Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!

Reprinted from
The Walker Art Center's Walker Magazine (May-June 2010)

July 8, 2010

Field of Ideas

Minneapolis's Walker Art Center Explores the Cultural Commons With Open Field

“What does it mean to be creative as a conscious social activity—to create a commons, rather than individualizing creativity?” —Joshua McPhee, artist and founder of Just Seeds

In my experience, a good idea might be sparked individually, but really good ideas grow out of collective endeavors. Open Field, the Walker’s summer project on the green lawn, is just such a project. It began with a one simple question— “What would you do in an open field?”—which grew into a wonderfully rich “field” of questions, ideas, and conversations over the past year. Many of our discussions were based around the qualities and ethos of newly evolving participatory cultures—online networks and technological tools that transform us into simultaneous consumers and producers of culture and shape our larger environment as well. We immersed ourselves in a wide range of topics, from crowd-sourcing to political theory. We paid attention to critiques and debates about the present and future of cultural production, from the supposed demise of the book to the rise of the Pro-Am movement. The opportunities and challenges posed by our research inspired us to experiment with ways that institutions such as the Walker fit into this still-emerging landscape.

Open Field finds its most prominent metaphor in this idea of the commons. Encompassing subjects as diverse as water rights and music sharing, the commons has been a part of political, social, and economic spheres for hundreds of years. It traditionally refers to collectively shared and managed environmental resources such as forests, air, and grazing land. But the commons has gained great currency recently in reference to relatively intangible cultural assets and resources that could or should be commonly owned: ideas, languages, information, computer code, riffs and chords, images, etc. When I tried to articulate the concept to a teenage friend, she interrupted me to say, “Oh, you mean it’s the stuff you make from the stuff you share and then you keep sharing and making.”

Our ability to be creative, to produce new knowledge, to ask good questions, and to imagine innovative solutions is predicated in large part on our ability to transform what already exists. Think open source, skill-exchange, collective creativity, collaboration, sampling, mixed-format, remix, and mash-up. Open Field presents the perfect opportunity to work with artists whose practices emphasize communal activity, collaboration, and social engagement. We have invited two collectives—“Red76”:http://www.red76.com and “Futurefarmers”:http://www.futurefarmers.com/buildingavoicebox/about.html—to initiate projects on the field that will engage the public in collective and alternative ways of questioning, creating, and learning. Along with the many other events we will host or imagine might spontaneously occur, we view the summer as a public experiment in fostering a more open environment for exchange, dialogue, and interaction.

The process of organizing the project was also quite open. I want to acknowledge many early partners who devoted countless hours asking questions, debating ideas, and imagining possibilities, including Steve Dietz, director of Northern Lights.mn, an organization dedicated to commissioning and presenting innovative art in the public sphere; Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson of the experience-based collective Works Progress and Jeff Hnilicka, who founded FE AST, a project that funds emerging art through broad community support. Additionally, 30 other designers and artists participated in a daylong charrette to collaborate on the design for the Open Lounge. As is the case with creative and critical minds, the “assigned” topic quickly took flight and went into areas we hadn’t anticipated. The charrette was an instructive example of collaboration and shared knowledge in action; we reshaped and reworked our ideas for the outdoor lounge and found ways that the summer program could be formulated. Just as this group brought surprises and new insights to this whole process, we look forward to more surprises throughout the summer. Every visitor is a partner in the commons, whether you actively lift a voice or hammer or simply grab a book and a beer and sprawl on the green. Join us on the open field and let’s imagine some new possibilities for the creative future we hold in common.

Open Field is open from 6 a.m. to midnight through the summer, at 1750 Hennepin Avenue, near downtown Minneapolis.