Roots in a Fast Place: Creative Practices in the Public Domain, by Katie Bachler and Allison Danielle Behrstock*
The artist and architect Marjetica Potrč has developed her creative practice around "on-site projects" which support social justice and involve collaboration with communities. Her projects bring forward local knowledge, the starting point of a process of empowering a community by responding to pressing issues. By employing participatory strategies and horizontal structures of working and exchanging, Potrč sees her work not only belonging to the legacy of social sculpture, but related to the collective production of what she calls "relational objects". The projects are long term and Potrč works together with various cultural and social actors such as municipalities, art institutions, activists, artists and scientists to locate issues of importance. Potrč researches and employs various participatory models of engagement, knowledge sharing and citizen action in what she calls "redirective practice". The idea affirms that change begins in a community, that bottom-up initiatives, when viewed together, create a critical mass that is truly effective on a global scale. Her role as artist is one of a social catalyst, an instigator of new social dynamics in a community, a facilitator for the many voices.
Marjetica Potrč's understanding of art as a tool for social change has informed her on-site projects, where she aims to come up with a "relational object", together with local citizens, for the developing project. One of the basic questions that she is posing through her projects is: "How do we live together?" A relational object helps to answer this question, as it becomes a catalyst for social interaction, something to bring people into a shared space, filling a social need. The garden functions as a relational object, in the case of her current project, La Semeuse at Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers, as well as in her initiative The Cook, The Farmer, His Wife and Their Neighbor (2009), a community garden and kitchen in the Nieuw-West district of Amsterdam, created in collaboration with the collective Wilde Westen and commissioned as a satellite project by the Stedelijk Museum. The Nieuw-Weste and Aubervilliers are similar in their immigrant populations and the imminent threats of gentrification.
The Nieuw-Weste is a neighborhood of social housing built after World War II, modernist architecture with unusable green spaces. New half-completed glass structures with glass balconies stand next to peeling Gerrit Reitveld apartment buildings. The project’s garden and small kitchen pull the farm into the city, the past into the present, as capitalism makes its way into a neighborhood in danger of losing its traditions.
The relational object of the garden is a real space; a meeting point for human relationships to emerge in both La Semeuse and The Cook. Gardens become metaphors of extensive growth and breaking down of social categories through an organic mingling of diverse cultures. In Amsterdam, "both the garden and the community kitchen create bonds within the community‒residents give the kitchen half of their produce from the garden‒and become a catalyst for transforming not only the public space but also the community itself"¹. Potrč spent six months living in the Nieuw-West before the project began, slowly building relationships and connections; interacting with the housing development corporation as well as a non-profit organization supporting Muslim women; all of these groups came to play a part in the structure of the garden and kitchen.
The garden, as a relational object, is based on an idea of scaffolding from the outside, providing a trellis for social relations to reveal themselves. There is strength in people, in diverse publics coming together, sharing knowledge and creating food. It is a space of new traditions, of remembering, of building roots in a neighborhood threatened by historical and cultural erasure.
Visitors from the museum would ask "but is this art?" Potrč and her collaborators clearly saw the object, only it wasn’t an "object sculpture": it was a relational object. It puts into question our modes of production and our expectations of viewing an object. Instead we are faced with an experience, a rupture of the passive viewer, and artwork, of the museum space. The work, the relational object requires participation and activation, which would not have been possible without the residents. Potrč describes herself as an artist-mediator and art as "a medium of expression where the individual and culture come together"². Roy, a Surinamese man with a love of open space, became the paid garden manager. Muslim women sat in the community kitchen in the afternoons, offering coffee, cookies and conversation. The garden became a place for people to imagine their individual stories; Potrč provided the conceptual and physical framework of the garden, and the residents related through this and made it their own. The residents took over managing the project after the period with the Stedelijk museum ended; its signification changed from art project to community run garden.
Potrč’s work fits in with a re-emerging movement of artists supporting the importance of nature and agriculture in the urban landscape. This idea of socially engaged art began in the 1970s, alongside the encouragement of the Whole Earth Catalog and hippy movement. Artist Bonnie Ora Sherk planted community gardens and tended animals under a freeway in San Francisco, called Crossroads Community (The Farm) (1974-1980). Sherk describes her work as a wholly integrated system, "an embodied ideology in microcosm, either of an existing situation or of one orchestrated by the artist and using, on occasion, art as a tool to create a whole"³. Here she demonstrates that systems can be adjusted through a form of spatial practice, where a shift in values, from a concrete freeway system to move people —a means to an end—to an ecosystem that includes a visually replenishing, environmentally soothing, productive agricultural space that extends into the public domain. Art frames not only the immediate experience, but all experiences, through the concept of what Sherk would call a life-frame, a lens from which to view reality; with Sherk’s practice, we notice nature inside of the city, and continue to do so even after we leave The Farm.
German born artist Joseph Beuys’ work explored themes that showed a reverence for nature and cycles of growth. Referring to his piece 7000 Oaks, inaugurated at Documenta 7 in Germany in 1982, he said, "I believe that planting these oaks is necessary not only in biospheric terms, that is to say, in the context of matter and ecology, but in that it will raise ecological consciousness—raise it increasingly, in the course of the years to come, because we shall never stop planting"⁴. To become socially realized is to connect to the earth, too, "flowing in the direction that is shaping the content of the world right through into the future"⁵. Beuys, the founder of the Green Party in Germany, created works that encouraged people to relate more intimately, and understand our interdependence, with nature.
Artists continue to instigate projects that invite participation and ownership; there is a need for another way to relate to our landscapes and to each other. We can consider Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates project: suburban and urban front lawns are replaced with productive vegetable gardens, and numerous iterations are now global. Haeg, like Potrč, was trained as an architect and recently stated: "buildings are boring to me now. It is only the people with money who decide what our buildings do and how they look, but anyone can go outside tomorrow, put a plant in the ground and begin to affect the future of their city. Gardens are the easiest first wedge for any urban resident to engage. Gardening as a political act"⁶. Gardens are spaces that require nurturance for their continued survival. Fritz also moved from ideas of buildings to ideas about people, a social architecture forms around a garden that frames positive interactions to nourish the participants and larger community. There is a return to the ritualistic process of growing food in a city, harking back to World War Two Victory Gardens, a time when austerity was the status quo and growing ones own food was encouraged as patriotism. Haeg envisions the front lawn as a public space, a place with roots and politics, a garden that encourages engagement.
Similar to the idea of Potrč’s redirective practice and in line with ideas of horizontal organization structures, the Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée (AAA), a Paris-based collective of architects, theorists and activists, initiates "interstitial practices which explore the potential of the contemporary city". They describe this as "micro-political acting", the collective endeavors to participate "in making the city more ecological and more democratic, to make the space of proximity less dependent on top-down processes and more accessible to its users"⁷. Their "self-managed architecture" is built through relationships, processes and agencies of persons, desires, skills and know-hows. AAA creates new maps of neighborhoods in Paris, presenting data in unexpected ways after conversing with residents, politicians and local organizations, challenging traditional hierarchical models of urban planning and architecture.
As artists and cultural producers, Haeg, Potrč, Sherk, Beuys, and AAA all fit into the role of what artist and critical theorist Claire Pentecost would call the "public amateur". Pentecost explains that "this person takes the initiative to question something in the province of another discipline, acquire knowledge through unofficial means, and assume the authority to offer interpretations of that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives"⁸. The artist thereby becomes a powerful translator, a negotiator or facilitator, a purveyor of information. While it is difficult to broadly generalize between this many artist’s practices, they all share a deep concern for issues of access, equity and land use, and our interdependence with nature. Their works are not immediately recognized as art; their practices overlap with ideas of social justice and urban planning. People understand the value of the work whether or not they see it as art. These artists’ work invites people to participate in processes of life that are of communal importance, to facilitate the creation of a public space: for a garden, a warm kitchen, or trees to flourish.
La Semeuse has been elaborated from the observation of the crucial term of the 21st century—biodiversity. The neighborhood of Aubervilliers is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in all of Europe, with over 130 nationalities represented. La Semeuse navigates the controversial issue of immigration through the familiar space of the garden. As people migrate to new places, they bring with them food traditions, often seeds and experience growing too. These come to represent home in a new environs; La Semeuse is a place to share stories, plants, and cycles of growth and change. By asking questions about plants, and creating a common-space for plants, we can consider important layers to a question such as: "What is an indigenous plant?". Talking about plants is talking about people too.
La Semeuse imagines a sustainable future in the face of gentrification and rapid development in Aubervilliers, and, as such, offers ways to rethink the balance between built and unbuilt spaces in the urban environment. La Semeuse informs us about nature and culture together, and connections between people and nature. The project reframes ideas of native and non-native plants to emphasize the migration of seed, bodies, biodiversity and cultural diversity. How do we progress while paying attention and continuing to grow our roots? The garden becomes a simple metaphor for putting down roots in a new place, and how many different parts create a whole.
Text published in the Journal des Laboratoires, May-August 2012
* Katie Bachler and Allison Danielle Behrstock worked with Marjetica Potrč in the initial stages of La Semeuse in May, 2011. They also worked with Marjetica Potrč on The Cook, the Farmer, his Wife and their Neighbor in Amsterdam in 2009. Both attended USC's Master of Public Arts Studies program and focused on environmentally and socially engaged artist's practices in their theses. As artists working in Los Angeles, each are interested in art as a site of community engagement and healing. Much of Katie Bachler's practice takes the form of education, she leads workshops about nature in the city for children and adults as well as creates maps based on people's ideas of the city. Allison Danielle Behrstock often works collaboratively to facilitate spaces for discussion about sensitive and timely topics, and provide a means to encourage curiosity and agency.
¹ Marjetica Potrč http://kkvb-cfwn.blogspot.com
² Marjetica Potrč, “Is This Art ? – The Relational Object in a Shared Space", in Marjetica Potrč and Wilde Westen (Lucia Babina, Reinder Bakker, Hester van Dijk, Sylvain Hartenberg, Merijn Oudenampsen, Eva Pfannes, and Henriette Waal), The Cook, the Farmer, His Wife and Their Neighbour / De Kok, de Kweker, zijn Vrouw en hun Buurman (Amsterdam/Rotterdam: Wilde Westen, 2011), 32–33.
³ Will Bradley, "Let It Grow", Frieze n°94 (October 2005): www.frieze.com/issue/article/let_it_grow
⁴ Johannes Stüttgen, Beschreibung eines Kunstwerkes (Düsseldorf: Free International University, 1982): www.diaart.org/sites/page/51/1295
⁶ Fritz Haeg's "My Gardening Story", delivered at the Garden Manifesto, Serpentine Gallery, London, October 2011.