This piece was originally published as part of the A Field of Wheat project in September 2016 at the invitation of the artists. The images are all courtesy of the artists.
20th August 2016 I got an email headlined “The Wheat has been Harvested”. It wasn’t a metaphor. A field of wheat in Branston Booths, Lincolnshire, the central focus of an art project of that name, has been harvested. That’s good news given that a number of us invested in this project, and again I don’t mean metaphorically.
Even if neither the wheat nor the investments are metaphorical, how is such a literal field of wheat in any way art?
Artists have represented farming; agriculture has been a subject in art in various ways, probably since the beginning of agriculture. There are various points where it becomes something ‘new’, for example in Dutch renaissance painting or Courbet in the 19th Century but farming appears in ancient Egyptian art too. Agnes Denes’ 1982 artwork Wheatfield: A Confrontation grown on the Battery Park Landfill is an iconic piece of environmental public art. It contributed to the mainstream acceptance of issues-based, activist public art. Denes’ statement about the work framed it as challenging the value of land (in 1982 at the time of making the work the Battery Park Landfill was valued at $4.5 billion dollars). The wheat grown was included in a touring exhibition concerned with world hunger. Denes also cites the juxtaposition of growing (the field) with exchange (Wall Street). All of these are aspects of a ‘new’ interest in agriculture by artists in the past 50 years.
But there is also an art of farming, and perhaps all farmers are to some extent exercising their art every day. This might sound facile, but the boundary that defines ‘art’ is one largely constructed by the art market and it’s key operators: curators, gallery owners and collectors. Artists have a particular relationship with art from this perspective because functionally others (not artists) define the value of art. This of course is true for farmers too – they are equally dependent on other professions and structures which define value.
This way of thinking about art and the arts is David Haley’s. He says,
The word “art‟ is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word, “rta‟. Rta retains its meaning in contemporary Hindi as a noun-adjective for the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously. It refers to the right way of evolution and we still talk about excellence, or the correct way of doing something as an “art‟ – the art of cooking, the art of football, the art of gardening, “The Art of Archery‟, “The Art of Making Cities‟, and even “The Art of War‟.
If this is the case then Peter Lundgren, the farmer collaborating with Anne-Marie Culhane and Ruth Levene on the project A Field of Wheat is practising his art in the way that they are practising theirs.
In this case both are stepping beyond the existing constructions of value as determined by the institutions that normally enable their practices (the art world and agri-business).
Culhane, Levene and Lundgren have connected us directly to food in a way that is different from any other experience. They offered us a chance to invest in a field of wheat. To be precise Middle Field on Lundgren’s 100 acre farm. In this case investing is probably a bit like investing was in the 18th century – you visit your investment (though not if you live too remotely) and you participate in decision-making – discussing the issues and voting with other investors on key decisions around fertilisers and the sale of the wheat. It is facilitated by digital technology but the decisions are not being made by algorithms on trading floors in London or Chicago, but rather by individuals at desks in home-offices.
It’s genuinely fascinating to be an intermediary, an investor, part of the financial industry engaged in agriculture, but to do it at a level where you know exactly what you are investing in and with whom. There is risk. That’s been clear from the outset. Of course now the wheat is in, the risk is vastly reduced.
It’s not surprising that the group in a Collective Decision (preceded by a Collective Enquiry) has chosen to use the least fertiliser and to sell the wheat through the Openfield, the British farmers’ co-op (rather than through Frontier, a Carghill subsidiary), but the participants (investors) have also brought research and expertise to the process.
The discursive process constructed by the artists aimed to draw participants into a dialogue around the issues before any decision was made, hence the Collective Enquiry phase. The Collective Decision is straightforwardly democratic, but the aim has been to ensure that it is made with care, rather than in haste. Culhane speaks of “holding a level platform” in her blog http://fieldofwheat.co.uk/artists-pages/spaces-for-listening/ on the subject. Good deliberative practice and good socially engaged arts practice.
However underpinning this is a deeper commitment from the artists to an understanding of the value of Collective Silence as an important aspect of a carefully judged and constructed process. A Field of Wheat has taken place on-line and through live events. Quaker approaches to silence as part of a careful life have been used to avoid the negative characteristics of on-line debate and discussion, particularly encouraged by dealing with communications on hand-held devices which contextually and practically encourage brevity. Asking people to spend time in silence before responding to issues has led to respectful and careful discussions.
Another approach to this issue of personal reflective connection comes from the Final Straw project. Final Straw is a film about Natural Farming (or biodiverse farming) as it is practiced in Korea and Japan. In a recent blog from the Final Straw project http://www.thenatureofcities.com/2016/08/21/farmers-chefs-and-lawyers-building-an-ecology-of-one/ , Patrick Lydon noted that farmers practising this form of agriculture will often seek a very close connection with the consumers of their produce. Lydon, and Suhee Kang (his collaborator) have, in parallel, been experimenting with ‘real time food’ where you order the food to eat in 10 weeks after it has been grown. They highlight a number of examples of food producers, farmers and chefs, forming long term relationships with their customers.
The idea of a ‘third space’ is particular to social art practices. A third space is different from commercial or formal public spaces. Those are characterised by either markets and extraction of value, or by bureaucratic structures and legal processes. Social art practices, as exemplified by A Field of Wheat, as well as other examples like Denes’ Wheatfield and Lydon and Kang’s Final Straw, can create different ways for people to engage with issues of common interest. These usually focus on issues of public good, but not so often through creating a ‘third space’ for an engagement with the economics of a ‘public’ issue such as food and farming.
A Field of Wheat took two years to develop. We are still in the process and will be until the wheat is sold. The art project will probably go on to produce a book and the farmer will continue the agricultural cycle. The wider implications of A Field of Wheat will take longer to manifest. I wonder how the Collective Dialogue would evolve? How would the economy evolve? What would it be like to be part of farming long term, all practising our arts together?