Originally published in the Spring 2016 issue 35 of Antennae Journal for Nature in Visual Culture
Amongst the agricultural area of South Florida, right on the edge of the Everglades National Park, in-between massive industrial fields with endless row crops stands a tiny forest. It has become a mythology as we pass by it everyday, my children speculate as to what it could be and why it might be there. It stands as a polar to Gustav Metzger’s reference of the Castle of Neuschwantstein in his book Damaged Nature, Auto Destructive Art.
Instead of the awe of man’s architectural feat juxtaposed to nature like the Castle of Neuschwantstein, it is the awe of Nature to stand amongst the destruction of man’s reconfiguration of the land. After almost twelve months of passing this mystery forest, we finally went to explore it. We rode our bikes through agricultural dirt roads, yellow squash and courgettes laid like road kill, marked with tire prints, trodden to death, symptoms of a loss of stewardship.
Large mechanical irrigation and chemical machines stood like sentries at siege before the forest, emanating a residual smell of fertilizers and pesticides. With their tentacle like sprayers that when initiated unfold like robotic spiders, spraying their poison for hundreds of acres. Death machines. The pace quickens. We arrive to the edge of the small forest, its perimeter littered with an abandoned truck, irrigation materials, food related trash and, of course, tires. We stashed our bikes and entered into the growth; it reminded me of entering a turbulent ocean, dodging trash and climbing over dead and fallen trees like waves full of seaweed and plastic bags.
As we traversed this obstacle course and entered the heart of the forest, a Pine Rockland preserve, I felt a serene introspective awe. A kaleidoscope of light and shadows danced overhead. We walked around numerous trees, years of fallen leaves crunched under our feet and all the colors, textures and sounds became a mirror. Leaves began to fall from the overhead canopy into my children’s hair as they journeyed their way through an undetermined path. The forest and my children began to form a collage, hands sliding from tree to tree, bark and flesh. At the heart of the forest, two massive Banyan trees stood connected to the ground open armed with strong tendon like roots and hair-like streams. My children instinctively greeted the trees like lost relatives, with no permission climbing them and rummaging through their pockets and tossing their stored leaves at each other like millionaires in a cartoon.
I realized in that moment, that all I wanted to do was to shed my clothes and lay in contour with the tree’s bulbous shapes that were so similar to mine. I wanted to wrap my hair around its finger-like roots and photograph this moment, this place and time. That I recognized that my body is not a part of this landscape, that my body is not apart of the man made architectural landscape, that my body does not fit into any set. That as human beings we are not quite here or there, we are lost.
We often do not get the opportunity to recognize the meaning of things we experience as we encounter them. I quickly began to catalogue all the experiences that led to this specific moment: all the mountains I’ve climbed, all the salty seas I’ve swam, desert moons, mammoth caves and butterfly forests. Then in contrast, the Parthenon in Athens, the Church of Agia Irini in Ikaria, the dome of St. Pauls Cathedral and the garden gate whose key hole was to maintain view of the cathedral regardless of London’s growth, grand shopping malls, Tescos, television, rush hour, tarmac, suburbia, but I don’t want to sell it short. The endeavor of the human, our creative potential to design and create cities, to move our bodies faster through time, to move our thoughts through technology, but to push at the cost of degradation to the place in which we stand. No more is their an artistry and delicate concern with philosophical principles beyond fast and now.
Seven years ago, I surrendered to my instinct to release the aspirations of being a monetarily successful gallery artist. I moved to Miami from London. I left the continuous onanistic academic rantings of the contemporary art world, jaded and resigned. Art pops, spilling into the streets drunk, amongst the locals, the commoners, the non-art world occupiers. Such an exclusive arena: art for artists. Like an inside joke, that no one else gets.
Dismantling that energetic presence was tough, a surrendering to the unknown, a release into my own humanness. To stop feeling the need to constantly be producing artwork was a great weight relieved. I started a non-profit, Art of Cultural Evolution. It has been running for over six years and the premise of the organization is to utilize art’s inspirational capacity to bring scientific information to the public by creating a merger between the two fields. Climate change is the most prevalent challenge of our era, and with an artist’s ability to engage this topic in a more communicable medium than data and esoteric language it might provide a means to move cities and communities towards resiliency.
The first thing was to start living the example. We moved out of a rental house and into our own mobile demonstration of sustainable living: an eco bus, its engine runs on waste vegetable oil, its interior is powered with solar energy, equipped with rainwater harvesting and utilizing a composting toilet. Completely off grid, built with our own two hands and the home of my two children since their birth. We have traveled the entire United States visiting as much of the natural and developed landscape as possible. Seeing humans in all their forms and technologies. Energy farms in the middle of the desert like a terrific foreign planet, to the great roaring Brink of the Falls at Yellowstone National Park to a composting tricycle pick up service in New York City. Through these travels we gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and felt ourselves wanderers of the landscape. Searching for a solution, a way to rid ourselves of a resonating human guilt or the aimlessness in which we find ourselves once we let go of our need to participate in damage culture.
Returning back to South Florida was instinctual; the ocean, the climate and the abundance of resources, the area has 45-65 inches of rainfall a year, giving us a continuous growing season and home to some of the sexist exotic fruits we have ever tasted.
When we returned to Miami, we rented a private piece of vacant land right in the heart of the city and turned it into a sustainable land lab called the Midtown 34th Street project. The project was to engage residents in easily adoptable solutions that they could activate in their own back yards. The lab demonstrated solar energy, rainwater harvesting, variety of composting methods, organic gardens, tropical fruit trees, and the lab hosted artistic events from installations, sound pieces, radio broadcasts and garden to table dinners. The Midtown 34th Street project was perhaps the most engaging piece of work I have ever created, the audience’s engagement was endless.
My family and I lived on site like performance artists, constantly in the eye of the city. Constantly working with volunteers in the gardens, hosting events and endless social gatherings. People would come off the streets and ask about growing this or that and “What is this place?”. There wasn’t a private moment in our life.
But beyond being lifestyle sustainability performers for the public, our landscape started to host a myriad of birds, lizards, butterflies and other insects not found anywhere else in the neighborhood. I started to see my bones in the coral we used to build the garden beds, I saw my skin in the slices of trees we used to create footpaths, I saw my limbs in the unprecedented growth of our banana grove. I wanted to fold myself up into the landscape, not to take a portrait, but to make an anthropological statement about this place and this time, yet again. To mark this moment, a return to nature a recognition of the loss of this connection, the loss of this opportunity, a loss of a sensibility, the separation of the human from its “natural” environment and that I as a human recognized it, here and now.
The neighborhood children were the best at providing this affirmation, the largest Puerto Rican area of Miami and one of the most underserved areas of the city, the neighborhood children were a constant presence. They would see us eating foods that were not sourced from the corner store and stare at us as if we were eating grubs from under a log. I provided their first experience tasting cantaloupe, a regular once asked “You eatin’ leafus?” I squinted my eyes as if the sun obliterated my vision, then I realized, “Oh, yes these are leaves. It’s salad from the garden over here.” And he was hooked, he became another child amongst our own, always asking about everything that seemed so different from his home life. Despite his asthmatic condition, we would take him to the beach, to children’s plays, to friend’s BBQs and en route home he would ask such astute questions that also revealed his processing of a different way of living and different ideology. What impressions will that leave on a highly medicated asthmatic boy in the future I do not know, but I know it will be something.
The Midtown project died when the land was sold to foreign investor for condo development; however, the land is still unused to this date and everything we planted has completely taken over, you can forage for pumpkins, wild tomatoes, luffa, moringa, bananas, papaya, mulberry, avocados, mangos, cranberry hibiscus and more. It has become a neighborhood treasure and I’m told that urban forager tours are held there.
This thriving space is far more rewarding than any other artwork I’ve ever made.
In May 2014, Miami-Dade County Commissioners awarded my organization a piece of vacant land in the heart of the contemporary arts district, Wynwood, to build Miami’s first sustainability center, Colony1.
This is the Midtown 34th Street project in spirit, but far more sophisticated. It will be the first living building in the entire Southeast region of the United States. The facility aims to be net zero water and energy (since we have so much sun and rain here) and to utilize innovative building materials such as shipping containers. Miami is home to one of the largest ports in the nation and containers are becoming a common surplus.
The building will house dynamic programming including a zero-packaging bulk food store featuring local and in season dry goods, produce and tropical fruits. The shop will encourage customers to bring their own containers or use our recycled glass containers. Most of the goods being sold at this shop will be sourced from our own 2.5 acre farm in Homestead and neighboring farmers who share a mission to grow with a great stewardship of the land and surrounding ecology.
The store connects to a teaching, event, and demonstration kitchen that will be used to prepare one local and organic lunch to the area daily, the lunch will be prepared by a group of program participants who are engaged for one year in learning to grow their own food in the South Florida growing conditions. We’ve named this curriculum the Pollinators Program. The idea is that 15 residents a year will be growing food between Colony1 Wynwood and the Homestead farm and in that process learning about soil building, remediation, composting, fertilizing, irrigation, solar energy, grey water filtration, season appropriate crops and how to cook the food produced to serve for lunch daily. It is a complete education, learning why these growing methods are preferred over industrial methods, learning to grow food and then learning how to prepare that food with culinary expertise.
The kitchen will be managed by two chefs who the program participants will essentially be apprenticing each growing season. We believe that this will provide an opportunity for unexplored potential for individual program participants. Offering residents to explore untapped talents, to build new skill sets and go out into the community and teach others. We believe this is the path towards a resilient community.
Let me pause the explanation of Colony1’s programming and mention that Miami is one of the most climate vulnerable cities in the United States, South Florida in particular is very unique as it literally sits on its water supply. Florida is home to some of the most unique and magically fresh water springs and cave systems in the world. Ponce De Leon believed the Fountain of Youth was in Florida. Imagine walking through a tropical wilderness and finding among it the most pristine, clear and glass like waters just bubbling from the Earth. The springs of Florida look like elliptical jewels sparkling under a frame of grey bearded oaks and bald cypress trees. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it is like to swim in champagne, this is where it happens.
Sounds colloquially “sweet”, right? In fact the main ingredient of sweet, sugar, is one of the biggest polluters of these hidden treasures. Big sugar and other industrial agriculture is responsible for pesticide and nutrient runoff into these waters causing an offset of the ecological balance and this produces a toxic amount of algae blooms that plague the waters every summer. This is one of many problems; the State has multiple Water Management operators that operate the man made system of canals to guide this dirty water back into the Everglades; however, the water management is careless and because of the content of this “dirty” water, the Miccosukee historic tree islands are slowly being washed away. This is just one portion of a greater picture of Florida’s water mismanagement; the center of the U.S.’s agricultural industry has run off into the Mississippi, which also dumps into the Florida Gulf Coast. The problems seem endless.
What to do? It’s such a massive scale of destruction and imbalance. We can only do one small step at a time and Colony1’s programming aims to help residents find their way to living a more resilient and sustainable life within our city. Having access to local and organic foods, seeing architectural design solutions, learning to grow food, cook with that food, consider transit solutions, walkability of our streets and start to unite a disparate community will be among a handful of solutions to move cities towards harmonious survival.
Colony1’s building features a water system that employs rainwater and greywater from the building in a constructed wetland, the wetland demonstrates the dynamic nature of the sensitive plant species utilized by the Everglades on a small scale to actually clean and filter water for usage in irrigation of our gardens. This will allow the building to be Net Zero Water and also provide inner city Everglades conservation education. The entire facility aims to provide an experimental platform for residents to be able to access consumer habits that are beneficial. Also Colony1 will provide a platform for the merger of an artist and scientist in a three month residency program to produce a quarterly exhibition in Colony1’s exhibition hall to share the result of the marriage of the two practices. The residency quarters will be on site and connected to the landscape and the systems that make Colony1 self sustaining. Through this program we hope to demystify not only the scientific information around damage culture and its impact on the natural environment but also provide insight on how art can be utilized beyond the common commercial practices that are so prevalent in Miami. That in fact the current historical art movement of our time might even be labeled as Socially Engaged or Eco-art. I consider Art of Cultural Evolution, the Midtown 34th Street Project, Colony1 my greatest pieces of work.
Colony1 has been a result of my release into my urge to find connectivity with my surrounding environment. To cut ties with the things that I found energetically draining. To grow my own food, to build my own home, to raise my own children, to empower and rekindle my own humanness, to feel and see this moment in a cosmic history far greater than myself, far greater than any economic successes of our civilization. When the night falls on our farm, and a million stars shine over the Everglades and Miami is a faint glow to the North, overnight visitors to the farm can feel the vastness not only of the sky, but of the potential of our own souls, our creativity, our ability to have a power that only is received in a harmonious and mutual sharing of this planet on which we live. This is lost amongst our recreational technology usage. We are blinded, distracted by our own self image in operating within our cities and communities and this is also related to our consumer behaviors, which if infiltrated by popularizing healthy and environmentally friendly options, we can still thrive and this is one of the goals of Art of Cultural Evolution. To evolve culture out of damage culture and Colony1 will be the very facility in Miami to demonstrate the endless innovation and potential all our cities have.
There I am sweating in my garden in the middle of the Everglades, there are no sounds of anything human, cars, planes, talking, buzzing of air conditioners, nothing, in fact it has been days since I’ve even seen other people and I sit to rest my body after weeding, straw-ing and seeding my garden beds and there it is again, the golden straw lies there beckoning me to throw my hair into it, to strip down to my skin and put it together and document it. Like a fashionista in a mall, I can’t resist, I see myself there, I see all of us there. Awakened to our own urges, dismantling the constructions around us and reassembling.
I see this theme historically in the works of other artists like Francesca Woodman, her nude body in a derelict room, hiding behind floral wallpaper, her figure an odd compositional element, Ana Medieta pressing her figure into the earth with sprouting flowers covering her head to toe, Eve Dent hanging her dainty beige legs through the white cube walls of the Arnolfini bookstore at the live art festival in Bristol in 2006, to not as literal works as Chinese artist Chu Yun whose installation Constellation No.3 from 2009 provides an outside perspective of all the technologies, radiation and energy usage of the appliances and technologies that are common accessories of the modern home. I even glance at Diane Arbus’ work in nudist colonies and see photographs like, Retired Man and his Wife at home in a Nudist Camp one Morning, 1963 and A Husband and Wife in the Woods at Nudist Camp, 1963 and beyond all the interpretation of these works, I see human beings wanting to just shed social constraints and awkwardness and just be connected with what resonates as a more “natural” way of being. Arbus’ photos almost provide an anthropological insight into both realms from her photographs from within the city where we see transvestites, prostitutes, giants, poverty and then to see the nudist colony work, the people who have just resigned from all of that. The people who just want to surrender to their essential state of being and reconfigure.
We all stare in awe at the last standing pieces of nature, the last standing forest amongst the agricultural fields. We feel it slipping away, it is breaking our hearts, our communities and any last cultural connections we had remaining with the land. The general undertone of our society is one of unhappiness, just glance at a television or magazine and you’ll be relentlessly sold a plethora of drugs and products to relieve the condition. However, people want to reclaim their lives, not be mindless consumers and separate from being a cog that makes the big machine run that keeps the 1% above. The Midtown 34th Street project proved this to me more then any text or articles. Our constant audience were people seeking more. They yearned for more information, how to do this or that, seeking endless resources, connecting to various people, organizations that were already in existence that could help activate the change they desired. Art of Cultural Evolution’s projects have that at the core of its programming and Colony1 will be the beacon of a radical movement to begin in South Florida.