Open Field Thoughts
In the following piece, we invited participants of the Walker’s Open Field in the summer of 2010 to reflect on this experiment in relational aesthetics. Sarah Schultz, David Lefkowitz, Allison Herrera, Sarah Peters, Charisse Gendron, Scott Stulen, and Sam Gould responded.
Open Field was a summer-long experiment in creating a cultural commons with artists, community and institution acting as shared content creators and place makers. Taking shape in a large and largely empty green space adjacent to the Walker Art Center, we thought of the field as a kind of platform for creative, social and intellectual exchange rather than a traditional venue for presentation, or outreach.
Emphasizing social, non-institutional and collective forms of cultural and artistic production, the field was home to over 130 unmediated public activities many of which bore little resemblance to formal museum going—yoga, human chess, brass bands and flash-camera tag. Two artist collectives were commissioned to create projects as part of the investigation: Red76’s Surplus Seminar was series of public projects focusing on how we share and repurpose ideas and the myriad ways and forms in which knowledge is produced. Futurefarmers’ A People Without a Voice Cannot be Heard (in partnership with Northern Lights.mn) examined the power of voice as tool for exchange and liberation. A “Tool Shed” was stocked with art supplies, games and books for museum goers to create their own experiences and a weekly Drawing Club brought together professional and amateur artists in a highly social environment to produce work collectively and collaboratively. Open Field was very much created by its participants and in the spirit I invited a group of “fielders” to openly reflect on their experience as a way to better understand what took place and what else might be possible.
–Sarah Schultz, Director, Education and Community Programs and Open Field curator.
Open Field Notes
I loved the idea of Open Field- the notion of the Walker Art Center extending itself to the broader community in an overt manner- the cultivation of a ‘cultural commons’. Though I wish I had been able to get involved more frequently, I did participate in a few activities that fell under its umbrella (sometimes literally, as the drawing club and art pedagogy reading group were parked under several big ones).
In retrospect, though, the experience didn’t quite live up to my expectations. …and maybe that’s entirely appropriate, as its very rare for any actual phenomena to fulfill a utopian vision, which Open Field kind of was… or maybe my utopian vision didn’t quite mesh with the organizers’ utopian vision… or maybe I’m too skeptical to believe that the kind of transformative experiences the Open Field was seeking to engender could spark creative activity that would be life changing for everyone who stumbled upon the events going on there on the patio on Vineland Place.
I thoroughly enjoyed participating in a fortnightly discussion group with 8-10 fellow art teaching practitioners and/or enthusiasts about the directions of art education in the new century. It was occasionally mildly and entertainingly contentious, but not too different from the type of conversations I have with colleagues every so often, and ultimately confirmed, rather than challenged my approaches to art pedagogy.
I also attended a few and hosted one session of the Thursday Drawing Club. While the spirit of participation and conviviality was great, I found the resulting drawings from the process, a sort of ongoing loosely-defined exquisite corpse, remarkably unsatisfying. Admittedly, focusing on the end product misses the point, but I was slightly taken aback at how few participants consciously left open spaces or intentionally incomplete passages for future drawers to add to or develop a truly collaborative artwork. Very few drawings-in-progress suggested a consideration of the nature of the enterprise.
I had a similar experience helping construct the ‘campus’ of Red76’s Anytime Anyplace Academy. I love the premise of the ad-hoc Surplus Seminar, a collective, organically developing quasi-institution, but the resulting structures and their roles as catalysts for collaborative learning didn’t really pan out in a cohesive way, but rather fizzled in a jumble of wood scraps extolling an appealing but predictable boilerplate progressive education agenda. …Once again, I find myself feeling sheepish about pointing out these criticisms, as the point was the conversations and interactions these scenarios were set up to spark.
I guess that ultimately I think one can have it both ways- Ephemeral situations that bring about more satisfying tangible evocations of an inclusive art praxis. While the Open Field set the right tone and successfully provided lots of opportunities for engagement on many levels, there is something to be said for a culminating artwork or performance that embodies an organic process but ultimately stands on its own as well. Maybe there’s a point at which a single artist or a small group of artists need to consolidate the good ideas floating around and make some harsh editing decisions to bring a project to completion. Its also important to recognize this more calculated phase as part of this ongoing creative activity. Perhaps I’m showing my age or my latent conservatism, but I came away from the experience only partially fulfilled. Still, I’m looking forward to returning next summer.
When you get around the right picnic table…
The light was fading on warm July evening as my group of participants gathered around one of the picnic tables outside the Walker Art Center adjacent to the green space labeled as the Open Field. The topic of discussion was not art practice, museum education, or how technology has affected the museum experience, but rather what does it mean to be a sovereign individual in the United States?
My Thursday night program First Nations First Commons was meant to explore how Native American culture is the model for ideas we (meaning white society) have about a cultural commons. Instead, we ended up discussing tribal government and laws that affect the everyday Native person in a profound way. My guests were Terry Janis, a lawyer with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation in Minnesota, Mona Smith, Dakota media artist and historian, and Marty Case, with the Treaty Signers project, which is meant to track the relationships between treaty signers and Native governments. Along with several non-native participants we talked over and over about not only the past ill treatment of Native people, but why, as a progressive and informed society, we continue to do so in a system of laws that promote this treatment.
It was a great discussion with many questions and ideas presented. To me, this small group talking about a topic un-related to artistic practice is what I would pursue. It is indeed an opening of the field. It is about making a place like the Walker more available and accessible to people who are not known to be the museum going public. Knowledge is a collective process and this discussion and idea sharing about a very sensitive topic belongs in a place where there are no bounds to the conversation and people can feel free to share and understand one another.
-Allison Herrera, participant, Open Field
How do we create a WE out of autonomous individuals?
Writer and activist Dan S. Wang posed this question to a group of more than two but less than ten people on a warm Wednesday night last July. We had gathered in the FlatPak House in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden for one of Red76’s Pop-Up Book Academy sessions. The discussion focused on the texts and ideas Wang was introduced to as a student of Paul Wellstone at Carleton College in the 80s.
This question is central to any movement of popular politics. People, with their disparate experiences, must unite under a common cause to march forward with a legible agenda. There is much more to be said on the failings of this from within the Left, as we went onto discuss, but this question now strikes me as a curious reflection on Open Field as a whole. What did our WE look like? Exempting moments like Rock the Garden, the Open Field “we” appeared as small groups of people doing their own thing. But in any given moment, it wasn’t the individual activities that made the site interesting. It was the collection of things happening at once: a book club discussion next to a family reunion picnic close to marathoners running the stairs while kids twirled hula hoops.
-Sarah Peters, curator, Walker Open Field
The body travels in space, the mind travels in time. Open Field was
about space and the body. Many of the activities were literal
“activities,” actions: romping, paper folding, projecting poems. As
such, as bodies in space—the beautifully designed space of the
Walker’s grounds—the project amounted to a big piece of public art, a
carnival at which people acted as ferris wheels and cotton candy, an
intentional carnival of doing rather than consuming.
Open Field was not the place for meditation, for going inward, for the work
of the mind in time, for the articulation of narratives, singly or
collectively. My project was a discussion group, and while the coming
together of a disparate population elicited some piquant social
moments (which I will use in my writing), intellectually it failed.
That’s okay—every experience is grist for my mill,
counter-revolutionary individualist that I am! On the whole, Open
Field created a cantilever for the high concept work within the museum
itself. We need both.
So, is art a social relation? Most definitely: but whether we define
“social” as interaction in physical space or in mental space—outside
or inside the museum—will depend on the individual’s temperament.
-Charisse Gendron, participant Open Field
Open Field Drawing Club or all you need to make friends is a ream of paper, sunscreen and a case of IPA
For seventeen weeks a loose group of artists and the public gathered under the trees of the Walker Open Field to make collaborative drawings. For most, the creative process is a private, solitary experience. For many, socialization within the art community is limited to the odd dance of networking at art openings and other awkward formal encounters. The intent of Drawing Club was to offer a different format for sharing, collaboration and embracing the simple act of drawing as a connective social experience.
What did we learn from the Drawing Club:
1. The artwork produced is secondary to the social experience of its creation
2. A sprawling program like Open Field needs consistent programmatic threads and repeated experiences to bind the whole
3. Simplicity and accessibility are crucial
4. Free beer buys a lot of love
5. Build buzz early and continue to feed the social media engine
6. Anonymity allows for more accessibility and a leveling of talent
7. A program succeeds when the community takes ownership and the institution recedes.
- Scott Stulen, Project Director, mnartists.org and Open Field curator.
Open Field was…
Open Field was, for those who wanted to consider it, a mechanism for the consideration of what we mean by Culture, Commons, Property, Knowledge, and a myriad of other pressing concerns. It was not, thankfully, these things, if so it would have be an abject failure. Again, thankfully, it seemed most everyone understood that. Instead Open Field created a space to let those who wanted to participate first hand play out these questions in public without arriving with an answer or even leaving with one, and for those more inclined to question from the sidelines, out of temperament or some form of distance, to sit back and say, “well wait, what is it they’re trying to get at over there?”
Future Proposal for the Field: What do we conjure when we think of Open Space? Does that mean that it goes untouched or, to some people’s point of view, unused? When that land is not public property can it truly be considered open at all? For arguments sake, do Imminent Domain laws apply for collective cultural concerns?
Knowledge is a collective process…….
No idea comes out of thin air, or possibly it would be more appropriate to suggest the converse, for sake of argument – all ideas come out of thin air. Our reality, and I would argue as well our knowledge based, to paraphrase William James exists through our shared affections, the foggy space which exist in-between us all. We come to create the seemingly “new” out of the old, the discarded, the readily apparent yet misconstrued or poorly understood. Knowledge exists collectively, while what we call ideas are the stuff we name and compartmentalize once we appropriate from the world around us – which of course, we too had a hand in creating.
- Sam Gould, Red76