gotten there without her. It was hard, and it made me cry. We need people in our community that we cultivate as sounding boards: you don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t see what you can’t see. Especially when it comes to whiteness and race, we live in a hall of mirrors. It is really difficult to unpack that stuff by yourself. Artists need communities of people. 

With the Artists-in-President project, I created an advisory board and I ran every detail around what I was doing, how I was doing it, and how I was engaging people through that advisory board. It’s so much work. It was exhausting, but it made me better.

Constance Hockaday [she/he/they] is a queer Chilean-American from the US/Mexico Border. She is a director and visual artist who creates immersive social sculptures on urban waterways that confront issues surrounding public space, political voice, and belonging. In 2001, she began making work with the Floating Neutrinos, a family of psycho-spiritual wanderers who sailed around the world in handmade vessels. She has collaborated with Swoon’s Swimming Cities projects, sailing floating sculptures along the Hudson River, Mississippi River, and the Adriatic Sea (2006-09). In 2011, she created the Boatel, a floating art hotel in NYC’s Far Rockaways made of refurbished salvaged boats— an effort to reconnect New Yorkers to their waterfront. The project attracted 5000+ visitors, international press and critical acclaim. The New York Times described her 2014 piece All These Darlings and Now Us as a “powerful commentary on the forces of technification and gentrification roiling San Francisco.”  Hockaday holds an MFA in Social Practice and MA in Conflict Resolution. Her work has been supported by Map Fund, YBCA, Mills College Art Museum, Parrish Art Museum, The Untitled Art Fair, and Flux Factory. In 2016, she was a San Francisco MOMA SECA award finalist. She has been in residence at Headlands Center of the Arts (2016-17), Robert Rauschenberg Residency (2018) and UCLA Center for the Art of Performance. She is a Senior TED Fellow and works as an Organizational Development and Change Management Consultant. 

Gilian Rappaport [she/they] is a transdisciplinary artist, writer, and herbalist based in Rockaway Beach, Queens and Portland, Oregon. They were born and raised in New York between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Of Ashkenazi descent via migration through Russia and Poland, and with a background in naturalism and herbalism, they seek to create a sense of belonging in the midst of climate catastrophe. They are also known for their design and research work supporting the vision for regenerative projects that are renewing, restoring, and nurturing our world. For updates on upcoming projects, sign up for their newsletter and follow @gilnotjill

When You Have a Baby

I am not sure anymore if Mis Tacones is an art project and honestly it doesn’t really matter to me anymore. I’m just happy we can share it with others so they can empower themselves and find ways to celebrate and uplift communities that tend to be marginalized, or at times fetishized by outsiders for their own personal gain.


When Harrell Fletcher gave the task of interviewing alumni for this term’s SoFA Journal, I replied within seconds to call dibs on Carlos Reynoso. Carlos graduated from the PSU Art + Social Practice MFA program in June 2021. Now, Carlos is a co-owner with Polo Bañuelos of Mis Tacones, a Chicano and queer-owned vegan taqueria in Portland, Oregon founded in 2016.

My previous interviews have focused on youth empowerment and intergenerational relationships. I  found that my interviews have highlighted the power of cultural work and organizing. I’d like to continue exploring this theme for my second year in the program. Cultural practices gave me the tools to reclaim my position within the art world, critique the art world, and be rooted in community at the same time.

Alongside this, one of the reasons that I applied to the program was due to the cultural work and organizing of Carlos. They were the first person that I confided in when I dropped out of the program before school even started. While I did re-join the program, Carlos has been an icon for me in finding process-centered work that is true to my queerness and brownness and speaks to the refugees who raised me and my low-income upbringing. Carlos has been busy taking care of a big baby but I was lucky enough to catch them via text message as shown below. 

Selfie of Carlos Reynoso. 2022. Portland, OR, US.

Lillyanne Phạm: Compare themes relevant to your practice when you graduated in 2021 to now. 

Carlos Reynoso: I am not sure I understand, and honestly I currently feel like I haven’t really been very disciplined when it comes to continuing my practice. Currently, I have been working nonstop with my partner, both business and romantic partner, that is, on our family business. It’s more than a family business, it has become a space for black and brown people to work together and build community. A break from the whiteness of Portland, we have this work space to empower ourselves to be talented cooks, bartenders, bakers, content creators, community organizers, and anything we wish to explore while highlighting our own experiences and celebrating our cultures. It is very important for us to do that because we live in a culture that seems to want to steal it from us through cultural appropriation. I am not sure anymore if Mis Tacones is an art project and honestly it doesn’t really matter to me anymore. I’m just happy we can share it with others so they can empower themselves and find ways to celebrate and uplift communities that tend to be marginalized, or at times fetishized by outsiders for their own personal gain. 

Lillyanne: How has academia helped and hindered your practice? 

Carlos: To be completely honest I struggled with this question mostly because I have a lot of trauma when it comes to education. I have struggled my whole life as a student. I was never into books; I preferred watching tv and movies. I was more of a dreamer, creating stories and fantasies. In school, I tried really, really hard to get by and barely made it, it took me 8 years to earn a BA. After I graduated from the MFA program I discovered that I am not a conventional student, my whole life I have learned unconventionally through people I love and care about. My first introduction to storytelling was from the films I watched con mi abuelita. These films exposed me to old Mexican cinema, The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema of the 1940s and 50s. Films such as Macario (1960) introduced me to longing and despair, and the realization that I am one day going to die. Mis hermanas and I all love the 1997 film Mi Familia. This film made me realize that I could be a writer like Edward James Olmos’s character. While working in the various non profits as a social worker I learned empathy, compassion, patience, and that even the most vulnerable individual never wants to be saved, you have to empower them so they can save themselves. I learned all these from the various mentors I had the honor of working under. As a small business owner I have learned that sometimes you have to create things not only for yourself but for people you love and care for deeply. 

Lillyanne: How has food and language grounded and shaped your practice?  

Carlos: Food has shaped my practice a ton, it’s my love language. I love watching our cooks create food and see the joy it brings them. I spend all my time cooking on our line. Even when I am not needed as a line cook I find a way to get back on. I absolutely love love love feeding people, whenever I can I hook people up it’s my way of telling them I care and that I want to spread warmth. I am also very interested in having others spread the love of their experiences with food through their own culture or food they love eating and cooking. 

Lillyanne: How has achieving Mis Tacones as a storefront impacted you?

Carlos: The storefront of Mis Tacones has impacted me in various ways, I am soooo soooo soooo tired, and I say that with a lot of love. When you have a baby you lose a lot of sleep and you have to make a lot of sacrifices. I see Mis Tacones and its new storefront as our new born baby that will eventually be strong enough for us to not be so sleep deprived and overworked. I also don’t see it as just ours. It also belongs to our beautiful staff and community who love it and support it. I have always seen Mis Tacones as belonging to the community, a space to belong to and feel seen. I hope one day I can eventually move on so I can focus on other projects. 

I would love to write a short film or go back to writing up crazy stories. I am also so beyond proud of my beautiful husband who has gone on this intense and most difficult journey with me he is the only one who really understands how hard complex and messy being a small restaurant owner is in one of the most fucked up capitalistic countries in the world.

Lillyanne: How have you honored your brownness, queerness, and past after the graduating?

Carlos: I have always honored my brownness but just recently like in the last couple of years started to celebrate my queerness. I am older and grew up during a time of a lot of shame, especially within my culture. During my last year in the program I jumped into a very hard and complex graduate project dealing with commercial sex venues. The project was intended to celebrate queer sexuality and highlight sex positivity but I traumatized myself because I was still internalizing a lot of shame, the shame I grew up around by my family who didn’t really accept me and the shaming I received as a queer kid by the gay community for not being white, buff AF and super masculine. All that shame and trauma came up while working on this project. It was heavy. Once I graduated, I abandoned the project all together because it felt like I was projecting a lie; I didn’t feel empowered through my sexuality and that’s something I am still dealing with and processing, and honestly it’s okay that I am.

Sexuality is extremely complex. I hope I can pick the Proyecto Bathhouse project back up one day because I really enjoyed connecting with others through the project and I love the storytelling opportunities it created.

I also loved collecting and archiving. 

Lillyanne Phạm (b. 1997; LP/they/bạn/she/em/chị) is a cultural organizer and artist facilitator living and working in East Portland. Their personal work centers on low-tech ancestral wayfinding, nesting, and communicating. Her current collaborative projects are a queer teen artist residency program at Parkrose High School, a canopy design for Midland Library, and a youth learning program at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. LP’s work has been supported by Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Mural Arts Institute, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the City Arts Program – Portland, and the Dorothy Piacentini Endowed Art Scholarship. For a longer bio and more work visit: 

Carlos Reynoso  PSU Alumni Page | Personal Instagram | Mis Tacones Instagram

How Social Practice Breathed Life Back into My Art

“I’m interested in conversations around the economics of what we value. And how to create work that speaks to new systems of value.”

Justin Maxon

For this conversation I got to sit down and speak with artist Justin Maxon about his practice. We cozied up on our sofa as the late afternoon Fall sun cast shadows on the walls of our home. In addition to being an alumni of PSU’s Art and Social Practice program, Justin is also my partner of almost eleven years. Conversations about art and making are a constant, and one of the things that we connected around early on in our relationship. In fact, the project we delve most into in this conversation, A Field Guide to a Crisis: Strategies for Survival from People in Recovery (FGC), is the first project we have officially co-conceptualized together, though we have of course both influenced each other’s work deeply throughout the years. 

To give you a little more context to help orient you in our conversation, FGC is an ongoing socially engaged project that began in 2020 at the beginning of COVID-19. It functions as a teacher’s training tool by mentoring people residing in sober living homes in Eureka, CA to become “educators in resiliency.” Participants get the opportunity to identify, present, and teach their own crisis resilience skills through lesson plans, instructional videos, and public presentations.

Who do we normally turn to in a crisis? This project challenges us to rethink the voices that are elevated in times of crisis. Society traditionally turns away from people dealing with a substance abuse disorder, out of projected stigma. This work flips that narrative by activating the unique skills that individuals have developed in their recovery process. The program aims to build confidence, self-esteem, and resilience in its participants by uplifting lived experience to the status of expert knowledge.

You can now order the project’s first publication here

What you’ll read below is a conversation you might overhear on any given day if you spent time with us.

Marina Lopez: Hi.

Justin Maxon: Hi.

[both laugh]

Marina: So here we are, sitting on our sofa for a conversation for SoFA. 

Justin: [laughs] Yup we’re taking this quite literally. 

Marina: Well, thanks for being a willing participant…Like you had a choice. I want to start by asking, how do you explain social practice to non-artists?

Justin: The way that I start this definition is by just comparing it to other mediums of art that most people understand. Most people know what painting is, what drawing is, what sculpture is, right? They’re not questioning those mediums of art. So I’m like, all right, well, social practice art is a form of art just like painting, drawing, sculpture is, but it comes from art movements that deprioritize object making. And the aesthetics of the art is more reliant upon the ways in which people relate to each other. And that becomes the art form. So, social practice art is art that is conceptual in nature, meaning that the idea of the art is more important than the object itself. So it’s conceptual art where the aesthetics are about how people collaborate around the themes and the topics that the artist is exploring.

Marina: Yeah totally. I always love hearing you explain social practice to people because it also helps me better understand what it is. It’s also helpful for me to remember the art movements and artists that helped to inform social practice. Things like Fluxus, or even land art, and maintenance art. I enjoy that there’s this element of the “everyday” that’s often drawn out through socially engaged projects. I also love that the participants creating art within social practice projects are often considered “non-artists.” So there is this reframing that happens around, Who is an artist? Who gets to make art, and who gets to experience it? 

May I ask you just a really straightforward question? 

Justin: Sure. 

Marina: Can you describe your practice in two sentences?

Justin: No.

[both laugh]

Marina: You’re hilarious. So it would be safe to say you are engaging with the social practice term, “refusal.” Fair enough. 

For those who don’t know you, can you share about your background as an artist? Because I think that your journey and practice is really shaped by the experiences you’ve had both as a person but also in the mediums you’ve worked in.

Justin: Yeah. My background is in documentary photography— longform storytelling using photography as a medium. I have a 12+ year career in that. And then at some point in that process, as you know, I just recognized how problematic the power dynamics were that existed within the ways in which I was operating, in the spaces that I documented. I became really aware of the hierarchy that existed in terms of who is in charge of whose narrative, and who benefits from the telling of those narratives. Because in traditional photography the photographer is the one who’s in control. And then they’re also the one that gets the most out of the interaction with whomever’s being photographed, right? They are often the one who gains social and even financial capital from creating those images. 

Marina: Mm-hmm. 

Justin: I basically stopped taking pictures for a number of years because of the conflict that realization around those dynamics surfaced in me. I didn’t know how to reconcile my relationship with power and privilege as a white maker. So yeah, it wasn’t until I was in the Art and Social Practice program that I was able to really build the skillset I needed for me to work in a way that was more in integrity with my beliefs surrounding being a storyteller, especially a white storyteller. 

Marina: So what was that process like for you then, to begin to reconcile your relationship as a white maker? And what role did social practice or has social practice art played in that reconciliation?

Justin: Well, I started the process of reconciling that by not looking outside the self. Because I think that one of the pitfalls of how white people operate in systems of representation is that they often look outside of themselves. And as soon as you look outside of yourself you’re in control of someone else’s narrative. White people have had the privilege and the power to look outside of themselves. So, I felt it was necessary for me to return home— both metaphorically and physically. To work in a community and within themes that I was really personally connected to. I had a sense that that was going to help me to work within integrity. It was going to help prepare me to return to being an artist. Because when you’re working with a community that you have history with, that you understand the nuances of, you’re less likely to cause harm. And there’s a sense of responsibility within that space that you wouldn’t have if you could just leave it. If you’re part of a community, you can’t leave that community because it’s yours, so you’re much more conscientious of the impact. And then also people within that community hold you more accountable because you’re part of it. So I returned to my hometown and delved into my own history and looked for conversations that could unfold that were relevant to topical events. Things that I felt were important and issues of our time that my own personal experience could speak to or contribute to. So I think a lot of my practice comes from those personal experiences because those are the ones I feel like I have some authority to speak about.

Marina: Yeah and being with you through that process— which has taken place over several years— has been pretty incredible and has also influenced me as a person and artist in consistently asking, how do I lead and explore from a place of integrity? And that’s not to say that there won’t be points of tension in the process or work, but I think that part of that journey is also honing your ability to repair when harm has been caused. I  just have to say that I think it takes a lot of courage to do what you have done.

I think it’s interesting how when you defined social practice art, you talked about how the concept behind it is really important to the way that you’re making the art. Hearing you talk about your personal art practice, which is so deeply informed by your own personal experiences, your positionality and the communities that you have membership in, I’m curious what is it  like to create from both this kind of more technical, conceptual way of defining a broader framework, while also creating the space to have these deep and meaningful relationships? 

Justin: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that one of the things that’s happened for me with my project A Field Guide to a Crisis, is that in the communities that I’ve worked within, a lot of the folks don’t really even care about the conceptual aspects of the project. They care about having their voice heard and about being part of a community. They care about feeling valued and having an opportunity to share that value with an outside community who may not necessarily recognize them as being valuable. These are all byproducts of the conceptual nature of the project but the participants aren’t necessarily concerned with how a project is framed in an art context. I think that for me as an artist, the way in which the participants and the folks that I work with engage in the project is a priority for me. But I’m also interested in how the work fits into a larger social context. Like conversations that exist around these topics that the project speaks about. Topics like substance abuse and the stigma around certain types of substances that are considered more taboo than others.

We live in a culture that is just full of addiction, right? A world full of craving. Like you go on social media and you experience a similar chemical response as someone using substances. But some forms, like social media, are socially accepted, whereas someone who’s seeking that same chemical validation through the use of substances is not accepted by society, and therefore they are often ostracized and pushed to the fringes of their community. So yeah, our project draws attention to the hypocrisy around the ways in which we speak about addiction in our society. It also interrogates these notions of expertise and expert voice. Like who do we in our society uphold as experts in a field? It asks, what are the forms of knowledge that a person must have and how did they learn them in order for them to be valued as having expertise? And on top of that, how does that person then monetize that value and participate within the capitalist, consumer market? 

The folks that I’m working with have a great deal of knowledge because of the experiences in their life, which to me is one of the richest forms of building knowledge and expertise. I mean, even in the traditional job market, employers will see someone’s resume and if they’ve gone straight through school from undergraduate to a master’s degree, and even a PhD, they’ll often choose another candidate who has more “real” life experience. There is this sort of unspoken understanding that life experience is extremely valuable even within a setting in which people pay so much money and place a tremendous value on the knowledge they attain through institutional learning. However, for people who have a lot of lived experience but it’s not attached to institutionalized or formalized knowledge, it’s not considered as valuable.

So I’m interested in conversations around the economics of what we value. And how to create work that speaks to new systems of value. 

Marina: Yeah totally. I think one of the things that I really enjoy about your work is the way that you use familiar and common aesthetics and concepts and repurpose and reposition them to offer that kind of critique that you were talking about. But you do it in a way that’s not explicit; it’s implied. And so I think that it actually invites viewers into the work in this kind of disarmed way because it’s familiar. So it allows them to engage with the work first from this place of familiarity followed by curiosity, rather than feeling defensive from the start. The way I’ve seen people respond is that they often see themselves in the work that’s being created. And I think that that’s really interesting because the community that you’re working with— the recovery community— are often, like you said, pushed to the fringes of society both metaphorically, but also quite literally physically pushed out of people’s sight because we’re told that that’s the wrong way to be in the world. So it’s actually like you don’t want to see yourself in that community. And the way that our society talks about people in recovery, you don’t ever wanna see yourself in that position.

But from what I’ve heard from people who have engaged with A Field Guide to a Crisis, is that they do actually see themselves in that work and that connection and familiarity shifts the way that they then think about people in recovery. And that is beautiful. 

Justin: Can I say one thing? I don’t know what your question is, but that was a great answer!

Marina: Haha. I guess I’m just kind of reflecting back on what you said and my experience of the work. 

Justin: Yeah thank you. Sometimes it’s hard to know the impact when you’re so deep in something. 

Marina: Yeah totally I get that. Well, that was enjoyable. That was a nice change of pace where you do more of the talking. 

[both laugh]

Marina Lopez (she/her) is a Mexican American performing and social practice artist, massage therapist/somatic educator, and cultural organizer. Her experience as a bodyworker is essential to her practice as an artist because we can’t separate the art from the body that makes it. Care work is culture work. As an artist, her work is an interdisciplinary weaving of many voices that links to history, social movements, and tradition. She is a co-organizer and creative collaborator with, a group of artists and culture workers who co-create and uplift cooperative, connected and care based culture that are alternatives to exploitation, isolation, and fear that is often found in the art world. Marina seeks to create work that articulates and provides an embodied cognition of the ways in which art, culture, and care are foundational within a thriving society. Her work challenges the status quo of who we as a society uplift as expert voices, and inspires curiosity, collaboration, and solidarity. @connectivesomatics

Justin Maxon (he/him) is a visual storyteller, educator and socially engaged artist. He collaborates with communities that are connected to his own positionality and history, making design and ideation decisions with participants. His socially engaged work seeks to challenge free-market capitalism, by challenging authoritative systems of knowing through repositioning members of society within the social hierarchy. He seeks to understand how his positionality as a person racialized as white, who grew up on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in CA, plays out in his work as a storyteller. The question driving his practice is, how do you offer a critical examination to counter what bell hooks describes as “the seduction of images that threatens to dehumanize”? He answers it by returning home to the places, people and issues that informs who, what, where and how he chooses to represent.

He has received numerous awards for his work. His 8-year transmedia project in Chester, PA examines the physical, psychological, and spiritual repercussions of unresolved trauma from unsolved murder. The project, titled, Heaven’s Gain, materialized into many different visual forms: handmade mock murder case files which incorporated photography, archival material, and historical narratives; a transmedia installation, a short documentary, and a published investigative story in Mother Jones Magazine. Different components of the project have been awarded the Aaron Siskind Foundation Fellowship, a Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund Grant, the Alexia Foundation for World Peace Professional Grant, the Visura Grant for Outstanding Personal Project, the Reminders Stronghold Photography Grant, the Cliff Edom “New America Award” from NPPA, and a Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists.

As a photojournalist he has worked on feature and cover stories for publications such as TIME, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, MSNBC, Mother Jones Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Fader Magazine, The New York Times, and NPR. @justinmeadmaxon

Public Space, Karaoke Practice, and How to Be Useful

“I’m kind of one of those people who feels like everything is my art practice.”

Lo Moran

I have wanted to meet Lo Moran since someone in the program mentioned their experimental music project, soft fantasy, to me last fall. I was enamored by the name alone and excited to see someone who had been in this program working with sound. This Fall, Harrell asked us to interview an alumna of the program, so I took this opportunity to finally connect with Lo. 

Lo Moran graduated from the PSU Art & Social Practice MFA program in 2018. Since then, they have been an artist in residence at UMass Dartmouth, and more recently, spent time abroad in Germany, where they currently reside.

The more we talked, the more connections I found between our practices, which has been really exciting to me. We spoke about their karaoke practice, how to make sense of all the different parts of your work, Lo’s work on the Art & Social Practice Archive at the PSU library, and Lo’s graduate project about block parties.

Lo Moran’s “mind map” of their practice in 2020. Image courtesy:

Luz Blumenfeld: What does your practice look like these days?

Lo Moran: It’s kind of spread all over the place in many different realms in a bit of an overwhelming way. But the project that’s like my pet/personal, whatever you want to call it, project I’ve been working on for the last year is a comics and audio series for Difference is a Field, which was a project I was working on in the program, actually. It’s funny, because it’s a comic that’s almost documenting what I was doing in a socially engaged art project. There’s a lot of meta qualities to it. I’ve mostly done social practice work over the last several years, but I studied illustration originally and it’s been cool to kind of come back around to that, and also kind of combine those mediums. The audio component is an interview aspect of the project. So, I’m thinking about the conceptual possibilities of comics a lot and how they could relate to my socially engaged practice.

Another big project I’m working on this term is at the Montgomery Street Plaza at PSU. They have a creative placemaking thing—

Luz: Oh, I’m actually in that class. It’s called Public Space and it’s taught by Ellen Shoshkes.

Lo:  Oh wow, so Ellen invited me. I did a series of events for that project last year. And then this year, I’m combining it with the work I do in the Friendtorship class with Lis Charman.

Luz: Oh, I didn’t know you were a part of that, that’s cool.

Lo: Yeah, so I’ve been doing that since Spring 2020. It’s been mostly online, but now it’s like a hybrid, in person and online. I’m coordinating this kind of food project. It is still very much in the process of being formed, but it’s food and storytelling, and everybody coming together around food stories. We’re gonna have a collective meal together in the plaza and install these banners that are going to be up for a few weeks, I think. 

Luz: Oh, cool.

Lo: Yeah, and we’re working with a middle school in Troutdale, and it’s kind of about what they want to bring and see in downtown Portland. They actually chose food as the theme. And then we were like, okay, how can we use this to connect and have them do storytelling and do art works around it? So that’s a project that’s developing right now, and that kind of goes with teaching.

I’ve been doing a lot of workshops. I worked on another thing with teenage girls and public space here this summer that was called Gendered Urban Landscapes (GUrL) by Carmel Keren. So it’s about teenage queer people and girls and how they interact with public space. That wasn’t my project, that was in collaboration with somebody else. I also did a food project here recently. I feel like I’m always doing a lot of different things and then trying to interconnect them.

I also work with a collective here that’s around accessibility and disability. And I was doing something kind of similar when I was in Portland, that has gone on without me, which is nice.

Luz: What is that?

Lo: It was called Public Annex. We kind of disbanded, but then I helped the new group, which is called Elbow Room, and we gave them all of our money and our nonprofit status, and I helped them all get jobs. I had my place where I was a support provider for folks and so that kind of helped with the sustainability of the project, because with Public Annex, we were doing it all, mostly volunteering, and then occasionally getting paid for different projects. Elbow Room has a space now next to the IPRC (Independent Publishing Resource Center). Somebody donated the space to them for three years, so I think they’re doing really well.

I always take on too many projects and they’re always in completely different directions, like archiving, teaching, comics, and I’m working on a LARPing related project. That’s my fun thing. Performance is also an aspect of what I do, with a lot of karaoke related things. 

Luz: Tell me more about your karaoke practice!

Lo: I became obsessed with karaoke actually when I joined the social practice program because I was just really rusty and inexperienced with giving public presentations. I just kept bombing and getting really, really nervous. Karaoke was a way to try to get more comfortable being in front of people because I was also starting to teach a lot more, but then it just turned into a karaoke obsession, but like, as a socially engaged art form. I think it’s a really unique space that brings together lots of people that wouldn’t normally come together. It’s accessible, but you can get pretty weird and creative with it. It’s like singing together, which is something that people have historically done in religious spaces. It really brings people together in all sorts of strange ways.

My first karaoke project was when I was the artist in residence at UMass Dartmouth. The first year students and I started a little karaoke club and it was really nice. It was a good starting point for getting to know each other. 

I did this project called Karaoke for the Revolution that was like, pop-up, guerilla style with social justice themed songs and playlists. Now, I actually work as a karaoke DJ here at a giant karaoke club. I’m there once a week in front of hundreds of people. The space is very drag-oriented and there’s a lot of really cool performers. I’m taking it slow and learning all the tech. They said I could eventually start hosting my own events and I’m hoping that will grow into more of an event series. 

Luz: Yeah, that’s so cool. So are you planning on staying in Germany for a while then?

Lo: If I can survive. I have a three year residence permit, so I’ll see what it’s like.

Luz: How long have you been there now?

Lo: Since January, and I was only planning on staying three months at first, and then it just snowballed. A lot of projects came up here and I was like, oh, I really want to stick with this. I worked on some projects this summer for documenta, which was this really big art festival that was all social practice projects this year. And what else did I do? Oh, I had an album for my music project that I was putting out here. So it kind of just turned into a thing where I could stay. I was at an art residency that was also all social practice and that was really nourishing and healing after the pandemic isolation. I was living with 15 other artists and I was working on the comic there. So those are some things I’m working on here.

Luz: That’s awesome. That’s so many things I love.

Lo: It’s kind of like a problem sometimes.

Luz: Yeah, but I get it. I feel the pull as an artist, and especially as a socially engaged artist, by so many different interests that sometimes intersect but sometimes don’t. And sometimes there feels like an urgency behind them and I just need to follow that.

Lo: Yeah, Harrell really helped me with that because I would be like, how are all these things related? Will they make sense when people look at my practice? And he was always like, well, you’re the person that connects everything, so just go with that. He said, “You have to just trust that there is a through line.” And I really see it now. Like, I do see all the interconnections between all the disparate things.

Luz: What was your grad project and how did you come to it throughout your three years in the program?

Lo: I was kind of overambitious and I originally tried to do this project that I made into a comic called Difference is a Field. But I realized it was way too big to try to do as a grad project and I’m still working on it years later. So I did this project that was called Scores for a Block Party which actually kind of spanned my whole time in the program. When I first moved to Portland I was really struck by the housing crisis happening in 2015. I had never lived in a place that was going through so much gentrification. I know it’s happening everywhere but moving to Portland I thought it was so extreme.

I proposed a project in my neighborhood to get a RACC (Regional Arts & Culture Council) grant and they gave it to me. It was the first time I had ever gotten a grant for an art project. Housing was so unstable then that by the time I got the grant I was already living in a different neighborhood. I was terrified, I was like, what do I do? I live across the city now. And people were like, you can just tell them you want to change your project. So I started doing research in the new neighborhood I was living in and my research was walking around and talking to people. I saw a flier in the community center about block parties. My other project in the other neighborhood had been about creating a gallery in an alleyway. So I was thinking about how block parties are very anti-capitalist and how the only reason for them to exist is because people want to get together. It’s a space that’s rare these days. When it started, I was thinking about art happening at block parties and I was really into the idea of scores and instructional art. I partnered with this community center up the street from me that was having a block party that summer. So my idea was to get to know the neighborhood and the people in my neighborhood through this project. It ended up being a block party with four different scores that were enacted by artists, and two of the four were actually artists from the neighborhood. It was this range of scores from artists in the neighborhood, local artists, and international social practice artists. 

From Lo Moran’s publication, “Scores for a Block Party.” Image ID: Photograph of a community gathering under tents with text overlaid that reads, “Free Pile Sculptures: A Score by Madeline Sorenson,” among other details of scores. 2017. Portland, OR. Photo by Lo Moran.

Luz: Which neighborhood was this in Portland?

Lo: The Vernon neighborhood, next to King, close to Alberta. 

There was a whole block party department at the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBoT) that I got connected with and I was invited to be the artist in residence there. I made a book about the project and the next summer I took the book and we enacted five different block parties and people chose which score they wanted to happen. Then we recreated them, all of the different block parties all over the city. It was interesting.

Luz: I’m very interested in spaces like that, spaces that are specifically not capitalist spaces. That’s why I wanted to take that Public Space class, because I’m really interested in how public spaces have transformed under late capitalism. With so much rapid gentrification in so many cities, like the Bay Area, where I’m from, you start to see all of these “Privately Owned Public Spaces” that are not actually public legally because they’re owned by corporations, but they exist in spaces that should be public, like the space between buildings. There’s a lot of policing and hostile architecture in those spaces. 

I’m interested in seeing what WPA projects are left in our cities because a lot of those were designed specifically for pleasure or leisure and not for any kind of productivity or profit and it’s so rare to see that today.

Lo: Yeah, public space is so different here. There’s so much, there’s so many little parks in every neighborhood. There will be a little park with a playscape and ping pong tables or a green area. It’s very impressive how they use public space in Berlin. 

Luz: That’s interesting because coming from Oakland to Portland I was so impressed by how many parks there are here. It seems like almost every neighborhood has a park, which is not how it is in Oakland at all. 

Lo: Yeah, here is even a step up from that, I would say. There are community centers everywhere too. There’s much more of a socialist history here so it’s just much more present.

Luz: That’s really cool. Do you think you’ll get involved with using those spaces for projects?

Lo: Yeah, the youth project I worked on this summer was about how youth interact with public space here and I might work with that youth center again. I also live right next to a high school and I have dreams of working with them.

Luz: That would be rad. I want to talk to you about the Art & Social Practice Archive at the PSU library. What is exciting about it for you? How did you get involved with it and why are you still working on it?

Lo: In my last year of the program it was the 10 year anniversary of the Art & Social Practice program. Harrell was starting to talk to the library about the Special Collections and what if we created an archive there. It was a really interesting process to develop it. My interest came from publications because I’ve always been a publication person and like, a print nerd. I realized that I’m an archivist; I’m a person who collects little pieces and scraps from everything and has a hard time getting rid of them. My personal archives are a mess, but now I can give stuff to the library.

Luz: So how did the archive start?

Lo: We had this initial batch of materials we collected for the physical archive in the library. It was very non-traditional for the library. They’ve mostly done historical archives where they get it all in one chunk like a bunch of newspapers from the 70s or something. But they agreed to let it be a living, growing archive. So we were learning together.

The library doesn’t usually lend archive materials out, so we made it so that ideally we would have two copies of everything. So we can have exhibitions and put some of the copies on display or loan them out to exhibitions in the future.

I don’t know how I took it over, I just started doing it. I started working with student interns because I thought it was a really good opportunity for students to get archive experience. There aren’t many ways to get archive experience and I want to make it accessible to students. I tried to make it useful for whoever was involved and focus on their interests. So if they were interested in a particular artist, this was a way to reach out to those people directly too. There’s so many ways, so many directions it can grow into, which feels a bit overwhelming sometimes, but also exciting. It feels so small right now. There’s so many more artists we have to collect things from.

In 2020, I was really interested in the digital archive and it took almost the whole year to just get it started. There’s so many layers of people working at the library digital archive. The pandemic hit and suddenly everything had to be remote and online, so it was perfect. It was very fateful because we were already setting up this digital archive and so that became what we focused on for the next year or so as the pandemic went on.

We didn’t take that many physical submissions again until last year. But now the digital archive is built and it can be added to really easily. 

Cover of the first issue of the Social Forms of Art Journal, published in 2018. You can download the previous paper issues of the SoFA Journal through the A+SP Archive! Image courtesy of The Art and Social Practice Archive on ID: Black block text reads “soFA” on a baby pink background. The smaller texts read featured artists and the date of publication.

One of the things I found exciting with the archive recently was that I got to collect a bunch of stuff from documenta during their social practice exhibitions. I visited the documenta archive and that was really cool to see. They’ve been around since the 60s and it was huge and just a really cool archive.

Luz: How do you explain social practice art to people who aren’t artists? 

Lo: I usually say I do art that’s collaborative and working with people in communities. It’s working with artists and non-artists to make art projects in public. And then people usually say, like murals right? And I usually say, sometimes.

Luz: Yeah, I like that. I feel like I’m coming up with it every time someone looks at me blankly when I say that I’m in an MFA program for Art and Social Practice. But lately I say that social practice art is art that is social in nature, often collaborative, and more concerned with experience than objects. Not that objects or materials are never involved, but it’s not exactly a studio based process.

Lo: That’s a good way to say it. I like that way of explaining it.

It’s been interesting in Germany, like the documenta archive made me really realize that it’s so much more integrated here. They don’t necessarily call it social practice, but there’s a very long legacy of social art here, like with Joseph Beuys, and social sculpture. 

There’s a lot of social practice happening everywhere here in an interesting way. I didn’t expect it.

Luz: I think that somewhere with such a socialist history— it makes sense that there would be a lot of it there.

Lo: Yeah, that’s true. The place that I was doing the art residency at was involved with documenta. I think there is a sense of it being, not marginalized from the art world, but like it would not be a part of one of the biggest contemporary art fair festivals in the world, you know? They were still kind of surprised that it was all social practice art this year.

Luz: Yeah, I would love to see more of documenta.

Lo: You can at the archive! I got all the publications and brought them there because I felt like people needed to see them. I was very excited. 

The documenta fifteen handbook in English and German. ID: Two softcover books lay over each other on grass. The book underneath has a reddish cover and the book on top has a yellow cover. The text/design on each cover is the same and features an abstract drawing of hands. Image courtesy @documentafifteen on Instagram. 2022.

Luz: How has the way you think about social practice art changed since you’ve been in the program? What has been on your mind lately?

Lo: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about when socially engaged art is useful. I’ve done a lot of activist related things and art things and sometimes I try to smash them together and sometimes not. I’ve been thinking about when it makes sense to do an art project or when it would make sense to just do something very practical, or how you can combine those things in a way that is still useful to people and sustainable, in that it won’t just be dropped after the project is over.

Sometimes I see that play out and it’s frustrating to me. I’m thinking about how it can be sustainable and if art is always the answer to that or if sometimes it’s just about supporting people or doing the dirty work that nobody else wants to do. 

I feel like that has been a through line of my thinking in the last few years, especially through the pandemic. How to be the most useful in different situations. Sometimes that was supporting artists, but sometimes not, you know? 

Luz: Yeah. Is there anything that you maybe wouldn’t consider art that is still part of your practice?

Lo: That’s a good question. I’ve gone back and forth about that actually because I’ve done a lot of work supporting other artists and I’ve been really interested in care work and how to think creatively about that. I’ve been doing social experiment workshops about that. But I do still see that as part of my art practice too. I’m kind of one of those people who feels like everything is my art practice.

Luz: Yeah, me too.

Lo: Even when I’m doing something activism related it’s usually using the skills I can bring to the table with my art, like I’m doing illustrations for a zine right now about all the problems this activist group had that they’ve summarized into a workbook to try to help people avoid them. So that feels like it’s still art, I don’t know, yeah.

Luz: Is there anything else you wanted to say that I didn’t ask about?

Lo: Artists should be paid more! And teachers, too. But also, how can we rebuild these systems that aren’t supporting us? I wonder a lot about that.

Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is a transdisciplinary artist and educator, third generation from Oakland, California, who currently lives and works in Portland, Oregon, where they are a second year in the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University. Luz wants their work to invite you to slow down and give attention to small things and to consider our relationships with them. They are currently giving attention to what signs their preschool students think the world needs, voicemails from grandmas, and the water in the San Francisco bay. + IG: @dogsighs__ 

Lo Moran (they/them) creates interdisciplinary work that is often socially engaged, participatory and collaborative. They aim to experiment with and question the systems we are embedded in by organizing situations of connection, openness and nonhierarchical learning. Projects act towards accessibility and reimagined ways of being together through personal investigation of community support and belonging. They are currently working on a comics and audio series based on examining interactions with people of opposing ideologies, experimental music performances, and an archive of socially engaged art ephemera. Lo has also been involved in creative initiatives within disability communities for the last ten years. They try their best to embrace fluidity and chaos to contribute to emergent futures and radical approaches. and IG: @_lo_and_behold_ 

The Internet Made Me Think About My Grandmother

“All I do is activate archives and sometimes those archives already exist, and then other times what I’m doing is building those archives in collaboration with individuals and communities alike.”


The Art and Social Practice Archive in the PSU Special Collections (which Luz and Lo talk more about in their interview in this issue) is a treasure trove of documentation and ephemera from socially engaged projects from all over. I have been lucky enough to dig through it this term. When I was looking online for social practice projects that should be added to the Archive, I found some projects by PSU A+SP alumnus Mark Menjívar that really struck me. Over the next few weeks I kept coming back to Refrigerators on Mark’s website and in my memory. It felt mysterious and intimate and funny and touching. I love the idea of making work about being in other peoples’ houses. I made a piece once collecting one spoonful of peanut butter in every house I went into and adding them to a jar I carried around with me. When the prompt came up to interview a program alum, I knew I wanted to talk to Mark and ask him about this and other projects, his time in the program, and how curiosity finds a home.

Caryn Aasness: I was looking at a lot of your projects and I was specifically struck by the Refrigerators project. I’ve been interested in making work about being in people’s houses and documenting the way they live and I think specifically refrigerators and kitchens and food are so interesting. Would you consider the people whose refrigerators you’ve photographed to be participants or do you have another word for it? 

Mark Menjívar: Oh, yeah, if I can, what I’d love to do is tell you more about the project, and there’s actually a really deep connection with the PSU Social Practice program inside of that project. 

Caryn: Please!

Caryn’s Shared Refrigerator. 2022. Portland, OR. Photograph by Caryn Aasness.

Mark: My background is in social work— that’s what I studied in undergrad and I came to the arts through the field of documentary photography. Really that refrigerator project was the first project I ever worked on. It came from us working with another artist on a documentary about food and hunger in the United States. We were traveling around— we traveled to like 35 different cities in about a five year period. And while we were working on a documentary, I started to think about another way that I could begin to bring visuals to hunger and food insecurity and just food issues in general, and I tried all kinds of different things. I was cutting food items in half, I was photographing tables after meals, and then one day I was in my kitchen doing that thing where you stand in front of the fridge and you’re hungry but you’re not but just looking; I probably was processing some emotion. And I was like, Huh, this is super interesting, right? The refrigerator being the space that’s really private, but it’s also shared. It’s a constant in some ways, but it’s always changing. So I made a photograph of it and back then I was photographing with a large format four by five camera. So I was getting under the cloth and it took a lot of time to do it. I made a photograph of it and when I got the film back, I was just really moved by the visuals, and then I started to see that there were so many layers to it: where the food was coming from, where it was going, the labor ethics behind it. 

So what I decided to do was set out and start photographing a number of refrigerators while also thinking about diversity— not just gender and race and geographic diversity but paying attention to economic diversity as well. Inside of the project, there are people that are just coming off the streets from experiencing homelessness and there are people living in penthouses on Fifth Avenue in New York City. For me, it is interesting because I came at that project through the field of photography, but also as a social worker. There was something inside me that was like, How can I make work with people, not just about people, and I think I was trying to understand what that meant— it means something very different in my practice now. Then, it was about not just trying to get as many people as possible, but trying to really spend time with people and to get to know them. And each refrigerator was accompanied by how they identified their work, what city they lived in, how many people were in their household, and then some kind of information that I learned about them. I tried to return as many prints to people as possible. I was thinking about it not as an equal exchange, but as reciprocity. 

Then I started to have exhibitions in different communities and I was like, Oh, we should reach out to the food bank to partner together. Oh, we should reach out to this food justice organization and do something together. Slowly what happened is, I began to care more about what was happening inside the gallery space than I did about what was on the walls. I think that was my first realization that a practice could expand out from just photography. And then, this is the part that connects to the program, I had an exhibition at a gallery in Portland, at a place called Ampersand— they’re not around anymore but they used to be on Alberta. It was a really, really great space and I partnered with Janus Youth Programs, which was an organization that was doing urban farming there in Portland, and also a part of the slow food movement. We partnered together for the exhibition and before opening to the public, we had a big potluck meal where everybody came together and they shared the work that they were doing. They were actually working in the same neighborhood but didn’t really know about each other. The youth from the Janus Youth Program became docents for the exhibition for the opening the next night, and they were talking about not just the work, but about their neighborhood, and food issues inside of it. At that opening, a number of the social practice students from PSU came, including Nicole Lavelle, and Nicole came up to me and said, Hey, we’re from the social practice program. And I said, I have no idea what that is. And she said, Well, you’re doing it! I was like, What do you mean? I didn’t come with any art historical background. It was through my conversation with Nicole that I learned about Jen Delos Reyes and Harrell Fletcher and I was thinking about grad school at the time. So I ended up applying and that’s how I came to be enrolled. So I found out about it all through the opening there in Portland.

Caryn: That’s really cool.

Mark: I started making that work in like 2007. So it’s been 15 years. 

Caryn: Do you find yourself still looking in people’s fridge?

Mark: You know, I always peek. I’m the kind of person that I want to see and know everything. That can be like fridges, or information. I’ve just always been kind of curious about things. It doesn’t happen as often now, but people will send me a picture of their refrigerator or someone else’s refrigerator, just like on a phone. Or if there’s anything that has to do with refrigerators in the news or in a magazine, it always gets forwarded to me which I love.  

Refrigerators, “Short Order Cook.” 2013. Marathon, TX. Photograph by Mark Menjívar.

Caryn: So, projects live in different spaces and in different containers, but when you present a project somewhere, how do you decide what information is important for people to know? 

Mark: Yeah, totally. It’s a great question. So one of the things that I know about myself is that typically when I write, I write really short and small amounts. But as you can tell, if you ask me a question, I mean, I’ll talk for days, right? And it’s like there is a real disconnect sometimes between the writing about it and the talking about it. I think for me, this is my preferred way of sharing— I prefer to talk about the work because there’s nuances and communication and questions and the back and forth inside of talking about a work that you can dig into those things. With writing it’s more challenging to do some of that stuff. 

Caryn: You’ve made multiple books, but when you’re working on a project that feels kind of like a collection or like there can be multiple elements, how do you decide when it’s ready to be that book and if there’s more later where does it go? How do you feel about containers and the limitation or opportunity of them?

Mark: You know, I really love books. I love reading, and I love books as objects. I love the process of making books. I think I was also really influenced by the PSU program. We’re kind of always thinking in publications. Maybe like a year ago, I was hanging out with Paul Ramirez Jonas, the artist who’s now at Cornell University, and I gave him a book that I made and he was like, What is it with all you PSU people always making books? And so I think we’re always all doing that. But for me, there’s a couple of things that I really liked about making publications. One is I do love the process and how collaborative it can be with designers or with other people that are thinking around it. But also it allows you to experience something in the intimacy of your own home— it’s something that you can give away. I really love making books but, almost equally, I love giving away books. It’s important to me to be intentional and find funds to pay for the project and to compensate people that are in the process of making it, and then being able to gift the book at the end. But you make a decision— you choose to do something and then you move forward with it and like, if I was to go back and do the Refrigerators book today, I’d do it differently. And there’s something I like about that. We think something has to be permanent if you put it inside of a book, but it can be changed as well. It’s kind of like an exhibition, right? If you do a project somewhere, it looks one way and then if you iterate and you do it a year later or in a different city or in a different space, it changes and it looks a little bit different. So I try to not think about it too much after it comes out. You share it, but there’s more books to be made or more iterations of a project. 

Caryn: When you start a project from a point of curiosity, and then you want to present work to an audience, are you more interested in conveying what that curiosity looks like and feels like? Or are you more interested in conveying the answers that came out of the questions you were asking? 

Mark: I think a lot of times what I’m trying to do is invite people into something I am curious about or have questions about. I’m like, Hey, this is who I am and this is what I’m curious about and I would love to invite you to think about that with me or participate inside of this. So I don’t see it as trying to go to somebody to figure something out, but it’s just maybe them sharing a response or what they think of something. You know, one example is the project I did called the Luck Archive, where I came across four four-leaf clovers in the pages of an old book, which made me incredibly curious about the concept of luck. So I started talking to people about it, I was just so moved and fascinated by what they were sharing with me. Then I started to think, Well, how do you hold onto that or how do you organize that and make a way that other people can potentially have a meaningful engagement with that same material? So that is a lot of what drives my work: how can I have a meaningful engagement with somebody or something? And then I’m just trying to find a way that people can potentially have their own meaningful engagement with that thing or that person.

Caryn: Thank you. Yeah. I’m sure it changes with every project. How do you go about finding participants? Do you find it easy? Is it a struggle?

Mark: I think there’s different concentric circles, right? A lot of times I’ll work with family or friends inside of things, maybe that’s a starting point. I have a great relationship with my parents for the most part, but you know, it’s always interesting to ask them to describe what I do. They’re like, Oh, I don’t know, you’re just doing these things. But I really love working with people that I don’t know already— sometimes I’ll use the word strangers, but that doesn’t feel like necessarily the right word— but people that I meet, whether that’s on airplanes or in organizations or in my neighborhood. I think context is such a huge part of the work. So if I’m invited to work in a place in a different city, or within a certain institution, I think about what the places are that I’d be spending time in and who’s the audience for this project? And then how can you include the audience in the work, how can they be a part of the work as well?

Caryn: Yeah. I love what you said about your parents. I always like to ask artists, How do your parents describe your work?, because it gets to something really interesting. 

Mark: Yeah, I mean, the thing that’s nice for them now is that I am a professor, so they’re like, Oh, he’s a professor. So that gives them an easy way of describing it. 

Caryn: How do you describe not just your work, but the idea of social practice to people who don’t consider themselves to be artists?

Mark: Often, what I say is that it’s projects that are participatory and collaborative. I said this earlier: not just making work about people, but making work with people, and that can look so different. I teach social practice as well. But the thing that I really tried to do is to break that down. It’s easy to say “social practice” or “new genres” or “public art” or “relational aesthetics” or whatever terms we want to use, but what are we really talking about? If you can break it down, it is about participation. It’s about collaboration. It’s about site specificity. It’s about the consideration of ethics. It’s all of these different pieces that make up what can be considered a socially engaged art practice. Some people self-identify as social practice artists, other people don’t. Sometimes people that are working in the studio have participatory elements inside of a certain project, I think that’s really great. It shouldn’t be something that’s off limits to other people, in the same way that if I want to make a painting I feel like I should be able to do that; if I want to make a film or do a performance, I should be able to do that— dive into those areas.

Caryn: Yeah, for sure. You mentioned you didn’t necessarily know about this way of working or think about it, but someone told you you were doing it. So how has your work changed because of the program, and then how has your work changed since you graduated from the program?

Mark: So my mind goes to two different areas. One is that all of a sudden, I had this art historical context, right? I had people pointing to all of these projects that had happened. I had no idea— before I came to the program, I studied social work in undergrad. I never took an art class. I had studied photographers, I mean I was looking at books and going to exhibitions and doing those types of things, but like, I had no clue what Fluxus was, or who so many of the artists were that we talk about, you know, Project Row Houses or Mierle Laderman Ukeles. I had no clue who these people were. So I think just learning about that gave me this place to be like, Oh my goodness, the things that I’m interested in actually exist inside of this contemporary art world. It gave me so much possibility of what could happen. And then just getting to be in relationship with such great artists in the program, and visiting artists who came and visited the program. That just totally changed the way that I thought about my work and thought about the possibilities of making work. 

It’s interesting, because after I finished, I kind of always had one foot in the world of photography and audio. I made a living before I was teaching as an architectural photographer and documenting collections, so I kind of always had this medium specific approach to my work. But since leaving the program, it’s been funny, I really moved away from the field of photography, like I really don’t make photographs. I use photographs inside of a lot of projects, but I think that the idea really has become the most important thing, and then using whatever medium possible to achieve that idea and always trying to do that in a way where I’m creating some kind of project structure that people can participate in. But I think it’s really freed me up to work in a lot of ways— sometimes it’s a screenplay that was unpublished for 15 years, other times it’s a project working with 400 high school students to build new monuments for our city, or making a fairly traditional documentary about the oldest prison cemetery in the United States. All those things are projects that I’m working on, and they all look so different. From my perspective, I see a thread that pulls them all together and connects them all, but then from the outside, at first people are like, What are you doing? And I don’t feel a ton of stress anymore to feel like it has to be super cohesive. I am drawn to these projects for different reasons. And I like having that freedom of flexibility to work. Whatever each project calls for.

Caryn: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

Mark: I will say this: one of the things that I think I found to be the most meaningful when I was in the program was getting to work so closely with great faculty. And I found that really trying to dive deep into those relationships was one of the most important things for me. I’ve now been out of the program for eight years or something like that, and so many of the relationships that I developed while I was there with visiting artists and professors still endure to this day, which I feel really really grateful for.

Also, one thing I think you’ll be interested in, I dropped a link to a project that I don’t have on my site or anything like that. You may not have found it or seen it, but this is for this virtual residency that I’m a part of right now. Because of some of the projects that you’re interested in, you may be really interested in this project too. 

[Mark sends a link to THIS project in the chat]

And so it actually started because for 10 years, I was collecting security questions. So we pulled it together and this residency basically just let me work with their web developer and built up this site for me. So what you can do is, there’s this kind of ridiculous list of like, 140 security questions, and then you get to respond to it, but if you click on the responses, you can go in, you can click on the security questions, and there’s over 1,400 responses inside of there as well. I thought I’d share this because of your interest in Refrigerators, because it’s an archive, you know? Another way that I talk about our practices is, all I do is activate archives, and sometimes those archives already exist, and then other times what I’m doing is building those archives in collaboration with individuals and communities, and that can be based around ideas of capital punishment, or immigration. It can be around security questions or refrigerators or oral history.

Caryn: I love that. And this project is really exciting. I love Google Forms, which, this is not a Google form, but it feels like that: collecting answers. I’ve been thinking about doing a project around asking people to retire or give me one of their passwords because I have this feeling that a lot of people are like, really proud of their passwords. Like, It’s funny, but I can’t tell you what it is because it’s my password. So I want to take those passwords and retire them to some kind of hall of fame. So I really appreciate you sharing this project.

Mark: Yeah, super cool. With this one, there’s anonymity built into it. I really went back and forth about having people include their name or anything like that. But then also because of the nature of security questions, the anonymity kind of lends itself to this thing. It’s kind of baked into it. This project I had originally envisioned as being like a street interview project, where I’d go out with a handheld camera and a microphone and interview people on the streets about it. And then it just kind of morphed into this. And this is a great example, you could easily do a publication with this, but then I’ve really been in a space where I’m like, I can make websites and it can like exist in this digital space. And you always deal with the issue of what’s going to happen to it in like, five years. 
Golly, now I’m like, telling you all these things. Here’s another project that I actually did when I was in the program. My grandmother, she’s 92 now, and she calls every person in the family on their birthday, and she sings Happy Birthday and plays a little music box. So I started to think about all the people that are alone on their birthday. This has been up for a long time now, but if you click on Alone on my Birthday, there’s a video, it’s my grandmother singing Happy Birthday to whoever’s there, and then at the end, a little message like, “I hope you don’t feel alone on your birthday.” The hope is that if somebody’s googling “alone on my birthday,” or something like that, they would hopefully stumble across this website.

Still from Alone on My Birthday. Video. 2013. Courtesy of Mark Menjívar.

Caryn: Yeah, I love that. Like you said, there’s issues with things existing on the internet versus existing elsewhere, but some things just feel right on the internet. Some things feel right as a book. I love that you’re doing lots of different things and also projects that exist in multiple formats. 

Mark: Oh, well I mean, I’ve always been the kind of person that I just have a jillion projects going on, and I’m always working on all of them, like all the time. So anyways, I thought it seemed to me like it was something that you may be interested in just because of these other projects we were talking about, and then the internet made me think about my grandmother.

Caryn: The Internet made me think about my grandmother. That might be the title.

Mark: There you go. Exactly.

Caryn Aasness (they/them) will be a 2023 graduate of the Art and Social Practice program. They ask questions, draw pictures, and try to remember to document everything. Caryn is originally from Long Beach, California and is living in Portland, Oregon. They have yet to make a book but are still considered “in good standing” in the program. You can find more of their work at and on Instagram @levelyellowproblemchild.

Mark Menjívar (he/him) is a San Antonio based artist and Associate Professor in the School of Art and Design at Texas State University. His art practice primarily consists of creating participatory projects while being rooted in photography, oral history, archives, and social action. He attended McLennan Community College, holds a BA in Social Work from Baylor University and an MFA in Social Practice from Portland State University.



Becca Kauffman, Caryn Aasness, Luz Blumenfeld, Morgan Hornsby

Web Publishing

Becca Kauffman, Caryn Aasness, Luz Blumenfeld


Harrell Fletcher


Gilian Rappaport 


Marissa Perez with Tia Kramer

Nadine Hanson with Salty Xi Jie Ng 

Olivia DelGandio with Zeph Fishlyn

Diana Marcela Cuartas with 

Becca Kauffman with Avalon Kalin

Laura Glazer with Eliza Gregory

Morgan Hornsby with Rebecca Copper 

Midori Yamanaka with Amanda Leigh Evans

Manfred Parrales with Patricia Vázquez Gómez 

Gilian Rappaport with Constance Hockaday

Lillyanne Phạm with Carlos Reynoso

Marina Lopez with Justin Maxon

Luz Blumenfeld with Lo Moran 

Caryn Aasness with Mark Menjivar

Special Thanks

Eric John Olson

Logo Design

Kim Sutherland


The spring 2022 cover of SOFA Journal celebrates the subject of Benita Alioth from Shelbie Loomis’ interview, and ongoing socially engaged art project by the same name, The Art We Value. During weekly Bingo/Luncheons for the Jantzen Beach RV Park and Hayden Island Mobile Home community, where Shelbie and Benita are both residents, they became friends and ultimately collaborators in a local art show and sharing event that Shelbie organized for the project. In reading their interview, I started to think about compassion: the feeling of fellowship birthed from the suffering of others. How social forms of art can really artifact, and even celebrate, this exchange of tenderness between people. What are the forms of documentation for any given project that make this warmth and gentleness sing?  

How does the documentation resonate with the people experiencing the artwork firsthand, those on their computer at home, in a book a decade later? They’re all sharing an experience of this same artwork. They may all tell a similar story of the work, when it was made and where, the materials it’s made from, and the motivation. But that compassionate feeling may be an ephemeral thing. So we ask, how do we communicate that feeling over time, which is often so crucial to the birth of the artwork when it’s in a social form? 

It isn’t about requiring one way of interpreting or defining the meaning of a work. It’s more about offering a lens through which we can understand the relationship behind the work, which may offer us a hopeful possibility for the future when we feel more disconnected. With heavy hearts holding recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, rising food shortages, the overturning of Roe v Wade, on top of being over two years into a global pandemic, it’s a starting point. A test for possibilities for change. Shelbie’s tender illustration of her collaborator Benita serves as documentation of the tender hope that is possible to uncover in the relational experience at the core of socially engaged artworks. Helping us to see who is aching, and who is resonating with that ache. Who is navigating the world a certain way because of it, and what strategies they are using. Ultimately, this can help us to see the limitations of our singular perspectives in favor of coming together. 

Gilian Rappaport 

Spring 2022

Cover Art Direction: Gilian Rappaport

Cover Art Production: Laura Glazer

Letter from the Editors

So much art is a treasure trove of references and allusions. It can sometimes feel like a scavenger hunt to look at works of art and it is so exciting when you get it! It’s like having an inside joke with the artist, even if you have never met them. Reading the interviews in this issue for example, you may notice a few people make the deliberate choice to forego capitalization in their names or the titles of their work. Rest assured this didn’t just get missed by us, the editors. This is reminiscent of bell hooks’ decision to spell her name in all lowercase, because “when the feminist movement was at its zenith in the late ‘60s and early ’70s, there was a lot of moving away from the idea of the person. It was: Let’s talk about the ideas behind the work, and the people matter less.” Was Sister Corita Kent making the decision to use lowercase letters in her titles for similar political reasons? Maybe Roz Crews’ performance piece titled with lowercase, tell us how you became so close to art, was an homage to Kent. 

This idea that hooks referenced is an important notion in Social Practice, and a highlight in some of the interviews in this issue too. When talking about Sister Corita Kent’s work, Nellie Scott tells Gillian Rappaport, “The objects are not unimportant, but the message, the meaning, and the collective coming together is priority one. And the byproduct of this incredible collaboration is almost like eye candy.” This deemphasis on the object is echoed by Kenny Walls who tells his twin sister Kiara Walls, “I think that’s the power of art, whether it’s music, writing, it forces you to create the idea as well. You become the creator of that idea.” 

Because our particular area of artmaking is niche, many people working this way pull from the same set of references. We often have a shared set of values. Art, and especially socially engaged art, is such a small world, but it also opens you up to how big the world is. It is a tiny tool through which to look at something huge. When we find others who see the world the same way, it is a treasure. As artist Wendy Ewald told us in a recent workshop, “I don’t usually get to meet people who think so similarly.” 

The interview can be a way of finding out how people think and hopefully finding some who think the way you do. From shared family memories tied to place, as in Luz Blumenfeld’s talk with their grandmother, Aqui, to forming friendships through plants and co-mentoring youth, like in Lillyanne Pham’s conversation with ridhi d’cruz and Jackie Santa Lucia, there is a joy to be found in reading a shared language between others, as well as having that shared language, shared with you.

An interview can also be a method of learning an unfamiliar language. Like Justin Maxon, who asks others to reflect on experiences he wouldn’t be able to understand by himself. Or Laura Glazer, whose admiration and curiosity about an art piece led her to publish a book about what she learned from the artist, Ms. Melodie Adams. She now asks others, “What do you want everyone to know?” We hope the Spring Issue of the SoFA Journal connects your curiosity and questions with a couple methods for exploration.

We hope you’ll enjoy.

Caryn Aasness

Spring 2022

On Vulnerability

“What I respond to in socially engaged art is a sense of vulnerability. When I see an artist being vulnerable and then I see people responding in vulnerable ways, that’s what I’m interested in.”


I first connected with Roz Crews the summer before I moved to Portland, Oregon. I had just been accepted to the Art and Social Practice Program and Harrell Fletcher told me that Roz, a program alum and instructor, had attended the same strange and tiny liberal arts college I had just graduated from (New College of Florida). I got in touch with her in an attempt to gather as much knowledge about this program as I could, and our first conversation clued me in to what I quickly learned could be expected from conversations with Roz: warmth, honesty, and genuine connection. Since that point, I’ve gotten to know and appreciate Roz’s teaching style by both being in a class facilitated by her and by hearing more about her experiences teaching elementary school. While I think about the kind of teacher and facilitator I want to grow into, I think it’s important to learn directly from those whose styles I admire, hence the following conversation with Roz. 

Olivia DelGandio: How would you feel about talking about vulnerability today?

Roz Crews: I like that idea. 

Olivia: I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability as it relates to teaching. I’d like to be a teacher who teaches with and through vulnerability, but with the teacher/student relationship there can easily be a lack of empathy that makes learning, and just being a person in that space, really difficult. I think you do a really great job of teaching through vulnerability and I’m interested to know your thoughts on this.

Roz: I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and I don’t think I’m naturally super empathetic, but I am naturally very sensitive and I’ve always wanted to be an empathetic teacher. I wanted to support students in all the ways that I could, and whether they are kids or adults, I really try to advocate for each person whenever I can. Sometimes that does wind up feeling like a maternal kind of role and personally, I never thought that critically about it until more recently when I started to recognize how much emotional labor goes into supporting students and the various needs that come up. You know, some years I’d have 300 students and if it’s elementary school then I’d have around 700 that I saw every week. So you can imagine that all of those people relying on and needing support from you can be challenging, especially when you’re an adjunct instructor or somebody who’s not necessarily feeling compensated for work beyond their “contract hours.” But in the same breath, I am so happy that I have been able to support people in times of need, and also just in their everyday regular life. Teachers have done that for me, and I feel kind of like I owe people that kind of support.

Olivia: It’s interesting to think about the teachers I’ve had who have played that maternal role and those who have been pretty against it. Maybe there’s some kind of middle ground where you can have boundaries while still having a deep connection to your students. What would that look like? 

Roz: I think it looks like developing a strong sense of self but not letting it affect you on a personal level or else you’ll be over involved in everything. So for me it’s been about establishing a strong sense of what I believe and then committing to that, but also being flexible wherever I can. My philosophy on education is that you are really going to get out of it what you put into it. That can be a controversial point of view; especially if students or participants are expecting a more traditional “banking model” of education: where students are perceived as empty vessels ready to be filled up with knowledge, an approach criticized by folks like Paulo Friere and bell hooks. I see teaching as an exchange. And that’s my boundary actually. I’m not really there to hold your hand through a situation as much as I am to present something to you and see what you think, and then, if it’s hard, we can talk about it. If it’s good and rewarding, we talk about it. For me it comes down to self-preservation and self-awareness, and I try to teach those things to students.

Photo of a passage Olivia highlighted in their copy of bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress, 2022, Portland, OR, photo by Olivia DelGandio.

Olivia: Totally. I’m thinking about the class I took last term, the pedagogy class taught by Alison Heryer. We had to write a teaching philosophy and I was thinking a lot about vulnerability and teaching and also reading a lot of bell hooks. Something she talks about is teaching through vulnerability, but having to be vulnerable yourself before you can expect vulnerability back from your students. I feel like that’s connected to this idea of boundaries and how vulnerable you can allow yourself to be with your students.

Roz: Yes, and I certainly have been influenced by bell hooks and I think that’s where my relationship to vulnerability and teaching comes from. Vulnerability in the classroom is complicated. Certain things, I’m happy to be super transparent and vulnerable about. This was especially true when I was younger, I was like an open book. And I use that in my art practice too. I use the strategy of: I’m going to tell you whatever you want to know about me so that you will want to participate in this project and so we can have a shared sense of vulnerability. I do that in my artwork, but I also do it in the classroom and it’s changed over time in both contexts, but more specifically in my teaching because there’ve been some situations that have happened that I’ve been alarmed by. These things have shifted my willingness to be vulnerable with students and the public. It’s become harder to want to share, even though these situations are far and few between, considering all the students I’ve worked with and all of the public places I’ve put myself into.

Olivia: But situations like that can make a big impact.

Roz: They can, yeah.

Olivia: Considering all those things and how difficult it is to ask people to be vulnerable, how do you make the classroom a safe place?

Roz: I’ve really developed a strategy for quickly acclimating students to the situation that we’re going to be in for the next 10 or 15 or 36 weeks. Part of how I think of making a safe-feeling space is by trying to be vulnerable to some degree myself, more so with grad students than undergrads, and then I share even less about myself with kids. I also always create community agreements in the beginning of a class so there’s a sense of accountability. If something does happen, we can refer back to this document which includes things like “move up, move back,” which is about creating space for people who might not necessarily love being the first to talk. A lot comes up when we make the community agreements, which I find super useful as a starting place. Of course, uncomfortable things happen throughout the class, and you can come back to community agreements. 

Olivia: You started talking a bit about vulnerability in your art practice. I feel like there are some similarities in how you think about vulnerability in terms of art versus teaching, but also ways that these spaces are pretty different. How do you think it shifts when you’re trying to be vulnerable in the classroom space versus in your own practice?

Roz: For me, the classroom and my practice are pretty intertwined. Even though I don’t think of my teaching as my practice, there’s a lot of times when, in my career, they have intersected. I’ve done a lot of projects at schools and I’ve also taught in schools and so sometimes I’m doing a project in the school where I’m teaching. Recently I did a performance. I was really struggling with the whole fifth grade at my new school and I was pretty desperate, so I was like, I’m going to go off the books here and just sort of see what I can do to build trust with this group. With one class in particular I said, “Hey I’m going to be doing this performance artwork and I would like it if you guys would help me create a score for the piece.” I explained what a score is and the whole time we were talking they were so engaged because I’m talking to them about something that’s really in my life and that they don’t know about. They were excited about it and I told them they could choose everything that I do during the performance; they were totally in control of this performance and I wasn’t going to change anything that they decided on. And I did everything they said, I followed through on my promise. I’m very committed to doing what I say I’ll do. So that’s one example of how my teaching intersects with my practice and involves vulnerability and trust building. Other times I’m more vulnerable in my practice than in teaching because I have less to lose when it’s not something I’m doing in an institution. 

Photo from tell us how you became so close to art, Zoom performance for UNF Galleries, Jacksonville, FL 2021, courtesy of Roz Crews

Olivia: I love that project. Do you have any other thoughts on this?

Roz: I think talking about vulnerability in the context of social practice is really important. What I respond to in socially engaged art is a sense of vulnerability. With a lot of projects, I see people putting up personal, emotional, and mental walls and that can make it hard for me to respond to the work. When I see an artist being vulnerable and then I see people responding in vulnerable ways, that’s what I’m interested in.

Roz Crews (she/her) is an artist, educator, and writer whose practice explores the many ways that people around her exist in relationship to one another. Recent projects have examined the dominant strategies and methods of research enforced by academic institutions, schemes and scams of capitalism, and the ways authorship and labor are discussed in the context of a specific art gallery. Her work manifests as publications, performances, conversations, essays, and exhibitions, and she shares it in traditional art spaces… but also in hotels, bars, college dorms, Zoom rooms, and river banks. As part of her exploration of the oppressive qualities of schools, she worked for two years as a full-time art teacher at a public elementary school in North Florida during the pandemic. She is currently a manager of community engagement programs for a collecting museum in New England. 

Olivia DelGandio (they/she) is a storyteller who asks intimate questions and normalizes answers in the form of ongoing conversations. They explore grief, memory, and human connection and look for ways of memorializing moments and relationships. Through the work they make, they hope to make the world a more tender place and aim to do so by creating books, videos, and textiles that capture personal narratives in an intimate manner. Essential to Olivia’s practice is research. Their current research interests include untold queer histories, family lineage, and the intersection between fashion and identity. 

Gardens in Canoes

“It was very important to always be there, to have someone doing things and staying in that place, spending time with the people. Many projects in rural communities happen in a more transitory way, and the people leave as soon as they’re over. Our idea was to really be there.


Text by Diana Marcela Cuartas, translated by Camilo Roldán
Spanish version below

Jardines en Balsas (Gardens in Canoes) is an environmental education and community arts project, created by Yolanda Chois and Michelle Szejner in collaboration with a group of farming families. The project takes place in the township of Jaqué on the border between Panama and Colombia, on the Pacific Coast in what is known as the Darien Region. The name of this project refers to an agricultural practice called zoteas: a concept particular to the coastal communities of various places in the Chocó biogeography, which involves converting unused boats into beds for elevated gardens that can adapt to tidal changes and rising water levels in rivers.

In this interview, Yolanda and Michelle discuss a seven-year process of artistic and interdisciplinary work that, at the community’s behest, brought back this planting technique that was on the brink of being forgotten. One of the results is a book that compiles and classifies 100 usable plants in Jaqué that were collectively researched through plantings, seed exchanges, and knowledge sharing, for traditional agriculture practices and native plant identification, with a focus on local food sovereignty.

Tomatillo cultivated in a zoteas garden, Jaqué 2016 – Photo: Jardines en Balsas archive

Diana Marcela Cuartas: Let’s start at the beginning: How did Gardens in Canoes get started?

Michelle Szejner: I met Yolanda through a mutual friend and when we were talking she told me about Hacia El Litoral (Toward the Shore), a project that involved a trip through the Chocó region with an art collective. They were going to travel by sea, getting to know local cultures and recognizing them, compiling oral traditions, histories, and soundscapes. It was a lovely project and one of the stops was in Panama. She also mentioned that she wanted to do a recipe book and I thought my services could be helpful in identifying useful plants with the community. I told her I would request vacation days so I could meet with the collective as a volunteer. She said, “Great! Arrive on this day on this airplane,” and that’s how I arrived in a community I didn’t know, in a super remote part of Panama that very few Panamanians even know about.

Once I was there, I started to meet the farming families of Jaqué. One day, in the garden of one of the project participants, we found that there were more than 120 species of useful plants in her zoteas garden. That was when I realized that I had to return to that community. I’m a biologist and ethnobotanist and I love talking to people. I started documenting the plants I was finding, who was growing them, and what they were used for. This database started to grow, which fortunately allowed us to get more funding to continue traveling to Jaqué with Yolanda and to make the magic that happened there.

First, we wanted to connect two coastal communities, which were the Las Perlas archipelago and Jaqué, around gardens, recipes and useful plants. Later, we focused only on Jaqué, and there we went through a whole journey of workshops, volunteers, art, permaculture, and culinary arts. We were trying to recuperate traditional cooking and not depend so much on things that come from the city on ships. Jaqué is so isolated and has so many market restrictions that a ship arrives on a sixteen-hour trip from Panama City carrying stuff like cement, beer, eggs, chicken and canned goods—a lot of canned goods that have led to really high amounts of diabetes and malnutrition. And so, there were conversations about going back to eating more salads and vegetables and about using local seeds. We did a lot of work in that area. We started organizing seed exchanges, and that’s where the Gardens in Canoes came from.

Yolanda Chois: Now here’s my version of the story. Like Michelle said, with Hacia el Litoral, I had done a tour through the Chocó and Darién regions of Panama and Colombia, which have been very stigmatized by the intense violence that they experienced as a border zone. In that project, what I did was to invite people that were interesting to me to do interdisciplinary work in that border zone. Michelle was there contributing as a botanist, but we had other friendships with sociologists, documentarians, scientists and people who didn’t necessarily come from an arts background. It was conceived as a kind of residency, and then other things started to happen.

I had in mind the model of Siembra (Planting), a project that the Más Arte Más Acción (More Art More Action) foundation had done, which was also an artistic practice connecting people from other disciplines, and they had developed a recipe book. It was a search for local knowledge and plants, and this is why Michelle and I started talking about a recipe book. But later there were the particular needs of that region, of the people who we got involved with in Jaqué, the need to bring back knowledge about the zoteas, which is a practice in many communities on the Pacific Coast, and surely in many other places where there are rivers and oceans. We started talking and came up with the idea of Hacia el Litoral as a platform for people to meet and develop a lot of different kinds of projects. Some of these came to fruition; others didn’t, others came together as artworks, others became radio programs, and Gardens in Canoes was one of those projects. It was really interesting because, among all of the people who contributed to the project, there was a spirit of collectivity, ideas and feelings that motivated people to find resources. On the other hand, it was also a constant learning process for all of us who came from different ways of working.

Michelle: It was totally a two-way learning experience!

Seeds and plants exchange in Jaqué, 2017 – Photo: Jardines en Balsas archive

Diana: How were you able to integrate those working methods between arts and science backgrounds?

Yolanda: It was often very difficult for me. For those of us who work in culture, communications or art, it’s sometimes hard to place our contributions to a project, which for example: in the case of science, biology and botany, is much clearer. While my question was “How can we deconstruct our ideas about how we relate to this community?” For Michelle, the question was much more practical. She would say to me, “We have to bring tools and that’s it,” which made a lot of sense.

Art came into the project as a way to think about the relationship with the community and as a way to design strategies for bringing back that knowledge about the zoteas. For example, one of the volunteer artists devoted herself to studying biochemicals and solutions for plant diseases, and in the end, she made a handbook. At a different point, we invited an illustrator to draw gardens and spend time with the people. She was doing different cultural activities that had to do with the gardens, beyond collecting information. There were also a lot of labs where people from different disciplines were invited to work with the community to complement each person’s knowhow, instead of telling them how they needed to do things.

In the case of botany specifically, it was vital not only for scientific information, but it also helped us to establish some processes for seed exchanges that were and are essential for the project. It helped us to identify problems, and it helped us in the search for [food] sovereignty, because there is a financial control over something that shouldn’t be subject to that. It allowed us to hold onto seeds so that they would continue to exist, which is an example of how things started to intersect, and the knowledge set down in the books is definitely as much about local science as it is a huge contribution from Michelle as a scientist interested in the relationship between human beings and the vegetatio

Michelle: It also had a lot to do with the volunteers’ work. They were invited to stay as long as they wanted and the only thing we asked in return was that they would go along with the community on issues of agriculture to find and rescue seeds, through questions like: “Which seeds did your grandparents use? Which ones are they? How do you preserve them?” That was what guided us all and was what we worked on all the time, which generated other kinds of projects with other issues, but always with the community. That way we could gradually refine the botanical information and technical things about the book, so that the local knowledge would be respected and it wouldn’t contain erroneous information.

Diana: How did the community take to these interdisciplinary processes of knowledge sharing?

Michelle: It’s important to know that there was already a community structure in place and that we didn’t arrive out of thin air. There was the Escuelita de la Paz (School for Peace), where people worked a lot on the issue of healthy, non-violent education for children. There was the Colegio de la Tierra (Earth/Soil School): a high school that focused on agriculture. There is a turtle conservation project in place since 1998. All of that already existed. There were also precedents that basically set things up for us to be well received. We’ve also been lucky that the people who spent time with us and the people from the community have accepted each other. All of it has been happening from a place of good will and respect. I’ve never heard of someone who had to leave the community because they couldn’t stand it. Which is something that can happen and has happened in other projects.

Yolanda: I would also say that when we talk about community it’s not that we’re talking about all of Jaqué. Jaqué is the municipality’s main town and a meeting point for various communities that are much further up the rivers. When we say community, we’re referring to the group we work with, people who have already been acting as leaders in other projects and are accustomed to this. In fact, I think what we did was to refresh that relationship a little bit, because many other projects that happen there are international aid projects, which can often be much more instrumentalist relationships. Though they may have already become accustomed to people arriving from the outside to do things, we tried to manage a project with a more horizontal logic, although there are things that simply can’t be horizontal because of certain ways of relating that are very difficult to break.

On the other hand, the people who arrived as volunteers each had their own way of relating to people and opening up the project to other concerns. To me, that was very important because, at the end of the day, one of the valuable things about the project and the relationship between volunteers and the community was the development of other stories about such a stigmatized place. The book is, more than anything, a tool for the community to get to know the symbolic and biological wealth of their land, and as such: a tool for defending it too.

Volunteers and community members in Jaqué, 2016 –  Photo: Hacia el Litoral archive

Diana: You said that you tried to establish more horizontal work dynamics. How do you approach horizontality?

Yolanda: I see it in different ways. The first thing is that it’s important to open up the relationship to resources, to funding. People should know what is the money available and how it’s being managed. Michelle would come every month with a folder with all of the information about how the funding was being used.

Michelle: I believe a lot in transparency in the data and the respect that I as a “foreigner” should show the community for allowing me to do a project there. It is an ethic that doesn’t get practiced much, but it’s vital. Transparency from financial resources to how far the project will go, what will come out of it, as well as identifying what we can’t control, the risks has been key over all these years and is at least a way to define the playing field. The budget is public, as are the activities, and also the changes that can be made. Everything is open because the project belongs to everyone. I think that changed how people were thinking about things a lot.

Yolanda: What’s more, we created a lot of strategies for being there, for spending time with people. The work with volunteers was super important because, although we did spend a lot of time in Jaqué, we couldn’t go and live there at the time. But the people who went to volunteer were there and were the project’s presence. It was very important to always be there, to have someone doing things and staying in that place, spending time with the people. Many projects in rural communities happen in a more transitory way, and the people leave as soon as they’re over. Our idea was to really be there, and we did it in a continuous way for over two years, with people tied to the project also staying in place, and that was also a way to create horizontality. Being present day in and day out, not only for the problems that affect the project, but also as part of the place.

On the other hand, there is also a more subjective process, and it’s that being in that place starts to transform how you see things, and it’s important to stay open to that possibility. Because for all of these rural communities—that are afro-Colombian, that are indigenous, that have different conditions, and are apparently distant to someone coming from the city with other problems, in a different condition. So, allowing yourself to ask who you are to that other reality is also part of the process, I think. But I don’t know if there is an ABC to these things.

Diana: With all of the possibilities for collective creation, how did you stick to the idea of making a book?

Yolanda: Initially, the reference was the project I told you about called Siembra. The process started to take a different shape, but the book always remained as an idea of how to culminate the project. What gradually changed was that it was no longer about a recipe book; it would be a different kind of knowledge that had to be there.

This was also part of our group conversations, asking what would be better for this place to leave that knowledge remaining in something; if it would be better to make a movie or a documentary—and in fact, several documentary videos were made as part of the process of returning the information to this place. This is when we decided that all that botanical work that Michelle had been doing with the families and local people should be the content. We invited the Isla en Vela, a local collective of graphic designers, to make the botanical illustrations, diagrams, and design the book, a job that we also carried out for several years. That has left us a powerful mark on collective creation for the community.

Diana: What have been your conclusions about this process, from its conception up until now?

Yolanda: I feel that, as artists, we’re used to processes that lead more to works, to some kind of physical thing. So, this practice is a little strange because it takes many forms. At one point it is an ethnobotany book; at another point i   t’s local processes, and at another point it’s labs. It’s a more hybrid practice, and sometimes it is difficult for me to explain what it is in its different manifestations.

Jardines en Balsas publication, 2022 – Photo courtesy of Yolanda Chois


Yolanda Chois-Rivera (she/her) studied Visual Arts at the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia. She has lived between Panama and Colombia, where she researches curatorial, artistic, and interdisciplinary practices between urban and rural territories. She has managed projects in Colombia with the Museo la Tertulia, the Goethe Institute, the Ministry of Culture, the Cultural Area of Banco de la República, and multiple artistic and environmental organizations in the global south, among others.

Michelle Szejner (she/her) is a biologist with a great passion for ethnobotany cultures, and the traditional uses of her resources. She enjoys walking with the oldest and wisest people in town; strolling through her gardens and learning about plants is what she likes the most. She is originally from Guatemala and fell in love with Jaqué in 2014, visiting continuously to plant and exchange seeds and knowledge.

Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist, educator, and culture worker residing in Portland, Oregon since 2019. She is currently a student at the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University. As a family engagement specialist for the Latino Network’s education department, she creates spaces for immigrant families to meet and learn within the afterschool programs offered by Portland Public Schools.

Diana Marcela Cuartas en conversación Con Yolanda Chois y Michelle Szejner

“Era algo muy importante que siempre alguien se quedara haciendo cosas y estando en el lugar, pasando tiempo con la gente. Muchos de los proyectos de que trabajan en comunidades rurales de manera más pasajera y se van tan pronto terminan. Nuestra idea era estar, estar, estar”


Jardines en Balsas es un proyecto de educación ambiental y creación artística comunitaria, creado por Yolanda Chois y Michelle Szejner junto a un grupo de familias de sembradores en el corregimiento de Jaqué, en la costa pacífica de la frontera entre Panamá y Colombia conocida como la Región del Darién. El nombre hace referencia a una práctica agrícola llamada zoteas, el cuál es un conocimiento propio de las comunidades ribereñas en varios lugares del Chocó biogeográfico,en la que se aprovechan embarcaciones en desuso para cultivar huertos elevados que se adaptan a las crecidas del mar o de los ríos.

En esta entrevista, Yolanda y Michelle nos comparten sobre un proceso de siete años de trabajo artístico e interdisciplinario buscando, por petición de la comunidad, traer de vuelta esta técnica de siembra en alerta de ser olvidada. Uno de los resultados es un libro que recopila y clasifica 100 plantas útiles de Jaqué que se investigaron de manera colectiva a través de encuentros de siembra, intercambios de semillas, y el compartir de conocimientos en torno a la agricultura tradicional y las plantas nativas, con miras hacia la soberanía alimentaria de esta provincia.

Vista de Jaqué llegando en barco – Foto: archivo Hacia el Litoral

Diana Marcela Cuartas: Empecemos por el principio: ¿cómo surgió Jardines en Balsas?

Michelle Szejner: Conocí a Yolanda por una amiga en común y en una conversación me contó de Hacia El Litoral, un proyecto que consistía en un recorrido por la región del Chocó con un colectivo de artistas. Ellos iban a viajar por mar, conociendo y reconociendo las culturas locales, recopilando tradiciones orales, historias y cartas sonoras. Era un proyecto precioso y una de las paradas era Panamá. Mencionó también que quería hacer un recetario y pensé que mis servicios podrían ayudar a identificar las plantas útiles con estas comunidades, le dije que pediría vacaciones si ella me permitía unirme a este colectivo de forma voluntaria. Ella me dijo “Súper! Llegas tal día día en tal avión” y así llegué a una comunidad que no conocía, en un área súper remota de Panamá, que muy pocos panameños conocen.

Estando allá empecé a conocer a las familias cultivadoras de Jaqué. Un día en el jardín de una de las participantes del proyecto, encontramos que había más de 120 especies de plantas útiles en su jardín de zoteas. Ahí me di cuenta que yo tenía que regresar a esa comunidad. Yo soy bióloga y etnobotánica y me encanta platicar con la gente. Empecé a documentar las plantas que encontraba, quién las cultivaba, y qué usos tenían. Esta base de datos fue creciendo y afortunadamente nos permitió conseguir otros recursos para seguir viajando a Jaqué con Yolanda y hacer la magia que ocurrió allá.

Primero queríamos unir a dos comunidades costeras que era el archipiélago de Las Perlas con Jaqué. Siempre con el tema de jardines, recetas y plantas útiles. Después nos enfocamos solo Jaqué y ahí tuvimos todo un camino de talleres, voluntarios, arte, prácticas de permacultura y culinarias, tratando de recuperar la cocina tradicional y no depender tanto de las cosas que vienen de la ciudad en el barco. Jaqué está tan aislado y tiene tantas restricciones de comercialización que llega un barco que se tarda dieciséis horas desde la Ciudad de Panamá llevando cosas como cemento, cervezas, huevos, pollo y enlatados, muchos enlatados que han generado unos índices de diabetes y desnutrición altísimos. Entonces surgieron conversaciones sobre regresar a comer más ensaladas y vegetales, y en torno a las semillas locales. Tuvimos mucho trabajo con este tema, empezamos a hacer intercambios de semillas y ahí surgió Jardines en Balsas.

Yolanda Chois: Ahora viene mi versión de la historia. Como mencionaba Michelle, con Hacia el Litoral yo había hecho ese recorrido entre Panamá y Colombia por las regiones del Chocó y el Darién, que han sido unos territorios muy estigmatizados por la fuerte violencia que se vive por el hecho de ser una frontera. En ese proyecto, lo que hice fue invitar gente que me pareció interesante para hacer un trabajo desde la interdisciplinariedad en este lugar de frontera. Estaba Michelle aportando desde la botánica, pero también había otras amistades sociólogas, documentalistas, científicas, y gente que no necesariamente venía del campo de la creación artística. Esto se plantea de alguna manera como una residencia y allí empiezan a pasar otras cosas.

Yo tenía el referente de Siembra, un proyecto que había hecho la fundación Más Arte Más Acción, en la región de Nuquí en el Chocó, que también era una práctica artística que vinculaba a personas de otras disciplinas y en ese caso se materializó en un recetario. Era una búsqueda por el conocimiento local y las plantas, y por eso se inició la conversación del recetario con Michelle. Pero posteriormente aparece esta necesidad propia del lugar, de las personas con las que nos involucramos en Jaqué, de que el conocimiento de las zoteas volviera, que es una práctica que viene de varias comunidades del Pacífico, y seguramente en muchos otros lugares con mar y río. Empezamos a hablar y la idea era que Hacia el Litoral sería una plataforma de encuentros para generar muchos tipos de proyectos. Algunos se materializaron, otros no, otros se configuraron como obras de arte, otros en procesos de radio, y Jardines en Balsas fue uno de esos proyectos. Era algo muy interesante porque, entre todas las personas que se sumaron al proyecto había un espíritu de colectividad, unas ideas y sentires que motivaban la gestión de recursos. Por otro lado también fue un aprendizaje constante para todos pues veníamos de diferentes maneras de trabajar.

Michelle: ¡Era un aprendizaje de doble vía totalmente!

Siembra de semillas en jardines de zoteas – Foto: archivo Jardines en Balsas

Diana: ¿Cómo lograban articular esas maneras de trabajar desde el arte y la ciencia?

Yolanda: Para mí muchas veces era difícil. A nosotros los que trabajamos en cultura, comunicación, o arte, a veces nos cuesta ubicar lo que estamos colocando en los proyectos. Cosas que por ejemplo en el caso de la ciencia, la biología y la botánica son muy claras. Mientras para mí la cuestión era “¿Cómo deconstruir la idea de la relación con la comunidad?”, para Michelle la cuestión era mucho más práctica. Me decía “Tenemos que llevar herramientas y punto”, lo cual tuvo mucho sentido.

El arte entraba en el proyecto para pensar las relaciones con la comunidad y en diseñar estrategias para que ese conocimiento de las zoteas volviera. Por ejemplo, una de las artistas voluntarias se dedicó a investigar sobre bioquímicos y soluciones para las enfermedades de las plantas y al final hizo un manual. En otro momento invitamos a una dibujante para dibujar jardines y estar con la gente. Ella estuvo haciendo diferentes actividades culturales que tenían que ver con los jardines, más allá del levantamiento de la información. También se montaron muchos laboratorios en los que se invitaba gente de diferentes disciplinas a trabajar en comunidad para complementar los conocimientos que cada quien tenía en lugar de decirle cómo tiene que hacer las cosas.

En el caso de la botánica específicamente, fue vital no solo por la información científica, sino que nos ayudó a establecer unos procesos de intercambios de semillas que fueron y siguen siendo vitales para el proyecto. Nos ayudó a señalar problemas y a buscar soberanía, porque hay un control económico sobre algo que no debería tenerlo. Nos permitía mantener las semillas para que siguieran existiendo. Esto como un ejemplo de cómo se iban cruzando las cosas, y en definitiva el conocimiento depositado en el libro es tanto de ciencia local, como un gran aporte de Michelle como científica interesada en la relación de los seres humanos con la vegetación.

Michelle: También tenía mucho que ver con el trabajo de los voluntarios. Se les invitaba por el tiempo que ellos quisieran y lo único que se pedía era que fluyeran con la comunidad en temas del agro, las semillas, para encontrar y rescatar semillas. Desde preguntas como “¿Qué semillas usaban tus abuelos? ¿Cuáles son? ¿Cómo se conservan?”. Eso nos guiaba a todos y se trabajó todo el tiempo, generando otro tipo de proyectos con otro tipo de temas, pero siempre con la comunidad. Esto nos permitió ir afinando la información botánica y cosas técnicas del libro para que respetara el conocimiento local y no incluyera información errónea. 

Diana: ¿Cómo era la acogida de la comunidad con estos procesos interdisciplinares de compartir saberes?

Michelle: Es importante saber que ya había una base comunitaria y no es que llegamos ahí de la nada. Estaba la Escuelita para La Paz, donde se trabajó muchísimo un tema de educación hacia los niños, sana, no violenta. Estaba el Colegio de la Tierra, una secundaria con enfoque agro. Hay un proyecto de conservación de tortugas desde 1998. Todo eso ya existía. Había antecedentes que básicamente nos abrieron el camino para tener buena aceptación. También ha sido muy especial que las personas que nos han acompañado y las personas de la comunidad han sido bien recibidas entre ellas. Todo se ha movido desde un lugar de buena voluntad y respeto. Nunca he sabido que hay alguien que se tiene que ir de la comunidad porque no lo aguanta. Que es algo que puede pasar y ha pasado en otros proyectos.

Yolanda: También te diría que cuando hablamos de comunidad no es que hablemos de todo Jaqué. Jaqué es una cabecera municipal que es un punto central para varias comunidades que están mucho más adentro en los ríos. Cuando decimos comunidad, nos referimos al grupo con el que trabajamos, que son personas que ya venían de muchos años atrás siendo líderes de otros proyectos y estaban acostumbrados a esto. De hecho, creo que lo que nosotros hicimos fue refrescar un poco esa relación, porque muchos otros proyectos que suceden allí son proyectos de cooperación internacional, que muchas veces puede ser una relación  más instrumentalista. Aunque ya estuvieran acostumbrados a que llegue gente afuera a hacer cosas, nosotros intentamos gestar un proyecto en una lógica un poco más horizontal, aunque hay cosas que es imposible que sean horizontales por cierto tipo de relaciones que ya son muy difíciles de romper.

Por otro lado, las personas que llegaban como voluntarias tenían cada uno su propia manera de relacionarse con la gente y abrir el proyecto a otras cuestiones. Para mí eso era muy importante porque al final de todo, una de las cosas valiosas del proyecto y la relación de los voluntarios con la comunidad fue generar otros relatos de ese lugar tan estigmatizado. El libro es una herramienta sobre todo para la comunidad para conocer la riqueza simbólica y biológica de su territorio, y en esa medida también poder defenderlo.

Intercambios de semillas en Jaqué – Foto: archivo Jardines en Balsas

Diana: Mencionaste que ustedes trataron de establecer unas dinámicas de trabajo más horizontales, ¿cómo se intenta la horizontalidad?

Yolanda: Yo lo veo de varias maneras. La primera es que la relación con los recursos, con el dinero, es importante abrirla. Que la gente sepa qué dinero hay, cómo se está manejando. Michelle cada mes llegaba con una carpeta donde estaba toda la información de cómo se estaban ejecutando los recursos.

Michelle: Soy bien creyente de la transparencia de los datos y el respeto que que yo como “extranjera” le debo a la comunidad por permitirme hacer un proyecto ahí. Es una ética que no se practica mucho pero es vital, la transparencia desde los recursos económicos hasta el dónde vamos a llegar con el proyecto, qué va a salir de ahí; así como identificar lo que no podemos controlar, los riesgos. Eso ha sido clave en todos estos años y es al menos es “marcar la cancha”. El presupuesto es público, tanto como las actividades, y también los cambios que se pueden hacer. Todo está abierto porque el proyecto es de todos. Creo que eso cambió mucho la forma de pensar.

Yolanda: Además, creamos muchas estrategias de estar en el lugar, de pasar tiempo con la gente. El trabajo con voluntarios fue súper importante porque, aunque nosotras sí pasábamos bastante tiempo en Jaqué, no nos podíamos ir a vivir allí en ese momento. Pero la gente que fue voluntaria estaba allí y era la presencia del proyecto, era algo muy importante que siempre alguien se quedara haciendo cosas y estando en el lugar, pasando tiempo con la gente. Muchos de los proyectos de que trabajan en comunidades rurales de manera más pasajera y se van tan pronto terminan. Nuestra idea era estar, estar, estar, estar, y lo logramos sin interrupción por más de dos años, en donde la gente que estaba vinculada al proyecto también estaba en el lugar y eso también era una manera de intentar la horizontalidad. Estando presente en el día a día, en los problemas que surgen no sólo con el proyecto, sino como parte del sitio.

Por otro lado, también hay un proceso más subjetivo y es que el estar en ese lugar te empieza a transformar la mirada sobre las cosas y es importante abrirse a esa posibilidad. Porque en el caso de todas estas comunidades que son rurales, que son afro, que son indígenas, que están en otras condiciones y evidentemente tienen una distancia para el que viene de la ciudad con otros problemas, en otra condición. Entonces el permitirse cuestionar quién sos por esta otra realidad también creo que hace parte del proceso. Pero no sé si hay un A,B,C de estas cosas.

Diana: ¿Con todas las posibilidades de la creación en colectivo, cómo se sostuvo la idea de hacer un libro?

Yolanda: Inicialmente el referente era el proyecto que te dije que se llamaba Siembra. El proceso se fue dando de otra manera pero el libro siempre se conservó como la idea de culminar el proyecto en un libro. Lo que fue cambiando es que ya no se trataba de un recetario, sino que era otro conocimiento el que tenía que estar.

Esto también fue parte de las conversaciones en grupo, preguntarnos qué es mejor para ese lugar en términos de que su conocimiento quede fijado en algo. Si sería mejor una película o un documental, y de hecho sí se hicieron varios videos documentales como parte del proceso de devolver la información al lugar. Ahí decidimos que todo ese trabajo botánico que venía recopilando Michelle con las familias y personas locales debía ser el contenido del libro, invitamos al colectivo Isla en Vela para realizar las ilustraciones botánicas, para diagramar y diseñar el libro, un trabajo que también realizamos durante varios años y que nos ha dejado una huella muy fuerte desde la creación colectiva para una comunidad. 

Diana: ¿Cuáles han sido tus conclusiones con este proceso desde su concepción hasta ahora?

Yolanda: Siento que como artistas estamos acostumbrados a unos procesos que devienen más en obra, en algún tipo de cosa física. Entonces esta práctica es un poquito extraña porque tomó muchas formas. En un momento es un libro de etnobotánica, en otro momento son procesos locales, en otro momento son laboratorios. Es una práctica más híbrida y a mí me ha costado, que ahí en sus diferentes instancias se comprenda qué es lo que es.

Mural sobre los jardines en zoteas – Foto: archivo Jardines en Balsas

Yolanda Chois Rivera

Licenciada en Artes Visuales, ha vivido los últimos años entre Panamá y Colombia. Realiza prácticas curatoriales, artísticas e interdisciplinarias entre territorios urbanos y rurales. Ha gestionado proyectos en Colombia con el Museo la Tertulia, Goethe Institute, Ministerio de Cultura, Área cultural del Banco de la República entre otras instituciones y con fundaciones artísticas y ambientales en el sur global.

Michelle Szejner es bióloga con gran pasión por la cultura etnobotánica y los usos tradicionales de sus recursos. Caminar con los más grandes y sabios del pueblo, pasear por sus jardines y aprender de plantas es lo que más le gusta. Es originalmente de Guatemala y se enamoró de Jaqué en el 2014 y junto con su hijo no han dejado de visitarlo y continuar sembrando e intercambiando semillas y saberes.

Diana Marcela Cuartas es una artista, educadora y trabajadora cultural colombiana, radicada en Portland desde 2019. Actualmente es estudiante de Maestría en Arte y Práctica Social en Portland State University y trabaja en el departamento de educación de Latino Network, como especialista en participación familiar, generando espacios de encuentro y aprendizaje compartido para familias inmigrantes a través de programas extra curriculares en escuelas secundarias de Portland.

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.

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