Shine a Light

One of the Portland Art Museum’s most active nights is making a return for its fifth year running, and it’s all thanks to the students and faculty of Portland State’s art and social practice program.

Hosted as a collaboration between the Portland Art Museum and the MFA art and social practice program, Shine a Light is a large-scale interactive event, which spans the length of the entire museum. In many cases, the projects intervene and weave into the museum’s ongoing programming, often inviting the participation of visiting patrons. And there’s a party note to the event as well: The students are putting a contemporary art twist on everything from karaoke to beer production.

The program, which has evolved through the interaction of students, faculty and the museum, is the result of a collaboration that began with the museum and social practice director Harrell Fletcher. A noted figure in American social practice art, Fletcher has work in institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and California’s Berkeley Museum.

“The idea was to create something that would be really different from the normal programming that happens at the museum,” Fletcher said. “And to give the students an opportunity to work in the high-end environment of the museum. Because of the nature of the programming, the students do sort of social interventions in the space.”

One such intervention, spearheaded by social practice graduate students Sharita Towne, Patricia Vasquez and Betty Marín, involves introducing students from Northeast Portland’s King School to problems addressed by five artists showing in the museum. Borrowing from the curatorial scheme of the 2007 Mercosul Biennial in Brazil, Towne and Marín asked the King students to create artworks based on the problems posed by the artists.

“It’s basically an educational project,” Marín said. “The basic idea of the model we are replicating is having the participating artists identifying and resolving problems in their works, and having students resolving the same problems.”

The students had no previous exposure to the artists’ work. Instead, they worked from a shared idea, developing their own approach and solution to the problem in question. Towne and Marín asserted that this approach taught the students to think about work from a conceptual perspective, rather than an aesthetic perspective.

“We’re moving past this dialectic of ‘like or dislike’ with the artwork,” Towne said. “The approach is about learning to read art, and moving toward addressing the problems that art can help to solve.”

The King students were allowed to choose which problems they preferred to address, as well as whether they wished to work alone or in groups. They provided a range of results and solutions. One student created a recorded dance piece while another chose to create a humorous art print. Towne noted that many of the students displayed significant development in both form and confidence as they developed their work.

“They’re all in different areas and different places as well, in terms of risk-taking,” Towne said. “Today, a lot of children think they’re right or wrong, as an answer. That can be challenging to get past that point just because of the way schools are these days.”

Marían agreed, pointing out that she and Towne were looking to approach art education from a different direction. She noted the challenge of working with younger students, who are often more familiar with replicating aesthetics and craft, rather than working with concept.

“The traditional art educational model is to go off an artwork,” Marín said. “We make observations about a certain piece, and try to replicate that. That is also useful, but it’s also useful to flip things to get more abstract. We tried things with different levels of thinking in art. For me, it was about trying to be creative in thinking of things.”

In addition to works such as that of Marín and Towne, Shine a Light will also present a Distributed Book Fair. Featuring Portland-based art book stores, such as Monograph Bookwerks, the Independent Publishing Resource Center and PSU’s Ooligan Press, the book fair will have displays spread throughout the museum, in some cases interacting with the exhibited work. Fletcher explained that even the displays would be art works of a sort, commissioned from 12 students as creative pieces.

“They will be displayed as sort of sculptural objects,” Fletcher said. “It’s kind of a way to slip in student artwork in the context of a museum, but also to function as a book fair. This way you’ll be able to see them more individually, and you’ll have someone there talking about and selling their books.”

Shine a Light also has a few things to offer to the partygoers—in an art context, of course. This year, Towne and others are hosting an event titled Karaoke in the Museum. The event will feature an art world take on popular karaoke songs. The tunes will remain the same, but the lyrics have been tweaked to the tune of various artworks and museum practices.

“We’re writing karaoke songs about pieces on display, we’re telling about their context and museum dynamics,” Towne said. “We’ve done some tests, and we’re still doing some trouble-shooting.”

There will also be beer, as part of a recurring project for the event. Fletcher noted that a former PSU student will return for a continuing project: Brewing beer in the museum using gathered yeasts.

Fletcher also pointed out that these projects will exist along with the artwork in the museum. He explained that the event provides an opportunity for the museum to attract new patrons. At the same time, Shine a Light offers a chance for students to work in the institutional setting of the museum.

“There are all of these interventions occurring, but it’s also a chance to just look at the collection,” Fletcher said. “Working in an institution, whether it’s PSU or a regular art institution, comes with a lot of benefits and a lot of challenges. I think giving the students the chance to work with that institution while in school is a great learning opportunity.”

Shine a Light is just one of many developments for the art and social practice program, now and in the coming months. Connected to the museum event, the program will host Assembly, an unorthodox conference focused around the book and the gun. Cohosted by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Assembly will occur June 7-8 and will focus on the work of artists Julia Ault and Pedro Reyes.

The art and social practice program is also working on future collaborative projects, including an exchange residency program with the British Council, and social work in Portland public schools. Fletcher noted that these collaborations are just the start, and that he and the program are interested in reaching out to other elements of the PSU community as well.

“We’re really interested in making connections to the larger PSU community,” he said. “Students from other departments can take social practice classes. We want to encourage the larger campus to get involved in what we’re doing, and find connections across campus as well.”

Towne said that Shine a Light will offer a new experience for everyone, from the museum regular to the occasional visitor.

“For someone from the public that comes, I think it’s a great opportunity to be aware of yourself in that place,” she said. “So often we go into museums, and it’s a very passive experience, and sometimes almost morose. In this case, it’s sort of a living event, it doesn’t exist without you. We need you to do it. It’s very much their artwork as well, and it sort of blurs the lines of creation.”