Open Engagement: Sustainability
by Caitlin Chaisson
Sustainability was the central theme of the final iteration of Open Engagement. From humble beginnings in Regina, Saskatchewan, the social practice conference steadfastly grew over the past decade, hosting over 2,000 presenters and 6,000 attendees during its tenure in the field. The announcement that this would be the last of the artist-led project came from organizers Jen Delos Reyes, Crystal Baxley and Latham Zearfoss with mixed sentiments of re- lief and regret. Fittingly, a question that weighed heavily on the conference was: what do you do when you don’t have the resources to continue?
A loaded term, sustainability underpinned panels and conversations on economic, environmental, cultural and institutional longevity. Topics such as food justice, urban ecology, migration and refugees, homelessness, nuclear power, rural gentrification, Indigenous sovereignty, incarceration and carbon sequester were addressed in artist talks, workshops and breakout sessions. Refusing to oversimplify the compounded view of sustainability was one of the overwhelming successes of the conference; it echoed the work being done in the environmental humanities, which seeks an ecocriticism that considers race, class or gender. In their introduction to the book Postcolonial Ecologies (2011), editors Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley write, “the decoupling of nature and history has helped to mystify colonialism’s histories of forced migration, suffering, and human violence.”1 The authors therein remind us that debt and militarism are as integral to ecocritical thought as the more conventionally palatable topics of wildness and conservation. Open Engagement, which has been committed to socially engaged art and social justice practices for the past 10 years, took this opportunity to fold environmental perspectives into a more expansive activist agenda.
While debates on sustainability are routinely limited to the realm of best practices, an unexpected sub-theme for the conference emerged: the need for a better understanding of the efficacies of language. Keynote speakers Lucy Lippard and Mel Chin fore- fronted the contribution of language to the project of sustainability, with Lippard titling her talk “What Do We Want to Say? How Do We Want to Say It?” and Chin beginning by quoting Richard Pryor: “Is it something I said?” Respectively, these phrases position language as provocation and perpetrator of action. Language is important if only because, Chin surmised, “when you say things you might sometimes also want to do things.”
While socially engaged art has had a long and substantial relationship to dialogical practices, the interest in language at Open Engagement surfaced in a more nuanced way. Like carbon, words cannot be captured once uttered. They can be taxed with meaning through amendment, atonement, explication, contextualization or denial, but they can’t be taken back. And, also like carbon, words have an effervescent quality; they appear to lack a tangible form but are nevertheless powerful elements that radically change our environments. Both words and carbon can make places either habitable or inhabitable for specific forms of existence. Museum and the other Distance to All Prisons in Québec from the Queens Museum. The straightforward list of these institutions’ names immediately tied our own position to displaced, incarcerated bodies through a poetic gesture of location. Scanning the text, words like Creek, Grove, Haven, Hills, Lakeview, Meadow, Riverview, Sept-Îles and Trois-Rivières stand out as generic and deceptively pastoral navigational keys. These words spatialize institutions that strive to be remote, rendering the people within invisible.
If, for Hoszko, what goes unnamed goes unnoticed, Diane Borsato suggests that what is mis- named is mischaracterized. Borsato’s practice encompasses social and experiential modes of learning, frequently collaborating with amateurs and specialists in naturalist fields ranging from mycology to astrology. In her presentation, Borsato discussed how her work in a number of these disciplines revealed the ways in which the naming or re-naming of flora and fauna can be, and often is, complicit in racism and colonial violence. Speaking about a previous artwork entitled ALL THE NAMES FOR EVERYTHING (2017), Borsato offered possibilities for nam- ing as a critical methodology. The artwork involved a collaboration with outdoor education leaders from Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage in a small park in Toronto. Borsato advocated for a polyvocal exploration, where multiple perspectives and naming practices can be used to enrich local knowledge.
The thing about justice, Chin stated towards the end of his talk, is that you can never assume you will get there. And if you think you have gotten there, Lippard warns, it might not last. Admitting a wariness of sounding elegiac, Lippard earnestly asked, “Is sustainability a mirage?” The question coincided with her confession that whatever advances her generation of activism appeared to have made for civil or environmental rights are being rapidly dismantled today. Ironically, Open Engagement’s sustain- ability conference took place just steps away from the Westinghouse Time Capsule. Buried in 1938, the time capsule’s marker is a modest concrete cylinder for a monument that purportedly contains a record of twentieth century civilization. I found myself soberly reading and re-reading the last line of the capsule’s epitaph, to endure for 5,000 years. This unflinching reach towards infinitude was virtually within ear- shot of the conference’s rumination on an increasingly truncated and exhausted future.
The humble uncertainty expressed by Chin, Lippard and a number of other presenters at Open Engagement operates counter to the logic of the capsule. Rather than etching words into stone, the conference encouraged us to deploy language as a pliant tool for forming new social perspectives. Tracing my fingers over the capsule’s headstone, Lippard’s unused title for her talk came to mind. Strongly worded, with no trace of eco-melancholy: “Downsize or Die!”