Notes On Common Field 2020, Houston Edition

by Glasstire May 6, 2020

A screenshot of the session Define Nomadic Space: Arts Organizing, Pandemic, and Virtual Experience. Terry Suprean is speaking here.

Common Field, the “national network of independent visual arts organizations and organizers,” originally planned to hold its annual national convening in Houston in late April. (Common Field goes with a different city each time; this was its first time to organize a convening in Texas.)

Due to circumstances caused by Covid-19, Common Field (as with many other organizations during this time) moved its programming online, and guests could register to attend any number of discussions, panels, and workshops via Zoom.

In other words, Common Field had to achieve a hard pivot quickly, and with programming that entailed a lot of moving parts, so to speak. We all appreciate the effort that went into this year’s convening.

So, from April 23-May 3, Common Field and its Houston hosts, speakers, panelists and partners offered the public more than 30 free events to attend, with topics ranging from Art & Environmental Activism from the Frontline, to Fuck With Your Femme: Reifying Black Expansiveness Through Signifying and Pleasure, to Land Art Generators: Regenerative Design and Community Heritage, and much more.

Glasstire’s editorial staff attended select events, and below is a roundup.

The Houston partners for Common Field’s 2020 convening include Art League Houston, Aurora Picture Show, DiverseWorks, Emilý Æyer, Emily Sloan (Curation Myth + Mystic Lyon), Galveston Arts Center, Henry G. Sanchez (Law Office Center for Citizenship and Art + The BioArt Bayou-torium), Jessi Bowman (FLATS), Lawndale Art Center, Matt Manalo (Filipinx Artists of Houston), Megan Sparks (The Resistance Healing Clinic), Moe Penders, Project Row Houses, Reyes Ramirez, and the Rothko Chapel.


Christopher Blay’s notes on Matching Minorities//Doubtful Doubles: A Conversation on Institutionalized Racism, Tokenism, Microaggressions, and Inclusion vs. Optics in the Art World, with Astria Suparak (Oakland, CA), Jen Delos Reyes (Chicago, IL), and Lisa Lee (Chicago, IL). Saturday, April 25. 

Jen Delos Reyes (Open Engagement), Lisa Yun Lee (National Public Housing Museum), and Astria Suparak (Independent curator and artist) have all been mistaken for one another at some point in their careers. So for their session on institutionalized racism, tokenism, microaggressions, and inclusion vs. optics in the art world, titled Matching Minorities//Doubtful Doubles, it was one of the first things they discussed.

There were about 250 attendees on the Zoom session, in which the artists took turns talking about their personal experiences with racism and micro-agressions in the art world, and inviting participants to ask questions, propose solutions, and share experiences.

One story from Reyes was a poignant moment for me, as an artist of color, and how our work is often viewed in the art world. Reyes recounted a story about her first critique with her BFA committee:

“I showed them this very clean, stark video installation, where I had projected this series of videos of interviews I shot with these women around my age, also with very intersectional identities. I had asked them all the same series of questions, and then had tiled the floor with the text of all the questions from the interview.

“So upon seeing the work, one of my committee members said to me that the piece was really impressive, but ‘wasn’t my voice.’  She said it was the voice of my colonizer, and had suggested that to make it more in my voice I could hang some Chinese lanterns in the space, or splash red paint on the wall to symbolize menstrual blood.”

Reyes goes on to reflect on how offensive and reductive that exchange about her work was. “Aesthetically, she reduced my voice to a decorative cheap object I could go pick up in Chinatown.”

There were stories like that from the other two artists, and it served its purpose in laying out the problem, and challenged the audience to come up with solutions.

-Christopher Blay


Brandon Zech’s notes on Towards a Fossil Free Culture, with Imani Brown (New Orleans, LA), Bryan Parras (Houston, TX), Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Ph.D. (Denton, TX), Regina Agu (Chicago, IL). Organized by Bob Snead (New Orleans, LA). Friday, May 1. 

On the Gulf Cost, and in Houston in particular, energy drives the economy. With the recent pandemic and the historic crash of oil prices (into the negative, no less), a conversation about how arts and culture organizations deal with funding from oil, gas, and petrochemical corporations was set to be particularly poignant. Organized by Bob Snead of the New Orleans-based arts incubator Antenna and featuring Imani Brown, Bryan Parras, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Ph.D., and Regina Agu, this panel drew on the experiences of those who have called Texas and New Orleans home, with a focus on artists and organizations that work to highlight the effects of energy extraction on various communities.

Many of the panelists were able to come at this topic from personal experience — from family trips to Texas’ Permian Basin and a lifelong struggle with environmental pollution (Parras) to a history of promoting Indigenous and Latinx ways of thinking about people and their relationship with Earth’s many natural resources (Dr. Ybarra). Rightfully so, the conversation addressed how both low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionally affected by pollution and the destruction of natural resources.

In areas of the U.S. where energy is a predominant economic force, like Houston, conversations around energy-sponsored funding of arts institutions and organizations are hard to manage for a few reasons. Liberate Tate, the artist-organized group that campaigned (and succeeded) for the Tate in Britain to divest from BP, visited Houston in 2016, and back then there was a marked challenge to the idea of transferring their tactics to U.S. activism: in England, compared to the U.S., there is a wealth of public (i.e. government) funding for the arts that is historically and structurally profound, and it carries the dual effect of better supporting organizations’ work, and of giving citizens a public space and right to their institutions to protest and make their voices heard.

Many times, as in this panel, the idea of more public support for the arts was brought up as a possible stopgap for lost funding from the energy sector. But, at least in Houston, institutions already draw on local, state, and national agencies for funding, and are left wanting more. One audience member pointed out in the panel’s chat, and Agu acknowledged: it is likely that, due to the pandemic, city funding for the arts (which is largely funded by Hotel Occupancy Taxes) will be slashed if Houston’s hotels remain unoccupied.

Because the tendrils of energy production and energy corporations reach into every community in myriad ways, this panel served as a springboard for all of us to start asking questions, and gave participants a vocabulary around the issue. As another audience member noted mid-conversation, the deeper we get into this, the more we realize how far-reaching the energy and petrochemical industry is into every aspect of our lives: fabric, paint, electronics, etc. And as that audience member noted: “Even with strong public advocacy, getting a fossil-free society may take decades.” It will be easier for some organizations and areas of the U.S. to divest from fossil-fuel funding. In regions where energy money is embedded into culture at every level, it will require dedicated work and a top-down, bottom-up shift in ways of thinking. With increased scrutiny and a lot of hard work, this isn’t to say it can’t be done.

-Brandon Zech


William Sarradet’s notes on Question Party: Your uncertainty will not be held against you, with Carol Stakenas (Brooklyn, NY), Damon Reaves (Philadelphia, PA), Jacqueline Mabey (Brooklyn, NY), and Pato Hebert (Los Angeles, CA). Friday, May 1. 

I registered for Question Party: Your uncertainty will not be held against you. The session was staffed by CF Convening Team Member Emilý Æyer, and was hosted by Carol Stakenas (Brooklyn, NY), Damon Reaves (Philadelphia, PA), Jacqueline Mabey (Brooklyn, NY), and Pato Hebert (Los Angeles, CA).

The event was structured in three parts.

More than 100 participants typed difficult questions into the group chat, and these were read aloud by the various hosts. Later, we were sorted into groups for 15-minute breakout sessions to discuss the questions from the chat. In order to keep chat activity anonymous, we were asked to remove our screen names and replace them with ‘anon’ or ‘anonymous,’ so any question posed could not be traced to the poster. After breakout groups were concluded, everyone rejoined the group chat to reflect, and dance to some music. 

Stakenes described this structure as intended to be an ‘encouraging space of collective learning.’ A disclaimer was given during introductions by the hosts that we should refrain from any kind of insulting or mean-spirited language. Some of the subjects brought up were definitely contentious.

The anonymity of the collective discussion allowed for candid concerns, and spiked some momentary tension at times. It is an interesting dynamic to bring to a social function — it illuminated the difficulty of raising thorny issues of inequality and class-based frustration in real life in an anonymous way.

Some questions from the group chat:

Do we need so much “content”?

Why would we ever make an exhibition in a museum or rarefied art space again?

What if the future works out? Then what?

What does surrender ask of me?

What if I’m wrong about the value of moving slowly?

Is art just about putting more objects in the world that we don’t actually need?

For the breakout groups, we were meant to bring a couple questions from the larger chat we had just left to discuss them further. In my breakout room, I was met by one reporter and a few non-profit and arts workers. One individual, who wished to remain anonymous, lead our discussion in the polite, steadied tone initiated by the Question Party session organizers.

We started by talking about what preservation is, and if it is possible to preserve something you didn’t start. We spoke about how gentrification causes the people who make culture to lose their ability to produce it. This unfolds differently depending on the demographics; some people are displaced repeatedly by the rhythms of the world.

One participant in my breakout group mentioned that Seattle had pumped money into the local art scene following the virus outbreak as a knee-jerk response to the implications of an unprecedented complete shutdown of society. The participant was unsure of the outcome of that, but it shows that there may be more interest in the cultural economy going local. Maybe we are realizing the importance of community as a tangible relationship of people close to us, rather than a loose collation of products and services delivered by faceless multinational businesses.

The question I brought to the breakout group from the main chat was “Am I a class traitor?” I was curious to see if anyone in the group felt their ethics usurped by an arts economy that can be insular, and funded in a way that often isn’t democratic. The Seattle-based arts worker stated that artists sometimes feel like they are subjects of imbalanced economic forces. On the other hand, artists have always existed in a class of their own.

After the breakout session, we returned to the main chat to reflect on our conversations. I offered my thoughts on how the element of selected anonymity in the discussion was unique to this Zoom party. We gave each other a hearty salud with our water bottles and glasses before returning to the physical world. 

-William Sarradet


Christina Rees’ notes on Define Nomadic Space: Arts Organizing, Pandemic, and Virtual Experience, with with j. bilhan (Houston, TX), Jessi Bowman (Houston, TX), and Terry Suprean (Houston, TX). Saturday, May 2. 

Let me get this out of the way: in recent weeks I have gone from appreciating Zoom and what it’s able to facilitate during the pandemic to feeling a fair amount of despair and fatigue around the platform. I have Zoomed enough in the last month and half to be pretty certain that its (almost ineffable) limitations fuck with your head and your humanity. But Common Field was right to move its convening online; the organization and its Houston partners have worked for months on the programming, and the convening needed to take place — and Zoom would have to be the answer. Counter to my attitude, Zoom worked surprisingly well for Common Field’s needs.

I’m partial to the subject of place, i.e where are you, and why?, and picked this session because I love the idea of mobility in art presentation. And with all of us facing such a tough economy going forward, which will affect everything from crowd control to shipping to real estate availability to travel to… (I could go on), it seems that being limber and responsive geographically and physically is going to serve a lot of art people even more now than it has in recent years.

I appreciate that the three hosts were so upfront about what they could bring to the table in terms of experience, and I like that off the bat the discussion hewed to the practicalities of presenting art in non-traditional and itinerant ways. I like that none of the hosts pretended to have invented that wheel, because it’s been rolling in the U.S. and in Houston for decades. And these hosts are younger artist/curator/organizers finding their way here and now, not 15 years ago, or in the ’90s, and certainly not the 1970s. I wouldn’t have minded a co-host who’s headed up a nomadic curatorial practice for 30 years, but in the end: the 230 attendees were looking for answers to what could be done going forward, and I don’t think the hosts had any less of idea of how to? than anyone else would at the moment, including a veteran of the form.

With that, I will say the Civic TV‘s Terry Suprean was exceptionally honest and clear about his own experiences of sheparding Houston’s Civic TV — which is a collective, a roving space, a curatorial and art practice — through the last six years in its evolution from operating out of specific brick-and-mortar addresses to defining itself since 2018 as a “nomadic arts space.” It is an active pursuit. He didn’t pull any punches about the blood, sweat, and tears involved in functioning both with a permanent address and without one.

Some of the concerns, ideals, and questions raised by the hosts and the attendees in the Q&A: the differences between an arts organizer and a curator; how nomadic space can be adaptive and responsive; whether the sense of being “parasitic” is a cost or a benefit to a nomadic space; being in a nomadic and collective endeavor gives members a sense of community and shared goal while also allowing them time to work on their own practices; the emerging trend of considering online space “nomadic,” and how geographic and socio-economic data poverty affects its accessibility.

But, as someone who has curated some well-attended shows very nomadically, I’ll say that my favorite takeaway from this session was the most optimistic one — a reminder for me, in fact — and one that I hope the attendees will believe and embrace:

Nomadic organizing and curation, either as an individual or collective, can give you access to spaces (including prestige institutions, private space, and underserved areas) that you would have never accessed if you were tied to your own address and on a hamster wheel to program it. I like to think of it as a stealth way to get unexpected work into unlikely locations, and in front of crowds you may not have met otherwise. And I can attest to how exciting and vital that endeavor is, and how much that may be exactly what we need much more of moving forward. I hope many of the attendees left that session excited about the possibilities.

-Christina Rees





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