In the spirit of public exchange, the Walker presents Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an online and print book examining our three-year experiment in participation and public space. This essay comprises a chapter of the publication, which will be released online in its entirety.
“The common willing of a common world is an eminently practical undertaking and not in the least abstract.” —Daniel Kemmis
It’s a muggy July night and hundreds of people are milling outside the museum. A crowd is gathered under a tent to watch local chefs make sauerkraut. A group of regulars has grabbed some beers and joined the Drawing Club. Yarn bombers known as the Swatch Team are stationed at a nearby table, inviting anyone to knit. Far off in the field, an artist in a prairie bonnet sings to grazing sheep. The animals are followed with a boom mike to capture the soft sounds of chewing grass. The lawn has not been cut for weeks in anticipation of the evening’s grand finale — a concert of people mowing the field in tandem. A line has formed as the composer ties bells to the reel mowers volunteers have brought from home. He explains how they will move in three different groups around the seated audience. After twenty-six minutes, each individual will choose a path and mow off the hill out into the neighborhood. We overhear a woman saying, “This is a really exciting experience. I never imagined that I would be performing at the Walker. I can’t wait to tell my friends.”
The Walker Art Center campus includes four acres of largely open greenspace directly adjacent to the building. Situated on the edge of a residential neighborhood, it is flanked by a large downtown park and the idyllic Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on two sides and a busy freeway entrance on another. This parklike space is open to all, but privately owned, similar to many other public urban environments. Originally intended for development as part of the Walker’s 2005 expansion, the landscape design of the field, along with a proposed plaza entrance, was postponed. A notable addition was James Turrell’s Sky Pesher, 2005 nestled into the top of the hill, a room-size chamber whose ceiling opens up to the sky. Over the years, museum staff episodically used the field for large outdoor concerts, a mini-golf course, and traditional education activities such as workshops and family days. However, as time passed and people began simply to inhabit the field — having picnics, walking dogs, or just rolling down it with their kids — we were left to wonder what might happen if we thought of our open space as a shared resource. How might it frame cultural participation as a collective and dynamic process? What form of public park could emerge from the context of a contemporary arts center? There aren’t a lot of public places left in our lives where we can comfortably encounter people who, while they may not share our precise interests, hold in common an inclination toward engaged curiosity. In many respects, museums already serve this community, but an empty field provided us a rare opportunity to test something new. As a commons, the field was seen as a place for creative, social, and intellectual exchange and production rather than as a venue for the sort of presentation and cultural consumption typical for gallery, stage, or lecture room.
We assembled a loose group of non-Walker collaborators, and as we struggled to figure out how best to move forward, we jumped at their recommendation to host a community charette, a collective brainstorm session that would generate ideas; such communal planning seemed to us altogether appropriate to the goals of Open Field. This format turned out to be such a fruitful one that we repeated it the following year with a different group of artists and programmers. Six months before the opening in January 2010, thirty designers, artists, and cultural producers sat down together to think through the field’s unique physical challenges as well as the conceptual and logistical dilemmas of how to engage people both creatively and socially. By the end of the day, the group identified the site’s most pressing constraints and proposed an imaginative range of solutions, including a final plan for a shaded picnic area, along with the addition of a bar and grill and a plaza that could function as an impromptu stage.
The most difficult part of planning Open Field turned out to be the process of unscripting our own expectations and ideas about what should be developed. We knew we wanted the public to participate in programming, and we collectively wrestled with how to imagine an open, experimental, and functional environment that would achieve this. Walker staff had to acknowledge and set aside biases about the types of activities that people should organize; in my case, that meant foregoing some minor anxiety about mimes and juggling and a decided preference for jam-making and knitting. We were also concerned about the equity or balance of the space — that no one person or group should dominate the field in such a way that made it impossible or unpleasant for others to inhabit it with them. In the end, we took what I believe was an ambitious leap for our institution, making an earnest attempt to create a supported space in which anyone with virtually any idea or creative practice could participate.
“I have a right to know what kind of ‘experiment’ I’m involved in!” insisted one of our collaborators when we began to explain the project as an open experiment with the community. It was a stark reminder that we were changing the “rules” of institutional business-as-usual for the audience as well as for ourselves. We had some basic questions to address, and we needed to do so with transparency: How is one supposed to participate in a cultural commons? For that matter, what is a cultural commons? Nina Simon has written extensively on the need for “scaffolding” participation, creating the structures by which people understand and are comfortable with how to engage and contribute. Since the museum and the public were literally entering new terrain together, we were most concerned that methods of engaging on the field be: varied (after all, we weren’t sure what was going to actually work); familiar but intriguing enough to inspire creative and social risk; more fun than frustrating; and most of all, able to reinforce the values and integrity of a commons. Over the course of the next few months, with the advice of many of our partners, Walker staff designed Open Field by using what I’ve dubbed in hindsight as the strategy of “rules, tools, seeding, and meeting.”
The first step toward not only articulating our values, but also facilitating a functionally “open field” took the form of the Rules of the Commons, later known as Field Etiquette, which were posted on the website. The construction and refinement of these operating guidelines brought up numerous tactical and philosophical questions, ranging from liability issues and hate speech to commercial promotion and trash disposal. While we struggled with the inherent tension between rules and radical openness, the crafting and enforcing of this document represented an ideological and pragmatic crucible for the project.
Our charette participants introduced the idea of providing “tools” for the field by designing things that would empower participants to create their own experience of Open Field. These included not only mock-ups for items such as portable seating, umbrellas, and shade structures, but also a model for ways that local artists might function as a kind of human prompt or “resident provocateur” by posing questions, instigating actions, or improvising the flow of exchange between visitors. Conversations on this topic inspired the production of a wooden structure aptly named the Tool Shed, which served as a hub for visitors. The fully realized construction housed sports equipment such as soccer balls, Frisbees, and hula hoops as well as art supplies, a library of books from several local presses, and even a portable tent kit designed by a local artist. Staff stationed there helped to facilitate and orient visitors, encouraging them to rummage through its shelves and use whatever they found inspiring, free of charge.
“Show, don’t tell” is every writer’s mantra. We also attempted to follow this maxim, yet at the beginning of Open Field’s first summer, it took us some time to realize that simply issuing an invitation for members of the public to “organize a book club, host a meet-up, teach others new skills” in a big outdoor space wasn’t providing enough direction; we needed to help people imagine the breadth of possibilities for what they might do on our field. A better strategy involved seeding the Walker’s commons with activities throughout the summer months, programming that we hoped might galvanize Open Field’s community participants to be imaginative and go public with their own interests and proposed uses for the space. We found that many had good ideas, but were tentative about doing things in the context of a contemporary arts center, particularly if they wanted to do something that had nothing to do with art. We needed to show participants what was possible, but also to offer them an invitation and, most importantly, permission to become more actively involved in planning programming themselves.
We invited local artists to use the field to experiment, to try things out. They hosted topical conversations; a playwright held public readings of plays; one local publisher even invited the community to pitch book ideas to him in an earnest but playful speed-dating format. One of our editors brought her daughter’s Suzuki violin class to practice on the field on several summer evenings, where they provided an unconventional backdrop for people throwing Frisbees or just hanging out and drawing.
“Seed it and then cede it” was a phrase coined during a second charette in 2011. This suggestion became one of our core operating principles — a good reminder for us to resist the inevitable institutional impulse to program or structure the field too greatly. We aimed to lightly seed the field with interesting programs, and then get out of the way to make room for whatever else might then happen.
It was quickly evident that the social possibilities of Open Field were just as attractive, if not more so, than the invitation to create structured programs. Most of our audience is simply eager for a place to meet other curious and interesting people. In order to ensure that there was always something happening on Thursday nights, when museum admission is free, and to offer a low-threshold way for the public to participate, we launched Drawing Club. A weekly collaborative event, the program created an air of informal sociability around a shared task, where one could simply sit down and join in — it was art-making as a communal, informally collaborative endeavor, open to all comers. Along with events such as Acoustic Campfire (weekly acoustic music sets), artist-in-residence projects, and some intentional coordination of the publicly hosted activities, we were able to create unusual and lively programming mash-ups on the field that fostered an atmosphere of creative improvisation and social serendipity.
Resident Artists on the Field
As much as Open Field is a space for informal creativity, we also viewed it as a site rich with potential for professional artists interested in experimenting with public practice. As it turned out, our resident artists were critical to activating Open Field. Red76, Futurefarmers, Machine Project, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph were all commissioned in the first two summers to approach the field as a launch point for collective production and investigation; they embraced the public as collaborators in imaginative and wide-ranging activities — from the improvised building of a schoolhouse and the construction of a mobile, multi-person megaphone to performances starring neighborhood dogs or requiring push mowers to the making of a community classroom for social change. These highly visible projects proposed new ways to envision making, investigating, taking action, or playing on the field. The socially engaged practices of these artists and the intellectual and creative rigor with which they approached the aesthetic, social, and political implications of commons-based cultural practices were crucial to project’s evolution. The resident artists’ openness and warmth toward the public and their willingness to allow their work to unfold alongside whatever else was happening on the hill played an important role in what Open Field would eventually become: a porous environment that blurred the lines and leveled the playing field between professional and nonprofessional artists, weekend hobbyists, and creative enthusiasts.
During the first two years of Open Field, more than 200 people from the local community hosted programs ranging from storytelling and dance performances to art-making workshops; they brought to the field vernacular forms that included brass bands and knitting as well as social events such as book clubs and cribbage. However, many projects defied easy categorization, such as Spin with the Whorling Sisters or the Ground Breaking Invent Event. One of my personal favorites among these activities—If You Ignore It, It Will Get Better—offered participants free financial advice while they received a massage. For many, Open Field offered a way to share passions and interests with a larger community, and an opportunity to reconnect with creative energy that some thought they’d left behind. Artist and writer Gregory Sholette has coined the term “dark matter” to describe the array of output by informal artists, amateurs, and other creative producers whose work lies outside the formal art world’s critical frames — not by their choice, per se, but because of the “near-virtual hegemony [the elite art world] yields over notions of ‘serious’ cultural value.” Open Field not only brought this dark matter into view, but in some instances fostered it anew by empowering people to see their creative labor as a form of art and themselves as artists. The field functioned not as an arbiter, but rather as a catalyst that generatively and generously supported and made possible a wide spectrum of creative activity.
I heard some say Open Field got the art world out of the way, but of course it didn’t really. The contemporary art world was always right there, physically and psychologically adjacent and in constant interplay with everything happening outside in that common space. On Open Field, all forms of social and creative expression were equally respected and validated; the guiding principles of the field and the museum are not in competition, they’re complementary — albeit fundamentally different and creating a provocative discursive space where we might hash out questions around cultural value and representation. Indeed, Open Field instigated provocative and soul-searching conversations among Walker staff members around issues of cultural capital and quality, both within and outside the museum. Some worried that we were “diluting our brand” or that people would only come to Open Field and never step inside to the “real” museum. Others skeptically suggested that we were trying to get people to do the museum’s work for free, a comment that invites one to ask, “What precisely is the work of the museum?”
With the proliferation of alternative cultural outlets and forms, why should it matter that a contemporary arts center undertakes something like Open Field? Quite honestly, it doesn’t, if the motive is simply to increase attendance or if the work is done superficially and disingenuously. It’s a real challenge for an institution, even with a progressive history such as the Walker’s, to facilitate a truly improvised, open environment. It requires a dedicated staff, in attendance and at attention, to participate in and acknowledge the contributions and presence of others as well as patience with failure, faith in serendipity, the courage to relinquish control, and a genuine openness to change. As field coordinator Scott Artley wrote to me after the close of the project’s second year, “The physical and intellectual labor of the summer was considerable, but the real work was facing and attempting to challenge the institutional practice without alienating the very resources that made it possible to ask the questions in the first place.”
“The emergent properties of systems are never apparent from the conditions going in,” writes cultural critic Lewis Hyde. The same could be said of my own education on Open Field. What happened on the field was neither scripted nor accidental. Yes, it was scaffolded and seeded to encourage participation, and tools were put into place. But lest we take too much credit for crafting an encounter, it should be said with great certainty that Open Field only happened because people showed up, open and willing to improvise and engage with one another. Many compared it to the seasonal and temporary pleasures of summer camp, while one participant likened it to the story of Brigadoon, an enchanted Scottish village that appears for only one day every one hundred years. For while there were moments of amazing spectacle — an opera for dogs, a silent film that drew an audience of thousands, or the surreal site of local LARPers engaged in fantasy games — the field’s true enchantment arose from the practical undertaking of people coming together week after week, gathered in small groups around picnic tables, some knitting, some drawing, building something, listening to someone read a poem aloud, casually moving among others, talking, having a beer,
In fact, no real public life is possible except among people who are engaged in the project of inhabiting a place. If there are not habituated patterns of work, play, grieving, and celebration designed to enable people to live well in a place, then those people will have at best a limited capacity for being public with one another. Conversely, where such inhabitory practices are being nurtured, the foundation for public life is also being created and maintained.
“Open Field reminded me how removed I’ve become from play,” wrote one participant. “Humor can get us through the workday, but for play, we need other people and the willingness to suspend all self-consciousness with them.” Open Field reminded me of the fundamental ways in which we actually enjoy being together — playing, sharing, creating, conversing, daydreaming, and socializing. In this regard, it has changed the way I view my work as a curator and edu- cator and renewed my own commitment to working more locally in this place where I’ve lived for more than two decades. Perhaps it is more precise to say that the people I met on Open Field changed me by demonstrating what it means to practice forms of social and cultural citizenship based on principles of trust, generosity, serendipity, caring, and authenticity. My most humbling moment came when I tried to counsel the Swatch Team yarn bombers on creating a more “compelling” system of exchange for dealing with the hundreds of hand-knitted items they had collected and made during the summer. I was promptly interrupted and told I didn’t understand at all. They didn’t want to exchange with people, they wanted to “give it all away” in one celebratory moment with whoever showed up to take what they wanted or needed. I realized that as much as the institution helped give people a place, there was still plenty of opportunity for us to be put in our place.
The project began with questions about institutional practice and left me considering larger questions of where and how we want our public lives to unfold. What does it mean to live a generative or creative public life? How can we be more present with and for each other? In the quest to create a cultural commons, I stumbled upon acts of “commoning,” practices of gifting rather than owning, of curiosity rather than certainty, and of generosity rather than arrogance. I wish to neither reduce nor overstate what took place on the field, but truly, if we can’t sit down and make a drawing together, how will we ever make a world together?
In his landmark book The Gift, Hyde writes, “Both anarchism and gift exchange share the assumption that it is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.” The inhabitants of Open Field gave generously of themselves. What tangible or intangible parts of our institutions, I ask, are we prepared to “give away,” or at least hold in common so that the enchanted village appears more than once a century — or a summer?