Strange Invitations for Digging Deeper
In the spring, 2013, the Franklin Street Works in downtown Stamford, CT. became a hotbed of radicalism. The art works are radical, but visitors can be assured that there is no cause for alarm. None defy religious taboos, or violate social decorum, or disobey legal mandates. The culture-shifting actions assembled for this time period offer the homey appeal of gardening and farm stand development, the support of a youthful workforce, the investigation of heritage food production, and alliances with community organizations. Nonetheless, these congenial actions subvert a quadruple set of targets, destabilizing social values that are so fundamental to contemporary culture that they are often accepted as ‘givens’. When these courteous incursions are combined, they comprise a sweeping make-over of prevailing human attitudes and behaviors.
The projects presented in this exhibition earn the adjective ‘radical’ because they pay little heed to the principles of art production and appreciation registered throughout the annals of Western art history. Some of these artworks sprout, grow, mature, and die. Others persist in the intangible realm of information exchange, confidence building, and an expansion of conscience. Thus, the creative processes that are employed to produce these works are irrelevant to conventional studio art practices. Furthermore, the interface between these art works and the public diverts attention from aesthetic contemplation, formal analysis, and emotional stimulation and directs it into the realm of actual interactions among people and their ecosystems. This means these works are not amenable to being marketed, collected, and preserved. Even standards and means of assessment are rendered inoperable. The works assembled for this exhibition demand the construction of new principles of art criticism, new criteria of merit, new categories of artistic skill, and new historic references.
Even when gardening is not undertaken by an artist, and despite its popularity, it constitutes a radical act within contemporary culture. This is because, after the Industrial Revolution, every cottage garden became a deviation from a norm. For the first time in human history, small scale food production ceased to be a necessary form of food production. Gradually, food production has become dominated by institutions - government, media, industry, science, and engineering. The toxic outcomes of this alliance might be traced to their shared assumption that any manipulation of organisms and their habitats to maximize productivity carries positive outcomes.
Cottage gardeners, by attending to their own nutritional needs, conduct a radical alternative to this institutional take-over. Radicalism is reinforced by heeding the well-being of entities situated at both ends of the food chain. Gardeners care about the people being fed by agricultural output. They care equally about the farm animals, wildlife, and habitats being affected by its production. Evidence abounds that populations at both ends of this spectrum are being endangered by large scale agricultural production. According to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, even ‘fresh’ foods are being depleted of their nutritional values. The study reports that between 1975 and 2010, vitamin C in broccoli diminished by 75.1%; iron in kale is down 22.7%; vitamin A in carrots is down 24.6 %; vitamin C in cabbage is down 22.1%. The ill effects of these nutritional drains on human health are glaring. They are associated with a litany of illnesses that include diabetes, obesity, allergies, cancers, autism, and ADHD. This health crisis is having such a profound impact on children that Robyn O’Brien, author and food activist, refers to these youngsters as “Generation Rx”.
Numerous causes are cited for the diminished nutritional value in industrial produce: pollution, pesticides, fertilizers, thinning ozone, loss of topsoil, and the decline in the quality of seeds, air, soil, and water. Further evidence indicates that re-fortifying foods with vitamins, minerals, and amino acids does not fully compensate for these deficiencies. Gardeners can attest to the fact that life is not reducible to chemical formulas; its creation is a wondrous process during which inert matter is sparked, energized, and then transformed in ways that remain mysterious.
The gardening protocols undertaken by small scale gardeners are as diverse as the individuals who conduct them. Nonetheless, all gardeners extricate themselves from the oppressive regime of food dominance by mega food producing corporations. The practice could be suitable for a Manifesto or Declaration of Independence stating its ideals:
- Gardeners develop self-sustaining activities. They do not rely on global dependencies.
- Gardeners tend to biological organisms. They do not exploit the productive capacity of these organisms.
- Gardeners cooperate with insects, fungus, and bacteria. They do not suppress them.
- Gardeners demand familiarity with their foods during growth, cultivation, harvesting, and preparation. They do not consume anonymous foods produced in remote locations.
- Gardeners minimize the use of machines and energy efficient tools. They do not participate in society’s addiction to fossil-fuel and engineer-driven means of producing and distributing food.
COMMUNITY OUTREACH RADICALISM
Artists engaging in community outreach enhance the creative productivity of others, not themselves. Solo explorations aimed at developing a personal style are replaced with interactions with community members who may have little relationship to art, and who may not be aware that the activity they are being invited into is a work of art. These artists replace creating tangible art objects for dispensing skills, knowledge, and, most significantly, inspiration and opportunity. The outreach efforts at FSW include urban planning, library science, environmental activism, and education. As catalysts of positive change, protests and accusations are eliminated from their repertoire of tactics. These artists are optimists and pragmatists. They scale their ambitions to their capacities and expect to generate observable results.
If their forms of radicalism were to be written into a Manifesto or A Declaration of Independence, they would disrupt multiple norms of contemporary society:
- We foster community cohesion through inclusiveness. We do not support self-centered behaviors and exclusionary policies.
- We create opportunities for others to be productive in the belief that all entities benefit from cooperation and sharing. We do not foster competition and rivalry.
- We offer mutual aid and cultivate generosity. We do not seek personal fame and gain.
- We design projects that vitalize communities for the long run. We do not sap their resilience to gain short term advantage.
Environmentalism is a radical culture-shifting enterprise because its concern for the well-being of the planet dislodges the prevailing pursuit of ‘self-interest’, ‘self-fulfillment’, and ‘self-expression’. Such entrenched attitudes currently define most peoples’ identity and establish their aspirations. Environmentalism’s radical transformation of these fundamental values occurs in two phases. First, it replaces ‘self’ with ‘community’. Second, it expands the definition of ‘community’ beyond fellow humans to encompass all forms of life - observable species that inhabit the planet’s water, air, and soil, as well as the multitudes of micro organisms that occupy these regions. Identity, aspiration, and responsibility are thereby propelled into regions above, below, and beyond ‘self’ to encompass the entire biosphere.
Such consciousness of co-species habitation of Earth recalibrates the standard reference points by which humans define ourselves. Measures of time exceed individual life-spans. Recognition of space expands beyond our bodies and our homes. Indicators of success surpass our individual well-being. Security is no longer a personal affair. However, personal responsibilities and management regimens are not omitted. They simple expand to include other humans and diverse species.
By pursuing an independent route to physical health and mental well-being, the artists at FSW lay stake to their own destinies. But beyond these personal advantages, their humble actions become towering symbols of reform. Artists who cultivate gardens or empower communities are cultural ‘free radicals’. As in the biological realm, these free radicals instigate change on the modest level of the microcosm. But as their actions accumulate, they gain the capacity to instigate systemic changes – potentially reforming attitudes that are oppressive and behaviors that are endangering. Such artists want nothing more than to trade in their maverick status and welcome the masses to join them in these pursuits. Dr. Gene Sharp, the renowned political scientist who has dedicated his life to the study of non-violent resistance movements, would honor their efforts. He asserts that power structures rely upon their subjects' obedience; if subjects do not obey, leaders have no power.