Socially Engaged Art in the Public Realm: A Recap of Open Engagement 2014

Over the weekend of May 16, Open Engagement 2014 (OE) brought artists, cultural organizers, community activists, and citizens from around the world to New York for over 150 sessions — forums, case studies, and strategy workshops — to “expand the dialogue around socially engaged art making.” Founded and directed by Jen Delos Reyes and presented in the city for the first time by A Blade of Grass, Social Practice Queens at Queens College, and the Queens Museum (headquarters for the weekend), the conference demonstrated what keynote speaker and NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) artist in residence Mierle Laderman Ukeles observed as “the socialness” of socially engaged art: over the three days, emerging artists gathered with their established peers around their work’s core preoccupation with social interaction and thought.

The watershed model at the Queens Museum, the subject of an Open Engagement program

Socially engaged art is inherently based at the intersection of culture, politics, and economics, but it has not gained a stronghold in mainstream art, most likely due to its emphasis on process over form. In other words, it is not always an object to be seen, but perhaps an ephemeral event (or sequence of events) to be witnessed. Life/Work, the theme of this year’s conversations, draws from the rise of social practice graduate study in fine arts and precedent programs like Creative Time’s 2011 survey exhibition Living as Form, which explored “over twenty years of cultural works that blur the forms of art and everyday life, emphasizing participation, dialogue, and community engagement.” But unlike the exhibition, Open Engagement 2014 offered a chance for artists to talk back, or talk together, to unpack this complex and shifting mode of cultural production from multiple perspectives. One argument seemed to echo throughout the conference: “socially engaged art” is nothing new; its fundamentals have been practiced for decades under assigned labels including “public art,” “activist art,” “feminist art,” and “land art,” among others. As social and political factors evolve and art and environment continue to blur, how do we collectively define the amorphous field of socially engaged art, especially when it is known by variations on a name historically and contemporarily, i.e. social practice and contextual practice? Regardless of this rebranding across time, the OE conference contributes to the larger discourse that reframes work in a variety of media and contexts through the lens of social justice. In OE roundtable discussions and lectures, artists continually addressed questions of agency, social and political values, and the “who, for whom, what, when, why, how, and how much” of a project. Participants discussed their ways of working in order to approach questions of defining community, art, and public — a discussion that spanned the didactics of production to the self-reflective and theoretical.

Conference organizers opened a call for speakers in early November 2013, practicing the ethos of the theme by gathering a self-selecting group of stakeholders in art and social engagement. The sheer number of artists, administrators, and critics selected to lead workshops or show their work in Pecha Kucha style provided for several “parallel programs” in the galleries of the Queens Museum, in a number of satellite locations, and in itinerant formats throughout the city. The main venue for Open Engagement, fittingly, was the recently renovated Queens Museum building in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, highlighting its functionality as place of production and space for the display of artwork in its evolving forms. In the nation’s most diverse county, the Museum has expanded the role of an urban museum through laudable community partnerships, largely under the leadership of former Executive Director Tom Finkelpearl who now leads the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA). The timing of the Open Engagement conference prompts questions about the future of public art in New York City under Finkelpearl and how he can transition his work with the museum to government. How will the voices of artists be integrated into the City’s political priorities and messages, and how will that be seen by the public? Forever a student, and as someone engaged in the conversation on art (and architecture) as social practice, I selected a few OE programs to attend, primarily guided by themes that cross over with my role in managing the public art program for Freshkills Park.

Prerana Reddy moderates a panel of curators

A panel of three curators moderated by Prerana Reddy, the Queens Museum’s Director of Public Events, focused on how to curate for socially engaged art and how the role and agency of a curator shifts in social movements. How does an institution capture the energy and process embedded in social practice, which is forever in discursive motion and may not result in physical form, and maintain a critical distance from the issues at hand? While curators have brought art to the public square through the form of socially engaged art, museums have also introduced the event (the original work) to the museum or represented the practice through artifacts, similar to how performance art, before it, has been adapted for exhibition. The 2010 MoMA retrospective of Marina Abramović’s work, The Artist is Present, pioneered this exhibition type with various forms of documentation alongside re-performance of past works, and simultaneously, a newly commissioned piece by the artist in the galleries. The Artist is Present demonstrated the possibilities and limitations in displaying ephemeral or event-based work in the museum context. The conversation at OE revolved around the question of an institution’s role when the walls and activity orchestrated by the museum expand as participatory acts in the public sphere.

In the “Watershed” program, artists Mary Miss, Eve Mosher, designer Elliott Maltby, and environmental engineer Franco Montalto orchestrated an interactive program that prompted participants to imagine how to better connect New Yorkers to their watershed, a networked flow that crosses and connects several communities of distinct physical and social character. Working in breakout groups, we formulated alternative uses of the recently restored paper-mâché watershed model, originally made for the 1939 World’s Fair, a complement to the famous Panorama model that sits on the other side of the atrium. Building upon Mary Miss’s ongoing project, City as Living Laboratory, the goal of the activity was to instill environmental responsibility in museum visitors analogous to a curator’s care for the model. The Queens Museum had asked the artists to collect ideas for how to expand lessons around the model through interpretive content and design for future implementation. We imagined connections between the model, the water sources outside of the Museum, and the indoor plumbing including toilets and water fountains to enhance educational programming. The focus on water eroded the boundaries between artist, citizen, activist — and even rural and urban — while unsuspecting museumgoers wove through participants crouched around oversized sticky notes with thick-tipped markers in hand.

Participants of the “Watershed” program list ideas

The director of DCLA’s Percent for Art Program, Sara Reisman, led a lunchtime roundtable on “Public Art as Mirror,” which raised the difficult negotiations of ethics, identity, and funding that artists face while working in the public realm. Borrowing from the title of Mierle Ukeles’ 1983 Social Mirror, a NYC Sanitation truck clad in reflective material that prompts citizens to confront their waste and the process of its removal as a reflection of themselves (which still exists and is brought out for display from time to time), Reisman drove the discussion with the question, “must public art reflect the community in which it is installed?” The Percent for Art program integrates artists into the design process of a capital project by requiring 1% of the budget of all agency-driven building projects to go toward art. But the danger of this funding structure is a burial of the art within the overall environmental design, or worse, the group agreed, incorporation of the art as merely a decorative element. Until the recent past, public art has largely been inserted in the city or town square as “plop art” — work with limited site specificity or engagement with the surrounding community. Incorporating the growing discourse of “socially engaged art” into a shared idea of “public art” provides opportunity for art — in whatever form — to have greater relevance, but not without hurdles for artists, curators, and political figures alike.

“Utterly public art injected into the city’s bloodstream — anywhere, not only in special places” has been the mantra guiding Mierle Ukeles’ 40-year residency with the Department of Sanitation under the umbrella title Maintenance Work. Ukeles’ established body of work contextualizes the daily routines of sanitation workers as art and poses the question “Is this Work or is this Art?” for each of their daily movements, foreshadowing the conference’s Life/Work theme. Ukeles sets a provocative precedent for how an artist’s practice can be embedded in city processes and holds potential to expose invisible systems.

Prerana Reddy, Tom Finkelpearl, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Ukeles’ keynote traced the evolution of her practice through the relationships she has cultivated with the Department of Sanitation and how this experience drastically impacted her relationship with the city. Discussing projects including Touch Sanitation (1979-1984), Ballet Mechanique/Mécanique for Six Mechanical Sweepers (1983), and her landfill/earthwork proposals from 1977 on, through images of internal DSNY memos, letters between DSNY and the artist, and process and performance photographs, she demonstrated how artists, by virtue of being artists, can cross boundaries and make the seemingly mundane beautiful. Conveying thanks “for keeping New York City alive” to the individuals of DSNY at the moment of shaking hands with more than 8,500 workers in Touch Sanitation, she built a practice that is based on being together. In her long term and diligent following of sanitation workers and their forms of movement for different tasks, she “dismapped” the formal city and remapped the lived city through its waste stream and garbage trucks. “If only the trucks could talk,” she reported. Freed from the limitations of a gallery, Ukeles has used the city as a site for research and production, layering objects and discourse to connect the public. Her practice and role as an artist in residence might be a model for the City to engage social practice as public art.

As Sara Reisman speculated earlier that day, “the new administration may lead to a loosening in the messages communicated through the work” commissioned for the city’s public spaces; that is, commissioned work may be more inclusive of multiple perspectives and better represent the diverse composition of communities in New York City. Towards that end, Reisman has advocated for social practice as an option in the Percent for Art program. Further, Finkelpearl suggested that each city agency have its own resident artist, referencing the relationship between Ukeles and Sanitation as a precedent. Alternatively, does this work belong in a museum, like the Department of Sanitation Museum that the department’s anthropologist in residence Robin Nagle has proposed, drawing inspiration from the New York Transit Museum and New York City Fire Museum? The question of process over form remains and the posterity of the museum building makes it difficult to dismiss the institution of the museum as a critical space for art and civic engagement. Whether in the walls or outside of them, form or process, work or life, it seems clear that artists can offer unique and creative thinking to politics, economics, and the built environment to address existing challenges and perhaps rework public — the public sector or public art — as more “socially engaged.”


Mariel Villeré manages the growing art program for Freshkills Park, the largest landfill-to-park transformation in the world. She earned her Masters of Architecture Studies in History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art from MIT and lives in Brooklyn.

All images by the author.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.