The Garden as Protest
Last month I attended a lecture sponsored by the Townsend Center for Humanities at UC Berkeley by local author, Rebecca Solnit entitled “If Gardens are the Answer, What is the Question?” Solnit, whose work ranges in topics from San Francisco geographies, to the history of walking, to landscape, gender, and art, addressed the recent popularity of gardens as educational tools and community resources in schools, rehabilitation centers, churches, and of course, the lawn of the Obama’s White House. Solnit considered the garden as an answer to the corporate farming industry, to American’s alienation from food, and to the development of safe, urban neighborhoods.
Robyn Waxman, a Graduate Design student from the Calfornia College of the Arts (CCA) confronted similar questions as she embarked on her thesis project this past fall. Waxman questioned her role as a designer and activist in today’s socio-political climate. The answer to these questions came in the form of a 66-foot long vegetable and herb garden built on the Westside of Hooper Street—a side street in the industrial area between San Francisco’s South of Market and Potrero Hill neighborhoods. Hooper Street bisects CCA’s campus and is used primarily for parking for students and faculty. The garden is growing strawberries, raspberries, chard, spinach, thyme, lavender, and marigolds while simultaneously using bioremediation techniques to remove toxins from the soil. The garden was created by FARM, an organization initiated by Waxman and comprised of students from CCA and members of the local community, including several day laborers who use Hooper Street as a pick-up site. FARM stands for “The Future Action Reclamation Mob” and is organized horizontally, anyone can work on or eat from the garden. More than a community garden, I think of FARM as a direct-action collective. Tucked between two buildings owned by a private college, Hooper Street is unused public property and therefore belongs to the residents of San Francisco. Rather than waiting for the city’s approval, the FARMers took it upon themselves to transform this neglected side street they pass everyday into a sustainable project site that generates produce for the local community.
FARM joins a lineage of local artists working with the garden as a medium including the Futurefarmers’ Victory Gardens, the Mission Greenbelt Project initiated by Amber Hasselbring, and the environmental projects of the San Francisco art and design collective, Rebar. It seems that more and more artists are addressing issues of urbanism and the environment or perhaps it is the opposite, the green movement looks to artists to use their resources and creativity to reimagine the relationship between city dwellers, nature, and food production. Regardless, the distinctions between the artist, activist, environmentalist, and gardener are blurry.
As an activist herself, 39-year-old Waxman, recalls the civil disobedience of the early 1990s: protests against the first Gulf War that took the form of large demonstrations and marches and later, the street theatrics and puppetry of organizations like Act Up or Reclaim the Streets. These highly visible protests stand in stark contrast to the somewhat fractured anti-war movement of today. Waxman is concerned about the lack of participation in today’s anti-war protests, especially by the younger generation or millennials, as she refers to them (those born between the 1980s and mid-1990s). As a millennial myself, I, too, have felt frustrated with the seemingly apathetic approach to civil disobedience of my peers and yet, admit to often letting my own feelings of defeat result in passivity. The incessant comparison of the dissent of my generation, today’s twenty-somethings, and my parents, those coming of age during the civic unrest of the 1960s, is both telling and yet, limiting, as well. The context feels very different.
Through research and interviews, Waxman explored how millennials express discontent with today’s socio-political climate. For a generation saturated in technology, branding, and seemingly endless opportunities and upward mobility for those from economically stable backgrounds, protest seems less imminent—or perhaps it just functions differently. While people my age may not be holding picket signs and gathering in mass in the streets, Waxman determined that protest is happening through efforts that are local and sustainable. In a context in which one feels incapable of effecting change at the governmental level, what gains visibility and momentum is do-it-ourselves initiatives such as artists collectives, co-operative living spaces, skill shares, free schools, and gardens. For Waxman, the garden on Hooper Street is an “alternative form of non-violent protest” in which millennials make connections to each other through site specific community engagement.
As someone with very little knowledge of the practice of design or its pedagogical objectives, I was curious how Waxman’s role as a designer functioned within FARM. In her words, FARM is a “framework whereby others can ‘own’ their productive actions. Designers have been calling this design BY the people or democratized design. It challenges the dictatorial role of the designer, who ‘knows best.'” Waxman employed traditional design mediums to communicate her concerns. She designed posters that acted as an interactive forum in which students could express their concerns and ideas for the reuse of Hooper Street. These suggestions were then discussed through meetings and plans were made for the garden that included receiving donations, education about gardening techniques, and gathering a group of eager millennials to get the job done. While Waxman was the initiator of the conversations, she was, in no way, a dictator. Rather she provided a forum for discussion in which these requests and ideas could come into fruition. Waxman’s MFA thesis exhibition took the form of an installation of photographs, posters, work gloves, a live video feed of the garden, and a wheelbarrow overflowing with 1,000 copies of a newspaper entitled “Rethinking Protest: A Designer’s Role in the Next Generation of Collective Action” that documents FARM’s process.
When the garden was planted last March, I was pleased to see Hooper Street reinvented as more than just a dumping ground for trash and debris or a neglected path of dried grass that students cross each day as they leave one building and head to the other. Yet, this enthusiasm pitted itself against my skepticism about gardens becoming merely a trend in contemporary art practices. I sometimes worry that we are let off the hook by focusing solely on the local and admit that I haven’t let go of the hope that my generation is capable of initiating some kind of collective dissent, or dare I say, revolution. During her talk Solnit mentioned the “American weakness of confusing symbolic gestures as a solution” to solving political, social, or environmental issues. Maybe there is a balance to be struck between using our role as artists and activists to turn soil and plant seeds while always moving towards effecting change on a larger scale.
The limitations and also the benefits of working in this capacity are not lost on Waxman or the FARMers. The goal of FARM is to make visible the issues pertinent to the community surrounding Hooper Street: homelessness, immigration labor rights and offer an alternative to corporate farming, and the toxins effecting our environment, while going viral and inspiring the reclamation of other public spaces. (Waxman is currently working on a FARM in Davis, California). Waxman’s work pushes the boundaries of the function of a designer, and in doing so makes apparent the context within which artists operate or rather, the possibilities of civic and political engagement within an artists’ means. Within artistic practice the garden symbolizes the use of creative activity to make visible and accessible a growing consciousness about the environment. In the case of FARM it becomes a symbol of protest for a generation of younger people disenchanted by the strategies of political engagement expected of them by past generations. Within this context, FARM reminds us that the garden is not the answer, but rather an answer.