On my daily walk I’ve noticed at least three varieties of kale growing in the city’s traffic islands and sidewalk planters, including the crinkle-textured dinosaur kale, which I know to be tasty when sautéed with lemon juice or cooked in an Italian soup. Chicago’s Department of Transportation tends these medians and planters, rotating the shrubs seasonally to upkeep our “city in a garden” motto. Kale can heartily withstand the colder climate, and so it is used decoratively this late autumn. I may have thought little more about the urban kale except I recently read Barbara Demick’s story in the November 2 issue of the New Yorker about a North Korean woman who survived the famine there in the early 1990s by foraging for weeds in her city’s streets and alleys. Communist leader Kim Jong-il could no longer distribute food to his citizens, so many had to get creative with their meals, such as Mrs. Song, who ate barely edible grass and dandelions every day.
Today, politically minded artists herald urban food foragers, their hunt-and-gather method a critique of the mass-production food industries. Fergus Drennan claims to have lived for years from food plucked off British traffic medians, writing a recipe book along the way. In Los Angeles, the Love Apples group saw street islands as fallow fields, so they planted tomatoes there in 2008. Like Chicago’s kale, are Drennan’s bounty and the traffic tomatoes, heavily dusted with car exhaust, really safe to eat? Mrs. Song from North Korea couldn’t afford to ask such a question, and the exhibition “Actions: What You Can Do With the City” deflects concerns about health and hygiene to the greater good of alternative living.
“Actions” is organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture and presents ninety-nine examples of creative interventions in urban environments, including foraging and illicit gardening. Sometimes DIY artists fall head over heels with their alternative “actions.” The skateboarder Steve Alba hunted empty swimming pools in the days before legit skate parks, his trespassing documented presumably to pioneer the building of publicly accessible skate parks. Once built, though, Alba goes further underground, skating in even more dangerous and illegal areas. Is he in search of the skateboarder’s next frontier or hopelessly enthralled by the will to commit urban subversion? Like so much vegetal decoration, art in the service of a common good often proves more stylistic than effective.
The city of Chicago plants a vegetable such as kale for its aesthetic or beautiful quality. As this is the year of Burnham, appeals to the City Beautiful Movement are warranted. At the turn of the last century, did colorful plants really inspire civic fortitude? It may be difficult to prove. But current community art trends show that sharing and eating vegetables, not just viewing them—real action instead of artistic action—is the way to go. A problem presented by Jonathan David Marston’s “catalogue of anti-sitting devices”—metal spikes installed in public areas to thwart homeless sleepers, is answered by Sarah Ross’ archisuit, a wearable cushion that turns the most spiky public benches into smooth beds. Ross’ solution may not be fully accessible to those in need of a place to sleep on the street, but as an artistic representation it draws attention to a problem that needs fixing. Many of the displays in “Actions” treat real-time problems in this way, as theoretical concerns with conceptual solutions. Most of the plans require financial backers to be publicly and widely workable, such as the shoes that charge a cell phone battery. Others, like garbagescout.com, which alerts users to dumpster treasures, require massive public participation in order to succeed. As it stands now, garbagescout.com represents the failure of a public art project to be animated by the public. New York’s High Line park is presented as one successful public art garden, but ultimately the exhibition does not spell out how it succeeded while others falter.
Do we seek alternatives for the sake of being different? Not every well-intentioned idea will flourish, and sometimes artists are best at conceptualizing, requiring engineers and architects to follow through. But “Actions” shows that the potential to create may be creative enough.
Published in Newcity (November 9, 2009)