By nicole gugliotti
Hi all, I’m going to be sharing with you a transcript of the short talk we did at Open Engagement last week. But first I’m going to give a little background and just a suuuuper brief summary of the weekend.
Open Engagement is an annual conference that offers up 3 days of programming about socially engaged art. The conference was founded by Jen Delos Reyes while she was a student at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan in 2007, later moving to Portland, OR. This year’s conference was held in Oakland, CA.
This was my first time attending this conference. There were many things that I liked about it. OE partnered with Human Hotel, an organization that links up people in town with folks coming to town and allows them to stay for free (you agree to buy or make a meal for your host or bring along a gift for them.) My host was a fellow presenter and amazing media artist/activist and I learned a lot just soaking up our conversations. There were some interesting projects and lectures/panels. My favorite moments were definitely 1)attending keynote Angela Davis’ lecture about art and resistance and 2)Attending the keynote lecture and master class with Susanne Lacy. They have both been huge heroes of mine since I was a baby artist/activist and they’re words and collective wisdom and experience made me feel very hopeful. Additionally, it was during the master class that I got a chance to work one on one with fellow attendees and had some of the most invigorating conversations of the weekend.
Despite the many amazing moments, the conference wasn’t without some tension. Thanks to social media, the exclusion of some local artists and groups, in particular Favianna Rodriguez who talked about her experience in the this FB post came to my attention as I headed south. While I don’t know Favianna or the Oakland art scene, this post gave me a crash course. For this visitor to the Bay Area, her absence was made palpable during the master class for presenters that was held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It was hard not to notice the mural size art by Rodriguez that filled the room, anchoring the exhibition Take This Hammer: Art and Media Activism From the Bay Area.
The OE team’s hard work was ever present, in the venue choice, the keynote programming, the signage. Though this was the first year they charged a conference fee, they were able to keep it very affordable. Feedback was transparently solicited and given through out the conference. I was definitely taking notes for the time when we at SECC start doing more ambitious programming.
At the close of the final conference day, Jeni and Forrest Gard, Mario Mutis and myself did a short presentation titled “The Power of the Object” in their Open Platform. The Open Platform part of the conference consisted of 10 minutes presentation, followed by 5 minutes of questions. Despite being the end of the day/conference, the room started to fill before we went up. Following the presentation we got several thoughtful questions about the collective and our projects. We even got some laughs and applause:)
The transcript with images follows. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the relational object.
Forrest: Thank you all for coming today. We are four members of the the SECC, which is the Socially Engaged Craft Collective, an expanding group of artists who create a wide range of socially engaged art projects that are rooted in the history of craft objects and craft materials. One of our goals is to promote artists and to expose other artists, educators, and those who are interested in the wide spectrum of socially engaged craft. In addition to highlighting artists and their artwork, the website is an open resource of knowledge, news, and professional opportunities within the field. Currently there are 21 artists in the collective.
Jeni: The SECC is working throughout the relational spectrum to investigate the history of the craft object and its role in social engagement. Using examples of our own varied projects and practices, we aim to challenge the established paradigm of western art history and look instead at the comprehensive history of the relational object, to celebrate it when it is present and honor its legacy when it is not.
Since times immemorial objects have been used for communion and connection. From the ceremonial to the utilitarian, these objects are relational. They bring people together and further culture and cause.
Today we’re going to have a quick conversation about the power of the object.
Nicole: So Mario, this is your project, can you tell us a little about it?
Mario: Yes this is a functional teapot used to serve coca tea, something that we drink in Columbia/ in the Andes
Nicole:Oh, I see you’re using a very traditional looking aesthetic. Is this based on historical Colombian work? Is that why one may read it as being old?
Mario: Well Historically we have learned that great artwork is made of stone marble oil paint , not gold or textiles pottery or ceramics. Because of this we are going to view these materials alongside non western objects and place them under a past historical context. This has to do with the way we view art in general from a western lens. People tend to view non-western work as something not contemporary, as something that belongs in a natural history museum.
Nicole: So the way we view materials like clay and fiber may be influenced by the type of art history education we’ve received? The devaluation of craft also coincides with the devaluation of work historically created by woman and artists of color.
Mario: Yes, if you are taught that The David is one of the greatest pieces of sculpture, but know nothing about a Tunjo, then naturally the history of the David and the Materials that is made out of will be explored, studied and learned further by the majority. This also happens with how we value the function of art.
Nicole: So in this piece part of the rationale you’re working with is this idea of how something is perceived and how it actually functions in the world. You’re showing people that what may be viewed as a historical traditional act is actually a contemporary everyday act.
Mario: Exactly, to bring to light that the objects we created traditionally had and has a function, to place them in a museum as a static object, at least with what I do, would negate that function therefore taking away the power of the object.
Nicole: That kind of sounds like relational aesthetics.
Jeni: Not quite …Socially Engaged Craft uses (handmade) objects (or materials) to support social engagement. This contemporary practice is rooted in the history of the craft object as a social object in society. Socially Engaged Craft Practice is the root of the more contemporary movements of Relational Aesthetics, Social Practice, and Socially Engaged Art. By using objects to help facilitate, personalize, direct attention or focus, and further social engagement. Socially Engaged Craft artists see objects and experience to be of equal importance. The objects support the experience and the experience supports the object.
Nicole: We aren’t bringing our object making tool box to relational aesthetics. relational aesthetics borrows relational tools from craft history.
Mario: You’re right, This attention to the use of the object and its importance reminds me a lot of Jeni’s work,
Jeni: Yeah Mario your right My work considers the following : community, food, place, ecology, relationships, eating and how those can or do intertwine. I use the ceramic vessel as a primary catalyst and the meal, as a tool for social consideration of the food system and sustainability. My work is embedded in the practices of everyday life. The work above stemmed from a prior work in which I created and carried my own dishset for 30 days using it for everything I ate and drank. Partake Columbus was a project in daily eating through sharing food. For 33 days the course of the accompanying exhibition 7 individuals from 7 different neighborhoods in Columbus Ohio shared a meal with someone each day using the specifically made set of ceramic dishes. It was recorded through photographs and written reflections in a group blog that allowed each individual to share their story.
Drawing on my training as a studio ceramicist I make vessels for specific people, specific uses, and communities. I engage people in my work through using the vessels and allowing their story to form around and through them. Nicole you also use stories right?
Nicole: I do. My work combines formal beauty with direct content in order to open up space around incendiary topics. in my project awe/agency i have collected stories about people’s positive experience with abortion. These stories about the complex decision making around abortion are played quietly through sculptures of speakers. the storytellers and the audience are connected intimately through the interaction in the gallery space, which is the final component of the work.
That’s something that you work with isn’t Forrest?
Forrest: My work explores the carryover from child’s play to adult play through interactive exhibitions that allow gallery visitors, the majority of which are adults the opportunity to play games in the gallery, which is a place that typically forbids the touching of artwork.
The piece shown here, titled Welcome Home, is a pay-to-play, hat tossing game. Gallery visitors attempted to toss my handmade ceramic hats onto a soft foam hat rack in an attempt to win them. One important component of my work is that through the participants’ interaction the artwork is complete. Mario, when do you consider your artwork complete?
Mario: For me the piece is complete after every interaction with people, so in that way the completion of the object cycles with every use. In my work it’s important to have the object and its function work together in a contemporary way.
Nicole: Our collective is interested in disrupting the art/craft divide. We believe that if you take away the western lens which elevates a select few people and practices, that socially engaged art has a much more comprehensive history which is rooted in the use of the relational craft object.
Jeni: Thank you all for coming. We have some post cards highlight work of the collective members. Now we will open it up for questions. We will be around a little after if you want to have a conversation.