Blogs Field Guide

Making It: A Family Guide with Todd Balthazor

By Rachel Kimpton Just how much work really goes into planning a day of engaging activities? Where do all the brilliant ideas for a public program come from? How does one correctly articulate and transform an inspiration into an idea and then to the tangible end product? To offer a little insight, we decided to […]

By Rachel Kimpton

Just how much work really goes into planning a day of engaging activities? Where do all the brilliant ideas for a public program come from? How does one correctly articulate and transform an inspiration into an idea and then to the tangible end product? To offer a little insight, we decided to walk you through the  creative process behind the illustrated gallery activity from December’s Free First Saturday, which was designed by the Walker Art Center’s Gallery Assistant Todd Balthazor.

We initially invited Todd to design an activity in July – a full five months before the activity’s premier in December. After several meetings and some serious brainstorming, Todd’s concept started to take shape later in the summer. His vision for the project encompassed 3 parts: a “find the art, fill in the blank, drawing activity.” With this in mind, he delivered two preliminary sketches to us around the end of September. The first contained pages filled with drawings and potential ideas for components of the gallery activity. The sketches featured artwork from all of the gallery spaces and included questions for the user to answer with both words and drawings.

Balthazor 1

Balthazor 2

Balthazor 3

The second preliminary sketch contained Todd’s ultimate idea: the use of an accordion fold. When in its initial form as a folded sheet of paper, the outer facade of the Walker Art Center would be visible, including guests dining in the D’Amico Gather restaurant. Opening and unfolding the sheet exposed the galleries and the actual activity.



After tweaking around with the design, the final draft was ready to go the first week of November. As the drawing was en route to be mass copied and printed, we received a surprise. One of the artworks featured in the gallery activity was removed from the Midnight Party exhibition and replaced with the new acquisition piece Some days it’s easy by Bharti Kher. Initially, the panel in the activity for Gallery 4 featured Robert Mallary’s sculpture The Parachutist, which had “escaped” and was shown floating off the top of the Walker Art Center. Rather than eliminate The Parachutist idea entirely, Todd kept The Parachutist still floating from the rooftop, symbolizing the removal of the piece. Some days it’s easy weighs well over 600 lbs, thus once it found its home in Midnight Party, it was very unlikely that it would move to a different location. Todd updated the central panel with an illustration of the new sculpture.

panel g4

Before and after.

After this last minute edit, the gallery activity earned the stamp of approval from Family Programs and was sent on its way to be printed. After five long months, Todd’s gallery activity was complete! It was very well received by visitors and staff of all ages, and proved to be an excellent, new way to interact with pieces in the gallery.

Balthazor final

Making It lifts the curtain on art-making around the state with posts that go inside the process of making and showing work. You’ll find these visually-oriented little pieces on both the Education and Community Programs’ blog and the blog. They’ll include a broad-mash up across disciplines, with everything from staff dispatches from Arty Pants and Open Field to rehearsal notes and studio visits, maybe even a few DIY tutorials by and with Minnesota artists.

Introducing the Walker Home & Garden Club

How do you domesticate the institution? The Walker’s very own Home & Garden Club posed this question in honor of Fritz Haeg’s upcoming artist residency At Home in the City. The club hosts Walker staff whose interests span departments and all aspects of the home: baking, gardening, crocheting, saving seeds, drying herbs, and sewing lunchbox […]

Bread for the Home & Garden Club

How do you domesticate the institution? The Walker’s very own Home & Garden Club posed this question in honor of Fritz Haeg’s upcoming artist residency At Home in the City. The club hosts Walker staff whose interests span departments and all aspects of the home: baking, gardening, crocheting, saving seeds, drying herbs, and sewing lunchbox purses.


Grasses from Ashley Duffalo’s garden; thyme and oregeno from Sarah Schultz’s kitchen garden

For the long-term composting aficionado to the CSA novice alike, Walker Home & Garden functions as a culinary laboratory and research space. We are going to share skills, hone our hosting chops, and experiment with the domestic integrities that we each bring to the table.

Getting ready for soup

We recently held the inaugural meeting by way of soup-eating session. After all, how can you domesticate the institution without rolling up your sleeves and baking bread to share? We  started by bringing in tea, soup, bread and honey, then pulling together three tables and some benches to complete the communal feeling of a school cafeteria. We decorated the space with some mismatched tablecloths, bell jars of fresh herbs, and canteens of dried flowers (it is winter, after all!). Within ten minutes, our art education center was transformed into a space for banter, recipe-sharing and, of course, breaking bread.

Conversation over lunch

We will be hosting several more Home & Garden Club sessions before and throughout the Haeg residency. We may discuss farmer’s markets, local gardening tips, and perhaps even thrift shopping and composting as empowering tools. Keep your eyes and tomatoes peeled, we’ve got quite a bit of prep work to do!

A Conversation with Todd Balthazor

By Rachel Kimpton. Walker Gallery Assistants. Yes, I’m speaking of the uniformed men and women who stand guard in the galleries, keeping the art safe and silently witnessing the path you take from one painting to the next. But what goes on behind and beyond the job of being a Walker gallery assistant? What do gallery assistants have […]

By Rachel Kimpton.

Walker Gallery Assistants. Yes, I’m speaking of the uniformed men and women who stand guard in the galleries, keeping the art safe and silently witnessing the path you take from one painting to the next. But what goes on behind and beyond the job of being a Walker gallery assistant? What do gallery assistants have to say? And what do they have to… draw? For Todd Balthazor, art is always on his mind, whether he’s monitoring it in a white cube or doodling it on a white page. This Saturday, be sure to meet him, draw with him, and have his sense of humor be your guide to the galleries.

I chatted with Todd about his childhood, inspirations, and — of course! — drawing.

Todd, on the job as a monitor.


1. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in East Bethel off of Coon Lake.  There I spent most of my time either drifting through the weed beds in my canoe, wandering in the woods, climbing trees and building forts.

2. Do you have a specific memory from your childhood that stands out?

In third grade, Nancy Carlson came to my school and read one of her books to our class.  She signed my copy and I remember intensely watching the way her pen made its mark on the paper as she drew.  And, just this last year, I had Nancy Carlson as a teacher for a children’s book class at my college! It was such a memorable moment in my life to reconnect with such a big childhood influence and to feel myself still being driven by the same passion.

3. Tell us about your imaginary friends, past and present.

I never really had much of an imaginary friend, but as a kid playing with toys, I would start to think of what kind of person this toy was, or what their world was like and how they would interact with it.  I think that kind of imaginary play transferred into my story telling practice.  Now I draw a character and just start imagining the same kind of scenario. I come up with a story; draw a picture while inventing a narrative behind it.

4. When did you first become interested in comics?

I remember, even before I was able to read, that one of my favorite things to look at was the Sunday funny pages.  When I could read, I read all of them even if I didn’t understand them. My favorite comics were The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. I could really relate to Calvin on many levels!

Todd working in his studio.

5. What was your first job?

One of my first jobs was working in a daycare center.  When I walked in I think the kids were shocked to actually have a guy visit, and they all wanted to play with me right then and there.  I was pretty much hired on the spot and that was basically what I did for several years, working with kids, playing and drawing all day.

6. When did you decide to commit to a career as an artist?

Since kindergarten I knew I wanted to be an artist.  I remember how much I loved coloring and drawing, and already knowing that was what I wanted to do.

7. Tell us a little bit about your creative process. For example, how did you come up with this gallery activity?

I usually have to lock myself alone in my art room away from distractions.  Then I work all night, usually until 4 in the morning.  I like that time of day because it’s like the world has shut off and it’s just me.  Towards the back of the Sunday Pages there used to be a comic called Doodles where you could do crosswords, match ups, and draw in the spaces.  As a kid I loved these.  So, I wanted to make something like that where the art and the viewer are interacting together.

I imagined scenarios for how the art or a gallery assistant could guide you through the illustration or actively connect you with what you see.  I also started to play with the paper, folding it up to make grids.  When I made the accordion fold it hit me that I could have the front of the Walker open up as if you’ve entered the inside.

8. Who or what inspires you and your work?

I find it therapeutic to draw out my thoughts or just let my brain wander on a piece of paper.  I usually draw things to make myself laugh.  I also really enjoy sharing my work with others.  I love seeing that I drew something that makes someone laugh and it also becomes a way in which I share part of myself.

9. What is your all time favorite graphic novel or comic? 

Definitely Calvin and Hobbes.  It’s so well written and the art is amazing. As a kid, I remember reading some of those big words that Calvin would use and have no idea what that word meant, but I at least had the context of his expressions to relate it to.

10. What do you absolutely love to draw?

Animals that have just the right crazy look in their eyes.

11. What does your family do for fun?

Lots of hiking and camping and in the winter we cross country ski.

12. When you aren’t drawing (or standing guard at the Walker) you are…

I love getting together with my friends. I’m also a very active person so I’ve been training in Kung Fu for several years.  It helps me focus and has become another art form I’ve learned to enjoy.

Todd and his (then) new puppy at Walker Open Field.

(All images courtesy of the artist.)


Come to Free First Saturday on December 1st and meet Todd in person from 11 am-2 pm. Be sure to pick up Todd’s interactive gallery activity that will have you exploring the Walker Art Center in new ways.

November’s Free First Saturday: Experimental Expression


By Rachel Kimpton

Guests in front of Bruce Conner’s “Night Angel”.

The warm welcome of family-friendly programming grows all the more enticing as winter creeps its way closer. November is always a busy time at the Walker, especially with the recently commenced performing arts season. This month’s Free First Saturday was no exception. Families flocked in to illuminate their Saturday, basking in the glow of visiting artist Laurie Anderson and experimenting with light, reflection, and inventing.

The morning started off by investigating and playing tricks with light via activities designed by artist Margaret Pezalla Granlund. In the Art Lab, kaleidoscopes of all shapes and sizes beckoned from tables, inviting curious hands and minds to pick them up and peer inside. Each turn of the kaleidoscope showed something different – a thousand pairs of laughing eyes, a thousand loving mothers, or a brief sneak peek at reality interspersed with a thousand tiny polygons.

If the kaleidoscopes were too dazzling, a simpler approach came in the form of two free-standing mirrors and an assortment of small objects. This seemed better suited for our youngest crowd members. With a slight tilt of one mirror, an infinite loop of images appeared, creating millions of apples or blocks or candles that faded into obscurity. The eyes of a child would narrow, and their tiny gears would start to turn. This garnered shared smiles of excitement and endearing gazes between parents. For the older kids brave enough to venture into the dark (some alone, some gingerly holding onto their taller guides), a forest of hidden secrets awaited that could only be revealed through the power of light. By placing the tiny LED against one’s temple and oscillating the finger to which it was attached, visitors were pleasantly surprised when shapes of leaves, trees, squirrels, and birds revealed themselves in the dark curtained tunnel.

Photo by Frannie Kuhs

On the way to exploring the galleries upstairs, visitors stopped at Cargill Lounge to challenge their inner inventors – some for fifteen minutes, and some for two hours. You know you’re doing something right when parents are just as into a hands-on project as their younger companions. Led by arts instructor Alexandra Waters, visitors designed their own illuminated structures using small lights and a variety of transparent materials including recycled film strips and tissue paper. The end products were altogether awe-inspiring. Highlights of the afternoon included: an angler fish, a Tony the Tiger Statue of Liberty, a decent sized model airplane with landing lights and engines, and several movie projectors (a quote from the 7-year-old artist: “Once I’m finished, it will project this film onto the whole side of the Walker!”)

Photo by Rachel Kimpton

Photo by Frannie Kuhs

Photo by Rachel Kimpton

And what better innovator to inspire creativity than multimedia artist and musician Laurie Anderson! An electronic inventor herself, Anderson generously presented an afternoon workshop for kids on top of her three evening performances in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. The promise of experiencing Anderson firsthand had parents geeking out for the entire morning. During her workshop, Anderson shared a chunk of her personal and artistic history, discussed her music and performance pieces, and showcased some of her instruments that she herself invented. Her beloved inspiration and companion for many years, Lolabelle the dog (may she rest in peace), appeared in videos as a skilled pianist. Between these discussions, Anderson performed selections from her recent work and invited young audience members to distort their voices and laughter through one of her filters. A brief question and answer session followed, giving younger audience members a chance to pick Anderson’s brain about her favorite creations and the many processes of inventing.

Guests also had the opportunity to participate in gallery activities in the Midnight Party exhibition. Guests created their own light impressions by applying concepts used by artist Bruce Conner in his piece Night Angel. Conner created this piece by positioning himself between photosensitive paper and a light source to essentially create a photographic negative. The farther Conner was from the paper, the darker the paper became. Toying around with these same ideas, visitors experimented with ultraviolet pens on UV sensitive paper. Unlike Conner’s piece, this paper did not permanently capture the effects of the light. Instead, the image remained for only a few seconds until it slowly faded away, returning the paper to its original blank state. The fleeting images dazzled visitors of all ages, making it hard to venture into the rest of the galleries.

Our other featured gallery activity asked children to share their thoughts on a specific work of art. Kids had great things to say about Robert Motherwell, Paul Sharits, Thomas Hirschhorn, and others. Yayoi Kusama’s sculpture Passing Winter was interpreted as depicting a snow storm inside a mad scientist’s lab, as well as the innards of a disco ball. One 10-year-old guest was reminded of “how lucky [she] is” by Kris Martin’s Still Alive, while an imaginative 6 year old guessed that Ed Paschke’s Painted Lady was inspired by feet that “were walking in the woods and tripped over a bucket of paint.”

Experimenting through art makes the upcoming winter season seem brighter.

All photos by Gene Pittman unless otherwise stated.

Making It: Psychedelic Fish and Energy Efficient Lily Pads in the Walker’s Art Lab

The following conversation fragments, observations, and exclamations were plucked from a workshop led by Walker Art Lab Coordinator Ilene Krug Mojsilov. I was struck by the poetic turns that emerged from participants’ reactions to their and each other’s work. The workshop explored how artists manipulate scale—looking primarily at Frank Gehry’s Standing Glass Fish for inspiration—to encourage […]

The following conversation fragments, observations, and exclamations were plucked from a workshop led by Walker Art Lab Coordinator Ilene Krug Mojsilov. I was struck by the poetic turns that emerged from participants’ reactions to their and each other’s work.

The workshop explored how artists manipulate scale—looking primarily at Frank Gehry’s Standing Glass Fish for inspiration—to encourage a new way of looking at the everyday and one’s physical relationship to the space one inhabits. The images taken inside the Cowles Conservatory were taken by participants as study shots.


Lily pad nation gathering sun beams

Transferring energy efficiency

Wind whips up the waves



Wet sea

Powerful, fresh, and breathless

Martha hides from the fish

The water was cold


The fish with scales


It emanates from an orderly mind



Assessing the fish from all angles

Posing and hiding

Tall guy taller fish

Lilly pad construction

Beautiful scales

One person's vantage point

Talking it through

Engineering a base



This art lab was part of a program called Living Well, a holistic program for people living with memory loss coordinated by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.


“Lumps and Bumps” in the Night: A Kawakubo/Cunningham Halloween

  Last week Hyperallergic posted an excellent blog entitled, “If You Hate Your Children and Love Art, Dress Them Like This for Halloween.” Inside, they shared elaborate ideas from around the web for dressing your little ones up like Frida, Andy, Vincent, or the Guggenheim. After reading it, I realized that the Walker had already […]


Last week Hyperallergic posted an excellent blog entitled, “If You Hate Your Children and Love Art, Dress Them Like This for Halloween.” Inside, they shared elaborate ideas from around the web for dressing your little ones up like Frida, Andy, Vincent, or the Guggenheim. After reading it, I realized that the Walker had already dressed dozens of children up (not even our own) in arty costumes. For October’s Free First Saturday, we took kids and their grown-ups on tours of Dance Works III: Merce Cunningham/Rei Kawakubo, an exhibition which showcases the costumes Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubuo created for Cunningham’s 1997 dance, Scenario. Afterwards, we led everybody in a movement activity to see how it felt to move when they had extra “lumps and bumps” on. I asked our prop and costume-maker extraordinaire, Frannie, to write up instructions for making your very own Cunningham costume:

Merce Cunningham Dancer Costume

Two piece of fabric:
1 – 60” long X 18” wide
1 – 18” long X 12” wide

Four pieces of Heat n Bond – iron on adhesive
2 – 18 inches long
2 – 12 inches long


Lay large fabric piece flat on the floor. Take small fabric piece and lay in the center of larger piece. Use three of the hear n bond strips to iron three sides of the small fabric piece to the center of the large fabric piece. One side of the small fabric piece will be open – fill with poly-fill until the space resembles a big lump. Use the last heat n bond strip to seal in the poly-fill. Cut hole in the large fabric somewhere between the edge and the lump in the middle. Slide arm, leg or head through the hole and tie. OR, forgo the hole and tie around your hips, shoulder, arms or legs. Finished!

So go ahead! Revel in (your kid) having the most obscure costume on the block and let us know how it goes.

Living Classroom and Open Field: An Interview with Marc Bamuthi 

In the spirit of public exchange, the Walker presents Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an online and print book examining our three-year experiment in participation and public space. This essay comprises a chapter of the publication, which will be released online in its entirety. On August 18, 2011, the Walker hosted Living Classroom, a […]

Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Classroom, August 2011

In the spirit of public exchange, the Walker presents Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an online and print book examining our three-year experiment in participation and public space. This essay comprises a chapter of the publication, which will be released online in its entirety.

On August 18, 2011, the Walker hosted Living Classroom, a daylong gathering exploring the question, “What sustains life in your community?” Activities ranged from games of dominoes with artist/activist Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses, and a community walkabout — a tour and conversation about animating public space led by local architect Marcy Schulte — to a program of table tennis matches, karaoke, and a slide show with photographer Wing Young Huie.

The Living Classroom was born out of conversations around a monthlong project with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a spoken word/theater artist and educator dedicated to building and supporting creative ecosystems. The residency was part of the Walker’s ongoing relationship with the artist that also resulted in the co-commission and debut of his interdisciplinary performance work red, black & GREEN: a blues at the Walker in March 2012.

On an early site visit, Joseph and collaborator Brett Cook introduced his ongoing project Life Is Living — a series of eco and art festivals launched in urban parks nationwide that bring performance, intergenerational health, and environmental action to a number of artists and community organizations. Their visit left a residue of excitement and questions: Why would community-based artists and organizations want to produce an event at the Walker? Why would a project focusing on under-resourced communities be situated there?

The partners decided that the majority of the residency should take place off-site, and that projects about specific communities should be sited in partnership with local grassroots organizations. Workshops, professional development sessions, and a block party took place in several neighborhoods.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph performs in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, August 18, 2011

For the component at the museum, the framework of Life Is Living met the values of Open Field. The collaborating partners created a day that emphasized dialogue and mutual learning. Joseph talks about this process with Susannah Bielak.

Susannah Bielak: Your catalytic question for Living Classroom is, “What sustains life in your community?” Will you answer that question for yourself? What does sustainability mean to you?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: What sustains life in my community? Well, always the people, and the animal instinct to survive. “Sustain” is an interesting word because the fact is, my community, which for the purpose of this conversation I’ll characterize as the African American community in Oakland, California, is actually leaving. That city is a place where death, education, and the level of incarceration are functioning at an unsustainable rate. So, you would think that what sustains life are the people who are doing their very best to turn those factors around — soulful, artistic, creative healers and creative problem-solvers sustain life in Oakland. The means of creative problem-solving keep changing. Some of the problem-solvers are farmers and food activists. Some are artists and athletes. Some are just good dads or good moms. But the creative healers sustain life in Oakland. They sustain life in my community.

Bielak: We’re at a juncture where institutions are asking themselves about their relevance to the cities and communities in which they live. How do you see Open Field and the Living Classroom as related to the question of community sustainability and relevance?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Classroom, Augsut 2011

Joseph:I think that the Living Classroom is populist and popular education at its best, but located at a specific site. What I love about the Living Classroom is that it invites a curated sample of organizations and artists  to reveal and inquire about the best practices toward provoking thought around sustainability. So much of our discourse is about saying, “I have an idea. I’m going to communicate this idea to you.” This discourse instead is about creatively finding ways to ask, to provoke, and to invite people into the conversation. To me, that’s a reflection of our Freirean pedagogy and it’s also a reflection of good politics and city management, where policy development is predicated on this invitation into the conversation. That’s what’s great about Living Classroom.

Bielak: Something we’ve learned from Open Field is that a platform for the public’s participation and collaboration requires structure and maintenance in order to flourish. As a self-described catalyst, what armatures do you build around participation, particularly for a project about sustainability?

Joseph: I am one of a class of what I call empathic intellectuals, which means that my discourse, my way of being in the world is based on energetic reciprocity. The word “armature” implies brick and mortar, steel and glass. But the primary structure that I build is energetic and emotional — finding a way not only in my own practice, but implicit and integrated inside my artistic fields of inquiry to generate safe space.

Whether we’re talking about the formal or informal classroom or the performance space, growth happens inside a safe space. This might be indicated through iconography, through fields of play, or through certain kinds of music. But I really think it’s the energy we ourselves carry that plays a role in this safe space. There are rigorous intellectuals who are lousy teachers because they don’t know how to orchestrate an environment for the interchange of information. Part of the whole strategy is to be intentional about safe space.

Bielak: It’s interesting that you called out the word “armature.” When I think of armatures in the context of this discussion, I think of soft architecture—the social structures, human work, and relationship-building at play in organizing. I see this integrally at play in projects such as Living Classroom and Life Is Living. What kinds of networks have you been part of, inquired into, and engaged with catalytically through this work?

Spoken word artist Tish Jones performs as part of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Open Field residency

Joseph:I think this goes back to the thesis of the work that we’re doing — the ecosystem — which hopefully mirrors the grand design of nature, in that the more diverse we are, the greater chance we all have for survival. We are interdependent.

Part of what I strive to do inside of the performance space, and also inside of an organizing model, is to 
prioritize a sense of interdependence. Sometimes 
that looks like the Living Classroom, with all the activities and participants. Sometimes it looks like a poetry slam for youth, where there’s a scaffolded development process for the young people, community participation on the audience level, and the integration of an institution such as the San Francisco Opera House or the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, for example.

Again, I think it’s my performance background and belief that as curators we’re not just responsible for locating objects in space, but we’re also responsible for communal experience. And that’s something I derived from my friend Ken Foster, who talks about communal experience being fundamental to the success of arts practice. Similarly, such experience defines the success of an organization. There are going to be some bumps in the road, emotional and logistical, but at the end of the day, if we have provided safe space for as many participants as possible, I think we’re doing our job right.

Bielak: A phrase that we’ve been using in relationship to Open Field is that of a “cultural commons.” While we don’t explicitly use the term safe, a driving principle of the project is to create a space where people want to be, and might really want to share. I’m wondering how you interpret the cultural commons, and what you might see as its value?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Classroom, August 2011

Joseph:I love the phrase “cultural commons” because part of its value is both physical and nonphysical in terms of its occupancy of site. I think it’s fantastic, and also speaks to democracy. The idea of common ground or middle ground is different from compromise, which implies that there have been concessions made, whereas commons, or the common ground, implies a space where everyone’s ideas are welcome and preferred, if not prioritized. So I think that it’s a great phrase, politically, socially, and artistically, and might be something that I adopt to talk about what we do, because that’s really what it is.

Bielak:Life Is Living is a truly ambitious and multidimensional project that maintains a high degree of performance, including graffiti battles, youth spoken word, dance, and music. Here in the Twin Cities and at the Walker, the Living Classroom was far more about process and conversation than performance. Will Open Field and the process of the Living Classroom influence your artistic practice? Specifically, do you think the emphasis on the dialogical will influence you?

Joseph: Part of my arts manifestation is to reveal the process. There have been times at Life Is Living festivals when folks have asked me if I was going to perform. I would tell them that I am performing, that I don’t have to be rhyming or doing choreography to be inside of my artistic manifestation. The piece that’s going to come here to the Walker next year is evidence of that ideology — that we can reveal the  arts process as the object of a performance, or the object to be viewed. All that being said, the Living Classroom is also performative. It’s performance of culture; it’s performance of process. It’s also aesthetically beautiful.

Kite-flying on Open Field as part of the Living Classroom, 2011

The past few days, let alone my almost four-year relationship with the Walker, have introduced me to a certain vocabulary and to characters on the street that have placed me inside a context that will very much find its way into the finished product of red, black & GREEN: a blues. When we were in development with the break/s here about three years ago, there was something about the relationship between the education and community programs department, the performing arts department, and the visual arts program that made me want to create a work to fit in the middle of all of them. That’s what red, black & GREENis, and what I think the Living Classroom is.

Bielak: When you came in April, you sparked our citizenry with the question, “What sustains life in our community?” It seems like the way you worked on this residency was to plant a powerful seed, leave it alone, and return to encounter the flowers growing out of the residents. Is this a typical practice?

Joseph: No, it’s not a typical practice either for me or for the field. I would hope that it becomes more commonplace — this kind of active listening, quick turnaround, administrative dedication, and sacrifice. I think the current practice is for institutions to relate to an artist’s ideas in the codified form of object, and to present a platform for those objects to live. But I love the way that the Walker has absorbed, at least for a time, an artist’s process and integrated it into its own practices and processes.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Rick Lowe play dominoes on Open Field, August 2011

Open Field: When Bad Things Don’t Happen

In the spirit of public exchange, the Walker presents Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an online and print book examining our three-year experiment in participation and public space. This essay comprises a chapter of the publication, which will be released online in its entirety. When Open Field launched as an expanse of grass, a […]

Ping pong on the terrace as part of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Classroom, August 18, 2011

In the spirit of public exchange, the Walker presents Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an online and print book examining our three-year experiment in participation and public space. This essay comprises a chapter of the publication, which will be released online in its entirety.

When Open Field launched as an expanse of grass, a set of wishful ideals, dozens of museum-organized programs, and an explicit invitation for people to come and use the space for their own creative endeavors, it also began with a set of carefully constructed parameters. Four “guidelines” and twelve “rules” governed what a person could do (share skills, be creative) and couldn’t do (set up a grill, camp out, express hate speech) on the field.

These “Rules of the Commons” were a heavily debated subject within the museum. Questions of how to set up and maintain a privately owned, publicly available place played out in conversations that mirrored those you’d hear in a philosophy class. In staff meetings, we discussed issues such as: What are the central moral and ethical tenets of free speech and assembly? Who should be able to gather, to speak, to be here? What exactly do we mean by “the public good”? How do we construct written guidelines to communicate all of this?

The first version of the rules was intentionally minimal as a way of better communicating a spirit of openness. These most basic behavioral directives were later expanded and made more concrete after staff imagined several nightmare scenarios that could occur in an open, public space. We posted the rules on the Open Field website, but by the end of the project’s first summer, none of our fears about public misbehavior had come to pass. Political extremists did not evangelize, no one set anything on fire, and there were no trumpets played at midnight, which might have angered the neighbors. At the close of Open Field’s second season, we found that the situation remained much the same. Tai chi practitioners, guerrilla knitters, and Swedish chess players took turns sharing their skills on the museum’s lawn, and all did so in a friendly manner. The only ideological commotion I witnessed occurred midsummer, when a Christian flash mob cheerfully invited people to pray with them one busy Thursday night—hardly a disturbance; most people just ignored them.

Qi-qong practitioners demonstrate harmonizing movement on the field, 2010

Troublemakers or not, the participants who shared their creative activities on the field made good our experiment in crowdsourced content. Yet, this is not all that Open Field hopes to be. From the beginning, we set out to create a cultural commons using the outdoor space—a physical commons—of the museum. Out of respect for the concept of commons, and because that word is adopted so readily to describe its antithesis (shopping plazas or the grassy sections of private college campuses, for example), I think it is important to acknowledge the root concepts of commons and to articulate the differences between them and an institutionally driven, audience-participation project such as Open Field.

Generally speaking, a commons is a resource shared by a group of people. A vast literature outlines the history and contemporary practice of these systems, primarily in the realm of natural resource management and digital culture. In a commons, a set of resources—ranging from forests to scientific ideas—is regulated and shared by groups of people, all of whom contribute to regulatory systems that sustain the stuff that everyone uses. Without going into the long history and present complexity of these models, suffice it to say that Open Field was inspired by both the oldest and newest forms of such collective resource-sharing, from rights of pasturage for grazing sheep to Wikipedia.

In the case of Open Field, the available resources may not be as self-evident as a grazing meadow is for animals, but we found that several tangible assets help facilitate staging an activity on the field. The most obvious of these include amenities that take advantage of the open space, such as double-wide picnic tables and shade umbrellas, an expanse of grass-covered land, and a roomy soft-surfaced plaza that served as a stage. We also provided platforms for advertisement (analog and digital), some staff support, and social resources in the form of an audience. To that end, the museum is able to attract more substantial crowds to Open Field, which individuals working alone may not be able to gather.

An average day on Open Field

The drive to make rules governing the use and availability of these resources came out of an apprehension around the very notion of “open.” We were nervous about the idea of the museum’s backyard being overrun by conflicting cultural, political, spatial, and aural agendas that could lead to arguments between participants, or worse, clashes between visitors and the institution concerning the messy territories of free speech. Additionally, the Walker is located in a residential area; we had neighbors to keep in mind, too.

Establishing a set of basic guidelines allowed us to venture forward into possible conflict with greater ease, primarily by determining a clear authority for the grass-as-commons.In addition to some fundamental rules, we also set up a system by which people could submit their events to a vetted online calendar. This functioned as a way both to promote the public’s activities and to filter out suggestions that didn’t comply with the field rules (such as events that would cause sound violations) or proposals that didn’t mesh with the spirit of the field (overt attempts to advertise goods or services, for example). We viewed the rules and staff-managed online calendar as tools that would allow us to live up to the “open” in the project’s name, while maintaining the authority to stop activity we deemed potentially dangerous or damaging to either person or property.

At first, the notion of reserving such institutional authority was uncomfortable given the stated aim of the project, for isn’t everyone supposed to have equal power in the commons? Not necessarily. As scholars from the fields of economics, history, politics, and culture have stated, all commons have rules and managers. Economist Elinor Ostrom discusses them extensively in her work; in fact, she adapts commons-based regulations of natural resources to serve intellectual production in her work with Charlotte Hess, which are referenced in our interview with Lewis Hyde. Ostrom’s eight “design principles” shared by successful common-pool resource management systems include: rules adaptable to local conditions, ways for most resource users to participate in decision-making, monitors accountable to users, and self-determination of the community of users that is recognized by authorities. It isn’t that rules are unwelcome in the commons, but it is central to the notion that users will be able to participate in the process of decision-making about those regulatory principles. Architectural theorist Stavros Stavrides offers a similar view of the importance of user influence on governance. He posits that commons are not merely what people share, but also how they create and sustain these resources: “You have to be able to produce places where different kinds of lives can coexist in terms of mutual respect. Therefore any such space cannot simply belong to a certain community that defines the rules; there has to be an ongoing open process of rulemaking.”

Anda Flamenco demonstrates and teaches Flamenco dancing to Open Lounge participants, 2010

These ideas about shared resources and rules are helpful in thinking about the way Open Field’s participatory goals fall short. The project aims to offer a commons of culture, but it deviates from the basic principle of users’ rights to participate in shaping the framework of that shared space. We didn’t set up open systems for field programmers or attendees to weigh in on the structure of the overall program, nor did we build a mechanism by which they might adapt the rules in a way that better suited their projects. In fact, it’s difficult to know how many people actually read our “Rules of the Commons.” They were only available on the website, not in the physical space, so it’s unclear to what extent any of the field’s casual users knew about the governing structure of Open Field at all, or that a theory of the commons was at play in the project as a whole.

We initially put the guidelines in place in an attempt to prevent the bad things that we imagined could happen, but as the project continued, we realized the rules we established also played an important role in imparting a set of values that both reflected and helped shape the sociality of Open Field. The social operations of commons are in need of considerable attention. Ostrom and Hess’ very definition of commons is “a resource shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas.”As people negotiate using a shared space potentially for wildly divergent ends, a stated set of values functions as a solid foundation upon which to navigate users’ differing desires.

The ethics of Open Field were more clearly articulated in the iteration of guidelines that ushered the project into its second summer. Written by Open Field coordinator Scott Artley and dubbed “Field Etiquette,” this text uses the language of preservation—“Protect the Spirit, Protect the Space, Protect the People”—to communicate many of the same rules but by emphasizing values of respect, trust, and responsibility. These principles, while not foreign to the institution, are less explicitly stated or modeled inside the museum walls.

In this sense, these rules of etiquette can be read as a mission statement for Open Field. With its emphasis on creativity and community, the project’s aim is similar to the Walker’s core mission to be “a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences,” but it is important to note that the inside and the outside of the museum don’t operate on the same principles of openness. I’m not talking about gallery admission and theater tickets (though this is a distinct and obvious difference), but about the wild territory of non-curated programming accepted outside the gallery walls. Mark Allen of Machine Project once referred to this kind of experimental programming as a “shadow institution” that operates using a different set of rules than its parent. These two mission statements—inside and outside—can and should be part of the same institution.

The Swatch Team meets in the Garden Cafe, July 14, 2011

One lesson we’ve learned from Open Field is not to make the galleries more like the lawn, or vice versa, because each mode creates an interesting context for the other. The fact is that the inside and the outside don’t hold equal power. The gallery show and the collecting of art is part of a market-oriented system of money and power set apart from the experiments playing out on the plaza, which may or may not possess the same measure of quality. However, the juxtaposition of these two spheres inevitably raises interesting questions about how and why we value culture.

In my earlier list of Open Field’s resources, I neglected to mention an important one: cultural capital. This is a complicated term; I prefer the old-fashioned word for it, prestige. Open Field invites people to conduct creative activities in a communal space with other artists, including those chosen by the institution. Sharing a resource such as institutional prestige doesn’t happen easily for museums that have traditionally played the roll of gatekeepers of culture. This proved, in fact, much harder than making rules to outlaw infrastructure damage and hate speech. It’s not unreasonable that the museum asks people not to do bad things such as pounding stakes into the sprinkler system or throwing cruel epithets at each another. But what do we do if they come to the field and make bad art? Or, what if the activities they present aren’t art at all?

Herein lies a challenge for institutions that employ criticality as a necessary function of their program. At Open Field, the judgment of “bad” is reserved only for actions that damage the environment, either literally or by violating the trust of its community of users; this is much the same way that other commons operate. On the field, people share picnic tables and join each other’s programs. Crafters who might not otherwise find an open invitation at the museum come every Thursday for knitting club. A wide variety of forms of expression are welcomed and presented. There is enough room for everyone, so long as they respect the space and their fellow inhabitants. In this sense, the Open Field commons illustrates what David Bollier calls “a flexible template for talking about the rich productivity of social communities” as much as it is about sharing the physical resources of the site.

This way of operating effectively debunks the mindset of false scarcity informing the way many institutions dole out, or protect, their cultural capital. Open Field posits that there is plenty of prestige to go around, if we simply shift the way we view the ownership of ideas. Ostrom and Hess strike this nail directly on the head when they describe knowledge as a “‘flow resource’ that must be passed from one individual to another to have any public value.”8 Perhaps the best thing that could emerge from this project would be for the Walker to give up the notion of its cultural capital as a finite resource to be controlled in favor of looking upon its institutional prestige as an infinitely available resource, continuously renewed by all of the people who come to share it.

The author, at right, on Open Field for Futurefarmers: Auctions Speak Louder than Words residency activity, 2010

Open Field, as a structured program of the Walker, is slated for its third and final summer in 2012. After that point, some significant questions will come into play. The museum expends a considerable amount of money and time to activate the field through staffing, assistance with public activities, communications, and programming. When the sun sets on this support, what will happen to the commons we’ve created? Will people continue to hold dance concerts on the plaza? Will Open Field’s most active users return in the absence of the social infrastructure provided by the museum and develop their own methods of organization? And crucially, would the Walker welcome them once the direct invitation for participation is no longer extended?

It is clear, in hindsight, that the urgency we felt to make rules to protect Open Field and the museum from trouble were not really necessary for the reasons that first impelled us to create them; people have not disrespected the space. The real concern turns out to be the question of whether members of Open Field’s commons will continue to use the space once the institutionally sanctioned program is concluded. Each September, after the official programming ends, the public-organized activities also cease, even though the field remains open—the picnic tables sit there, and the sun still shines on the grass, even as summer transitions into fall. Does this lack of continued public engagement constitute a failed project?

Poet and historian Dolores Hayden draws an inspiring conclusion about failure in her study of American utopian societies: “But failure, I think, is attributable only to the most unimaginative experiments, and I am willing to define as a success any group whose practices remain provocative even after the group itself has disbanded.”

In that light, I suppose the success of Open Field remains to be seen. It was begun as a way to change the public’s view of their agency in an outdoor, culturally imbued place. The challenge now for the Walker is to transition this creative usage of space from a museum-centered program to a genuinely public practice. This can only happen when the project is over, whatever “over” means for an experiment such as Open Field. My wish for its future is that this could be a space governed by a common law of creativity and an ethic of trust, and that it be tended lightly by its institution and ruled by its users.


Summer Jubilee: An Interview with Mark Allen of 
Machine Project

In the spirit of public exchange, the Walker presents Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an online and print book examining our three-year experiment in participation and public space. This essay comprises a chapter of the publication, which will be released online in its entirety. A confederacy of artists called Machine Project, which makes its […]

In the spirit of public exchange, the Walker presents Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an online and print book examining our three-year experiment in participation and public space. This essay comprises a chapter of the publication, which will be released online in its entirety.

A confederacy of artists called Machine Project, which makes its home in a storefront space in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, descended on Open Field for the last two weeks of July 2011. In a mere eleven days, an assembly of fourteen artists and musicians entertained and educated Minnesotans through seventeen different happenings. To list the workshops, performances, and surprising delights that the group brought to the Walker — an operetta for dogs, polygraph tests for museum visitors, a car theft workshop for kids, a choreographed performance showcasing amplified riding mowers, to name a few — only begins to capture their wildly imaginative residency project called Summer Jubilee.

Both visitors and staff came to expect the unexpected when Machine Project became a kind of institution embedded within an institution, occupying the Walker’s indoor and outdoor spaces in a curious, symbiotic way. Turn down a forgotten corridor nestled behind a gallery and you might be invited to bear your soul to a crew of opera-singing therapists. Exit your car in the underground parking ramp and you might stumble into a concert of experimental live music. The question of how artists work within and alongside the public — whether it’s inside the highly sanctioned sphere of the museum or its less controlled backyard — is something Machine Project founder and director Mark Allen discusses with Sarah Schultz.

Sarah Schultz: Here we are!

Mark Allen: Here we are!

Schultz: I thought it might ground the conversation if you could talk about your broad take on Open Field.

Allen: What I think works really well about Open Field is that it’s a space to do projects that are not under a lot of editorial pressure from the institution. Often when I’ve worked in museums, I’ve found that you can have a theoretical conversation about the value of experimentation, but you can still feel the institution’s almost psychic pain when projects go embarrassingly wrong, which itself is one of the most fruitful and exciting parts of an experimental practice. Open Field is a complex enough public container that it allows for things to fizzle without people necessarily feeling embarrassed.

Fruitful experiments

Often with projects in museums, there are a lot of clear signifiers — whether architectural or economic or introduced with signage — that tell you what the important things are and what the unimportant things are. My experience of doing projects with the Walker — not just for Open Field, but in general — is a feeling of benevolent neglect in terms of the curatorial ambitions of the museum. So, as an artist, it is a much easier way to work; it allows you to feel more like it’s just a space or that it’s your space, not one defined exclusively by the museum’s directive.

When thinking about how cultural institutions 
function in society, I often think in terms of metaphors of permeable membranes. After working 
here, I think about Open Field like an air lock: there’s the outside world, which isn’t necessarily an art context, and there’s inside the museum, which is clearly an art context. Open Field is this transitional space that the visitor passes through to go into the museum, so projects can propose different ways of looking at things using a very informal approach, which has a lot more flexible potential.

Schultz: Some of the criticism or confusion about Open Field concerns the idea of the space as an alternative to the gallery experience. Some people have questioned whether its activities provide a “real” museum experience. Does the field have the appropriate air of criticality that a museum should have?

Allen: The answer really depends on your philosophy of the purpose of the museum, and that’s a complicated question. There is a core traditional function that art museums do very well, which is to protect, preserve, and historicize objects, and to provide a focusing lens for the viewer to access those objects. The museum space is no more intrinsically critical than a telescope is; it’s just a way of focusing. What you choose to focus on, and how you choose to articulate the relationships between things is where the curatorial criticality emerges in the institution. And that’s not intrinsic to the fact the museum exists; it’s dependent on how the particular curatorial process works.
What is interesting about Open Field is that it does something I believe is important for the museum’s function, which is to construct a more discursive kind of space. The limitations of the museum purely as a focusing lens are such that it declares a priori what is valuable to look at, so the audience is not part of a discursive space so much as in the position of an observer.

I think in a very broad sense what is important about art in our culture is that it is a space for thinking about and proposing ideas that are not functionalized. It makes a space where we can look at an idea without saying, “OK, but does it make money?” Or saying, “OK, but does it cure cancer?” Or, “OK, but does it save on gas mileage?” We can look at ideas as potentially just interesting in themselves. I would like museums to more explicitly invite the public to be part of that process.

Schultz: Along those lines, Open Field is an experiment and there has been interest in adapting aspects of the project inside the museum. How important is it that the messy experimental space, whether it’s an artist project or an area outside the museum, is physically and conceptually bounded and contextualized? Does it become too chaotic if the whole museum is somehow a perpetual experiment?

Allen: In Machine’s past projects for museums, they can sometimes feel more like a direct critique of the function of the museum, because they suggest an alternative reality or another way of doing business in the space. When we did the one-day project at LACMA, even though it was not a sustainable way for a museum to operate, it allowed us to imagine the museum as a sort of carnivalesque performance space full of continual activity.

I’m currently trying to think about how to embrace projects that are exploratory and contingent, while at the same time maintaining the museum’s traditional functions. How do you do both things without saying that one is better than the other or that one should replace the other? And how do you sustain the tension between the two? There’s a real value in sustaining that tension, because it allows you to take what is often invisible about the particular mode of looking that museums facilitate and make it visible. It’s not about one replacing the other so much as it is about emphasizing what is special about each.

It’s kind of like ice cream and hot fudge. I don’t want to have just a giant bowl of hot fudge; it’s a little bit gross. And just ice cream is a bit boring. Having the contrast makes both things seem better.

Embracing the experimental within the museum is complicated for contemporary art museums be-cause, traditionally, they present experiments that worked out really great. This is quite different from presenting experiments at their institutions that are happening in real time and may be embarrassing for everybody involved. Museums are accustomed to presenting the thing that just happened, not the thing that is happening at that moment.

Schultz: It’s really critical that you find a way to let the audience know that we’re all in the middle of an experiment together, to be sure that we’re being inclusive in this discursive space.

Allen: I think you gain so much leverage by making that extremely simple-minded. And this is what I said to you before we started. We do a lot of things that suck, that are bad, that are, by all accounts, not good.

And you could say this to the audience, that a large percentage of the things we do will not be good — and it’s not because you didn’t get it, or you’re dumb, or you don’t understand contemporary art. But it gives you the opportunity to be there when something exciting happens. And actually, if you can move your embarrassment outside of yourself, it’s really pleasurable to be at those events that kind of fizzle, right?

Schultz: Right. But there’s a difference between doing that for two or twenty or thirty or forty people, or two people in an environment that’s free, as opposed to a 350-seat auditorium where you just paid $35 for the ticket.

Allen: Yeah, that becomes more complicated. The question is, how does the contemporary art museum expand into being an experimental space as well? This is how I’ve started to think about Machine Project. The storefront, in particular, is like the R&D lab, where the things get tried out. And then when we go to other museums, sometimes we enter a scenario like with you guys at the Walker, where we could bring the R&D, actually, to a large institution and have it supported.

Schultz: It’s interesting to think about the difference between attending an event that has been rehearsed versus one that is being figured out in real time. I suppose that’s the difference between work that is experimental and work that is an actual experiment. The latter seems to have more potential for creating what I think of as a kind of liminal, “you-had-to-be-there” moment. In previous conversations, you’ve talked about how people experience Machine experiments not only in real time, but also through the stories told about them after the fact. I think you referred to this as a kind of “folklore.” This strikes me as an important part of how you work, the community that forms around Machine, and how your collective ideas circulate in the public imagination.

Allen: There is something in particular about contingent and unreliable projects that connects to how events and stories happen in our lives. In life, there’s no guarantee what the outcome of an event or experience will be. There’s always the possibility that something will turn out to be not very good. You don’t necessarily know which party you go to that will give you an epic story you’re going to talk about for ten years. I think that uncertainty generates a sense of possibility. This doesn’t happen very much in museums because the quality has already been vetted. Work does not enter a museum until a bunch of people have decided it’s really good. But in Open Field, things enter without anyone knowing if they’ll be good or not and sometimes without anybody knowing they’re entering at all. So as an audience member, your presence becomes more important — not that you make the work, but because you might be witnessing a tiny historical moment. If it is already guaranteed to be important beforehand, the public doesn’t get to be an active part of that micro-history-making. So whether or not you attend the project, you can participate in perpetuating it as news or something significant.

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