Jul 17, 2017

An Alternative History of Thought: Anthony Romero on In/Out

by: Anthony Romero

We’ve teamed up again with Moore College of Art & Design for the third annual In/Out: A Summer Symposium on Scales, Impact and Inclusion in Socially-Engaged Art. On Friday, July 21 and Saturday, July 22, experience keynote addresses, site visits around Philadelphia, an in-depth panel discussion between students and community arts organizations, and a funder discussion. This is our third year co-hosting In/Out, and we asked artist, writer, and organizer Anthony Romero to look back on what the symposium has meant to him.

Some time ago, Abigail Satinsky and I authored an essay together for Temporary Art Review in which we reflected upon the rise of conferences showcasing socially engaged art making and grassroots cultural movements in recent years. The essay, “Making Art Politically: How to Gather,” was a way to think through the organizational strategies and tactics that gatherings like Open Engagement, Hand-in-Glove, the Creative Time Summit, and In/Out Symposia are using to develop platforms for this kind of work. We chose to use In/Out’s commitment to language justice by providing real-time interpretation to bilingual panels as an example of how social justice tenants might be reflected in organizing as well as in programming. Revisiting some of these thoughts now, I see that one thing we failed to consider was the unique ways that In/Out functions not only as a platform for network building and skill sharing, but as a pedagogical tool. As a faculty member in the Social and Studio Practices Programs at Moore College of Art & Design, most of my observations about the In/Out Symposia series are filtered through the work I do with my students.

By being sited at Moore College of Art & Design as a collaboration between the College and Mural Arts Philadelphia, In/Out is situated strategically at the intersection of civic engagement, community platform, and pedagogical instrument. This places a different set of expectations on its purpose and the intentionality behind the organizing than if it were solely a project of one or the other. As a result, the gathering overflows out of the time and space of the conference and into the classroom in useful and remarkable ways.

This is of interest to me because as an artist and educator, I am concerned not only with historical precedents but with study and the production of knowledge. I am as concerned with how we know something as much as what we know. To put it another way, I am asking: How do we know what we know? The question seems abstract, but when applied to our contemporary social and political world it illuminates something crucial for those of us interested in reimagining that world. A quick example of the application of this logic in that context would be: How do we know that our lives matter?

In the context of Moore College of Art & Design, this same logic allows us to think of the classroom and by extension In/Out as an opportunity to organize the conditions under which new and different knowledge might be produced about the world, by sharing and working collaboratively as students, faculty, and practitioners. What I mean is that students not only have access to and are inspired by artists and community organizers working on a range of social issues from across the country—and that they have the opportunity to work with them on their projects—but that they have insight into how platforms like In/Out are produced. This is a significant shift from other gatherings on socially engaged art, even those in which pedagogy might be an implicit part of the proceedings.

How we gather to talk about police brutality, gender-based violence, immigrant detention centers, and so on functions as a mirror to the superstructures that determine how we as a society, and lawmakers more specifically, construct unequal access to and distribution of resources—which is to say that to have a conference on the Prison Industrial Complex, for example, and to ignore the ways that the organizing body and hosting organization structurally replicate the same pervasive practices and ideologies that allow things like the Prison Industrial Complex to exist, is merely to pay a superficial and potentially self-serving role in changing the issue under investigation. The origin and work of artist group the Michelada Think Tank (MTT) offers a more concrete example of the kind of mirroring I am describing here, while also suggesting a model for how to intervene. As they write on their website, “The Michelada Think Tank grew out of the Open Engagement Tally, an intervention in which a group of artists distributed a postcard listing the racial demographics of presenters at the 2014 Open Engagement conference for socially engaged artists in Queens, NY. The demographics of the presenters reflected existing racial disparities in higher education, museum attendance, and the art world at large. As a response, the artists who initiated the OE Tally convened the Michelada Think Tank, a loose network of artists, culture workers, and community organizers interested in the relationship between art and social change.” Since this initial intervention, MTT has staged a number of think tanks and public dialogues.

Similarly, the structural conditions under which we learn something are not neutral, but are influenced and informed by how ideas are narrativized and shaped by our experience of the world. In writing about representation of indigenous peoples in science fiction narratives, scholar and frequent collaborator of mine Josh Rios puts it this way: “Society shapes culture and is in turn shaped by culture. The desire to see one’s self and one’s cultural interests projected on the social screen is deeply entangled with the very real effects of misrepresentation and misidentification historically and currently practiced in hegemonic societies.” Curator Nato Thompson echoes this point when he writes, “It is not that we simply watch television, but that we take the phenomena around us into ourselves. We become what we experience.” This same idea can be applied to pedagogical situations in that how we learn—that is, the conditions under which knowledge is produced—is as much a part of curriculum as what we learn, whether we intend for it to be or not. In this way, the attention and politics that we would apply to organizing a gathering like In/Out should be the same as we would bring to the classroom, for what is a class but a prolonged and sustained gathering.

To broaden conceptions of studying, contemplation, and learning, which is what I want to talk towards now at the closing of this text, in order to consider In/Out as a class and vice versa, is not only to accept gathering as a technology of learning collectively, but to pursue it actively as a form unto itself. It is to decenter the intellectual complex that maintains authority in determining what is and isn’t valued in terms of thought; it is to deploy an alternative pedagogy, one in which painting a mural, leading an after school program, or organizing a conference like In/Out might be considered a form of study. As In/Out continues this year and evolves in the years beyond, perhaps this is ultimately what it offers us: an alternative history of thought.


Anthony Romero is an artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities of color. His solo and collaborative works have been performed and executed nationally, most notably at Links Hall (CHI), The Judson Memorial Church (NYC), and Temple Contemporary (PHL), among others. Recent projects include the book-length essay The Social Practice That Is Race, written with Dan S. Wang and published by Wooden Leg Press; Buenos Dias, Chicago!, a two-year performance project commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and produced in collaboration with Mexico City-based performance collective Teatro Linea de Sombra; as well as editing the exhibition catalogue for Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements, a multi-city exhibition and event series with contributions from Fred Moten, Mark Novak, and Jen Hofer, among others. He is a co-founder of the Latinx Artist Visibility Award, a national scholarship for Latinx artists produced in collaboration with artist J. Soto and OxBow School of Art, and a co-founder of the Latinx Artists Retreat, a national gathering of Latinx artists and administrators. He is currently a Professor of the Practice at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts and a faculty fellow at The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, both at Tufts University.

Support for this reflection was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Last updated: Jul 17, 2017

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