Curator of this year’s Midwest Biennial, superusted, Cheryl Wilgren Clyne remarks, “the Soap Factory is filled with rust, corrosion; it’s a raw and beautiful space that continues to transform. There are many challenges at work in this space, which is part of the fascination.” As 400 art organizers, makers, and visionaries converge within the Soap Factory this weekend for Hand in Glove 2015, participants pay tribute to this ongoing transformation. Hand in Glove is a national convening devoted to investigating the spectrum of artist-driven cultures, providing a playground to wrestle with the challenges inherent in forging any art-centric initiative. After just one day, airtight conclusions seem sparse as disparate challenges loom large, at once uniting and dividing us. At times, that lack of commonality is what comes through most fiercely when we begin to unpack the umbrella catch-all words -- like “alternative,” “community-based,” or “experimental” -- that brought many of us together. As lead organizers of the conference, Works Progress’ Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker, ask, “What, if anything, do we hold in common?”
Here, I want to build further off that question to ask: why just strive for more commonality while the uncommon between each of us is often avoided or understated? As the convening progresses, the divides between priorities, philosophies, and practices send our “common field” into a series of interrogations. And perhaps this is precisely what should happen. What if the convening were to linger in the absence of commonality, the failure of commonality a bit longer?
The opening panel on Friday addressed the formidable challenges encountered in the field, as new and founding members of Common Field spoke about the paradigms and priorities of their locales. The host of the panel, Elizabeth Chodos, a co-founder of Common Field and Executive and Creative Director at Ox-Bow, commented on the struggle of assuming a shared terminology or value system. She wondered how we might “find each other in the field with our differences” and create platforms of solidarity that honor vulnerable practice. Chodos highlighted the difficulty of disrupting highly inequitable systems of art making in order to build accessibility for more people. Dana Bishop-Root, co-founder of Transformazium in Pittsburg, believes art “operates as a system that mirrors the broader systems that build up our lives.” The challenge lies in how to stay “process-oriented” and not be afraid of “spaces of discomfort.” Ryan Dennis, the Public Art Director at Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas, explored the history and culture of the neighborhood while championing artists of color. Dennis said she faces the challenge of wanting to make “better systems of economic opportunity for artists/makers” on a “shoestring budget.”
The panelists’ noted challenges recall many of the questions circulating at Thursday night’s opening conversation. Rather than hold a standard keynote, the organizers trudged into the experimental realm to launch the start of the conference with debate enlivened by four local art leaders from the Minneapolis / St. Paul area. With intrepid moderation by Juxtaposition Arts’ DeAnna Cummings, debaters’ propositions were presented, interrogated, clarified, and ultimately left to the audience to reconcile (or not) throughout the rest of the weekend. Some of the key questions raised over the course of the debate included: “Who benefits culturally, spiritually, socially, materially from art making? Who is getting paid?” and “how do we address the inherent privilege in artmaking?”
I’m left asking what these challenges and questions emerging throughout the convening thus far illuminate about the necessary, albeit uncomfortable, failures of a common field? Staying with the uncommon between us before jumping to a commonality not yet realized seems to me essential. As we reckon with the pressing issues facing art organizers, artists, and art-centered initiatives hailing from various locales around the nation, I’m struggling with the power of language we use to talk about that work and the undergirding assumptions that adhere to each iterated word.
Perhaps a convening such as this would be better served to leave aside the question of finding a “we,” if that “we” risks invalidating others’ lived and individual experiences. Instead, we could commit to speaking from what we know to be our own truths and find understanding as well as empathy in that space of sharing. Sam Gould of Red76 contributed to the opening debate by remarking: “we need to make personal reflections public when our benefit is at the expense of others. We have to open up and not profit at someone’s expense.” Or, as Dana Bishop-Root added, “when we are talking, we are talking from ourselves.” What’s important is that we are talking. Why rush this process? Gould noted rightly that we need to bring more voices in to inform our own questioning. But let’s not forget doing so thoughtfully and intentionally takes a very long time. With the launch of Common Field, I hope that this emerging platform-in-process continues to amplify what’s uncommon in the network, too.
Hand in Glove 2015 (#HIG2015) will take place September 17 – 20 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. For more information on topics, sessions, and related events, visit the convening’s website: hig2015.commonfield.org. Find more information about Common Field:
Look for more coverage of the 2015 convening on Mn Artists, mnartists.blog in the coming days, and read more essays, from conference participants, session hosts, and audiences on-site and online, in Temporary Art Review's rolling "Hand in Glove Social Response."
Camille Erickson is a local writer and arts advocate. She also serves as the co-director of the Minneapolis Art Lending Library, a nonprofit dedicated to providing exposure for artists and sharing the joy of art with all members of the community through the free lending of artwork.