Artists explore urban sustainability at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Fallen Fruit\'s Elysian Park, 2005

“Gatherers — Fallen Fruit, Elysian Park,” 2005, giclee print,
photo courtesy of David Burns, Matias Viegener & Austin Young
(downloaded from YBCA’s press room)

A new exhibition of artists’ responses to the concept of sustainability opened at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco last week. Called “The Gatherers: Greening Our Urban Spaces,” it brings together artists and activists from around the world to explore urban agriculture, food politics, urban development, and collective action. The exhibition includes an examination of the potato from Swedish artist Åsa Sonjasdotter, photos of green space and gardens in Istanbul, a digital triptych from the Los Angeles collective Fallen Fruit, and several other efforts.

During the exhibition’s run, some of the participating artists will be giving talks, leading tours or participating in discussions with the public. This coming Saturday and Sunday, the Fallen Fruit team will be there to talk with visitors about their installation and their fruit-picking efforts in Los Angeles (they might also be videotaping people’s stories about fruit, as they were last Sunday). Fallen Fruit — whose manifesto calls for streets to be lined with fruit trees and for people to plant food on the perimeter of their property so that passersby can share in the bounty — has received a lot of publicity for their public fruit-gathering tours in LA and elsewhere (see, for example, this video from KCET and an interview on KCRW’s Good Food). Other upcoming events include discussions with John Bela, the designer of the Victory Garden at S.F. City Hall, and Amy Franceschini, an artist who helped to reignite interest in the idea of victory gardens with her Victory Gardens +08 project.

A Salt Apology

Photo of \'A Salt Apology\' salt shaker from the GatherersAfter viewing The Gatherers exhibition, I went on guided tour organized by the Yerba Buena Center and led by the National Bitter Melon Council and the South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN). The Boston-based Bitter Melon Council — whose motto is “Better Living through Bitter Melon” — worked with local youth to identify sites in the South of Market neighborhood that they associated with bitterness. For each site, they made a salt shaker like the one pictured at left, and wrote the location and memory on the label.

At the beginning of the tour, we each picked a salt shaker and started walking through the South of Market neighborhood (I must admit that taking part of an art exhibition out of its gallery was a rather odd experience). With our tour guides pointing out important sites, we walked to each location and learned why the site was chosen, then ritually sprinkled salt on the sidewalk (perhaps symbolizing the saltiness of tears). An elementary school, for example, was a site of bitterness for one of the youths because the community unity that existed when he or she was a grade-school student has dissipated in the ensuing years. My bottle was marked with Rizal Street but no reason for bitterness. Perhaps it was chosen because during the redevelopment of the 1970s, many people — including a large, tight-knit community of low income Filipino-Americans — were displaced. As a partial mitigation, several apartment buildings were built for senior citizens on a new set of streets named after prominent Filipinos, including Lapu Lapu (the man whose army killed Magellan in 1521) and Rizal, Bonifacio, and Tandang Sora (three Filipino revolutionaries).

The National Bitter Melon Council (NBMC) is an interesting outfit. Although their name brings to mind a profit-focused trade organization, they are actually a group of artists and community activists who see the vegetable as a means of improving community, healing the body, learning about other cultures, and engaging in ‘urban homeopathy’ (eating bitter foods to counteract feelings of bitterness). In 2005, they organized a Bitter Melon Week in various Boston restaurants to bring the vegetable to wider audience. Their project reached across the range of eating places: from some of the most expensive to low-cost ethnic places. The operator of a Thai restaurant grew up eating bitter melon, but had never thought of offering it in the United States until Bitter Melon Week. (Personally, the only restaurant at which I have eaten bitter melon is a Bangladeshi place called New Pardes in Los Angeles. It was a somewhat unpleasant experience, as my tolerance for bitterness is not yet at the level of bitter melon curry.)

Dances with Bees

Also at the Center — in an exhibit called “Bay Area Now 5” — was an attempt by conceptual artist Joanthon Keats to choreograph a dance for honeybees. One of the many amazing things about honeybees is that they use complex dances to inform their hive-mates about the location of food sources. By planting flowers in particular locations around established hives, the artist could essentially choreograph some of the bees’ dances. The Bay Area Now 5 website has more information about his project.

The Gatherers: Greening Our Urban Spheres will be at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, San Francisco through Jan 11, 2009.

2 Responsesto “Artists explore urban sustainability at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts”

  1. Heidi says:

    Really great site you have here, I actually found it via an image search!    I spent the last 45 minutes absorbed in it.   Keep it up :)

  2. Genie says:

    I’m sure it felt a little weird to be wandering around sprinkling salt on the sidewalk, but I love the metaphor and the sound of the project. And now, as I said the other day, I’ve got to go check out these Bitter Melon people! Must. Conquer. The. Bitter. Melon.