comprehend all the things that are going on just in order to convert organic matter into dirt. Spending all this time looking into this complex system of connected parts, I started to look at other aspects of our work at SCLT as part of a larger, more complicated web of interconnected parts. In my experience at Southside Community Land Trust, I’ve come to see the importance of our interactions with all of the different people and organizations in the neighborhood. Teaching at Davey Lopes Recreation Complex and at the Center for Southeast Asians twice a weak provides regular contact with the families that use those spaces. We rely on that contact in order to understand what people’s needs and interests are with regards to the realm of growing food. We have also touched base with different organizations in the neighborhood such as Project Weber/RENEW to understand how to safely interact with vulnerable populations that surround our site at Somerset Hayward. It has become increasingly clear to me that in order to thrive we need to actively engage in the variety of organisms that exist in the neighborhood. Like the soil, we are in an ecosystem and there is no denying our inherent connection, whether large or small, to every aspect of the Southside.
On September 9, 2017 the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm hosted Crop Up! an event featuring artists Andrew Black, Dr. Kno, Makeeba Ellington, and myself, along with various Detroit musicians including Emily Rogers and Mahogany Jones. The event took place in a former liquor-grocery store, where community could enter to view the collaborative master plan of the North End spearheaded by ONE Mile.
The exhibition envisioned how the farm can be programmed beyond traditional operations. In what ways can farmland become gallery, entrepreneurial incubator, or innovation hub? The beauty of the exhibit was that it envisioned the North End from community perspectives, rather than an outside one. More importantly it shows that growth and innovation can, and does happen from the ground up. ONE Mile will be instrumental in championing for the North End, and pioneering community based organization. Crop Up! left me feeling hopeful, and excited for the next phase of ONE Miles plans.
I developed wallpaper and prints inspired by the crops grown at the Oakland Avenue farm, drawing from American car parts. Traveling Detroit by bike, through fields and meadows, My mind dreams how nice it would to find love among the pheasants and wild carrots. I think about Moonlight, and the quote “in moonlight black boys looks blue,” and I think about all the queer folk up and down Woodward. What would it look like for us to be hugged by chicory and lace, amongst pheasant and cricket. I think about Erykah Badu’s “green eyes” to me characterizing the beginnings of queer love and longing, and the complications in navigating the world. My wallpaper is the setting of this story in Detroit. Love is what the wallpaper conjures for me, and after seeing it installed I believe it represents that.
For my last blog post, I have spent the past month (mainly being an orientation leader and recovering from that) parsing together my Maharam experience. I find myself highlighting so many of the amazing opportunities I had-from running a design thinking workshop with four departments represented or the passionate people that I met that I am real friends with (I still owe you a coffee date Z) or the struggles I had being positive and professional while answering constituent’s phone calls.
I think the most fun I have when catching up with people is when they ask me what I did. Like actually did? I spent my summer wrestling with that question, and while I was busy with things to do, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that for myself.
last day in the office!
Now, I’ve finally realized what I did was to simply be there. The ambition of a Maharam Fellowship is not to produce an immediate solution to a social issue, but to provide opportunities for artists and designers to be at the table when those issues are discussed. It’s a subtle but powerful consideration when people say “Oh I thought about you when I was formatting this power point” or ask your opinion of the art being hung on the wall. It speaks to a larger consciousness of our visual world- not only in the context of ‘elitist’ design (different conversation) but breaking that down to understand that the best design is best when it’s for real people.
maps is (as) equity
Representation is a buzzword right now, a simple answer to an enormously complex issue of power and identity in society. But I also think it doesn’t get enough respect as a solution. We discussed representation during my last day at City Hall, at an Equity Peer Learning Luncheon, which came out of the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee work initiated by the Sustainability Office. I was asked to present my design thinking workshop and suggest a possible mitigation strategy through wayfinding in City Hall. It was a beautiful moment, that I was able to use both fundamentals of municipalities and design to present an informed strategy to my peers in government. I was so proud to represent as a designer, and recognize it was another intern- a RISD graduate interfering with the Sustainability Office that invited me to share my perspective.
wayfinding is(as) equity
Just as important, I also recognize other forms of representation that are also vital in creating effective, productive and inclusive institutions. It is still remarkable to me the amount of ethnic, racial and gender (just to name the most obvious) diversity that has been added/encouraged to the city during the current administration. These representatives don’t just matter in pictures, but represents a paradigm shift in power structures where government begins to be representative of the communities it governs.
That being said, I am so grateful for the support and opportunities the Maharam Fellowship gave me, my new (and old) colleagues at City Hall and hope to continue this work. I’m happy to be back in the creative energy of RISD, and become a representative for possibilities that exist outside of our typical art and design cannon.
Thank you for following me, and if you want more I invite you to visit my website.
It has been a couple of days post wrap up and I am already out of Guwahati. As I walk this stage between starting a new project and making sure the book I created during the Maharam reaches production, I share a few observations about the city and the impact a project such as this might have in the current scenario.
To understand the current rate of change in the city one must know that it has been recently estimated that the population of the city has grown atleast by 50% in the past 5 years. The recently conducted census is estimated to project a population of atleast 1.5 million in the city as compared to a little below 1 million, 5 years ago. This rate of change becomes more alarming when we realize that the infrastructure of the city has remained more or else constant. Whatever built infrastructure is being added/ adapted, the rate of change is no where close to the required amount.
To understand life in Guwahati, one must also know that this is the largest city in North Eastern India. A lot of people move to the city in the hope for better education or job prospects. These changes seem to have escalated recently that ever before, or they may just have reached the visual breaking point of the city’s capacity. Seemingly small changes like the recent introduction of 2 different application run cab services, have taken a toll on the city life. While local people seem annoyed by this increase in traffic, few seem to notice the overall drop in biodiversity within the city.
The city is definitely chalked to grow further over the next few years. Considered as a Tier 2 city, the government is pushing towards local development and wants to introduce Guwahati as a Smart City (a recent initiative of the central government) in the coming years. A commendable effort, which hopes to introduce smart grids, solar power systems and much more. But does this development come at a cost of the natural environment, which still is very rich in flora and fauna. Admirably the local authorities are really keen to help protect the biodiversity in and around Guwahati, and hence a willing and interested audience for my Maharam project. The intention is to aim at striking a balance without hindering either development or natural environmental proliferation.
The first step towards conservation is awareness and mobilization of the locals, as any conservation effort can be effective only through their willingness to contribute and co-operate. My project hopes to create this awareness and interaction between the locals and the local biodiversity. If we are successful in finding ourselves some more advocates we would have hopefully contributed to a larger movement.
Although, I have moved out of Guwahati for now, my project has only just begun. We have been lucky in having gathered interest from a couple of local authority figures. Two of which, who seem very promising are the District Commissioner and the Managing Director at the Assam Tourism Development Corporation. We are in the process of sharing a proposal for the production of around 5000 pieces to be distributed in schools and made available in other sectors of the city. On another positive note, we may have found someone to carry out our production, as the last prototype (made by a local book binder in Guwahati) felt like we were almost there in quality.
While I plan to be back in Guwahati for a couple of days sometime next month, my supervisor Mr. Purkayastha, has taken charge of the on-ground production trials and costing spree. In the meantime, I am gathering possibilities of production in a couple of other cities as well, just in case we need backups with better skill and resources.
For the purpose of introducing an image in my long rambling about the project, here is a visual of a limited version super tiny book Biodiversity 360 (1 inch square) I made as joke for people who immediately wanted their hands on a copy of the book.
As I wrap up this post, I hope to be back with the news of a successful production.
Until then, I move into other projects with my fingers crossed.
To better understand where I’m working within the government, check out this handy, government-issued flow chart.
Age-Friendly DC is technically under the umbrella of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services’ office. Also within this office are the Department of Health, Department of Human Services, Child and Family Services Agency, Department of Disability Services, Department of Behavioral Health, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Department of Health Care Finance and Office on Aging. Though Age-Friendly DC technically operates within this Executive Branch office, its government partners stretch far beyond the departments under the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.
I feel many of my most valuable experiences working within this government body were the Age-Friendly DC Task Force meetings. These gatherings consisted of several representatives from different departments and agencies discussing progress, barriers and solutions pertaining to the goals of each of the ten Age-Friendly domains.
Though these meetings provided me the most insight for how cross agency communication can improve, each one continues to inform me of how most solutions to government problems are ineffective due to implementation timelines dictated by fiscal years. I continue to wonder, what would happen if departments consistently worked with each other instead of parallel to each other? What would happen if a timeline to solve a problem actually matched the scale of the problem and solution?
I feel the last bit of a project is always the toughest to get through. One can see the finish line, but they don’t want it to end so quick. I have been in that phase for a few days now. Following my last post I spent two rigorous weeks of being indoors, illustrating, editing text, compositing and laying all of this out into files ready to be printed. The week hence has been a whirlwind of getting the production right.
After failed test prints(print colors which made me want to weep), re-iterations of the box (sitting cross-legged with local book-binders to teach them how to adapt their technique to my purpose), and being told what I was trying to do is not possible to manufacture locally; I decided to do things at home. Armed with a home printer, a new CMYK ink cartridge, and some charcoal paper, chopped to size, I was ready to produce 2 copies myself, and demonstrate that what I intended to produce was not as impossible and could well be done at an acceptable cost.
Considering that I had to print on an A4 paper size, I set out to cut sheets of the accordion book and glue them together. Here’s an image of my initial test prints. For a relatively worn out home printer, I was pretty happy with the results.
Having learnt from my experience with the local book binders, I decided to adapt to the production techniques they were more familiar with. I also used the opportunity to re-look at the external form and introduce a more sleek exterior. Having played with a few ideas I decided on the version you see below.
A simple 3 flap book (less of a box now), with a pocket for a folded map, showing the ideal location for spotting each species.
The entire book covers a total of 13 species, 5 of which are endangered, 5 others which are spread in and around the city and 3 which can be spotted in many backyards. Apart from discussing fascinating features of the species and the result of human impact; the book also hints on changes we could incorporate in our lifestyle. The book even mentions count of classes of vertebrates that currently inhabit Guwahati, hoping to share the scale of impact human activities could have on the entire ecosystem.
The good news is, these prototypes have had a great response. I haven’t yet had a chance to test them with a teenage audience or younger; but had the chance to do a test run with a few small groups of adults (3-4 people). They all seem excited and some even started swapping stories of where they had seen a particular bird, or how they had first discovered the bat colony. Over all, I was pleased because my intention of getting people interested seemed to have had the desired effect. Some people also tended to interact with the object merely intrigued by the length (when completely unfolded) of 12 feet.
I had a chance to share the idea with the local Deputy Forest Commissioner, who has shown initial interest and wants to start incorporating design ideas within the space at his disposal. Some of which he wants to adapt from this book and bring out into the public spaces and programming at the Assam State Zoo.
Through Help Earth, we are also approaching possible investors, to gather enough funding to produce a larger amount. Currently the organization is funding a production of 20 copies, to be distributed and shared with officials, who might be interested in helping us take this project forward.
Meanwhile, I had promised Kevin, that I will share a bit of my experience of the changing city of Guwahati and the relevance of this project in light of the changes I see.
It has been two months since I got here. I plan to leave in another week and a half. But I think I will leave that description for my final Maharam post. I have been incredibly lucky to work with Help Earth, and I am inclined to come back. I most likely will.
Until then, I look forward to sharing a post with some background information about the city, a final update on the printing success (hopefully) of multiple copies and my future plans of taking the Maharam experience forward.
I’m writing today to share some of the images from my exhibition here at Biosphere 2. My show, A Love That Bears No Fruit, is a combination of the work I’ve been making here on my residency and the work I’ve been making in the past year and a half at RISD.
Below is the Exhibition text, and the documentation shots. The show is taking place in the old Library Tower, which overlooks the rest of the facility and the surrounding Sonoran Desert. I got into a serious debate with my bosses about the writing I present here, and we actually are using a simplified version here in person. They believed I was being too critical of the initial experiments and the history of the building – and I probably am but I tried to mask it. Here it is as it was intended by me.
A Love That Bears No Fruit
August 13 – 27th 2017
” Lee Pivnik is the current Artist in Residence at Biosphere 2 and has produced a series of work that considers the facility’s history as a monument to human futurity while also questioning the ethics of such a mission. Is “Human Achievement” worth celebrating or pursuing if it is built on the backs of dwindling species populations? Biosphere 2’s original mission turned the wilderness to a garden so our species could propel ourselves to new worlds using this one as a life support system. It must be acknowledged that when our success comes at the expense of the organisms and systems that support us, that success will be short lived.
The phrase “Bearing Fruit” boils down to a measure of success, either in economic production, human reproduction, or spiritual devotion. In this context, fruit acts as both an allusion to the challenges of feeding an exponentially growing global population and a metaphor for bountiful continuation. The notion that our efforts may not always bear fruit, then, is destabilizing. How will next season’s harvest compare to this one’s?
Fruit is produced when a flower is pollinated. The fertilized ovules become seeds, surrounded by fruit tissue called pericarp. For this to occur, a pollinator, or the wind, is usually involved in the process. Pollination was vital for the production of food in Biosphere 2 and the task was assigned to both bees and hummingbirds (although bats were also considered). Bees, which navigate and find flowers with the help of ultraviolet light, could not adjust to life inside B2, as the glass structure was designed to filter out most UV rays. A few panes of the structure allowed UV light to enter, as this was necessary for reptiles inside the experiment. The disoriented bees were attracted to these and would smash into them. By the end of the experiment in 1993, biodiversity inside B2 was significantly reduced, with pollinator species hit particularly hard. There were no surviving bees or hummingbirds. The absence of these animals meant that a critical ecosystem service had to be simulated: plants had to be hand-pollinated, extending the work days of the humans significantly.
The systems inside Biosphere 2, historically and currently, were designed to scale up to apply to Earth. Not long after the decline of the bee population within Biosphere 2, Colony Collapse Disorder became a household term as bees began vanishing from their hives. In the latest 2016-2017 winter, 21.1% of bee colonies died, but this is actually less than the average number of winter losses over the last decade. The bees are starting to do better because of an increase in colonies and new protective measures from government agencies. See the Obama administration’s 64 page National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinatorsfor more information. The problem became clear though. People experienced a paradigm shift, learning that without insects on the planet to pollinate plants, within 50 years most other organisms would perish. Pollinators are keystone species, filling a role in ecosystems that makes them indispensable. People, on the other hand, don’t serve any comparably positive role. Most species would likely benefit from our absence.
To present humanity as expendable in a facility that was built to safeguard our future is radical to say the least. Though, isn’t it time to consider the future of the nonhuman? With possibly dozens of species going extinct daily, we sit precariously in an ongoing mass extinction event that we have set into motion. How much can we spare to lose before our health is affected? Before our fruit trees aren’t pollinated? Before we act collectively? Of the 1,000+ known species to go extinct in the past 500 years, 3 have been hummingbirds. Consider this while looking at a portrait by Frida Kahlo, in which she wears a dead hummingbird around her neck. She references a folk myth that the body of a dead hummingbird can bring back lost love. This association of animal death with human luck and good fortune doesn’t add up in a deep ecology mindset. What lifeless body could bring back lost love in an environmental sense? To revive a coral reef, or a rainforest, would that corpse be not of a pollinator such as the hummingbird, but rather a person? A civilization? A political and economic system? We can learn from the interconnectivity made visible by Biosphere 2 that without proper respect and care for the multi-species safety-net that keeps us alive, it will vanish, bringing us down with it. ”
Thanks for reading!
In gearing up for our masterplan unveiling, O.N.E. Mile has been working to address ways in which agricultural production can provide infrastructure for other cultural modes of engagement. Given the context of the urban farm, they tend to be in areas of minority populations who tend to see less amenities than white Americans living in the suburbs. Specific to Detroit, a major issue is the lack of grocery stores, being only 3 major grocery stores within the city limits, (not including independent stores). Many people are left to source their food from liquor stores and corner stores to find sustenance, which in the long run can really add up.
The urban farm in this “post-apocalyptic” landscape creates a great opportunity to think beyond typical agricultural structures. One aim of our work has been to tackle the trauma that Black people have with land. By creating curiosity surrounding the fauna of agriculture, we hope to engage the community to learn more about the fruits of the land we inhabit. We also consider the historical context of the crops we grow, as means to foster a relationship with other living organisms which sustain us. Consider the number of fruits and vegetables we eat today that were introduced as a result of the transatlantic slave trade; watermelons, squash, yams, greens, plantain, etc.
As the masterplan process and model comes together, centering African culture is a priority as the project grows. In conversations with some of the artists in the neighborhood, it is important to consider how we can move beyond the prescriptive narrative that has been crafted for Black Americans. How do we reclaim our story and begin to truly create new ones? Afrofuturism is impossible without imagination, which is why our upcoming unveiling is so crucial to the soul of ONE Mile. By reimagining what is a farm, it becomes possible to grow far more than just fruits and vegetables.
Our event will pay homage to that, as a collective of community members, farmers, performers, musicians, artists, and designers, will all contribute to creating that future. We will carve out a new space in time, in continuity with our ancestors, and those who are to follow. “Crop Up!” will feature an orchestra using farm tools as instruments, an installation 100 handmade masks, among other programming. It will be an example of what ONE Mile will continue to pioneer far into the future, and how community initiated growth can extend far and wide by using food as the medium. That is Afrofuturism.
I have spent the last few weeks preparing a design thinking workshop for my office (Mayor’s Center for City Services), Office of Innovation, Senior Services, and Healthy Communities Office. My goals are to a. learn how to facilitate a design thinking workshop b. begin to unpack my design process and explore how to share it with others c. wrap up my Maharam Fellowship with my colleagues finally explaining what I do and d. share design thinking with people who work in city hall to infiltrate municipal thinking with the people who execute it. No tall order!
It is reminiscent of another workshop I lead this year during Alternative Spring Break. I also proposed working with a government organization (National Park Service, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area) and had them agree to host a group of RISD students (all majors and years) for a 3-day workshop/volunteering opportunity. They presented us with a problem, and I spent the next few days leading my team through the design process to come up with a solution (here and here for spoilers). It’s so interesting to me that so many people see designing as this impenetrable action, versus the parts needed to analyze, synthesize, visualize and create that we are taught in traditional school.
After facilitating both of these experiences I have learned a ton about my own design process, but even more importantly I have learned about how the design process uncovers one’s values. At its core, working for the government, working in public service (service is a word I like to problematize but I’ll keep it for now) is about improving people’s lives, and in the least-cheesy way making the world better for people. Of course, over time this has mutated from many other types of societies and one should argue that currently big government is not doing this but at this level, in the place, people CARE. It was abundantly clear throughout the design process that the chief concern for everyone was if constituents of Providence would be better served.
There were no mentions of breakthrough ideas (which for the record I would normally go for) that would revolutionize everything, no extreme statements for the sake of statements. Just extremely careful considerations of doing the most good for the most people using the precious resources the city has.
It was so beautiful that each office truly acted as an advocate for the people they represent. The department head of Senior Services told her cohorts when anything proposed would be hard for seniors to navigate. The department head of Mayor’s Center for City Services was determined that city hall would become actually approachable and visitors would have access to the services they need in the way that they need it. Everyone was united in their vision for plain language to be used at every opportunity- breaking down the bureaucratic system one step at a time.
Good design is considered design, and that’s why we need more government workers and designers at the same table.
Recently, we’ve had the opportunity for all the youth staff to have a tour of the Amos House, an impressive social services agency just two blocks from our site. They provide everything from free dining services, clothes and hygienic products to job training and education. We were able to make the intellectual connection between our work urban farming and the existence of hunger in America as an aspect of the larger food system. The amos house provides over 500 meals per day using food they purchase wholesale as well as salvaged produce from super markets. The other important connection we’ve made with the organization is the ability to hire extra helping hands when needed for big jobs like planting, weed whacking or repurposing land. The Amos House is able to connect our organization with people who are ready and willing to do some hands on work.