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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Compulsion to Farm: An Art Form

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

Linda Goode Bryant's urban farm exhibit at Gagosian in New York in Social Works, a show curated by critic Antwuan Sargent that considers the relationship between space and Black social practice (Photo by Brett Beyer)


Relatives proudly offered me strawberry or orange Fanta, not mango or lime or soursop juice, when I visited them in Belize. The bottled drinks were fizzy, pricey and a taste of commercialization.

Sixty years ago, there was a bias developing against homegrown and in favor of store-bought food. Today, the trend is back to eating fresh and healthy food.

Paradoxically, growing food has become art for two practitioners: Dan Colen and Linda Goode Bryant. The latter is one of 12 artists, whose work is being exhibited at Gagosian (555 West 24th Street, New York City) until August 13. Social Works considers the relationship between space – personal, public, institutional, and psychic – and Black social practice.

“Art for me is food and life,” said Linda Goode Bryant in conversation with Dan Colen (Gagosian Quarterly, March 15, 2020). “It always has been. I cannot remember any time when art hasn’t been what has sustained me and gotten me through. And not just the making of it – the experiencing of it, the creativity of others. It has embraced me in such a way that I don’t know what I would do without it being in my life.”

The filmmaker’s 50-year career includes the 1974 founding of Just Above Midtown, which focused on Black artists who, at the time, faced closed doors at other galleries. Made in collaboration with Elizabeth Diller, the architect who designed Manhattan’s “High Line” elevated garden walk, Goode Bryant’s exhibit at Gagosian, Are we really that different?, is a film and a farm. Visitors will eat her edible art.

In 2009, Goode Bryant founded Project EATS, the urban farming organization “highlighting the symbiotic and, often, parasitic relationships between humans and nature that arise in the modern industrial world,” according to Gagosian’s website.

Project EATS’s circuit of seven small plot, high-yield farms on rooftops and lots is in New York City. It distributes fresh produce, makes small agricultural products, and it offers wellness and food-as-medicine workshops. It also holds after-school programs and educates the young about farming.

“The drive (to farm) didn’t come from knowledge, experience, or any confidence whatsoever that I could grow anything; it came out of the need and, reflecting on it now, a sense of meaning,” the artist said in Gagosian Quarterly.

“Because in 2008, there was a global food crisis. The price of food shot up inexplicably around the world so that people who were living on fixed incomes could not buy food. Project EATS got started after I found news footage on the Internet from Port-au-Prince in Haiti, where people were forced to eat mud pies spiked with pebbles and honey to stave off their sense of starvation. And this was juxtaposed against marketplaces where food had been imported.

“Haiti was one of those countries where, because of world trade agreements and bank loans and all that, it no longer had an agricultural industry that could support it, and it was importing most of their food from other places. The food prices were raised by other places and (Haitians) couldn’t afford to eat it. The food was there, but they couldn’t buy it.

“As I was cutting this film footage, I was sobbing. I was thinking, 'What kind of world do we live in that people have to eat mud pies because the price of food is too high?'

“It was in that moment that I realized that we should be able to grow our own food even if we live on concrete. And I got this notion that I would start farming in New York City, which was insane. I mean, real estate in New York City doesn’t depreciate. Where was I going to get land to grow on?

“But then I realized, we’re going to do it like we have always done it: you use what you have to create what you need. And we’ve been able to do it.

“It has been the most fulfilling thing that I have done out of the many things that I have created in life, said the 71-year-old. “Nothing has been more fulfilling because I think this is what art is. It is food and life.”

At times, Dan Colen’s Sky High Farm and Project EATS have collaborated in the Bard Prison Initiative to train a manager for Project EATS and in donating food to the same food banks. Since 2011, Colen’s 40-acre farm has provided more than 66 tons of fruit, vegetables and meat to food-impoverished neighbors in the Hudson River Valley and nearby New York City, according to W (August 27, 2020).

Cohen, 42, has painted oils on canvas and used unconventional materials, such as chewing gum, flowers and trash.

“I moved up here about 10 years ago to open up half my art studio outside of the City," said Cohen in a May 17, 2020 video. " I felt the space would give me the experience of nature, the experience of freedom that I was looking for. The land really spoke to me, and I came up with the idea of Sky High Farm.”

In Gagosian Quarterly, Colen told Goode Bryant:

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the farm and how it fits into my process as an artist but, more and more, it is clear to me that it does. When I conceived of the farm in 2011, I wasn’t a farmer, and I wasn’t an advocate; I was only an artist. The thought came to me – I want to say whim, but that doesn’t describe the significance of it – it was more like how the idea for an artwork comes to you, as a kind of compulsion.

“Farming is another way to stay connected to the ancestral – to stay connected to the basic core energies that drive the universe which, I think, are the same energies that motivate the creative process.

“For a long time, I was conflicted as to whether or not I should really commit to this mission of Sky High – it takes so much energy, time, and money, and I was worried that it was taking away from my creative practice. Now I feel the opposite.

“We go into the art world because we think that that’s where diversity and creativity are. When we’re young, we find an amazing community of artists to be with and to grow with, but as you get older, the art world inevitably becomes smaller. And this world of farming justice is so big; it’s a different place. At least for this part of my life, it has not only fostered my creative process but, also kind of, protected it. It’s just cool to hear you tell a similar story.”

In Gagosian Quarterly conversation, Goode Bryant told Colen:

“The whole mission and goal of Project EATS is for everyone to be able to live healthy lives and thrive, regardless of income. . . . I believe that the challenges we face in society are challenges that creative folks can take on. Creative folks can think of other possibilities. . . . Artists are as critical as scientists right now in helping us shape what the new normal is. For us to envision it in a way that can make it more equitable for everybody, I think that’s going to come from us. We’re rooted in our need for creating and sharing what we create with others and forming conversations through stories that strengthen our relationships with one another. We do that. That’s what we do. And it’s essential we do it now.”

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