Ben Judson and Emily Morrison
Emily Morrison recently left Artpace San Antonio after serving as Assistant Curator for nearly three years. After traveling across the United States for several months, and briefly working for an organic farm in Pennsylvania, she landed in New Orleans where she is in the process of developing a new art space. Trouser House aims to combine the kind of DIY gallery space common in San Antonio with small-scale organic farming. Although the gallery is in its infancy, and the full curatorial program will not begin until later this year, we contacted Morrison to talk about her unique gallery/garden fusion.
Tell me about the journey from Texas to Trouser House. When you left your job at Artpace, did you already have a vision for a different kind of art space or did that develop out of your travels?
While living in San Antonio, I learned about the impact of contemporary art from a community- and education-based perspective. My professional relationship with Kendra Curry, former Director of Education at Artpace, and my involvement with local galleries, artists and organizations in South Texas altered my perception of the field. When I left Artpace in May 2009, I embarked on a self-prescribed research journey. I wanted to develop my understanding of the function of the museum/gallery and expand my residency-based experience. At this point, I was also looking into other fields in order to find an overlap between contemporary art and community organizing, disaster response, education and food activism. I found inspiration in projects like Mission Pie, a bakery and community center in San Francisco; Ashoka, an international organization that supports “social entrepreneurship”; Spiral Q, a Philadelphia-based puppet theater that addresses human rights issues; and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement.
While traveling, I learned more about food security and decided to participate in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program. WWOOF is a farming residency that connects volunteers with organic farmers all over the world. When I began working at Silver Wheel Farm in Northwest Pennsylvania I realized I had been missing a connection to the natural environment and came to understand the importance of seed saving and land preservation. In the end, I saw farming as an art form in and of itself.
Art and farming intersect at a variety of points, including landscape architecture, culinary expression and ritual (e.g., the act of harvesting). At the end of my tenure at Silver Wheel, I knew I wanted to create a space that would encompass all I had learned in San Antonio and while traveling/farming. In short, I wanted to develop a project that would promote food activism and contemporary art as vehicles for improving public health and personal well-being. By November, I had opened Trouser House’s doors, planting the seed for a model of sustainability defined by community involvement and public education.
What kind of impact do you hope this project will have on the broader community in terms of how people approach art and think about food supplies?
Trouser House aims to strengthen the relationship between art, agriculture and social movements. This concept is largely influenced by Paola Antonelli’s 2008 exhibition at MoMA, Design and the Elastic Mind. In her exhibition essay, Antonelli talks about the role of the designer as an intermediary between the general public and technological progress. In the same way, Trouser House brings together disparate genres with the goal of providing answers to problems that arise as a result of compromised food security and faltering community cohesion. I hope that the project inspires people to view the creative sector as an integral element of society and encourages us to look to the creative community for answers to pressing contemporary issues.
Do you plan to develop a program of artists that work in ways that might activate the social space of the garden, the porch, the neighborhood around the gallery? Do you have specific artists or criteria in mind?
I am interested in working with artists that bridge the gap between social activism and art. Trouser House provides its public with a platform for expression and generation, both in the gallery and farm. I am even more interested in art as a sustainable practice rather than a fleeting gesture. I think this has to do with the current social environment and my belief that we stand at the brink of a major revolution. The current recession is helping us understand that in order to survive we have to change how we live. As the effects of globalization become more evident, we must address environmental concerns, mend political ties, build a sustainable economy and improve our education system. This is a huge undertaking, but I believe that art will help us arrive at positive solutions to these issues.
This summer, as part of my research, I met with people from various backgrounds to discuss the role of creativity as a catalyst for sociopolitical, educational and economic change. From these conversations, I learned that our current crisis is caused by both the degeneration of creativity and the diminished role of the individual in the public sphere. For too long, we have assumed a passive stance on the way our communities are governed and turned a blind eye towards the corporatization of the public sphere. We want to participate again. We are not drones; we are not defined by WalMart. We need to generate; we need art in our lives. Trouser House aims to provide us with just that.
Specific artists I have in mind include Mario Ybarra Jr., whose work addresses neighborhood politics and community identity, and Okay Mountain, an Austin-based collective that humorously confronts serious issues such as wasteful consumerism and the arbitrary nature of American value systems.
In the short time that the gallery has been open, have you noticed the farm’s impact on the way that visitors approach the art, or vice versa? From your personal perspective, how does the programming of the gallery intertwine with the planning of the farm?
Both the farm and the gallery are still in development, so at this point the relationship between the physical spaces is unresolved. I think it is difficult for people to make the connection between what looks like a rather muddy backyard, measuring only 1/32 of an acre, and a farm. To take that one step further and make the farm/gallery connection is even more of a stretch. In order to build this link (while the farm takes root and the gallery undergoes renovation), I am hosting a series of informational installations. Each month, one room of the gallery is dedicated to a specific aspect of urban farming with the second room dedicated to contemporary art. I see the series of works presented in these spaces as an art primer of sorts, introducing Trouser House as a platform for ideas that challenge conventional definitions of art.
Fallen Fruit, Street Bananas, 2004; archival print; 11 x 17 inches; courtesy the artists
Trouser House’s full-scale exhibition program will not debut until fall 2010. I feel the curatorial programming will naturally intertwine with the farm, whether directly—through exhibitions by eco-based or land installation artists—or indirectly, through the fact that I see farming as an art form, as I mentioned before. Rather than wait until next fall, I decided to open my doors as soon as possible in case community members are interested in participating in the building process. I am learning a lot along the way and want to share my experience with people in the area. I hope this open-door policy will spur similar initiatives and affect an even larger community beyond the Ninth Ward or even New Orleans.
As a recent New Orleans transplant, the community integration aspect must be a difficult needle to thread. You come at a time when several high-profile projects have descended on the city offering new art (most notably Dan Cameron and Prospect New Orleans) and architecture (Brad Pitt and Make it Right, as well as Andrés Duany, Global Green and others). How have you experienced setting up a small, DIY, contemporary gallery in this environment? Have these other high-profile projects created a fertile ground for Trouser House, or diverted energy and resources?
I have mixed feelings about the high-profile projects that have come to New Orleans since Katrina. While I feel these initiatives bring positive international press and some economic opportunity, many fail to incorporate an educational element or consider the cultural environment. This style of rebuilding is not sustainable and sustainability is an important element, if not the central element, to all constructive efforts, whether they are rebuilds or new initiatives. Make It Right, for example, is successful because the project provides housing for people in the Lower Ninth Ward, but I don’t think its success reaches much farther than that. Many of the materials and a large part of the labor for these homes were imported (only three of thirteen builders listed on the Make it Right website are New Orleans-based). By creating materials-import-based limitations and neglecting to train New Orleanians on how to build these homes, the project stifles our ability to recreate and rebuild on our own. How are we expected to build more Pitt-style homes without millions of dollars and a labor force? This system of rebuilding seems to perpetuate dependency. Also, the architecture itself does not take into consideration the history or culture of the place. The porches on these homes are situated high above the street, completely divorcing the homeowner from the neighborhood. The front-porch relationship is an important element of everyday life in New Orleans. Without education, a solid understanding of the cultural milieu and respect for New Orleans’ history, these projects will not have a lasting effect.
Despite this, organizations like Green Light New Orleans and the Common Ground Relief Project are working to build lasting infrastructure through education-based relief programming. These initiatives build infrastructure by providing NOLA residents with access to information on homebuilding, legal advice, agricultural self-sufficiency and job training. Essentially, these organizations offer services that extend beyond gutting and rebuilding homes, providing neighborhoods with the resources they need to reconstruct their communities for the long term.
Regarding high-profile art-based projects, Prospect.1 was a huge inspiration that largely influenced my decision to move to the city. I really appreciated Dan Cameron’s curatorial program. By inviting local, national and international artists to create site-specific installations around the city, Cameron encouraged artists and viewers alike to think about New Orleans in a new way. To use an Artpace mantra, Prospect.1 encouraged us to truly “look, learn, create and reflect.” Works like Leandro Erlich’s Window and Ladder—Too Late for Help and Deborah Luster’s series at the Old U.S. Mint spoke to the people of the city not only because of their physical location but because of their expressive power. Luster’s series, in particular, brought several important issues to the table, such as poverty, crumbling city infrastructure and high crime rates.
Outside of the art world, I have heard mixed reviews from locals. Many people are enthusiastic about the economic implications of the biennial but are hesitant to say the project affects the city in a positive way regarding future development. I attribute this hesitation to the fact that Prospect.1 was missing an educational component. Some of the work was inaccessible and led residents to tag the project as just another arm of disaster tourism. However, I have heard many residents talking about the impact of Mark Bradford’s Mithra, a boat-shaped sculpture installed in the Lower Ninth Ward. This project resonated with the local community because it was highly accessible, both physically (it was installed outside, rather than in a museum or gallery) and conceptually (because of its ties to destruction and rebirth). I have heard through the grapevine that the organizers of Prospect.2 are working to incorporate educational programming, and I think this will help increase the overall impact and success of the biennial from a local perspective.
There is a strong sense of solidarity among arts and community-based organizations in New Orleans. Unfortunately, New Orleans does not have a lot of local businesses. The economy, outside of the tourism industry, is in turmoil. This brings up an important point: in the post-Katrina environment, the people that live in New Orleans live here either because they truly want to or because they are too poor to leave. This creates community relationships that are unparalleled. Adjusting to a new city is always difficult and starting a project brings its own series of challenges, but I have received an incredible amount of support. In many ways, the people of New Orleans possess an undying motivation to build a better city. In fact, this energy permeates every aspect of my life—from the friendly strangers at the bus stop to the support I have received from organizations like the Crescent City Farmer’s Market. In my opinion, the environment is fertile and the time is now. I think people in New Orleans know this is the case and want to help one another achieve positive change, whether it’s at a grassroots level or on a larger scale.
Trouser House combines two niche projects—community garden and grassroots art gallery. How are you connecting with existing communities in these niches? Is there already some crossover between gardeners and gallerists, or could this space be a kind of meeting point for the two communities?
This summer I met an artist from Red76, a collective based in Portland, Oregon. Their project Flying University made an impact on my understanding of the importance of “meeting points.” Flying University promotes a model of education based on “informal systems of knowledge gathering, be that learning about our friends’ habits and quirks, or our favorite type of music, literature or film genre, food or sexual activity. In this regard we are all students, as well as teachers, available to learn as well as share in tandem with our friends and neighbors.” Red76’s project poses an interesting question: “How would our lives differ were we to view them through a lens of continuing and evolving education, as individuals, as well as the collective whole?” I am drawn to this idea and see Trouser House as a place of convergence, not just for farmers and artists but for a multicultural and multigenerational audience.
I am building relationships with community gardens, farmer’s markets, schools, artists and galleries to glean information on both the artistic and natural environment, and to observe different educational models. I am hoping these interactions will result in future exchange, but at this point I am still building the foundation. I’m hesitant to say there aren’t farming/art crossovers because of programs like the Edible Schoolyard and Our School at Blair Grocery (which incorporate art classes in their curriculum), but I think Trouser House is the only model in the city that is creating a direct connection between the agricultural and the contemporary arts.
New Orleans is home to a variety of communities, influenced by African, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Caribbean and postcolonial plantation cultures. This confluence produces a unique dynamic that permeates every aspect of life. While writing the plan for Trouser House, I wanted to create an inclusive environment that would be home to the variety of communities in the city. The informal design and DIY approach results in a space that mirrors the nonchalance of a coffee shop or front-porch stoop. The concept is founded on the idea that inspiration and opportunity are inherent in all relationships, regardless of formality or structure. With this attitude, and at the risk of sounding overly idealistic, the possibilities are endless, so it only makes sense to establish a space that invites this type of exchange.