Social Practice is Gay and Being Gay is Social Practice: The Art And Social Practice Archive in Queer Context 

“I think queering history is essential, especially since people are trying really hard to erase us from existence. We need to continue to place ourselves and what we believe in into our work.”

-Marti Clemmons

Every Tuesday for the past three terms I’ve spent a few hours among the Art + Social Practice Archive at the PSU library talking to Marti Clemmons and Caryn Aasness about archives, queerness, and the inherent queerness of archives. Here’s a conversation we had on the topic with one of the founders of the A+ SP Archive, Lo Moran. 

The Art + Social Practice Archive was founded in 2018 by Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem, Roshani Thakore, Lo Moran and Harrell Fletcher, and with the help of Cristine Paschild and Marti Clemmons from Portland State University’s (PSU) Special Collections and University Archives, to mark the 10th anniversary of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Located in the Portland State University Library Special Collections, the Art + Social Practice Archive is the first public archive dedicated to socially engaged art ephemera. The ASPA houses both physical and digital materials including posters, publications, flyers, zines, videos, sketches and other project documentation from past and ongoing artist projects.

Archival material being organized by Caryn and Olivia, 2023, Portland, OR, photo by Olivia 

Olivia DelGandio: I’m thinking about a conversation we had when Caryn and I first started working at the Art and Social Practice Archive with Marti. We were really into the idea that archives are inherently queer. I don’t know how this conversation started but we were like, it’s obvious that this is queer. What do you think about this idea?

Caryn Aasness: Maybe because we’re still at relatively early stages of social practice as a field of art, it feels like it has a sense of queerness to it. We’re kind of bending the rules and making something new here. In the archive we get to acknowledge multiple perspectives that are underrepresented in western art history and it holds such a variety of stories so it’s going to be a more accurate picture of what’s actually happening, who is involved, and what’s influencing this field.

Olivia: Totally. Living a queer life means questioning things and thinking about alternative futures. I feel like that’s what we’re trying to do with the ASPA; we’re making the rules and queering traditional structures of archiving. This space didn’t exist until recently and now that it does we’re gathering and putting material  into the world to make them exist in the present so that they can continue to exist in the future. And I think it’s so gay. Also, look at us as a group of people involved in this project right now; if everybody involved in the archive is queer, the archive itself is queer. We’re putting so much of ourselves into this project even though what we’re actually doing is collecting other peoples’ things. 

Marti Clemmons: I wouldn’t want it any other way. I think when I first started volunteering and

working at the City Archives and the Oregon Historical Society, I was very much afraid to place my identity in my work. As a student in the History department, I learned you keep yourself out of your work. But now if I see the words “queer” or “gay” in the materials I’m working with, I’m making sure that it goes in the finding aid, because historically that is not acknowledged. Any chance I get to put queerness in the collections, I do it, and I will continue to do so.

Caryn: Making the future. Yes.

Lo Moran: I’m thinking about the ethos of social practice; it’s about valuing things that are undervalued in our current systems and having trickster energy in your artistic approach. I feel like that is a theme, drawing attention to everyday moments or stories that weren’t traditionally paid attention to, and that is what queerness is all about too. 

Marti: I think the work that we’re doing, not to toot our own horns, but it’s very

important. I think queering history is essential, especially since people are trying really hard to erase us from existence. We need to continue to place ourselves and what we believe in into our work.

Caryn: I feel like people have always inserted themselves into the history and the work that they’re doing, they just weren’t acknowledging their identity and what that meant. You have to acknowledge where you come from.

Olivia: Being a social practice artist also means putting all your different identities into your work. Thinking about the work in the ASPA, the breadth of projects is so vast, because all of our identities are in our work. WAnd we can’t separate our identity from the work we want to be doing. Caryn, your work is so much about how your brain works and you put your brain into every project you do. MAnd my work is so much about grief, and I put all of that into every project I do. These projects are archiving our identities and the people that we are at this point in time. I think this connects to queerness too because we can’t separate this major facet of our identities from the work we’re doing. 

Caryn: There is so much generosity in putting your identity into your work and allowing audiences to see into your personal experiences. It just makes things richer. 

Olivia: It just feels like social practice is gay and being gay is a social practice.

Lo: I think we should end there. That feels like a good ending.

Olivia, Caryn, Lo (on zoom), and Marti posing in the special collections room at the Portland State library, 2023, Portland, OR, photo by Olivia 

Lo Moran (they/them) creates interdisciplinary projects that are often participatory, collaborative, and co-authored. They aim to experiment with and question the systems in which we’re all embedded by organizing situations of connection, openness, and nonhierarchical learning. Lo desires to develop sites for accessibility, and reimagined ways of being together. They are currently living and working in Berlin, Germany.

Marti Clemmons (they/them) is an Archives Technician at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives. They are interested in using archival work as a means of activism, especially through a queer lens.

Caryn Aasness (they/them) is a queer disabled artist from Long Beach, California living in Portland, Oregon. Caryn wants to invite you into their brain. In it we explore mental illness, and the folk art of coping mechanisms. We investigate queerness and how it forms and severs multiple selves. We look to language and learn how to cheat at it.

Olivia DelGandio 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 their work, 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. Essential to Olivia’s practice is research and their current research interests include untold queer histories, family lineage, and the intersection between fashion and identity. 

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.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207