– Ken Prewitt, Former Director of the U.S. Census Bureau
Almost a full year ago we began seeing advertisements for the 2010 U.S. Census everywhere—on television, in supermarkets, at bus stops, and finally, in our own mailboxes. These ads urged us to consider how important it is to be counted, how safe it is, and how simple. Just fill out and return a form with ten questions and you will be personally responsible for improvements to your community—including schools, roads, parks, and of course, government representation. Neglect to fill out the survey, whether because of laziness or genuine fear, and the imminent downfall of your community will be your fault.
Though we didn’t completely understand it at the time, the census was obviously a very big deal. When the ads started appearing offering jobs to census workers (in the midst of a recession!) it appeared as if an urgent army was being assembled, and indeed, it was. The census was mandated by the U.S. Constitution in 1790, but never in history has so much money and power gone into the seemingly mundane task of counting the people of this country. Over the summer 1.4 billion people are doing the counting, and 15 billion dollars will be spent in the process, at least some of it on “hip” advertisements like this one.
Coming from the world of non-profit administration, we’re aware of how museums also act as statistical agencies, counting their visitors and studying their behavior. In some cases visitor surveys are administered to improve the quality of exhibitions, museum experiences, and education efforts, but information is also gathered and used by marketing professionals and communications experts to craft an image for their institution that will lure in the desired audiences. These surveys are rarely very personal, or we should say, they are rarely concerned with people.
Similarly, the information gathered by the U.S. Census, while private in its details, is public in aggregate, making it useful to marketing professionals across the spectrum of goods and services. The census doesn’t only help the government determine where to put public resources, it also helps Target decide where to place its next bullseye.
What does any of this have to do with Open Field, you might be asking?
Well, it seemed to us as we learned more about the Open Field project that efforts at counting people and transforming them into statistics, both for the sake of the broader American enterprise and to lure and engage Walker visitors and patrons, run parallel and overlap in interesting ways. The U.S. Census is a tool that allows for the justification of resource allocation. So are the ubiquitous surveys that institutions like the Walker impose upon their visitors. In many ways, Open Field is a response to these surveys, perhaps not the ideas and inspirations behind Open Field, and probably not your individual experience of it, but certainly the rhetoric surrounding it, and also, the systems and structures that produced it.
We are interested in these systems and structures. We are also interested in people. Unabashedly, unashamedly interested. Why did you choose to come to the Walker to take part in a drawing club, or to hear a program about Native American Governments, when you could have stayed home to watch the drama unfold around America’s Next Top Artist? Where do you fit into the creative landscape? How do you engage? How do institutions like the Walker answer these same questions?
We are in a moment when ordinary survey questions about gender, income, neighborhood of residence, sexual orientation, ethnicity, citizenship – are ever-present, seemingly inadequate, and also weighted by the realization that vast inequalities exist. It becomes tricky to consider what is meant by buzzwords like community, access, openness, creativity and engagement when we so clearly have a long way to go before these concepts ring true with the reality of many of our places and spaces.
As cultural producers ourselves, we suspect that the intersection of these things—the realization of inequalities and the simultaneous realization that new tools and forms can help to create exciting possibilities and connections (or not)—has produced a situation in need of a careful study, and importantly, a critical language.
Commons Census is our attempt to move that conversation forward. Using Open Field as a kind of case study and an inspiration for research into existing cultural commons, we will begin collecting information from, about, and with visitors, staff, and participating artists at the Open Field. The information we gather will be used to create data visualizations for new understanding, as well as visions for the future. We have brought together a small group of local makers, thinkers and doers to help us make sense of what we learn, and will be going out into the city with this group to research our commons spaces and possibilities for engagement. At the end of the summer, we will publish and present our research findings to the public at the Walker Art Center.
We’ve developed survey tools using existing US Census questions, museum visitor studies, and a bit of historical digging. We will be at the Walker periodically, including tonight, when we will be conducting the first in a series of Commons Census Surveys with visitors to the Walker Art Center.
Follow this blog for more information and updates, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, as well as answer them!
Shanai & Colin | Works Progress