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 gramophone, two giant chalkboards, a colossal megaphone, custom-printed money, a forty-eight-hour newspaper, a pirate radio station, an ethnomusicologist, a choir conductor, an auctioneer, a film archivist, and fifteen college students. For three weeks in late summer of 2010, the animate and inanimate came together to tell the story A People Without a Voice Cannot Be Heard, a project by Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine of the San Francisco–based artist collective Futurefarmers and co-commissioned by Northern Lights.mn. Working alongside a core group of local art and design college students and guest practitioners from various fields, the artists established a temporary classroom investigating how voice is used as a tool for exchange and liberation.
The collective designed a series of objects and public events to raise the expression of the people, including a large, mobile, multiple-person voice box and an auction that invited young and old to share stories and assign value to personal objects through a system of bartering and exchange. Sarah Schultz talks with Franceschini and Swaine about the relationship between their work and the commons.
Sarah Schultz: What about the idea of the commons interests you?
Amy Franceschini: I am interested in the idea of a common language formed through a collective practice that works toward a shared, open knowledge base: an open field. Think of the use of Latin in naming plants. This universal language is shared by botanists worldwide. Also referred to as binomial nomenclature, it situates a plant within a family and its relatives — a sort of belonging — “a dictionary of the sciences of the eye.”
While Latin plant language is primarily used by “professional” botanists as a basis for communication and building knowledge about the plant world, there is also a “common” naming system that usually describes a plant in terms of its visual appearance, smell, or habits within its environment. This common language, nuanced and specific to various cultures, is also referred to as “folksonomy.”
What interests me about these naming systems is the attempt to create a shared language in the pursuit of shared knowledge: a human desire to communicate what we know and to share this knowledge for a “common good.” But what is good in one scenario (time and place and people) may not be good in another. I think these variances are what interest me about the commons — the uncommonness.
Schultz: Does any of this influence the way you think about your work?
Franceschini: Joseph Beuys, during his Energy Plan for the Western Man tour, talked about how creativity is central to change or evolution and that it should not be limited to “a narrow group of specialists called artists.” His ideas have resonated with me for years, and Futurefarmers as a project embodies this concept. We are interested in forming groups with people from different fields and ideologies who come together to make new work. Oftentimes, a disparity of backgrounds and approaches is present in the group, which prompts everyone to see through new eyes. In Vera John-Steiner’s book Creative Collaboration, she speaks of a “co-creation of knowledge.” She writes, “Generative ideas emerge from joint thinking, from significant conversations, and from sustained, shared struggles to achieve new insights from partners in thought.”
Our work is very process-oriented and hands-on. We find that connecting the mind and hand is imperative. We often create open spaces for production that welcome improvisation and the idiosyncrasies of collaborators. The “making” with other people creates a space for exchange and the experience of entering into something that does not have a known outcome.
Michael Swaine: I think my influences have grown out of the streets; this place where people bump into each other is always full of potential. Often I think of air conditioners as a symbol of what technology and architecture bring us. A small box that attaches to our window, partially blocking our view to the outside world, softening the effect our environment has on us. If we walk outside, we are hit by the sun and the smell of the city. I think it is this shared experience without air conditioners. An open space needs the potential of being unpleasant for being un-conditioned.
Schultz: Amy, several times during your project you mentioned the notion of the temporary commons. What did you mean by that? What is the power or impact of the commons (or community) that is momentary?
Franceschini: I think we have been conditioned through logics of tradition, national heritage, and so on, to hold onto ideas and fight to protect and continue things. We have a tendency to want to replicate moments of wonder, so we now spend so much time documenting and pushing those moments to other publics that the very moment is no longer experienced in real time.
For example, I live in the oldest artists’ community in the United States. It began as a squat in the 1970s. Word was out on the streets that artists could live for free in an old warehouse. Slowly the vacant building became active and occupied by radical artists and thinkers. The floors were all open and people just camped out wherever they pleased. As more people came to the building, they began to draw lines with chalk on the ground to demarcate personal spaces. Slowly those lines became walls and then rooms with doors and then doors with locks, etc.
For a moment, there was utopia; truly shared space without notions of ownership or definition. But as soon as the chalk went down on the ground, so did pages of bylaws, legal issues, and broken friendships. Through years of negotiations, the building still lives, but the spirit of those days is only portrayed in historic photos in the hallways and on the occasional work day when ten or so of the one hundred twenty residents come out to contribute sweat to the common areas of the building. These days are the most inspired, communal, and democratic. On these days, we are mostly dealing with a broken utility that would normally be expensive to fix, but those who show up work together to come up with ingenious, ad-hoc methods to fix the problem. This shared moment of physical labor coupled with ingenuity creates a bond. Maybe this is another form of a temporary commons — the moment, not the preconception or the product, but the moment of shared production.
Schultz: Your project was rooted in the notion of voice. I was particularly taken by the role of stories and storytelling throughout the project. What are your thoughts about the role of storytelling in creating a commons?
Franceschini: Again, this comes back to language. The idea of a shared language was connected to our interest in the Jonathan Swift story “On the Difficulty of Talking with Objects.” In this story, three professors are in conversation about how to improve their country. They propose to shorten discourse by cutting Polysyllables into one and leaving out Verbs and Participles, “because in reality all things imaginable are but Nouns.” The other scheme was for entirely abolishing all Words.
What I think Swift might be getting at in this text is that things are not only nouns. In fact, nouns might just be a quick way of incorporating a whole lot of meaning into one thing. A building is a noun, but a building is so much more than the word. And if you are to use only objects to express the meaning of a building, you would need many. So in one way, language can replace the physicality of things and express nuances and misunderstandings that make life so interesting.
Swaine: Stories are a wonderful example of the advantages of creating with a material that is cheap. For the Open Field project, we started with the voice as an idea and a way to pick up a material that everyone could in some way feel connected to. We had another idea about using gold. Let’s say we took $40,000 worth of gold and put it in a big pile on the lawn of the Walker. Then if we traded the gold for lead, we would lose some of its value, as some of it would be transferred to the people involved in the trade: truckers, guards, commodity traders, etc. So then we’d have $33,650, and we’d turn the lead into silver, and then into diamonds, and then into saffron, and so on. Then we’d be down to $27,121, and it would have all happened within a week of moving and melting. As the show progressed, the pile would change shape and material, but it would also slowly shrink until it would have vanished. We’d have nothing left except the story in words — and not the printed word, as that would still be a material cost — but the spoken word. This is the material left when all else is gone: the voice. We have the words in the air that remember the gold turning into lead.
Schultz: In our conversation with author Lewis Hyde [to be published online soon], Amy brought up the notion that the commons must be practiced. Michael called this an act of citizenship. Can you expand on these ideas? Do you think that participating in projects such as A People Without a Voice or Open Field is an act of citizenship?
Franceschini: I think it has to do with presence and participation, not just in an art project but in life; your city, your friends, your family. In the wake of the Occupy movement, this idea becomes even more relevant. People are coming together in public spaces, speaking with their bodies. Right now their presence is the most important aspect of the movement. It is a call to action. Their “lack of direction” (as described by the media) and openness in the General Assembly meetings allows for a large cross section of ideas, struggles, and concerns to be heard. It is a space to share and understand each other’s varying perspectives. I am not sure this is an act of citizenship. “Citizenship” implies a certain exclusivity. Maybe we need a new word.
I think there is something here about the importance of dialogue in a democracy — perhaps as a form of citizenry? The idea of practice implies an embodied experience or action with intention. It is one thing to practice alone, but as Jim Melchert once said, “Conversation allows you to hear for the first time a thought you had.”5 I think this exchange is where form and meaning emerge — where disagreement can occur, assumptions can dissipate, and true change can happen. But to take the dialogical exchange a bit further into a material articulation of ideas — from mind to hand in collaborations with others — ideas can be seen, inscribed, and openly interpreted. “To see an idea is to forget its name, thus a new or shared meaning can emerge.”
Swaine: I think A People Without a Voice Cannot Be Heard was more on the side of teaching than politics, but teaching is a great example of a place that has such an important role in both citizenship and politics. If we are not taught to speak, then we will not know how to yell our protests. School should be a place where we learn how to speak freely.