Curators, like the rest of us, are susceptible to trends, and nothing is currently trendier than foodism. (It's so trendy that it has to be an ism.) In November, OPENrestaurant, a collective founded by Jerome Waag and Sam White of Chez Panisse, butchered and cooked a pig in SFMOMA's kitchen. And at "The Gatherers," which closed at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in January, fruit was mashed and canned.
But in cooking a meal for people and calling it performance art, or nailing someone's garden plans to a museum wall, are we stretching even the Duchampian definition of art? Does offering a pickling class really qualify as a collaborative installation? Is protesting high-fructose corn syrup an artistic practice?
These questions come front and center at an exhibit that currently finished a run at the California College of the Arts and has moved on to the Southern Exposure grant-funded residential gallery, Spare Room Project. Curated by Jana Blankenship, "Land. Liberty. Sunshine. Stamina." gathers project posters, landscape plans, canned fruit, foraging maps, videos, and drawings that evidence a critical mass of individual and participatory projects that use food systems, commerce, and craft as touchstones.
The exhibit explodes with ephemera. Two posters display information about Maya Donelson's "Graze the Roof" gardening project at Glide Memorial Church, while Asiya Wadud shows a hand-rendered foraging map of Oakland's Temescal neighborhood, each Meyer lemon and rosemary source carefully demarcated. Andrew Mariani, a vintner in Sonoma County, contributes landscape design plans that map his practice of "wild farming," an agriculture technique that mixes crops with native plants while maintaining the natural contours of the land. Iso Rabins displays some pressed miner's lettuce, a wild food he forages and supplies to subscribers of his "Community Supported Forage" box.
These are clearly important, even life-changing practices to many people, and to question whether the results deserve space in an art gallery feels miserly. Most of the participants in the show don't call themselves artists; to them, shows like "Land. Liberty." merely offer a chance to connect and share resources. So should we care? Is there some problem with bringing the projects into the rarified air of the gallery?
Blankenship, a graduate student in CCA's curatorial program, views the gallery space as a natural extension of the collaborative essence of many of the projects she features. She points to the long tradition of confluent activism and art in the Bay Area, especially when it comes to food and greenery. "Land. Liberty." was inspired largely by Blankenship's studies of seminal San Francisco artist Bonnie Sherk. In the early 1970s, Sherk created a series called "Portable Parks," laying down sod and potted palm trees to create temporary green zones in "in-between" urban spaces, such as the shoulder of a freeway on-ramp. In 1974, she established "The Farm," a 6.5-acre working farm beneath two freeway overpasses.
Sherk's early work presaged some modern variations — among them, Park(ing) Day, the annual event that turns parking spaces into makeshift parks, and urban guerrilla gardening — and back then she consciously presented it as performance art. She continues to work along similar lines with her ongoing "A Living Library" project, in which participants restore native plants to public spaces such as schoolyards, but the work is now defined as "Life Frames," a nonprofit.
Sherk's original intention remains valid: She conceived of "The Farm" as a performance piece intended to create a new experience of place. The works included in "Land. Liberty." certainly embody that sentiment. If you define art as a life practice, the means to changing perception or altering aesthetics, the material in "Land. Liberty." more than qualifies. Blankenship uses the term "life theater." "There's a seamlessness to it, as an artist," she says. "It's how you live your life, how you treat the landscape."
On an individual level, a few of the works in "Land. Liberty." strike me as better defined as social justice or craft, not art. As a whole, however, the show succeeds as a commentary on how we're treating the land, and it falls squarely within the tradition of the art of engagement. Seen in a gallery like the Spare Room Project, which is literally an extra room in someone's house, "Land. Liberty." feels revolutionary, like the seeds are being planted for a few entirely new definitions of art.