Utopia and Failure: Eco Art Blog Interviews Fritz Haeg

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Eco Art Blog, interview with Matthias Merkel Hess, Feb 11, 2008

Fritz Haeg is one of the foremost artists working with issues of art and the natural world. Since 2005, he has been converting suburban front lawns into food-bearing Edible Estates. This year, he launches his new project, Animal Estates, at the 2008 Whitney Biennial. He’s also known for hosting five years of Sundown Salons at his home, a geodesic dome in Los Angeles. Other projects include an architectural/design practice, an experimental school in his home, curating shows and teaching at schools such as CalArts, Art Center College of Design, University of Southern California and Parsons. I got to know Fritz through his Fall 2007 Sundown Schoolhouse Book Club. I caught up with him just after the launch of his Edible Estates book, and shortly before he left Los Angeles for an intense year of shows across the country. We met January 30th, 2008—a clear, blustery day, LA day—over soup at Via Café in LA’s Chinatown.

Matthias Merkel Hess: I wanted to thank you for taking the time because you are so busy, but your generosity of your time, your spirit, it seems like part of your practice.

Fritz Haeg: What I’ve realized about my work in general lately is that it’s constantly just kind of revealing itself to you over time. Sometimes the best stuff isn’t what you decide, it’s what’s kind of revealed to you and I feel like I’ve realized in the last few months that part of my work is talking and doing lectures. It’s not just an extra thing that I’m invited to do and talk about the work, but it is the work. I’ve realized what a departure that is from conventional ideas of contemporary art, that the artist is this mysterious person in a box that produces things that go out to the world that can contain all this mystery that maybe nobody fully comprehends, and it’s up to each person to interpret it differently. I still like that idea in a lot of the work I do in that it’s open to a lot of different interpretations, but I think that ideal of today’s artist has a lot do with not talking too much to not destroy the mystery of the work or to close down the conversation too much.

MMH: I mentioned in the email that I sent you that I see some similarities between you and Robert Irwin. The context is Seeing is Forgetting…, that book…

FH: Yeah, I love that book…

MMH: I think it was the early ‘70s, Irwin was always on the road giving talks and that kind of became his practice, also the teaching and garden design. Were you aware of that as a model?

FH: No, not as a model but I love that book and I’m interested in his work and there are a few parts of that book that I found really inspiring. It’s been a while since I’ve read it. There’s definitely been certain periods where he’s been really inspiring to me. I can’t say I’ve consciously thought of him at all, in the past few years. But the scrim pieces—there’s one in the collection of the Walker that I’m just crazy about. I saw him speak once a few years ago, and there’s something very teacherly about him, when he’s giving a lecture, he has a blackboard and he’s really teaching.

MMH: Yeah, he wants to educate you. I saw him in a conversation with [LACMA director] Michael Govan.

FH: He really, I think, embodies a lot of the kind of ideals of the LA Artist, he seems quintessentially like a Los Angeles artist in some way.

MMH: Do you think what you’ve done could only happen in Los Angeles? Do you see these types of things happening in other cities?

FH: I like doing projects that the core of it could happen anywhere, but the way it’s developed or manifested can only happen in that particular place. It’s like mutations, like taking a basic kind of thought and then having it mutate based on wherever it is, but mutating in some case, to great extremes from where it is. That’s kind of the model of a lot of work I’m doing. So on one hand it’s universal and on the other it’s highly localized.

MMH: Well, speaking of mutations, has Edible Estates mutated beyond the projects that you’ve done—are you aware of other people putting these types of gardens in?

FH: Oh yeah, that’s the coolest thing, to see local TV news stories from other cities about Edible Estates…

MMH: Where you weren’t even involved?

FH: No, they’ll be talking to someone and they’ll say ‘Oh yeah, we’re making our edible estate’ and they don’t know where that name came from or they heard about it but they don’t necessarily know that it even came from an art context, but I love the idea that it becomes kind of this movement.

MMH: Looking around at other artist’s websites, everyone vaguely environmentally minded seems to link to your website.

FH: Oh really?

MMH: It seems like it to me. Do you see yourself as a leader of some kind of movement?

FH: I don’t know. I feel like in LA, just by the nature of the kind of work I’ve been doing here the last few years, I pretty much meet everyone. So just because of the nature of the Salons and all these big crazy shows that I’ve organized, I’ve managed to meet a lot of people in the city, so maybe I become the common link in a lot of ways.

MMH: Bringing people together was what you wanted to have happen?

FH: I guess, I feel like each thing I’ve done is in the moment, it’s in response to how I’m feeling at that moment and what I feel like needs to happen. There’s very little about what I’m doing today that was totally premeditated, it’s just evolved based on what felt right at the moment, and then occasionally taking stock of what I’m doing and trying to organize it and make sense of it, but never being too willful…

MMH: Not premeditated…

FH: No not really, it was a pretty slow, steady progression in that way. But you know, it’s interesting, I don’t know if you looked up the Gardenlab Experiment show in 2004 at Art Center, but that was really interesting because that was three and a half years ago now, and my goal was to find everyone in LA who was dealing with ecology who would be willing to do something in that vast space for a month and a half, and at the time I tried as hard as I could and I felt like it was a kind of a struggle to find people dealing with it even though ultimately there were about 150 people in it in different ways, spanning everything from families like Path to Freedom to conceptual artists. It still felt like it was a struggle, kind of surprising given the size of the city. I felt like it was just before environmental issues became really mainstream in the country as a national debate, and now I feel like if I did that show again today it would almost be hard to narrow down a group because there are so many more people dealing with it. Maybe. That would be interesting to try again.

MMH: I did see that show, and I don’t think I was aware that you were the curator, but later I realized that was my first encounter with any project of yours.

FH: Yeah, that’s another thing that I’m interested in because I do so many projects—the salon stuff was so much more connected to a different group than the ecology work that I’m doing, but I like the idea that I can work between all these different things and in some ways maybe the work is better known than I am, maybe it’s only later that people realize who is really responsible for what they experience.

MMH: Talking about the Salons, Edible Estates, Gardenlab. I would say the last six years has been pretty well documented—on your website you have 118 links to news articles from 2002 through the present, and there are probably more out there. I’m not aware of what you were doing before the Salons and what led you to this point. I know that you studied architecture.

FH: I know, I was in a rut for a really long time. I graduated from architecture school, I worked for a huge architecture office in New Haven, Cesar Pelli, for a year and a half. I moved to Italy and dropped out for a year, just made bad paintings in the countryside in Tuscany in a farmhouse. And then I moved to New York, where I lived for five years and I did little architecture projects on my own, and I painted. I was willfully trying to make art, I wasn’t really trying to show it, but I was very much taking painting very seriously, which I think makes sense in New York. It’s a city of painting, and painters, there’s a tradition of it. So yeah, I was just doing a combination of teaching at Parsons, doing architecture projects and making paintings, and really pretty confused about where it was all headed. Because none of what I was doing, I would feel comfortable pointing to and saying, ‘Yes this is what I believe in’ or ‘This is where I want to go.’

But somehow it was all laying the groundwork for what I would do later without really realizing it. I was meeting a lot of amazing people and just being in New York, you’re so…so alive and connected to what’s going on. And a lot of those connections and friends I made then are still really vital parts of my life today and I now connect back into when I go back to New York. But leaving New York in ‘99 was a really important opportunity to redirect…I felt like I was in a rut , I didn’t know what I was doing, I felt like there was so much more that I wanted to do than I was able to in the context of my life there, and I just had this sense that being in LA would be conducive to what I wanted to do.

I didn’t know why, but only in retrospect do I understand the reasons that at the time I didn’t. You know, just connection to the landscape. New York is such a city of people. In LA, you’re connected to bigger stories of how we are in conflict with the natural environment that we’re in. There’s so much freedom in terms of space. So anyway, before ’99, that whole period in New York, you can go on my website and go to projects from that period and you can see my painting and architecture projects.

MMH: Well, maybe talking about the paintings specifically, or not I guess. In the Spring ’06 issue of X-Tra, you said that you do not identify yourself as an artist, but instead a combination of architect, landscape designer and curator. Have your thoughts on that changed in the last two years and is the label even important at this point?

FH: I feel like my mind is always changing on that. At that time, I was really into this idea of being everything but an artist since everybody wants to be an artist, so I liked the idea of doing everything but making art, which in some ways the work kind of was, just contextualized differently. The interesting shift that happened is that before I moved to LA there were periods where I was trying to make art. But then I moved to LA and I kind of stopped painting, I stopped worrying about all that stuff and just did what I was drawn to naturally which was gardening, teaching, having events at my house, doing some design work, so that’s what I was doing.

MMH: Did you move directly to the Dome?

FH: No, I lived in an apartment in Silverlake for a year, in a studio with a garden that I spent all my time working in. That’s where I really lost myself in gardening.

MMH: Were you seeking out a space where you could have salons?

FH: No, I was just looking for a crappy old house that I could afford and fix up. So the house really had a huge effect. The question I always ask myself with any project, the thing that I’m really conscious of, is what can I do here that I can’t do anywhere else—whatever the place is or situation is. What’s uniquely possible in this moment at this place? So having that house, that set of questions led to what I ended up doing there. If I’d gone somewhere else I would have gone a totally different way.

[We pause and eat some soup]

FH: I think it’s so nice to have a slow trajectory of your work, where you let it develop. I hadn’t made anything that I was particularly proud of that felt like I was on a path to something, till my mid 30s or something.

MMH: I had a second question about that article in X-Tra…

FH: Maybe I should go back to that question again, that question of whether it is art or not. I think just in the last year my thinking has shifted from an architectural-based practice that’s contextualized in the design and architecture world towards a practice that is more situated in the art world just because that’s who is commissioning the work. I think there is a freedom to operate in the art world that doesn’t exist in the architecture world. I still like the idea of straddling as many things as possible but it just seeming like lately, at some point, things tip one way or another and it’s definitely tipping more towards the art world, at least at the moment, just because it’s all museums that are commissioning all the work this year. Basically, I don’t have any commercial design clients this year and it’s all museum commissions. So just by that very nature it kind of dictates where you are situated.

MMH: Back to that X-tra story, it’s two years old now, the writer said that according to Claire Bishop, Edible Estates was “not art” because it is optimistic and idealistic and “does not attempt to outline the boundaries of power and influence that make change impossible and individuals powerless.”

FH: Well, I’m a huge fan of Claire Bishop. She didn’t write about my work in particular but it was this essay that was a response to relational aesthetics. I’m a really big fan of her writing and I think she’s so cool. When I was in London last spring, my first morning there staying with friends we got up and it’s was like, ‘Ok, we’re going over to Claire Bishop’s, she’s making pancakes,’ I thought that was so awesome. She’s really thinking about interesting things. That was a quote from her piece—

MMH: Taken out of context?

FH: —not necessarily but I think there is this presumption with art that it is critical and points out problems. I do think it’s not the job of art to solve problems. I like the subtle distinction between solving problems in a design way and solving problems in a way that raises the issues in provocative ways that perhaps the design world is isn’t capable.

MMH: As an artist, if you’re going to speak towards issues of the environment, ecology, our relationship with the land, what’s the role and can it be effective?

FH: Well, my basic thought is that artists respond to the world we’re alive in. I think the more engaged an artist you are with the world around you the better artist you are. I think if the environment that we’re living in is falling apart it’s notable that artists are going to make work about it, and there’s a lot of different ways to do that. What I’ve come to realize at least about the Edible Estates project and also probably about the Animal Estates project is I like the simultaneous utopian hopefulness about it but also the sad impossibility of it. That’s part of the story, and people can chose which they want to see. Some people just see this kind of utopian-, beautiful-, happy-, everything’s-going-to-be-great project. I also like to think about it as this sad impossibility because it’s not going to happen. You know what I mean? If it does it says one thing about us, if it doesn’t, it says something else.

MMH: It’s more likely, it seems, what will happen is what’s going on in LA, where everyone is growing hedge fences to enclose their front yard.

FH: Yeah, exactly. And in the Edible Estates project too, I talk about it in the book, lawns and gardens came very much second to the project. The first goal of the project was to do something that got out of conventional art and architecture circles. I wanted to do a project for Middle America and that was the most effective way to do it, so it’s just a vehicle, it was just a means to an ends. People think I’m obsessed with lawns and gardens, and of course, I’m interested in them, but it’s like any media in art, you’re using the most effective tools to engage a certain thought. I happen to work in a way, since I do I work in so many media like video, and dance, and buildings…and…

MMH: schools…

FH: schools… each one of those is able to engage people in a different way. The thing that makes me uncomfortable is that a lot of times after I give a lecture, people are really responsive but they’ll come up to me and be like ‘Oh, I just got rid of my lawn and I love my vegetables’ and kind of go on about the minutiae of that, very detail oriented about what they’re doing as if I’m supposed to congratulate them and say ‘Yeah, you’re fine.’ And I hate that the idea that it’s a yes/no, black/white, good or bad kind of story because it totally isn’t in my mind. I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in the social aspect of it—can we do this? If we can’t, why not? What does it mean that we can’t grow our own food anymore? And if we can? I definitely think about how it’s presented.

MMH: Transitioning to the future, can you tell me a little bit about what you’re doing for the Whitney or are you waiting to unveil it?

FH: I talk about everything all the time, even when I have the first inkling of something, I tell everyone about it. [chuckles] So for the Whitney, I’m debuting a new series of projects called Animal Estates. There’s eight institutions or museums that are sponsoring them in different cities, and the Whitney will be the only one where the animal homes are actually at the museum, the rest of them will be around the city and the museum will be a headquarters to tell the story of it. They specifically commissioned me to do a project for the front of the museum, that was their invitation, so I responded with this idea of making homes for twelve animals that used to live on that exact piece of land 400 years ago.

MMH: Which is why you’re working with the Mannahatta Project.

FH: Eric Sanderson, who’s amazing—such a cool guy. And that’s one of the pleasures too about working on these kind of projects, is being able to meet people like him, who was also responsive to what I’m doing. There are a lot of scientists that just probably wouldn’t care that much. There will be lots of different kinds of animal homes there with brass plaques around the perimeter of the sculpture court, telling you what the homes are, almost like a zoo display. There will be a huge eagle’s nest on top of the entry portico, the Northern half of the sculpture court will have a beaver pond and dam, there will be nest boxes for about six different animals.

MMH: That’s going to be pretty big.

FH: Yeah, but the actual construction will be very modest—it’s going to be things people could make by themselves over a weekend at home, just simple wood boxes.

MMH: I didn’t see it, but Center for Land Use Interpretation was in the last Whitney Biennial and people who saw the show told me it was this little kiosk that got lost amid all the paintings and sculptures. Do you worry about getting lost among all the art world objects?

FH: Well, it’s in front of the museum, it has the whole sculpture court. I love it because it’s the only thing in front and people who don’t even pay admission will be able to see it just walking down the street. So no, that’s not an issue for me. I feel very lucky because a lot of times they can invite you to show a few things that have been shown before. But from what I understood, Matt [Coolidge of CLUI] specifically didn’t want to have a huge crazy thing, he liked the idea of it being a subtle, quiet kiosk that got kind of lost. I want to be totally in your face, and I’m interested in really engaging people in very visible ways. The Animal Estates installations in themselves are going to be very, very modest, there’s not going to be any spectacle to them. They’re going to take over the front but also there will be a series of performances every week by twelve dancers. Each dancer has choreographed a short phrase of movement inspired by one of the animals for a room in the museum, so every week they’re going to move through the museum performing all the animal movements and then after that there will be a guided tour of one of the animal homes in the sculpture court. So there will be a series of weekly events that I’ll be there for, and a few other things. It’s pretty complicated.

MMH: Do you thinks it’s like Edible Estates, that it will have this really optimistic side where ‘We can bring these animals back, we can coexist with them in an urban environment’ but, there’s also the side of ‘Will it really happen?’ Do you think beavers are going to come back to the Whitney?

FH: [chuckles] Probably more so. I think living with animals is even more challenging than living with gardens that are producing food.

MMH: So when you say more so, more of a chance for failure?

FH: I think so. I think the conflicts involved in it will be more interesting and more pronounced. In a lot of cases it will be welcoming animals back into the city that used to live there, or introducing animals that are good to live with, that pollinate, but introducing animals into a space with people is always riddled with conflict. It’s really going to be the bulk of my work this year, and I haven’t done one yet. I’m really excited

MMH: Back to my first question, I was thinking about going through your website and how you have a long statement about Animal Estates, and you started halfway doing a diary for 2008, and for me that goes back to being open and like you said, just having a conversation. How important is that to you? Did you just want to keep a journal on your website?

FH: I’m going to be traveling all year and doing a lot of interesting things, and probably meeting a lot of interesting people, and they’ll be this daily kind of activity that’s really different than when I’m at home, and I thought it would be good to have a daily account of what happened. It’s a strange thing like how much you make public or what you want to talk about. It was actually my mom’s suggestion, she said ‘you should really keep a journal.’ I just have been too busy to keep it up. I like the idea of every day having an entry and picture.

MMH: That can be a lot of work.

FH: I’d like to try, but then I don’t know who’s reading it, if anyone. Anything on the website, it’s mostly first for me to have a record and then if there’s anyone else who is interested, that’s cool. I’ve always thought of my website as this infinitely expanding database of all this information connected to my work that is impossible to have on your computer. I use it all the time, just referring to it for things. And it’s super helpful. Information bypasses my computer and goes straight to the website, like when I’m scheduling performers for the Whitney. I think between the website and my house, those were the two big things, kind of the virtual place and the physical place.

MMH: The final question I have—I’m taking a seminar right now on Andy Warhol…

FH: I’m obsessed with Andy Warhol.

MMH: Yeah?

FH: I went through a period in New York where I was super obsessed. I went to Carnegie Mellon where he went, never thought of him, then in New York, you know, I ‘discovered’ him, read everything and I just completely…he’s just overwhelming, he did everything, He was so of his time and so…just brilliant. I really think in a hundred years he’s going to be one of the few names, if we’re still around in a hundred years, he’ll be one of the few names of the Twentieth Century that everyone will know.

MMH: In that class, we came across a quote by Allan Kaprow saying how much he liked the early paintings and how he was really excited about them. It also seems that Warhol made a conscious decision to make pictures and make images that could be collected and traded in the realm of the art world and of course, he did all the other stuff. But he’s the person that’s crossed over to a common knowledge outside of the art world and Allan Kaprow is more of an art world figure. Obviously, you’ve engaged people in a different way than a happening but do you worry about not having a physical, collectable object?

FH: It’s coming up more and more, economically. I’m really interested in that stuff. Andy Warhol very specifically wanted to be a great artist and he wanted his work side by side with all the old masters. No matter how radical he was, he was painting on canvas so that he could be part of that continuum. It’s funny, I feel like I straddle two extremes of really embracing and loving the marginalized counterculture and a lot of things that were done at the salons, but at the same time I have this really big populist streak where I really want to engage with how everyone is living. I don’t have a lot of patience for anything that is so obscure and self-referential that there’s a small handful of art world people that are going to enjoy it. So there’s that issue of who the audience is and how broad or narrow it is. I guess the other thing is the nature of objects in relation to the work and having that be a satisfying artifact of your work. With my work, what I’ve decided is that books are going to be really important. In all the projects I do, I want to do a book about them. I love the idea that almost anyone can have the book. There’s nothing more depressing to me than seeing rich collectors who don’t fully appreciate what I’m doing owning my work. I don’t want to make work for a system that I don’t believe in or particularly care for. It’s funny that I’ve skipped commercial galleries entirely and worked just directly with museums.

MMH: That seems to be working for you.

FH: Yeah, without any real planning on my part it just kind of happened. I really consciously want to avoid that whole system. I think it’s possible. I think if you decide to do something and decide you don’t want to be part of something, it’s possible to figure it out. But then it becomes less clear where the practice is, if someone doesn’t show in galleries, then what are they? I think it’s absurd that to be an artist you have to show in a commercial art gallery.

MMH: It goes back to Adrian Piper’s argument, her outline of power structures in the art world: if you’re not in with the galleries, then you’re not in with the museums.

FH: Which doesn’t have to be the case. Artists are supposed to be the most creative people in our society, surely we can figure out better ways to self-organize and be in the world than this. Or each person should be allowed to make up their own system because I think creativity isn’t just making the work, it’s developing a system of how it gets out into the world. I think that should be equally thoughtful. I just don’t understand how you can be so creative in one way and so uncreative in a sense of just surrendering to whatever particular system is given to you and not questioning it. Of course that’s very popular these days with institutional critique and things like that. I choose to be very selective. We’ll see what happens this year, it’s going to be a weird year.