In May 1982, American artist Agnes Denes began to transform a two acre empty plot at the foot of the World Trade Center into her work Wheatfield – A Confrontation, Battery Park Landfill. In the prior months, truck loads of dirty landfill had been dumped on the site, consisting of rubble, dirt, rusty pipes, automobile tyres, old clothing, and other garbage. Tractors flattened the area and eighty more truckloads of dirt were dumped and spread to constitute an inch of topsoil for planting. Together with two assistants and a varying number of volunteers, Agnes then dug two hundred eighty five furrows by hand, placed seeds of wheat and covered the furrows with soil.
Over the summer, the seeds grew and the field changed from green to golden amber. In August, another tractor arrived and harvested the wheat – a total produce of over a thousand pounds in weight came off the field. The harvest was sold and soon the plot carried the foundation for luxury apartments.
While citizens of urban areas are usually not confronted with production of their food, Denes created a short but notable situation where people could peek into the process. By planting the seeds right in the financial heart of the city, Denes brought two worlds together that are normally geographically far apart: those who create, and those who consume. In so doing, the work emphasised the economics of reliance – each party is in need of the other. Wheatfield – A Confrontation, Battery Park Landfill hence raised important questions not only about the possibility of a sustainable food chain, but also about the relationship between the city and the countryside, about how to deal with wasteland, and, maybe most importantly, about who is actually in charge of dividing our land in fields and deciding how we use them?
Which ghosts still influence our current landscapes and the ways we farm and eat?
Thirty-seven years later these questions are still unanswered. Whilst it becomes more and more clear that many current ways of farming have a destructive impact on our environment and those who live in it – both human and non-human – it also becomes clear that changing its methods is difficult when so many factors seem to influence the system it is entangled in. Taking a closer look at the concept of Fields, and thus returning to the source of our food, might help us to gain a better understanding of not only food production and how its final products get to us, but could perhaps also shine a new light on our relationship to food in a broader sense. How for example does the geography of agricultural fields influence the way we eat? What ingredients are available to whom and how do they affect the way we cook? Does the soil in specific fields lead to a certain “terroir”? Does the way we eat define who we are? And if so, how do we decide what is ethical to grow and eat?
Besides the fact that fields are interconnected with our food production, they also heavily define our landscape. But when we, let’s say, walk through a field, do we then realise all the factors that came into play during the creation, and maintaining of that field? Or do we perhaps overlook, or even forget, those who shaped the landscape in the past (both human and nonhuman)? In Remembering Our Amnesia, Seeing in Our Blindness ecologist Ingrid M. Parker defines this forgetting as “amnesia”. Near her workplace – situated in Santa Cruz – one can find the iconic field known as the Great Meadow. Even though it is visited daily by a big number of people, few people that enter nowadays remember that the Amah Mutsun, the first inhabitants of the Great Meadow, shaped the Meadow partly by using fire to maintain open spaces and create forest hedges.
Parker also distinguishes a certain “blindness” when it comes to our understanding of the relationship between humans and the landscape today. The factors that drive ecological patterns – its diversity, composition and the overall structure of an ecosystem – are often invisible for us at first sight. Think, for example, about microorganisms in the soil such as fungi and bacteria. That those organisms are not detectable by humans with their bare eyes doesn’t mean they are not important for the forming of the landscape. A closer look at fields – both literally and conceptually – will henceforth help us to understand our current and past impacts on the species and ecosystems around us.
Fields not only touches upon topics of agriculture, food, land use and sustainability, but is also intertwined between the past and the present. Which ghosts still influence our current landscapes and the ways we farm and eat? What is hidden but might be found with renewed walks through our fields? And what happens if we enter the spaces between them?
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