by Juleana Enright
Diehard Soap Factory attendees may remember the monthly series, Common Room for its contribution to the underground arts scene. Starting back in ’09, Common Room took roots in a refurbished art deco office at the Soap Factory and gained popularity for its DIY atmosphere and community-driven, interactive art parties where locals could unite and drink a beer while they peeped videos from Minnesota-based filmmakers or screened cinematic guilty pleasures like The Time Traveler’s Wife. At any given event, one could stumble into a book nerd’s heaven of literary games and five-minute book reports or bask in auditory delight during an old school LP listening party. With sponsors like Magers & Quinn and Crafty Planet and drop-ins by local DIY luminaries Faythe Levine and installation artist Andy DuCett, Common Room quickly became a popular hodgepodge of craft fairs and communal art projects, not to mention the perfect spot to get your monthly art diatribe on.
Last year, Common Room collaborators Sergio Vucci and Andy Sturdevant set out to explore how their concept could expand by stepping outside the four walls of the Soap Factory and into the streets and sidewalks of the city for a mass extrication via artist-led tours. This month, Common Room returns with a series of field trips that will unearth the forgotten secrets of Minneapolis’ public, private and non-existent spaces.
Every Wednesday in August, Vucci, Sturdevant and guest guides invite locals to join them on site-specific tours throughout Minneapolis and beyond on foot, bike and Light Rail and challenge locals to rekindle their relationship with an old city.
We caught up with Common Room co-founders Sergio Vucci and Andy Sturdevant to talk about the evolution of the series and get the details on a summer itinerary you don’t want to miss.
l’étoile: How did you two meet and what was the inspiration behind Common Room?
Vucci: We met as interns at The Soap Factory in 2005, very shortly after we both moved here. We then curated The Soap’s Volunteer Biennial that next year. We were participants in the 2008 Biennial where we had thematically related projects located near each other: Andy’s was a parlor room-type environment with guitars and sheet music where people could come sing Woody Guthrie songs together, and mine was a card table where people could play rounds of Boggle and drink Tom and Jerrys. That was really the catalyst for Common Room. We got together shortly afterward and talked about putting a show together. The Soap was such an obvious choice since they are so open to different modes and systems of art. They were very encouraging just let us run with our ideas, throwing us volunteer and administrative support along the way.
l’étoile: In its inaugural years, Common Room was known as a monthly series that paired the community with a variety of interactive art events including a lit & bookmaking workshops, film screenings, local craft fairs, lecture nights, even karaoke. What made you decide to redirect it from a free-for-all DIY format to emphasize on space outside of the Soap Factory?
Vucci: They’re really closer in connection than they sound. The original focus of Common Room was creating community through participatory projects. The projects themselves were never the focus for us. They were more of a means to an end. For us, the people coming together, interacting, participating in whatever way they felt comfortable, that was the art. Everything else (learning to make a book, watching a film, singing a song) was a bonus. This is still true of the tours: the detours, the conversations, all that people/social stuff and unscripted moments, that’s the true art of Common Room. The fact that we’re out learning all sorts of cool stuff about our cities, that’s all just a big bonus. The Soap has been great about giving us space to redefine the project, so we’ve luckily and happily been allowed to follow our interests, which have been informed by daily lives and our favorite moments of past Common Rooms.
l’étoile: Tell us a little about this concept of an “artist-led tour.”
Sturdevant: More than anything, it’s sort of a shorthand phrase that’s easy to understand. It quickly conveys what we’re trying to do: that we’re interested in conversations about public spaces that aren’t necessarily going to be strictly historical, or strictly sightseeing, or strictly educational. “Artist-led” can mean a lot of things, depending on what sort of subjects the artist leading is interested in. Some of our tour guides might not even call themselves “artists” as such, but what they’re doing definitely fits into that framework.
l’étoile: It seems the longer we live in a city, we begin to take for granted its little enigmas and simplistic beauties. How do you the think exploring as a mass allows locals to reconnect with their city and rediscover its highlights?
Vucci: I think that’s a big part of how we got started with the tour idea. We’re both transplants to Minnesota (Andy is from Kentucky and I’m from California by way of Chicago), so we’ve still got that tourist’s appetite for really soaking in a place, trendy over-visited sites like the Mall of America as well as overlooked gems like the abandoned granaries. It almost doesn’t matter; we want to see it. It’s also a way to make a place more known, more home. I think that’s what connects with locals and visitors alike, the idea of exploring and learning something new about a place, the idea of making an adventure in an urban environment where we may have the mistaken perception that it’s completely known and mapped. All while having a good time and getting to know some new people and your friends you came with even better.
l’étoile: Andy, this week you’ll be leading an in-depth tour of the notorious Mall of America, a capitalist’s dream and some locals’ nightmare. Why MOA and what’s your angle?
Sturdevant: Mostly it’s the challenge of trying to look at a place that everyone’s already got an opinion about in a more carefully observed way. There are about 12,000 regular employees at the MOA, which is almost the number of people that live in Bemidji or Fergus Falls. If we were leading a tour of one of those towns, we’d never say, “Well, you know, it’s just kind of a town, there’s where the McDonald’s is, there’s City Hall, I guess that’s about it.” That would be really insulting, and really boring. You’d really want to get in there and look carefully: what types of events have happened here? What literature has been written about it? What are people’s lives like? Where do they hang out? The MOA is the same way. You can ask all of those same questions, except it’s all happening in a much more artificial, compressed amount of space. The MOA is twenty years old, and that’s long enough for a place to build up some good stories.
l’étoile: Wednesday’s event marks the first of four weekly artist-led tours. In the weeks to come, where else in the city will “tourists” experience?
Sturdevant: We’ll be trekking into the skyway system on August 8 with local geographer Bill Lindeke who led last year’s popular Sidewalk Tour. The following week Valentine Cadieux will take us on a bike tour of local urban agriculture hot-spots. For that one we’re hoping to get to see the apiary in the Foshay Tower. What? We know. Finally, August 22, we’ll be embarking with several presenters on a walking tour of a Minneapolis that doesn’t exist, visiting the sites of also-ran urban plans that were never realized. Block E, which could have been a downtown park, will serve as the hub for this tour.
l’étoile: What advice do you have to those who want to participate in the tours?
Sturdevant: Just come on down. Everyone’s welcome. Show up on time (by 6:30 pm). Don’t expect flawless professionalism. We’re more like a Julia Child meal. Sometimes we drop the chicken, but that’s part of the fun and the meal is still worth eating.
To join the tour, participants should meet Wednesday, August 1st at The Soap Factory’s front entrance by the Common Room sign where they will depart to the Metrodome LRT station, then to MOA. Click HERE for the Facebook invite. For a full schedule of Common Room’s 2012 events, updates and archives, visit the Common Room WEBSITE.