Community of Community at QMA

Written by Stephanie Diamond. Diamond is an artist who has worked within museum, community, school, non-profit, and gallery settings. She has exhibited nationally and internationally at such venues as: MASS MoCA, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Queens Museum of Art, MoMA/P.S.1, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Project Row Houses, (Houston, Texas), and Contemporary Art Center (Vilnius, Lithuania). Diamond has been an artist in residence at: Atlantic Center for the Arts, LMCC Swing Space, Art Omi, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, and M and M Projects in San Juan Puerto Rico. She is an adjunct professor, visiting artist and lecturer at various schools throughout the country. Diamond has worked as in the education and community departments of museums as a director, consultant and teacher. Her Listings Project, a free weekly email of real estate and opportunities listings serving people world wide, has become a staple in the art community.

Community of Community took place at the Queens Museum of Art Friday, May 11  – Sunday, May 13, 2012. I gathered ten Social Practice artists for a three-day two-night retreat at the museum.

Participating artists: Christopher Robins, Caroline Woolard, Lara Kohl, Garrick Imatani, Jorge Rojas, Jo Q. Nelson, Jess Perlitz, Karyn Oliver, Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Jose Serrano-McClain (QMA representative) and I came together to explore a theme, skill-share, support each other and ourselves and explore the lineage of socially engaged art while living cooperatively together. The theme of the retreat was:

Responsibility: the self, the participant, the artist, the community, the institution, and the creation in Socially Engaged Art. 

Pre-retreat I had in-depth phone conversations with each participating artist. The theme of the retreat came from these conversations, along with conversations with the QMA. Prior to the retreat all the artists shared 3 examples of their work with each other via email. These interactions with the artists and QMA were integral in developing the retreat.  We learned what ideas and shared interests each artist had, and our immediate needs, concerns and desires for working collaboratively and individually.

It was crucial to me that once we come together we be on the same page, and thus necessary that we stay together for three consecutive 24 hour days. Although I had envisioned this “sleepover” structure from the beginning of the project, while on retreat I was struck anew by the importance of this on-going proximity in terms of the quality of our sharing together. The intimacy of brushing our teeth together, alongside the professionalism of exchanging ideas and best practices, made space for a level of trust and community that in turn enabled deeper sharing, collaboration and understanding of ourselves and our practices as Social Practice artists.

The retreat format and the opportunity to live side by side allowed us to get much deeper in our connections and conversations, literally living and breathing our work as we ate, played and discussed cooperatively.

Upon arrival to the Museum, the group took a tour, ate empanadas and gathered for discussion with QMA Executive Director Tom Finkelpearl and curator Larissa Harris. After the discussion, the group collaborated on creating a list of objectives and ground rules.  This first day of the retreat focused on the Museum itself, with conversation centering on responsibility, expansion, art vs. service and curating social practice artworks in museum and gallery settings.

We followed this with an interactive workshop: participating artist Amelia Winger-Bearskin led a workshop called “The Choreography of Everyday Life” which had us dancing and moving in the Museum along with Museum visitors.

That night we settled into our sleeping bags, and I discovered I had not found out how to turn the lights off! Fifteen minutes later, we were in darkness due to Jose’s genius with the ladder and unscrewing light bulbs.

Day two began with yoga under the Unisphere led by retreat artist by Lara Kohl. The focus for the day was communities we work with. Following a breakfast in the staff kitchen we meditated under the trees of Flushing Meadows Park. We de-briefed on the first day outlining what we learned, what we liked and what we wanted to change going forward. We used our collective memory to recall our objectives set on the first day and to prioritize what we would focus on for the duration of our retreat.  Using dot voting, we choose to focus on: Performative aspects of our practice, Representation / Documentation, Aesthetics, and Our Tools in Other Fields.

We stayed in the park until lunch-time and when the food arrived, Tom did too.  We continued our reflection on the first day together and went back in the Museum where Caroline Woolard and I led a discussion on alternative economies. Later in the afternoon, each artist shared our non-art related skills such as clearing spaces, grant writing, Citizen Science, performance studies, Geography and alternative mapping, and small business development, which we complied into a document annotating internet resources and key words for “Our Tools from Other Fields”.

After some solo time, we toured through Corona and ended up at Immigrant Movement International where we meet with Tania Bruguera who spoke at length about the past, present and future of the IM International project. Over dinner at Nixtamal, with Tania as our guest, our discussion turned to documentation and representation in Social Practice art making.

Back at QMA, we played soccer and shared our favorite Youtube videos of Hennessey Youngman. People got creative with sleeping space using Tom’s office, the theater, and the Panorama as our bedrooms.

On Sunday, the focus was on ourselves. Ethan Kerr took us into Flushing Meadows Park and led us in nature-based activities.  We focused on trust and personal awareness by being blindfolded while walking through parts of the park. As a group, we were asked to lower a feather weight pole to the ground each using one finger that had to remain on the pole for the duration.  Ethan led us in a group reflection after each activity and provided us with feedback on our group.  He remarked that our group was so bonded that his intended exercise on exclusion did not even work.

We went for lunch at the Cinco de Mayo festival in the park and ended the afternoon with a workshop lead by Garrick Imani on surveying artists, museums and visitors about Social Practice.

Before departing, we each filled out a workshop evaluation and reflected as a group on our experience together. We all partook in a closing ritual to help us remember our time together and lingered on the sidewalk outside the Museum way past closing hours.

After the retreat, I created a follow-up package for the artists and the Museum outlining what was accomplished. Inspired by the experience at QMA, I will continue to build upon my retreat model, focusing on the personal and emotional experience of participating artists, and being very intentional with the physical retreat environment within the museum setting. I will invite one artist from each retreat to the next to encourage the cross-pollination of ideas. Going forward, Larissa Harris and I are completing an in-depth interview about my practice. I am also working on a Community of Community video, a website highlighting each retreat, and meeting with other institutions who want to host future retreats. I look forward to many retreats in many cities with artists from all over the world coming together to explore themes, skill-share, support each other and ourselves and explore the lineage of socially engaged art while living cooperatively together.

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