Artists on the Farm? Musings on art’s place in urban agriculture

For the past few years, my focus has see-sawed between visual art and a concern for the natural environment (two painfully general, but hopefully generative foci). This isn’t to suggest that these lenses are mutually exclusive. In fact, they overlap in fundamental places. Artists and environmentalists share a broad interest in effecting the way people see the world, and the potentialities for change therein. They share a sensitivity – to light, to material, to the details of their surroundings – and, in my experience, they share an unfortunate stigmatization.

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Tue Greenfort, “Hunger” 2009 Precision farming system, tractor, sowing machine, crops

Environmental activism in the United States has been relegated to the failure bin as flower power. While green washing (and with it the emergence of a certain, perhaps superficial, interest from the upper classes in eating organic) has shifted the societal paradigm of environmentalism in recent decades, away from niche ideology toward a more widely accepted and marketable interest in going green, I wouldn’t say that the environmental movement is seen by many as sexy, or viable. And certainly not profitable. Similarly, art is relegated to its white cube, and neutralized accordingly. The violent separation between haves and have nots (or gets and gets nots in relation to conceptual art) creates a parallel separation between art and society. Fine art is elevated beyond reach, street art is condemned as either criminal or commercial, and artists are rarely given political agency to produce real change outside of the pictorial frame.

Of course, this is all a gross generalization. There are, as always, exceptions: simmering movements, revolutions, art for social change and a burgeoning investment in sustainable lifestyles. And these are the things I’ve been trying to pay attention to, because at some level I feel that the disciplines of art and environmentalism can and should resolve one another.

Last year I started working with an artist named Natalie Jeremijenko. Trained as an engineer, with degrees in neuroscience and biochemistry, Natalie calls her practice environmental art activism, a novel nexus of design, aesthetics, education, and political action in the realm of environmentalism. Having tackled the gamut of ecological concerns, from bioaccumulation to habitat destruction to public transportation, and everything between, Natalie is currently working on a project called Farmacy, a distributed urban farming system that is designed to improve environmental health and augment biodiversity in addition to producing edibles.” Since 2010, Natalie has been looking at how to develop effective and easily replicable soil-based urban farm models that would function within the horizontal space constraints of New York City.

Natalie Jeremijenko's 'Farmacy' installation, May 2012
Natalie Jeremijenko, “Farmacy”, 2012

One of her solutions is a Tyvec-based window planter called an ag-bag, to be hung like a saddle bag over your window ledge, banister, fence, or any architectural beam it fits to straddle. Inside the pockets where the plants sit, polymer gel beads mix in with the soil, retaining moisture and limiting the amount of necessary watering. There are a number of other design elements that make the ag-bag a thoughtful, energy efficient, closed agricultural system, but I will refrain from elaborating here. Natalie has installed the bags at many scales, in public schools, private residencies, blue chip galleries, and most recently a public housing complex in Long Island City called Ravenswood, the idea there being to provide education about and access to highly nutritious food in a low-income food desert. If properly scaled, the project would also improve air quality and beautify the community. While I’m not sure whether Natalie’s Farmacy is to take root, as a viable alternative method of urban food production, I am humbled by the innovative approach, as well as its possible impact.

I love the time I’ve spent at the NYU Urban Farm Lab. Just last weekend I dawdled for an hour, post-midterms in the frighteningly warm October sun, sowing carrots and smiling at the kohlrabi.  I feel good being there, and want as many people as possible to experience the visceral joy that comes with connecting to living systems, to dirt, to real, yummy food. I think artists have a responsibility to respond to the issues of their time, and environmental crisis is as big as they come. Natalie’s position as an artist allows her to waffle between political subjectivities, offering perhaps less-conventional solutions to a diversity of audiences. How can the NYU Urban Farm Lab maximize both its ecological and aesthetic potential? How can we charge it as an innovative space that reorients passersby, in the NYU community and beyond, to the potential of their own relationship to food systems? Can we hang ag-bags on our fences? Can we host fun, meaningful events? Should we design attractive signage to advertise our impact? Where does art belong in urban agriculture, and how can we use its language to improve our cause?

Julia Lee

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