Sunday, September 30, 2007

Not a Cornfield publication

A somewhat mysterious package arrived in the mail recently, addressed to someone with a name close to mine if spelled quite creatively. Upon opening the elegant package I discovered a two volume boxed set of books documenting the Lauren Bon-spearheaded Not A Cornfield project, which transformed a historic downtown tract of land in L.A. over the course of a growing cycle from May 2005 - April 2006. The two volumes extend the project in the form of an elaborate archive. One volume consists of images shot over the course of the project documenting the massive effort to turn a brownfield into an earthwork in the form of an agricultural cycle of corn planting and harvest. The aerial photography included in the collection gives a sense of the scale of this monumental project. The slightly thicker second volume is a timeline of the project and a collection of essays that contextualize the site historically and aim to position the artwork culturally. Divided into five sections that mirror the sequence of the project - brown, green, gold, blue and clear - the "text" volume navigates through the complex terrain of an ecologically-minded, politically charged site-based project in an urban context. Of particuar interest are Michael Dear's assessment of the site in the historical (non)memory of the city, Michael Ned Holte's discussion of the work in relation to other site-based projects and especially in relation to Agnes Denes' "Wheatfield: A Confrontation," and Christine Wertheim's response to the charge that the project should not be considered art. Wertheim employs Duchamp to remind us that what constitutes art after modernity is no longer a matter of categorical inclusivity or exclusivity. I think the legacy of Duchamp is an interesting lens through which to view the project, but not in exactly the way Wertheim proposes. The lasting relevance of the Duchampian readymade is the potential for an artistic project (or act or gesture) to point to the context in which we are viewing the work. The fact that Fountain was deemed too offensive for the exhibition to which it was submitted is precisely why the work had resonance. If Not A Cornfield is read in a Duchampian light, it seems less important that we think of the project as art or non-art. Rather we might focus on the context out of which the project emerged. The context of this project proposed innumerable challenges: the logistical dynamics of a project of this scale, negotiations with the city, relations with a community of activists who worked for years to get the site designated as park land, the inevitable class and racial questions that emerge when doing public projects in an urban context, and the fact that the artist is a trustee to the Annenberg Foundation. This last challenge, which Bon herself reckons with in a forthright manner in the publication, is perhaps the most curious. It is not very often that we are forced to consider the challenges of an artist who, with the help of her family foundation, can receive funding in the millions of dollars to produce a civic-minded public project. While the fact that she herself is a trustee on the board of the foundation funding the project does not diminish the project, it gives the project a very specific valence. The discussion of the question of art or non-art might be more productively directed towards this unique set of circumstances and the very particular challenges that accompany this arrangement. That is to say, the question "Can we consider a corn field art?" is less interesting than "How is this project possible here and now?" Personally, I think one of the ways for Bon to confront the challenge of her position with the foundation would have been to refuse to take authorial credit for the project. This would have allowed the project to question the relation between artistic production and authorial subjectivity.
One of the most interesting aspects of Not a Cornfield was the vast and disparate groups that Bon brought together through a programming series at the site during the run of the project. I remember an evening watching films organized by the Echo Park Film Center and then dancing to cumbias by Very Be Careful amisdt corn stalks and stunning downtown views. Maybe Bon's strength as an artist has more in common with Warhol than Duchamp: She seems to be a master at bringing interesting people together to work on a project that bears her name. Although when I asked her, at one of the symposia at the edge of the cornfield, if she felt an affinity for Warhol during the Factory years, she seemed less than pleased.


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