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Urban Gardeners
Feature by Marcia Tanner




To many observers, President Barack Obama's inauguration marked the true beginning of the new millennium. As cynical as we may be about government, it's hard to resist a call to participatory democracy from a president who gets it. He gets it about the need for social equity, distributed leadership, and iconoclastic approaches to old dilemmas. He gets it about the environment, global warming and climate change, over-reliance on fossil fuels, and the need for building a green economy that includes sustainable energy sources and local food production. And he knows how to use the Internet to communicate with and inspire action among a huge, diverse constituency.

A cadre of West Coast artists has been braiding these strands together for well over two decades. Along with other artists working nationally and internationally in similar veins, they are going outside the white cube of the gallery or museum, forming collectives, forging collaborative partnerships with non-art institutions, and organizing participatory neighborhood projects to investigate our relationships with nature, agriculture and urbanity, and provide models and resources for citizens to grow their own food while greening city streets. In the process, they are redefining the role of the artist and the practices of environmental art, and advancing notions of art-making as a participatory enterprise for revitalizing the urban environment and healin g the planet. 

Nationally, California leads the way in environmental policies for conservation, alternative energy sources and other 'green means.' The San Francisco Bay Area especially has long been a hub of environmental activism, as well as the center of the 'locavore' and 'slow food' movements promoted by Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. The Bay Area is also home to the Green Museum (www.greenmuseum.org), a remarkable online showcase and archive for environmental art and artists, described by its founder/manager Sam Bowers 'as a giant collaborative art-making tool.' The region has nurtured many artists whose practices engage community with environmental issues, including Bonnie Sherk, Philip Ross, Marina McDougall, Natalie Jeremijenko, Suzanne Husky, Amy Balkin, Alison Sant, and the team of Suzanne Cockrell and Ted Purves, among others.

San Francisco-based multidisciplinary artist/designer/educator Amy Franceschini is the reigning genius loci, a visionary and inspirational practitioner in the urban greening field. Franceschini, raised on a California farm, describes herself as a farmer, literally and figuratively, who 'looks to nature as the ultimate laboratory.' An artistic polymath, Franceschini is adept at using diverse media to create interdisciplinary enterprises both online and off. Her work challenges established social, cultural and environmental systems and questions the politics of food production via non-confrontational, gently humorous tactics that invite involvement. In so doing, it engages notions of community, sustainable environments, and the ostensible conflict between humans and nature. Her practice embraces print, the Internet, installation, design, sculpture, open-access laboratories and educational activities that encourage participation, often involving long-term interaction with the public. The images of growth pervading her computer graphic work--rendered in an appealing quasi-innocent style and pastel palette reminiscent of cute Japanese cartoon imagery or children's book illustrations--disarmingly reflect the artist's alarm about the degradation of our planet. In 1995 Franceschini founded Futurefarmers (www.futurefarmers.com), an art and design collaborative dedicated to expressing environmental and community interests via digital media. In 2002, she founded Free-Soil (www.freesoil.org), an international collaboration among artists, activists, researchers and gardeners who take a participatory role in transforming the urban and natural environment.

A winner of the 2007 SECA Award from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Franceschini used her SFMOMA exhibition to introduce Victory Gardens 2007+, a utopian proposal for the city of San Francisco to revive the victory garden model, established in the US during the First and Second World Wars, that turned unused private and public land into food production zones. Her project, she wrote, redefines 'victory' as 'self-reliance, political action, education, community involvement, and independence from corporate food systems.' For the exhibition, Franceschini created ingenious and witty conceptual gardening tools including a Victory Garden Trike, designed graphics and packaging, and sketched plans for a pilot project to distribute free 'Starter Kits' of equipment, supplies (soil, fertilizer, seeds, plants), and personal instruction to would-be urban gardeners. Her proposal aimed to evolve into a larger plan for a city-supported edible gardens program. A real-world pilot experiment accompanied the show: between October 2006 and April 2007 three gardens were given away in San Francisco. From over 800 overnight responses to an ad posted on Craigslist, Franceschini and her colleagues interviewed ten semi-finalists. The three households chosen as 'test beds' were deeply committed to the project and represented San Francisco's geographic, cultural and economic diversity.

Today, Victory Gardens has evolved into an ongoing real-world collaboration among local art, architecture, gardening, food and urban planning organizations as well as the people and city of San Francisco. Last year, Franceschini and her colleagues turned a large patch of San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza into San Francisco 'Victory Garden 08+', a spectacular public project recalling the 1943 Victory Garden planted on that site. The garden, managed by artist John Bela of REBAR, was sponsored by Slow Food Nation, an organization founded by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, and endorsed by mayor Gavin Newsom, who lent land in front of San Francisco's City Hall for the project. Subsidized with a grant from San Francisco's Department of the Environment, it was designed by San Francisco's Garden for the Environment and CMG Landscape Architecture. Over 3,000 collaborators contributed money, seeds and supplies and/or volunteered their efforts. Featuring a variety of heritage organic vegetables suited to Bay Area microclimates, the garden lavishly demonstrated the diversity possible for urban food production. Additional goals were 'to create the most beautiful, well-maintained, edible garden in San Francisco, demonstrate the potential of a truly local agricultural practice, bring together and promote Bay Area urban gardening organizations, and to produce high quality food for those in need.' The project lasted almost three months, from groundbreaking on July 1 to community planting day, followed by weeks of nurturing and maintenance, to First Harvest for a Slow Food Nation event over Labor Day weekend that attracted 85,000 people, until Final Harvest on September 21, when mountains of fresh organic produce were distributed to local food banks and meals programs. A beautiful illustrated book documenting the project and its historical context, with essays by Franceschini, Lucy Lippard, and Mike Davis, was published by Gallery 16 in 2008. Franceschini's long term goals for Victory Gardens include creating a sustainable network of urban gardens throughout San Francisco, and re-inhabiting the original Victory Garden space in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Tilling similar terrain, 'The Gatherers,' a recent group exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco organized by Berin Golonu and Veronica Wiman, presented work by artists using collaborative/participatory strategies for 'greening the urban sphere,' or exploring related issues. International in scope, it highlighted projects by Bay Area artists Franceschini, REBAR, and the Meadow Network (Suzanne Cockrell and Ted Purves), in addition to Los Angeles groups Fallen Fruit and Public Matters. Most of these projects were overtly political; countering globalized corporate monopolization of agricultural production and urban space with literally grassroots efforts initiated by the artists. Projects ranged from an email dialogue between Franceschini and Colombian artist-activist Wilson Diaz discussing his efforts to preserve Colombia's native coca-farming culture, to the Turkish/Swedish collective room services' scheme to help Istanbul high-rise dwellers create a contemporary 'Hanging Gardens of Babylon' of edible crops grown on their apartment balconies. Yet while there was plenty to read in this text-heavy show, there wasn't much to look at, unless you were intrigued by shriveling potatoes or walls papered with bilingual correspondence. Although a worthy effort that nicely complemented 'The Art of Participation' exhibition at SFMOMA across the street, the show exemplified the difficulty of presenting this kind of work in an institutional setting for which it was never intended.

Artists change the world by altering our perceptions of it. That goal is central to the practices of Amy Franceschini and these other artists. Their work is all about changing our perceptions; they coax us to see ourselves as part of nature, and to act accordingly. What's remarkable about this hybrid work is how many different strands of cultural and artistic DNA have shaped it. Its artistic genes include participatory art, conceptual art, environmental art, performance art, Joseph Beuys'' notion of 'social sculpture' and his 1982 landmark 7000 Oaks project for Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany, Nicholas Bourriaud's articulation of 'relational aesthetics,' and many other genres. The critical discourse around this kind of work has been heated, mainly revolving around aesthetics: 'But is it art?' While you're making up your own mind, why not plant a few herbs in your window box? It may not be art, but it's an excellent idea.

This article was written for and published in art ltd. magazine art ltd logo sml


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