Interview with The Mythological Quarter

October 31, 2011 · Print This Article

Bonnie Fortune and Brett Bloom are artists and former Chicagoans that make their home in Copenhagen these days. While many artists lend the same creative abilities to their homes as their practice, we rarely get a glimpse of what goes on there. Often, what goes on locally at home—the apartment, the neighborhood, the city—can feed back into a practice until the boundaries of artwork and lifework are comfortably confused. Fortune and Bloom use their blog Mythological Quarter to share their experience of making a home in a new place. This includes reviewing books about homesteading, recounting experiences making work in a new place, documenting instances of neighborhood ingenuity, and sharing creative experiments made in their apartment. Bonnie and Brett’s blog impressed me with the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment brought to all of their projects, whether it’s meant for an art festival or the living room. I sent Bonnie a few questions to chew on over email.

Passive herb watering system. Credit: Mythological Quarter

Bryce Dwyer: Where does the name “Mythological Quarter” come from?

Bonnie Fortune: Mythological Quarter is the name of a group of streets in the Nørrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen that are all named for Norse gods. Our street is Baldersgade. Balder was the son of Odin. Because our blog is primarily about hyper-local ecology and what people can do to live closer to and learn about their local environment, we thought it was a good idea to name it after our neighborhood. We also liked the imaginative possibility of the name, which is good because in the few short months since we started the blog it has morphed beyond the initial mission statement and intent. We started by detailing a lot of projects that we were doing in our home but have since evolved beyond that. We’ll return to that on occasion, but the focus is now a little broader.

BD: I don’t think it’s a leap of faith to believe that some of the same creative experimentation that happens in a conventional artist’s studio is at play in the home of an ecologically-oriented urban homesteader. Of course, the output of these impulses varies. In one scenario you might end up with a presentable art project, in the other, a batch of worm castings to feed your houseplants. How do you think of these different outcomes of artful living in relation to one another? 

BF: This is a good question because it relates to the slow morphing of the blog’s purview. I have a reluctant affection for the idea of urban homesteading. Certainly, I look at and am inspired by those authors that would put themselves in that category, but I also question their efficacy having tried, and continue to try, many of their DIY projects. My interest in homesteading ideas is research into how to become more connected to my immediate environment.

So many of us live in cities now that the question becomes how can one deal more directly with where one lives rather than put the environment or an idea of the natural world at a distance—as something that exists elsewhere.

I am very interested in incorporating ecological thinking (i.e. considering how we are part of rather than separate from the environment we live in) into my daily life and routines. Sometimes it’s achieved and sometimes I feel alienated by what living in a city really means—being removed from your food production, waste disposal, electricity, natural gas, etc.

Because I am trained as an artist, I automatically look at things from the perspective of producing culture. I think about how I can use my skills to make an improvement in the overall environment of the world. What does that look like if one of my main skills is cultural production? Making posters, writing, connecting people, making exhibitions, and making projects. The blog gives me a focused research platform that allows me to connect with other artists, but also scientists and those working with the contemporary environmental movement. But there are times when MQ veers off topic and focuses solely on art projects. Just as there are times when we can’t figure out the perfect indoor compost system and end up throwing away our table scraps.

BD: Do domestic experiments ever leave the house and become projects-at-large?

BF: Yes, our domestic experiments do become projects outside of the home. To start with MQ is a project somewhat outside of the home in that it is in the public sphere of the Internet. Currently we are planning a way to frame certain aspects of our research on MQ to make a book. MQ, as a project, is more about research and development—talking to others, reading, trying things and documenting those experiments. It is a testing ground for larger projects. For example, through an interview project for MQ, I met a group of local naturalists and biologists who helped me immeasurably in making a recent poster project for the local art fair.

BD: You and Brett have been collecting great resource books and making them freely available for a while now. What are some of your “desert island” books?

BF:
How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz
The Book of the New Alchemist, Edited by Nancy Jack Todd and E. P. Dutton
Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew
Ecology textbook, Edited by Began, Harper, and Townsend
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison

I started collaborating with Brett on a project called the Library of Radiant Optimism for Let’s Re-make the World. The project collected books from the late 60s and early 70s. Several of these books like the The New Alchemists, The Environmental Design Primer, and How to Build Your Own Living Structures focused on how to transfer ideas from the environmental movement to daily living—the beginnings of the green design movement.

Reading these books, collecting them together, and writing reviews led us to wonder about what people were doing now or how we could make our own experiments.  MQ stems directly from that collaboration. It is a more streamlined, less nostalgic version of that project.

What to take to a desert island? The problem here is that I think too literally about this. I would say How to Build Your Own Living Structures, but you need a hardware store to build some of these things and that’s not on a desert island. In fact when we moved to Denmark we had to leave a huge part of our library at home, so in a sense it was moving to a desert island (well, Copenhagen’s on an island anyway). Leaving our books at home was a hard decision but one determined by the economics of international flight. We’ve since started to rebuild our collection. As we do, I’m adding to the Book Reviews portion of the blog.

BD: What are the things that you’ve learned through amateur pursuit of useful knowledge that you might not have acquired anywhere else? Where might people have acquired this knowledge previously and can you speculate on some reasons for the change?

BF: I consider my artistic practice to be a research-based endeavor. Part of this is having gone through an academic system of art training, part of it is the way contemporary art making has evolved. I make art about what I am interested in, what I care about, and what I am passionate about. This is amateur in a sense, but also a professional pursuit of knowledge. For example, it has lead me to talk to scientists about how to properly conduct a survey of the biodiversity of an inner city empty lot so that I can make a poster about the process. I am not a scientist, I’m an amateur there, but I am still approaching the project with a level of professionalism. And I am genuinely curious about making sense of the world around me, in that sense it’s not an amateur pursuit of knowledge.

Another example: before moving to Copenhagen, Brett and I did a public art project for the city of Urbana where we built bat houses. We were interested in how to encourage wild habitats that are within and more integrated with the built environment of a city or town. We didn’t know what bats liked before starting the project, so we learned about them and their habitat needs to fully realize the project.

As to where people acquired knowledge previously: The Internet has obviously changed how we gather and share knowledge. This makes me think of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. First of all, he suggests that our planet needs a new name, Eaarth, because global warming has reached a point of irrevocably shifting the planet we knew as Earth. For the rest of the book he lays out how climate change happened and how it’s shaping the world. He concludes with what is being done and what can be done in the present day environmental movement. McKibben suggests that small-scale initiatives—things like Community Supported Agriculture, bartering systems, and generally doing things on a smaller scale—is the way to acclimate to living on Eaarth. Within all of this, he points out that the Internet is something that will continue to be a useful tool for connecting and sharing information between the world of self-sufficient and small-scale communities he imagines as the answer. This conclusion stuck with me because it was not what I expected him to write because he had already written about supporting hyper local initiatives (local farming, food sharing, etc) and the Internet seemed the exact opposite of this. Introducing the Internet into the system contradicts focusing on the local and also, by McKibben’s way of looking at it, a way to support and encourage the system.

We began Mythological Quarter (and other projects) trying to think about our immediate environment—the apartment, the neighborhood, etc. that we live in—the hyper-local. It is now a means for us to research, gather information, and share it with others. It’s a knowledge project on the edge of local and global.