PLANT! The Art of Urban Gardening

By Kevin Buist


During the Spring semester of 2006 the students of a Calvin College sculpture class created a community gardening/art project called PLANT!. Divided into seven groups, the students created gardens in unused urban spaces. The purpose of these gardens, while set within the parameters of understanding “place,” seemed to be left intentionally vague. Participants were encouraged to “grow flowers, agriculture, or ideas.” By the end of the semester the project had grown to incorporate blogs for each garden site (run by, a handmade ‘zine style handbook, and a series of guided tours of the sites accompanied by a soundtrack.

The project represents exciting new territory for art happening in Grand Rapids. PLANT!, at it’s best, typifies an emerging art form that uses social interaction as its primary material. What is made takes a back seat to what happens between the audience and the producer along the way. In this way the project functions in the realm of “relational aesthetics” as defined by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book of the same name. Bourriaud defines relational art as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” But was this truly the goal of PLANT!? Or perhaps we should ask who defines the goal, the one who conceived of the project, or the participants who bore it out? And even if making gardens was simply a means to an end, namely human interaction, then we must judge the project as other art forms are judged, by asking how successful it was at manipulating and creating form, and to what end that form was used.

Before delving into the particulars of how the PLANT! project operated, let’s look at its historical context. The Official Handbook to PLANT!, produced by the participants, gives the viewer a head start in this area. Next to the table of contents is a page featuring “The Hall of Heroes.” The three largest names, with portraits, are Guy Debord, founder of the Situationists International and author of the book, Society of Spectacle; Carolus Linnaeus, 18th century naturalist who is credited with beginning binomial nomenclature, the two part Latin naming system for all living organisms; and finally Richard Serra, post-minimal artist known for his large metal sculptures and performances using thrown lead. It’s an odd mix names, to be sure. Debord’s place on the list is not surprising. An avant-garde poet and activist in the 1960’s, his theories about how genuine experiences have been replaced by synthetic imitations seem prophetic in light of the postmodern theories that followed. His ideas have had a significant impact on Bourriaud and his theory of relational aesthetics. Debord was also influential to the radical 1968 student protests in Paris, a violent upheaval of academic and social hierarchies, which ironically leads to the second name, Carolus Linnaeus. Linnaeus is the father of what is arguably the most enduring scientific hierarchy in history, the classification system of all living organisms. His inclusion seems to do two things; one, offset the anarchic nature of Debord; and two, pay lip service to botanical science. Both of these things seem unnecessary. Linnaeus only waters down Debord. Is it about breaking out of tired rituals of art and culture in favor of direct experience, or actually about planting seeds and watching them grow? If the latter is true, why wasn’t the project sponsored by Calvin’s Biology Department, rather than its Art Department? If nothing else, Linnaeus’ classic portrait does look striking next to gas-mask-clad Richard Serra throwing lead.

Serra’s work with space, place, and process does fit, but some of the artists listed in fine print on the edge of the page seem more applicable to PLANT!, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Ana Mendietta, Robert Smithson, and Ann Hamilton. One does think of Serra’s infamous engagement with public space with 1981’s Tilted Arc. The sculpture, installed in the Federal Plaza in New York City, was removed shortly thereafter due to numerous complaints that it was an eyesore that unnecessarily divided the space. PLANT!’s restorative use of abandoned urban spaces reads like the antithesis of Tilted Arc.

These people probably would have preferred a garden to Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc.

Serra’s engagement of public space had some unforeseen social consequences, but what about PLANT!? Did it in fact harness social interactions and form them into art? Or was it simply a community gardening project like so many others? Can it be both?

In defining any form of art, one of the primary struggles is to differentiate it from all the other seemingly similar cultural productions that surround it. How is an “art video” different from a television show? Its form, goals, distribution? What about a painting hanging in Mary Boone Gallery and a painting hanging in Hobby Lobby? While most of us have rejected Clement Greenberg’s staunch distinction between avant-garde and kitsch, we still agree that there is a difference between art and non-art. The line is hard to draw when it comes to images, but becomes even more elusive when considering social interaction as a form of art. While not as common as planting a row of petunias in one’s front yard, activist urban gardening is becoming a common social activity. It’s been done in Grand Rapids before by an organization called City Kids, among others. The practice of reclaiming unused urban space for agriculture has received national recognition through Bette Midler, who runs the New York Restoration Project (

Did PLANT! push beyond conventional gardening and into the realm of relational art? The answer is yes and no. Social structures exist in a rich, interdependent web, even more so than images, so when one starts making art out of them, it’s impossible to control all the variables. Things get sucked in, some good, some bad. The PLANT! project came out of a classroom and that dynamic remained with it. Whether or not the sites dwelled in the established forms of community gardening or ventured into new territories had largely to do with who was running them. We’ve all done group class projects we didn’t really care about, we let the most motivated group member do most of the work, we dust off our favorite PowerPoint template, stick to conventions, and get through it for the grade. While there didn’t seem to be many outward signs of complete apathy, the fact that the participants were not exactly volunteers did have a negative impact on the project.

A key aspect of relational art is that it trades the objective, universal viewing space of the gallery for direct, often fleeting interactions with small audiences. The line between participant and viewer becomes blurred. In this sense, the fact that PLANT! was made up of students in a class seemed to form a mix of artists and viewers who often occupied both roles. The students were the primary viewers of the piece due to the direct experience they had with one another, the space, and the community. If the artists were also the viewers, where does that leave the rest of us? Interested viewers who were not enrolled in the sculpture class had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the sites. An audio guide explained the sites, accompanied by the participants giving the tour. The fickle nature of viewing relational art was evident in the tours, as the experience of the tour varied widely depending on who was explaining the sites. The third tier of viewers are those that weren’t in the class and didn’t have the opportunity to go on the tour. For those, the guidebook and blogs served as the only evidence of the work. Such a limited audience for the project is not something to be shied away from, although it could have been taken too far. The guided tours were an excellent idea, extending direct experience with the project to the public.

The blogs tell, with varying detail, what the participants did at each site. Most were predictable: cleaning the site, planting a few seeds, hoping the renewal of the space would have some sort of positive effect on the neighborhood. Several did venture into site-specific sculpture using found objects from the site. One notable example was the Baxter 2 site which made a chess set using discarded laundry detergent bottles, found object sculpture with a decidedly interactive twist. Most of the sculptural interventions at the sites seemed like little more than hasty arrangements of the junk on hand. The agriculture, too, was underdeveloped. This had largely to do with the short amount of time participants had between starting the project and the tours at the end of the semester. “This is where the basil will grow…the tulips should come up here…” were common things heard on the tour.

One intriguing engagement of the space was done by the group in charge of the Fulton Heights site. While the physical garden was unremarkable, a small patch of soil bordered by stones next to a railroad track, the participants effectively mythologized the space in the Official Handbook and the audio tour. Their spread in the Handbook, filled with interactive games and puzzles, states, “The railroad tracks are home to mavericks, snakes, rebels, drifters, nomads, explorers. We are of like minds. We find the promise of freedom and of distance, we see ourselves directly connected to long history and to an ideal.” The audio guide notes that the site represents an urban non-space, tucked into an industrial park, technically not a part of any Grand Rapids neighborhood. The top of the Kent County Jail can be seen from the site. The participants romanticized the recent jailbreak of Otis Nelson, who they say could have run over that very spot. The Guidebook includes a scavenger hunt that awards a bonus if any of the items found were once possessed by Nelson.

The Heartside/Downtown site, located at Fulton and Division, rejected traditional gardening all together. Seeing agriculture as a form of additive sculpture, the team decided to approach the space reductively. They walked a series of straight lines over the grassy lot, eventually carving rows that mimic the form of traditional gardening.

The strong ties to minimalism, process art, and performance made the site a success. While the other groups’ interactions with community members tended toward predictable structures of local involvement, the seemingly impractical and repetitive actions of the Heartside/Downtown team created a more challenging confrontation with the public. The team invited others to participate in their meditative act. Some people gladly did, others watched, while some jeered. The Heartside/Downtown blog also spawned a lively discussion on art and politics, quoted in the Handbook. While the issues raised are too complex to adequately summarize here, the posters debated the political role of art and agriculture, and the political implication of combining the two. The discussion was a fertile ground for more debate and possibly other art projects.

The possibility for multiple responses is really the primary strength of the PLANT! project. While the lack of control over all variables can be problematic in some ways, it’s also that aspect which makes projects like this so exciting; they spawn other ideas and projects. The instigators of PLANT! seem to be aware that it is essentially open-ended. Hopefully the issues raised by the project; defining art the in the social realm, interaction with place and community, and the political implications of art’s expanding definition, continue to be probed by artists and groups within Grand Rapids and beyond. We have a lot of room to grow.

Kevin Buist is a working artist who received his BFA from Calvin College and currently lives in Grand Rapids, MI

Posted on August 21, 2006 11:46 AM


For anyone interested, the discussion about the [a]political nature of art can be found on the PLANT! blog, here:


Posted by: jdawe on August 26, 2006 10:55 PM

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