Ready Go’s mobile art projects capture attention and engage the community

How likely are you to sit and have a conversation with a stranger in a park?

What if you could do so while playing a board game at a table under brightly colored flags, all of which popped up in your neighborhood via a mini-camping trailer? Would you be more likely to pull up a chair?

Eye-catching physical installations have a unique ability to engage people and get them interacting. That’s the idea behind Ready Go, a pilot program of Springboard for the Arts. This roster of artist-created mobile tools can be hired by organizations and community groups to engage people in public and at events. The word “tool” is used specifically, as the 12 artist-created projects that are part of the Ready Go roster are purpose-built to provide interaction and opportunities for conversation. And the tools are mobile, going to where a community needs them.

“There’s something about creating a thing that’s odd and incongruous that makes people more likely to stop and ask you what you’re doing – versus if I set up a table with a chair behind it,” says Peter Haakon Thompson, Community Development Coordinator at Springboard for the Arts. “If I see someone sitting at a table with a clipboard, I’m definitely not going to stop and talk to them.”

Thompson is an artist who uses, as he says, the mediums of “conversation and participation.” Ready Go, which he oversees, was inspired in part by his own mobile art tools, two of which appear on the Ready Go roster – the Temporary Table Tennis Trailer, a steel ping-pong table that can travel and pop up in various locations; and the Mobile Sign Shop, in which participants create and personalize wooden signs.

The idea for a collection of artist-created tools was based on Thompson’s desire to maintain his own mobile projects, as well as the realization that many other Twin Cities artists were creating similar tools for engagement. Meanwhile, community organizations have increasingly seen the engagement potential of artist-created tools. Such tools can provide entertainment at block parties and neighborhood fairs – more remarkable, Thompson says, than “a bouncy castle or a dunk tank.” They can also replace or supplement community surveys: many of the tools on the Ready Go roster are built to invite feedback and help people share their ideas for the future.

“It started to seem that there was a real market for nonprofits and businesses interested in hiring or working with artists,” Thompson says. “That’s where the idea for Ready Go came from, a way to collect all of these mobile tools that are in the Twin Cities and house the information about them in one place.” Creating an online roster for renting out tools, he explains, would connect artists to a new source of income, and give organizations an “easy on-ramp” to working with artists.

Besides the two tools created by Thompson, there’s the pop-up park in a trailer – Soozin Hirschmugl’s sPARKit, which comes with colorful furniture, board games, and crafts. Other projects include Amanda Lovelee and Colin Harris’ Really Big Table, which folds up for transport and can be used for meals, storytelling sessions, and other gatherings; the Poetry Mobile, from which artist Molly Van Avery types out original, customized poems for people on the spot; and Witt Siasoco’s Mobile Tracing Unit, which allows people to engage with the city environment and share ideas by tracing on large panes of glass.

Though Ready Go launched with projects that had already been in use, putting together the roster meant describing and pricing each tool. Most of the projects have a tiered cost structure: a daily or hourly fee to rent the item, and a greater charge for customization or extensive planning by the artist.

“Basically, you have to make it easier for an organization to rent your art project,” explains Monica Sheets, creator of the Free Speech Machine. To add their tools to the roster, she and the other artists were asked to define parameters including the length of time each project could be rented for, setup requirements, and optional add-ons.

Having to consider those details, Sheets says, brought new energy to the project as she evaluated how the Free Speech Machine should be used. She and Colleen Walbran first developed the tool in 2006. It consists of a soapbox and a large red megaphone with a recorder; people are invited to respond to prompts by standing on the box and letting their opinions be known.

“At the time, the Internet was being heralded as the new soapbox, where people have the chance to exercise their right to free speech,” Sheets says. “So the idea was to literally make a soapbox, but then also connect that to the Internet by recording and uploading the speeches that people made.”

Since joining Ready Go when the roster launched, the Free Speech Machine has been hired by Twin Cities organizations including the West Bank Community Coalition and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

In February 2016, the Free Speech Machine was part of a “community visioning” event for Park Plaza Cooperative, a resident-owned community of manufactured homes in Fridley, Minnesota. Park Plaza purchased their land and infrastructure as a co-op in 2011. Five years in, the board and residents wondered how collective ownership and self-determination can continue to shape their future.

Held at a nearby American Legion hall, the Free Speech Machine was at the center of the event, with carnival-style barker Linda Lee inviting attendees to step up onto the soapbox and share their thoughts about the community. Participants were invited to respond to two prompts: “What is your favorite thing about Park Plaza?” and “What would you like to see in the future?”

“It brought so much color to the event, and a sense of celebration to it,” says Kara Zenith of Insightformation, a firm that helps its clients tackle social issues, who worked on the event. “A conversation begins when you have something that is visually engaging or invites attention. It becomes a really positive memory. You can say, ‘Remember when we had that fair? You remember that person who was there with that big megaphone?’ or ‘Remember when we were making that art?’”

The Free Speech Machine is made to be customized – each organization can use its own prompts to invite soapbox speeches and each participant adds the content – but all of the Ready Go projects are open to some adaptation.

Thompson recently used the Mobile Sign Shop in a way he hadn’t considered before. The tool was initially inspired by Midwestern cabin signs. Around lakes in northern Minnesota, it’s common to see handmade signs at forks in the road, pointing out the cabins in the area by their owners’ last names. The idea behind the Mobile Sign Shop was to bring cabin signs to the city, encouraging people to identify themselves and claim ownership of their neighborhoods.

Participants can trace their names on the wooden signs, and then the artist facilitating the project will carve out the letters using a router. Once the signs are carved, the local residents can paint and decorate their signs. When Thompson has led the Mobile Sign Shop project in Minneapolis, the completed signs are displayed publicly on a pole, just as they are for lakeside cabins.

In 2015, the Mobile Sign Shop found a new purpose in a project with Hennepin County’s Midtown Community Works program. Midtown Community Works partners with organizations and government entities around the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, improving the Greenway for the cyclists and pedestrians who use it and working to stimulate economic growth along the route.

One area that the program had been struggling to fully develop was a plot of land called the Cepro Greenspace, a former site of grain elevators. The space has a lot of potential: Though all entrances onto the Greenway must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Cepro space has the only entrance that’s completely optimized for universal access. From the county’s perspective, says Midtown Community Works Program Manager Lisa Middag, the space is a blank slate just waiting for the neighborhood to take advantage of it.

But activating and maintaining the site has been difficult, Middag explains. Cepro is not overseen by the city’s parks and recreation department, but is owned by the county, which does not typically manage green spaces. Local residents have been dissatisfied with the lack of regular upkeep, and many people have come to see Cepro as neglected and even unsafe.

“There was a bit of a fractured relationship that had developed around this specific location, so we were really trying to change that conversation with the community,” Middag says.

In May of 2015, the Community Works program got an opportunity through the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation’s placemaking residency, which brings national thought leaders to the Twin Cities. The Cepro Greenspace was selected to host an urban design firm called Gehl Studios for a community workshop and youth activities around improving the site.

To make sure that the park would be busy and full of people during the workshop, and to offer an engaging, family-friendly alternative, the planning team turned to Ready Go. Middag sits on the board of Springboard for the Arts, so she was familiar with the roster of tools and thought there was potential to use the Mobile Sign Shop.

Rather than creating signs with their names, however, participants would be asked to call out what they wanted to see in the Cepro Greenspace. Once the signs were carved, they could be attached to stakes and driven into the ground right away, physically mapping out residents’ vision for the space in real time.

“By the end of the day, we had something like 40 or 50 signs dispersed throughout the site that said, ‘I want flowers here,’ ‘I want a bicycle pump here,’ ‘birds,’ ‘ice cream stand,’ ‘puppy park,’ ‘playground,’ ‘water fountain,’” says Middag. Translators were available on site for people to create signs in Spanish as well.

The signs stayed up for several days after the event, so that more people could see them and envision additions to the space. Later in the summer, Midtown Community Works started to put those ideas into action: a bike pump and repair station, colorful paint and directional signs on the ground, more seating and shade, and new placemaking activities.

Middag now praises artist-created mobile tools as a cost-effective way for government agencies and other organizations to build direct connections with community members.

“Even just that invitation [to participate] sets the stage for a different kind of relationship,” Middag says. “It’s always going to attract more people, you’re going to have a more diverse audience, you’re going to have a wider age range — all those things we’re all trying to do with our engagement all the time, but this is an easy way to do it.”

For organizations considering hiring an artist through Ready Go, Peter Haakon Thompson says it’s important to be open to discussing ideas with the artist. “I think artists are really good at seeing the ways they could tie their mobile tool into whatever it is the organization is trying to accomplish,” he says.

Ready Go also continues to encourage artists to make and share mobile tools, and has offered workshops on creating mobile projects — everything from the initial concept to the logistics of towing your work.

Thompson’s advice: Make your project stand out, but don’t try to accomplish too many things with a single tool. Keep it simple and easy to understand — like a really big table, or a soapbox and a megaphone — and you’ll be able to adapt.

Monica Sheets has advice for artists hoping to work in the community, too: Be sure you know the goals and audience for the event ahead of time. She remembers bringing the Free Speech Machine to events where many attendees didn’t speak English, and she arranged for Park Plaza to translate the prompts for their event into Spanish in advance. As with all of the Ready Go projects, working in partnership helped both sides reach their full potential to engage the community.