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May 17, 2016  |  Artists, Learning and Engagement
Experiments in Engagement with Wafaa Bilal

As the fellow for public programs at MoMA, part of my focus is working with artists to develop experimental programs that position the Museum as a resource for the public, artists, and “non-artists” alike. This season, I worked with artist Wafaa Bilal to develop a two-day public workshop, Dynamic Encounters: Experiments in Engagement to develop, execute, and present what Bilal calls an “open-ended performance” workshop that became a space for experimentation not only for participants but for Bilal and the Museum as well.

Artist Wafaa Bilal during the Dynamic Encounters: Experiments in Engagement

Artist Wafaa Bilal during Dynamic Encounters: Experiments in Engagement. Photo: Manuel Martagon

After the workshop, I had the opportunity to speak with Bilal about his experience of the workshop and its intersection with his practice as an artist and an educator. He was “pleasantly surprised” by participants’ responses to what he admits was a challenge. “We ended up luckily with really creative people,” Bilal said. Most participants ended up executing their performances on the second day of the workshop. “So within one day they were able to go to the public, perform it, document it, and come back to talk about it. That was a lot of ask people for what was really a period of one day.”

For the program, he led participants through a process to develop and execute their own experiments in “open ended performance.” Using MoMA’s Archives as source material, Bilal presented a historical narrative of performance, drawing from the massive Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives. This is a history that Bilal became deeply interested in himself after his own engagement with what he calls “dynamic encounters” or in his words “a platform, a physical or virtual platform” for engagement in performance. “The hierarchy of artist and participant changes to become more democratic. And the artist’s role becomes the initiator of that platform.”

Bilal working with a group during their presentation/performance of their “Chat Pot Luck”

Bilal working with a group during their presentation/performance of their “Chat Pot Luck.” Photo: Manuel Martagon

Though the goal of the workshop was to allow participants to experiment as initiators of this platform, I somewhat jokingly suggested to Bilal that the workshop was not unlike a dynamic encounter itself. Bilal considered this comparison a legitimate one, saying that the open-endedness of teaching “falls right into [the category of] dynamic encounters.” His work as an artist and as an educator make up in his words a “continuous practice. Both really reflect upon each other and inspire and take from each other,” he said, “what I offer my students, is my experience as an artist…and what they offer me back is their own practice but also a reflection of their time.” The classroom and his work are both places for exchange and experimentation and the workshop was an opportunity to experiment with material that he has long been interested in.

Workshop participant during presentation of the results of their group’s public performance “Don’t Discard Me” which dealt with treatment of individuals with mental illness

Workshop participant during presentation of the results of their group’s public performance “Don’t Discard Me” which dealt with treatment of individuals with mental illness. Photo: Manuel Martagon

For the participants it was a space in which they could meet individuals that had a shared interest in performance and form deep connections over a short period of time. In fact, some participants saw the time with their group as a starting point for a projects to further develop.

People have long been inspired by the work on the walls of MoMA but for me it was exciting to see the workshop format be an inspirational space and beginning of collaborations, ideas, and experiments that will continue long beyond the two days of the workshop.

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