Back in early June, Colin Kloecker and I (Works Progress) helped to convene a small group of creative thinkers, makers, and doers for a conversation at the Walker Art Center. The goal of this initial effort seemed simple; As a group we would critically examine and engage the Walker’s summer-long Open Field project, an experiment that inspires multiple interpretations, and lots of questions.
Among the questions that we were interested in pursuing were those regarding the role of the Open Field project in the broader creative cultures that surround and intersect the Walker Art Center. At a time when so many artists and art organizations are promoting the value of participation and community, proclaiming openness, and championing the transparency of their creative process, what does it mean for an institution of the Walker’s size to invite anyone—be they performing artist or bull whip expert—to present a program, performance, or project in the open space outside the museum’s entrance? What opportunities and new challenges does this project present for the Walker? For artists and other creative participants? For visitors and the Walker’s immediate neighbors?
We thought we had some idea where to begin our discussion. The concept of a “cultural commons,” however difficult it was to define, seemed relevant, especially in light of Opening the Field, the kick-off program we helped facilitate in which the cultural commons had been a focus. We started our initial “think tank” conversation looking for clues as to how the Open Field did or did not succeed as a cultural commons, a gathering place and shared resource for collective creativity. Were the invitations to participate cast broadly enough? Were the tools that someone might need easy to access? Were the agreements and protocols appropriately defined? Was there trust?
At the end of our first conversation we were left overwhelmed by the scope of these questions. The cultural commons was simply too big, too ill-defined an inquiry, and we left the Open Field less certain than when we’d arrived.
Sometimes, to get useful perspective on the thing you want to understand, you need to place it in a surrounding framework of space and time. We decided that rather than spend our thinking time in the Open Field focused on its specific qualities, we needed to also venture out into the surrounding city—even beyond it—locating the Open Field in a cultural context in order to give it an honest critique.
After talking amongst ourselves, recalling things we’d read or happened upon that had provided some clarity or inspiration, we focused on six sites that _we_ saw as open fields—spaces that were defined, negotiated, or designed with a similar purpose in mind. We knew that in these spaces artists, as well as landscape designers, community organizers, and the sought-after ‘public’ were already engaging in acts of collective creativity. What insight could we gain from their efforts?
Streets and Lawns – these are places where people daily negotiate their private and public lives, balancing creative expression, curiosity, and a desire for community with a need for time and space to reflect. Empty lots, open fields —these are features of our landscape constantly being reimagined and reactivated, negotiated and even contested by people and groups with sometimes opposing needs and desires. Markets and Tables —these are spaces where artists and non-artists alike come together, creating economy, relationships and value, while also finding fellowship.
For these reasons we decided to begin outside of the Open Field. We invited our think tank to join us in exploring 6 specific sites from the broad categories above. It has been our hope that by listening to the experiences of those who populate these open fields we might find more clarity with which to approach the Walker Art Center’s project.
As we meet in these places, we’ve been documenting our conversations in audio and in pictures. The short synopsis presented here are the beginning of what will be a more substantial creative offering that we will bring back to the Open Field, along with our questions, at the end of the summer.