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.
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.