An ‘Experiment’ Commenting on L.A.’s Ecology

In a city like Los Angeles, with its constructed landscapes, concrete river, and imported palm trees, a show about gardens is obliged to be about more than pretty greenery and idyllic nature. The garden has become a battleground, after all, as proven by “the gardenLAb experiment,” currently being conducted in the Wind Tunnel exhibition space at the Art Center College of Design, located in Pasadena, California. Artists, architects, designers, environmentalists, gardeners, and writers have taken on the ecology of Los Angeles for the six-week-long show, which runs through Oct. 16. With over 50 installations and events, as well as weekly programs including lectures, talks, screenings, and picnics, the exhibit, curated by Fritz Haeg and Francois Perrin, is an extensive comment on, rather than cohesive statement about, our environment.

Gardens are by definition man-made, but many of the works in the show twist this fact into something more sinister. At the exhibit’s entrance, Philip Ross’ “Juggernaut” plant exists in a completely glass-enclosed world, looking like the last living thing: a curio for future generations. Matias Viegener and David Burns have decided that a plant should be taught “about the humans that control its fate” and have instituted a school for corn, where books and recordings send osmotic streams of Marxist philosophy at germinating plants. The most overtly political piece, Michael Pinto’s “Starch Reality,” illustrates our inability to control nature. The pixilated portrait of George W. Bush is made of different types of bread, each representing one of his specific environmental policies. Each type of bread produces a different type of mold, which battle to take over the portrait.

Some of the artists in the exhibition even question our right to be here. The beaches that are L.A.’s parks can be undemocratic places, as revealed in Jenny Price and David Kipen’s “Malibu Project,” which imagines more honest versions of the ubiquitous “private property” signs that landowners plant to hinder public access to public beaches. Yet challenging this exclusion is Karin Johansson’s “Who is really from here, anyway?” photo installation, which features pictures of non-natives. Non-native plants, that is.

Recycling—a political stand in itself—and finding inspiration in urban detritus is illustrated physically in several of the show’s installations. For example, “Shade,” by M&A and the L.A. Needle Exchange, comprises thousands of recycled plastic grocery bags, crocheted together to create a 10-by-fifteen foot awning. Ecoshack’s Greentent design competition, where participants were asked to create an environmentally sustainable camping shelter useable in the Mojave Desert, also resulted in numerous innovative pieces, including a structure made of recycled PVC piping and adjustable solar panels.

Like a living garden, the GardenLAb show also changes over time. OdescO and Axel Kilian’s “Nano_City” changes every millisecond, illustrating a parable of a city on the move, destroying and creating nature in its path. “Blown By,” by Nadine Schelbert, Lisa Tchakmakian, and Tony Di Carlo, features a massive plastic balloon that constantly shrinks and expands, responding to temperature and humidity. Then, there is the collective known as 66xv//, which offers “Moisture,” a compost pile that slowly decomposes as the plants it feeds grow.

The question of the show is really what happens outside the Wind Tunnel: whether the art turns into activism, on a political or personal level. The Path to Freedom information booth, run by the Dervaes family, who farm their own food, shows how you too can become an urban homesteader. The L.A. Urban Rangers give some guidance for day-to-day living: “Wear sunscreen” and “When you’re on the Westside, breathe deeply—the air’s better over there.” In a campfire talk, ranger Emily Scott tells us how to “Learn to Love Your Freeway Landscape.”

In all, “the gardenLAb experiment” sends a clear sign that once again, it is time to cultivate our gardens—our streets, our river, our freeways, our citizens.

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