Building a "Common Field" at Hand in Glove 2015
To say that I was inspired by this past weekend in Minneapolis at the Hand in Glove 2015 conference would be an understatement. The first debate on Thursday evening, "Paradigms & Priorities: What does the field need?" laid the framework for the weekend with retrospective confidence with an immediate call to action: In our "Common Field" we, as artists and art organizers working in the service of other artists and our respective communities (both conceptual and geographic), must be inclined to the further opening up of our practices and communities, and to be constantly questioning the establishment or the system, and one another.
Hand in Glove kicked off for the third time this year as "a national convening for the field of alternative art spaces, artist led projects and artists' organizations." This year's event was framed by the launch of a new visual arts organizing network called Common Field, aimed at assisting artists and arts organizers around the country in sharing practices and ideas as the field grows. Steve Dietz, founder of Northern Lights.mn proposed that the field should be read as a platform, and the artist is a transformer on that platform. A thread throughout the weekend was the concept of "community" and how the definition of this depends on the person or organization, and what kind of answer one comes up with when we ask ourselves, "Who can help me, and who can I help?"
The weekend was rife with binaries and dichotomies: urban and rural; racial and economic segregation; local vs. national/international; individual vs. institution; elitism vs. universal access; traditional systems vs. new ways of thinking, and so on. Some fantastic conversations and debates were born of themes relating to poverty and ownership, racial equity and representation, the definition of the terms "inclusion" or "community," the role of advocacy in the arts, conditions of compensation for artists, and the apparent increase in contemporary art as a platform for social justice.
There were so many great points raised that it's impossible to recount them all here. There are thousands of reasons why artists express themselves through their work the way they do, why a particular community develops its arts scene, why/how a community of artists develops within a larger community, how aesthetics play a role in socially responsible work, why critical dialogue and constant questioning of the modus operandi is necessary to continue.
I left with a few answers to questions I had been mulling over for some time, and in turn, a hundred more questions for every answer. For one, I had been thinking in terms of community quite a bit, as I consider myself to belong to numerous, multifarious communities: the academic community, the virtual community, the local art community, the international art community, the contemporary art community, the 25-35 community, the Northeast Wisconsin community, the Midwestern community, and so on. What does Young Space or my personal art projects have to do with any of these? When I research the contemporary art scene in Glasgow, UK, how does this impact my practice in Northeast Wisconsin? How does it affect the people who visit Young Space events and interact with the work, space, and people? How can it connect more people? How can it be better? How can it make my communities better?
Another topic I struggle with constantly is that of diversity. Young Space and I live in a region of the country that is historically rural (and more recently suburban), hardworking, Catholic, and white. The last decade has seen a watershed change in general population growth as this area consistently rates high for things like Forbes' Best Small Places for Business and Careers, and for being very affordable. There has also been an influx of racially diverse residents and increased economic disparity, to which very little attention has been paid. So in an area where speaking of disparities between how minorities are represented feels more like tacit avoidance of the topic altogether (as it always historically has), how can art programming lend a voice? How can an alternative project space open up a dialogue that is responsible, inclusive, and, importantly, critical?
I was inspired by Detroit-based arts organizers/activists/advocators Complex Movements and ARTS.BLACK, as well as Maria Sykes of Epicenter in Green River, UT (pop. 952) who were all working within their unique community settings to address social issues such as housing, community engagement, community building, equal representation, and the (sometimes incidental) production of artistic and community archives. I'm fascinated by the interwoven challenges those in rural and urban places face; how they are similar as often as they are different: Green River, UT may not necessarily face racial challenges in the way that a large urban center does, but it certainly faces economic challenges. It is an economy of scale.
The beauty of this convening is that it highlighted all of the attendees' various challenges which, rather than separating us, linked us together by virtue of our differences. We all face similar obstacles, though they may appear on different scales, in different places, and with different outcomes. But we are all struggling to understand how being alternative and/or independent, not-for-profit, experimental, and community-based in whatever sense we interpret we are means that we can actually strive for change. Being independent, small, even for profit (Young Space is a "socially responsible for-profit" entity) allows for a valuable platform for experimentation, collaboration, and leveraging change.
Additionally, the format of the convening was that of refreshing openness. Critical but not academic, this conference was indeed a convening. We weren't lectured or presented to, but instead invited to contribute and question all of the conversational panels. It provided an atmosphere in which an independent artist could approach the microphone and ask the panel "Art Works?"--pertaining to when or whether artists should be paid for their work--what their thoughts were about the National Endowment for the Arts' changes in their funding structures over recent decades. No one on the panel was directly associated with or could answer for the NEA, but it so happened that a couple of managers from the NEA were in the room, and a response could be given directly. Personally. Humanly. This one example among many illustrates how important it is to be able to bridge the gap between institution and individual in the arts. It is presently far easier and economically viable for artists to band together and create their own autonomous working spaces, and the role of the traditional institution has changed and is changing. What's next? Personal relationships are key. Panelist Joe Ahearn, curator at Clocktower in New York emphasized that point: no amount of virtual/digital connection will ever replaced intimate, personal connection, least of all in the arts with a strong do-it-yourself mentality.
I would like to thank all of the Hand in Glove folks, including Common Field, The Soap Factory, Works Progress, and too many more to name, for the wonderful thing you've started, and for creating this new platform which I'm fortunate to be able to use and share. Young Space is proud to be a member of Common Field.
The next Hand in Glove will take place in Miami in 2016. Find more about Common Field here.