Blogs Field Guide Sarah Schultz

Sarah Schultz is the Director of Education and Community Programs at the Walker Art Center.

Summer Jubilee: An Interview with Mark Allen of 
Machine Project

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 […]

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.

Fruitful experiments

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.

Futurefarmers Interview: A People Without a Voice Cannot 
Be Heard

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 […]

Futurefarmers in the Cowles Conservatory, 2010

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.

Futurefarmers collaborators Anthony Tran and Annie Wang build a radio as part of the workshop Unregulated Radio: The Promise of the Democratization of Media, 2010.

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.

Futurefarmers and team discuss their giant megaphone inside James Turrell’s Sky Pesher.

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.

Futurefarmers deep in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 2010

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?

Residency participants prepare to assemble a giant megaphone on the field, 2010

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.

Balls, the Futurefarmers’ marionette show, 2010

 

My Common 
Education: Lessons from Open Field

“The most difficult part of planning Open Field turned out to be the process of unscripting our own expectations and ideas about what should be developed,” writes Sarah Schultz, Walker education director and curator of public practice. “We knew we wanted the public to participate in programming, and we collectively wrestled with how to imagine an open, experimental, and functional environment that would achieve this.” Here, she shares lessons learned in creating Open Field, which concludes its third season at the end of August 2012.

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.

“The common willing of a common world is an eminently practical undertaking and not in the least abstract.”  —Daniel Kemmis

It’s a muggy July night and hundreds of people are milling outside the museum. A crowd is gathered under a tent to watch local chefs make sauerkraut. A group of regulars has grabbed some beers and joined the Drawing Club. Yarn bombers known as the Swatch Team are stationed at a nearby table, inviting anyone to knit. Far off in the field, an artist in a prairie bonnet sings to grazing sheep. The animals are followed with a boom mike to capture the soft sounds of chewing grass. The lawn has not been cut for weeks in anticipation of the evening’s grand finale — a concert of people mowing the field in tandem. A line has formed as the composer ties bells to the reel mowers volunteers have brought from home. He explains how they will move in three different groups around the seated audience. After twenty-six minutes, each individual will choose a path and mow off the hill out into the neighborhood. We overhear a woman saying, “This is a really exciting experience. I never imagined that I would be performing at the Walker. I can’t wait to tell my friends.”

Community choreography forms the basis of Chris Kallmyer’s the American lawn and ways to cut it, 2011

(more…)

Pioneering Participation

This week I’m heading to the Museum of Modern Art to participate in a program called  Mining Museum Education.   The discussion will focus on the early history of museum education, an often overlooked subject in written histories about the evolution of the modern art museum.  A large part of the MoMA event will focus on […]

This week I’m heading to the Museum of Modern Art to participate in a program called  Mining Museum Education.   The discussion will focus on the early history of museum education, an often overlooked subject in written histories about the evolution of the modern art museum.  A large part of the MoMA event will focus on the work of four individuals that could be considered progenitors of contemporary museum education:  Katherine Kuh (Art Institute of Chicago),  Victor D’Amico (Museum of Modern Art), Hilla Rebay (Guggenheim Museum) and Arthur Lismer (Art Gallery of Ontario).

Daniel Defenbacher and Walker Art Center staff, 1951

I’ve been invited to speak during a colleagues-only session about the pioneering use of media to engage the public with modern art.   Specifically, I will be talking about The Inquisition, an arts quiz show that the Walker began hosting in 1940 and a project we revived this past winter.  Since I will have the stage for while, I’ve decided to place Daniel Defenbacher, the Walker’s first Director, in context as one of the early pioneers of audience engagement.  (Defenbacher is the charmer in a light-colored suit sitting on the lower right hand side of the photograph).

With roots in the private collection of industrialist T.B. Walker, many people are surprised to learn that the Walker Art Center, was established as a community art center under the auspices of the federal Works Progress Administration in January 1940. Directing the new Walker was Daniel Defenbacher, the WPA official who had headed up the government’s whirlwind efforts to establish more than 70 such centers across the United States.  An architect and industrial designer by training and a self-proclaimed natural born salesman, Defenbacher was abundantly energetic and passionate about “creating a museum of the present for the people of today”.  His directorship was an opportunity to put his ideas about art and its role in society to the test and during his decade-long tenure he created an impressive roster of exhibitions and educational programs.   Ironically, his populist drive wound up producing some of the more forward-looking and radical programming for museums at the time including The Everyday Art Gallery, The Idea House, a mass-produced toy set called Magnet Master, and the little known “stunt” called The Inquisition.   The timing of the talk coincides nicely with Open Field, our current experiment in participation.   Throughout the summer, I’ll continue mining the Walker’s history of audience participation and share some of the treasures discovered in the archives while researching this talk, including this charming flyer welcoming visitors to the museum.

Walker Art Center flyer, 1940

How to Do a “How-to” Project

I love instructions. I seldom follow them but I like the idea of being systematically walked through a set of tasks and problems in anticipation of a successful outcome. My fascination with old manuals and field guides, found poems, demonstrations at the State Fair, a lot of conceptual art and ReadyMade magazine is somehow associated […]

I love instructions. I seldom follow them but I like the idea of being systematically walked through a set of tasks and problems in anticipation of a successful outcome. My fascination with old manuals and field guides, found poems, demonstrations at the State Fair, a lot of conceptual art and ReadyMade magazine is somehow associated in my mind with the endless hours I spent reading How and Why Wonder Books and earning badges as a Brownie Scout.

I also confess an addiction to the sometimes arcane and mundane knowledge that is shared daily through wikiHow and Instructables.  “How-to” seems like a promising template for what might happen in our open field. So here is how I might propose a “how-to” summer.

  1. Create an Open Field “how-to” instruction manual with you over the summer: Like . . . how to have fun in the grass; how to slow down; how to read a poem; how to fly a kite; how to have a peripatetic playdate.
  2. Share our ideas online and on-site.
  3. Gather some of our collective work into a little book at the end of the summer.