This post is the first of six that will recap “think tank” sessions led by Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker of Works Progress. Theses sessions are 1/3 of a larger Open Field initiative called Commons Census. For more information about the think tank, see this introductory post or the Commons Census project website. There are still three sessions left so please email us if you’d like to participate! Click here for a full schedule.
On Monday, July 26th we met at Peavey Plaza on Nicollet Mall in Downtown Minneapolis to participate in Marcus Young’s Don’t you feel it too? as a way of exploring “street” in the context of Open Field.
First, a little background on Marcus’ project.
Don’t you feel it too? asks participants to dance their inner lives in public places. Marcus describes the project as “a courageous and joyful act of purposeful self-embarrassment, the work is also mind-body study, gentle social protest, participatory public art, and physical exercise.”
Participating in DYFIT? was not an easy exercise for some of us, unaccustomed to calling attention to ourselves in such a physical and public way. We were curious how it would feel, and nervous that it would not feel good. Would we be embarrassed? How would it change our relationship to the spaces and people around us? What if we saw someone we knew? Would we keep dancing, or forfeit the project?
After dancing for over an hour on a busy stretch of Nicollet Mall during evening rush hour, we talked with Marcus and the other DYFIT? participants about the experience.
We used two pre-assigned readings: The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact by Jane Jacobs (from The Life and Death of Great American Cities) & Public Phenomena: Informal Modifications of Shared Spaces by Temporary Services as way to begin connecting the experience of the particular street where we had danced, and the space of the Walker’s Open Field.
Some insights from the dancing: it was not as mortifying as we’d thought it would be, in fact, it was really fun. For some of us, it was profoundly calming. We noticed features of the landscape we’d missed on other occasions. We looked into the eyes of strangers and felt compelled to acknowledge our own awkward bodies. We got sweaty, and even convinced a couple of passers-by to join us, though we were sure they had no idea why we were doing what we were doing.
As we considered what we might learn from DYFIT? that could be brought back to the Open Field we referred to the “many tiny contacts” that Jane Jacobs describes in her book. According to Jacobs, the “casual public sidewalk life” of a city helps to weave a web of public trust, something the think tank and others had mentioned would be essential for the success of the Open Field project.
Though it might seem anything but routine or casual, the dancing that takes place as part of DYFIT? happens with such regularity (Marcus and his cohort dance on Mondays and Thursdays all summer, and have done so for several years) that the people who work along Nicollet Avenue have come to recognize contact with this project as another part of the sidewalk life around them. So much so, that they act as interpreters to those who happen upon it for the first time, and in some cases, assist the project by offering water or holding things while the participants dance. This is trust, built up from repetition and time.
Perhaps one way to cultivate trust in an open field, be it a street or the space outside a museum, is to embrace repetition and routine, even if it seems counter to the goal of a creative project. Then allow for time.
Programs like Drawing Club, one think tank participant pointed out, act in a similar way to Marcus’ DYFIT? project. They happen regularly enough that a kind of web of trust begins to form, including both those in the club, and those outside of it.
Other insights, which we are still mulling over, include the need for privacy among our busy public lives, and how good common spaces allow for a balance of reflection and contact. We discussed the role of self-appointed public characters in our street lives and in the Open Field, as well as the value of small and large interventions and modifications to our daily routines (this phenomenon is documented insightfully in the Temporary Services photo essay Public Phenomena, mentioned above). Lastly, we discussed the need for safe and inclusive gathering spaces, as well as small acts of transgression and self-embarrassment.