Farm Fresh Art: Food, Art, Politics, and the Blossoming of Social PracticeNovember 14, 2010
At the start of my talk for the “Artist as Citizen” panel at the 2010 College Art Association conference, I invited the audience to break out of their passive role and walk to the front of the room to taste slices of lemon. I’d brought the lemons, from my tree in Oakland, to the conference hotel during a Chicago winter. Witnessing the audience’s visceral reaction to the taste sensation—the range of responses and memories it immediately elicited—I became convinced of the capacity of human-scale, food-based interactive practice to break down barriers and penetrate the mind-body split.
Food offers a tangible, tasty vehicle into dialogue on issues of power, place, sustainability, and community. Today, many emerging and established artists choose to work with food as process, subject, metaphor, and praxis. Often classified as relational aesthetics, these civically and socially engaged practices transgress both disciplinary divides and the boundary between art and everyday life. Many elevate collaboration and negotiation among multiple stakeholders above the former ideal of a single artist’s making an expressive or self-aggrandizing statement.
Feeding the new crop of art is a richly mineralized history with roots in eco-aesthetics and eco-art (as in projects by artist Mel Chin). The collaborative, socially engaged practices of today have more in common with works like Bonnie Ora Sherk's Crossroads Community (The Farm) (1974–1980) than they do with the large-scale environmental Earthworks of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. An environmental piece with multiple stakeholders whose educational initiatives continue today, The Farm was one of the first brownfield projects by the Trust for Public Land. It involved the transformation of seven acres of public land in San Francisco that was considered to be derelict into a new city “farm park.”1 Notable for its organizer’s interdisciplinary training and the reach of its garden-based projects, the project is a direct predecessor to much of the food- and gardening-based artworks being made today.2
From projects like Amy Franceschini’s FutureFarmers’ Victory Gardens (2006–ongoing), to Bay Area artist Jesse Schlesinger’s taking visitors on overnight trips to the organic farm where he works, to Matthew Moore’s Farmstand at Sundance Film Festival, to internationally scaled initiatives like Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates (2005–ongoing), artists are sowing seeds for further critical thinking about the food we eat. In this article, I survey a range of practices and strategies currently blossoming around the use of food and gardening, and provide cultural context for the freshest crop of artists working in this way. My methodology combines appetizer aesthetics—whetting the reader’s appetite for more by appealing to the theoretically underprivileged sense of taste—with a smorgasbord structuralism that offers an array of options for pleasure.
Public attention has increasingly been drawn to the politics of food production and distribution. Although the subject is gaining currency nationally, it resonates particularly on the West Coast. This regional concentration is in alignment with the agricultural industries of California and the Pacific Northwest, the local and sustainable food movement, and the area’s history of environmental awareness. Gaining pungency from the threats of chemically and genetically modified corporate agriculture, artists’ actions exist in the context of a rise in sustainability imperatives, an awareness of climate change, and the pressing inequality between global hunger and American overabundance. Empowered by postmodernism and precedents in performance and conceptual art to transgress disciplinary boundaries, artists function as key contributors to this larger discourse.
Berin Golonu, co-curator of The Gatherers: Greening Our Urban Spheres, an exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) from October 2008 to January 2009, has rightly pointed out that today's artists routinely create public awareness of environmental concerns.3 But they don’t stop there. Contemporary practitioners, Golonu writes, “turn such awareness into direct and immediate public action...As we face the very real threats of devastating climate change, a global food crisis, and oil shortages, they address environmental concerns with an unprecedented urgency."4
How do artists participate in and activate dialogue on the cultural politics of food and agriculture? A main strategy is to leave the confines of the gallery and museum in favor of creating gardens and farms. Projects that seem like utopic agrarian visions—such as transforming the area in front of a major US city’s city hall into a food-producing garden, or turning a major museum's entrance area into a farm—have actually come to fruition.
In collaboration with Slow Food Nation and volunteers, artist and architect John Bela built a functioning, productive urban farm on the Civic Center lawns in front of San Francisco City Hall in 2008. The project, part of FutureFarmers’ revival of WWII-era victory gardens in backyards, combined dispersed backyard gardens with a large demonstration garden in front of city hall. The plot was once the site of a victory garden, or “war garden,” which the U.S. government encouraged Americans to plant in their yards during wartime to provide their own produce.
This WWII-era impetus toward localization was reenacted in San Francisco between January 2007 and September 2008, during which eighteen pilot plots were planted in the backyards of fifteen families who represented the cultural, geographic, and economic diversity of San Francisco. Starter kits were delivered to the houses by a Victory Garden gardener upon a tricycle and included “a lesson on how to build a raised bed, planting, drip irrigation system installation, water- and time-saving timer set up and one follow up harvest and seed saving lesson.”5 It is a sign of this project’s social efficacy that the city hall farm yielded one hundred pounds of fresh, organic produce each week during the summer of 2008, all of which was donated to the San Francisco Food Bank.6
But what other criteria should critics use to evaluate this work? A tension between usefulness and aesthetics underlies a project such as Victory Gardens, leading one to question the ways social practice is able to interface with the established institutions of museum and gallery. When interactions and natural cycles are reduced to objects for exhibition, one must ask what constitutes the finished piece—the process, its formal beauty, the ripple effects of others’ actions, or the artifacts? Viewed in a white cube-gallery, items such as FutureFarmers’ Bikebarrow (2007) (a bike-wheelbarrow hybrid) and Pogo Stick Shovel (2007) (a combination of the two devices) are in danger of being read as conceptually witty, yet ultimately hollow, sculptural forms. They long to be activated by interaction, shared lived experience, community engagement, and the cycles of preparing, planting, growing, and harvesting that form the work’s content. An item such as FutureFarmers’ Victory Garden Trike (2007), a custom-built adult tricycle that was used to deliver gardening materials, is a more vibrant artifact, possessing a history of usefulness that Pogo Stick Shovel lacks.
For Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates, the Los Angeles artist works in collaboration with local volunteers to turn water-wasting urban and suburban lawns into vegetable gardens. Located at sites across the United States and in England, the gardens demonstrate land-use strategies for small-scale food production and advocate for the replacement of chemically polluting lawns with productive and socially interactive gardens. From the first prototype garden in Salina, Kansas (a geographical location near the center of the United States), Edible Estates has created gardens from lawns in numerous regions of the United States and the UK.
Haeg’s gardens also include an educational linkage, one of several components that work to level hierarchies between participants and artists, and between art and non-art. A recent iteration of Edible Estates involved students from a local fourth-grade class who regularly measured the plants’ growth, took soil samples, weeded, harvested, and recorded
their garden observations on a chalkboard for visitors to see, tasks all related to their science curriculum.7 Such a leveling situates this project both in the history of conceptual art and Earthworks; however, Edible Estates possesses a community-minded and solution-driven resonance those earlier projects did not always possess.
Haeg and his volunteers succinctly transform the aesthetically pleasing into the utilitarian and socially motivated. One particular garden in Los Angeles (2008) was made up of half conventional lawn and half edible garden. Such an arrangement displayed the evolution from one into the other and invited visitors to consider the relationship between the two. In this example, the “before” and “after” coexist, providing proof of the possibility of transforming the decorative into the productive. The act of replacing a lawn—the very symbol of the control of nature for aesthetic ends—with a productive landscape embodies a larger shift from art for art’s sake to art as cultural and social transformation.
Implicit or explicit in many of these projects is a critique of corporate agriculture, one that is shared by urban agriculture projects like City Slicker Farms, in Oakland, and grassroots activist groups such as Milwaukee’s Growing Power, and is expressed in nationwide educational initiatives.8 Food in art has parallels with a vibrant tradition of food-justice activism, including Food Not Bombs. This group has been cooking meals and distributing them to those in need since 1980, as well as providing food in support of activist events and utilizing donated food that would otherwise be wasted. Socially engaged art projects involving food also have affinities with some forms of protest and street theater, such as the naked protests and performances staged by Genewise and T.H.O.N.G. (Topless Humans Organized for Natural Genetics) against the 12th World Congress on Food Science and Technology and the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting, two pro-biotech conferences that took place in Chicago in 2003.9
These activist projects coexist with artist-initiated and interdisciplinary activities that acknowledge the intersection of economic, racialized, gendered, and cultural identity formations with the politics of food access. Queer activists have been active and visible in creating new dialogues and formations around food, performance, and art. Dirtstar’s Night Soil is an open-air night market of artists’ farm stands, performance, and collaboration organized around the intersection of food politics and queer politics. The event was a vital part of the National Queer Arts Festival in 2009 and 2010.10 The collaborative’s name intersects gay slang with the celebration of farming—conflating dirt with dirtiness. In the Bay Area, the cooking collaborative Queer Food for Love prepares gourmet meals for the community, while the Queer Farmers Film Project is a documentary film project investigating back-to-the land farmers.
Artists working with food and gardening raise questions about the artist’s political role in a timely and necessary global perspective. They function as local—witness the extreme geographic specificity of Laura Parker’s soil tastings—and global citizens (consider Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen [2004–ongoing]). Food is inextricably tied to global economic structures, globalized corporations, increasingly internationally reaching patents, and constantly moving food commodities (think of the ships that daily glide in and out of the port of Oakland, or the cross-country trucks that carry California produce thousands of miles away, or the multitude of ingredient origins in a single fast-food burger).
As artists working with food claim the local as an antidote to increasingly alienated food and experience, they are equally claiming a space within global discourse. Hence, artists function as global citizens and local citizens―food ties us both to a geographically specific locale and to a globally aware network.
Laura Parker's Taste of Place (2001–ongoing) installations literally give us a taste of a specific place as they draw attention to soil health. Parker’s work applies conceptual art strategies to terroir—the idea of place-based taste honed over centuries in the French cultural patrimony and transposed to Northern Californian food and wine culture.11 At a tasting (which does not include ingesting soil), participants smell soils and “develop an impression” from various locations, tasting the food grown in it to develop an appreciation of regional differences.
The artist's quasi-conceptual instructions—referencing those of prominent conceptual art projects like Yoko Ono’s instruction pieces—direct the participant’s experience:
You will be served soils from the local farms. First the scent of the soil will be stimulated by adding a small amount of water and stirring to release the earth’s aromas as if from a fresh rain. Then you will smell, identify the scents you recognize, and note their properties. You will then be served food grown in the same soil you have just smelled. See if you can taste in the food the same properties you smelled in the soil. Please note your reactions and experiences.
While Taste of Place is earnest, I enjoy interpreting it as sly commentary on the fetishization of terroir. As Amy Trubek shows in her book Taste of Place, even in France, regional foods are not based on the natural environment (i.e., the geographical specificity of a particular climate and geology), but on a region’s cultural domain. That is, the cultural domain, rather than the physical characteristics of a place, creates its “foodview.” A similar thing is taking place today, I believe, as artistic producers are actively working to reshape Americans’ foodview.
Projects such as Temescal Amity Works (2004–2007), a collaborative project by Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell, also pivot on the notion of the local. The artists encouraged residents of Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood to harvest from their backyard fruit trees and redistribute the excess produce. In addition, they coordinated numerous events that positioned the neighborhood as a community established around shared backyard agricultural history and production.
The sense of civic engagement exhibited in projects such as theirs is in direct opposition to the formalist tradition and “art for art’s sake.” Thus, this new art is often far beyond disciplinary boundaries—a move keeping with the fresh thinking in art that has been followed by the dissolution of disciplinary silos in art schools. As a revitalized space of freedom—reinvigorated through the possibilities for cultural change afforded by social practices—art reclaims its right to engage, be touched and tasted, and to get out of the kitchen and into the streets.
Going Back Inside?
The sweetness of utopian promise mixes with a possibly bitter aftertaste in the tension between art’s ability to effect change and its always-imminent institutionalization. We witness this negotiation as leading museums provide space for artist-driven projects focused on food and farming. The Museum of Modern Art's commissioning of the young architectural team WORKac (Work Architecture Company) to temporarily redesign the courtyard of PS1 Museum into an interactive, functioning farm during the summer of 2009 points to a shift in the zeitgeist. Public Farm 1: Sur les paves la ferme! [Above the Pavement, the Farm!] required organizers to work with a diverse group of experts, from structural engineers to soil experts, to create a canopy of cardboard tubes that served as growing vessels for vegetables and other plants.12 This environment also served as a socially interactive space appropriate for concerts and outdoor interaction. Artist collaborative Fallen Fruit recently curated EATLACMA, a yearlong investigation into food, art, culture and politics at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The endeavor culminated in a day of performances on Nov. 7, 2010, with the participation of fifty artists and collectives. In many ways, this event marked both the blossoming and institutional celebration of this artistic trend. Let us hope that the two developments are not at odds.
Ed. Note: For more on Temescal Amity Works, see "Serving, Cooking, Giving It Away: Food, Art, and the Places In Between." For more on Laura Parker, see "Interview with Terri Cohn." For more on Enemy Kitchen, see "The Other Senses." All articles appear in this issue.