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.
In midsummer of Open Field’s first year, museum visitors encountered scrap wood, hammers, drills, and saws on the lawn for their use. These tools were a part of Surplus Seminar, a project organized by artist collective Red76 to explore ways that we repurpose knowledge and materials by giving people an opportunity to activate their dual roles as consumers and creators of ideas and things.
Red76’s three-week Open Field residency included several components: Anywhere/Anyplace Academy (A/AA), the improvised construction of multiple schoolhouses on the field built from scrap materials at the museum; Pop-Up Book Academy (P.B.A.), a discussion series with seven guest speakers; House Show as School House (H.S.a.S.H.), a set of weekly concerts at underground venues in Minneapolis that were followed by conversations on the pedagogical nature of DIY music; and YouTube School for Social Politics (YTSSP), an ongoing platform that invites people to construct video essays using material found only on YouTube. Surplus Seminar concluded with the Floating Academy, a conversation about commons that took place aboard a flotilla of handmade rafts.
This residency involved numerous people as participants and organizers. Here, the project’s primary architects — Courtney Dailey, Dylan Gauthier, Sam Gould, Gabriel Mindel Saloman, and Mike Wolf — answer questions about each component of the residency in an e-mail exchange with Sarah Peters.
In keeping with the concept of a seminar, this interview includes bibliographic references for further investigation of ideas explored throughout the group’s project.
Sarah Peters: The philosophy of the Anywhere/Anyplace Academy maintained that everyone was welcome to help build. What is important about the open invitation to pick up a hammer?
Mike Wolf: My thinking about this stems from three ideas about “work” in a general sense:
People like to work. The more we let ourselves be absorbed by work — though it is not always pleasant in the immediate sense — the more we experience its intricate rewards.
From some vantages, it is clear that there is plenty of work that could be done to improve conditions for more people in the world.
There are many barriers to work. Psychic, cultural, bureaucratic, and especially economic obstacles can stand between someone who is inspired to work and an opportunity to do so.
When we created a set of conditions on the lawn of the Walker called Anywhere/Anyplace Academy, we tried to create a situation that would take down some of those barriers and give bystanders a chance for their dreams to meet the material. It was an experiment and our hope was that it might reveal to us, and to the participants, a glimpse of broader possibilities for the kind of work we might do to improve conditions for people.
Peters: What can we learn from building things collectively, without a blueprint?
Wolf: It is reasonable to say that most building is done collectively. What distinguished A/AA, to some extent, was our effort to create a non-hierarchical situation, or one that kept hierarchy turning and churning. This churning was the result not only of a self-conscious effort by Red76, but also by the project’s severely unstable labor force. That is to say, the work was done and the decisions were made by whoever showed up, but only a few people came more than once. This is not a good way to make sound, lasting structures, either in the physical or the psychological sense. But it is a good way to make crude, immediate transmutations of a lot of people’s ideas, desires, and dreams on an architectural scale. It also gives people an experience of a liberated place. Albeit temporary and limited, the impressions this leaves can be profound. Like planting a seed, they can have wonderful consequences down the line.
Learning Group (Rikke Luther, Cecilia Wendt, Julio Castro, Brett Bloom). [Collecting Systems]: [Learning Book #001], Chicago: WhiteWalls, 2006.
Rogers, Heather. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. New York: New Press, 2005.
Wilson, Peter Lamborn, ed. Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City & the World. New York: Autonomedia, 1999.
Wilson, Waziyatawin Angela, ed. In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press, 2006.
Peters: Surplus Seminar’s Pop-Up Book Academy (P.B.A.) sessions presented a curriculum of diverse, but not unrelated subjects: utopia, micro-cinemas, colonialism, magic. Were you able to pull out a common thread (or threads)? How do these ideas relate to Open Field’s investigation of the commons?
Sam Gould: For me, the common thread of the P.B.A. sessions was a conversation on how we could create a common landscape. By this I don’t mean a commons, per se, but a diverse ecosystem wherein divergent opinions and relationships could coexist (maybe even thrive), working with one another but not all together in consort, exactly. Like any ecosystem, the landscape that was desired, it seemed, was made up of many different parts. The dialogue in question — despite at times being made up of seemingly divergent views — came back to a space in which people attempted to figure out how to maintain individuality within the collective whole and how to maintain group affiliation within a landscape of many different groups.
At times, these conversations were fairly contentious. In particular, I’m thinking of the Unsettling Minnesota P.B.A. and the last session, the Floating Academy, during which we discussed colonization and native land rights. But, despite any contentiousness, these sessions were incredibly vital and energizing for me. Not because I came away feeling like, “I’m right and they don’t get it,” but because I felt part of a space that generated common ground and allegiance for individuals who might not feel the exact same way about things but could still agree on others. There seemed to be this agreement, overall, that we all could trust one another in regard to certain issues and that we could figure out the rough edges as things went along. And, I feel like it’s important to reiterate — THERE WERE A LOT OF ROUGH EDGES!
Also, Stephen Duncombe, both in his lecture and P.B.A. session regarding his ideas on utopia, summed up the entire project for me very well. The session further solidified my notion that work such as this needs to be seen as a vehicle, not a far-off goal. It’s not pessimistic, or nihilistic; the work is a tool, a means toward allowing ourselves to venture off into the distance and attempt to reach a place that, truthfully, might not exist at all. But what we discover along the way is what we’re actually after, and it’s really hard to come to that realization.
Daniel, Bill. Mostly True: The Story of Bozo Texino. Lansing, KS: Microcosm Publishing, 2008.
Duncombe, Stephen. Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. New York: New Press, 2007.
Madoff, Henry Steven. Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2009.
More, Thomas. Utopia. Public Domain Books, 2000. Kindle Edition.
Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea. New York: Fox, Duffield and Company, 1906. Public Domain Books, 1997. Kindle Edition.
Pentecost, Claire, Jessica Lawless and Sarah Ross, Lisa Bralts-Kelly, Brett Bloom and Bonnie Fortune, Ryan Griffis, Mike Wolf, Martha Boyd and Naomi Davis, Rebecca Zorach, Nicolas Lampert, The Langby Family, Eric Haas, Sarah Holm, Brian Holmes, Dan S. Wang, mIEKAL aND, and Sarah Kanouse. A Call to Farms: Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor. Viroqua, WI: Heavy Duty Press, 2008.
Stadler, Matthew. Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha. Portland, OR: Publication Studio, 2011.
Unsettling Minnesota. Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality. Self-published sourcebook, 2009; second edition, 2010.
Peters: The YouTube School for Social Politics (YTSSP) shifts this ubiquitous website from the realm of entertainment into education. As a YTSSP author, what is the value of mining this content to construct a thesis? What can you make from these “surplus” videos that you can’t replicate in a traditional essay?
Courtney Dailey: For me, the process of constructing the YTSSP was a meandering, self-directed one that began with a question about YouTube and learning: how could immersion, as a pedagogical strategy, be represented on YouTube? I was interested in seeing what might be gained, and perhaps lost, by watching videos as a way to learn.
The URL collections made for the YTSSP have a particular quality: they tend to look more like an exhibition or a time-based collage than an essay. Looser connective threads exist and are allowed to stay that way, in contrast to the traditional demands for argumentation and structure in academic or journalistic essays. In its live presentation, the YTSSP feels a bit like a lecture, and a bit like a bunch of folks hanging out. This casual nature feels exciting and convivial, but still somewhat rigorous and thoughtful.
Red76 asks that the curators record a short introductory video to frame their selections, which essentially functions as the “wall text” of the essay/exhibition. In the YTSSP online, the viewer is invited to experience the videos in succession (or not), and connect them together (or not) through the lens of the curator’s video (or not). The format is inextricably linked to Red76’s obsession with surplus, in myriad forms. YouTube is clearly a container of surplus knowledge, time, energies, and enthusiasm (more than twenty-four hours of videos are uploaded every minute, according to YouTube), so it seems only fit to mine it to construct some kind of associative narrative.
Structurally, I believe it proposes a way toward research and presentation that feels open, connective, and leaves room for the viewer/reader to extend and expand the topic at hand, with a quick jump to a practically unlimited number of videos.
Bronack, Stephen, Robert Sanders, Amelia Cheney, Richard Riedl, John Tashner, and Nita Matzen. “Presence Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning in a 3D Virtual Immersive World.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 20, no. 1 (2008): 59–69.
Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain College, An Exploration in Community. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
Koolhaas, Rem, Stefano Boeri, Sanford Kwinter, Nadia Tazi, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Arc en rêve centre d’architecture, and Harvard Project on the City. Mutations. Barcelona and New York: Actar, 2001.
Lange-Berndt, Petra. “Test Site Bohemia: On Mildred’s Lane by J. Morgan Puett and Mark Dion, Pennsylvania.” Texte zur Kunst 21, no. 81 (March 2011): 173–175.
Peters: House Show as School House (H.S.a.S.H.) forwards the notion that DIY music shows — quasi-legal musical events that happen in basements, backyards, and living rooms — are pedagogical spaces. In what ways does participation in subculture make a space for learning, rather than, say, rebellion? What links can you draw between the education in a house show context and learning through other collective endeavors, such as building a structure or discussing books?
Gabriel Mindel Saloman: I have to contradict the notion that rebellion and pedagogy are incompatible — in fact, they’re inseparable — though I understand the distinction you’re suggesting. The common assumption around subculture is twofold: first, that subcultures are distinct in a meaningful way from mainstream culture and, second, that the discourse that emerges from within subculture is reactionary and purely oppositional.
Red76’s position is that there is no “outside” or “inside” culture, but rather that subcultures are vital veins that run the length of — and intersect with — what is presumed to be mainstream culture. The House Show is a potent example of DIY culture. It is a reclaiming of agency that attempts to turn a consumer relationship back into a producer relationship. It models itself primarily off of the examples set by mass culture.
The House Show doesn’t differ structurally from an event in a major Twin Cities venue like First Avenue. The distinction is in everything else that happens that does not occur in a large concert venue. A whole set of lifeways are expressed in the context of the House Show, including an explicit set of social and political values that you must explicitly consent to or contest upon entering. Spaces such as the Bomb Shelter in Minneapolis, as one of countless examples, brought people together under the pretext of watching and performing live music, but functionally it also served to distribute and communicate anarchist consciousness and practice. Similarly, Riot Grrrl and Queercore communities imbue their cultural production and social relationships with the critiques and ethics of their respective identity politics.
I identify this process of experiential education as the House Show’s primary pedagogical praxis. Importantly, this process is self-perpetuating be-cause, by participating, you are also learning and teaching at the same time. Among the incredible number of things a person might learn and teach in the process of participating in a House Show are: ideas around the ethics of different kinds of social relationships; the correlation between how we spend money or act as workers and the overall capitalist system; the way in which we enact mutual aid and build communities; and the exploration of alternative art worlds, art-making, and DIY practices, in general.
Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981–1991. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002.
Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. New York: Autonomedia, 1991.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London and New York: Routledge, 1979.
Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.
Spencer, Amy. DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture. London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 2005.
Thompson, Stacy. Punk Productions: Unfinished Business. New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.
Weir, Jean. “The Struggle for Self Managed Social Space.” Deranged #0 (2007).
See also the punk fanzines Maximum Rocknroll (1982–present) and Profane Existence (1989–1998).
Peters: As a boat builder, an urban water explorer, and captain of the Floating Academy—Surplus Seminar’s finale—how do you view water as a commons? Does paddling in a handmade boat or entering waters that aren’t designed for leisure, such as industrial canals, alter one’s perspective of water?
Dylan Gauthier: Water is the best metaphor I can think of for this idea of a commons. We all need it to live, and creating systems that guarantee the safety and availability of this substance is among the most pressing tasks for us, if we are going to survive as a species.
On land, water is an element often taken for granted. It comes to us in the plumbed, developed world with little effort, yet is a subject of intense dispute in many places. In this country, wells and aquifers can be cordoned off as private property, but a large number of lakes, rivers, and creeks are also protected for public use. Drinking water is treated as a high-stakes commodity, priced alongside natural gas. With hydraulic fracturing, the price of the necessity (water) loses out to the more lucrative commodity (gas) at the expense of public health and the common good.
Public waterways—the lakes of Minneapolis or the shipping channels around New York City, for example—are as policed as the land around them, yet other waters are unwanted and therefore largely ignored, such as the toxic Gowanus and Erie Canals. Unfit for consumption and noxious to humans, these waters may freely be taken up as liberated spaces and occupied. From time to time, they have served as experimental real estate as well as a platform for issues such as gentrification, racism, rent gouging, inadequate public transportation, food prices, and the like.
Occupying such liberated spaces informs us of the necessity for these openings to continue to exist. Being in them for just a moment can reconfigure our perception of the possible.
Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces (Heterotopias).” Lecture presented in 1967. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (October 1984): 46–49.
Pearlman, William David (“Poppa Neutrino”). Poppa Neutrino Speaks. Floating Neutrinos, 2001.
Shiva, Vandana. Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002.
Trawick, Paul. “Against the Privatization of Water: An Indigenous Model for Improving Existing Laws and Successfully Governing the Commons.” World Development 31, no. 6 (2003): 977–996. doi:10.1016/S0305-750X(03)00049-4.
Wilkinson, Alec. The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino. New York: Random House, 2007.
Wilson, Peter Lamborn. Pirate Utopias, Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes. New York: Autonomedia, 2003.