Engaging Open Engagement
Soup lay at the end of the unwashed masses. Organizers cold only guarantee food for two hundred and fifty, a decent headcount of the social activists, liberal arts college professors, provocateurs and assorted art damaged scum standing between the stragglers and a free meal. We’d already sorted out where they kept the kegs.
Conversation hung overhead. It had all been over my head anyway, the presentations on theory choked with references to unknowns. Slide shows, tales of past glory, rotating panels swam circles around me and it was going to take a second beer to quiet them all down. For two afternoons I’d haunted lecture halls and classrooms with an eye on the audience to know when good points were being made. The audience was too busy checking their e-mail to pay attention, so I remained confused.
Registration to Open Engagement had been free and I didn’t have anything better to do over the course of a rainy weekend. Perfect conditions for an infestation of lowlifes and cell phone compulsives.
Soup and beer for the taking but the Yale Union seemed empty. Keynotes and panels had overflown with devotees of all stripes. Patrons wearing brooches sat on the floor next to androgynous radical knitters. Rooms had been so crowded were indie rock yuppies in scarves that the pack of women in wheelchairs would turn at the door to leave. The after party was stacks of needless chairs and half empty tables.
Pete dragged me from my beertime reverie to meet an arts professor from Gainesville, where foxes eat your chickens and the Christians hate everything except alligators in the canals. I said that it was impressive such a regressive backwater would shell out the cash to send her west where agitators contemplate the public perception of monuments. It wasn’t surprising to learn that she had snagged a ticket from a stewardess friend and was crashing on couches. This wasn’t a work trip, this was a place to network. Her contract was up in a year and Gainesville was not a good place to die, whatever statues might litter the town.
* * *
Public art was a hot topic during the first keynote I sat through. On the floor. In the dark. Being kicked as people bungled past. Paul Ramirez Jonas was a floating head blanched by the tightly choreographed and animated slideshow hanging in the sky. Who defines art? Who is responsible for defining art? What do dead philosophers have to say about the definition of art? Those who’d bothered to show up early enough to score a seat scribbled notes or checked Facebook. I thought about joining the little girl running up and down the aisles gearing up for a breakdown until Jonas moved on to the most obvious form of public art, the monument. He wasn’t concerned with the theory of dead heroes cast in lead so much as the failure of you and me and everyone else to understand what these handy landmarks represent and honor. I knew very little about the sinking of The Maine and I’d never heard about the ongoing Crazy Horse monument around the corner from Mount Rushmore. The audience laughed as we learned about the statue of Francisco Morazán which had been bought on the cheap from a French clearing house by corrupt politicians.
But then it was onto the twisted metal tantrum in Zuccotti Park, home of Occupy Wall Street. Youtube clips took over and we were given a crash course in the ‘mic check’ system of unamplified public address. When the Q&A faltered due to technical difficulties and the audience began chanting echoes of questions I fled.
Soup was slow to scoop and one of the kegs had been improperly tapped. A student hungry for extra credit must have arranged the buffet of two tureens for two hundred and fifty gabbing mouths. Gainesville threw her arm into the face of the chef as he cut through line carrying a tray of chickpea salad and found her beer forming a pedestrian hazard on the floor. The chef bustled off, she stared at her shoes and I was left to pester the buffet attendants for napkins.
My favorite stranger of the night turned out to be the first caterer whose job was to announce the two soups and apologize for running out of toppings for the roasted red pepper bisque. She didn’t serve anything, nor did her counterpart who didn’t even have a script to work from but could explain that the gazpacho was supposed to be cold. Pete was throwing croutons every which way in a fit of culinary reinvention which sent murmurs through the art set while I lamented the loss of baggy jeans and square cut t-shirts with the buffet greeter. These kids today with their tight jeans and fitted shirts.
* * *
Very few kids gave a shit about Open Engagement, hosted by the city’s largest university. A handful of suspected students did find themselves seats for the panel on representation held in the PSU art building whose dingy corridors were rendered claustrophobic by charcoal sketches of umbrellas and french presses. Cyndi Lauper was singing True Colors on the video screen as we settled in.
The first speaker spoke of suffering humiliating misunderstandings due to English being her second language and her work unifying disparate peoples through their shared linguistic shame. The second speaker conspired with the stale air and malfunctioning heating to lull us to sleep, whispering about teaching her students to teach art to kids. Did you know that Wisconsin has a large Hmong population? The sharply-dressed and self-possessed cool kids lurking in the back row waved their hands until we all understood that they knew this. Can we open a fucking window, this kid practicing graffiti in his notebook is choking me with Sharpie fumes. It’s even bothering the woman in front of me putting together some online invitation on her laptop. The third presenter, Filipe Castelblanco, woke everyone up with his project which had been custom-made for Open Engagement. He landed in town and picked a high rent neighborhood (the cool kids screamed Hawthorne as he tried to remember what it was called) a hung signs offering to paint people’s houses for the price they set. He picked up day laborers, paid their wage and packed them in a van. Pull up to the client’s, set up easels, paint the house.
A keen student threw herself at passerby trying to navigate the lobby, dragging them to a nearby computer. The construction paper pennant banner taped to the wall read Joyography. Log a location in Google Maps and the more one location is chosen the more prominent it displays. Nevermind that half the people at this conference don’t live in Portland. I asked if she was going to craft a relief map on the floor with popular destinations towering over the city. No, it’s all online. There’s not a lot of art happening here at Open Engagement beyond contraction paper pennant banners. Pete broke the computer while the student broke into a sob story about how her partner had skipped out for his sister’s wedding, leaving her alone in this stuffy lobby littered with collegiate fingerpaintings and administrative leaflets. Are you going to the dance party? I’m so looking forward to the dance party. I can’t wait for the dance party. The construction paper pennant banner fell to the ground. Are you done yet, Pete?
* * *
Joyography’s tears couldn’t have been more salty than the roasted red pepper bisque. Each table shared a loaf of bread which we squabbled over and stole from one another and tore chunks from– anything to take our minds off the bursts of static hurtling forward from the center table. Organizers, MFA students and honored guests were answering comment cards which had been scattered throughout the panels and conference rooms except those I attended. People cheered. People laughed. People conducted previously arranged call and response skits. At my table people quietly doodled on the paper table cloth and asked each other if they could understand a damn thing.
A guy politely reclaimed the half beer and coat from where I was sitting, all on behalf of the guy three feet away who refused to make eye contact with me when I apologized and offered to move. More applause erupted for another rousing outburst of garbled feedback. I mopped the salt from my bowl with the last chunk of bread.
So much money spent on educations and no one had ever learned how to work a P.A. The final keynote was almost delivered via the ‘mic check’ system of group idiocy until someone had the presence of mind to swap out the faulty microphone. Now I could hear but I could not comprehend as the speaker prattled on about art theory, responsibility, allusions to previous projects too famous to offer any background on. A barebones slideshow was savaged by the idea of democratizing the presentation with an open questions policy, frustrating everyone standing near me who were snapping pictures of disconnected phrases.
Social activism framed as art. Conning the Cuban Ministry of Culture into hosting a political bitch-fest is gutsy but doesn’t require an MFA, let alone a weekend conference to define and qualify. A lot of time and money could have been saved if everyone sitting in the dark had been mailed a button that read: “ART IS LIFE. LIVE” or some shit.
But just try getting paid to throw an open mic in Havana or hire day laborers to paint pictures of houses. The presenter launched her screed on philanthropy versus art collectors, endowments over loans and the general evils of money. Stack everything I’d been hearing about all weekend against what hippies and nuns do for kicks and the difference is money, source and sum, is legitimacy cemented in a foundation of corporate benevolence. I sure as shit hadn’t paid to attend or eat salty soup or pump the kegs, one of which wasn’t even working properly. If all of us listless scum milling around talking about art had been homeless no one would have been serving us soup in the newly installed, top of the line open kitchen at Yale Union. We wouldn’t have been invited to sit around the handmade long table or to piss in the spacious, tiled bathroom festooned with candles and a rubber ducky.
Okay, most of the people at Open Engagement would volunteer at a soup kitchen, that I do believe. Even the giggling trio of fans Pete had accrued through his presentation on prison policy. They came round while MFA students were busy stacking chairs, a local, a Danish exchange student and a bored Russian ballerina who never looked up from her phone. Are you guys going to the dance party? You have to go to the dance party. Let’s all go to the dance party!
* * *
Denmark had been at the panel on the cost of education, led by a recent graduate of CalArts and possibly a stimulant abuser. We began on a high note, breaking down the student loan system and federal guarantees to private financial institutions. The Liverpudlian snorted and guffawed at each slide, hitting Pete’s arm and hoovering Skittles. He was less impressed with PSU’s experimental Social Practices Program, appalled by the lack of studio space. But you need somewhere to think, and he was laughed into silence. If everyone in this room dropped dead the world might be a better place.
We also would have been spared the fun, interactive activities. Pair off and select an inanimate object. Take two minutes to decide who or what represents money, education and social practice. We took Pete’s apple core and debated various configurations of utter nonsense while the room filled with play-acting and gurgling. The moderator was forced to flick the lights repeatedly to shut everyone up and people nearly dislocated shoulders vying for an opportunity to share their brilliance. The light is education! This sock is money! People argued over how the triangulations were configured.
Denmark was confused by American schools. In Europe it’s all paid for and no one goes into debt for a diploma. We also all speak five languages fluently and vacation on the Mediterranean. Liverpool choked on his Skittles slapping Pete on the shoulder.
A dance floor gyrating with art professionals is as cool as your last family wedding. After two days of networking and info gathering these people were ready to cut loose. Holocene was running loops of Pee-Wee Herman disco videos and the bartenders were working double time to keep up with sweaty faces demanding drink. Someone who might have recently led a panel on the price of education sidled up to the bar next to me and we had a friendly wager on which of us would be served first. Was the weekend worthwhile, I asked, hoping she could confirm my splintered memory of eight hours prior. Oh yes, quite worth it. I got served first and clawed my way through the crowd.
Johnny V was swimming the same seas in search of his friend, in town on loan from the New York MOMA. That hallowed institution sent an emissary to cavort with this collection of socialist mimes? You may not be able to take a piece on alternative economies (swap meet) and install it in the sterile confines of a museum but MOMA can collect cash from blue-blooded benefactors eager to see their names attached to something socially significant. I tried to parse what MOMA had to say about all that he’d seen and heard but Johnny V and I were pretty busy buying each other drinks.
The Dance floor had emptied and only the hard luck cases clung to the bar. Pete walked up with a kid from New Jersey who had randomly selected Holocene as his Portland experience and was a little confused. After he asked us if we were gay I was left alone in charge on the only stranger more out of place at Open Engagement than me. New Jersey said he worked for a power company in the southwest, which sent me staggering through renewables, intermittent supply and its effects on the grid, and capturing compressed air to power turbines during off hours. He just stared at the floor in silence, then made an excuse to leave.
Pete, I need to get some pizza. This soup just ain’t cutting it.