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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.