CHI

Jen Delos Reyes

Group Work

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The very way that we structure our lives can be statements about the way that we want to see the world end up. We have more power than we believe we do.

__Jen Delos Reyes

As artist, activist, organizer, writer, and educator, Jen Delos Reyes is leaving an immeasurable mark on a generation of socially engaged artists. As the founder of the Open Engagement conference, Jen spends her days and career equipping and connecting artists of all mediums with the tools of social change.

Despite her many roles including that of the associate director of a school of art & art history and director of the world’s largest conference on socially engaged art, she rarely calls herself an artist. Instead, her preferred title is “creative laborer,” and rightly so. With the tools of an activist, her practice is that of an educator, a writer, and an organizer, leading a movement of uncommon connection and an unencumbered imagination. You won’t typically find her work hanging on a gallery wall, but diffusing through pockets of society, transforming it from the inside out. In her life and work, Jen passionately supports the power of art to engage a society, moving from the canvas to the collective and reminding us artists and non-artists alike that we are all more powerful than we imagine.

Although her work is steeped in the world of higher education, Jen finds deep value in the informal and incidental forms our education often takes. “The most formative part of my education wasn’t actually art school. It was being a teenager in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the mid-90’s amidst the Riot Girl movement and the burgeoning music scene there. I was a band member. A zine maker. A show organizer. All of those skills that I learned then are translated into everything I do now. Even just working together in a group dynamic is informed by what it was like to work together in a band and make music and try to move forward together in one direction. If anything, everything I did during art school and throughout the early part of my career was just trying to get back to that feeling of what it was like to work with other people, do things in a group, and build community.”

She spent most of her time in grad school traveling for brief artist residencies across the country. She had just returned from one in particular in New York City, a summer-long program called Come Together, when an idea suddenly struck her. Surrounded by other artists pursuing a more socially engaged career, Jen recognized that within her own program there was no similar community or support for socially engaged artists. Rather than lamenting the isolation she felt, she decided to recreate that experience in her own way. “I realized that we didn’t have many opportunities to actually support one another and share work, to

understand what we were doing as a field. I wanted to organize something where that would be possible. A conference format made sense to me as something that could be expansive and capacious enough to hold a lot of what was needed, like lectures and workshops and hands on experiences, as well as treating the whole conference itself in a way, like a socially engaged artwork. It was a really hard sell to my professors and advisors on the idea that I would spend all my time organizing this event for all of these other artists, but I felt like there was no one piece of art I could make that would be as significant as this work. Obviously, though, it worked out.”

Putting together that first conference gave Jen the opportunity to reconvene with a community of socially engaged artists as well as practice those skills from her days making music in Manitoba.  “The first year of the conference was called Open Engagement: Art After Aesthetic Distance. Very grad-school-y. I wasn’t interested in this idea of critical distance, because I wanted to have close relationships with the people I was making work with, and in a lot of ways for. It was mainly about casting this wide net, and putting out the call to say, ‘Hello! Is anybody out there? Does anybody care?!’ I also realized, I could do this, but at my age and with my experience, that no one would likely give me the opportunity. I decided I didn’t need to wait for someone to give me the opportunity; I could just do it. I always try to include that in my teaching now, that you don’t have to be that passive artist just sitting in your studio waiting to be rescued or discovered or whatever to get the chance to share what you do. You really have that power and ability to get started.”

There were several things established during that first year that have been sustained through the OE life cycle. Like establishing a focus on inclusivity, and getting a pulse on the community at large through an open call for proposals and artists’ projects to showcase. She wanted to learn: what was the community wrestling with that year? What would be beneficial to discuss, to teach? “When I was organizing that first Open Engagement, I never really intended or expected that it would continue. That was never the plan. [But I’ve seen it become] a site of care for the field, and it has evolved into an important place of education and training, as well. A lot of the things we try to program in are things that we do to further support people doing this work, like Community Organizing 101. You don’t get that kind of training in art school. Embodied knowledge is also so important, so it’s not just show and tell for three days straight. There is always room made for moments of food sharing, walking tours, just leaving space for joy and conviviality.”

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The conference is still as much of an experiment as it was when it began, but the themes, structure, and attendance have continued to evolve. Several years after her first OE as a grad student, Jen was offered an opportunity to begin an MFA program at Portland State University with an artist she’d met at Come Together. Recognizing what an important exercise organizing the conference had been for her as a student, she decided to use the structure as a pedagogical model for the program.

After four years of student-led hosting at PSU, Open Engagement outgrew PSU. Exhausted and unsure of whether or not to continue, Jen was invited to bring the conference to the Queens Museum of Art in NYC by its’ then director and a former keynote speaker. A new venue and a new team reenergized the vision of OE, and new purposes for the site emerged. “We starting to look at the conferences as this vehicle that could help galvanize systems of support for the artists doing this work across the country, to help sustain themselves and their work outside of the production of objects and the consumption market of those objects. It also created a national consortium of organizations, schools, and museums that have an interest in these practices. By playing host, these institutions help shape the conference as it moves from city to city.” In 2014 the Queens Museum hosted OE: Life/Work, focusing on that intersection, and artists who had intentionally combined the two in their own practices. In 2015 Pittsburgh held OE: Place and Revolution that focused on how artists have reimagined their cities as canvases for socially engaged art. In 2016 Open Engagement evolved yet again, opening the call under the singular banner of Power.

“That year was the beginning of this three year trilogy that we’re on now. The three themes chosen were an attempt to look back at what has consistently been brought up, year after year; the undercurrent of what people doing this work are grappling with. Power was held during the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. The city was already thinking about grassroots movements, and radical change, so it felt like the perfect fit. And it was clear that so many artists were grappling with issues of power, as well, whether that be their fear of institutions trying to instrumentalize them, or questions of power around funding, or sharing power with the people they’re collaborating with. It just comes up in so many ways. It was also a year of understanding that OE is a site not just for artists, but for so many people engaged in this work in a multitude of ways. There are funders of art, activists, administrators. It’s a very holistic ecology of people.”

As a practice, socially engaged art is inherently about change: of mind, of policy, of institutions. For the Power conference, Jen and her team invited keynote speakers and presenters to teach on different agents of change in their own practices. “One of our keynote speakers, Angela Davis, was very much an activist connected to issues of power, and tangentially to the Black Power Movement. She spoke about our ability to enact change through creativity, through radical acts of imagination, how part of the responsibility of the artist is to imagine new worlds and new modes of being. She reminded us that only when we imagine those ways of being in the world can we actually begin to move in that direction.”

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In a cloud of political uncertainty at the end of 2016, Jen described a feeling of powerlessness many felt in light of the US presidential election. “I was beginning to imagine what kind of a world that was to come, and feeling defeated just thinking through that darkness of what could be. I had this moment like, can art really make a difference? Does this even matter in the face of what feels like such a travesty? But of course the answer is yes! Art is needed now more than ever, and to revisit something that James Baldwin wrote in 1962, the role of the artist is to illuminate that very darkness. I also often return to this quote from Andrea Fraser about shifting from institutional critique to a critique of institutions, and one of the things she reminds us is that we are the institutions we critique. We uphold these values and systems, and just as easily as we’ve made them, we can change them. It’s on us to deconstruct these destructive systems of power. It can seem like these systems or mentalities of racism and violence are so big, that they’re insurmountable. But change is slow. No one said that it’s going to be easy. It’s about being able to shift those small moments you encounter in your daily life, because those moments are what make up our whole existence. All of those small encounters; that’s what is needed to change the whole world.”

In a very natural way, Open Engagement has allowed Jen to educate on a large scale, as a part of a group – as she prefers – to encourage a collective approach to art making. But the conference format, while an intense twelve month effort, only comes once a year. A large percentage of her time is spent teaching. It’s there, in the classroom and with-out, that she teaches young, newly minted art majors to ask questions about what mark their work will make on the world. Her coursework is unsurprisingly non-conventional, and initiate what is for most, their first true socially engaged act as an artist. “[I often have] students recreate things in the world from artists that I really admire. Part of that strategy is to subtly disrupt this cult of originality, that everything needs to be an original idea. One thing I love to [assign] is from Sister Corita Kent’s [practice]. We walk together as a class to a grocery store, and on the walk there is this subtle shift that happens in our awareness and focus. She asks that you write down 50 things that you notice on your walk, to and from the grocery store. [Once you arrive], you have to come up with ten ideas using things that you can find in the grocery store. I assign that to my students because it breaks the expectation around what sort of materials are considered art, and where you can find your creative practice.”

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Jen’s goal in teaching is not to get students on a traditional path to making a living in art, but to becoming better people. In this regard, Jen emphasizes living out your practice, no matter what shape that might take. She’s also a believer in the power in numbers, the importance of collectivity, and a lifelong embrace of ‘Group Work.’ “In an arts program, making the best art isn’t about making the best artist, it’s about making the best human. Isn’t that the goal of any education? I think the goal is to make better, more empathetic people. A lot of the statistics around how many people actually become artists after art school is staggering. It really is how we’re framing art in some ways. Most people don’t actually ever participate in that studio to gallery to museum pipeline, so being able to shift the mindset of what it means to make art is really important.”

Jen’s most recent project is a self-published manifesto of that integration of life and work entitled I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song. In it she shares the work of artists she’s admired throughout her career, and the values she hopes to loyally embody with her own practice. “The title comes from Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer who sang a song by the same name written by Thomas Dorsey. In it she tells this story of a gospel singer who believes that if she’s going to be singing these songs, that her life has to be able to support that material, that they can’t be disconnected. When I first heard that song, I was so moved and realized, that’s exactly what I want as an artist.

I want the work I make to be in no way disconnected from who I am as a person. I wanted to figure out how to make that work. For me it does look a lot different than the artists that I feature. For me, it looks like this. As the artist Fritz Haeg reminds us, that the way that we administer our small private realm can be a public declaration of what we believe in. The very way that we structure our days, our homes, our relationships, our lives, really can be statements about the way that we want to see the world end up. We have more power than we believe we do.”

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