Companion Planting

This piece appeared in the summer 2018 issue of CCQ magazine:

Companion Planting
Salmon Creek Farm, ‘Companion Planting’ workshop, Photo: Nate Padavick

The roundtable discussion was part of a three-day event (7-10 June 2018) held at artist Fritz Haeg’s Salmon Creek Farm in northern California. Conceived by James Voorhies from the Bureau for Open Culture as a think tank of sorts, Companion Planting: A Manual for the Ecology of New Art brought together artists, writers and academics. Participants were invited to present one of the six modules – Artists, Audience, Economics, Education, Institutions, Publicity – and to consider what is needed to sustain a healthy contemporary art scene from a perspective 30 years into the future.

James Voorhies: Maybe we could start off with our ownership of various themes and how they connected to others. Does an institution of the future begin to operate a little like a gallery, committed to a specific number of artists? Of course that would mean fewer artists or creative producers are supported by that one institution but that it is also supporting them more sustainably. That’s one provocation but also a potential for thirty years down the road.

Frances Richard: Similarly, at the faculty level, fewer people getting more real support is something that’s ethically complicated but worth thinking about. If you invest more in your faculty, you invest in fewer people. That’s always an argument against unionization. The institution says, ‘You know, if you ask for better conditions, fewer people will get them.’

Nate Padavick: To me it sounds as though the artist figure or the art teacher becomes embedded in everything else, in all the other facets of higher education. It all becomes a little more porous.

JV: So maybe we jump forward to 2048 and the artist has ceased to exist but something called a very creative, networked individual exists who might be a designer, who also steps into an art school to teach one class, and is also working in some kind of urban planning context.

Kim Nguyen: But who could with quality, effort and care contribute to that many disciplines?

JV: For people who teach in Design, education isn’t the number one thing. Designers, this is a generalization, but they expect to be paid.

SJ: I guess some designers get signature status but a lot of design jobs are for hire as opposed to for signature.

NP: There’s a natural ecosystem for that. The designers go to school and they get hired by the job market but the ecosystem isn’t as clear-cut for art. The institutions aren’t responding to the ecosystem, which is telling them we’re saturated; they’re just floating the market and creating this…

JV: Well, a bubble of some sort.

Fritz Haeg: I have an easy time romanticizing the past, the 60s, the 70s in particular. The young artists before the 80s, let’s say, in the West were part of the counter-culture, both outside and inside of culture. The post-80s influx of money, publicity, glamour, parties or whatever, it’s just changed the dynamic so much and I wonder where this is headed. I see a profoundly different culture around art making and the role of artist today versus what I perceive it to be before the money came in.

KN: The question is when is ‘before the money came in’? Like, the Medicis? It’s always been part of it to some extent.

Shannon Jackson: I was thinking that too throughout the weekend. There were all these moments of realization – ‘Oh, this place is here in part because of the history of logging and, yes, the back-to-land people had trust funds or there are Amazon boxes coming here’ – at odds with the presumed purity of dropping out.

Brian Conley: One thought is about embracing corruption not as some kind of foreign being one has to go to battle with, but as a kind of necessary component of the imperfection of life itself. And then the other is that even if you have these corrupt forces or institutions that are part of the art world, there are things like what Fritz is doing, people who are attempting to provide another platform, and gatherings like this that try to create new forms of art and relationships with institutions. Even if there are no solutions that come out of this or out of Fritz’s project. Fine. But the very attempt is symbolically important.

FH: I’m not looking for purity but my heart does get racing with the idea of thinking of new possibilities.

Michele Carlson: There’s a whole network of acceptance of abuse and scarcity, which seems bigger than the educational space. Artists who are graduating, they’re thinking ‘I’m going to go out by myself and maybe make art in the corner of my closet’. They’re not thinking of themselves as networks. There’s this really important collectivity, multiplicitous and porous and dynamic. I think those collective spaces often create the very forces they might be working against.

Ryan Peter: I don’t feel we’ve talked about real estate much. How does that affect the artist? I’ve already complained to a number of people about getting displaced out of my studio by a tech company going around a neighbourhood and buying up a number of buildings. Maybe an artist [of the future] is no longer somebody who occupies space.

SJ: What if artist training included some things in the future like basic real estate management…

KN: Oh God!

SJ: …or, I don’t know, how to talk to an urban planner or some things that are about cross sector work or something, because you’re going to be vulnerable as artists or potential collaborators.

RP: I’ve also been thinking about these 13-year-old kids building cabins [at Salmon Creek Farm] and maybe we’ve got to start going backwards. Maybe we need to become more holistic – what Nate was talking about, something that’s no longer a definite role but takes place within a number of disciplines in the university model.

Calvin Rocchio: I wanted to bring up the idea of ‘companion planting’ again to break down this illusion of the closed walls of the art world. We keep talking about the art world as if it’s autonomous; I’m excited thinking about artists as service providers, companion planting with other fields of research. The notion of ‘a corner of the closet’ is extremely antiquated because it treats the field itself as this romantic space.

SJ: If that’s companion planting or whatever it is, there’s a bit of tension always between creating an environment for specialised artists within music, art practice, film, theatre, etc., while at the same time trying to get this out in every single field for everybody. Careful what you wish for. I don’t know how to talk about the future but I’m probably going to try and think of how to make the best use of planting companionship.