What makes a weed a weed? It’s a question that goes beyond horticulture to take on broader cultural and even philosophical implications. I love weeds as much as I love to garden. Sometimes those two loves are in conflict with one another, other times they’re in harmony. My desire to learn more about weeds, along with other forms of backyard horticulture led me to Vanessa Smith, an agriculturalist, artist and arts administrator who is the exhibition programmer at The Presidents Gallery at Harold Washington College. Vanessa recently gave a workshop/lecture on the history of house plants and their culinary and medical uses at Cobalt Studio as part of the latter’s Hecho en Casa/Home Made exhibition. Unfortunately I only learned of the talk after the fact, but so eager was I to talk weeds with Vanessa, I asked her if she’d engage in a longer conversation with me about weeds, plants, backyard chicken and bee-keeping and a whole host of other projects she’s involved in, and she generously agreed.
Claudine Ise: You’re interested in narrative, specifically in narratives related to plants – the stories we tell each other about plant life, and how those stories help to keep certain heirloom fruits alive, and maybe even help restore varietals that have been “lost”. Can you talk about the importance of story-telling to (for lack of a better term) plant-growing and cultivation in general?
Vanessa Smith: Stories give importance and connections to the food that we eat so that we are not only getting our daily food, but we are linking ourselves to our past and to other people. The experience of hearing a story can shift our understanding of the past. So doing, it shifts our lives in the present and the future. This can apply to stories of any subject, and in fact all stories blend many subjects, but here I am most concerned with stories about plants, particularly food plants and plants considered weeds. The “story” of these plants could include their origination, who first named them and why they were named that, how they were used, what family or group used them, an aside about anything involving the plant, and etc. But it isn’t just about this data that could be compiled into a spreadsheet. The experience of eating or growing or even walking past something that has significance will change the way you eat, grow and walk past other things.
CI: I am always wanting to know the names of the different weeds that come up in my backyard or I encounter while taking walks. How did you start learning about those plants that are typically identified as ‘weeds’? What are some good ways for people to learn more about these types of plants?
VS: I first learned about them by working on my parent’s farm, especially in their vegetable garden. Weeds were simply identified by their out of place-ness, that they didn’t belong where they grew, according to what we wanted to grow. Because we were trying to grow vegetables and not weeds, I learned an antagonistic relationship to weeds. The way I thought about them started to change with the short time I spent with a forager. He made his modest living by driving his used Toyota through the dirt roads of southern Minnesota to find wild edibles that he could sell to restaurants in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I accompanied him once out of curiosity, and it really opened my eyes to pay attention to the plants growing on the margins. When you are foraging, you look for something in particular, but in the wildness of where you are looking you always notice a plant you aren’t expecting. I also did a few weed-centered workshops and forages with Nance Klehm in Chicago, which increased my attention to the ecology of the urban landscape.
The most ideal situation to learn about plants is from someone who can show you what is what in the place where they are growing so you can get a sense of its whole environment. Outside of that, there are many books and websites that can be helpful, I don’t have specific recommendations, but look up “wild plant identification books” online or at a library. Many have ways to guide the search by leaf shape or flower color and shape. I think it easy to get overwhelmed with all the plants out there. Perhaps it would be helpful advice to just identify one or two plants and learn about them, find them in different places, observe their changes through a season.
In identifying plants, the more you learn, the more connections you can make between related plants, wild or domesticated. And there are many connections to make – for example, wild lettuce is a very common weed in Chicago. The endless varieties of lettuce that are grown all started with that wild plant.
CI: I’m really interested in the cultural processes by which a plant comes to be identified as a weed. What makes a weed a weed? Is it the plant’s tendency towards rampant, spreading growth? Or it’s lack of flowers (although many weeds bear flowers)? I’m also interested in the status of plants that are sort of in-between being the kind you garden-cultivate and weeds – like lamb’s ear, lemon balm or spider wort. I have all three of these in my backyard right now which I planted or kept (or transplanted) specifically because I like them so much. What are some of your favorite weeds? How easy is it to grow them as houseplants? Can you provide those of us who are interested in this with a few “how to” steps/tips that you shared during your urban foraging session/lecture at Cobalt?
VS: “Weed” is a very relative term – it is a word used to denote a plant out of place. It can refer to a plant that is an invasive species – one that spreads quickly and out-competes native plants because it doesn’t have any evolutionary checks to its growth. Most of the invasions are from the hands of people – due to bringing the plants in for food, medicine or cultural reasons and then they escape from the garden and run wild. Many weed-empathizers say that the best way to eradicate weeds is to love them to death. Imagine what our dandelion-filled lawns would look like if everyone were edging in on the spring greens for salads, the blossoms for dandelion wine, and the roots for roasted dandelion root coffees!
For the project at Cobalt space, which was a group show and performance program on the topic of “home,” I foraged for some commonly found weeds in empty lots and along railroad tracks and brought them into the space in pots. I wanted to give the weeds the value of houseplants by the simple act of bringing them inside. It was also interesting to confuse the distinctions of domesticated and wild. I gave a tour of them to talk about their history and some uses that they have.
One of the plants I had at Cobalt that I am most fascinated with at the moment is Japanese Knotweed, or Polygonum cuspidatum. It was brought in to this country from Japan as an ornamental plant (probably under the name Japanese Bamboo to market it, though it is unrelated to bamboo) and for erosion control because it grows quickly. It is spreading rapidly now and is very hard to eradicate, even using chemical control. It is an interesting plant because of its initial desirability as an ornamental, and because it has many edible parts – shoots, stems, flowers. In the spring, the first tender shoots look like asparagus, but have a tart, rhubarb flavor. The plant contains high amounts of resveratrol, an antioxidant that is also found in wine.
I don’t keep many houseplants, domesticated or wild, because I don’t have great light in my living space, but I am incorporating weeds into my backyard garden where I can. The first weed I deliberately planted was stinging nettle, or itch weed as I grew up calling it. I remember being a kid of maybe 4 years or so just walking through a patch of it and it stinging my bare legs. I was scared and in pain, not knowing what was happening, so all I could do was cry. My mom was close by and she scooped me up, took me to the house and washed my skin with soap to soothe the sting. I learned from Nance’s workshops how valuable this plant is despite its tendency to cause skin irritation! The plant contains many minerals and it makes a delicious simple tea.
Weeds are so resilient that if given the opportunity, whether it is in a pot in your apartment or in a sidewalk crack, they will give it their best effort to grow. Sun is the major consideration, though, if you wanted to create a wilderness in your apartment. They should have as much sun as possible. I don’t know how difficult it would be, but I love the idea. In one respect the commonly kept houseplants are selected because they are very forgiving if they don’t get constant attention, and this describes weeds as well!
CI: You also keep bees and chickens in your backyard. I’m curious about how Chicagoans are able to keep chickens in their backyards, given our climate. What does a person need to be able to keep backyard chickens safely and humanely in terms of space needs, chicken coop construction, etc.? What do you do during winter or periods of extreme heat?
VS: I do keep chickens in my backyard, but I keep bees on my friend’s rooftop and at an orchard outside of Chicago. The chickens do well in the wintertime, given that they have plenty of food, access to unfrozen water, and a dry, draft-free living space. The essential need is a good coop structure, and access to dirt is great if possible. It feels more natural for hens to have access to dirt, but there are a number of great examples of people keeping chickens in Chicago in unconventional spaces like the balcony of a condominium or a rooftop. In some Chicago backyards, soil contamination, the major one being lead, is an issue, so care should be taken in regards to this because chickens end up eating a lot of soil as they scratch around looking for bugs and small rocks to help their digestion. There are some great sources of information on chicken keeping in the Chicago Chicken Enthusiast Google Group moderated by Martha Boyd of Angelic Organics Learning Center.
CI: Tell me about your work with the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) and what the group is trying to accomplish. How long will it take for the trees to grow large enough to bear fruit?
VS: We are a group of six people from different backgrounds working to establish a community rare-fruit orchard in Chicago. Our focus will be mostly apples, some pears, apricots, plums, nectarines, peaches, and some lesser-known fruits like paw paws and medlars. All the fruits will be heirloom varieties, to increase awareness of crop diversity and to popularize these specific varieties. We are working with the city of Chicago towards securing a lot in Logan Square for the orchard. The site plan includes space for the orchard as well as planters along the sidewalks and a large public plaza.
It is a longer-term project – while we have been creating trees of these hard-to-find varieties ourselves by grafting for the last three years, we probably won’t see any fruit for the first three years of having the trees in the ground in the Logan Square site.
CI: And how about the Pedestrian Project that you and Alberto Aguilar are starting at the President’s Gallery at Harold Washington College, and the Green Roof Project that Harold Washington College is initiating?
VS: Pedestrian Project is the new branding of the collaboration at Harold Washington College between programming of the President’s Gallery, which I run, and the Visiting Artist Program, which Alberto runs. We both work out of the Art and Architecture Department there, and bring in artists for gallery exhibitions, lectures, workshops and residencies.
A dozen “Earthbox” planter boxes were donated to the college to grow vegetables in, and I was asked to plant in them a few weeks ago. There are long-term plans for permanent green roof development that would involve greenhouses and outdoor classrooms for which they are still raising money and getting support, but they wanted to get started with what they could in the short term. We got started late in the growing season, and if there is a sizeable harvest, we will give it to a community service organization that has a fresh market for low-income families. We are going to connect the programming of Pedestrian Project to the planters on the roof in an exhibition next spring that will be of ecologically- focused art and events. Stay tuned!
CI: You’ll be in residence at Karolina Gnatowski’s apartment space in Chicago this year. I know you’re still in the conceptual stages, but is there anything you can share about what you’re planning? How long will the residency last?
VS: The residency will be a few weeks from mid September through the beginning of October. The residency project is called WorkWork and it is about collaborations based in her home studio. I will hold a dinner event, which will be a potluck encouraging people to bring a foraged dish or a dish that has a narrative of significance to them. I also want to help Karolina and her partner find a system that works for them to compost their kitchen waste. An earlier resident, Daniel Lavitt, created a mobile book-making station with Karolina, so it will be tempting to do an artist book, or short-edition multiple around the themes I have been working with. A continuation of the houseplants project started at Cobalt will be there in some form as well!
All photos are courtesy of Vanessa Smith.
Hui-min Tsen: Building the boat was an unexpected experience for me — it was not something I ever thought I would do. When Jim and I first started collaborating, I had been working with ideas of urban exploration where I was exploring the city (calling it an expedition) and referencing explorers of the past. Jim had been dreaming about building a boat and the initial plan was that he would build the boat, I would lead in sailing it, and we would collaborate on all the side projects. As the project progressed, though, it became evident that one person couldn’t build a boat alone and that we were collaborating fully on every aspect of the project — it no longer made sense to divvy up tasks to one person or the other. I did not have a lot of previous woodworking experience, so a lot of what I was working on, especially at first, was the less intricate work like cutting pieces to size, planing down wood, routing. A lot of the building process was new to both of us, though, so we worked together on testing the epoxy, figuring out how to read the plans, and eventually developed our own working methods and rhythms in the shop for techniques like getting all the screws in before the epoxy set, etc. To be honest, I often had mixed feelings about the amount of time and labor building took — it’s not the kind of work I naturally decide to do — but at the end of the day, I was always so proud and happy with the results and the experience of learning, that I was really glad to be there. I especially enjoyed it when I had my own tasks to figure out, like making the mast, boom, and gaff, the centerboard and rudder. So much of the project wound up being about the everyday act of learning and discovery and building the boat was at the crux of that discovery.
We always thought of the boat as both a functioning boat that we would sail and as an art object. It first and foremost had to float and handle well, but we also thought a lot about the conceptual tie-ins of the materials we were using, the act of making and documenting the construction, and how the boat would live when we were finished with it. Normally I tend to have a casual relationship with the craft of an object — I come from a photography background so the craft of the image has always been important, but the creation of a sculptural object was something new to me. Since the object was a functioning boat, the building and documentation of it was still very oriented around process and not just about the beauty of the final object.
In terms of working independently versus working with a partner, they are both methods I enjoy. I very much enjoy collaborating, whether it’s with other artists or making work that relies on an interaction with the public in order to take form. Jim and I would often talk about how we wound up doing things collaboratively that individually we would never think of doing and how much stronger the project was for that. Having such a long a involved collaboration pushed me as an artist in directions I wouldn’t have been comfortable with or thought of alone. When you have to work through ideas with someone else, you are forced to explain them far more precisely than you might be persuaded to do for yourself. Jim and I had very similar philosophies about art-making and how to exist within the art world.
There are times, though, when you really want to just dive into your own quirky interests. A project like the Pedway which very much followed my own train of thought, would have been difficult or impossible in a collaboration.
CP: What made you consider the Pedway as a site of artistic exploration? And how did you come to make the Pedway tour?
HMT: When I first came across the Pedway, I had been working on urban spaces and the mental constructions surrounding them such as fear, attachment and belonging. These projects often involved mapping and walks — but I kept searching for the perfect vehicle to work with. One of the things that had first attracted me to Chicago was its role in the history of American industrialization and modernization — the tension of optimism and fear that came with the late 19th and early 20th century boom. In my mind, Chicago had come to symbolize the Mythic City, a site which, like the Mythic West, lives primarily in the imagination. I read all about visions of futuristic cities, urban planning, the history of Chicago, and fictional representations of cities from silent movies and novels. When I first moved here, I kept looking around for traces of that Mythic City.
When I stumbled across the Pedway, I saw in it my Atlantis — the elusive city born of fantasies. I began exploring it, looking for secret passages and connections and the possibilities of what lay at the other end. The more I explored it, the more I saw that it had a clear beginning, middle and end. After I walked through it for the first time, I loved the way the corridor unfolded so much I wanted to show it to everyone else! I knew that the temporal and spatial experience of transitioning through all these unique locations all strung together would never translate to a 2-dimensional piece and that the path was so difficult to navigate, there needed to be a guide to help other people through.
Since I had been working on projects involving mapping, story-telling, and walking, I had been looking at artists such as Stanley Brouwn, Emily Jacir, and Francis Alys, as well as photographers such as Sophie Calle and Joel Sternfeld’s project “On this Site.” These artists were influential in showing how action, text, and photograph could be used to address issues of site and memory. I had also looked at tropes from travel and tourism such as how guidebooks use points-of-interest to tell a story. Since the Pedway unfolds as one path, or line, in time, it seemed perfect for playing with how a story of history and place can unfold as a tour. I realized we are often led to experience a tour (even something as simple as a self-guided nature tour through a park) as if we are the protagonist walking through a 3-dimensional play where the land is the stage set and the points-of interest are the plot points. I used this idea of tour-as-narrative as the guiding principle when writing the Pedway tour. I tried to loosely construct it as a three-act play where the guide is the narrator, the Pedway is the protagonist, you are the main character, and historical figures such as Cosimo, Potter Palmer, and Clara Bow are the supporting characters.
CP: Didn’t copyright issues play a role in your publicity materials? Can you talk about that?
HMT: I’m not sure it is as formal as copyright; no one has used that exact word with me, but some businesses have definitely taken issue with my photographing and how I’ve referred to them in some of my materials. Understandably they want to have control over how they are portrayed. When I was doing research for the project, I purposefully avoided interviewing the businesses in the Pedway. First, I didn’t want to be tied to their “official” histories and secondly, I didn’t want them to know me — I wanted maintain the luxury anonymity while moving through the spaces — sitting and observing the comings and goings in hotel lobbies and such, without people asking me questions about what I was going to use my observations for and when they could see the results. I had horrible visions of asking permission, being turned down, and then being banned from one of the buildings! Once I put the project out in public, I knew it would be much harder to remain anonymous. If you’re leading a group of 35 people through a lobby, security will notice you. Some business’ took issue with my photographing and a few have approached me about content. For instance, the Renaissance Hotel was unhappy I referred to them by an incorrect name on the map and asked me to change it to the “Chicago Renaissance Hotel.” I had kept their name a little more generic to blur the line between the Renaissance and the original hotel, the Stouffer-Riviere, calling them the Stouffer Renaissance Hotel on the first iteration of the map. I decided not to test the copyright issue, and changed it on later maps as per their request. For a while I was nervous that I would have to either conform to all the corporate histories or start omitting points-of-interest.
On the flip side, an unexpected and exciting result of bringing the project into the public is how it has lived in the public imagination and how my interpretation is helping to define the space. There is not much information about the Pedway out there, so when doing an internet search, my website comes up pretty quickly. Most of the hits I get are people looking for a map of the Pedway. I love the idea that people are walking around the Pedway holding maps pointing to the “Subterranean Parking Lot,” “The Descent” and “The Garden of Merchandise.” I keep wondering how it comes across to them — do they wonder why the portion they are walking down is labeled “The Medici Corridor”?
One building caught on to what I was doing was using my tour on their website as a selling point for their building! They thought it was good to be part of a mythologized space, saying I would lead them “through a historical dreamland unlike any you have imagined before.” Ironically, this was a building that had asked me not to photograph in it, so I don’t really have them as a point-of-interest on the tour.
By choosing to make it a public art piece, chance encounters like these became possible.
CP: How has the Pedway Tour transformed your idea of public space?
HMT: As someone who enjoys using the world-at-large as a studio, wandering the streets and photographing, I have often encountered the tension that can exist between public and private, ownership and invasiveness. With the Pedway, I encountered some unexpected issues of public/private. It turns out most of the Pedway is not actually public space, it is private space. This can create weird questions about access. However, I think the fact that it is a private space is part of the fantasy of a hidden corridor — it is your secret corridor. If it were just like walking down a public street, it would not be as fun.
During the two miles, the Pedway moves through varying degrees of public/private spaces as it passes through food courts, office lobbies, government buildings, the subway… Once you’ve gotten used to being in the private space of a hotel lobby, moving to the very public space of a subway platform can feel jarring. As I began noticing these shifts of private and public within the enclosure, I wanted to include that feeling of passing from one to another as part of the story. I let the experience help guide the narrative. In the first stage, the privacy of the corridor can be equated with your ownership of the space — it is a regal, luxurious, safe home that is yours and you can go wherever you want. The second stage (part 1) is a sudden thrust into the public government buildings. You are no longer separated and removed from the street — you are mixed in with the hustle and bustle, which can be intimidating. There are crowds and security cameras and the buildings exert an oppressive power above you. You feel much smaller and the presence of an external power is much greater. Here the story leaves the early urban history of the first stage and introduces turn-of-the-century ideas of Utopian planning. In the second stage (part 2) you are still with all the crowds, but this is a friendlier urban culture — more glamorous, more leisurely. It is more about the pleasures of moving within a public crowd. You ride mass transit, go shopping for mass produced goods in the department store, and enjoy a huge old library in the Cultural Center (the People’s Palace). The final stage, stage 3, is east of Michigan Avenue. This part of the city used to be a large railyard and was not developed until the 60s and 70s. I think of it as the suburban portion of the Pedway. There is a slight removal from the city, you are separated out again — it is clean, sanitized, comfortable and again you have a feeling of privacy, a feeling that no one will bother you as long as you behave according to code.
It is fun, while leading the tours, to watch other people encounter the surreal line between public and private that exists in the Pedway — many people ask me if we’re really allowed to be there. At one very disoriented part of the tour, down near Point-of-Interest #13, I draw attention to the fact that, although we are surrounded by the grid aesthetic, the normal lines of public space and the squares of private space normally associated with the grid, are no longer present. This, I feel, is one of the things that makes the Pedway so fascinating.
CP: Can you talk a little bit more about how you weave history through your work?
HMT: For some reason I find this question difficult to answer. Although history is constantly a part of my work, I often think of it as secondary to themes of exploration, travel, and the idea of elsewhere. And yet I keep coming back to it as the context and framework for almost all of my projects. I guess, I think of it as a form of Elsewhere, of another place, intangible but ever present — a place that exists as a force on the imagination and our collective or individual sense of self. History has a real influence and impact on the present, and yet that impact is laced with projected ideals. Like many locations and cultures that are not physically located where we are located, history can be an origin — an often mythological origin to be revisited and played with. Coming from a multi-cultural family, I am used to looking for cultural origins and seeing, instead of one version, a plurality of versions. I think this has had a big influence on my outlook and can explain why I keep looking at how strains of history and experience can simultaneously layer on top of one another.
When I am working on a project, the research and project usually have a give and take. With the Pedway, I had already done a lot of research before discovering the Pedway. I then allowed the space to determine the rest of the research — looking up particular buildings or related topics like the history of the geodesic dome. Ultimately, what I choose to use is what I find intriguing and what excites my imagination. Some things you just keep returning to without quite knowing why. I guess if I really knew why it was so mysterious, I wouldn’t have to make work about it!
CP: That makes me want to ask more about exploration. You’ve talked to me a little bit about a forthcoming project where you’re documenting the lake over an extended period of time, and then drawing out ideas of geographical exploration. It seems to me that the Pedway tour is also about exploration, as is the Mt. Baldy expedition. How does exploration play out in your interests?
HMT: Yes, the project was for the show “Hecho en Casa/Home Made” at Cobalt Art Studio. The show was about acts of domesticity, localness, and home so I decided to take a trip at home, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, an explorer I first came across while researching for the Mt. Baldy Expedition, but someone that we never used. I walked down to my local beach every day and looked out across the water, recording the weather conditions visible for as far as the eye could see. These observations were interwoven into a slideshow with the stories of Humboldt, Elisha Kent Kane, Margaret Fox, and the idea of north (the north pole and the northern islands of Lake Michigan).
I have always been attracted to photography’s ability to aid in exploration and looking. As you point the camera at something, the picture is attaching you to the distant. My recent projects have become more focussed on the act of everyday exploration. As globalization increases and we have more and more mobility and immediate contact with distant places, the predominant everyday experience remains one of being in one place and looking outward from there. It makes me wonder about how other places and times impact what and how we see. What is just over the horizon? What is just beyond the visible? What mental constructions are layered onto the world around us? Exploration is synonymous with curiosity, learning, looking and discovery — a lot of my motivation with these projects is simple curiosity about what lies over there. It seems that even with new technologies and globalization allowing us to see around the world via webcam and satellite and to eat foods or watch tv shows from anywhere in the world, our relationship with the unknown and the distant will always be part of our experience of being located.
Work by Lauren Levato.
Firecat Projects is located at 2124 N. Damen. Reception is tonight (Friday) from 7-10pm.
A performance by Hermes Santana and Gwenn-Aël LYNN and a workshop with James Kubie, respectively.
Cobalt Studio is located at 1950 W. 21st St. BlackXican pozole requires an RSVP and begins tonight (Friday) at 7pm. Electuary is Saturday from 1-3pm.
Work by Cameron Crawford.
peregrineprogram is located at 500 W. Cermak Rd., #727. Reception is Saturday from 5-8pm.
Performances by Thom Stebbins, Mallow Hazard, Ten Thousand Miles Of Arteries, and White Rose/Lincoln Johns.
Fill in the Blank Gallery is located at 5038 N. Lincoln Ave. Performances begin at 7pm. $3 suggested donation.
Work by Salvador Jiménez Flores.
Antena is located at 1765 S Laflin St. Reception is tonight (Friday) from 6-10pm.