Open office hours

I decided that in 2016 I would start a policy of “open office hours,” once per week where anyone can come and talk to me in person or online.

Last December, I was at the ACT Festival in Korea and I had a conversation with Filip Visnjic, the curator who runs the Creative Applications site. “Most artists,” he said, “don’t have a great understanding of what value they bring to the world.” This idea really stuck with me, and as the year was winding down, I spent a lot of time thinking about it: what do I do of value and how can I bring more of it into the world?

As I pondered this question, I reflected on that fact that I had been teaching for over a decade and one of the things I appreciated most, both as a student and as a teacher is open office hours — where the professor sets a period of time to leave the doors of their office open and spend one on one time with a student to talk through anything.

I was a printmaking student as an undergraduate and I had a teacher there, Vinny Longo, who used to invite us into his office in the middle of the print shop and share a slice of a lemon poppyseed muffin and talk art, homework, printmaking and life. What I remember so strongly, besides the classical music that was always on in low hum through the print shop, was just the warmth of an adult taking a young person seriously and taking the time to talk through their ideas.

As I decided to do this, I tweeted it out in early January, and immediately, Dan Moore sent this image back to me — an image I used throughout the year:

I thought I would just take some time to talk through how I do open office hours and how they year has been.

Approach

My approach is really straight forward:

  • Set aside 2–3 hours per week to talk to people. I usually do this on Fridays, but not always. I try to mix it up when I am traveling or under a deadline.
  • Announce the office hours on twitter, usually 24 hours beforehand. Invite people who respond to my tweet to email me to coordinate timing.
  • Meet people in person, at the studio, a local cafe, or online using Skype or google hangouts
  • Spend approximately 20 minutes discussing anything the person who comes wants to.
  • I usually have 3–6 people per time. Sometimes it’s just one or two, other times there’s a large group.

The announcement looks like this:

I do it in person:

and online:

Motivation

One nice thing about setting out time to do this is that in some ways I can make sure I am mentally prepared to listen. It’s nice to put down email, put down my phone, etc and just be prepared to talk to someone, get to know them, hear about what they are thinking about and try to help. As much as possible I try to put all my deadlines and current obsessions on pause and just be present for people.

There’s also a very selfish motivation: I try to push all conversations that are not work or friends related to this time. For example, I get emails from people who want to meet and get coffee and I was finding that so much energy was being spent talking about meeting — emails back and forth, “do you want to meet on wednesday?”, “how about tomorrow afternoon?” and it’s great to just shut all that down. If you want to talk to me — I announce it publicly and my doors are open then. Although it feels like a huge time commitment it has actually freed up my days to be much more productive since I spend less time worrying about meetings.

I also find it’s helpful if someone needs something from me — for example, a student might need a letter of recommendation. I find it’s easier to just meet in person during open office hours, talk about the letter and I’ll write it on the spot, rather then the inevitable drama (to me at least) of getting an email request, putting it on my to do list, and forgetting about it when I get sidetracked in something else and the follow up emails reminding me and the pangs of regret because I didn’t do it right away and somehow I’m giving off the vibe that I don’t care enough.

Finally, I think it’s important as someone who has been doing media art for over a decade to try to help a younger generation find their footing. I really like the way software developer and activist Harlo Holmes puts this:

Every time you take a step forward, you should look behind you, and reach out your hand out to someone.

Conversations

There are some common types of conversations that come up:

  • How can I find work?
  • What should I study?
  • How do I get into this field?
  • How do I find a community of likeminded folks in the town I live in?
  • How do I solve this technical problem…
  • I am stuck on a conceptual problem…
  • How do I write this proposal or artist statement?
  • Can you give me feedback on my work or portfolio?
This was an interview for a thesis project

Sometimes the conversations are just getting to know each other. I’ve spoken to folks from Asia, South America, and Europe as well as local artists and students.

In some cases, the advice I give is similar, and as much as possible I’m going to start to look to writing (almost something like an FAQ) — see for example my lessons for students where I tried to put these ideas down on paper:

But often, the questions and situations are unique and it’s really interesting to hear about people’s journeys, what they grappling with and to just try to be an active listener. It sounds pretty trite but even just sounding out questions to a stranger can be really helpful.

I try to offer suggestions, mentioning books to look at, artists whose work might be relevant, sharing lessons I’ve learned of my own practice and generally trying to make connections. For technical problems I try to explain different tools that could help — I am big advocate of the Kevin Kelly school of thought: knowledge that the tool exists is as important as knowledge of how to use the tool — or make suggestions about how to debug a problem in pieces.

Sometimes we are looking at code together during those 20 minutes

but often times we are talking about bigger picture things like motivation and life.

One of my favorite experiences is announcing office hours when I am traveling. For example, I was in Japan last april and I announced office hours at a talk I gave and the next day I met people at a local starbucks in Meguru.

This is a media artist who I met during open office hours in London, when I was installing at the South Bank Centre.

Conclusion

I have to say that besides the daily sketching, the open office hours is one of the most exciting things I did in 2016 — because it connected me with so many different people. I also found that by listening to others, I was better able to listen to myself. It also was really good practice to have a chunk of time each week dedicated to something non work related.

I look forward to keeping this habit alive in 2017. It honestly became one of the parts of the week I most look forward to. My office hours will resume in early January and if I can help with anything, find me then.