Working in Public
My roaming studio
by Wendy Richmond
I’m at Gorilla Coffee working on this column. It’s 7:45 a.m. and I’m sipping my half-caf two-percent latte that Kyle started making when he saw me crossing the street. As I write, I also respond to e-mails, peruse relevant blogs, shoot a video of a truck outside with weird typography on it and post it for my students. I tap Shazam to find out what crazy music Kyle has chosen (The Mars Volta, “Drunkship of Lanterns”) to wake the place up.
It’s a productive morning in my roaming studio.
In 1995, I wrote a column titled “Digital Napkins.” At the time, companies were “downsizing” and designers were freelancing and “telecommuting,” buzzwords that were precursors of the mobile way we work now. A phenomenon called the cyber-café was popping up: places with couches next to computers. People were working—alone and together—in public spaces. I was excited about the idea of a more mobile and fluid workplace, one that was born out of the intersection of the digital and physical worlds.
Since that time, my workspaces have ranged in size (from a thousand-square-foot barn to a tiny cell phone screen) and location (from San Diego to Rome), and regardless of square footage and setting, I have continued to crave and seek out the creative energy that comes from working in public.
In a roaming studio, I am working alone, but I’m not isolated. I’m engulfed by an ocean of communities, always surging and changing. My physical community is made up of fellow café-mates, often sitting for hours, our faces illuminated by our screen portals. My digital community is more staccato, coming and going in tweets, texts, e-mails and video posts. Both of these realms strike a balance between companionship and anonymity, between being deep in thought and sliding into conversations with others.
I find my roaming studios in different neighborhoods, cities and countries. The digital online world is the same, but it is affected by the physical world. In Cambridge, I go to a café near MIT. Tables are crowded with technology: there are more laptops and smartphones than there are people. My occasional eavesdropping sends me Googling stock prices. When I was in Rome, the digital component shrank to cell phone only (a laptop felt absurd in an Italian café) and I renewed my love of sketching on paper.
Even when I’m at home in Brooklyn, my studio roams. My choice depends on the time of day, the weather or my mood. Often in the afternoon I go to BRIC, a center for community arts and media. BRIC’s new building houses two theater spaces, classrooms, a public access TV center and a 3,000-square-foot gallery. All of its spaces are wired, with the intention of broadcasting events to Brooklyn households and beyond.
At the heart of BRIC is a café whose seating spills out to a bleacher-like expanse of wide steps with orange and grey pillows. Stenciled across the steps, in huge letters, is the word STOOP. I sit on the stoop with my laptop, phone and cappuccino, alternating between working, watching the action and engaging in conversations. Like the many stoops in my neighborhood, this is where new acquaintances are easily made, a more organic form of networking.
BRIC, in the design of its architecture and its activities, clearly understands that its digital and physical communities are not separate, and celebrates that in a shared public space.
The atmosphere of a café is unpredictable and, at any moment, an annoying cell phone conversation or a screaming baby can destroy your train of thought. But commotion also offers serendipity and inspiration. Often, it’s the constantly evolving partnership of the digital and the physical that provides the fodder for creative work. And peeking into one another’s real-time place and process can engender a sense of closeness and collaboration.
After I shot the video of that truck driving by Gorilla’s window, I saw a post by one of my students in my video class. I “liked” her video and commented on it with a suggestion about lighting. A minute later, I saw her new post: a short clip using shadows. Another student recorded his own surroundings, playing off the shapes of the previous video, and that got a visual repartee going. It felt like a cross between a classroom critique and a social media exquisite corpse. There I was in my roaming studio, and my students were roaming in it.
In his book A Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes the way he works on a story. Often he’s alone in a café, and a conversation or detail of someone’s face finds its way into his notebook. I like to think of my roaming studio—public and private, digital and physical—as a twenty-first century moveable feast. ca
© 2014 W. Richmond