in Features | 13 OCT 05
Featured in
Issue 94

Let It Grow

From her ‘Portable Parks’ to the ‘Living Library’, for over 30 years Bonnie Sherk has aspired to ‘expand the concept of art to include, and even be life’

in Features | 13 OCT 05

Every weekend between June 1973 and May 1974, from ten o’clock on Saturday night until six o’clock on Sunday morning, Bonnie Sherk performed a work called Short Order Cook. It was presented at Andy’s Donuts, at the junction of Castro and Market Street in San Francisco, where Sherk – dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Florida’, an apron and a chef’s hat – cooked food for the diner’s clientele in exchange for a weekly wage from the establishment’s owners. During January 1974 she also performed the part of ‘The Waitress’, for which she dressed in a black nylon uniform with a white apron and wore a black bouffant wig.

This could be just an everyday tale of an artist asserting the right to claim any and every part of their activity as art, but Sherk saw it as something else: a self-conscious participation in the ongoing theatre of society, a point where notional rights of all kinds dissolve into the demands of a pre-existing system. When she was called up for jury service during the same period, she attended in the ‘cultural costume’ she wore at Andy’s Donuts and was ‘particularly aware of the performances and costumes of the lawyers and the judge’.1

Sherk has written that she wanted ‘to expand the concept of art to include, and even be, life’,2 but in common with many other artists working around the same time she had also begun to see the category of art differently from the avant-gardes of previous decades; she wanted to pursue something that had been hinted at in the past but never fully addressed. Art wasn’t primarily about aesthetic experience, nor did it exactly aspire to be integrated into some external reality. Instead, art itself represented a condition to aspire to, an unrealized but vital and essentially ethical sphere almost wholly unrelated to the existing institutions of art; an ‘outside’ that didn’t just mean life in the woods but could be manifest anywhere. The history of art was simply a tool kit of strategies and techniques for both analysis and action that could be used or adapted along the way, and the art/life boundary that had been contested in the past was an untenable fiction that hid both the real conditions of artistic production and the theatrical nature of the performance of everyday life.

In June 1970, in collaboration with Howard Levine, Sherk carted several palm trees and hundreds of squares of turf around the San Francisco streets and laid down ephemeral patches of greenery on freeway bridges and concrete walkways to create a series of three Portable Parks – with a live calf and a llama completing the effect. Over the next few years she would bring elements of agriculture and live human/animal interaction into galleries and museums, while at the same time continuing to experiment with her own role as performer and participant in public situations. Works such as Sitting Still I–III (1970) and Public Lunch (1971) have a directness that is related to the excitement of discovering the array of possibilities available outside the gallery, but by the time of Public Play: Act IV (1973) it was possible to discern a certain frustration with the actual roles and framework on offer; the work includes an armchair in which to sit and observe the proceedings of the San Francisco Art Festival through a pair of binoculars.

The search for a viable and genuinely alternative practice that lay behind all these experiments culminated in May 1974, when Sherk became the prime mover behind the development of the Crossroads Community, also known as The Farm, at and around 1499 Potrero Avenue and right next to the new Army Street freeway interchange. Through a process described by co-founder Jack Wickert as one of ‘hammering, sawing, digging, picking, carrying, lugging, toting, hauling, sweeping, mowing’3 a group of artists and local community activists turned the wasteland and abandoned warehouses in the shadow of the concrete pillars of the freeway flyover into a farmhouse, a vegetable patch, a theatre, a rehearsal space, a ‘school without walls’, a library, a darkroom and gardens ‘for humans and other animals’. A newspaper report describes how ‘On most days you would be likely to encounter such scenes as: people of all ages and races tending vegetables, flowers and small fruit trees; ducks and geese and chickens performing in the Raw Egg Animal Theatre, a barn-like area where the audience consists mostly of young children getting acquainted with the animals, listening to their sounds, drawing pictures of them; and demonstration lectures by an expert in gardening showing neighbourhood people how to grow more vegetables in their own yards.’4

Although literal ground-breaking was done at the Crossroads Community, it wasn’t quite the first undertaking of its kind – that honour is usually given to the Fun Art Farm, founded in London in 1972 and still operating as the Kentish Town City Farm – but, in contrast to other urban gardens or children’s farm initiatives, which were presented as healthy, useful adjuncts to society, the San Francisco Farm was conceived as confronting the problem of ‘how to survive on our planet’ with a search for the ‘ideal form for our current civilization(s)’. Sherk also often describes her projects not as art works but as ‘life frames’, a life frame being, approximately, an embodied ideology in microcosm, either of an existing situation or of one orchestrated by the artist and using, on occasion, ‘art as a tool to create a whole’.5

In California in the late 1960s and early ‘70s this kind of Utopianism was not exactly rare, but there is more to its history than the usual caricature image of hippies might suggest. In 1971 Kaliflower, a newspaper produced by the Sutter Street Commune, published a front-page article, ‘Communal Archaeology’, that looked back to the Oneida Commune, founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, author of A History of American Socialisms (1870), and which name-checked Charles Nordhoff’s The Communistic Societies of the United States (1875). The San Francisco Diggers, a radical activist group whose Free Food and Free Stores played a major role in defining the hippy ethos, traced the same history even further back to a group of landless peasants who, in 1649, had renounced private property and begun communally cultivating land that belonged to the local lords. These English Diggers wrote: ‘The Work we are going about is this, To dig up Georges Hill and the waste Ground thereabouts, and to Sow Corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows. And the First Reason is this, That we may work in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor’.6 They went on to say that ‘we must neither buy nor sell. Money must not any longer (after our work of the Earth’s Community is advanced) be the great god that hedges in some and hedges out others, for money is but part of the Earth’.7

In contrast to their immediate contemporaries the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, who were organizing in Oakland and whose ten-point programme and confrontational stance were informed by Huey Newton’s reading of Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon, the San Francisco Diggers had found a tradition that turned its politics to the creation of small-scale Utopian models and that was located far enough in the past to function more as a mythology than as a blueprint. That this mode of operation was in sync with, and influential on, ideas that were abroad in the art world is less surprising when you realize the founders of the Diggers were brought together by a radical street theatre company that was itself involved with a wider activist alliance called the Artists’ Liberation Front. Before you ate your Free Food, you were invited to step through a giant picture frame, called the ‘Free Frame of Reference’, which symbolized the transition from a system that saw a free lunch as charity to one that operated on the Diggers’ principle ‘it’s free because it’s yours’.

The Farm, in form at least, recalled the actions of the English Diggers more than those of their hippy namesakes, and for much of its existence it was effectively a squatters’ camp. Sherk and her associates had convinced an organization called the Trust for Public Land to buy the site from the owners, Knudsen Dairies, and transfer it to public ownership, but the city soon drew up plans to turn the whole area into an anodyne landscaped park. The four-year conflict that followed centred on the one acre of the five-acre site that the Trust had donated to the city specifically for The Farm’s operation, and on the idea – supported by groups as diverse as the Compañeros del Barrio and the Episcopal Diocese, as well as by hundreds of letters from locals and one from erstwhile Digger Peter Coyote – that some of the land be managed and tended by the artists and the community rather than the city’s Rec-Park division. It was finally resolved in October 1980, when the city government announced it was going to bulldoze two 30-foot-wide swathes through the community gardens, for drainage ditches.

It is interesting to look back at the Crossroads Community now, as ideas of Utopianism and renewed political engagement are passing through certain strands of the art-institutional discourse and artists and institutions face up to the real existing boundary, not between art and life but between theory and practice. Sherk’s idealism could be contained within the art world – some of The Farm’s activities were funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and were presented at the San Francisco Art Institute and at the ICA in London – but in moving from metaphorical advocacy to practical demonstration on actual property she and her colleagues ran up against less accommodating structures, political realities that applied even in San Francisco, even in the 1970s.

The Crossroads Community didn’t spring directly from the San Francisco communes or from the art scene – it was founded through a spontaneous coincidence of motivated personalities and vacant wasteland several years after the heroic period of the ‘Hashbury’ – but in retrospect it stands out as a seminal attempt to cultivate the intersection between modern art and Utopian radicalism, between activism and the local political reality. It used a rhetoric drawn both from the art mainstream – creativity, personal development and freedom, the harmony of nature – and from the avant-garde, with its drawing together of art and life, to give temporary legitimacy to a project whose aim was to establish a social model in explicit opposition to the prevailing conditions. That it survived and succeeded as far as it did attests to a communal commitment and an uncommon strength of purpose. That it could not be sustained is no surprise: the gap that The Farm exploited, between an institutionally accepted ethic of art and the practical ethics of the wider state machinery, might be tolerated in theory but could not be allowed to remain manifest even in one acre of real physical space.

Sherk continues to work on the creation of community gardens through her Living Library project; she is currently exhibiting photos, plans and documents covering three decades of activism at the Braunstein/Quay Gallery in San Francisco and, now fully engaged with the formal mechanisms of city planning and local politics, has become an advocate and organizer for successful initiatives in New York and San Francisco that retain a commitment to local participation, education and ecological awareness. Some might argue that this is the point at which The Farm’s radicalism is recuperated; nonetheless, it has introduced new concepts into the discourse and kept certain other ideas alive, and those ideas retain the power to reshape the institutions they come up against, at least on a local scale. What must be given up in return is the sense of unpredictability, the free play of possibilities, and the idea of an outside.

1 Bonnie Sherk in conversation with Lois Freeman, Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, 1977
2 Bonnie Sherk, Center for Critical Inquiry Position Paper, 1st International Symposium, San Francisco Art Institute, 1977
3 Alfred Frankenstein, San Francisco Chronicle, 9 December 1976
4 Harold Gilliam, ‘A Battle of Open Space out on Potrero’, San Francisco Chronicle, 8 July 1979
5 Bonnie Sherk, A Triptych, within a Triptych, within a Triptych, within the Context of a Counterpointed Diptych, exhibited at the ICA, London, 1980
6 Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced, 1649
7 Gerrard Winstanley and 44 others, A Declaration from the Poor, Oppressed People of England Directed to all that Call Themselves or are Called Lords of the Manors, 1649