Cause & Effect
+ Art & Environment
A Cornfield Grows in L.A.
An interview with Janet Owen Driggs for Not A Cornfield
A Cornfield is a living
sculpture and a public art project that began on April 20th,
2005. Project artist Lauren Bon directed
the grand scale project which grew a cornfield at the skirt
of downtown Los Angeles with the aid of a diverse 150-person
project team and engagement with and from over 85 different
organizations. More than 120 individual events took place
at the site, enticing more than 30,000 actual visitors and
more than eight million Web hits (and counting).
On January 19th, 2006, the final cornstalks were machine-harvested
by a John Deere tractor.
Owen Driggs, Team Member and editor, Not A Cornfield: History,
Mental Contagion: For people
in the Midwest, a cornfield is an everyday sight, but what sort
of reactions did you see from visitors who saw a cornfield growing
in Los Angeles? How did local residents from neighboring communities
Not A Cornfield: A cornfield certainly
isn’t an everyday sight in contemporary downtown L.A.,
and people were entranced by the swathe of green that seemed
to spring up in an area of almost relentless grey. For years,
the Cornfield had been a desolate location that had long ago
fallen off anyone’s map of destination points. The growing
corn was like a green flag. People who passed by the site every
day said that they had never really noticed it before. The greenness
drew people to the site, and when they arrived the sight of growing
food, the damp smell of growing things and the welcoming spirit
of the place proved entrancing, almost intoxicating.
As just one example, two months after joining the Not A Cornfield
(NAC) team, I found myself standing in a field of corn at a thousand-visitor-strong
harvest celebration, making way for two highly excited teenagers
who were talking into a cell phone. “Yes … a cornfield… a
cornfield… here… in Los Angeles, dude!” Apparently
frustrated by their listener’s disbelief, the girls thrust
the phone at me, saying, “Tell him where we are, tell him we’re
in a cornfield!” I was a stranger, but that didn’t matter,
for we were sharing a unique experience and I could verify their
Photo by Steve Rowell
Mental Contagion: The Not
A Cornfield project site is also the
future location of an historical park that is being designed
by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, for completion
in 2010. How did this partnership initiate and how did it inform
each project's objectives?
Not A Cornfield: The State of California
owned the site immediately before, during, and since NAC. The site
is now known formally as the “Los Angeles State Historic Park,”
although it is still popularly known as the Cornfield. Currently
a 12-or-so-acre interim park design exists on the plot. The State
Parks Foundation selected a design firm—Hargreaves Associates
from San Francisco, to create a multi-million dollar park for the
full 32-acre site. The design competition was run by the State Parks
Foundation and funded by the Annenberg Foundation.
The relationship between Lauren Bon, the Cornfield, and the Annenberg
Foundation where Lauren is a Trustee, is actually of rather long
duration. The place fascinated Lauren as a child—she used to
cycle there from the Westside on weekends and hang out. Later, when
it looked as though the site—a decommissioned rail yard that
was, and is, the last big open space in downtown L.A.—would
be turned over to a million square foot of private warehousing, the
Foundation helped to fund the legal battle that won the site for
The specific partnership that enabled NAC however was initiated
when Lauren Bon was approached by Joel Reynolds, a lawyer with the
Natural Resources Defense Council, with State Parks’ design
for a temporary park at the Cornfield. The plan was that the temporary
design would remain in place until the money could be raised to build
a permanent park. Lauren was disappointed by the design and decided,
as a Trustee of the Annenberg Foundation, not to contribute funds.
Instead, after having dreamed about the Cornfield full of growing
corn and awash with blue light, she approached Ruth Coleman, Director
of California State Parks, with a proposal. She, Lauren, would make
a temporary project funded by the Annenberg Foundation that would
transform the Cornfield from a desolate urban void into a verdant
and vital public space at no cost to State Parks. The proposal was
accepted, and Not A Cornfield began its one-year tenure
at the Cornfield.
Mental Contagion: A million seeds
were planted in over 1,500 truckloads of dirt, hauled in to the
city from another location. Where did the dirt come from and how
did you manage the process of transporting 1,500 truckloads to
Not A Cornfield: That’s an extraordinary
image, isn’t it—all these little trucks coming from far
and wide and belching exhaust? The dirt had already been dug out
of the ground at three building sites around the city and was looking
for a home.
Builders dig footings and then they have a problem—where to
put the soil, which for them is waste. In fact, the builders paid
NAC to take their soil ‘waste’ away. The soil was depleted
in terms of its mineral content but, with the addition of organic
fertilizers, it made good clean topsoil for the Cornfield. An unforeseen
advantage—coming from such deep pits the soil had almost no
seeds lying dormant in it and there was, consequently, very little
weeding needed at NAC.
The people who literally moved the soil around though were workers
from the landscape company Valley Crest. They were at the heart of
the 150-person strong team who made NAC happen and they were responsible
for the majority of the heavy labor and agricultural work.
Mental Contagion: While the
cornfield was growing, did any activities or events took place
in the field? Did you find that a sense of community was fostered
through this initiative?
Not A Cornfield: NAC maintained the Cornfield
site as a safe urban green space that was publicly accessible seven
days a week for up to sixteen hours a day, for almost a year. During
that time there were more than 30,000 visitors. They came to see
the project; to engage in the kind of leisure activities—biking,
walking, photography et cetera—that generally occur in safe
urban parks, but are largely nonexistent in park-poor downtown L.A.;
and to take part in more than 120 events.
While the corn was first growing, these events were mostly NAC-instigated
projects that were conducted by invited—primarily local—presenters,
and NAC team members. They included a range of guided tours, school
visits, gardening sessions, ceremonial rituals and a drum circle,
in addition to regular discussion arenas, panels and salons at which
social, environmental and cultural questions were considered. Further,
regular open screen/open mic nights encouraged a variety of performers,
poets, musicians, and filmmakers to present their work.
Photo by James
As the corn grew though, so word spread and the programs diversified.
Ranging from formal conferences, through intimate ceremonies and
tribal rituals, to more casual social occasions, an array of on-site
gatherings were implemented by local organizations and community
groups. Alternatively, they arose in more casual fashion, out of
the tide of social intercourse that ebbed and flowed through the
space, and which was fed particularly by informal gathering places
on-site, such as the “Eye” (a combined fire-pit and amphitheater
in the field of corn). Over and above the statistics, however, the
project built a vast network of relatedness, inclusion, interaction
and recognition that writer and artist Bill Wheelock, a regular project
visitor, describes as a “people’s theater in the round.”
My mind is filled with hundreds of image memories from NAC, but
there are two that linger most in this regard. The first is an image
of bicycles, dozens of them, all piled together and gleaming against
the dark green corn stalks. They belong to the Midnight Ridazz, who
join a group of more than 150 people talking and drinking around
a fire in the Eye. It is the culmination of an evening of discussion
about urban density, public space and public art between Lauren and
sociologist Manuel Castells. As just one outgrowth of the evening,
a first-time visitor to the project proposed a poetry event for World
AIDS Day to Bon as they walked to the Eye. The poetry event happened
on-site three weeks later.
The second depicts hundreds of candelarias ranged beside a Day of
the Dead ofrenda. Built and decorated by local residents and Not
A Cornfield workers, the week-old altar is dense with flowers,
bread, paper cutouts and photographs of dead friends and relatives.
On the evening of the candelarias, an all-night vigil in honor of
recently deceased children stimulated an impromptu reconciliation
between Southern California’s Tongva and Gabrieleno tribes.
Their rift has a deep background under eighteenth-century Spanish
rule, but is most recently exacerbated by unequal state and federal
recognition. The historic reconciliation endures to this day, and
the tribes collaborate to perform the traditional “Waking the
Bear” ceremony on-site the following spring.
Photo by Steve Rowell
These images represent just two moments in a year-long project,
but they speak to the intricacies of a work that pushed beyond formulaic
interpretations of “the community”—which, as art
historian Miwon Kwon puts it, “...often serves exclusionary
and authoritarian purposes in the very name of the opposite”—to
foster networks of relatedness and collaboration.
"One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational
Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004)
Mental Contagion: Did any issues
arise with people misbehaving in the cornfield?
Not A Cornfield: You’ve heard about “Porn
in the Corn?” The Los Angeles Times loved that headline! Actually
it rather depends on how you define ‘misbehaving.’ The
NAC team tried hard to balance the aims and integrity of the project
with the divergent comfort levels of all the various communities
who had a stake in the park and the project.
According to usual park regulations there was a bit of ‘misbehaving’—regular
fire-building, gatherings continuing well after dark, drinking on-site,
and the rising sun would now and then reveal a patch of flattened
cornstalks. A lot of fun had all round in fact, and only one time
when there was an ‘issue.’
If memory serves me right, it arose when the corn was being harvested,
the field was full of tinder-dry stooks, and security had been stepped
up to ensure the place didn’t go up in flames. A local filmmaker
was using the cornfield as the setting for a video production and
it was NAC’s contention that he needed therefore to get liability
insurance. The filmmaker insisted that he didn’t, and the tabloid-pleasing
rhyme of ‘porn’ and ‘corn’ ensured that an
ensuing disagreement between the filmmaker and NAC’s general
manager escalated into a ‘news’ event.
Photo by Steve Rowell
Mental Contagion: The Not
A Cornfield project has taken some criticism
for its $3 million cost and its conceptual basis of art as action,
activism and nature. Did you anticipate this kind of response?
How was it handled?
Not A Cornfield: I’m going to address
that question first by quoting Lauren directly from Not A Cornfield:
History, Site, Document, a book about the project: “My
relative innocence as to local electoral politics and the dynamics
of power in downtown Los Angeles may have been a blessing, as I doubt
I would have had the nerve to do the piece if I had been more savvy.”
That quote speaks more to a concern with operations of power in
the real world than to worries about perception of the project’s
conceptual basis and I think it is a good reflection of the project’s
driving force; for NAC was very much about both realizing an artists’ vision
and about affecting change in a real life situation.
I think it would be fair to say therefore that criticisms were met
by an unswerving commitment to both the intentions of the project
and the transformative power of an art project. At the same time
though, Lauren was extremely responsive to critique of the project’s
implementation. Initial criticism that the project, which occupied
a public space, was too much the vision of a single artist for example,
initiated waves of effort to make the project as porous as possible.
$3 million is a lot of money and spending it in this way provoked
discussion for sure. I recall that a new local art magazine published
a piece after NAC had finished. It was an interview with a farmer,
a relative or family friend of the writer, which basically asked: “Hey,
for that kind of money how much farming could you have done?” I
may have the specifics off, but that was the spirit of the piece.
And it’s a fair question. Except a truly fair comparison would
have asked how many local people did you employ at a fair wage this
year? How many local high school students did you bring aboard for
your summer jobs program? How many scores of musicians, educators,
filmmakers, artists, historians, gardeners, storytellers and other
creative people did you hire to do their thing? How much money is
human relatedness worth? And how much is it worth to inspire other
brownfield projects, or at minimum discussions like we’re having
here about brownfield projects and art actions?
Obviously that’s not all going to appear in a free deadline-oriented
publication that’s trying to make a splash. But these are exactly
the sorts of issues that the NAC team would discuss at length, regularly.
Many of my colleagues weren’t just brought in from nowhere,
they had vast experience tackling these sorts of deep and weighty
Mental Contagion: Were other
other land artists consulted about the objectives and challenges
of this genre of art? What insights were shared? What do you feel
are the successes of the Not A Cornfield project?
Not A Cornfield: The term ‘land
artists’ calls to mind practitioners whose work was rooted
in the exodus away from “white cube” gallery practices.
Artists like De Maria, Holt, Turrell and Smithson, who most usually
made their (somewhat solitary) sculptural works in wide-open landscapes.
These are certainly forebears, but artists today are more likely
to be found dealing with environmental justice and land use issues
by interacting with the earth, nature and each other in urban environments.
There are quite a few in Los Angeles—the L.A. Urban Rangers,
Green Meme, Fallen Fruit, Fritz Haeg, Shannon Spanhake, Joel Tauber,
Claude Willey and Deena Capparelli, the Center for Land Use Interpretation …the
list could go on. We’re all in conversation, not least at Farmlab,
a project that grew out of NAC, where weekly salons provide an important
arena for sharing information, new ideas and support. And that may
be the biggest insight form my perspective—that we are all,
that we have to be, in this together.
NAC’s successes? Well, my answer to the previous question
about community speaks to what may be its primary achievement—from
a desolate hazardous space it created a beautiful place, supportive
infrastructures and a welcoming context for the performance of porous
community. In other words, from being a public space in name only,
NAC turned the Cornfield into a functioning successful public place.
Photo by Steve Rowell
But there is likely still more to come, for through the NAC project
Lauren and the team developed conceptual and practical approaches
to growing environmentally and economically sustainable parks. Team
member Mike Woo wrote a pamphlet on the subject and, last month,
a State Parks employee told me that State Parks is about to try out
some of the ideas it contains.
I’m going to leave the last word on the subject of NAC’s
legacy to Manuel Castells though. In a January 2007 conversation
he said: “I worked for a long time on social movements that
can be individual or collective. An individual can make a social
movement as a process of social change and cultural change. And all
social movements fail to some level. They are all betrayed, corrupted,
repressed, all. The only difference is those that die fruitfully
or uselessly, that's the thing. And the idea is that Not A Cornfield was
a social movement. Social movements are social processes aimed at
changing the values of society, and that's what the whole thing was
about. The jury's still out to see what will be its effect on the
culture of our society, on the minds of our people.”
Mental Contagion: Agnes Denes has
been referred to as a pioneer of the environmental art movement.
In her 1982 project, Wheatfield – A Confrontation,
a Battery Park landfill in NYC was converted into a field
of wheat, symbolizing world hunger and resource mismanagement.
Did this project inspire Not A Cornfield in
Not A Cornfield: Wheatfield – A
Confrontation did not directly inspire the project but Agnes
Denes made such an undeniably powerful contribution to constructing
the “conceptual basis of art as action, activism and
nature,” that I doubt whether it would have been possible
to create NAC as an artwork without it—or without such literal
and conceptual groundbreakers as Joseph Beuys, Suzi Gablik, Robert
Smithson, Merle Laderman Ukeles, the Harrisons, Mel Chin, Alan
Sonfist and Bonnie Sherk, to name but a few. That said, I do know
that Agnes Denes contacted Lauren early on in the project and Lauren
invited her to join her, Matt Coolidge (The Center for Land Use
Interpretation), and Ralph Rugoff (Hayward Galllery) on a panel
discussion about NAC that was being held at the Getty.
The planting of the corn was actually directly inspired by the name
and history of the Cornfield site. The origin of the name is debated—it
may reflect pre-colonial events, it may arise from the agricultural
endeavors of the first settlers or it may be that corn seeds fell
from freight cars on their way to a local mill and grew up between
the tracks in the twentieth century rail yard. Whatever its origin
though, the name speaks to the once-fertility of the locale and its
status as the birth site of Los Angeles. It is a matter of powerful
collective memory and colloquial preference. Had the Cornfield been
popularly known as the Railyard, then the project would have been
a very different thing.
About the Not A Cornfield Book
"Not A Cornfield: Site, History, Document" tells
the story and the history of an art project that grew a
cornfield in downtown Los Angeles.
Both an object (the cornfield) and a meaningful social and ecological
space (not a cornfield), this work of
cultural activism transformed 32-acres of barren post-industrial
land into fertile earth.
In addition to detailing the project's logistics and events in sounds
and images, Not A Cornfield: Site,
History, Document also relates the often controversial histories
that intersect at the project site and articulates the many contemporary
questions that it raises.
Questions concerning, for example, such pressing issues as the nature
of urban public space and public
art, the ‘ownership’ of history, the politics of land
use, and collective and individual responsibilities in
relation to the various ‘ecologies’ that make up the
context of daily life are addressed in essays and
commentaries by artist Lauren Bon, poet Lewis McAdams, sociologist
Manuel Castells and geographer Michael Dear, among other prominent
writers and commentators.
The NAC team can be contacted directly via firstname.lastname@example.org or
by visiting the Web site at www.notacornfield.com.
To learn more about Lauren’s most recent project, visit www.farmlab.org,
or contact Farmlab at email@example.com.