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RISK: Empathy, Art, and Social Practice


One part exhibit and one part event series, RISK is a terrifically exciting exploration of socially engagement and the arts. Not only that, it features many artists close to our hearts, including Alberto Aguilar, Jim Duignan, Faheem Majeed, and Cheryl Pope, among many others. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we put RISK on our weekly picks back in February when it opened. However, what we weren’t anticipating was this fascinating interview with curators Neysa Page-Lieberman and Amy Mooney. One of Mooney’s former students, Connor Moynihan, conducted it, but was unable to publish it on CAA as originally planned. Fortunately for us, Page-Lieberman reached out to us about running the interview on Sixty instead, and we happily agreed. So please enjoy this peek inside two electrically creative minds, and make sure to visit Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery by April 26 to see RISK before it goes down. – Reuben Westmaas, ed.


Connor Moynihan: Can you each tell me a little bit about yourselves and your experiences in the art world? What has led you two to working together and why RISK? What is the interest in social practice for each of you?

We both draw from a shared commitment to promoting the diversity of contemporary art practice. We mean “diverse” in every sense of the word—from the medium to the ways that the artist’s unique identity flavors the work and its reception. We are both dedicated to the pedagogical aspect of art, believing it to be an opportunity to learn about ourselves and others. Amy had just returned from a fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery where she started the research for her second book, Portraits of Noteworthy Character, which considers the social role of portraiture. Neysa got her M.A. from Indiana University in the art of African diaspora, and focused on the art of Haitian Vodou and feminist practices in Haiti. Likewise, Amy has some training in African art and had a wonderful opportunity to work with the curator of African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Our first collaboration was through an exhibition that Neysa curated on Afro-Cuban artist Magdalena Campos-Pons. Knowing that Amy was researching the performative nature of portraiture and familiar with Campos-Pons, Neysa commissioned Amy to write an essay considering the diasporic qualities of this new body of work. We really enjoyed the push and pull of that writing process and the opportunity to share insights, so we knew that we could take on a bigger project together. Neysa and Jane Saks brought the Guerrilla Girls project to campus two years ago and that provided another chance for us to collaborate.


Potluck: Chicago, Photograph from Inspiration Kitchens Potluck (Photo credit: Ali Zaid)

At that same time, Amy was appointed the faculty fellow for Critical Encounters, an initiative that sought to lead the entire college in an inquiry of how the arts and media can effect social change. We worked with the incredible international artists, motiroti, to develop workshops, performances, and potlucks that brought diverse communities together to consider the dynamic power of sociability. Through motiroti, Potluck: Chicago formed and was invited to participate in the groundbreaking exhibition, FEAST: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art. This exhibition exposed us all to the rich history of food, performance, and relational aesthetics. It was at this point that Amy started to explore the motivations and expectations of bringing diverse communities together, wondering what made some of these projects work better than others. She also had great conversations with Lisa Yun Lee, then director of the Jane Addams Hull-House museum and curator Tricia van Eck about the ways that we evaluate such programs—how do we know what impact these porous, process-based projects have? Empathy emerged as a central means to think about the objectives for the divergent approaches, as everyone wanted to feel something—everyone wanted a connection and to extend themselves to another. That led Amy to reflect further on the role of empathy and to consider what aesthetic forms motivate us to take this risk of letting the outside in, seeking acceptance, and projecting ourselves onto another. She looked to the theories of Levinas and Derrida and wrote a paper for last year’s CAA conference that applied these ideas to the work of Chicago: Potluck and social practice in general. Neysa was really keen on the premise of empathy, especially in regards to local artists she’d been working with or hoped to work with, and we both wanted to consider how it manifested in the contemporary Chicago art scene. There is so much going on in this city and we wanted to craft an exhibition that demonstrated how early founders such as Jim Duigan of Stockyard Institute and emerging practitioners such as photographer Samantha Hill negotiate the risks of empathy and art while fostering connections between people.


CM: Tell me a little bit about how risk and empathy fit together in your exhibition. How do artists use both of these factors in social practice? How do they connect with one another?

We see risk and empathy playing an interdependent role for the artists in the exhibition. Each of them seeks a participatory engagement with audiences, many work with specific community groups and some intend to effect social change. Their negotiations are elaborate and complex, requiring an extension of their creativity, personal and political selves that can be all consuming. Like all artists, they risk the potential of rejection and failure, but it’s on a significantly different level—their efforts impact others in a direct way. They generate economies and personal relationships that effect well being and enfranchisement. Their aesthetics, be it through comfort food or recycled building materials or games, seek to invite others to contribute to the process, which is often exploratory and undefined. The artist is utterly dependent upon others to make the work work! They have to think about how their actions will impact a community as well as the consideration of what exactly constitutes a community. For so many them, empathy is a starting point, but its employment is dependent upon one’s willingness to take risks and move out of one’s comfort zone and compliancy.


CM: Unlike discreet art-objects, the basis of social practice or relational aesthetics is the creation of interaction and site/audience engagement. Social practice art links artist, space, object, experience, and viewers purposefully and is therefore often site-specific. Was this a challenge for curating RISK? How is curating socially engaged art unique and what special considerations did you make to accommodate the process?

Fereshteh Toosi, Seven Year Garlic (seer torshi), Installation, 2013

Fereshteh Toosi, Seven Year Garlic (seer torshi), Installation, 2013

Good question! Our curatorial vision sought to highlight the divergent medium and practices that constitute socially engaged art. We also wanted to commission new work for the show, so we applied for a Joyce Foundation grant given that their focus is to support art that reflects the community, and make art accessible to diverse audiences. We were thrilled to be awarded this highly-competitive and prestigious grant. The artists that we wanted to work with were already committed to neighborhoods across the city and helped us to form partnerships with other cultural institutions such as 6018North, Hyde Park Art Center and the Rebuild Foundation. This kind of collaboration generates multiple venues to experience the work, another important aspect of this practice. The resulting installation in the Glass Curtain Gallery is just a representation of all of the creative engagements that will be part of the exhibition. We have over 60 events planned over the three-month course of the exhibition, each with its own unique character and way of bringing people together. From a wedding, to a potluck, to a recreation of a swing-era dance event, we had to remain open to artists’ experimentation and not strive for a cohesive aesthetic. It’s definitely a pluralistic show and some of the projects will evolve throughout its duration. Social practice is messy and for this reason, many eschew such projects, but we were following Mary Jane Jacob’s call for “reciprocal generosity.” We had to be mindful of our responsibilities as “the host,” and support critical investigation of the ways that such exhibitions benefit the artists and institutions as well as audiences.


CM: RISK has been a project that both of you have been working on together for some time. What have been some of the highlights of curating this show? How did you find the artists that you are exhibiting and what were some of the parameters for selecting work?

One of the greatest highlights was introducing each other to new artists. We started with a huge and unwieldy list of artists and groups we wanted to work with, culled from our own files as well as many suggestions from colleagues. We established the parameters pretty early so we could focus quickly and start building the project. These guidelines are more or less spelled out in the exhibition title – risky, empathetic, socially-engaged – but another critical component is interactivity, possibilities for audience engagement beyond the passive viewing experience in the gallery. And it’s in that push for interactivity that the project became equally about the events, happenings and performances as it is around the installations in the galleries. We resisted the urge to contain RISK to a white cube and let the artists expand it to the streets, extending to dozens of neighborhoods. The artists extended our curatorial vision in ways we couldn’t have imagined at the beginning.


Cheryl Pope, Remember to Remember, 36 x 47 x 2" Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery (Photo Credit: James Prinz Photography, 2013)

Cheryl Pope, Remember to Remember, 36 x 47 x 2″ Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery (Photo Credit: James Prinz Photography, 2013)

CM: There are artists that make art for socially engaged art, and it is a trend that is becoming more and more prevalent and discussed. But what about your roles. Are shows like RISK the beginnings of the socially engaged curator and scholar? Can there be socially engaged scholarship and what would it look like?

We have been speaking a bit about this unique role as curators organizing a project that is both static and durational, outside and inside, private and public. More in this exhibition than any other, we are collaborating with the artists on how to manifest their work, so deeply based in live interaction, in the gallery setting. Our exhibition manager and designer, Justin Witte, also worked more closely and collaboratively in initiating ideas for building and presenting the work than he would normally do. The concept of presenting social work in the gallery is still a hot topic of debate, so this process feels very experimental. Even though we do have some models, each project and practice is so unique, there are no set guidelines, which is what makes this work so thrilling for us!

There are a multitude of practices that influenced our own. Certainly we looked to the models provided by Creative Time and Open Engagement to gain an understanding of what was happening nationally. Locally, the 2012 symposium organized around Feast at the Smart Museum brought a historic and international model to our doorstep. Amy’s previous engagement with Dorchester Projects, En Las Tablas Performing Art Center, and the Hull-House Museum also proved inspirational. Then, think about all that there is to read—from the Claire Bishop and Grant Kester debate to the humorous insights offered by the Bad at Sports team. Our roles drew from this incredibly rich matrix and continue to evolve. As teachers and curators, we have always been socially engaged and cannot imagine working any other way.

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