On Common Ground:
The Weight of an Empty Promise (A Critique)

Katherine Fu

I felt particularly watched at this Wednesday dinner. As I ate my carrots I kept making fleeting eye contact across the table, conscious of the many conversations around me, the vast skylight above, the weight of my fork. By the time I finished I was an appetizer and an entrée deep into BArch ’88 Adam Silverman’s Common Ground. Conceptualized in 2019 as a series of vessels, this iteration in March 2023 broadened into a dining experience within the RISD Museum’s Grand Gallery. The dining set consists of 56 bowls, 56 cups, and 56 plates, each made with a conglomerate of dirt and clays from each American state and territory. The sentiment was that as we all shared a meal together, we would look past our differences to instead celebrate our diversity and commonalities. Dinner certainly did satiate the little gnawing cavity I had been nursing since the opening. Still, I could not ignore the implication that there was something I should have been doing but could not bring myself to do. That looming feeling of obligation. To what degree of illusion would I have to convince myself in order to partake in this meal?

When I initially heard of Common Ground,

I could not bring myself to fully believe in its mission. Silverman seeks to address our country’s “political and cultural divisions” through the act of mixing unique materials, “erasing the arbitrary borders of statehood, to create a single new material which will be used to make the project.”1 I’ve always been suspicious of the notion of a middle ground that involves setting something aside. In this type of exchange, it feels that I must always relinquish some deeper, more integral aspect of self as opposed to the other party. It’s an awful plasticky feeling to force yourself to be less demanding. Past just a feeling, it’s a resignation where I waive my right to an honest identity in exchange for safety. So, then, what? I’m supposed to lose? Accept reduction? For the sake of what in return, exactly?

Throughout the reception I found myself raising the pitch of my voice, softening my tone, smiling until my cheeks seized and hurt. I shrunk. People waved their hands airily, referring to me as this young woman … she said … so on and so forth. An older man asked me where I came from and when I responded that I was from Maryland, he clarified, I’m just asking because I know RISD has a lot of Asian … Are you from here? I see. But are your parents from here?

To be fair, my parents are indeed Chinese immigrants. I never attempted to correct that I am non-binary and to extend my correct pronouns as an indication of such. But then again, what was I supposed to do? Was this an environment where I felt welcome to do so, or where that even matters? The majority of the attendees were not only white but members of the Board of Trustees, Board of the Museum, and otherwise equally as socially and generationally distant. This composition of the dinner’s attendees skewed older, whiter, and wealthier. In a 2020 interview with design magazine whitewall, Silverman made a point to say that his idea was to “put together people—not a gallery dinner with art world people—hosted at a place that would bring together all walks of life, and try to represent the people of the country.”2  This vision certainly did not make its way into this presentation of Common Ground. Silverman’s past words in light of how far the project had departed from its inception make the shortcoming all the more disheartening.

As our group of fifty-or-so entered the Grand Gallery, a lofty exhibition room adorned with massive European paintings, I located my placard at the far left end of the table along with two fellow students of color. Looking down the long table, we laughed a little at the positioning. I felt enclosed twice over by whiteness, in company and in environment. The speaker who came up to address us encouraged us to make new friends, approach our conversations with curiosity, and share a table with those who we might otherwise not interact with. Silverman followed, professing his desire to use his piece to envision a shared time before colonization, past boundaries. He said that from above, we could not see the Earth divided into “red states or blue states,” but that we would simply “see the blue of the ocean.”

I would love to see a swath of blue ocean and green earth. I would love to be curious, to be free of division and hurt and trepidation. However, I refuse to be told to let things go without acknowledging how or why we have reached where we are. I fundamentally cannot agree with the idea of consciously oblivious dialogue. This image of a post-facto reunification of broken land is willfully ignorant at best. Silverman urges for a momentary departure from our history and existence as a disjointed country with no acknowledgement of colonialism as the primary reason that these divisions occurred. He seems to treat soil from each area as equal without consideration of the great violences committed to those regions, in some cases from one to another. The U.S. territories in particular are not granted crucial rights that those in states are; the assumption that they too can come together with the rest of the country as one is especially shocking given the clear disparity in privilege.

I was most intrigued by how Silverman would choose to execute his intention, and perhaps most disappointed in the subsequent choices. While understandable for the venue, the Last Supper-esque seating was wholly unconstructive for dialogue. I question the decision to thoroughly combine each unique sample into a cohesive material which is then measured to equivalent amounts to make equivalent vessels. Each vessel varies in detail but as Silverman put it in his speech, “shares the same DNA.” To render the distinct material indistinguishable is rather assimilationist; it rejects the individual character of the country to opt for a false notion of unity. Common Ground does not fall victim to the myth of homogeneity; rather, Common Ground has not yet realized that homogeneity is undesirable.

The form of the pots themselves is another matter entirely. Each vessel comes with stem-like handles meant to represent literal listening ears, but I felt that there turned out to be very little listening of value for me. There was no prompting at the dinner about what topics to discuss, what turmoil to address, what tensions existed. I wondered if the old acquaintances seated next to each other truly sought diverse opinions, or if the space presented a nice meal to talk about nice things over. Meanwhile, I fell subject to the most blasé interrogation a person of color can have. Silverman offers the “open form as aspirational metaphor … receive, consider and hold new thoughts and opinions … all characteristics of the historical American narrative, yet also characteristics that seem to be increasingly missing from the national election year discourse.”3 I despise the positioning of America as a country established on free, open, or equal speech. Our national history continuously disproves this belief. Often the conversation reliably falls back on these antiquated imaginings, lamenting the supposed loss of the American tradition in the modern age instead of addressing and accepting the oncoming and necessary sociopolitical change.

This is not to say there were not lovely moments. I love the concept of healing through foodways, of communal acts of nourishment. I am not obligated to speak about loveliness, though. Admittedly, this critique focuses largely on the experiential and is less about the craftsmanship of the dining set, but when Silverman chose to expand his piece, he must have understood what came with the territory. In his talk the previous night, he mentioned that he’s learned to let go of the original intent of a piece as it enters the public sphere. I asked him to what level he was willing to go for that to happen given that this new iteration of his project includes a venue, a menu, and most of all, people—all uncontrollable and unpredictable factors. I honestly can’t remember his response anymore. All I remember is feeling disappointed that it didn’t have anything to do with my question.

Common Ground is palatable. It touches upon just enough points of tension that it feels productive yet never manages to produce anything of tangible substance. I do believe that Silverman is genuine in his objective and intends no harm. Sometimes, however, that is not enough. The dinner revealed two environmental disconnects, one between the white artist and its subjects, the other between the institution and its inhabitants. Common Ground feeds into RISD’s routine practice of seeing what it wants to see. Although the event technically welcomed the community, it remained in a firm bubble. Having only received word of the dinner through my job as a Resident Advisor, my participation embodies a very specific facet of the student body that is not representative of the majority. RISD seems to operate in conversation with the mirage of its students, either unaware of or untethered to the realities of their lives and needs.

Furthermore, at the time of writing, in early April amidst the Teamsters 251 strike and the abysmal pay for RISD workers, the dinner increasingly reads as unnecessary and inconsiderate. The entire night consisted of a reception with drinks and appetizers, a multi-course dinner, and dessert afterwards. Adding up the cost of the food, the extravagant floral arrangements, the party favors, and the $3,000 rental fee for the Grand Gallery amounts to a ridiculous sum of money. In comparison, RISD’s first proposed final offer to the union was an upfront raise of about 10% in the first year.4 That’s barely more than $17 an hour. While the RISD Museum exists as a slightly separate institution from the school, the proximity of this luxury feels unsympathetic to the disproportionate resources afforded to such overlapping groups of individuals.

I initially struggled with what exactly I was feeling afterwards. Nothing heinous happened to me. I received a meal, an opportunity, and complimentary sea salt after it was all over. The piece wasn’t necessarily outright offensive and I thus wondered if it deserved such a lengthy response. Alternatively, I didn’t know if it was worth it for me to sit down and write that lengthy response. As I wrote, however, I found that the crux of my discomfort came from the almost-ness of the project. It almost made sense. It almost delivered. It was almost right and almost unpleasant but could not make up its mind. The mediocre allyship of this and other tone-adjacent projects is very familiar. These interactions build up over time until one morning, you wake up, worn with marrow- deep exhaustion, a weariness unfixable by sleep. And I am tired of feeling tired.


Adam Silverman Studio,  “COMMON GROUND,” www.adamsilverman.net/common-ground.

Whitewall, “Adam Silverman Is Finding Common Ground, from the Earth to the Table,” https://whitewall.art/design/adam-silverman-finding-common-ground-earth-table.

Adam Silverman Studio, “Common Ground - 002,” www.adamsilverman.net/new-blog-dammy/2020/2/11/common-ground-003.

RISD Human Resources, “Update: Teamsters Local 251 Strike,” https://hr.risd.edu/working-at-risd/employee-resources/labor-relations/update-teamsters-local-251-strike/#offer, accessed April 10, 2023.

Katherine Fu is doing this for your sake.