Open Engagement ’17

Open Engagement (OE) is an annual, three-day conference on socially engaged art, led by artists, activists, scholars, community leaders, and others. This year’s conference took place on April 21-23 at various sites across Chicago; it’s theme was JUSTICE.

Lisa Yun Lee and Romi Crawford’s curatorial statement for OE ‘17 posed a series of critical questions for attendees, including:

  • “What does it mean to work in solidarity with communities that are marginalized and the most challenged by racial, economic, and gender injustice around issues that impact them?”
  • “What is the unique contribution that art and artists can make to the efforts to create a more just society?”

While such provocations have no definitive answers, the weekend’s expansive programming offered a platform to collaboratively think through their implications. Three of the presentations stood out for how they engaged with these ideas in relation to the fostering a more vibrant and equitable public life in cities.

Urban Futures Lab: A Model for Creative Civic Engagement

Urban Futures Lab is a fellowship program of Public Matters, which provides training and employment fellowships to young adults in Los Angeles. Four of the fellows — Andy Alvarez, Christopher Barahona, Shirley Ramirez, and Omar Vargas — presented on their wide-ranging work, such as leading tours of Historic Filipinotown (Hi Fi) in a 1944 Jeepney (a popular mode of public transportation in the Phillippines) to shore up community pride and educate outsiders on the neighborhood’s unique history. In East LA, the fellows also teach urban planning to high school students, who have created the area’s very own “map of the stars” to highlight local leaders.

Throughout the presentation, the fellows emphasized the importance of giving back to the communities they were brought up in. Their approach to change was an imaginative synthesis of cultural programming, mentorship for low-income youth of color, and (“out of classroom”) education on city planning, policy, and history — sometimes in collaboration with academic institutions.

To learn more about Public Matters and its Urban Futures Lab initiative, head to http//

“Weaving Cultures” by Sam Kirk, one of the panelists at Rootwork Gallery, with Sandra Antongiorgi in Pilsen, Chicago.

Arts Spaces and Placekeeping as Resistance at Rootwork Gallery

Rootwork Gallery, run by Tracie D. Hall in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, displays and hosts work that has “healing, reconciliation, or the investigation of folk, street and indigenous cultures at its core.” The OE panel consisted of artists, curators, and community activists, who discussed the role of arts and culture in Chicago neighborhoods, especially in areas like Pilsen that are undergoing gentrification.

Panelists pushed back against the term “placemaking,” which they argued often translates to privileged non-residents making decisions about a space without understanding its current and historical meanings or consulting the people who call it home. Instead, they championed the term “placekeeping,” where residents “hold space” in their own communities: creating a platform for residents to gather, and offering local culture to outsiders without facilitating their own displacement. Exciting models for placekeeping are developing in Chicago, Hall told the packed gallery, with women and queer people of color acting as the city’s primary “placekeepers.” A few city planners were in the room, who thanked the panelists for their thoughtful critique.

Following the discussion, attendees were led on a walking tour of Pilsen’s public art, delicious restaurants, and Blue 1647: a technology and entrepreneurship center.

To learn more about Rootwork, check out its Facebook page:

From Calais Jungle to a Dagenham Housing Estate: Sparking Community Cohesion Through the Arts

On the final day of OE, London-based artist R.M. Sánchez-Camus spoke about his practice, which has included a circus show in Colombia, work in the Calais refugee camp (Art Refuge UK), and a residency at a public housing estate in Dagenham: a low-income and working class outer suburb of London. “For me, the activation of public space and the dialogue that takes place [there] is art,” he stated. 

In Dagenham, Sánchez-Camus collaborated with community members to design programming that would outlive his residency, including parkour training and arts workshops. A parade was organized in which residents carried dollhouse-sized models of their standardized buildings (“a way to make one’s home more precious,” Sánchez-Camus explained).

Residents of Dagenham, England, parading with models of their housing. R.M. Sánchez-Camus is pictured on the far right. Courtesy of the artist.

Notably, the programming did not shy away from social conflict at the estate: one of the residents performed a puppet show in which an older white English man complained about his immigrant neighbors, such as their music and cooking. “Why can’t they cook proper British meals like curry?” the character exclaimed without a hint of irony. According to Sánchez-Camus, the performance caused an uproar among some residents, but also jumpstarted a critical dialogue about issues that were always simmering under the surface (to be clear, the puppeteer was also in on the joke). On the issue of making art as an outsider, he described his role as that of a cultural mediator, which he considered only possible because of his status as a non-resident. “People become politically exhausted,” he said. “And the arts become an easy way to have these conversations.”

For more on R.M. Sánchez-Camus’ work, visit: