To help kick-off Walker Open Field, five guests from across the spectrum of art and ideas have been invited to share thoughts and pose questions on the cultural commons, framing a conversation that will continue throughout the summer. We’ll be posting our notes on each of these presenters over the next two weeks, and encouraging them to drop by Walker Blogs to recommend readings and other resources. The event kicks-off at 7pm on Thursday, June 3rd. Save the date!
Much of the conversation that abounds about the cultural commons seems to focus on digital culture, which makes sense given the profound changes that have happened in technology over a relatively short time span. There’s simply a lot that we still need to sort out.
Urban landscape ecologist and ecological designer Laura Musacchio is concerned about how well people are adapting to the stresses of urban living in high-density cities and metropolitan regions, and how the proliferation of technology in their lives is transforming their urban experiences of nature – including what urbanites like, know, feel, and appreciate about the natural world, other people, and non-human wildlife. This situation has raised a few questions for her about the physical commons as interactive spaces.
“Social interactions are really the foundation for creating a civil society. We certainly see social interactions happening all the time online, but these are mediated through computers or mobile devices. What happens when this becomes the norm? When we have fewer and fewer reasons or opportunities to practice face-to-face interaction?”
Laura pointed to some articles she had read recently about the impacts of social technology on the social skills of teenagers. When so much of the interactions that help people to build trust and understand human nature are done in the abbreviated world of text, what happens to our collective creative culture?
Naturally Laura thinks about the spaces where this interaction can continue to happen.
“In addition to some of the more obvious examples, like parks and plazas, cities have all sorts of leftover and unused space. How can we use it? How can we activate those spaces so that they become spaces for civic engagement? For a kind of cultural commons?”
Laura sees the Walker’s Open Field project as an experiment with exactly this question, and is excited to see what will happen when the public is invited to use the large open field for recreation, social interaction, education, or simply to gather.
“It’s like a giant lawn, and lawns can really act as a canvas for people.”
While chatting with Laura about her background, which combines design with ecology, I learned that she doesn’t only think of people when she is considering the elements needed for a healthy cultural commons.
“Practice with face-to-face social interaction, which is really what play is, that’s important. So is connection to nature, to natural cycles that are present in cities, but often invisible to most people who live in these places. Understanding how they work is as important as understanding people and how they work.”
Many of us have probably heard of this idea of the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby individuals chip away at our shared limited resources. Laura is interested in the places where the physical and natural resources of space overlap with our cultural and civic lives.
“Healthy civic spaces give us a sense of trust, and they inspire rather than hinder creativity. We know what the norms are, but we also believe that we can push the limits in new ways.”
This is what I find most exciting about the summer’s Open Field project. In many ways it’s a chance for us all to consider these questions, and also to test out some of ways that they might be addressed through creative public engagement.
“I spend a lot of time on my computer, and when I do, I start to feel a distance from the physical spaces I share with others. I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming technology, but I do worry that a lot of us are spending so much time immersed in digital social spaces that we are starting to put individual choice above the give and take of collective culture. I am not sure that’s a good thing.”
Laura will share some examples from her own research and work at next Thursday’s Open Field kick-off event.