I'm a Boston artist with an ever-growing body of under-documented work, more or less addicted to the process of artmaking.
I've been lucky enough to get a few invitations to produce work elsewhere, including within artist residencies, and found these experiences very constructive. I regularly pull all-nighters applying for art opportunities, and I've made some big sacrifices—such as freelancing rather than having a traditional day-job career—to retain as much flexibility in my life as possible in order to take on new opportunities when they arise. This year I decided to try something new in an effort to see if there might be more opportunities out there than I am aware of by attending the Transcultural Exchange Conference.
Transcultural Exchange has hosted a conference for artists interested in inter-cultural dialogue biannually in Boston since 2007. However, no one I know very well has ever mentioned attending. I've been aware of the organization behind the conference but never attended the conference because I couldn't justify the $200+ ticket price since I wasn’t certain there would be a significant ROI. I also didn't know whom the conference really targeted.
This year, I decided to answer these questions for myself and for Big Red & Shiny. I know that, like me, many of Big Red & Shiny's readers are hungry for more personal exposure to and dialogue with (especially experimental) artists from around the world; for opportunities to bring their own work to places beyond the boundaries of this city and country; and are also, like me, living very non-luxurious lifestyles.
What follows are excerpts from a diary that I kept of my conference experience. My goal was to bring you along with me, sharing resources that I found useful, topics I found inspiring and noting what I felt could use improvement if the conference wants to support artists in boats similar to mine. One caveat is that I'm not very good at networking and am fairly socially awkward. So take any successes or failures at making the most of the experience—ones that hinge on suaveness and having your business card somewhere that you can access in under 30 seconds—with a grain of salt.
Except in the context of presentations or panels where speakers are identified publicly in the program guide, I use initials in place of names.
February 25, 2016
9:00am. On the B-Line, heading towards Boston University's main campus center, where this year’s conference is based. Concentrating all mental energy not needed to grip the pole on visualizing my Transcultural Exchange conference goal: acquire three direct “leads” towards international art opportunities that are appropriate to my practice, including at least one that will come to fruition.
10:00am. I'm eating a mini-croissant and looking at a hard copy of the schedule. With the exception of one volunteer, I'm the youngest person in the room. I'm not that young.
10:30am. I introduce myself to the woman sitting next to me in a small auditorium. She says she's glad to see a female presenter setting up on stage because when she checked in at registration, the line for attendees was composed entirely of women, but the speakers' line was all male. I mention that I've noticed that everyone I’ve seen since arriving was white. Then I realize it's an awkward thing for one white woman to say to another white woman, so I add “but I've only been here for a half an hour” and then for some reason, even though it's not funny at all, we both laugh.*
The speaker, Bojana Panevska, Program Manager at TransArtists in the Netherlands, is talking about how artists can research and find the perfect fit for them in terms of an artist residency program. But it's really a walkthrough of TransArtists' website/database, which I'm already familiar with. She does draw attention to a few very cool programs that I've never dug out of their system during any of my searches of it, and also answers audience questions based on her experiences on jury panels deciding who gets accepted to residencies. It's kind of shocking, though, that she doesn't really understand that Americans don't get local or national government support for traveling to be artists in residence.
12:15pm. I realize (too late) that lunch is BYO and the room for the “lunchtime roundtable discussion” on “Artist-Run Organizations” is too crammed full for me to try to slip out and back in again. Most of the time allotted is spent on everyone introducing themselves, but it turns out the leaders of the discussion are up to something really interesting to me. It's a description of the practice of a group of very subversive artists. I ask questions at the end, and want to go and talk to them a bit afterward, but they are rushed by a crowd that never really disperses until they have to leave to meet someone. Bonus points towards my goal though: another woman waiting to talk to them who runs a residency program in rural Sicily gives me her card. She's in Boston for a while, not just the conference. Note to self: go see her art show!
2:45pm. After a longer than anticipated four block walk against the wind, I'm at another session that's right up my alley: a presentation (billed as a workshop, but I'll be damned if it's not an artist's talk) called “Diary of Smells: Language, Sound and Olfactory Experience.” I ask tons of questions and run into B there, a local artist who I often cross paths with because we have overlapping interests... We talk a bit afterward and I ask her if she's come to the conference before. She says no, so I ask her how she was able to afford it. “I didn't pay my mortgage on my house this month so that I could attend this,” she answers. She also bought two portfolio reviews (at $35/each) and expects these to be the real value of attending. She wants feedback on how to get her work seen more. B is looking at the conference as an investment, and wants, right now, to improve her resume.
5:15pm. I run into a Brazilian artist, Carvalho, who presented at the workshop I last attended. She's excited to talk more about one of the questions I asked her in the “workshop” and maybe even to collaborate someday (!!) She asks for my card (!!) and then we walk against the wind together to the party across the street.
I'm starving, so I grab some crackers and cheese and start—out of habit really—to interview the people nearest to me. Both are from the West Coast, coming to the conference for the first time. I ask them if it was worth the travel. They both came in the hopes of meeting curators and haven't met any yet. “But it's only the first day....,” says the woman from Oregon. H, from California, says he's hoping to learn about science-focused residencies. They both feel so far that the conference content is better suited to emerging than mid-career artists.
6:30pm. Boston's “Art Czar,” Julie Burros, gives some warm and welcoming remarks at the opening reception. During the remarks, K comes over and gives me a hug. She's here from New York. I ask if she's speaking on one of the panels—she runs a project that evaluates artist residencies—so it would make sense. She says “No, but shouldn't I be?” She should be. So that now makes two people I know who have come to the conference and aren't panelists. Also, she's definitely younger than me.I forget to ask her how she paid for it, but it's probably a business-related expense.
February 26, 2016
10:30am. I'm torn between the workshop on elevator speeches (I'm terrible at talking about my artwork) and a panel about urban sound research. Sound research wins because I figure I can always read about elevator speeches online. I learn some very interesting history about sound in the context of urban planning in Boston, which is FASCINATING. But not necessarily what I came to the conference for.
12:30pm. Lunchtime roundtable discussion on water. H, from California, is here. He seems to have found his groove now—he's so busy networking that I can barely catch his eye. I also overhear people talking about how great the elevator speech workshop was.
1:15pm. I thought this panel would be about residency opportunities in Asia, Spain, Sweden and France, but the first two speakers are giving overviews of their federal- and municipal-level arts funding structures. At first, this seems useless to me, an American, but then it becomes maddening. How is it that France and Sweden support their artists and arts organizations as if they were real human beings undertaking fruitful endeavors?!
On the way out I run into D. It’s his second time in attendance. We discuss a theme that emerged from the panel—government changes in Asia and in Sweden impacting residency programs. He wonders why this gathering of people hadn't evolved over the years into a site where activism could begin to foment. I suggest he propose a panel or workshop for next time. I don't ask how he afforded to attend. He's a tenured professor, so I assume he gets funding to attend some conferences.
I noticed online that there was supposed to be some visual art at the conference, but I was unable to find it. D hadn't seen it either. I suggest that the conference invite local artists to fill the space with artwork as a way of de-institutionalizing the environment and gaining free access to the conference. D loves this idea. Note to self: Pitch art-trade-for-conference-pass idea to Transcultural Exchange and offer to jury it so that it's attuned in a way that amplifies the kinds of conversations being stimulated.
4:25pm. “Far-Flung Residencies” gets political when someone points out that the “far flung” is no longer far-flung because war zones, often funded by the US, are creating an endless stream of refugees. There's an Egyptian artist speaking, Hamdy Reda, who runs a residency in his family home in an industrial neighborhood outside of Cairo. He is super smart, challenges the audience about why people feel the need to go elsewhere to do their artwork. He invites us to apply, but only after we've explored our own environments fully. I am charmed by him. I want to apply.
4:35pm. I stop a volunteer and ask her about her experience. She's enjoying herself—meeting really interesting people, learning a lot. Volunteering also allowed her a free portfolio review (!!) but she didn't get to choose whom it was withI ask her where the art is and she doesn't know but tells me about a conference-related performance by BU students.
5:45pm. My Transcultural Exchange conference experience is over abruptly! I'm not able to attend on Saturday. There's a “gala” but I don't have a ticket. The last conference thing happening today is at MIT but I can't get there before it ends at 6:30.
March 3, 2016
Looking back on my notes, though I found the environment un-artful, and the program guide (as well as the physical arrangement of the conference) sometimes confusing, I felt the beating heart of something “right for me” inside of it all. I could see through the problems with the conference to its intentions and they are right on—exposing artists to each other internationally, widening Boston's horizons, gathering intel on how things work, smell, and feel elsewhere. If I could change anything, it would be to refine the program guide and offer additional routes of entry to increase the diversity of who attends. How can this obvious boon to Boston's arts community draw more local artists in? Note to self: Help make the guides better. Help bring a wider audience in....
*Author's note: These first impressions on both our parts were unfounded: as the conference progressed, the speaker gender and racial balance proved, thankfully, to be more progressive.