LIKE A REALLY GOOD CARROT
The title of the exhibition I’ve curated for the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco is a poem by Issa, a Japanese Haiku poet who wrote in the early nineteenth century. The poem was originally used as a working title for the show, while I was figuring out what exactly the show was going to be about. I like Issa a lot, so I often use his poetry in my work. Once we figured out that the show would focus on the intersection of art and agriculture it was not clear if the title still made sense but the way that I interpret the poem is as a comment on the impossibility of trying to make “art” when “nature” does a much better job of art making. So we decided to keep the title since most of the people included in the show had connections to nature through agriculture of one sort or another. In a way, they all collaborate with aspects of the natural world rather than try to make work that is separate and more about their own individual culture.
Two years after I received my MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts, I went back to school to study organic farming. The program I attended was at UC Santa Cruz and is called “The Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture and Sustainable Food Systems.” I lived and worked with forty other apprentices on a farm on the campus of UCSC. It was a really interesting experience to learn about farming and localized food distribution systems after having spent most of my life learning about how to make art and how to function in the art world. Young artists and farmers looked similar, but ideologically they are complete opposites. Artists are trained to value originality, non-functionality, individualism, and they generally all assume that if their art is shown and sold it will be the responsibility of a gallerist to handle it. Small farmers share information and ideas and if there are positive results, it is expected that others will try doing the same thing or something similar. The products that farmers produce have an obvious function (to be eaten), and functional distribution and sales are just as important as growing high quality vegetables and fruits. As a result of the focus that small farmers have had on how to market their product and because idea sharing is not considered stealing within the farm world, CSAs, farmers’ markets, and community gardens have flourished in the last few decades.
While attending the farming program, and then later working on several small farms, I started to wonder about the possibility of applying some of the ways small-scale agriculture functions to my practice as an artist. Even when I was still in graduate school I had questioned the value of art making and said many times that I hoped my work could be as accessible and appealing as “a really good carrot.” Needless to say most of my fellow art students didn’t seem to understand or relate to what I was talking about. Regardless, I have spent the last couple of decades attempting to make artwork that is locally meaningful and accessible although none of my projects so far has actually achieved the high value I place on really good vegetables.
It has been interesting to me to observe an ever-expanding set of agriculture related art projects developing over the last several years. By that I don’t just mean art that represents agriculture, (though in the exhibition we include a few examples of that sort of thing from the past, along with an amazing series of documentary photographs from the Delano grape boycott in the 1960s). Instead, I mean projects by artists, art related people, and organizations that are site and audience specific, participatory, and localized.
Let me lay out a little analogy that I think is useful to consider. I’d like to compare agribusiness and the commercial art world to small farming and localized art projects. In agribusiness vast tracts of land are used to produce a small number of crops (using chemicals, etc… though that part doesn’t really fit in the analogy) that are then shipped to remote locations around the country or world so that people can buy produce that may not be able to be grown locally or is out of season. Due to the time and potential damage involved in shipping, crops that are under ripe and super hardy are preferred over ripe and delicate varieties that might rot or become damaged during the shipping process. In the traditional commercial version of the art world, artists make objects in studios that they hope will be shipped across the country or world to be shown and possibly sold in galleries. The art works that are produced tend to be easily transported, and “universally understood” so that they can go to any white cube space and function and be understood in the same way. By conditioning artists into making work for this system, they wind up gravitating towards making objects, developing marketable signature styles, and creating work that isn’t literal or specific in content or context. If artists think about their audience at all, they think of it in general terms, not as local and unique to context, much less as actual people that they could meet and be influenced by.
In the case of localized forms of agriculture there are a few models that have been utilized by many different farms all over the world. In the case of farmers markets, local farmers come to a central place on a regular basis to sell their produce to local people. The farmers or their direct representatives can communicate with their consumers. Questions about farm conditions can be answered, suggestions can be made, the produce can be freshly harvested and ripe, the transportation can be very limited. CSAs or community supported agriculture projects work by having a group of consumers paying a farm upfront at the start of a season for a box of produce each week over several months. By paying at the start of a season the consumer invests in the farm and then receives whatever is grown and harvested by the farm. CSAs tend to send out newsletters with the shares of produce that give updates on the farm and suggest recipes and other ideas. The shareholders are generally invited to the farm for tours and workdays so that they can have even more direct relationships with the place where their food is grown and the people who grow it. Community gardens and farms are located in urban and suburban areas and allow local people to tend their own garden plots or work with others to grow produce that is shared by the group.
What would art related projects be like if they functioned more like localized agriculture instead of commercial art world art? I don’t think there is a hard and fast set of rules, but the general idea from my point of view is that there would be a relationship between the artists and the audience, which could either turn into collaborations, or at least involve audience participation. Creating projects that are specific to the place where they are made and shown would be a greater priority than making work that is general and could be exhibited anywhere and generically. The work might not take the form of an object that is easily transportable and saleable. Instead the work could be ephemeral, or very long term, it could change over time, it might be multifaceted involving objects, events, publications, etc… It might not take place in a gallery or art context at all.
Systems create feedback loops, commercial art and industrial agriculture create certain relationships and products, localized agriculture and art projects develop different ones. I think there is room in the world for all of these systems to exist, but the problem, as I see it, is that right now the two approaches are way out of balance, and because of that, the localized versions need more support so that they can develop further.
Obviously, not all localized art projects need to be farm related, but since that is the focus of the exhibition I have organized let me describe the way I see one of the projects in Only Birds Sing the Music of Heaven in this World as an example. John Cerney makes large-scale paintings of farmers and farm workers and installs them in the farm fields where those people work. John does a lot of other kinds of public paintings as well, but I’m focusing on the farm ones for the show and this text. I’ve driven past John’s paintings along Hwy 101 in the Salinas area for years, and was always intrigued about who had made them and why. It turns out that John gets commissioned by local farmers to make and install his paintings at various local farms. In some cases they function partly as advertising for the farm, in other cases they are more like monuments.
I find John’s work really striking and effective. It is interesting to compare his practice to a more status quo painter. Both of them make their work in a studio context, but John’s work is based on local people who he has actually interacted with—talked to, eaten meals with, taken photos of, met families of etc… When the work is finished, he installs it in a location where the subjects as well as other local people can see and comment on it (along with millions of passersby). One project has lead to another (from word of mouth and public visibility) and John has created a substantial career that is artistically, financially, and socially fulfilling. In the case of a status quo painter they also produce work in a studio that is located somewhere—NYC, or Oakland, or Portland or anywhere else—but the work they make is generally not intended for local consumption. Instead they are making work for the international art market (this is the case even with the NYC artist who might be showing their work in NYC but they are generally making it for a generalized art world rather than their own neighborhood or community. If the work is sold it will be sold to any collector anywhere in the world as opposed to a localized one. Another point of difference is that John represents himself, whereas in the conventional art world artists are represented by galleries and a gallery system that includes publications, art fairs, museums, etc. Other localized projects take less traditional forms, but I think John’s career, as an unorthodox painter is interesting to compare to the ways that painters typically attempt to work in the art world.
This exhibition includes a variety of different projects and practitioners who have all found ways to work in significant, localized ways. Rather than go into detail about all of them, I have invited each participant to represent their ideas through texts they have written, documentation and artworks of various kinds, as well as a series of public events that have been created as part of Only Birds Sing the Music of Heaven in this World.
March 1st, 2012