April 16, 2018

The opinions of this writer do not necessarily reflect… On Open Space’s Tenth Anniversary

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Ten years ago today, me, pushing the “Publish” button on the first post for Open Space, launching into an unknowable future with high aspirations and tremendous fears.

I remember thinking it might be a soft start. Perhaps, I hoped, Open Space would stay partly invisible while it found its footing. Not to be. Two days later, the first criticism, from a Bay Area blogger: “…the museum blog POV is not behind the times. As a matter of fact it fits perfectly into today’s corporate zeitgeist […] Intervene in our space. We can take it. We’re web 2.0.” God ouch. Six days in, the national review: Tyler Green, at the time writing his very popular Modern Art Notes blog, used fledgling Open Space to lecture his audience about how museums should really do their blogs. On the seventh day he even took my bio to task:

My museum colleagues, and our six or seven local readers, all knew which “staffer” Green meant; I got side-eye in the hall. Week one! A painful beginning.

Anniversaries, though. What are they good for?  Everyone knows you don’t look back; what’s real disappears into mist the instant you do. And besides, the nature of the digital is the eternal present — no history, no memory (except nothing dies on the internet and everything can always be found — instantaneous return to the eternal present).

The Open Space recipe was not one for failure, that much is clear, but on one fundamental point Green was right: Institutions are by nature suppressive. They aim to name and constrain, and the proposal that Open Space, like its namesake, would be a project of “works-in-progress […] to be published as submitted, without censorship or constraint…” was more radical than I realized. Museums were in the business (and the business hasn’t changed) of tightly controlling the discourse around their objects, their programs, and their activities. And yet, the demand for transparency, then as now, was high. By proposing a kind of porousness between “inside” and “outside” the museum, I was in fact fulfilling a corporate demand — meet a perceived audience desire that the museum show its hand. Of course I, and it, were suspect.

Still. It was my hope that with Open Space we might pry open the iron gate (or was it grip) of the institution and make room for something — interesting — to happen, in speech, on museum “property,” speech that it could not control, contain, conform, constrain. This wasn’t so much an anti-institutional position, however, which would have been to frame in negativity; it was the open agora that I wanted. An assembly of positions. The opinions and moods of one should not be assumed for another.

To situate the origins of Open Space in the context of aughts technology: Blogs and old-school blogging platforms were still king; they hadn’t quite yet been supplanted in speed, audience, and users by social media. Tumblr was barely a year old. Twitter was just two; 2008 would be its breakthrough year, when it rocketed from six million to eighteen million users and presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain would start campaigning in tweets. Facebook and MySpace, at the beginning of 2008, were still nearly neck-and-neck, with fewer than 100 million users each, according to some sources (Facebook now has 2.13 billion). Comment boxes were already often ugly affairs, but unlike with the rapid sharing of social media, they stayed more closely tied to their original context.

Museums were using blogs, sure, as marketing and outreach vehicles, publishing press releases, exhibition updates, educational or didactic materials, all content produced by the institution. A comment box — especially a live, uncensored one — was generally verboten, as a public that talks back is a threat. That we proposed to leave ours open was a hazard. That we’d shortly give the keys to a group of unmoderated Columnists to write whatever they cared to was preposterous.

My idea — my ideal — was for rough community, divergence, more rather than less, little left out, as much as possible allowed.

To publish without censorship or constraint — how challenged or troubling that proposal still feels now, as lies are speedily propagated, published, widely trafficked (and believed), while simultaneously the rush to judgment insists on quickly suppressing, censoring, or blocking any views we find disagreeable to our own. But dissent is generative, necessary; in order to inch toward something like truth, in order to change, we have to see what is there, really listen, observe, dig deep when formulating our response.

I took an editorial position that to sustain this space was to widen, when possible, the frame of editorial position, to create an arena for many ways of seeing, thinking, writing, speaking. Together as writers, artists, and editors, we shaped the proverbial elephant; it is what you say it is. This created conflict within the virtual pages of the magazine, has made Open Space unwieldy, fragmentary, not-quite-nameable, brilliant, gorgeous, ugly. And it makes it impossible for anyone to easily represent ten years of expressive achievement now.

So who rightly speaks for this space? It isn’t me, and I think Open Space’s current editors Claudia La Rocco and Gordon Faylor’s offering of this anniversary post to me to write suggests that perhaps they feel it isn’t rightly theirs to speak for, either — no one speaks for Open Space. Its many, many parts have to chorus in their roundly dissonant unison.

Take a look around this unmanageable poem, kept in motion by the hundreds of people who write it, mirroring and becoming the world around it, grand collage of aggregation and accretion, explicitly expanded, tumultuous, sprawling. 1

Paradoxically, in holding the frame open for others, I found it challenging to speak frankly and openly myself. I have always maintained I could never choose favorites on Open Space (and that’s why this post points to nothing specific), but of course there are those contributions I loved more, positions I disagreed with, articles that in another editorial situation I might not have published. But I believed then, and now, that what Open Space could best provide was this discordant public sphere, and that all of us should be fierce in protecting its arena. When I began to want to constrain, it was time to leave, and let Open Space continue to become what it has continued to be, singular in its exercise against singularity. This founding editor has felt fortunate watching the current editors take Open Space into new forms and channels, keeping its ethos intact but carrying the program into the future.

Anniversaries, what are they good for? Still, Congratulations! On ten years of writing, reading, arguing, thinking, seeing, and speaking in public, Open Space. What will you be, ten years more from now? Platform doesn’t matter. Your form is an idea, a multiplicitous ideal, and I hope that idea/ideal lives long.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.


  1. Some avenues for exploring the history of Open Space might include: https://web.archive.org/web/*/blog.sfmoma.org https://openspace.sfmoma.org/authors https://openspace.sfmoma.org/archive https://openspace.sfmoma.org/categories/ https://openspace.sfmoma.org/issues/ https://openspace.sfmoma.org/category/project-space/ https://openspace.sfmoma.org/limited-edition/
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