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Not A Cornfield Lauren Bon
Not A Cornfield: Photo by Steve Rowell Lauren Bon, Project Artist


Cause & Effect + Art & Environment
A Cornfield Grows in L.A.
An interview with Janet Owen Driggs for Not A Cornfield

January-February, 2008

Janet Owen Driggs

Not 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.

Janet Owen Driggs, Team Member and editor, Not A Cornfield: History, Site, Document


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 respond?

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 story.

Not A Cornfield
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 public use.

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 the site?

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.

Not A Cornfield
Photo by James Goodnight

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.

Not A Cornfield
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.

*(Miwon Kwon, "One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity," 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.

Not A Cornfield
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 issues.

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.

Not A Cornfield
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 any way?

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 info@notacornfield.com 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 info@farmlab.org.


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