Interview: Abe Lampert

Basic information. (Name, age, school, department [or practice], year, occupation, coffee shop you currently work at, how many years.)

 Abe, 29

School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Print-media.

Coffee shop you currently work at and for how many years?

Manager at New Wave Coffee for 3.5 years.

How did you come to work at your coffee shop?  Are you a coffee drinker yourself?  If yes, where does your coffee come from (coffee shop, local roaster, specific country of origin, etc.)?

I got my job by dropping off a resume and having had worked in food service (including various cafes) for many years. I drink coffee daily, but I’m not incredibly particular with concern to its origin. 

How knowledgeable are you about the coffee you brew in your coffee shop?  Of coffee and its trade in general?

Very. As much as my profession requires of me.

Is there a connection (if at all) between your experience with coffee and your artistic practice?

Only insofar as coffee affects my ability to focus on anything in life. 

Do you feel as if there is something that differentiates your coffee/coffee shop from local/national competitors?

Yes and no. My shop is a little more laid back than other Chicago based independent shops, and is certainly different, in obvious ways from say, a Starbucks or Cosi. Ultimately, however, all coffee shops are the same

What do you think is coffee’s role within a social realm?

I have no idea how to answer that. People drink coffee, often together. I will say that even though I work at a coffee shop and spend many hours a day adjusting grinders and attempting to pull high-quality shots of espresso, I think that people who ‘meet for coffee’, or spend nine hours a day hanging out at a coffee shop are out of their minds. People who choose coffee as their point of social interaction need to learn about bars, or better yet public parks. Furthermore, anyone who goes out for coffee on a first date is a fucking lunatic. I watch it happen every day and I can’t imagine a less ideal circumstance to talk to someone for the first time than when you’re both ingesting high amounts of stimulants. And milk. Coffee shop first date = highly nervous and highly flatulent first date. What a bunch of dumb-asses.

Do you think there is a greater dialogue to be had involving coffee production and its consumption?  Coffee culture/consumerism in general?

Sure. But just as much as, literally, any commodity purchased in the United States.

Interview by Eric Lengsouthiphong



Interview: Heather Moran

Name: Heather Moran

Age: 24

How long have you been working at Phoenix Coffee and what made you want to work in a coffee shop?

About seven months. I started as a way to earn extra money, but I feel like I’m part of a family with the staff and regulars who come and spend their time. I also really like that it’s locally brewed coffee.

Are you a coffee drinker? What is your experience with coffee? 

Oh yes! I started drinking coffee in high school…usually Starbucks. Then that progressed to actually spending time in nearby cafes when I was in college and needing a place outside of my dorm room to focus. I prefer being able to sit down and spend time enjoying my coffee. 

As opposed to the ‘grab and go?’

Definitely. I feel like there are places where you can quickly go to grab your coffee, which is sometimes necessary if you’re on your way to work or class, but I prefer to take my time.

So you are more interested in the social, community aspects of the local coffee shop? 


How many cups of coffee do your regulars typically consume? A cup? More?

Typically more than one, but it really depends on what they’re doing. If someone comes in and is on their laptop for a few hours, they’ll order more than one cup. But it’s typically slow drinking. 

One of the things my class has been exploring this semester is the idea of the ‘constant consumer.’ When considering this idea in regards to coffee, what are your thoughts on consumption habits? 

I’ve seen both extremes. I’ve had friends who need a several cups of coffee in the morning to function normally. I also know people who only have one cup every once in awhile. I think it’s important to have a balance and moderate your consumption.

Interview by Gabrielle Burrage


Curatorial Statement – Ariel Fang

“As a community we shape our lives through communication with others.” – Ben Kinmont

The understanding of our interaction with others and that reflexivity to see how it shapes our lives was both the interest and the method of making for Constant Consumer. The naturally loose structure of how the curatorial premise for both Storefront’s Blend: Discourse by the Cup and Constant Consumer developed mirrors and justifies the end conversation I desire to have from the show. ‘How is it that the daily moments of intake, of consumption, in our lives affects our larger understanding of value? Or is it that our larger beliefs in value informs the decision we have in seeing and choosing objects because we have a sense of their preciousness? Or rather is it, the answer to the previous two questions is, “yes”, and that a conversation needs to be had where both signified and signifier are acknowledged as equals?”

When thinking about how this entire show/class/experience panned out I can not help but wonder where the moment of “worthwhileness” was best exemplified. It is important to realize that this show functioned in an institutional structure, that the class was already promised a highly visible prized exhibition space. This is pointed out in terms of acknowledging the situation that we curate in, the conversation that was being spoken even before the first day of class. From a certain perspective, one could say that the act of the student’s consumption of the course was what brought value to the course. For after all, if no one was around to take the class or chose not to take the class, the meaning would be void because the purpose of the class could not be fulfilled. The monetary value, the time spent, the physical structure of a classroom space and its availability all influence and enforce the perception that the time spent in the class room and projects derived from the class room are valuable. 

This perception of value was then reinforced through the conversations we had with one another. A clear example of this was the time spent on the coffee and the concept of coffee. It was not that all these things were not already valuable before our conversation, but rather that by having a conversation (many conversations) it became more important to the whole group. With the combined incentive of caffeinated conversation and the supporting structure of a class we were able to continue the larger project to a more-full exhibition. 

Constant Consumer came about through the effort a many, many conversations. While this is certainly not different in terms of other exhibitions, it was particularly interesting in gauging how individuals involved in this project engaged in dialogue on the project. There was moments where the concepts of the show was made evidently clear by the satisfaction of a full personal conversation, while at other times it was stifled by the endless unreliable chains of constant email updates. The ways that planning this one exhibition permeated the whole of the semester was incredibly interesting, as it greatly expanded beyond a “normal” class project. 

In someways this curatorial blog post only adds to that endless dribble of insular dialogue. While there is certainly value in writing and posting and doing, it seems somewhat lackluster in comparison to other more pressing task at hand. If we moved from the era of “art for art sake” could that not tie into curatorial practice as well? If curating is not asked to “curate for curating sake”, that one could argue, implicitly suggests exhibitions as a way for the space to move outside of itself, then should not the parts make up for the sum? The requirement of the blog post, where viewer engagement can be measured down to the the quantifiable number of clicks on a page, becomes a self-indulgent task. The act of sharing is reduced to this little box on this little screen, and one can not help but think, ‘this probably is going no where’. 

Nonetheless though just like our endless mode of consumption, one seems to push through, to keep-going, to keep taking in terms of curating. I keep pushing through the requirements needed to complete the course and finish the exhibitions. For example, as part of my role as the main contact for the Eating Prosthetics portion of Constant Consumer, I needed to figure out the final resting place of the long 8 foot by 2 foot table that was built for our exhibition installation. This ended up with a new experience renting a truck in the city, pushing back the inherent fear that results from zipcar deadlines and crashing into pedestrians. (Parallel parking a truck of Monroe and Wabash was not the most pleasant experience). I keep, keep-going, this meaning that even though the class is over and there are no immediate consequences apparent with not finishing assignments like this blog-post. (Although, I could potentially be threatened with a no credit for the course). And finally I keep taking. Curating in its core is asking of others to connect, whether this is through an email response or through an understanding of the larger curatorial premise, we want to convey a message to someone else. All this is to say I find that the curatorial process of Constant Consumer was challenging and interesting just like the overall message of the curatorial exhibition. 

When posing the three subtopics underneath the larger umbrella Constant Consumer it seems already there that a split in our understanding of what it means to “constantly consume” was already inherently skewed project to project. Constant Consumer: The Ritual of Everyday Consumption, Constant Consumer: Eating Prosthetics, Constant Consumer: The Ways Our Daily Consumption Consumes Us all attempted in their own way to get somewhere while also being in that insular circle of consumption themselves. Whether any of us really where able to get the heart of the matter is highly debatable. As a whole class a combined group we may be closer to the point of the project, but without a larger discourse around the topic I do not believe that we could critically assess whether the final exhibitions/ final reflections really begin to scratch the condition of the daily consumer. 

Overall this experience has been a gratingly positive one. It would be untrue of myself to say that this was one of the most successful exhibitions that I have put together. However, I’ve learned a lot. Not so much in the technical side of curating necessarily, but on the inter-personal side of curating specific to a course within the institution. I learned about the difficulties in attempting to have a foot in both world and the unstated biases of others and myself. The Constant Consumer through the course Curatorial Practice became as much about the the world and those who partake of it was about the class – appropriate, difficult, and an overall enriching experience. 

Interview: Shawn Chua Ming Ren

Shawn Chua Ming Ren is an artist currently working in New York City. His works focus on interconnectivity and test the boundaries between positive and negative human interaction ranging from casual handshakes to violence.

(Phone Interview, abridged)

What do you think of when someone mentions coffee?

SC: If I were to think of coffee on its own, I am reminded of late nights and early mornings and deadlines…. But I tend to associate coffee with specific places and who I had it with. I have traveled and lived in several cities but I always had a favorite café where I owe several epiphanies and inspirations. 

Do you have any favorites?
SC: Oh there are many, each with special memories but there is a cafe I frequent several blocks from my flat. I go there often to read, write and sometimes just watch people. Its fun to eavesdrop on conversations. Sometimes strangers jump into chats they overhear and an interesting debate begins. The casualness of it all is pretty inspiring, this spillage of private conversations becoming suddenly public.

Just to make clear, do you hold a strong opinion on coffee as a beverage?

SC: Coffee is something I consume on a daily basis but what is more important to me is how it serves as a vehicle of communication. Like, what do people mean when they say ‘Lets meet up for coffee sometime’? We read between the lines, it could be a business meeting, a catching-up between friends, a suggestion of possible romance, and more.” But it is interesting when you see how some people are very particular about how they have their coffee. I have one friend who just can’t stand the disposable cups they give out and is very picky about the blend, the ratio of milk and sugar etc.

That reminds me of the essay in Inei Reisan by Tanizaki who stressed Japanese soup HAD to be enjoyed in black lacquer bowls.

SC: Yea yea I think drinking coffee requires special attention. Its not only the taste but the aroma, the temperature, the cup… a lot can go into it if you really care. Then the cup becomes more a culinary experience. It can become fetishized too, with the amount of attention put into the specificities. When I think of coffee extremities I am reminded of Kopi Luwak coffee. They are beans taken from the shit of a cat-creature and its considered a delicacy. It must be really good but its kind of funny too.

Okay, going back to what you were talking about coffee as a catalyst. You see it as a stimulant, not necessarily because of the caffeine content?

SC: I think caffeine might take part in its power as stimulant but you go to a meeting or hold conferences and there is almost always coffee served. Its almost a fixture, a requirement.

And what do you think of cultural variations in coffee appreciation? For example, I know an Italian friend who was appalled by the Japanese vending machines selling cold coffee in cans.

SC: I think there are differences, especially between countries that have a long tradition of coffee-drinking and those without. You even see it in the menu. American coffee is watered down coffee and Wiener coffee is a special type of cappuccino. In New York, I think its about choosing the cafe. Each cafe has its unique style and attracts a particular audience. You know that you are mingling with a familiar crowd even if you don’t actually talk to any of them. So by choosing your coffee and the place to have it is also a form of social identification.

Interview by Chisako Izuhara

Curatorial and publication process & reflections on project by Emily Elizabeth Thomas




In collaboration with Deborah Boardman’s Curatorial Practice course my curatorial partner, Ariel Fang, and I dedicated a semester to programming, curating and facilitating the creation of Constant Consumer, a student-curated show in the LeRoy Neiman Center. Constant Consumer is an exhibition concerned with the various ways in which modern consumption affects the lives of the consumer.


In our section of the show we showcased the work of the following talented artists:

David Kim, BFA 2013
Elizabeth Merritt Kong, BFA 2013
Bhagya Ajikumar, MFA 2004
Amy Deneselya, BFA 2013
Jennifer Kaplan, BFA 2014
Nancy Sayavong, BFA 2014
Jason Guo, BFA 2014
Nicole Kaufman, BFA 2014
Christine Lai, BFA 2013
SunMi Park, BFA 2014
Stephania Dulowski, BFA 2014
Sky White, BFA 2014
Therese Harrah, BFA 2014

 We received images, statements and dimensions of each proposed work from the individual artists through an open call that was sent out to the SAIC community.



Constant Consumer Open Call
Posted to Facebook on October 26th

 The Curatorial Practice course, with Deborah Boardman, in conjunction with SUGs Project spaces is looking for cup forms that are created to facilitate daily consumption. The cups can be made from any material – ceramic, wood, fabric, plastic – but needs to suggest utility beyond a single use.

 The selected pieces will be curated into a larger exhibition titled “The Constant Consumer”, focusing on dilemmas and evolution of contemporary production and consumption. The works will be exhibited specifically in the storefront window space in the LeRoy Neiman Center, 37 S. Wabash, from November 18 through December 9.

 Please send a 2-3 sentence artist statement, a resume or cv, and 1-5 images to with the subject heading “The Constant Consumer Open Call” by 10/31 @ 11pm.



 After the installation of Constant Consumer Ariel and I, in collaboration with student graphic designers Sky White and Therese Harrah, began the extensive process of creating a publication showcasing both the curatorial process of Constant Consumer and additional research, starting a conversation that runs parallel to the exhibition.

 The publication Eating Prosthetics: methods of daily consumption became our way of commemorating the exhibition, and beginning a discussion on the historical weight and allegorical meaning of the prosthetics we use for eating, the human eating prosthetic.

 It became our goal to provide a moment of reflection for the consumer in which they are presented with the opportunity to think differently about their own consumption, to think differently about the fork they hold in their hand.


Selections from Eating Prosthetics



 This book came about through a series of curatorial projects and events, starting with a focus on coffee. At the Storefront’s Blend: Discourse by the Cup local coffee was disguised and served to visitors while viewing coffee related documentaries. Conversation on both the healing attributes of coffee culture, and the faulted morality of foreign coffee production, and the space between these opposing views, led to a larger conversation about the physical act of coffee-drinking and its affect on the consumer, all filtered through the coffee-mug-vessel that facilitates the consumption of the dark brew. Our interest in eating and drinking vessels lead to some interesting interpretations of the significance of the coffee mug- even when an individual is not necessarily drinking coffee the moment of consumption continues in the process of holding, picking up, and even washing the cup.

The seemingly endless cycle of human interpretation of use and value – the constant consumer – was what interested us.

An open call was sent out to the SAIC community asking for student and artist participation in an exhibition centered around objects that implied more than one use, more than one purpose of physical consumption. The Constant Consumer showed works that flatten the hierarchy between utensil and art object, works that commented on the complications of daily consumption, and works that reflect a portion of the artists’ character.   

This interest in how these contingent prosthetics of eating informs the consumer’s conception of value led to a parallel conversation around the historical weight of the utensils themselves. Eating Prosthetics is the result of this interest, explored further from a historical standpoint.

Instead of creating a strictly academic publication on the history of utensils we decided it would be beneficial to exhibit how knowledge of items that facilitate eating can be reinterpreted into design that facilitates understanding. There is a hope that in some way this book would be an object consumed in order to affect viewer’s perception of consumption and in turn possibly change their understanding of their own production.

It is our hope that although we are constant-consumers, we may offer assistance in creating a conscious-constant-consum 



Ben Kinmont & Antinomian Press 


On Social Sculpture
and its significance to ongoing collaborative project:

 In creating social meaning, in defining what it is that we place significance and belief in, we create a Third Sculpture, the “thinking sculpture”. 

We have chosen, as two artists and curators, to craft meaning through experience, to re define what an object means and to give it meaning outside of its utility. We presented artists, designers, illustrators, and sculptors with information on modern consumption and eating vessels, we then urged them to re interpret that basic knowledge, add to it, to transform it, and produce something that could contribute to our exhibition.

We have communally worked to add meaning to method- through all of our conversation on a vast array of modern consumption dilemmas over the course of one semester, through programming and scheduling, through interaction with many artists and creatives, through the study of anthropological and historical fact, we have attempted to redefine the meaning of a coffee mug, of an eating prosthetic.

As a community we shape our lives through communication with others



Western Eating Utensil Encyclopedia:


The knife is the oldest eating utensil, originally made from sharp stones used as fighting tools and food processing. With the advancement of the Neolithic age, basic stone knives were developed with crude wooden or animal hide handles. In the Bronze age (3000-700 BC) metalworkers were able to forge rough versions of metal knives from copper and bronze.

 With the development of iron and steel in the Western world knives became commonplace among every class of people. It was common practice for everyone to carry their own eating knives during this time. These knives were sharp tipped, useful for both eating and fighting. Eventually, during the 17th century King Louis XIV of France banned the use of sharp tipped knives and the new ground-down point knives became commonplace at the table. 



A spoon can be used to consume both solid and liquid foods. Due to its multi-use in the process of consumption, our Paleolithic ancestors most often used simple bowl shaped utensils that looked a lot like the modern day spoon. Most often, seashells were connected to wooden sticks in order to properly serve larger amounts of food, as well as easily consume individual portions. With the arrival of the Middle Ages in Europe wooden and metal spoons became commonplace. The Anglo-Saxon word spon, meaning a chip or splinter of wood, points toward widespread use of this material for Northern European spoons.



Although knives and spoons have been in use for tens of thousands of years, forks became commonplace only 1,000 years ago. An Englishman named Thomas Coryate brought the first forks to England after seeing them in Italy during his travels in 1608. The English ridiculed forks as being unnecessary. “Why should a person need a fork when God had given him hands?” they asked. Slowly, however, forks came to be adopted by the wealthy. They were prized possessions made of expensive materials intended to impress guests. By the mid 1600s, eating with forks was considered fashionable among wealthy British. Forks used solely for dining were luxuries; they quickly became markers of social status and sophistication among nobles



Before our ancestors ever discovered how to work metal, they first discovered the utility of ceramic. This enabled them to make a very rough sketch of the modern day mug. Although these mugs had a handle on the side similar to modern-day coffee mugs, these older versions were made with all kinds of materials ranging from skulls, clay, wood and metal. However, these versions of mugs were difficult when used for hot beverages as they would leak, break or even contaminate the liquid held inside. It was not until around 600 A.D. when porcelain was invented in China that the production of the sealed and coated mugs we know today became possible.


Goblet, Chalice

After the discovery of metals the material possibility of drinking vessels became much greater than before. With advancement in metalworking the chalice and the goblet were created. Goblets are featured prominently in multiple artworks dating back thousands of years ago. One of them most common types of goblets is the chalice. Chalices are so old that they have been dated back to the early beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church originally used during Holy Communions to carry Communion Wine. Chalices were a form of goblet made of precious metals such as gold and silver and often accessorized and encrusted with jewels, designed mostly for ceremonial purposes.



The earliest form of the plate were made from been large leaves, gourd halves or seashells which would be used as simple bowls for holding food. Food items would be placed on larger leaves and would be consumed communally by all members of a tribe, family or group.

The “trencher” was the next form that the plate took. The most popular substance used for creating trenchers was bread, a technique that lasted well into the 16th century. Very coarse flour would be used to make the bread, it would then be left to sit and harden for several days before being sliced and used as an eating utensil. During a particular elaborate meal, several trenchers would be carved for each diner. After the meal was finished the trenchers would be discarded to the dogs.


Curatorial Reflection


My experience and involvement in the curatorial process over the course of this semester has been multi-dimensional and vast.  Above is my portion of the research conducted, in collaboration with Ariel, for our Eating Prosthetics publication (to be finished by December 16th).  This research and publication will serve as additional artistic agency for redefining the meaning of an eating vessel. We have taken great inspiration from Joseph Grigley’s Exhibition Prosthetics and Ben Kinmont’s various publications on art and social life through Antinomian Press. It was our curatorial goal to bring together works of art across many disciplines to close the gap between eating utensil and art object, to offer assistance in creating a conscious-constant-consumer and to define an eating vessel outside of its position on a place mat, to define it as a vehicle of consumption, and as platform for conversation about modern consumption dilemmas.

Through the experience at the Storefront, the experience of curating and facilitating the installation of Constant Consumer, the collaborative effort of our on going publication project, and countless curator-artist interactions I have gained some real experience as an art facilitator and curator. I have realized the importance of a communal effort in the face of a complicated modern question, the vast impact a group of artists and creative types can make by even beginning to find solutions to these dilemmas, and the significance and allegorical meaning of a single cup of coffee.

 Most importantly I can now add some curatorial tools to my artistic repertoire including- vinyl install, research and production, artistic negotiation and compromise, art handling, communal conceptualizing, exhibition install, event programming, proposal presentation, publication design, and experience in commissioning exhibition-specific work.

Interview with Blake Daniels

Interview with Blake Daniels: SAIC, Spring 2013, Painting graduate

Worked at Logan Square Intelligentsia from March 2013 – July 2013 (~3-4 months)

Excerpts from Interview.

Mixed Enjoyment; it was a trade job. Intelligentsia did a pretty good job in mixing it up in terms of every day tasks and mundanity.

Enjoyed working at Intelligentsia while he was in school, gave him something else to do outside of an intensely art focused degree. But this did not meant that it was helpful for career development.

Working as a barista helped with immediate bills.

Coffee considered as a process, similar to tobacco & art. The process aspect of it was interesting, but not what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Bureaucracy of employee & employer in Intelligentsia and how coffee is produced. The model that Intelligentsia provided was great, but it was not what the Logan Square community wanted. Intelligentsia was shaping coffee culture, but it was relying on the name, the brand, too much.

I would drink 1 cup a day.

I purchase coffee from a local roaster when it’s on sale. I don’t actually drink Intelligentsia coffee now that I do not work there anymore.

Hobby Products

Undertones of culture as seen through coffee as opposed to overtones.

I’m interested in coffee as a system and the coffee shop as a location.

Interview with Lindsey Nicole Jancay

Lindsey Nicole Jancay is a current candidate of Art Administration and Policy program at the SAIC. She used to work at Starbucks. Below is the interview conducted with her through email and Facebook conversation.

Siyuan Jin: What is your experience with coffee in general?

Lindsey Nicole Jancay: My experience with coffee in general is that I’ve grown up in a household that really revolved around coffee drinking. For me it is comforting, introspective, social, and a real treat. 

S: What is your experience with coffee making?

L: Until I started working at Starbucks, I didn’t think much about the making part. I just followed directions and that was it. Though I do always add a little cinnamon to the grounds which is something  my mom does. After working at Starbucks for a few months, I found out that there were small things I could do to make coffee better. Coffee making became experimentation which is great and exciting. 

S: Is there any effect rendered by being an artist/ art professional to your experience while you were working at SB?

L: Somewhat. I think being an artist, I prioritize experimentation and take risk and failure as part of that process. That said, Starbucks is often seen as an artist friendly job, and in that regard it was not. It was more about following processes whether they made sense or not. Everything choreographed and to improvise was not usually well received. 

S: What do you think about coffee as a daily consumption?

L: I don’t mind it. I know it isn’t the healthiest thing and I do try to half caf it as much as possible. But drinking coffee daily means I have some time set aside for myself every day to indulge in something that I truly enjoy. I try to make healthier options and I always drink black coffee. 

S: And the coffee industry?

L: The coffee industry has huge issues. I am the first to admit that. I think the public needs to know more about their organic and fair trade options.

Interview: Ashley Szczesiak

Basic information (Name, age, department, year(s) working at a coffee shop, what coffee shop, additional occupation, etc.)

Ashley Szczesiak
Former Barista

Do/did you enjoy working in a coffee shop? What do/did you do?

When I first started working as a barista, I thought it would be fun and chill. In reality, it was a fast-paced and competitive environment in which you were at the mercy of the employer.

Do you still drink coffee, if so from where?

Yes, I do. I normally drink dark roast and buy it from Bittersweet, a pastry shop at Belmont; as well as from Metropolis Co. and Intelligentsia. 

Are you satisfied with the coffee you made for other people?

I am not intense about how I feel when I make coffee for other people. I followed the five steps I was taught when trained as a barista.

Are you satisfied with the coffee you made for yourself?

I don’t make coffee for myself. I end up making too much which can be bad for my health. Besides, I like the experience of going out to get coffee.

How much information did your employer/company provide you with about coffee and/or coffee consumption? Was there information about the company’s coffee that your employer required you to “sell” to your customers?

No, not really. Being in Brooklyn, New York, the coffee shop I worked for sold Brooklyn Roasting Co. coffee, which everyone assumed to be fair trade and organic.

How does your coffee shop place itself within the spectrum of its competitors? i.e., better quality coffee, locally roasted, free trade, etc.

Brooklyn Roasting Co. was the brand that was sold at my coffee shop. It is known as high end, but within high end coffee it is actually middle of the road. Viewed as artisanal, not gourmet, I usually buy bags and give them as gifts.

How does coffee (different amounts, times when consumed) affect or influence your academic, art and leisure practices?

I drink coffee when I have to grade papers, answer e-mails or work on my thesis. But when I make Art, I don’t drink any. Art is the coffee. 

Interview by Natalia Sanchez Hernandez

Interview: Victoria Thurmond

Pueblo Semilla: Pilsen Mobile Seed Library

Interview with Victoria Thurmond

August 13, 2013

By Liana Li


L: What is Pueblo Semilla?

V: Pueblo Semilla is a seed library in Pilsen. A seed library is like any other regular library where people are expected to return what they take out. When you check out a seed, you take only what you need. You grow them out throughout the season, and then you bring them back once you save the seed. However, because that information is not very known nowadays, seed saving is a lost practice. Even within organic farmers, many people don’t save seed or save seed regularly. Usually it is bought. There are a lot of places where seeds are grown out in a different climate region. It’s only a few places throughout the US where you can get organic heirloom seeds. But they are only heirloom to that region, unless you save your own seed. The reason for saving seed locally is because it acclimates to the climate that you’re in. If there’s a drought season in Chicago, then that plant acclimates to the drought and if that’s the one that does best and you save seed from that, then you have a potentially drought-resistant seed. Or if there’s a heat wave, like there was this summer and last summer, and you save seed from that crop, you have potentially a heat-resistant crop. Growing out seeds in your hyper-local environment holds all of that history and that root system.


L: Why Pilsen?

V: Everything is transient in the city. I’ve seen more and more gardens that will go for a year, or maybe 5 years, and then be ripped up for some reason. Sometimes it’s development, or it was an empty lot that people were using and then something gets built on it, or people move on and move. And that doesn’t allow for the same root system or plants to re-seed themselves. So in a plant life-cycle you have the seed, and then it sprouts, it grows, you harvest. But to save seeds you have to go the next step, which means you have to leave it on there for the entire season and let it grow, get old, and start drying out. And then the seed produces, and it will disseminate itself. That’s the way plants work. That’s why they’re designed that way. They fall to the ground and re-seed, so they can grow the next year, even if it’s an annual plant. But in Pilsen, the soil is toxic. It’s filled with lead or other chemicals that have been laid down by hundreds of years of industry. You can’t just grow directly in the soil. Which is another reason why gardens are transient. The soil is usually brought in from somewhere else. Also in a city environment there is the added context that people have lost the practice of growing in general. A lot of kids in the city that we’ve talked to don’t even know that their food comes from the ground. They think that food comes from a grocery store and that’s where the line ends. There’s no idea of the whole system when you’re in the city and you’re not surrounded by this kind of thing. Even though Chicago is surrounded by agriculture, it’s not something that is known to people growing up in the city. In Pilsen, people are primarily Mexican immigrants. A lot of people coming from Mexico do come from agricultural backgrounds, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that knowledge transfers through generations, and from what I’ve seen it doesn’t. So there’re so many parts to the seed library that need to come before explaining seeds. There’s the soil, the industry, the growing practices, the cultural divide of what grows here and doesn’t. How things grow is very different according to region, and coming from a hot climate to a mid-western climate is very different for the way that you grow.


L: You mentioned that seed saving is an uncommon practice. How did you recognize this as something that needs to happen?

V:  So like anybody else, there have been a bunch of basic ideas that I’ve gathered over the years to understand a more complex idea. I don’t come from an agricultural background. I didn’t come to this with any of that kind of knowledge. I’ve only started actually gardening this past year, and the only previous knowledge that I’ve had is an interest in sustainability and an involvement with environmental justice and activism. That brought me to the smaller actions because I’ve moved from this larger-action mindset of thinking that all of our problems are sourced from government policy and all of these issues are systemic, which they are, but that doesn’t mean that big actions are the only ways to address them. And I’ve seen smaller changes happening in communities be just as successful or more successful. Gardening is a way to produce for people what has become a scarcity, which is good healthy food. You know where it came from. Know there’s no crazy chemical or hormone additives or genetic issues or homogenization of crops, which is what our culture has become. So bringing that to an environmental justice standpoint in a community that is working-class, minimum wage, growing your own food is like growing your own resources and capital to some extent. The logical next step is to have the very base of that, which are seeds. Plants are amazing. They produce so many seeds at the end of every season. Like 4 second-year beets that we’ve let over-winter and grow the next year produce enough seed that we can give everybody beets in the neighborhood, or at least it seems that way. So seeds are something that diverts the capitalist system. They’re something that can be given to anyone because of need, regardless of what they do for them, or pay for them. They just produce like crazy, and if everyone had that knowledge then you have a system of economy there.


L: In your project, do you see seeds as a practical resource, or is it symbolic for those reasons?

V: I would say they are both. For the project there are so many things that need to be addressed.  I see seeds as the base value of all these things because they hold so much information. They hold what was in the soil. They hold what happened to the climate that year. They hold changes; such as the amount of times you watered them. They hold all that information; it’s just a matter of disseminating that.


L: What is the importance of keeping the network in Pilsen? If the soil that is safe for growing is being imported into the neighborhood, then it’s not actually representing what was already in the ground. What do you think about that?

V: Yeah. If this was a Chicago seed library, it would make a difference, but not a huge difference because it is the same climate and same environment. The reason for it to be in Pilsen is for it to connect things that are already here. There are already lots of community gardens and people talking about these issues. And there are also lots of people who aren’t. But to take hold of those systems that are already in place and connect people who are not already connected to gain a local knowledge that is already there and disseminating it, just like plants disseminate seeds. It’s easier to do it within a neighborhood, and I think it’s more successful to do it within a neighborhood that’s already an established community, rather than spreading it across borders. It’s not the only way, but there are pros and cons to that. Each neighborhood is different. There are different things that need to be addressed and ways of communicating and things that are important to them. Bridgeport, Little Village, and Pilsen are right next to each other and have similar issues going on environmentally, but they each have their own battles to fight. In Pilsen we can address one thing, while in Bridgeport we are able to address another. And we can keep those connections and those larger issues in mind, but having a sustained local community project that is connected to other projects is different than having something that spans a whole city..


L: You said that you didn’t have a lot of knowledge prior to this project, and there are people in the community who already have inherent knowledge from an agricultural background. How have you been learning from the community?

V: Because it’s something that has been a lost knowledge, I see myself learning with people. I had the idea to start saving seeds last year at the end of the season and then brought it to another community garden in the neighborhood as an idea and now everybody is starting to do it regardless of the fact that they have no prior knowledge of doing it. It’s more of an intuition, and there’s a lot to learn technically about it but there’s a lot that we can learn together. It’s a different way of approaching something than coming as a bearer of knowledge. It’s not a hierarchical system when everybody is learning. For example, at Roots and Rays community garden, we created a seed bed and have plants growing out just for seeds, and now people know that’s the way plants work, and people are learning by doing with each other. It’s not even my project there anymore. People are doing it, and I don’t want it to be my project.. Rather than saying “I know, and you don’t, so I’m going to teach you,” it’s more of an action of finding what’s already there and learning together.


L: Do you see this as art or social practice, and what is the connection for you?

V: I guess the art part, if there is an art part – everyone talks about an art part. I think the whole thing is art because I think living can be art, but not in the big A Art sense. I think the art part is seeing those connections and the things that are already there and drawing connections in my mind and bring that into a conversation. And designing something so that it can be understood and spread out between people. It’s a skill that’s learned or a design that works, and that can be passed on.


L: Who are some of the people that you are collaborating with, and are they other artists?

V: I don’t think anybody that has been in the project has identified as being an artist. Veronica Buitron identifies herself as a designer, and she very much is a designer. There’s people from Roots and Rays, specifically Patricia Bon. She’s a city planner. Jerry Mead-Lucero, who is an activist. And Stephanie Dunn who is an activist and educator. Right now it’s just connecting people who are already in the neighborhood, and who are already taking lead doing this kind of work.


L: Do you see a difference in your roles and do you think it’s even important to distinguish any difference?

V: I think there is a difference in people’s roles. When I say Veronica is definitely a designer it’s because she has those skills and that interest in making things able to be interpreted aesthetically and design them. While Patricia is very good at talking to people and figuring out how things work within a system. I think that’s her take on city planning, is doing that and figuring out what is there and what can be connected. Jerry is an activist, and is versed in everything specific to this neighborhood that is environmentally problematic, and organizing people to make changes in a bigger way. All the community gardeners who are a part of this to some extent are people who are interested in gardening, and they all have different things that they do. Everybody has different skills and everybody has different knowledge. And even if it’s knowledge of the same thing, everyone has a different take on the same thing, which is all important to know and understand.


L: How is the projecting moving forward?

V: We’ve already had all these workshops and seed swaps and going door to door as a mobile seed library. We just started doing very quickly and trying to make it happen very quickly, and that’s not really how it works because we noticed all these things that needed to be addressed beforehand. Part of this is because we got a grant, so we wanted to start making and having it happen, but without connecting the people who are already here it’s not going to work. So we’re going to start having design building workshops and what we’re calling cross-pollination dinners. Hopefully we can create a system that we think can work for all these people who are in the neighborhood and are doing and want to do this work. Things that already exist and add to it. Creating a set of ideas that we think are important to share within the neighborhood. All these issues that we brought up that need to be addressed before seeds are talked about. So creating somewhat of a curriculum that people can take and do with what they will, and have their own events and own workshops. And having little hubs around the neighborhood that house seeds that are safe from that place. People can share their seeds because you can never use as many seeds as the plants produce.


L: Ultimately, why do you want to get other people to start saving seeds. Why is it not enough to just do it yourself?

V:  On a large scale, the industrial agricultural system has wiped out the diversity of seeds that exist when you grow seeds for yourself, as well as change the genetic makeup of seeds and patent them to be some kind of capitalist growth resource. But if we do it on our own and in our local communities, then we have access to that wealth of knowledge and also of good healthy food that we know was grown from us and that we took care of and know exactly where it came from and who grew it.    Like this is Sally’s roma tomato, because it’s going to be different from Tom’s roma tomato down the street. You know exactly who grew it where it was. Ultimately, on a larger scale it’s a subversive activist socialist action. But really it’s just seeds.

Interview: Poet Dave Snyder

I’d like to begin with some questions about farming and being a writer

You are an organic grower and community activist as well as an accomplished poet. Can you briefly describe the what you do in each area? Do you consider one or the other to be your main pursuit?

I call myself a grower, not a farmer. It’s silly to call yourself a farmer if you have a quarter of an acre, and the label doesn’t change what I’m going to do in a little piece of space. Today we think of “gardener” as a diminutive, decorative term. I like to say “grower.”

Dave Snyder

I got my start ten years ago when I moved to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood from Seattle. I came to go to grad school; I had no real interest in growing. I associated it with work I did as a kid, with being sweaty and wanting to play Nintendo. But Uptown is so urban. I reacted to that by being drawn to the community garden across the street, Ginkgo Gardens. They grow vegetables on a triple lot and donate them to a food bank. Annually, it’s around 1/2 to 3/4 of a ton, donated to Vital Bridges’ GroceryLand, a food pantry that donates food to low-income people living with AIDS. I really fell in love with that mission and started helping out. By “helping” I mean weeding and watering. Strangely, in reaction to this urban experience, I developed this weird addiction to gardening. Now I’ve been working there for ten seasons. It’s my favorite place in the city. But my only training is working there and with other growers.

How about being a poet?

As with gardening, poetry was not really part of my education until halfway through college, when I took a summer poetry class. I got a C or C- and the teacher was a jerk, but I was weirdly compelled by it. It was probably a bad decision [laughs], but I decided to take another poetry class. That was wonderful and fascinating. The teacher approached it like, “We’re going to spend the semester playing with language!” That, too, became a habit. Eventually I went to the School of the Art Institute and graduated with an MFA in writing.

What connections do you see between being a grower and being a writer?

The work of growing and the work of writing–there are lots of similarities and differences. Both require constant attention and constant work. It takes this sort of–tending–this constantly working on it. If you forget to do that tending, whether of your plants or your poems, they wither. I go through times when the poetry is withering, and times when the horticulture is withering. You have to tend to both.

Yes, I wrote a blog post about that–the connection between tending and paying attention.

Yes. Also, both require this sort of carefulness of looking, a fusion of perception and doing. In gardening, you are constantly reacting to what your plants are doing. You constantly have to be seeing and then acting. It’s the same with poetry–you have to be perceiving and doing, perceiving and doing. I’m suspicious of poetry that gets too far from perception.

Dave's Hands

You know, many people have this kind of divided interest in poetry and gardening. Emily Dickinson was well known as a gardener–no one knew she was a poet. Cicero said, “All you need is a library and a garden to be happy.” The correspondence between tending and attending is a real correspondence that has clearly been explained and examined for millennia. Its’ in our linguistic memory. That’s humbling.

What linkages are there in your overall world view that have led you to choose two socially- undervalued kinds of work?

I’m not a financially-motivated person. I’ve always chosen interest over a paycheck, and I’ve had almost nothing but fascinating jobs. The few times I’ve taken a desk job to pay the bills, I was able to make them interesting. I had great co-workers. It never felt meaningless. I look at people I grew up with and see different life decisions. Those people are financially more stable than me, but they don’t seem that happy. The way that you spend your time changes who you are. I choose interesting things because I’m interested in them. If I didn’t, I would no longer be interested in them–that, too, would wither from lack of attention. The most interesting people I know are interesting because of the effort they’ve put into reading, thinking about things–not watching every episode of their favorite TV program and eating caramel corn each evening.

Both growing and writing are demanding pursuits–vocations, even. How do you balance the demands of each?

I balance them very poorly. My strategy is to not get to get too stressed out about it. Writer Jill Riddell told me that at no point is your life ever in balance, but if you step back, over the course of a decade, there is balance. I took that to heart. This year, I was working part time over the winter. I decided not to teach this semester, and I spent a whole lot more time writing regularly again and producing new work. I started submitting my work to literary journals again. Now it’s April and I was out of the house at 7 a.m. for a compost delivery; after this I’m going home to plant. I’m basically working on growing from sunup to sundown. I’m not writing poetry, but that’s what happens in April and May. Things will chill out again in June. If things don’t slow down in June, they will later on. It’s ok. The process is cyclical and I try not to second guess it too much.

Many artist-farmers find themselves torn between their need of a rural environment and their desire to live in a city. Do you experience this conflict? How do you handle it?

I understand that conflict, but I don’t feel torn. I value and love both environments. I think the reason is that I’ve figured out a way to scratch some of that itch [for living in a rural place]. I have enough space at my home in Garfield Park. I have a backyard and an empty lot next door. The owners let me grow stuff if I keep down the weeds and shovel the walk in winter–that’s my rent. It’s a ton of space, and my neighbors grow there with me. I don’t have the peace of mind [of the country], I don’t have a vista, but I have the city of Chicago, which is mind-blowing. It’s such a culturally-rich city. My girlfriend and I say, “Live in Chicago like you’re vacationing in New York.” It’s a good model.

What is the most important thing you know about growing things? About poetry and writing?

Pay attention to those who are better at it than you are. There’s always somebody. That doesn’t mean emulating that person per se. If you talk to ten gardeners, you get ten different ways of doing something. Pay attention to how other people do things, because there may be something to it. It’s the same thing with writing. If you want to be a poet, read every single poem that you can. Recently, I read Gordon Massman, do you know his work? He writes brutal, ugly poems that couldn’t be further from what I do. But I read his whole book in a single sitting–it was completely compelling! It’s a kind of genius. I won’t write like he does, but my work will only get better from reading that book. In essence, don’t think another way of doing things is a dumb way. You can learn from it, so don’t dismiss things out of hand.

Now for some questions about food and farming.

What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?

In the most literal way, we need to feed everybody in the best way possible. In the best and most just way. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. The way in which you raise your food, the kind of food you raise, the way you allow people to make their money off of food, the way food is distributed–they are all important.

One thing I think is really important is that worldwide, it should be easier to make your living as a small farmer. This is a complex problem. How can we expect a small farmer to make an equitable living and simultaneously expect another small farmer in central Ghana to make a living when they are competing in the same world market?

But are they really competing with each other? Aren’t they really competing with Monsanto?

Well, yes. Large companies–seed and pesticide producers, food distributors–make it hard for small farmers to operate with a fair standard of living. There should be an expectation that you’re growing food for yourself and your neighbors. For example, in the global South and elsewhere, traditional crops are disappearing in favor of corn and rice that’s being foisted upon the farmers by governments and corporations. People aren’t growing the food that feeds themselves and their neighbors. A food stable region may become food unstable as a result.

What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?

The monopolization by a few companies to try to make a lot of money off of farming. Monsanto isn’t a food company–they’re a chemical company. They produce seeds that are in a commercial package with their pesticides. It’s profiteering and doesn’t seem to be helping that many people in the long run, except investors. And there are a lot of other companies that do that, not just Monsanto.

What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?

I can’t really say. It should be as specific as the community it’s serving. I could tell you how me and my neighbors want to feed ourselves. We want to grow goofy, hilarious stuff–

Like what?

Like cardoons and blue tomatoes and papalo, a Central American herb. We grow weird stuff, a lot of it, we work a lot together, share, and barbecue afterwards. That works for my community. There also tradeoffs. There are literally whirlwinds of litter in my neighborhood [of Garfield Park]. There are gunshots. But that’s the exact reason we are able to have land there, so we accept that. It works for us but not for everybody. Some community in the South Islands of the Philippines will have a different way of doing things, but they know how to feed themselves. If you have the skills and the land and a small amount of economic capital, you can do this. But every community does it in their own way.

Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?

I do. I don’t spend a lot of money there, or anywhere I shop. But let me say this about Whole Foods. Their meat program is the most progressive that I’ve ever seen. It’s more progressive than grocery stores in Europe, more progressive than co-ops I’ve been to. It’s not the most just. The most just is to raise the animal yourself or work with a farmer who raises the animal humanely. But if we’re going to have cities, we’re going to have people who have to buy meat.

It’s hard to get people to think ethically about meat. There’s an information disjunct out there. You have two chicken quarters and you don’t have any information about where your chicken quarters are coming from. One costs 99 cents a pound and one costs $7.99 a pound. They seem the same, but you don’t see chicken #1 getting dipped in bleach or sitting in a cage on top of another chicken, or chicken #2 being raised by a family. Whole Foods has done the most remarkable process in trying to communicate all this information. They have a 5 step rating scale, from 1 to 5, rating how animal-friendly the process was. Five makes the meat most expensive and they tell you why. It’s there at length on their website. Often their criteria are as strict as other certification programs, but even if you’re a casual consumer, you can make way more informed decisions just at the meat counter. That’s just remarkable.

Everybody talks about misperceptions about organic food, because we allow all these values we have about food to stand in for it. “Organic” is almost the only info we have about the food we eat, other than the old system of USDA nutrition. We have little or no information about where the food was produced. Organic is the only other largely accepted way to get information about food. Whole Foods has done a wonderful job about creating information about meat. What if that were true at Jewell? What if they had to tell you it’s a 1, or below a 1? Normal people make more responsible decisions when they have this kind of information.

And finally, a few political questions…

“Radical” in its original sense means getting to the root of a problem. Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way?

The idea of a radical in common usage is someone on the fringes. I find myself on the margins a lot of times, by virtue of being drawn to these interesting places. I live in a marginal neighborhood and do marginal work. Renata Adler writes about the radical middle, and I’ve always been drawn to that concept. Maybe being a radical means being the most central. I don’t know….I’m still thinking about that.

What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to make them more sustainable/ to improve or alter their relationship with food?

Grow something from seed. Don’t be afraid of it dying–if you’re growing vegetables, you’re going to kill them anyway. Grow something silly, not just basil or lettuce from the DIY grow kit. Save that avocado pit and sprout that. Sprout some popcorn from the bulk bin. Grow some wild flowers in your window box. I was sprouting taro root the other day that was left over from my fridge. These things are all around us. The potatoes we buy are still imbued with life. Cheetos aren’t. They are dead food. But a potato you throw out back will continue to be alive. It’s no wonder it’s healthier for you–it has all the things that keep things alive in it. A potato does you better than a potato chip.

What else would you like to say about these issues?

I had this amazing moment where my own stereotypes were really challenged. Years ago, I was at Kilbourn Greenhouse out on the northwest side, out past Cicero. I was out there doing a seed saver workshop at a harvest festival, and this guy came up. He was a stereotypical west side dad–big, broad-shouldered, with a sports jersey. He was like, “So, tell me about these Monsanto folks–what’s the story with that?” So I talked a little bit about my own thoughts on intellectual property rights in terms of genetics. Then he said, “You know, that stuff really interests me. Me and my wife, we adopted this little girl from Vietnam, and when she came out here, she couldn’t eat any of these processed foods, you know? They made her sick. So we had to get her on this totally non-processed food stuff. Then she was, like, a little bit better. Now we’re moving to the all organic stuff. We were thinking, if it’s better for her, it’s going to be better for us too, you know?” Here was a true blood Black Hawks fan, raising this little girl and completely rethinking the way that he sees food as it relates to nutrition. That may be a different thing than food as it relates to the environment, but it made me so stoked. He probably wasn’t thinking about this stuff beforehand, but faced with the responsibility for the health of another human being, he started to rethink things. As we were talking about with meat, it reinforced my belief that ordinary people will make more responsible choices if they have information to do so.

Thanks so much for talking with me today! And by the way, as a poet and grower and someone who is chronically embarrassed by her nails, I love the photo of your hands on your website. It’s perfect.

Yeah–chipped and a little too long! Just be proud of it.

Interview: Margaret Leininger


Could you please describe your studio practice?

My studio practice is informed upon a foundation of art theory, craft theory and technical expertise in a wide range of media including many textile related skills along with performance, photography, sculpture and other media. Recently, I have begun to include many forms of social practice into my studio investigations that encourage, seek, and rely upon public interaction.

What are the key concepts you explore through your visual work? Could you describe one or two specific projects?

Site, place, temporality are all things I explore in my work and have been a constant throughout my career as an artist. In addition to these main themes, I also explore the notion of connection, complexities, and systems as it relates to both intimate and distant relationships we have as human beings to each other and this earth. One work that demonstrates such concepts is Industrious Anarchy which is the latest project of mine. The work consists of weaving site specifically informed cloth using sustainably procured fibers. The cloth will then be marketed through alternative market structures. Through these actions the work explores the complex interconnections between materiality, environment, social economic structures and the complex systems that we navigate on a daily basis such as how we define ourselves within a material culture.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

My environment influences much of my work. As does my deep interest of sociology, economics and sustainability. Often, my work stems from direct observations of the varied histories of globalism from the ancient Silk Road to the present day issues of clothing workers in Bangladesh. My interest in cotton and sustainable agriculture, for example, comes from daily immersion among AZ cotton fields, produce fields and hay fields. I often ask myself how I can contribute my viewpoint through a visual expression or artistic action as that is the power or gift I have that allows me to participate in a broader conversation beyond myself. Often, though, through research I discover that of course nothing is black and white. That would be too easy. Rather, there are a multitude of grays out there, and my work attempts to illustrate just one particular viewpoint.

Do you ever work collaboratively? If so, what type of projects have you worked on and what was your role?

I have worked collaboratively on many occasions. I have worked on two projects specifically that have served to promote humanitarian issues in our society. These include Care Packages where 17 Uighur detainees at Guantanamo received hand made pieced and quilted prayer mats and Found Objects where I collaborated with knitters around the country to raise funds to support the National Coalition for the Homeless through the knitting and placement of 365 miniature sweaters. When found by the public, the attached tag instructed the finder to make a monetary donation to the National Coalition for the Homeless. In both of these projects I was the creative lead, but I have also enjoyed working amongst a group of creative artists of all disciplines to work towards common goals as in my teaching practice as an artist in residence at Snow City Arts that provided art instruction to hospitalized children.

9 Yard Proto2

As a weaver exploring issues of production, labor and intellectual property rights associated with textile manufacturing, do you also investigate the environmental impacts of textile manufacturing?

Yes. I am particularly interested in the environmental impact of textile manufacturing especially as the post-industrial economy demands over production of goods. Just by going into a large retailer or big box store, you see that there is no way the local economy can consume all of the textiles in the store for example. Where does this surplus eventually end up? Dumped into a landfill or the ocean. There are some organized movements that are urging larger corporate entities to think more responsibly when it comes to the materials their products are made from as well as the environmental impact of such overproduction. Such organizations are urging large retailers to re-think their carbon footprint and to utilize this as a marketing strategy to offset the cost of higher production. EcoTextile is one such organizing group making tremendous strides among larger contributors including Wal-Mart, The Gap and others. As a weaver, I am most focused on utilizing locally sourced sustainable products in my work to emphasize the connection between the environment and our tactile sensibility.

Does your activism enter into your artwork?

Most recently, I find my work containing some form of activist element whether in a more direct approach as in the ARTivention projects or more subtly in the Industrious Anarchy project. By making specific choices related to materiality, marketing and purpose, much of my work aims to activate the viewer in some manner.

Do issues relating to food ever enter into your artwork/activism?

While specifically food itself does not enter into either my work or activism, I do find a direct correlation to food as it is a primary need that is essential to human sustainability. Creating a textile often includes very similar actions to producing food. It takes knowledge, planning, tending, adjusting and an understanding of organic processes. In addition, with the current development of an urban fiber farm in the city of Chicago, I am hoping to partner with a local CSA, or agricultural model, to create a space where the community can directly make the connection between clothing that they wear and the land around them. So, similar to the CSA, or other urban farming initiatives, the dependence and connection between us and the land is paramount. Thus, the similarity between food and cloth.

What kind of environmental initiatives or organizations are you involved in?

I am an avid follower of groups supporting non-traditional methods or re-visiting traditional methods of production that aim to eliminate or reduce the environmental impact of textile manufacturing in both a cottage and industrial system. Such groups include Ecotextiles as I mentioned earlier, the CA Fibershed, and various other initiatives in the U.S. fighting a good cause. While I am definitely not the first to make the connections between local producers, CSA models, and sustainable practice, I do hope to create a unique model of urban farming that includes fiber production, harvesting and textile manufacturing that invites the community to become more invested in their local neighborhoods, in themselves and each other. Similar to farming and other agricultural practices, textile production is often a very social, collaborative method. It invites dialogue, exchange and interdependence that we as a culture need to embrace.

Could you offer some advice as to how to become involved in local, national, and global environmental programs? 

First, I would invite people to investigate their own backyard. It is very interesting to see what’s going on in even the smallest of communities. By starting local, supporting those who are keeping traditions alive, and the power away from GM production, we are guaranteeing the survival of many species of plants and animals. It is important that everyone participate in even the tiniest of ways by making clear conscious consumer choices to move away from the corporate identity of name brand products and mass produced food/clothing elements. These actions, even if only a couple a week, a month or year (depending upon the type) contributes to a broader, richer cultural heritage.  Each choice that results in not choosing a mass produced good by a corporate identity takes away power from a larger, often national and/or international identity, and empowers a local maker, farmer, producer. Support Industrious Anarchy by contributing to a crowd source funding mechanism through USA Projects, (click here) for example. By making a tax deductible contribution, people can become involved in the foundational support of Chicago’s first urban fiber farm. And there are many more projects and ways to support our collective creative community that provides us with food, shelter, warmth and comfort. It’s just whether or not people will actually take action NOW.  



By Sarah K. Benning


cropped-001_2041.jpgRooting: Regional Branches, Global Concerns unites trios of artists/farmers/chefs in Chicago and India and connects diverse fields of urban agriculture, food, the arts and small business, catalyzing discussion across disciplines in order to create new hybrid models of sustainability and to better connect people to what they eat. Merging the poetic with pragmatic action in response to the challenging and urgent matters of growing and consuming food sustainably, the trios will collaborate on meals as artworks, conducting discussions and workshops centered on growing, eating and distributing food in cities.

The Symposium: From October 18-20, lectures, workshops, tours and vendors at the Chicago Cultural Center on the subject of urban agriculture will compliment a series of four themed meals developed by creative teams composed of farmer/artist/chef trios at Roots & Culture in Wicker Park. The event will pull together local, regional, and international presenters to share projects and best practices addressing soil health, water conservation, advocacy, food production and distribution, and building sustainable communities. Presentations will be documented on video and posted online with a companion online publication with contributions by symposium participants.

The symposium will kickoff with New Delhi-based artist Akshay Raj Singh Rathore as keynote speaker. Rathore, Flora Boillot, and the Rhizome Alliance, supported in part from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago EAGER grant and a Propeller Grant, are establishing a new international collaboration that expands Rathore/Boillot’s project, NegotiatingRoutes, which re-introduces heritage seeds and indigenous trees in Madhya Pradesh, India.

Sullivan Galleries: At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Symposium visitors can experience a concurrent exhibition by artists Akshay Rathore (featuring a rooftop garden of fall root vegetables), Nancy Klehm and TBA.