An academic conference for Schemers, Scammers, and Subverters

Artists Ralph Pugay and Roz Crews have designed a conference for our times

“I think a lot has changed for the project since we talked last,” says Ralph Pugay (he/him) as I caught up with him and Roz Crews (she/her) over coffee two weeks ago. I have been following these two artists as they have collaborated on the Schemers, Scammers, and Subverters Symposium , aka SSSS, since early last year.

“We’re not going to have Tonya Harding,” continued Pugay.

“Sadly,” added Crews.

Originally slated to take place in December 2018, SSSS was envisioned as an academic conference that would feature presentations by schemers, scammers, and subverters from a wide array of backgrounds. The aforementioned Olympian was high on the list of desirable presenters. However, Crews and Pugay have since shifted their timeline and programmatic vision, instead reaching out to locally-based artists, creatives, and cultural workers through their networks. The event will now take place February 23, from 10am-6pm at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Portland.

Living School of Art poster for the SSSS’s TOTALLY HONEST BARTER BAZAAR

The conceptual framework of the symposium carries layers of nuance underneath that sensationalist title. “The title of the project is a big part of the project…It’s totally critical, as is true with lots of conceptual art projects,” said Crews of its multiple meanings. “I think those words [scheme, scam, subvert] have negative connotations,” reflected Pugay, “but then I can also imagine, coming from my background, my experience of being a Filipino immigrant, those are also tools for survival for people.”

On the one hand, SSSS has been shaped by a dialogue between Crews and Pugay about this fraught historical moment. They began asking themselves what it would be like, in Crews words, “to make a project that’s about scheming and scamming and subverting systems, when we have a President who is just straight up scamming us all.”

At the same time, the SSSS’s website makes it clear that the aim of the symposium is not to “glorify people who are actively looking to harm others,” but rather, to draw attention to the ways all SSSS participants—knowingly or otherwise—have an impact on their surroundings, with an emphasis on individual culpability.

To put it plainly, the SSSS official platform states, “We are already implicated in reaping the benefit of living on land that has been stolen from indigenous populations and has been built from the unpaid labor of slaves—not to mention the unfair wages of the person who made the underwear you are wearing or the electronic device you are reading this on.”  

Each 45-minute presentation at the symposium will focus on some aspect of the fraught institutional and systemic forces in U.S. contemporary society—playing out in everything from pop-cultural trends, to the sex industry, to higher education. For SSSS organizers, the decision to host an academic conference in the Crowne Plaza Hotel seemed like an optimal way to dig into the complexity of its content, while packing what Crews described a “conceptual punch”—especially given that both organizers work in arts-based higher education.

“Defensive Housing with the Office of Neighborship,” an SSSS presentation by Eric Olson and Zeph Fishlyn

The seeds for the SSSS began to germinate in 2017 when Crews and Pugay, who are both Portland-based, found themselves together at an academic conference for educators in Kansas City, chatting about how the event seemed like an opportune space to network and look for jobs. “We were scheming of ways to basically make money in the teaching field,” remembered Crews.

This serendipitous encounter prompted a series of conversations between Crews and Pugay that laid the groundwork for the SSSS. “A conference, in a way, is also about scheming your way into systems,” Pugay said, reflecting on the origins of their collaboration. “So, why don’t we just have a conference-type event that sort of dismantles the veneer?” The project gained additional momentum through a Precipice Fund grant award from Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the organization which also helped Crews and Pugay secure the donation of a venue for the the symposium.

“As much as I think academic conferences are alienating and also mostly about networking,” Crews added, “I think this one actually is about listening and thinking and trying to understand where people are coming from.”

The SSSS’s programming will take place between two ballrooms at the hotel, one of which is dedicated to a full day of presentations. Pugay expressed his excitement about conducting an interview for the symposium entitled “How To Know When Your Horoscope Is Being Real” with local astrology Renee Sills, author of Embodied Astrology (one of my own go-to astrological resources).

For her part, Crews will be facilitating a group discussion on the question “Is Higher Education a Scam” and holding a conversation with Libby Werbel, who has curated multiple exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. “I think that a lot of what we’re going to talk about is whether or not you can be subversive within an institution and still have respect for and have a relationship with that institution,” said Crews.

SSSS programming also includes: a presentation by home school co-founder manuel arturo abreu about how to use free and pirated resources online to become a “real fake artist”; a presentation by Philip King about the multivalent schemata of the sex industry; as well as presentations on social media hype, Web 2.0, game theory, and more. The SSSS will also commit an entire ballroom to the “TOTALLY HONEST BARTER BAZAAR,” where artist-vendors will negotiate price points and barters for their various offerings from 10 am-5:30 pm.

“We imagine it as a more civilized yard sale,” explained Pugay.

“A yard sale with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling,” clarified Crews.

“Phone Sessions” a vendor project by Malia Jensen as part of the SSSS’s TOTALLY HONEST BARTER BAZAAR

The organizers also made sure to mention that a “secret celebrity” may be presenting at SSSS. They asked me to include that kernel of information here, though I do not have any hints as to who it might be (assuming Tonya Harding is out the the question). “We’re just waiting for confirmation,” noted Pugay.

When I asked if the SSSS conference was a scheme, scam, or subversion itself (after all, the project inevitably begged this question) Crews replied, “We got this hotel to agree to making a conference about anti-capitalism, anti-patriarchy–things that really uphold the hotel.” For her, that aspect of the SSSS holds subversive resonance.

As our conversation drew to a close, Pugay drew the parallels between SSSS and his own practice as an established painter. “I feel like being an artist, too, is sort of trying to get through slippages of meaning, right?” he said. “For me, being an artist is just trying to get away with things—and sort of liberating yourself from the confines of whatever you’re appointed to be or forced to become.”

The Schemers Scammers and Subverters Symposium will take place February 23, from 10am-6pm at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Portland. Visit the symposium website for information about the schedule and full line-up of presenters and participants.

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