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The Place We Call Attention: ROLU on the Open Field

By Matt Olson & Paul Schmelzer

From the earthy to the ethereal, the work of Minneapolis experimental design studio ROLU truly runs the gamut—from the trio’s early work in landscape design to its more recent forays into furniture design, land art, and fashion as well as its robust blog about esoteric ideas from radical architecture to conceptual art. Given this range, the Walker’s grassy hillside seems a fitting site for ROLU’s residency: where better to host activities by the genre-hopping team of Matt Olson, Mike Brady, and Sammie Warren—a group engaged in an open field of endeavors—than Open Field?

Spearheading projects that are at once heady and hands-on, ROLU is spending its time working with Walker visitors to re-create artworks from the permanent collection. The resulting Field Collection includes pieces based on works such as On Kawara’s meditative, conceptual date paintings; Michelangelo Pistoletto’s table and chairs, Quadro de Pranzo (Oggetti in Meno); Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s War Is Over! posters; and Alec Soth’s photograph New Orleans, LA, which has been reconceived as a diorama that visitors can use to make their own versions of a Soth masterwork.

ROLU’s Matt Olson took a few minutes away from last week’s activities to talk with web editor Paul Schmelzer about ROLU, the Internet, and the open-ended exploration that is the group’s Open Field residency.

Paul Schmelzer

You’ve said that this residency connects your worlds—the Internet and the actual realm. Can you talk about the trajectory of your online life with ROLU and how it’s taken off, and then how you met this community that’s coalescing around you at the Walker?

Matt Olson

Six years ago, I started a blog in the name of ROLU. We thought it was going to be a kind of marketing—not the way marketing is used in the ad world, but just as some way to send a signal out. But, really, nobody read it. I had this mindset of posting things I thought people might be interested in that we were doing, so it was a bit self-conscious. At first, I paid attention to the stats, and it just wasn’t working the way we expected it might.

About six months in, I abandoned that and started just posting what I wanted. From there, it quickly started finding an audience. I don’t know why—other than that there are people out there who are very similarly minded about a fairly particular strand of things that we’re interested in, which runs from design and architecture to contemporary art, fashion, and music. It began to grow and take on its own life. The funny thing is, it only started to bring us attention once it became something really genuine. There was some learning from this that’s really with us today.

A couple of years ago, it really started to seem that there was this community of people who were in touch. We connected through e-mail at first, and then we began doing projects in New York, where we started to meet a lot of these people. It seemed to grow into something that wasn’t virtual. I was a little self-conscious about it at first, because I didn’t know if they were real friends or not, although I felt they were.

Schmelzer

You mean, could you crash on their couch?

Olson

Yeah, totally. It was also a strange tension I felt about the way relationships are evolving, for all people, because of the Internet.

There was a research project in the Netherlands a few years back, where social scientists studied Deadheads. These people shared an obviously intense and very particular passion, the Grateful Dead, and they would go on tour for weeks at a time with the band; they’d encounter people and they’d know them, but they wouldn’t spend time with them as they might with their neighbor. But when researchers tested these relationships, they found that the Deadheads were—in the way they measure relationships—much closer than they were with the people they usually hung around with.

Schmelzer

Right. With those things that animate us, we tend to bond with people that share those passions.

Olson

Totally. There’s something open when you’re talking about things that you’re really interested in, which might not be open at other times. I think that’s what’s been happening. There aren’t that many people who are interested in Claude Parent, the obscure French architect from the ’60s, but those who do like his work are very interested, so it fosters this similar reality.

We talked about how all these virtual friendships could manifest in a material or physical way. That’s how this “Attention as Place” idea came to be. We spend time with these people online; it feels like we’re with them, so maybe our attention is a place. What would it be like to bring all of these people into a physical space?

Schmelzer

So literally, “attention as place” is about that virtual world—that thing we focus on, online or anywhere, is real.

Olson

Yeah, it’s where we’re at.

Schmelzer

You’re landscape designers, which is a field that’s inherently site-specific. And as long as I’ve known you and your work, you’ve also done blogging about radical architecture, contemporary design, and other pretty esoteric topics. Maybe it’s fitting, then, that your residency at the Walker has you outside, in a landscape, addressing contemporary and conceptual art that’s sometimes not accepted or understood by the general public. Can you talk about this dualism: while most people understand and can respond to landscape architecture, some of the material you’re interested in isn’t readymade for or easily understood by many people.

Olson

It’s not. Actually, the ideas involved are easily understood, but I think most people who aren’t contemporary art specialists feel some anxiety about things they know mean something but which they don’t understand. Oftentimes, I think people react with a kind of fear, and fear generally leads to a discounting or dismissing because it’s uncomfortable to be afraid.

Most people have not taught themselves to live with an anxiety of not knowing. I’m attracted to not knowing. I’m attracted to being in a speculative state. That’s the goal of being a creative person: staying speculative. I don’t feel like a populist, and I definitely don’t want to change what I’m interested in to make it work for people who may be interested. I just want to give people a safe chance to know that, for example, this On Kawara thing is really not that scary. It’s a beautiful thing about time and presence, understanding, and meaning.

Schmelzer

Can you describe what you’re doing with On Kawara’s piece and what it means to you?

Olson

For me, On Kawara’s a really interesting character who is making pieces about time, about what a day means, about a personal experience. He makes these paintings with a date on the front, and then he clips things from the newspaper that represent something to him. You don’t get to see the newspaper clippings, but you know they’re there. For me, this feels like a reminder that each person has their own reaction to the things they do in a day and their own version of what might be important to them.

Schmelzer

So, it’s the idea of art as a touchstone to other meanings or realities?

Olson

Exactly. It’s not that different from Zen or Taoist things that have to do with time. He wakes up each morning and sends a postcard or a telegram to his gallerist that says, “I got up,” which is like, “I’m still living. I have another day.” I feel like he lives in this very measured way. I think everyone could benefit from thinking a bit about time and meaning—what a day means to them.

Schmelzer

So, why reproduce works from the Walker collection on Open Field?

Olson

Why not? [Laughs] The pieces are here, they’re amazing, and some of them are difficult to understand. When we were in the desert last fall [installing a land art work that consisted of a narrow, two-mile-long roll of white felt, unrolled in a dry lake bed], Mike [Brady] noticed that while we were making that fabric line, people were open, gregarious, questioning, and interested. Most of the time, they walked away saying, “Wow, that was really interesting. That’s cool to think about. I never would’ve thought of that.”

But when it was done, people were more timid, a little suspicious—almost what you would think about someone who hasn’t been exposed to contemporary art and is a bit put off by it and even a little unsure about how to start asking about it. We thought it’d be great to use the Walker’s collection to keep exploring that moment—and so far, it’s worked. Almost everyone who’s walked up has said, “What are you guys doing? Why? Oh, that’s interesting.”

Robert Filliou said that the best classroom is casual conversation. We like to think of ourselves not as populists but more as emulating the work that happened with Filliou and Allan Kaprow, and taking art and life into each other.

Schmelzer

There’s an interesting duality in what you’re doing: it seems like an homage to Yoko Ono and On Kawara, but at the same time it’s a demystification of art. It’s making it accessible—literally: you can take it home, which I can’t do with a Yoko Ono original from the Walker collection. Talk about that: bringing art down to ground level while also celebrating artists you really respect.

Olson

The mystical truth that exists in some art isn’t removed with demystification. Demystification, in the way that you mean, is more about access.

Schmelzer

Right. What I mean by it is making the work more ordinary, but at the same time you’re re-mystifying it, because you’re able to tell the story of the art and give people an active participation in the work—re-energizing it—in a way that you might not be able to do inside the Walker.

Olson

Yeah. Another thing that involves the Internet—and fits with us presenting this work outside the museum—is an academic and institutional hierarchy that orders the history of art in a way that I think is false. I think all of these things are connected: On Kawara is connected to somebody who’s working with time in their art today; Jo-ey Tang is one of the participant artists we’re working with, and his approach to thinking about objects and expression is very similar. To break him apart from On Kawara doesn’t seem real to me. The Internet allows us to get rid of that linear way we’re taught. If you go to art class in college, you learn about this succession that happened. But I think that all of these things are actually mixed up and together.

It’s also important to remember that these are real things. They’re not holy objects. Things were made from wood; people sweat in a studio and fashioned things that represent something else, usually. That seems important to us. In the early years, when we were out in the field doing landscaping, we realized there’s really something to the smell of the soil and the total inherent awareness that the second you plant something, it starts to become something else. Everything is this way…

Schmelzer

Tell me about your interest in Alec Soth.

Olson

I read an interview with Alec Soth a few years ago, where he talked about how he lives online and loves the Internet. Back then, he was a crazy blogger—epic blogger. He would hop and hop and hop from thing to thing to thing. He said he uses photography as a way to do that in real life, and the idea that photographs would be put into a museum is weird to him, in a way. He said something like, “I love badminton too, but you don’t need to bring it into a museum.” For him, photographing was really as much as talking to somebody and having this exchange. He’s an interesting character because he feels like a similar spirit. But I’ve never met him.

The first approach was that we were going to make a life-sized set, but it just got too unworkable.

Schmelzer

Do you consider all of the artists whose work you’re re-creating as collaborators?

Olson

Yep. We wrote a letter to everybody. It wasn’t really asking permission, it was more saying, “Hey, we’re going to do this.” Yoko Ono was the first person who wrote back. She responded immediately, “Thank you for doing this. Your project is great. Best, Yoko.” Which feels pretty great.

Schmelzer

So, come July 29, when your residency ends, what do you hope you’ll feel?

Olson

I really don’t know. Just joy, maybe. It’s really fun. Yesterday, I stood and talked to these retired women who live in Miami but grew up in New York about Richard Nonas and why he left academia. That’s amazing to me. And they loved it. The more we can do of that, the better.

Girls playing in ROLU’s outdoor gallery

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

War Is Over! posters drying on a line at Open Field

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Rectangle Design’s Sarah Nassif helped visitors screenprint copies of Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s 1969 letterpress poster War Is Over!

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

A re-created version of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1993 work Untitled (Last Light) goes almost unnoticed by visitors more interested in the mock gallery it’s presented in

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

ROLU provided instructions and materials so Open Field participants could create their own painting in the spirit of On Kawara’s TODAY series (1989)

Photo: Ashley Duffalo

Visitors relax on ROLU’s re-creation of Michelangelo Pistolleto’s 1965 work, Quadro da pranzo (Ogetti in meno) (Lunch painting [Minus objects])

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Alec Soth and his son photograph the diorama to recreate his New Orleans, LA (2002)

Photo: Cameron Wittig

A replica of Alec Soth’s New Orleans, LA (2002), diorama version

Photo: Ashley Duffalo