Sue Spaid looks at farming as art

Green Acres

By Sue Spaid

at Red Emma's Jan. 18

Rirkrit Tiravanija's "Untitled (bicycle shower)," one of the BMA's new acquisitions, might seem a bit out of place in the formal halls of the museum. That's because Tiravanija designed it to actually function as a shower for the land, an experimental art/farming/political compound he founded in Thailand in 1998.

According to Sue Spaid's new book Green Acres: Artists Farming Fields, Greenhouses and Abandoned Lots, it is becoming increasingly common to see such works at museums. The book accompanies a show at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, which will come to the area this summer, but Spaid will facilitate a conversation about art and farming at Red Emma's on Friday, Jan. 18.

Before Spaid came to Baltimore to take over the directorship of the Contemporary Museum in 2010-a position she held until the museum suspended operations and let her go last May-she worked as curator at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, where she co-curated Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies, which led, a decade later, to Green Acres.

In the new book's first chapter, Spaid wonders why she and her Ecovention collaborator, Amy Lipton, didn't consider farming before, since "most ecologically driven schemes focus on combating climate change, restoring nature, enhancing biodiversity or safeguarding water supplies," which were precisely the kinds of stewardship involved in farming.

Spaid traces the concept of eco-action as art to Joseph Beuys' 1962 call for an "action" to clean up Germany's Elbe River, followed by Haacke's 1965 manifesto, which "called for changing, indeterminate, living-in-time, unstable, light-responsive works of art that viewers could handle" and which resulted in the work "Grass Grows." By the 1980s, according to Spaid, this kind of "Earth art" had become increasingly collaborative, leading ultimately to large-scale works like the land.

Among the farmer-artists, Spaid sees some who "view farming as a survivalist strategy" and others who either see farming as "a meaningful communal activity," "recognize farming as an end in itself," or "view the model of a farm as inaugurating an open-ended situation where anything can happen." For still others, farming as art is about creating self-reliance or "value freed from market mechanisms."

Green Acres is at its best, however, when it discusses particular artist-farmers. Among the more interesting examples is Baltimore Development Cooperative (BDC), which began "Participation Park" in a public space at the corner of Forrest and Chase streets in 2007, where, as an alternative to eminent domain, "local citizens negotiate a space's future, such as collective farming opportunities for adults and kids alike."

Eventually the BDC (not to be confused with the Baltimore Development Corporation) began living at "The Compound," where one can find cultural practices of all sorts, from architecture to farming.

It is easy to see farming as integrated with art at the Compound, but the problem with much of the art discussed in Spaid's book is that, well, it sucks as art. Tattfoo Tan, for instance, comes across as something straight out of Portlandia. Tan has created badges (like the Boy Scouts) which "inspire people to become 'Permaculture Artivists,' market City of New York 'Master Composter Certificate' and 'Citizen Pruner' courses and get recruits to recite the Sustainable Organic Steward (S.O.S.) Pledge while being videotaped." With lines like " I promise to consume fresh and local produce. I promise to reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, and conserve energy. I will walk, bike or ride public transportation as much as I can," the S.O.S. Pledge is well-meaning, but it no more art than the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ultimately, Spaid's book, intended as a survey, lacks the critical distance to separate the artistic importance of a project from its ecological impact. And without the work in the exhibition, Green Acres, the book, is not sufficient to allow the reader to answer most of the questions it raises. But they are questions worth raising, questions that take us to the heart of what art, culture, and agriculture mean to us as a species.

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