A brief (but actually pretty log winded,) summary of events, from the Open Engagement, Social Practice Art Conference, that recently happened in Portland Oregon. (May 13-18th put on by Portland State University’s department of social practice.)
The conference was 5 days of non stop scheduled activities, projects, discussions, panels, cook offs, object mending, museums, walks, and talks. There were many joyous re-unions with long lost friends, and new found ones; dance parties, donuts, wilderness walks and a lot of fun.
I must admit, that after the excitement died down, my body completely shut down from over stimulus and I was in bed for days with feverish nightmares of hairy doctors conducting medical experiments in a subterranean hospital, while claiming it to be a social practice art project…absolutely terrifying, but even though my subconscious may feel otherwise, I think that the conference was an eye-opening experience (and not the kind of eye opener where there are clamps holding your lids open.) It brought a wealth of wonderful and creative people together, to talk, and learn and collaborate, while sharing a few drinks and dance moves. We left feeling exhausted yet refreshed. Bodies broken, but minds invigorated, and brains ignited.
I will start with the beginning, and end with the end, although there may be a few gaps and relapses along the way. I was exposed to a lot, and I am now hoping that my obsessive note taking payed off, in the recounting of Open Engagement, here in post conference blog space.
Visiting Portland, began with nature, and a lot of cooking. After some reunions with old friends, diner food and watching Jacob’s Ladder, (probably what influenced the hospital nightmares a week later,) I prepared to do some major foraging for the Wild Food Foraging Cook off, organized by the wonderful Michelle Illuminato. Local weed forager Becky Lerner showed us the way to eat weeds, and we found over 10 tasty, (and some not quite as tasty) plants growing in a 2 block radius of North Central Portland. This knowledge, combined with a trip out to Oxbow Sate park (thanks to Jonas for the driving, cooking company and for sharing the pain of stinging nettle rash…) and a 6 am weed forage, prepared us for the predominantly foraged spread, presented at the Cook off on Saturday. I boiled stinging nettle, along with some onions, into delicious bite sized and non stingey filo pastry wrapped nettle-copita. Plantain leaves gathered from various Portland lawns were steamed and mixed with a touch of butter. Eliza made a delectable wild rice and salmon berry crumble , and Jonas cooked up wild elk, eel and venison stroganoff.
A long morning of preparations payed off. Eliza and I ended up wining second prize, and Jonas and Toma scored third. Everything was delicious including the asparagus ice cream, first prize winning herb infused sodas, and even the nutria stew. (tangy…) The consensus is: foraging is super way to learn about a place, there really is a tonne of stuff that grows right outside your door, just waiting to be picked, and prepared into something tasty.
After all the foraging/preparing/eating we realized that the conference had only just begun. Good thing there was so much foraged nutrition in our systems because Saturday was a long day. Conference headliner/big-shot Marc Dion gave a noon thirty lecture covering some of his work and research on the history of museums, fetish objects, Wunderkammer/cabinets of curiosity and the re thinking of systems of classification through re-ordering of objects. After an hour and a half in a packed lecture hall, I emerged considering new taxonomical possibilities for life out side of the museum….
The afternoon was spent considering states of broken-ness and (dis)repair through an examination of various forms of love necessary to lead a balanced life/art practice. I had applied to participate in a collaborative project, mending broken objects, with Chicago based artists Sarah Black and John Preus. The object in question:
One human heart.
Fist sized, 26 years old, 1984 western Canadian model.
In fair condition with a few bumps and bruises, slightly wind blown from being worn often on the sleeve.
Now, in answer to many questions I encountered over the course of the weekend, I was/am not, feeling particularly broken hearted over one person, or situation. The state off broken-ness pertaining to my ticker, was in a more general and existential sort of way. I believe in various forms of love, out side of romantic love. I believe in a balance, of romantic love, friendship love, familial love, love of art, love of life, (to name a few.) So no, i am not in a weepy state of broken heartedness over that one who got away. I was feeling rather confused about whether to be dysfunctional is to be broken, when I submitted my broken object to the project late at night with a glass of wine in one hand, and my heart in the other, (typing with my tongue.)
I had no idea as to how the encounter would be conducted. I had thrown these artists a bit of a curve ball, and they went for it. I went to the meeting well versed in life experience and the words of Erich Fromm, with some good pals, Aliya Bonar and Hanna Clark, and an “open heart.” (oh sorry, so cheesy.)
The encounter amounted to a long discussion about love. Love is a topic, that everybody has something to say about, regardless of class, race, age of discipline. Its a pretty relatable topic. The conversation ranged from tools, to trajectories, ripping muscles, to pop culture, and karaoke. You can hear the whole conversation HERE (eventually)
Some well deserved beers were had in the evening, followed by a three round trivia game hosted by the Chicago arts administrative team INCUBATE. We managed to make our way home somehow, and sleep soundly in the homes of our lovely hosts.
Day Two: do it all over again, although starting at a slightly later hour. Where day one had us chalking up on wild vitamins, day two was fried foods day, starting with a breakfast of Voodoo donuts, (Portland’s infamous vegan donut shop,) and Poutine for lunch from the most psychedelic fry van I’ve ever seen…I unfortunately didnt get a photo, but there was an astronaut floating in deep neon space eating fries through his helmet, amongst other things equally as psychedellic…delicious!
Nils Norman and Joen Vedel lead a discussion about Utopia, which was of particular interest. Nils has done some extensive research on the history of Utopic societies, from the early renaissance and Thomas Moore, to christian sects, Foucault’s notion of Heterotopia to american Drop out culture. Joen, a Danish artist, had worked in building a Free Autonomous Zone in Coppenhaagen, post Christiania.
Amy Franchescini was the Headliner for the day, and her talk was eloquent and inspiring. From making computers and giant pac man games, to her Victory Gardens project, (planting a vegetable garden in front of city hall in SF,) this lady has done it all, and made it all sound really easy…
In the evening we saw a couple bands play, and then hit up the Galaxy Karaoke bar. The place was almost empty on a Sunday night, so our table of five sang pretty much every second song. Highlights of the evening included a woman with a broken heart who stopped her car to sing Pat Benetar, and the host’s tribute to the recently deceased Ronnie James Dio, of “Holy Diver.”
The experience left me well prepared for the Broken Heart re-consultation. My conclusions were that a healthy dose of pop culture, through methods such as Karaoke, can lead to more interactions and feelings of connectivity with a broader range of humans. More culture, more art=more connections, more love? Its not a solving conclusion necessarily, but one that shows promise.
Sarah and John made mention that maybe my heart wasn’t broken at all, and even if it was, maybe it was a good thing. More tearing, as in body building, leads to more mass and strength. So, back to pop culture drawing board, bring on the Arnold Shwartzennegger flics.
Nils Norman was day three’s ultimate art headliner, however, I skipped out on his talk to see the show at the Contemporary craft Museum. I heard tell afterwards, that he shared a lot of very interesting photos of “Adventure Playgrounds,” from around the world.
Sarah and John have a large installation up at the Craft Museum right now, that they built together, as a live performance in the gallery. One of them would design a section of the installation each day, and instruct the other on how to build it’s mirror image, through a small hole in a wall, dividing the space in half. At the end of the 6 day construction project, the dividing wall was removed, and they were able to see each others’ interpretations of the instructions. The results were pretty spot on, although similarities deteriorated slightly near the end of their 6 day stint. A really interesting experiment in communication, instructions and a very inticing structure, that felt like an open air log cabin.
I attended a panel discussion on collaborative processes in the afternoon, but in all honesty, everything becomes a bit of a blur at this point. Being saturated in so much information, with a healthy topping of socializing can bring absorption levels dangerously low.
There was a soup dinner with fellow Canadians, reading a book on the history of rafts, and raft makers, by Constance Hockaday, later, meeting Constance Hockaday while referencing her book in a comment at a panel about the potential for farming fruit from bonsai trees growing on refurbished barges.(A panel lead by Bruce Conkle where I believe I exuberantly volunteered my services to lead a team of equally excited citizens in making this project happen, followed by a life of fruited floating on the high seas many years to come…)
Then there was dancing. After all the thinking, drinking and conversing, what better way to sign out than with a full out dance party. This team of 4 from texas I believe, put together a series of videos, animating various dance moves. The moves were collected from people in their community prior to the conference. They gave an energetic performance before many spectators joined in, and added their own moves to the mix. I lead the group in various aerobics-esque moves, and managed to pull some thigh muscles during the process. It was totally worth it.
One more day to enjoy Portland, sans conference, I spent it having a leisurely breakfast, napping, and visiting Powell’s Book store. (Three maze like stories of every category imaginable…) I left with some books on astronomy, foraging, and colonial exploration and managed to add a book to the stacks. (Part of an Open Engagement project by Blair Fornwald, where she gifted various found books containing personalized inscriptions, instructing new owners to “Do whatever you want.” I wanted to keep “The Four Cameliers,”but space was tight in the carry-on bag, so I slipped it into the zoology section.)
Already a little feverish from exhaustion, I headed to the airport, along with my dear friend Eliza Fernand, to head off to Boise, Idaho, the next phase of the journey.
(more on Boise coming soon)
Open Engagement, over, but not forgotten. A true Temporary Autonomous Zone.