Pepón Osorio: The Impact of ReForm

Pepón Osorio: The Impact of ReForm

Elizabeth M. Grady

Socially engaged art is radical in form, though its effects are not guaranteed to be progressive. Its hallmarks are duration, co-creation, a de-centering of the artist as author, and polyphony. Art objects, when they are present within a project, function as means to an end rather than the desired result of the artistic endeavor. The results of employing this art form are community and/or participant impact and sustainability. In this essay, I will explore the impact of socially engaged art through the lens of Pepón Osorio’s ReForm project (2014-17). I contend that the project takes the form of a conduit, rather than being focused primarily on its material and temporal manifestation in an installation.

As a warm September gave way to the cool breezes of fall in 2014, the artist Pepón Osorio, as was his custom, rode his bike to work at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, in Philadelphia. His route took him through Fairhill, a high-crime North Philadelphia neighborhood of cramped and crumbling historic brick row houses often avoided by those not living there. As of the 2010 census the area is 80.2% Hispanic, with some of the highest concentrations of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico. It has a poverty rate of 61%. In 2013 state and federal aid to Philadelphia schools was slashed, while the city’s tax base had been badly eroded due to middle class flight. In response, Philadelphia was forced to drastically cut school funding. Consequently, 24 schools in the district, including Fairhill Elementary, were closed, and 3783 employees laid off.[1] Osorio passed the hollow tooth that had been the elementary school on his commute, wondering what had led the pale modernist structure to its seemingly untimely decay and desiccation, and where the community that it had rooted in place had dispersed. Increasingly preoccupied by the nagging sense of loss that its presence marked, he resolved to try to find out what had become of its erstwhile inhabitants, and began working to find them.

[Fig. 1: Pepón Osorio took this picture in 2014 of Fairhill School after it had been closed for a year. All images reproduced with permission from Pepón Osorio, ReForm (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2016), this image, p. 5]

I looked at this building as a ghost. I saw it also as a metaphor for the state of public education. It’s just one big shell without any content, without any function whatsoever in the community. I’m sure you know … how (schools) were placed … in the centers of communities in the 40s and 50s. … So I was wondering, how was this community around the periphery of this building functioning? And how was that displacement affecting the community? — Pepón Osorio [2]

Osorio learned that the school was mourned by the community, and had been honored with a shrine complete with flowers, notes, and stuffed animals, of the sort usually reserved for human deaths by accident or malign intent—like being hit by a car or a bullet. Community members reflected on the closing, as reported by the Huffington Post:

“We were looking at the building standing there, saying, ‘We can’t believe this is really happening.’ We have a lot of memories there,” said Elsie Ortiz, an assistant teacher at the school’s pre-K. Her grandchildren attended the school until June [2014]. “We were taking pictures … and writing stuff like ‘Fairhill School we love you no matter what.’ We chanted, ‘Fairhill School we love you, we’re gonna miss you.’”[3]

Upon learning that his hunch about the community impact of the school’s closure had been right, Osorio decided to begin exploring the possibility of creating an artwork in response. In discussing the idea with colleagues, a former student of his, Tim Gibbon, volunteered that he had also been a teacher at Fairhill. When Osorio asked, Gibbon agreed to help him reach out to the community, connecting with other teachers, the principal, and former students. Osorio found that there was much interest in reconvening the community, so he hosted a reunion dinner at Tyler, on December 12, 2014, which was attended by around 75 people:

I didn’t want to get very critical about it, I just wanted to bring people together. Because they really wanted to get together. For them the most important thing was to see each other after an entire year of missing connection with each other.[4]

Crucially, the project began with a convergence of Osorio’s own interests and those of the community that he had chosen to work with, bringing the Fairhill community back together. Because of this, a firm foundation for a larger project was established. The meeting resonated with Osorio, and he decided to engage more deeply with ten former students: teens, who had shown a special interest in the school community on the occasion of the December dinner, and with whom the artist felt a special affinity. “I could see myself in ten kids who were participating in the project.”[5] They were singled out for deeper engagement, and Osorio began meeting with them weekly at Tyler, in restaurants, in cafes, providing transportation when necessary to facilitate the meetings. For their part, the students were interested in continuing the relationship with Osorio and with one another. Chelsey Velez, one of the students said, “After (the reunion dinner) there was a message, and it said people could come for another get together. It was Pepón there also. It was about how the kids could get together and we could find out how it (closing Fairhill) hurt the community.”[6] Some of the students had simply graduated from Fairhill, while others had been transferred to other, less conveniently located public schools.

Osorio began slowly, engaging the students in weekly conversations on Saturdays, and allowing them time to socialize. He gradually established trust and credibility, as the students began to believe his sincerity in wanting to facilitate their continued community building. As they talked about the school, and the ways in which it remained meaningful to them, Osorio recommended using the academic calendar as a framework for thinking about the school. The former students, who had come to call themselves the Bobcats in honor of the Fairhill mascot, responded by suggesting that a good opportunity to bring people together again would be for Fun Day, which happened each year around May Day.

In early spring the Bobcats began planning in earnest for Fun Day, which catalyzed their participation. Osorio had made the project a part of the curriculum for his Tyler students, for whom it served as an internship in community engagement. He and the Tyler students facilitated the work, helping the Bobcats figure out how to get permits for a block party and other details, but the Bobcats otherwise produced the event on their own. In the first major activity of the engagement, then, Osorio had already made an effort to step back, so the Bobcats could claim ownership over their own convening, and collaborative creation could happen.

[Fig. 2: Fun Day at Fairhill School organized by The Bobcats, May 1, 2015. Photograph by Tony Rocco, p. 27]

The Bobcats plastered the entire neighborhood with posters inviting the community to Fairhill Elementary School for the event. The goal was to reach 200 people, more than double the attendance of the December dinner, which had been 75. Instead, 800 people showed up, at a school that had had an enrollment of 375. Osorio said, “That’s when the project began to take a different course, in terms of critical thinking, making connections, they were surprised by their ability to convocate so many people, to bring so many people together.”[7] Before Fun Day, he had decided to make an installation based on his experience with the students called ReForm. On the day of the event, he went into the school and removed many objects and materials, including a drinking fountain, cubbies, diagrams and charts, and acoustic ceiling tiles. Energized by the success of the day, the Bobcats approached Osorio and asked to become his paid assistants on the project. From then on, the weekly meetings were dedicated to working together on the installation.

Visitors experienced the installation in stages that began when they walked through the doors at the Tyler School of Art. The glass and terrazzo lobby is rather slick, institutional-looking, and perhaps a bit forbidding. However, a Bobcat seated at a folding table near the reception desk greeted visitors, breaking the ice. As they led visitors downstairs to the windowless lower-level hall and classroom where the installation was situated, the space became increasingly informal, messy, and even a little rundown. It was an intentional transition to the conditions of Fairhill.

[Fig. 3: Installation view, ReForm, Tyler School of Art, 2015-16, p. 27]

The kids’ cubbies had been placed in the hall outside the classroom, and hung with discarded personal items left by students and recovered from the Fairhill School building on Fun Day, like Dora the Explorer backpacks and similar paraphernalia. The wall above the cubbies mimicked cinderblock, and was made of Fairhill’s acoustic ceiling tiles, repurposed and painted an institutional cream color. Embedded in the wall were framed photos of various events with daily calendar sheets tacked up beside them that informed the viewer of the date they occurred. The images documented community-rebuilding moments organized by Osorio and the Bobcats.

[Fig. 4: Installation view, ReForm, Tyler School of Art, 2015-16, p. 28]

Upon turning the corner, there was a drinking fountain from the school, with its attendant sign, “Do Not Drink Water”—the pipes in the school were all contaminated with asbestos—but it also unmistakably recalled the Jim Crow South. It flanked the doorway to a recreated classroom, which had barred gates also reclaimed from the school. It was rather startling to note that the school to prison pipeline was so concretely visible at Fairhill, even to the point where students could be locked into or out of their classrooms. In the installation, this transition from hallway to classroom was the viewer’s first real indication of the critical content of the work.

[Fig. 5: Installation view, ReForm, Tyler School of Art, 2015-16, p. 54]

The classroom itself was wallpapered with giant sheets of ruled paper, handwritten in oversized script by each Bobcat, so the room had been transformed; the handwriting was literally on the walls. Indeed, the official letter on government letterhead stationery informing students and their families of the closing of Fairhill was reproduced in white chalkboard paint on a massive green chalkboard, as well. Osorio said, “The most logical thing to do at this point was to bring in the teachers, to do the corrections. So I contacted the teachers, the network from the school [who made spelling and grammar corrections in red]. So all the material that’s here in the room, [is from the school].”[8] The Bobcats’ handwritten testimonies of their experiences were marked up by the teachers, resulting in the appearance of actual corrected homework, while the lettering on the chalkboard carefully mimicked the typeface and formatting of the official letter from the school district. The school material included tables and chairs, anatomical charts and maps recovered from classrooms, and in addition there were shrines on pedestals, each of which held a video of a Bobcat reciting a poem by fellow student Chelsea Velez, “When we speak you listen,” that demanded the attention of the authorities and broader society responsible for the school’s closing, which was also reproduced in the book that accompanied the exhibition. A Bobcat was always in attendance in the classroom itself, to explain to the visitors what they were looking at, and answer any questions they might have.[9]

[Fig. 6: Installation view, ReForm, Tyler School of Art, 2015-16, p. 32]

ReForm as Form

In order to understand how ReForm functioned from a critical perspective, it is necessary to have a clear sense of its form. A brief analysis may serve to illustrate the point, beginning with a consideration of the role of more traditional mediums in art production. For example, in the nineteenth century, painting was more or less the primary instrument of Western art, with sculpture playing a distant second fiddle. It could be used radically, as it was by some Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, just as it could be used to support the artistic and political status quo, as in the case of academic history painting of the sort favored by the annual Paris salons. The use of the medium itself was no reliable indication of the aesthetic or social radicalism of the artist. However, it is safe to say that regardless of the technique of the application of the oil paint to its support, everyone was able to agree that the resulting object was, in fact, a painting. In ReForm it gets a bit tricky, because when viewed by means of a traditional, materials-based analysis, the result appears to be a multi-media installation of significant duration, but lacking in permanence. If this were a work produced primarily by the artist himself, made according to his exclusive vision and design, that might be the case. Indeed, Osorio has produced works of that sort. On the contrary, I would argue that in the case of ReForm the medium of the work is not immediately apprehended through an examination of the material outcome—the physical artwork in the traditional sense. Rather, the “art” in the artwork is to be found in the means by which the installation was created, and the continuing afterlife of that process of engagement between Osorio and the Bobcats. The dialogic approach to the collaboration created a network of individuals, who acted as a hub, and whose communication became a conduit through which ideas might flow into the project, and back out again into their lives, provoking changes in the ways they saw themselves and envisioned their futures.[10] Specific outcomes will be discussed in further detail below, but include the interest of some Bobcats in specific vocations and forms of post-secondary education, in addition to community organizing and activism.

Why ask the question, how can socially engaged art be formally characterized? Because if you can see the shape that it takes, then it becomes possible to place the artwork in context, and analyze its social and political function. ReForm is fundamentally relationship-based and immaterial, whatever the material outcomes might be. While, like painting, the medium of socially engaged art is not inherently of one political stripe or another, still its role as a conduit may be socially activated and fruitfully deployed in the service of specific change goals. In the case of ReForm, the goal is to understand the impact of school closure and work to countermand its effects on an individual basis, through the medium of ongoing discussions with and between the Bobcats.

As opposed to art forms that are primarily objective and representational, socially engaged art is a form that is a catalyst; not a completed artwork or action, but an implement that can be wielded to provoke social response and even real change. It can be impactful because its form is of a different nature than more discrete art forms. Even as loose and elastic a medium as performance art tends to have a beginning, middle, and end, whereas socially engaged art may productively be viewed as having no specific duration, as the relationships that are formed to create it do not simply end with a culminating moment within a project, like an installation or event. For example, in the case of this particular project, both Fun Day and the ReForm installation are key inflection points, yet neither event taken alone constitutes the fullness of the artistic collaboration between Osorio and the Bobcats.[11] Osorio’s technique of engaging socially, developing trust, then determining action, followed by a repetition of the cycle if the participants are interested in continuing the relationship, is crucial in ensuring the longevity of the projects, and also their impact. He begins with conversation, which results in events, installations, or other aesthetic expressions, which in turn lead back to conversation. The political efficacy of his practice, then, lies in ending each stage of the journey with art. The work becomes political and aesthetic in tandem, each tendency informing the other, until the seemingly contradictory forms of the social (conversation, dialogue) and the aesthetic (material artworks, finite experiences or events) converge.[12]

One of the signature techniques employed by socially engaged artists like Osorio is dialogue. For Grant Kester it plays a key role, overcoming the imbalance of power between the artist and collaborators by placing them on an even playing field.[13] Although dialogue may ameliorate this imbalance, Osorio freely acknowledged to the Bobcats that he did not have as much skin in the game as they did, seeing as he had never attended nor taught at Fairhill, and did not live in the community. In acknowledging the power differential, he took some of the teeth out of it, but also ensured that the teens were aware of it, and thus forestalled any illusion that it might evaporate entirely. As Kim Charnley has observed, following Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Jacques Rancière, ‘antagonism’ or ‘dissensus’ (the terms used by these authors) “…is the very essence of the political, and of democracy.”[14] The gap between personal interest in the school’s status and a lack thereof allows a critical distance that makes it possible for Osorio to see the relationships between former students and the broader urban and social environment for what they are, beyond the specificity of the social and physical space of the school. He is able to see the institution of the school as a system of socialization, and of the reproduction of class relations in a specific, geographically bounded community. He makes reference to this broader context when he describes the personal effects left behind by students in the school, that he repurposed for the installation. Referring to the many backpacks he found, emblazoned with TV characters invented and promoted by corporations, he believed that what they left behind was, broadly construed, a symptom of the corporatization of public schools and education in the United States.

The critical distance between Osorio’s secure economic, professional and social status, as a well-known artist who is also the chair of an academic department at a respected art school, and the precarity of the students’ lives is what generates the distance that allows for transformation. Further, Osorio understands this and reproduces the frisson between participants in geographic and architectural terms, by displacing the interactions of the community to the installation space that they created together at Tyler. When asked whether the project would have worked the same way, had it been sited in, for example, a neighborhood storefront in Fairhill, Osorio said that it might have initially drawn more people but would have been a spectacle. Instead, by locating the work at Tyler, he was able to demonstrate to the Bobcats other life possibilities within the context of the project. This allowed self-discovery of the value of post-secondary education. Had the project not been housed at Tyler, the sharing of information would have necessitated a dissociated form of lecturing to achieve a comparable if less effective outcome.[15] Additionally, this displacement took the space of the installation and put it into an academic context, highlighting its role as a laboratory for visionary thinking about the ideal form for public schools, and how their administrators might be productively taken to task for their actions. One of the key activities the Bobcats engaged in as part of ReForm was to create a model of their ideal school. This was done in tandem with self-education on how decisions were made in the school district, and who the decision makers were. These policy-makers were invited to talk to students at Temple, in the installation, which some did, and the students learned about and availed themselves of opportunities to address district leaders in person about their concerns at open council meetings. So, individual transformation and political awakening moved in lockstep with direct action. It became the catalyst to begin forming a new generation of activists. Anthony Schrag goes so far as to state that, “the unique contribution to the field (by socially engaged art) lies in the development of productive relationships with institutions, and this approach stands apart from the traditional activist and/or political works that seek an ‘exodus’ from pre-existing systems”.[16] Osorio’s choice to bring the project to Tyler is evidence of just such a relationship, lending credence to Schrag’s point. Rather than take the path of avoiding the sometimes prickly nature of working within the corridors of power, Osorio chose to exercise the power and privilege that he holds in the service of activism and the community surrounding Tyler’s location. Though it appears that he is working with Tyler as an institution, still he critiques it, subtly pointing out the university’s problematic relationship to the nearby Fairhill community, most of whose members never had the opportunity to attend university at all, not least due to the inadequate educational options that existed for them.

The displacement of the installation to Tyler has further implications, including issues of scale, identity, and context among others. On entering the classroom space at Tyler, one is struck by its parallel to the installation, which reproduces various elements of a classroom setting at Fairhill Elementary. The installation has more or less a 1:1 scale to reality. Such installations, according to Stephen Wright, “don’t look like anything other than what they also are; nor are they something to be looked at and they certainly don’t look like art”.[17] In this case, a few elements are exaggerated for dramatic effect, like the video shrines, but not to the point that the space was no longer recognizable to the Bobcats. When I visited the installation in November 2015, two of the Bobcats gave me a tour where they led me from one area to the other in the installation, describing them as classrooms, as when they described the area with an anatomical chart to me as “the science classroom.” This sense of familiarity within the unfamiliar setting of Tyler was important in creating a sense of comfort that allowed the Bobcats the creative freedom to envision alternative futures for themselves and their education. As Osorio puts it,

The idea of having this set up in the university, for them to freely come in through the front door and find their way down here and have communication with this, and begin to experience college not from an educational point of view but also from a socialization point of view and transferring knowledge from here [Tyler] to there [Fairhill neighborhood] and back, it was an amazing opportunity.[18]

Such attention to site is a critical part of the project’s success, as is observed generally about co-creative art by Paul Harris and Chris Fremantle.[19]

[Fig. 7: Installation view, ReForm, Tyler School of Art, 2015-16, p. 35]

Since the close of the installation at Tyler in May 2016, Osorio has continued to meet with the Bobcats. This commitment to shift the project from the installation context shows that the installation was used only as a means to an end rather than the end itself. The project is actually the formation of a self-reliant mini-polity, the citizens of which community are committed to the social and economic transformation of their own circumstances. Viewed thus, ReForm can be examined as a model and laboratory. The students built a model school for themselves when they created the installation. They also made a smaller, tabletop model of their utopian Fairhill Elementary, which has many of the features of their old school, but some new ones as well, like a garden and a cat room. The students built a world, however small and temporary, governed by their own rules, designed according to their own visions, in which they might think experimentally about education in an idealized way. The smaller model, added to more or less on a weekly basis through the run of the exhibition, allowed them to have something that they could take with them, that can move through the real world. As Risë Wilson observed in the book that accompanied the installation,

The Harris’ red ink (the corrections that former Fairhill teachers made to the students’ wall texts) also reinforces ReForm as an active site for learning. The project is not an exercise or performance. ReForm is not about an empathetic artist saying “Wow, this is terrible. I’ll do a piece in tribute.” In generating ReForm, Osorio created conditions in which young people abandoned by the School District of Philadelphia could have a new kind of learning experience— one in which they are the ones driving its shape, literally and figuratively.[20]

In other words, ReForm became a stage set where alternate learning was collectively performed. Nato Thompson has observed that Osorio’s “background in theater and interest in performance certainly informs his stage-like installation aesthetic.”[21] The stage-like installation aesthetic implies an awareness of the space as a kind of set in which prescribed actions take place; in this case, self-determination and empowerment. The creation of a set implies that a kind of theater performance will take place there. For all its use of actual artifacts and partial reconstruction of Fairhill classrooms, it is also an artistic space of increased permissiveness, freedom, and creativity, where the occupants of the space have license to think and behave in unaccustomed ways. The installation was a forum for action, rather than an end in itself.

One example of such unconventional learning was the way that the Bobcats educated themselves about the school district’s political system. One day, a Bobcat drew an image of the office building which houses the centralized school commission over a part of the handwritten wallpaper. This prompted the others to research the members of the school closing board, and to produce little portrait figures of each member, which were mounted on the wall in front of the drawing. Osorio states,

I think that for me that was the basic premise of the installation, which was how do you expand the knowledge beyond the institution? What is the place of an autodidactic experience in your life and how you can teach yourself if you choose not to continue going into a university setting, how do you teach yourself in a way that you don’t lose transferring of knowledge.[22]

The students pursued their interest in school politics into the real world, inviting individual reform commissioners to come and speak to the students. Some students also attended a public hearing, and spoke out about their experiences in that forum, thus activating their knowledge. The experience of co-creating the installation had clearly served as a catalyst for their political awakening, empowering them with the knowledge and impetus needed to work within the political system to address the issue of greatest common concern to them: the closure of the school.

[Fig. 8: Installation view, ReForm, Tyler School of Art, 2015-16, p. 31]

Another function of the space was to create an opportunity for reflection, and for the valorization of the Bobcats, transforming them from victims of political and economic expediency into honored authors of their own creativity and destinies. This was highlighted by the ornate shrines that the Tyler interns made in response to getting to know the Bobcats intimately during the planning process for Fun Day. Each shrine was an individual response to the personality and preferences of each Bobcat, and featured a video monitor showing each student’s face reciting a poem written by one of their number, Chelsea, demanding that they be listened to by those governing their educational institutions. They were embellished with beads, sequins, and other sparkling objects, and had an architectural appearance that recalled saints’ shrines in Catholic churches. By enshrining the Bobcats, the altars suggested that each of them is as important as the next, that they are worthy of honor and attention. The fact that outsiders created the shrines reinforced this effect. Linochka, a Bobcat, said,

We didn’t see the altars ‘til the opening of [the Tyler installation]. The private opening was for the Bobcats, and we didn’t see it ‘til the private opening. We knew that we were going to have little cages, but we didn’t know how they were going to be, so when we saw that, we were, like Oh my god this is so cool.[23]

This setup worked to enhance the confidence of the Bobcats, making the space a better tool for fostering alternative learning.

Making the installation at Tyler created a home and a safe space in which students could come to terms with their circumstances. It provided a supportive context and also claimed the space as theirs, rather than Tyler’s. Further, it took identity markers from the original Fairhill, like cubbies, gate, the drinking fountain, science lab posters, etc., reclaimed them, and used them to create a space untouchable by the powers that shut them out in the first place—the local school board. It was a way of saying that their community was not dependent on the physical space of the school, that it could exist anywhere. It was moved from a physical, institutional space to a potentially mobile, aestheticized space. By displacing the markers of common understanding, like the learning context of written assignments, poems, etc. to a space fully controlled by students, for aesthetic contemplation, they empowered themselves to consider the meaning of learning and community and build toward something new. Not only did the space enable them to retain their links to the past and their connections to one another, but the creative context proved that the links of community could be generative outside a traditional, institutional public school framework.

The self-determination of the collaborators in ReForm allowed them to find their way toward personal development and the evolution of their social awareness. Not requiring socially engaged art, as a form, to be progressive or justice-oriented is a form of radical freedom; communities may self-identify issues and the best processes for approaching solutions to those issues. To insist upon a progressive read is to shut down the radical freedom of self-determination. Osorio recognized this possibility, and made sure that the students remained the authors of their own project:

The more that I wanted to talk about politics, the more that I wanted to talk about critical issues, the more they just wanted to get in and hang out. And so there was a little bit of a tension between my wish to begin to think critically and their need to actually connect on a social level … and then one day they decided that they wanted to do this thing right in front of the school (Fairhill) and then they began to think critically.[24]

Osorio’s co-creation of a mini-polity with the power of self-determination provides evidence of an observation made by Greg Sholette, that

by working with human affect and experience as an artistic medium social practice draws directly upon the state of society that we actually find ourselves in today: fragmented and alienated by decades of privatization, monetization, and ultra-deregulation. In the absence of any truly democratic governance, works of socially engaged art seem to be filling in a lost social by enacting community participation and horizontal collaboration, and by seeking to create micro- collectives and intentional communities.[25]

Indeed, his observation reinforces the notion that such work functions as a conduit for action and change.

In order to maintain that sense of autonomy, Osorio resisted initially sharing his perspective as an artist with the students. Chelsey said, “At first I didn’t know it was an art project. I thought it was something simple, just talking about Fairhill and how we felt.” Linochka echoed, “We didn’t even know he was a famous artist. We thought he was just some guy who wanted to do an exhibit at a college.” Osorio’s suppression of his identity as a well-known artist and academic serves as an answer to criticisms made by Charnley and Kester, who explore the ethics of the power dynamic common to much socially engaged art, in which an individual who occupies a position of privilege steps in to offer access to power to those who do not normally possess it. Charnley writes,

Kester is not wrong when he emphasizes that the role of the artist in socially engaged work is fraught with the risk of calling for democracy from a structure of social relations that enacts inequality. It is important to make the point that collaborative art projects can be: ‘…centred on an exchange between an artist (who is viewed as creatively, intellectually, financially, and institutionally empowered) and a given subject who is defined a priori as in need of empowerment or access to creative/expressive skills.’ However, this pitfall cannot be generalized as a sign of art’s basic injustice as this ethical formulation of the problem inhibits enquiry into the enigmatic quality of art’s opposition to and complicity with power.[26]

Osorio hides the art in his work at first, in order to allow it to operate. He contends that to reveal it is to hinder its efficacy. His deployment of his prestige is a slow reveal. He starts by engaging as a generic citizen (his term) and only over time begins to openly speak in aesthetic terms to his collaborators. This minimizes the negative impact of art’s elitism, where it can intimidate and exclude, while retaining art’s power to “open a political space,” enabling it to exercise a unique efficacy in promoting self-directed transformation. By employing dialogue he uses an art skill. But if those he is teaching realized that it’s an art skill, they feel they can’t use it because ipso facto they are not artists and can’t make art. Therefore they would not listen to him, and his project would become ineffective. The impact and long-term success and sustainability of his practice, which includes the inculcation of his skills in individuals he collaborates with, relies on this little white lie by omission. Eventually he allows the truth to come out, but he does not let the conversation begin in art; rather his process works only if he ends there—in other words, if the art is part of a process that acts as a conduit for change, rather than a material end in itself. The political efficacy of his practice, then, lies in ending the journey with art. The work becomes political and aesthetic in tandem, each tendency informing the other, until the seemingly contradictory forms of the social and the aesthetic converge.

ReForm Now

The genius of Osorio’s project is not to manufacture a collectively produced installation/exhibition—that was a byproduct. The real artwork here, the value produced by the art project, is confirmed by what initially appears to be its afterlife, but is actually evidence that the project is of longer duration and has not yet ended. Last summer/early fall there was a three-day retreat outside the city, where students reflected on their experience. The exhibition had closed at the end of May, which would seem to mark a natural end point for the project. However, the students continued to meet with one another and Osorio, illustrating that the community they had created had produced the necessary context for a broader and more productive way of thinking about their future. They came to the conclusion that they wanted to visit Puerto Rico, where many of them have roots, and where similar problems of school closings have been created by the island territory’s own circumstance of colonially-induced structural poverty. Not only do the Bobcats no longer need Tyler and its context, they have found ways to overcome the dependence on outside resources. They have chosen not to partner with outside organizations. In this way, it’s a short leap to see that the installation was a means to an end, and that the end is a polyphonic truth, arrived at dialogically. Each participant holds that truth inside themselves and with one another in common. They no longer need rely on art, rather they have used art’s tools to transcend art’s necessity in the project of improving their situations, their lives, and working to help others to do the same. A polyphonic truth is one in which there is room for a number of different voices and opinions—even contradictory ones.[27] In this way, ReForm was truly transformational, and continues to act in the world in a productive way.

Co-creation is also related to duration, not only in that it requires time for the artist to effectively collaborate, but in that it allows for long-term impact beyond the scheduled life of the project. If there are a number of people sharing authorship, each can take his or her experience, and commitment to the project’s ideals and goals, and separately pursue them at the conclusion of their work together. The potential for diachronic creation and action allows for the possibility that no socially engaged art project actually comes to an end. If the creative team can act independently over time, there is no reason that the project’s end need mark an end to their engagement, nor that the project’s stated limits of engagement should delimit the reach of any one individual. In other words, the knowledge shared during the project has a strong likelihood of continuing to spread and become influential over time and beyond the project’s original scope of activity and/or activism. Here, this is pertinent in allowing us to recognize the installation for what it was: an inflection point rather than the fully realized artwork.[28]

Since the installation closed, there has been ongoing conversation that culminated in a three-day retreat, where the Bobcats asked themselves if it was worth it, and what happens now. Students noticed that a common denominator in their lives was that they had shared some kind of organizational or governmental dependency (like food stamps). Osorio talked to them about dependencies on organizations, and raised the question of what the mechanism of survival can be now that funding is withdrawn? The Bobcats have begun raising money at small, local markets, and looking at entrepreneurship as a model. Their goal is to visit Puerto Rico within a year, raising the money for their trips on their own. Cassie, one of the Bobcats, was invited to consult with the mayor’s task force on school reform on a monthly basis, and also applied to Temple University business school. Another Bobcat is beginning to take college preparatory courses. Chelsea and Linochka found jobs. The majority of them are doing well. They are looking at things differently. They are reflecting on their lives and looking for ways of escaping the trap of low-wage jobs.

When the students chose to engage, and that engagement took them outside of their everyday experience, it likewise produced for them a critical distance that enabled them to see the space between their previous expectations and their new understanding of additional possibilities. Without a consistent educational experience—a system that processes them socially, with a specific end of improved circumstances in mind, like a school—there’s no space in which this critical appraisal can grow. The success of the project was not to manufacture a collectively produced installation/exhibition—that was a byproduct. The real artwork here, the value produced by the art project, was in producing a space for criticism and creative, generative thinking through dialogue, co-creation, polyphony, and long-term engagement.

Elizabeth M. Grady was inaugural Director of Programs at A Blade of Grass, 2013-18, and is a curator and scholar of socially engaged art. She was Program Manager of smARTpower, a U.S. State Department program that produced participatory art projects in fifteen countries. She has worked at MoMA-NY, the Whitney Museum and SFMoMA, and curated projects for the Moscow, Canary Islands, and Havana Biennials. She has taught art history and museum studies for 20 years. Recent publications include Future Imperfect (A Blade of Grass, 2016) and an article in the Guggenheim Social Practice catalog. She holds a Ph.D. in art history from Northwestern University.


[1] Rick Lyman and Mary Williams Walsh, “Philadelphia Borrows So Its Schools Open on Time,” New York Times, August 15, 2013.

[2] Pepón Osorio and Chelsey Velez, interview with Elizabeth M. Grady, November 10, 2015. Unpublished.

[3] Rebecca Klein, “Young Students, Parents Hold Memorial For Closing Fairhill School in Philadelphia,” Huffington Post, August 22, 2013.

[4] Osorio 2015.

[5] Osorio 2015.

[6] Chelsey Velez in Osorio 2015.

[7] Osorio 2015.

[8] Osorio 2015.

[9] Chelsey Velez, “When We Speak You Listen,” in Pepón Osorio, ReForm (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2016). It’s time that when we speak you listen!/It’s time that when we speak you listen!/When we speak you listen!/Why us we are now a broken family; When we speak you listen!/Saying it’s all the students’ fault/with all gad grades by how/can we do better if there/is only a few public schools/ with enough material for a few/classes and teachers barely getting paid./When we speak you listen: When we speak you listen!/Everyday looking straight into my/Parents’ eyes saying mom I don’t/want to leave my friends behind/We are now a broken family/When we speak you listen!/When we speak you listen!/When we speak you listen!/Where is all the money going?/They’re spending 15 million dollars/at Love park money down the drain/let Love Park stay the same it’s already iconic./We are not history Spend the/money on the Kids feed my/brain I want to make history/When we speak you listen/Taking our schools is just not right/it leaves to two options. JAIL or DEAD/DEAD or JAIL/ JAIL or DEAD/DEAD or JAIL/ JAIL or DEAD/DEAD or JAIL/Or schools closed down so suddenly/We won’t forget. We will remember those days./but I didn’t get to graduate/My friends graduated, my brother/graduated. My sister graduated/but I didn’t get A CHANCE/It’s not fair we all said but I/guess it never be it’s just the way it is./It’s TIME THAT WHEN WE SPEAK YOU LISTEN! YOU LISTEN!!

[10] I am indebted to the artist Michael Premo, whose use of the word “conduit” to describe the function of socially engaged art at a Board retreat for A Blade of Grass helped me concretize what had been a nascent idea about how the form and function of SEA might be characterized.

[11] For more on duration, see Elizabeth M. Grady, “Dangling Conversations: Ongoing knowledge generation in Craig Shillitto’s Proyecto Paladar,” Public: A Journal of Imagining America, Spring 2017.

[12] See Rancière 2009 as analyzed by Kim Charnley, “Dissensus and the politics of collaborative practice,” Art and the Public Sphere 1.1 (2011): p. 41, and Gregory Sholette, “Delirium and Resistance after the Social Turn,” FIELD: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, Issue 1 (Spring 2015),

[13] Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 111.

[14] Charnley, p. 48.

[15] Pepón Osorio, Interview with Elizabeth M. Grady, December 5, 2016. Unpublished.

[16] Anthony Gordon Schrag, “Agonistic Tendencies: The role of conflict within institutionally supported participatory practices,” Thesis, Practice-Based Doctorate of Philosophy, School of Arts and Culture, June 2015.

[17] Stephen Wright, “Toward a Lexicon of Usership,” published on the occasion of the Museum of Arte Útil at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, 2013. Available as a PDF online at:

[18] Osorio 2015.

[19] Paul Harris and Chris Fremantle, “Practising equality? Issues for co-creative and participatory practices addressing social justice and equality,” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, (November 2013): pp. 183-200. “One of the differentiating characteristics is the recognition of site, situation or context as critical to co-creative and participatory practice,” p. 189.

[20] Risë Wilson, “Hide and Seek: In Search of Reform,” in Pepón Osorio, ReForm (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2016), pp. 27-37.

[21] Nato Thompson, “Keeping It Real,” in Pepón Osorio, ReForm (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2016), p. 11.

[22] Osorio 2015.

[23] Osorio 2015.

[24] Osorio 2015.

[25] Sholette, “Delirium and Resistance after the Social Turn.”

[26] Kim Charnley argues that the effort to absolve by ethical reflection and consensual dialogue—the effort of the artist to overcome his/her own privilege and the apparent power differential between artist and participants—takes the political teeth out of the project. I argue that it is in the critical distance of the artist that dissensus is located here; a dissensus of which the artist is aware, and which s/he exacerbates/reproduces by displacing the meeting place and dialogues to an institution whose job it is, in part, to instill critical reflection in its students. He writes: “Kester associates the autonomy of the artist with inequality and seeks to charge the artist with absolving it by ethical reflection and consensual dialogue. …The problem is that each of these positions results in a neutralization of the political…: Bishop’s because she suggests that critical collaborative art must be blind to the social relations that constitute it; and Kester’s because it becomes a generalized ethical claim on behalf of the ‘other’ that art excludes. Each of these theorists attempts to erase contradiction in order to maintain a consistent account of the political – and it is in the attempt to be consistent that the political is erased,” in Charnley, “Dissensus and the politics of collaborative practice,” p. 49.

[27] For further examination of how Bakhtin’s notion of polyphonic truth may be brought to bear when considering the impact of socially engaged art, see Elizabeth Grady, “Future Imperfect,” pp. 174-181 in Elizabeth Grady, ed., Future Imperfect. New York: A Blade of Grass, 2016.

[28] Grady 2016; John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form: Skilling and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade. Brooklyn and London: Verso, 2007, p. 16; Grant Kester, The One and The Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011, pp. 224, 65.