Now that "the environment" is on the wider political and cultural radar, the issues of what were previously specialized and niche interests (i.e. the health of urban rivers, the protection of green spaces, the quality of our food) have become a bit more mainstream. This, of course, has its upsides and its downsides. Namely, that the simple act of recycling, to give you an example, becomes an overly symbolic act at the same time that its practice becomes more popular and more important. This is to say that artists, as much as anyone else, are currently working through the meaning and processes of these actions and what our "environment" actually consists of. What to make of this balance between symbolic acts and actual change? For this series of Web Stories we look at four artist groups whose work is both activist-based and yet interested in investigating the boundaries/non-boundaries between culture, community, and our living environment.
This balance between art and life is perhaps the oldest struggle in art. How to maintain an artistic practice when your interests also lie in what is conventionally a political and social practice?
The collaborative husband and wife team of Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison have worked for decades as biologists, ecologists, and urban planners and work with communities to develop new strategies for improving living conditions. And they are also artists. Groups like Food not Bombs "rescue" discarded food from grocery stores to feed hungry people. This action is a symbolic effort against the market driven habits we have developed towards food and consumerism at the same time that it affects the lives of those involved. Every September, groups of activists convert paved parking lots into mobile parks in what is now an international event called PARK(ing) Day. These are, after all powerfully symbolic political acts that speak to a cultural moment in our country. For artists, this ultimately seems to always come back to the same question: what is art's relationship to community?
A related, but more pressing issue for most Angelenos is the rapidly changing nature of our city. Rising property values and gentrification only highlight older debates around public and private space while reminding us that both culturally and geographically, the "environment" always begins at home. The four groups we've spoken to: Farmlab, Los Angeles Urban Rangers, Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates, and Fallen Fruit concentrate their efforts in rethinking the ways we live in the city as both a cultural practice (cultural practice as art) and an actual way of life. The question of community and the way we operate and share space and resources is a central theme in the way these artists work.
Farmlab, conceived by artist Lauren Bon, is an environmentalist laboratory and research space with community involvement and public programming as a focus. The Los Angeles Urban Rangers organize urban safaris and compile research material for the public in order to question and educate others on the uses of public urban space, Edible Estates is a project that helps homeowners convert their front lawn into a usable vegetable garden. Fallen Fruit, together with volunteers, maps out fruit trees in Los Angeles neighborhoods that blur the boundary between public and private property.
For Sustainable LA, these four groups have decided to organize public events during the months of January and February. Farmlab will feature their Farmlab Public Salon series of discussions every Friday at noon. In early February the Los Angeles Urban Rangers will lead a Malibu Public Beach safari together with their downloadable Malibu Public Beaches guide. Beginning January 10th and lasting till fall 2008, Fritz Haeg will create an Edible Estate Demonstration Garden, together with educational information on why to create your own, within the Descanso Gardens in La Cañada. In late January, Fallen Fruit will be bringing volunteers together to help organize a public fruit tree mapping session in the Silverlake area.
These artists work in groups and collaborate with any number of people and organizations. They rarely create art objects, work almost entirely outside the gallery system, and use the city as a "workspace." These points are significant. They speak to an emerging trend in collaborative and collective art practices where community is a central part of what is being "created." Where aesthetics go together with active ways of collaborating and where artists and citizens are one and the same.
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