I’ve always been fascinated by accidental gardens. Some of the most beautiful gardens in Chicago can be found in the abandoned lots in-between buildings, or in the alleys behind people’s homes and apartments next to the cars and trash cans. In Oak Park, where I live, you can find all sorts of lovely micro-gardens in the strips of dirt between property lines. Sometimes it seems like the best gardens arise in the spaces that people pay the least attention to. Carson Fisk-Vittori‘s use of plants, and particularly her manner of arranging plants and other objects in two and three-dimensional space brings these types of gardens to mind, although nothing about Fisk-Vittori’s approach is accidental. I first encountered Carson’s work at Chicago’s MDW Fair a few months ago – her vacuum-packed plant sculpture was set against a wall with a purple, stipple-paint background at Roots & Culture’s booth. I’ve been curious to learn more about it ever since, and am very grateful to her for taking the time to answer my questions.
Claudine Ise: There seems to be a connection between plant life and movie making in your work. The photograph titled “Movies,” for example, shows a bunch of dandilions wrapped up in newspaper printed with movie ads, including one for The Prince of Persia; the photograph titled Deleted Scenes shows a casual arrangement of rocks (some sort of rock garden?) placed on a white sheet. And in Sunset, 2008, a photographic print of a sunset is sort of stuck casually behind a cactus, like a painted backdrop in a movie, but it’s obviously not an illusion that’s comprehensive enough for anyone to believe. Looking at all of your other images it seems to me like plants function like actors playing roles in a scene. (As in the “advertisements” in your earlier bodies of work). Which is a pretty funny idea, in that in humans, being compared to a plant/vegetable is a way of saying someone is brain dead. Can you talk about the works I mention above a bit – what’s behind your references to film-making or advertising production?
Carson Fisk-Vittori: My photographs are more connected to advertising and mass media than movies specifically. Though I guess movies are often times elaborate commercials anyway. Advertising companies are experts at feeding images and messages straight into our brains. So using that format in my work allows me to incorporate the techniques that may have taken them years to develop to act against or in opposition to our consumer-based economy through the celebration of the everyday.
Some of my work directly references advertising by title: Toothpaste Ad, Venus Ad, and Perfume Ad, all from 2009, and many of the other photographs use techniques such as gradient backdrops, color, and arrangement to reference advertising culture. One of my intentions is for viewers to realize that you can make everything around you look intriguing with the right lighting and composition, and hopefully realizing that you already have everything you need.
An earlier work, Sunset, 2008, evolved from an experiment involving the use of gradient back-drops added to different domestic or ordinary scenes to examine if the technique would make an image more interesting to the eye. By revealing some of the “tricks” that are used in advertising, viewers will begin to question how images are manipulative. Deleted Scenes, 2010 is an image of a found arrangement of rocks by a creek bed that were re-placed onto a paper backdrop in the same found arrangement. The act of removing them from their natural context allows the viewer to examine the natural arrangement more closely. The graphic element of the backdrop removes the natural background element, making the image similar to a diagram, which is easier for us to understand.
CI: Tell me about the shrink-wrapping of plants in some of your recent sculptures and photographs (like the photos I saw at Roots & Culture’s booth at Midway Fair). Shrink-wrapping is a preservative technique, but of course plants need air, sunlight and water to survive, like we do. Do you unwrap the plants after you’ve photographed them? Lamp Design #2 is 3-D sculptural object, correct? It looks like you’ve inserted plastic balls within the fronds of two fern plants, and shrink-wrapped them to create and freeze their forms. How quickly do the plants decay once shrink-wrapped? Is decay part of the piece? (I’ve never seen one of the 3-d pieces in an exhibition, so I don’t know if we are meant to observe the object over a period of time). Tell me how the lamp design part fits in.
CFV: “Lamp Design #2” is a vacuum packed floral arrangement (as opposed to shrink-wrapped). It was part of the installation at Roots & Culture’s booth at MDW, as well as New Capital’s exhibition “Life Style Appropriate.” It is three-dimensional in nature, but exists in the photographic form as well. This piece recalls the floral arrangements I have previously shown which are ephemeral in nature but exist as photographs for the purposes of documentation. My first iteration of a “lamp design”, Lamp Design, 2010 was part of “Casual Object Garden and Other Material Matters,” a collaborative exhibition with Michael Hunter at Roots and Culture in 2010. It consisted of a large light box with a plant resting on top of it. Lamp Design #2, 2011, which you described as two fern plants with plastic balls, also has a light component: the marbleized ball lights up with led lights. Titling them “lamp design” is in one way blurring the boundaries between art and design, and also playing with the idea of producing absurd furniture designs.
My first experimental floral arrangements appeared in the Real Normal Spring Collection (2009), at the now-defunct Scott Projects in Chicago, IL. I installed floral arrangements that were scattered around the space, some of which were very minimal, with crude or simple constructions using basic household supplies and containers in the arrangement. At the time I was becoming interested in Ikebana, the art of Japanese floral arrangement, and wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy on the beauty of all things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. The floral arrangements I create have a life span ranging from days to weeks, and often times change multiple times during an exhibition. I am interested in the gesture that impermanence implies. In the art world objects are generally made to be archival and last forever, however this is a false permanence since everything is evolving from and going towards nothingness. The floral arrangements are a moment in time and an appreciation for the ephemeral and unmonumental.
CI: Works like your installation “Casual Object Garden,” 2010, and photographic images like “And Also More,” “Weekend Shapes” and “New Forest Table” from 2010 lead me to ask if you see a relationship between the making of a pictorial composition and the act of gardening? Both in terms of artistic intent and the impact of chance occurrences on the results?
CFV: I’m interested in playing with casual placement and intended placement. There is something interesting about examining a presentation of objects that have no intended organization. When I was installing Casual Object Garden with Michael Hunter, we would be unconsciously unpacking our work, and later come back to it and find something interesting in the way it was, in a way, automatically arranged. By accepting such cosmic arrangement you are sometimes left with more interesting possibilities than you might find by organizing in the grid-like way that our minds think. I like going back and forth between those two extremes.
CI: I liked the collaborative group show you participated in with Derek Frech, Justin Kemp, Joe Lacina, Joshua Pavlacky, and Daniel Wallace at LVL3, which was titled “A Rod Stewart Little Prince Charles Manson Family” and, like the title of the show, looked like it was produced according to the principles of exquisite corpse. The individual works on view did not have an artist’s name attached to it, rather each appeared to be the product of the entire group. Can you tell me about how that show came about, and how you as individual artists worked together to create the objects in the exhibition – you communicated remotely, right? Via internet, etc.? Was having to communicate in spite of your geographic remoteness from one another part of the idea?
CFV: The show originated from three Philadelphia artists, Derek Frech, Joe Lacina, and Daniel Wallace, at their space Extra Extra. They previously collaborated on a similar exhibition, “Soft Focus,” 2010. The new iteration of the project, “A Rod Stewart Little Richard Prince Charles Manson Family,” 2011, added three additional artists: Massachusetts-based artist Justin Kemp, Philadephia artist Joshua Pavlacky, and myself. No work in the exhibition had a single artist attached to it; rather the entire project was a collaborative endeavor. This in part removed the artists’ ego from the work and allowed for a free flow of ideas.
Communicating remotely between 6 artists in 3 different locations became a large component of the process. To begin, we created Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Our collaborative Twitter was also anonymous, which further enabled a free flow of uncensored ideas. Our Tumblr acted as a work-shopping tool; everyone uploaded mock-ups of ideas that would then be commented on and further discussed in video chat meetings. This collaboration began about six months prior to the exhibition. Once the in-person installation began at the gallery, all of the artists were together in a real space, except for Justin Kemp who was Skyped in daily and acted as a consultant for the duration of the installation. During the installation, materials and objects were arranged and re-arranged until the group made a consensus.
CI: What do plants mean to you? When did you start using them in your own work, and why?
CFV: My work with plants started as a reaction from moving from a rural setting in Austin, TX to the urban midwest city of Chicago six years ago. In the city the wilderness is very contained. Everything is either manicured or intentionally abandoned, to a point where the flowerbeds on Michigan avenue contrast with the abandoned empty lots, and both, in their differences, become these kinds of arrangements. They at once show our love of natural beauty, our need to control it, our ignorance and arrogance. I began to look at it in this way where a soda can thrown in a flower pot is a gesture, because it is intentionally placed whether or not the person was aware of it or not. It’s really a natural gesture, like eating a cherry and spitting out the core, but in our world we are dealing with these man-made objects that are specially designed and branded. The contrast of man-made object and plant life really shows how far away we are from living with nature. I basically started looking closer at these casual arrangements and creating my own with elements of plants and man-made objects. My first gesture was in my backyard, Portal, 2007, which is an image of a mirror leaning against a bush. In the image it looks as if the grass is climbing up the bush in the form of a prism, and almost looks like a digitally constructed image. From there I really started to get interested in exploring my own arrangements of natural and man-made rather than found situations. I view these arrangements as microcosms for our relationship with nature.
CI: What type of houseplants do you have in your own home/apartment? Do you have a garden, and if so, what’s in it?
CI:What you are working on right now?
I’m currently in the midst of a few different projects. I am working with Seattle-based artist Sol Hashemi, on a landscape design proposal, that we hope to begin materializing in the next year or two. Philadelphia artist Derek Frech, and I are collaborating on an installation relating to man-made displays of natural bounty. And the latest iteration of my ongoing collaborative practice with Chicago-based Michael Hunter, NewHands, it is a mainly text based practice.
I will be included in a group exhibition at the Philadelphia ICA this fall entitled “Blowing on a Hairy Shoulder / Grief Hunters,” curated by Israeli artist Doron Rabina, and I will be having my first solo exhibition this August at Important Projects in Oakland, California.
Eric May is a founder of Roots & Culture, a nonprofit gallery space in Chicago that features stellar group and two-person shows throughout the year. May is also the longtime chef at Ox-Bow, a 95 year old summer school/retreat for artists located in Saugatuck, MI. (You can read more about Ox-Bow on Art21 blog here). It’s not completely uncommon to see houseplants in a contemporary art gallery, but the front-window “garden” at Roots & Culture is truly special – the first time I visited R&C several years ago, it was the foyer that really captured my fancy. It’s earthy, beautiful, completely unpretentious, and somehow those plants seem to encapsulate everything that Roots & Culture and its approach to exhibiting art (and creating community around art exhibition) is all about. Heidi Norton and I talked to Eric about how he came to found R&C, his passion for sustainable living, his life at Ox-Bow, and a range of other topics. We’re truly grateful to him for taking the time to talk with us.
Claudine Ise: Tell us about how you found the space that Roots & Culture is in. I’ve always been struck by the fact that although it’s a storefront space, the setup inside is really homey – and in fact, there’s a full kitchen in back, and you have a “garden” in the front, not unlike a home. You transplanted the kitchen from Ox-Bow – why? And what kind of plants are in the front window? They all seem to be thriving there.
Eric May: Initially, I had been shopping around for a space without a clear idea of what I had in mind. Really, I had been growing bored with the Logan Square area where I had lived for seven years and it was time to move. The Noble Square/ East Village area was appealing. It was affordable and seemed much more central. So I started looking in that area for a few months. My dad actually first came across the space at 1034 Milwaukee and let me know that it was a potentially interesting space to house many activities. I was looking for a place that would be multi- functional, a live/work type of environment but not exclusively an exhibition space. I was for sure captivated by the idea of art cohabitating with daily life which I had come to experience through apartment galleries and the like in the Chicago scene in the early to mid 2000’s. I was also working as a curator at another nonprofit gallery, so when we found the storefront it seemed like a natural choice to open as a gallery. And it had ample studio space in the basement and a modest loft that we built out as an apartment.
I really lucked out I think, because I had enough space to build out a clean, professional gallery. I remember consulting John Corbett about my initial plans to open an apartment gallery and he said, “just make sure that there aren’t stacks of pizza boxes everywhere”.
Also I was really impressed by spaces like duchess and 65GRAND, which I felt were very successfully exhibiting work in crisp, clean spaces while still feeling welcoming and homey. So a certain level of professionalism was always in mind as we designed the space. That said, I deeply believed in the idea that by creating an exhibition space which had a domestic, holistic feel, it could slow down the viewing process- a space in which an audience can linger and exchange. Offering food at our events seemed like a great way to encourage this type of viewing experience, since I have a background in cooking. As for the stove- Ox-Bow had begun renovating and rebuilding certain buildings on campus in late 2005, which included the kitchen. I asked them if I could keep the old stove (which I had learned to cook on), at the time having no idea what to do with it. My friends were kind enough to let me store it in their barn on the farm in northwest Indiana and fortunately a year later I had a space to move it into. The party is always in the kitchen, so we designed an ample kitchen as a reception area with the old stove as the focal point.
The hearth, a source of warmth and nourishment, is an essential nucleus of a happy, healthy home and I thought this would be a wonderful attribute of the space. I like to see Roots & Culture as a bigger project, an experiment in ecology both social, domestic, and also biological, more on the latter to follow.
Heidi Norton: My parents spent their 20′s living off the land- building cabins, raising animals, crops and subsequently it has influenced my art and life extensively in a variety of ways. You have been committed to Ox-Bow for many years, can you talk about how a space like Ox-Bow and it’s relationship to nature and land has influence your philosophies around art and food? What is Ox-Bow to you?
EM: Ox-Bow is my favorite place, my second home, and a place that has taught me a lot in my adult life. I grew up in places with access to nature and was super interested in plants and animals as a child. In fact I spent most of my summers in the Western Michigan area, so the Saugatuck area was very familiar and a landscape that felt native to me. Ox-Bow’s land is a treasure of untouched natural beauty in the Midwest and has a rich and diverse ecosystem. I have encountered many a breathtaking natural experience in my years- the mating dance of the ichneumon wasp, finding giant moths on my cabin, stumbling across a family of barred owl chicks, spotting a red fox darting across the meadow, foraging from a dead tree in full bloom with chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms. A few of my early co-workers in the kitchen grew up in rural areas, so they proved to be a wealth of knowledge in the old ways and taught me many old timey skills such as canning, pickling, homebrewing, slaughtering chickens, and gardening. We have an ethos of wasting as little as possible, composting everything, using scraps for stocks, etc. The area is a fecund and robust agricultural region and we have access to an amazing bounty of naturally raised produce. Its funny because the mantra of seasonal, local, farm-to-table eating has become so fashionable in the city and it’s the kind of philosophy that has existed in the Ox-Bow kitchen for decades. And our producers, until recently, did not have to advertise the virtues of their products because they have all along just adhered to the old ways, generations of sustainable farm practices. So clearly living and working in the heart of the country has had a huge influence on my approach to cuisine. There is a more meta influence that Ox-Bow has had upon my broader practice and I think its pretty simple- in this experience which is closer to the land, I have learned a sensitivity toward relationships between ourselves, our environment, and the other beings that populate it. Equally central to this is the closeness of the community and shared experience, which is focused 24/7 on the pursuit of creative endeavors. The proximity in which we work and live requires a sensitivity to others and a sense of collectivity. These are core values to what I do.
CI: Do you have a garden at home? If so, what’s in it?
EM: You might call our horticultural dabblings at R & C “gardens”. I like to keep a diversity of plants and animals around me, so I have always kept pets and house plants. The foyer garden at the gallery began as a collection of my houseplants. It’s probably the efforts of Mike Wolf, who has been a resident of the space for four years, that nudged the houseplant zone into what you might call a garden. Over the years, he’s started fruit trees up there. Green onions grow pretty successfully. I was really impressed when he pulled up some voluptuous bulbs of ginger out of one of the pots recently. He has also ran a compost program in the basement and always has seeds germinating down there. Last year I built out an unused room in the basement into a garden and contemplative space that I call the “Grow Room.” I successfully grew lettuces, radishes, and herbs, but ultimately felt like the produce was lacking in a robust flavor that I reckon is developed from natural sunlight. The electric bills also did not exactly make the endeavor a sustainable practice in terms of energy produced versus energy consumed. I also have grown mushrooms down there, which require far less light, and now I primarily grow exotic mushrooms down there these days- shitakes, blue and pearl oysters, and lion’s mane mushrooms.
HN: Claudine and I recently stumbled upon this restaurant at the Crocker Museum for Art in downtown Sacramento, opened by a “philosopher”, chef and artist, Jonathon Keats. Keats says, “this is not a restaurant for humans to eat plants; rather, it is an exercise in creating a dining experience for the plants themselves, with a menu of enhanced sunlight that is designed to appeal to their sophisticated sensory apparatus, providing them with not only energy, but also a satisfying, piquant, and delightful experience.” In your opinion, what does this “solar gastronomy” offer to human mankind and to plant/botanical mankind? What are your views on this dining by the electromagnetic spectrum philosophy? Gimmick or cool?
EM: This “plant restaurant” project looks pretty silly to me. I like the idea of revering plants and drawing focus to their life cycle. But to call it a restaurant and to frame the serving of light to organisms that do not perceive pleasure to cuisine seems a bit of a stretch. And this is coming from someone who has hosted dinner parties for wild animals. In my work, though, I am highlighting the differences in consumptive habits of people to animals and unpacking the anthropomorphizing of animals. I’m having a hard time locating intention for Keats’ framing this work as cuisine. In my grow room project I have been interested in the co-presence of consumption and production of horticulture. That said, an aspect of this work, the idea of granting plants their own time and space to consume is kind of cool. Maybe it would be more complicated for an audience if they were invited to dine upon plants as the plants “dine” upon light. I like his cookbook format though, recipes are a great discursive tool for work like this, a strategy I’ve used in some of my own writing. It kind of harkens back to the old school conceptualists and their lists of directives for recreating their work.
CI: To me, the name ‘Roots and Culture’ has a kind of retro-hippy vibe that doesn’t scream out “Contemporary Art shown here!” What does the name of your space mean to you?
EM: The name, I get this question every once in awhile. Retro- hippy vibe works for me! The name comes from my love of reggae music, Roots & Culture was a movement in Jamaican music during the early to late seventies, which is aligned with the Rastafarian movement and Garveyism. Of course it’s more than a little clumsy to reference such a specific historical moment that my only real connection to is through cultural fandom. More generally though, the music represented a shift from more base, popular subject matter to socially conscious meaning. I like that as a metaphor for our activities. I like the slipperiness of signifiers too, and I like the openness of the name. It is very clear in a way, but also layered with other referents, like to botanical and fungal ideas. This kind of broad way to talk about ecology is at the core of my practices and I couldn’t really articulate that when I first opened the space, but have now come to as my practice has expanded.
If you’re a avid (albeit amateur) gardener like me, this might be up your alley: G.E.E.E. (aka General Economy Exquisite Exchange 2011) is currently in operation at the Hyde Park Art Center (thru October 1st, 2011). Billed as “a post-retail museum shop and rooftop tomato garden where neighborly value has become the operative currency and creative bartering has become the dominant mode of exchange,” G.E.E.E. is in essence a trading post, where you can bring your own plants, seedlings, or gardening materials to exchange for the ones that are available there. What you exchange doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of physical goods — also welcome are what the folks behind G.E.E.E. (the Cream-Co. Collective) describe as “immaterial support (dialogue, advice, recipes)” — this could take the form of information exchange or even just a good story.
I stopped by G.E.E.E. several weeks ago, and was completely charmed by every aspect of its homespun display — the handmade, hand-lettered signs, the multi-colored array of seedlings, the little ceramic pig where you can leave money for things you want to purchase at cost. I traded a number of gardening books for a chocolate mint plant, which now sits in a pot in my back yard and which I compulsively sniff every time I go outside. All of the offerings are seasonal, so expect the plants, seedlings, and other good stuff to be changed up on a roughly weekly basis.
The thing about G.E.E.E. is that, if you garden, and if you’re even remotely friendly, you already get what G.E.E.E. is all about. I have plants growing in my garden that were given to me by at least three different neighbors on my block, and it’s common for us to swap stories and advice and the occasional embittered gripes about our gardens having too much shade. But what I find most valuable about G.E.E.E. is the way in which it highlights extant social relations, particularly those that occur neighbor-to-neighbor, whether you live next door or call across to each other from your balconies.
Despite the shitty, depressing, grey, cold, seemingly neverending, and did I say shitty? winters in Chicago, I think there is something so truly lovely, and deeply hopeful, about the act of gardening here. I’ve written about my love for the different kinds of gardens you see in this city before. For some reason it’s always the tiniest efforts that seem to make the biggest impact – you know damn well that if Spring and Fall are short-seasoned, you’re not going to get to enjoy the fruits of your labor for all that long, but still you pull the weeds and breathe in the dirt and try and make a happy home for the worms, and you do it because most of all it’s fun, but also because you’re bringing color and scent and texture and order and chaos to life, after so many months of grey, frozen dormancy.
Can you tell that winter hit me kind of hard this year?
At any rate, give G.E.E.E. a visit. I promise it will lift your spirits if you’re feeling low – it made me think of how grateful I am to have nice neighbors, and most of all a garden that’s more than willing to work with me.
This Friday, May 20th, from 3pm – 7pm at HPAC G.E.E.E. will host the grand planting of the Center’s rooftop garden – and you can pick up a trowel and pitch in. The planting also double’s as the exhibition’s official opening. On Friday, your efforts will be rewarded via barbecue, and on the next day, from 10 am – 2pm, there’ll be a garden party to celebrate. Bring stuff to swap or donate – if you have questions or plants to swap, contact email@example.com. For more info, check out the GEEE blog.
Seen enroute to 65 Grand this weekend. This is one of the many great things about summer in Chicago. You can see these kinds of ad-hoc gardens everywhere, if you look for them.
Coincidentally, this weekend I also came across a book of photographs by Brad Temkin titled Private Places: Photographs of Chicago Gardens. It’s filled with images of modest urban backyards that look utterly familiar, unlike the glossy designer garden porn found in your typical home and garden magazines (though I love that too). Private Places is a fairly expensive coffee table book that only people who can afford more than a pocket garden can buy, but thankfully Temkin has an extensive web site containing a number of large-scale examples from the book, along with documentation of numerous other photographic works. Temkin’s “Private Places” series is not new (most of the shots were taken in the period 2000-2004), but it’s new to me, and worth another look by those already familiar with it as we career past the midway point of Chicago’s precious summertime season. I can already feel it slipping away.
(Click on these thumbnail images to be taken directly to Temkin’s website and to fully zoom-inable pictures of the gardens below). UPDATE: Wow, I am out of it. Turns out that Temkin is showing his photographs in Chicago right now, in an exhibition titled Chicago Gardens: Past and Present at the Chicago Tourism Center, 72 E. Randolph Street (through August 18th). Find more info on the show here, and apologies for not being on this in the first place.