This Monday we’ll hold the first of 6 public conversations with this summers Field Office Fellows, starting with Rachel Breen (see below for more details!). In anticipation of each discussion, we’ll be posting short interviews with the fellows. Here is what Rachel had to say:
You’re an associate at On the Commons, can you tell us about when and why you first started thinking about the commons very seriously? How did that lead to On the Commons?
Julie Ristau, a friend I had done a lot of organizing work with, gave me the opportunity to get involved in On the Commons. It was appealing to me because it was political but in a very non-traditional way. I was attracted to the concept of the commons because its’ basic premise is a different way of understanding our economy and it steps outside the left/right political paradigm. It also gets outside the issue “silos” that progressive politics gets stuck in. So I see it as viable way of looking at the world that can contribute to progressive/sustainable social change.
How does your understanding of the commons play out in your art practice?
This project is giving me the chance to think about this more specifically. Social engagement has always been an underpinning of my artwork. But I’m also skeptical of artwork that is very literal or dogmatic. So – on the surface my work tends to look pretty abstract. The use of the sewing machine in the making of my work is one way that I convey the imperative to “repair” things that are broken – a metaphor for social change. Stitching makes connections visible and possible – so in a sense the work is always about the commons – but not in a very obvious way.
You’ve said that The Bank of Our Common Wealth is a new kind of creative project for you. Can you tell us how this is different?
The Bank of Our Common Wealth is huge departure for me in that it is a very public project – and also using money is pretty literal! I think it animates the idea of the commons in a fun and provocative way – which is also really new for me. I don’t think of myself as a very funny person and I greatly admire artists who use humor in their work – something I think is really difficult to do well.
Its interesting that so many people want to know what will happen with the train of dollar bills that is being amassed – for me the most important part of the project is the transaction that happens with people – the investment of the dollar bill in the bank and the act of sewing it together with the other dollar bills – not whether it is exhibited at some later date. The conversations that the project sparks and hopefully the thinking that might be jostled from public participation are “rich” (pardon the pun) and what the project is mainly about.
I’m asking people to make an investment – actually trust me by handing over something of value to them (a dollar bill) – that they won’t get back. For me, this is a huge request and I am truly humbled that so many people I have never met have been willing to participate in the project in this way.
I think people’s willingness – indeed – their great satisfaction in depositing a dollar bill into the bank signals their deep desire to change the debate about wealth in our society from being only about the individual to being about the community and the commons.
You’ve been setting up The Bank of Our Common Wealth at different public spaces around Minneapolis. Can you share some of the reactions you’ve received so far? How many people have contributed to the bank?
I’ve had about 125 dollars deposited into the bank so far. The biggest challenge is getting people to want to engage with me and find out what the project is about. When people take the time to hear about the project, it seems to really resonate and they almost always make an investment.
People also love seeing me work an old fashioned treadle sewing machine – it’s a beautiful old machine and many people, especially children have never seen one working before.
Last week at the Midtown Farmers Market some Somali women who did not speak English looked at me and burst into laughter when they realized I was sewing dollar bills together. A young girl who was with them asked me in English what I was doing and when she translated for the elder women they all nodded their heads in agreement. That was probably one of the nicest interactions I’ve had.
Some people have come up to me and given me dollar bills without hearing about the project – they just like that I am sewing dollar bills together. A lot of people want to know what I’m going to do with the dollars – and when I say I am hoping to exhibit them – they want to know what comes after that. I explain that the dollars will forever stay connected – that their “value” has been permanently altered to create something of a different kind of value and that sparks some really interesting conversations especially for people who don’t think about art very often. It raises questions about the value and importance of and role of art in society, about the value of money and about what the purpose of money is. I think it also raises some interesting questions about the art market as well. I could go one for a long time about this – if you want to talk more about this – come to the bank!
Is there another Field Office project that you’re especially excited about?
I’m excited about all of them. I’m excited about the project as a whole – I really like how diverse the projects are – we are approaching the question from such different vantage points. I’m most excited about the conversations we can have once we’ve tried our projects and can see what kind of collective knowledge emerges. I want to know what comes next?
Where can we find out more information about The Bank of Our Common Wealth and your other work? Where and when can we next find the bank to make a deposit?
The bank will be at the Midtown Farmers Market on Saturday, August 6th from 9-12. I’ve found that farmers markets are a great place to be – people are thinking about commerce since they are going to shop and also not usually in a huge hurry so tend to have a moment to stop and find out what I’m doing. I’m going to make a Facebook page today! I’ve been a little hesitant to dive full force into social media with this project – it seems like a lot of work to manage it but people who invest in the bank really want to follow it so I think I need to do it! So – look for The Bank of Our Common Wealth on Facebook!
Thank you Rachel!
Read more about The Bank of Our Common Wealth here. You’re invited to join Works Progress and Walker ECP staff for an open conversation with Rachel Breen on Monday, August 8th from 6 to 7PM at the FlakPak House in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. There will be refreshments!