KCET ArtBound, Feb 2015


Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics features conversations addressing contemporary themes that artists and activists are developing in Los Angeles today. [Pictured: Panelist Lili Bernard at the mic, visual artist-activist]

Recently, I attended Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics in Los Angeles, a series of five talks on questions of methodology for artists, organizers, activists. Organized by L.A.-based artists Elana Mann and Robby Herbst at LACE, the talks as a whole contemplated the stakes for work that engages in the space of art and politics. This article will focus on the second panel of the day, “How Can I Participate,” a conversation meditating on the motives, uses, and strategies of participation happening in Los Angeles.

Elana Mann, an artist who has organized other symposia and conferences at MOCA and the California Institute of the Arts, opened the panel with the formal welcomes and descriptions of the day’s coming events. Robby Herbst, Chats About Change co-organizer and Artbound contributor, then filled the space with a call to action, addressing concerns around art, politics, and community. Moderators from Ultra-red explained the format for the program, wherein the first half would engage the panelists and the second, prioritized half would be audience-driven.

The panelists were all women of color, Lili Bernard, Jennifer Moon, and Megan Ortiz. Moon, recently featured in the Hammer Museum’s biennial Made in L.A. 2014 and winner of the Mohn Public Recognition Award, spoke to her work with artist-run radio station KChung Radio. Specifically, she focused on how she engages with the radio station as an ideal model of systems and anarchy pressed together, and the value of vulnerability and participation in her own practice. Ortiz, who self-identifies as a “NYrican” with roots in Boyle Heights, worked as a teenager as a community organizer against police brutality, and has written for several major publications. She is also the manager of the VozMob, a platform for immigrant/low-wage workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities using their cell phones. Bernard, sporting a largish afro (she says it used to be bigger), graduated from Otis’s public practice program in 2014 and spoke of her family, the roots of social practice in the home, her interest in volunteer-based practices, and her own projects including BAILA (Black Artists in Los Angeles) and HABLA (Harvesting Asian, Black, Latino Artist) creating space for marginalized communities.

Ultra-red began by asking each panelist to define participation, establish the terms through which they are willing to participate, and the terms through which they are willing to ask others to participate. Their follow-up questions explored the ethics of participation, strategies for ethical participatory practices, and the ramifications of working with governmental groups and large institutions. Each panelist had their own experiential narrative, from outreach to marginalized communities and work with the disenfranchised, to working with large governmental and NPO groups, and sites where they had questioned the ethics of participating in the project. It was a dialogue of propositions, not about solutions but interrogation.

Ortiz began her talk by asking “Whose safety are we prioritizing? Whose comfort are we prioritizing? When you participate, who is creating the spaces? Who gets to determine what those spaces are, and how they are going to progress? Who has the power to determine what our participation looks like and are they able to change what participation looks like?” Moon proposed a few questions that she asks herself before she participates with institutions: “Am I operating from a position of abundance or a position of lack? Am I expecting anything to happen with this entity? Am I choosing the most expansive route?” Her questions constituted a sort of philosophical battery, leading her to a place of acceptance: acceptance of the situation, herself, participants, and collaborators. Building from these challenges to participatory practices and its ethics, Bernard spoke to what happens when one engages with an institution and submits themselves to the trauma of volunteering. That is to say, to be the other, the first other, the other who is forced to face the trauma arenas of institutional collaboration, to confront those that are the gatekeepers and to demand entrance. What are we willing to sacrifice for entrance? Moon concluded the first portion of the talk asking “Am I willing to die for this?” The audience applauded in overwhelming approval.

The program transitioned into small group talks about the panel. This was a moment to gather our thoughts and notes and prepare for a conversation with a larger group. I spoke with some others about events in the community, who had access, limitations of travel, institutional budgets, and DIY strategies for coping with institutional limitations. We came back together and began to share some concerns. Something between a town hall, community meeting, and an academic lecture, the conversations unfolded with guests speaking to personal traumas with participation, strategies for interrupting participatory structures, and questions on how to create their own community spaces. Ultra-red finished the conversation with an explanation of solidarity in Spanish and English and the differences in language and understanding what it means to support one another. In English solidarity means a unity of interests, whereas in Spanish it means to show support or to stand with those in need.

As we engage and ask others to participate in art, political, activist, community projects, we must think critically about the stakes. They are higher than some may think, with much more at risk for participants than is given credit. What are our ethical responsibilities as organizers, as participants, as community representatives? How can we cope through these trauma arenas?

The question is not so much, how can I participate, but on what terms are we willing to engage and share our social, intellectual, time, and economic capital?

Read our entire Chats About Change series:

Chats About Change: The Intersection of Art and Activism
Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics is a series of panel discussions addressing contemporary themes creative practitioners are developing in L.A.

Chats About Change: Changing the Terms of Engagement
“Chats About Change” questions and reflects on people’s relationship to the land as a colonized space.

Chats About Change: Ethics and Aesthetics
The third panel in social practice conference “Chats About Change” was devoted to artists’ anecdotal experiences rotating between ethics and aesthetics.

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Top Image: Artist Lili Bernard during How Can I Participate conversation at Chats About Change event at LACE(Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), 1/17/15. | Photograph: Emily Lacy.

About the Author

Michael Ano is an artist, curator, and educator.