Chicago was the place for the ninth year of Open Engagement1, the conference of socially engaged art and activism. This year’s event organized around the theme of JUSTICE and is a part of a trilogy begun in 2016 in Oakland with POWER and culminating in 2018 in New York with SUSTAINABILITY for the conference’s tenth year. Open Engagement was headquartered on the UIC campus but tentacled out throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods making it impossible to encompass in its entirety. The sprawling event included nearly thirty different Chicago arts organizations ranging in scale from big museums, medium sized non-profits, to small apartment galleries. Depending on one’s background, interests and goals the experience of attending Open Engagement would vary dramatically2. Clearly, the conference represents an intentional effort at compiling, year after year, experiential knowledge and best practices in the field of social practice.

Justice as a topic is pursued widely in Open Engagement as presenters addressed mass incarceration to adultism, anti-racism to trans-liberation, urban development to rural arts programming. No matter the context, the concept of Justice was grounded in the notion that radical, non-hierarchical interaction between individuals and groups, recognizing in others a shared humanity, would break down inequality. While this sounds like a simplistic goal the presentations at OE show the difficult practicalities of crossing political, class, and racial divides. Even geographic distance becomes a factor where people’s collective fates are linked via invisible, transnational economic forces. The conference, then, is a kind of meeting place for the practical exchange of ideas and strategies to help forge this kind of necessary, complex, and emotionally taxing work.

Thursday’s pre-conference day of events was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.  A discussion called “What Makes a Just Institution?”  between Angelique Power, President of the Field Foundation, Amina Dickerson of Dickerson Global Advisors and Jackie Terrassa from the Art Institute of Chicago focused on the dynamics that shape institutional priorities from inside and outside. There was a special emphasis on the role that foundations play in requiring social justice initiatives of their grantees. An important theme of the more museum-centric panels throughout the weekend was that community validation is required for effective institutional leadership on equality and inclusion.

An audience question from the St. Louis-based activist De Nichols, formerly a staff member at CAM St. Louis, noted that instead of leadership it was the staff which rose up in support of the black community against the Kelley Walker exhibition and made demands of the institution. Additionally, Nichols asked how best staff could effect change within an institution with reluctant leadership.  In response, Powers noted that directors are beholden to different constituencies and that existing institutional environments usually select leaders in their image. Museums are not automatically democratic spaces. She continued by saying that for staff having an organized and broad coalition of resistance is the best tactic because they need to “help the leader get there” by showing that the problem is not singular but endemic. Amina Ross also replied that consistency of voice is important in creating institutional change.

The following panel at the MCA gathered artists and organizers Terri Kapsalis, Jorge Rojas, Irina Zadov and Faheem Majeed to discuss the role of artists in crossing between the museum and public space.  In recounting a story of friction between his artwork and the surrounding community Faheem Majeed made the observation that conflict and complaint show buy-in and care on the part of the complainers for the institution or neighborhood. Stating instead that “when people are quiet, that’s when you should be worried.” This is an important point about examples like CAM St. Louis, the poor leadership response was also a betrayal of the black community’s investment in the museum. Some response, in this case, was better, though harder to deal with than silence.

Jorge Rojas, an artist and museum educator from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, told the story of his My Space: Guadalajara project where he created a live-in studio in the window of a Mexican museum that invited people into the institution and literally into the process of artmaking. As one of the prominent themes of the weekend, creating these meaningful spaces for interaction requires active listening. Irina Zadov of the Chicago Home Theatre Festival articulated that “Being fully present requires not having an agenda, but institutions need an agenda.” Instead, Zadov suggested that the responsiveness needed for listening is hard for people with power to create because they have to pause or relinquish the requirements of their institutional goals.

Ryan Griffis and Sarah Ross, The Great Green Desert; The World in Some Parts 2017, Altered Globes

Exhibitions around the city were either timed to coincide with Open Engagement or were reframed by them in a compelling way. UIC’s Gallery 400 held The Earth will not abide, a group exhibition about the effects of industrial agriculture and extractive land use on the social fabric. Artists Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis’ project A Great Green Desert, documents two separate communities in Illinois and Brazil linked by the soy commodity market. In each place, people struggle with the political and ecological repercussions of multinational agribusiness. Through extensive research, interviews and documentary video, Ross and Griffis show the how Brazilian agribusiness companies use their political clout to disenfranchise farmers and indigenous populations and force ecological changes necessary to produce soy in the Brazilian climate. Elsewhere, Brian Holmes and Alejandro Meitin, present the Living Rivers/Rios Vivos project that creates geographical maps based on ecological, commercial, or political links that ignore national borders, different takes on “globalism”. Here artmaking creates a tangible picture of larger transcontinental economic forces that are more frequently felt by the people which they impact but not easily understood. Art helps activism make abstract economic processes tangible to the senses and therefore available for viewers to have an empathetic and/or political response.

The function of art to abstract experiences concrete played out in other sites around the conference. Friday’s OE events featured overlapping open houses with organizations around the city, creating very serious pan-Chicago FOMO. Downtown at the Chicago Cultural Center, Amanda Williams, Chicago-based artist and architect held a conversation with Leslie Simon, an educator, and writer from San Francisco, and discussed art practices highlighting the need for affordable urban housing and negative impacts of gentrification. The event was held inside The Wall of Respect: Vestiges, Shards and the Legacy of Black Power, an exhibition curated by Romi Crawford (also an OE 2017 co-curator), Abdul Alkalimat and Rebecca Zorach. The show chronicles the Organization of Black American Culture‘s Visual Artists Workshop design and production of the seminal 1967 mural The Wall of Respect for and within Chicago’s black southside communities in the wake of the March on Washington and proved a poignant backdrop.

Replica image of The Wall of Respect in the exhibition The Wall of Respect: Vestiges, Shards and the Legacy of Black Power at the Chicago Cultural Center

Williams discussed her project Color(ed) Theory 3 presented in 2015 in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial where she brightly painted several houses in Englewood that had been marked for demolition.

“I was resistant to sharing this project because the project wasn’t for everyone. It was for this neighborhood that I’d adopted. (…) That final event was really interesting. I anticipated that a bunch of people would go out there to see (the houses) and then pat themselves on the back. To have the demolition happen as soon as it did, 14 days from the painting, and then to invite all of these people back to really experience that loss, the hopelessness, the powerlessness related to an object. (…) To realize that feeling (of panic and urgency) as if it was your own house was almost more important to me than the painting itself.”

Color(ed) Theory helps delineate another kind of abstract process, that of the ethics of urban planning and real estate development, by framing it in terms of architecture. The value-added, cultural capital of the “art” label makes available to viewers some portion of the emotional experience that the community of the Englewood must feel when homes come down. The demolition of the artwork throws into relief the destructive process at the heart of housing injustice.

Friday’s evening event took place at the Stony Island Arts Bank with a conversation between Theaster Gates and Open Engagement co-curators Lisa Yun Lee and Romi Crawford. The conversation began by having Gates frame the motivation to acquire the Stony Island Bank building itself as an extension of his practice with the Dorchester Project. He described the Bank as one of the last of the big buildings on the avenue. “This used to be a commercial strip with movie theaters, dining establishments, hardware store and hotels. I didn’t like the architectural image, the feeling that I had to get past Stony Island as fast as I could. It had more to offer the world by standing than by demolishing.” Gates described that preserving the bank made residents who currently drive by quickly, slow down. This slowing down, a physical slowdown, speaks to Gates’ practice of urban planning where patterns of traffic register as important aspects of the built environment. This slowdown is a form of preservation, a preservation of a public meeting space for the people who live nearby (preserving access to public space was another constant theme of the weekend) as well as preservation of a kind of cultural legacy in the bank with its various collections, like the Johnson Publishing Archive or Frankie Knuckles’ vinyl collection. These collected collections, or in Gates’ words “other people’s things and a lot of them”, represent the durational, intentional action of an individual.


Theaster Gates in conversation with Lisa Yun Lee and Romi Crawford at the Stony Island Arts Bank. Image credit to Jackie Rivas

The conversation next moved to Gate’s involvement with the memorial for Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African-American boy killed by police near a gazebo in a Cleveland park in 2014. Gates conveyed that Tamir’s mother Samaria Rice was looking to move the gazebo out of the community.

“With the bank, you’ve got a kind of urban trauma, no public amenities or spaces for culture. Then there is this site where something horrific happened and the what the City of Cleveland wants to do first is immediately eradicate any material sense of the thing so that people can no longer go that place and mourn, they can’t put teddy bears there, they can’t use it as an altar. The quicker that they can erase that stuff then people might forget the memory of the thing that happened there and then that emotion that kind of festers as a result of being able to go back to that thing and mourn, they can squash that.”

According to Gates, artist Hank Willis Thomas put Ms. Rice in contact with his studio. Other places, like the Smithsonian, were interested in holding the gazebo, but Ms. Rice wasn’t sure where she wanted to the gazebo to go. She was at least looking for a safe place to keep the fraught object. So Gates’ team de-installed the gazebo and stored it in the studio for safe keeping. Gates said that “it is not a found set of materials for me to play with or a trophy to be wielded. I know how to deal with materials, I don’t know how to deal with trauma.” Samaria has visited with Gates and they are in conversation but Ms. Rice hasn’t decided how to use it within her national platform.  

Still for Gates, “The gazebo is one of the ways that the material world insists that something bad happened. […] The gazebo is not art, the gazebo is a gazebo.”  Art objects work as communicative forms precisely because they are objects and have at least all of the qualities that objects themselves possess. Objects can store a relationship to a memory of an individual, a community or even a society. Objects are cared for, and felt for, if lost or taken away. Objects can show us the meaning of something clearly that is otherwise hard to understand or feel directly. America in 2017 is a strange year and place for a conference on Justice. Occasionally at OE, the question was posed, “Why bother with the art? Why not just do activism?” The answer might simply be that activism can do more with art, than without it.

More thoughts on Open Engagement 2017 in Part Two.

  1. Open Engagement Chicago 2017, http://openengagement.info/chicago-2017/ 
  2. Consequently this article should be viewed as the author’s best attempt to convey their experience and the observations therein shouldn’t be viewed as an attempt at a comprehensive review.
  3. Amanda Williams discussing Color(ed) Theory