“Show up, wear comfortable shoes, and it never hurts to bring a bottle of water.”
That’s Andy Sturdevant’s advice for anyone who wants to join him for the eighth season of Common Room, a series of weekly, artist-led tours running every Wednesday in August. Co-organized with Sergio Vucci, the tours this season explore such varied topics as silence, sacredness and islands by foot, bicycle or bus, depending on the week. Each tour aims to reveal new perspectives on the urban environment — the grand common room we all share.
Sturdevant is an artist and former MinnPost columnist whose essays now appear monthly in Architecture MN Magazine, and in July he gave the Southwest Journal a preview of the upcoming Common Room season. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Southwest Journal: These Common Room tours sound, in concept, an awful lot like The Stroll, the column you used to write for MinnPost, where you explored a topic by walking around. Am I onto something here?
Sturdevant: Definitely it’s animated by the same set of ideas, in terms of putting people out into public in a certain context and giving them the opportunity to experience the world through a certain topical lens, but there’s some pretty key differences. A big idea of Common Room is that it’s also a very social experience in a way that’s different from a written column. Part of the experience is not just seeing the sights and learning things, it’s also doing it with this group of people and interacting with those people over the course of the event.
Your first tour of the season, though, is a silent tour, which I take as meaning no talking.
Right. You don’t have to talk to people to interact with them. There’s other nonverbal ways to interact with people.
That’s the fun thing about doing a project like this for long enough. You can really play with the format in some interesting ways. Every year Sergio and I try to push some of the high-concept tours a little further, and this is maybe as high-concept a tour as any we’ve done.
Certainly, there are ways to interact with people and the environment at large in a silent way, or a I hope there is. That’s kind of the idea. If there’s not, I guess we’ll find out the hard way.
Talk a little bit about the other tours that you have coming up this season. What are you really looking forward to?
We have an island tour that I’m really looking forward to. When Sergio and I were planning out the season, it just seemed a lot of the ideas we were looking at seemed to relate to the idea of an island — you know, these places that are somehow separated from the rest of the environment around them, whether physically separated or conceptually separated, I guess.
Definitely, when putting together the silent tour and the sacred spaces tour, a lot of the sites we’re going to be visiting are going to be island-like in orientation, so we thought we should do just a literal island tour, as well. So, we will be visiting at least two literal islands, but when you have a theme that’s broad enough you can pick any number of approaches to it, and one of the fun things about planning the stops is people not knowing exactly what they’re going to see or from what angle they’re going to be experiencing the theme of the tour. There are literal islands on that tour, but there are some more figural islands, as well.
A big part of putting these together is creating access to spaces people might not be able to see otherwise, and that’s definitely going to be one of the aspects of the island tour. I think we’re hopefully going to be able to get into some spaces you wouldn’t normally be able to.
Tell me a little bit more about the experience for folks who sign up for one of these tours. How long do they last? What is it like for the participants?
For some reason when you’re in art school they don’t teach you about the logistics of mounting a walking tour, so Sergio and I had to learn that ourselves. Fortunately, after so many years, I think we’ve learned our lesson. We know that people need bathroom breaks. We know that we need to make some accommodations for water and food. So we do all those things.
The tours vary a lot, but for the most part they are in the two-hour range, two-and-a-half hours. That’s about as much fun as people can stand to have, in our experience. And they’re very informal. They’re really just set up so anybody can show up. They’ll interact with the rest of the group if they want to, or they don’t have to.
Common Room refers not to just a physical space, but it’s about the social experience of these events.
Exactly. And when we started the project many years ago, it did refer to an actual, physical space. There was a space at the Soap Factory called the Common Room. It was an old office that had kind of fallen into disuse, and Sergio and I went in and restored it — made it look like an Edward Hopper painting, really, like an “Office at Night” — and we did such a good job restoring it the Soap Factory started using it as an office, so we found ourselves without our Common Room.
But we knew we wanted to switch to a tour-based format and really get people out of the gallery and into the world, and the idea still worked, the idea that it is a shared space — you know, the whole city is your common room.
When: Wednesdays in August
Where: Departure points vary by tour. Check the website for details.
Info: soapfactory.org, 623-9176