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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.