Work Journal Interview with Fritz Haeg

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Work Journal, Interview with Kees Lokman, August 2010

 In American society today, we seem as divided as ever. Much has been made of red states and blue states. Physically, the car, computer, cellular phone remove the need for much face-to-face interaction. Within cities we are often divided and isolated along racial, religious, economic, and political lines. Perhaps it has never been more important to ask ourselves: What do we all have in common? What do we share equally? What do we all have a stake in? I say geography, like rivers, freeways, and streets. – Fritz Haeg, “The First Act of Revolution,” exhibition catalog On Procession: Art on Parade, Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2009

Kees Lokman: Can you describe your projects, Edible Estates and Animal Estates, and how do you address this notion of reconsidering local and global geographies?

Fritz Haeg: With both projects there is a general, global thought that is then applied in very local ways. For example, what if we grew food in that space between the street and our front door? This can then be applied very differently depending on the local climate, that tastes of the family, the design of the residence, the attitudes of the neighbors, or whatever the local situation dictates.

Animal Estates is based on very simple empirical logic. Do we want animals in our cities? If so, which ones and how do we want to accommodate them? I’ll begin by finding local urban wildlife experts who know what’s going on with displaced urban wildlife in that particular city. We will then narrow it down to the animals that humans might welcome back, who would also move into structures or spaces that we make for them. I am focused on projects that have a very basic premise that seems quite simple, which is then applied in very local and potentially complex manner, with infinite possibilities.

We often feel like we have to make an argument for either a top-down, or bottom-up system, depending on our politics and point of view, but we really need both. During most of the 20th century we saw the great dominance of  top-down strategies in architecture and planning, rejecting any sort of local eccentricity. But I suppose we could use the Brazilian favela as an example of a bottom-up, self-organized system where the basic social and public services provided by a top-down system are lacking. I’m interested in a conversation between these two supposedly opposite systems. One of the great promises of the internet and email is the potential for everyone to operate this way.

KL: You come from an architecture background very much focused on buildings. How has this shaped your philosophy and your approach to projects?

FH: One aspect of the architecture community that disappoints me is this obsession with formal novelty and the striving to do things that nobody else can do. This desire for virtuosity is natural, and exists in every discipline, and in every audience, but if that is all we have it can lead to an unhealthy sort of passivity. This insatiable desire for bigger and more expensive and more complicated and more monumental one-off virtuosic spectacles can also create the sense that Art at its highest level has no place in our daily lives, and is something only reserved for special people on special occasions. I’ve become attracted to the very opposite end of the spectrum, doing projects that anyone with modest means could do themselves, which can also be very powerful as you imagine the viral possibility for that spreads.

KL: It seems that in contrast to the conventional architect, your projects depend on collaboration and influences from outside forces. What does authorship mean to you?

FH: I suppose that I have rejected the more dictatorial traits of the conventional architect while at the same time cultivating the more collaborative strategies from my architecture background. Architects are uniquely trained to work with and talk to people from a lot of different backgrounds about a lot of different things. But architects also tend to exert a great deal of top-down control in every aspect of a project. Since they don’t physically have their hands in the work, and have to depend upon others to execute their plans, they can tend to be dictators. I like to exert extreme control on very few, and very particular decisions, and then leave the rest of the project quite open to the will of the people that I am working with and for. When working like this it is very important to find the right balance, to have the project focused enough so that everyone can be on board and understand what we’re collectively moving towards, but open enough that everyone feels there is room for them to operate and make it their own.

KL: Is this something you discovered when you started hosting events and conversations in your seasonal salon?

FH: I don’t think any of this was terribly conscious, but certainly the series of Sundown Salon events that I was hosting at my house, and later the activities of Sundown Schoolhouse, was a really important precedent to all of this recent work. Through those collective events I discovered the pleasures working collaboratively with other people, and was exposed to the many different ways that people work. Many of my closest friends today also happened to come out of those experiences. One reason I continue to work so collaboratively in spite of the complexities, comes back to the basic question “who do I want to spend my time with?” This is in opposition to the conventional commercial or institutional situation where you are forced to work with certain people, with whom you may not even share the most fundamental intentions, motivations, or values. I love being able to identify people I’m really interested in, and then create projects to be able to work with them.

Architecture projects can be a pleasure when there are clients, contractors, and consultants who are really willing to collaborate in some profound way, by bringing something to the design that I otherwise couldn’t have done by myself. Architects are often trained to be hostile to anyone that can exert too much control over their projects, which in a way is understandable since there is so much room for the voice of the architect to get lost in the making of a building. From design to construction there are an infinite number of possible filters through which elements of the design intention get lost – budgets, codes, and construction limitations. It’s no wonder that architects can become maniacal about control. But for my recent projects, I operate with an opposite attitude, and try to be as open as possible to as many disparate voices as possible, within the narrow parameters of the project.

KL: How do you address elements such as stewardship and sustainability in your projects?

FH: That is implicit in the work, which is so thoroughly action-based, and in some ways can be left unspoken. I’m turned off by contemporary language around these topics like, “The time is now,” “We have to be more green,” or “Save the planet.” These messages tend to be so yes or no, good or bad, black or white, and overly goal oriented, without addressing the fundamental issues or nuances within the situation.

I come at it from a different direction which is not focused on the particular symptoms of a problem, but rather getting into the root issues that brought us here, basic behavior patterns. My projects all start with, and grow out of pleasure, not responsibility. What gives me pleasure and what I really love and enjoy motivates the direction of the work; these are activities for which I feel no ambivalence whatsoever. To me these food, garden, dance, and animal related activities feel somehow – I hate the word “pure” – but so fundamentally human.

Shifting culture and motivating a collective reconsideration of how we are living will not be achieved by guilt trips or even by inspiring a sense of duty. I think people are more effectively motivated by pleasure than duty. It’s just fundamental to how humans, and animals, operate. I really do think having a front lawn, for example, is so much less fun than growing food there instead, and yet people feel obligated to have a lawn because everyone else does, and amazingly it even happens to symbolize the American Dream.

There are social norms that exist out of habit and it’s fun to examine them and demonstrate other ways of operating that are in stark contrast to these antiquated patterns. I would love to be able to just do the gardens or do the animal projects, without having to say much about them. The simple act of replacing the lawn with an edible garden could stand on its own and then people could interpret it any way. But in fact, the project needs to pose as an advocacy project to be able to have real traction and be part of a main stream public dialogue, which is exactly what the Edible Estates book is intended to do. Though I am very keen, for example, that on my website there is no descriptive text or mission statement on the front page, just a simple list of the gardens with links to more information and photos of each. It’s not a commercial project, and on some level, at least in the making of the actual gardens, I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. It’s just like, “Oh, hey, we grew some food here, and here are some stories and pictures.”

KL: Your commissions are mostly by museums, right? So your projects balance between pleasure, public participation and engaging the art and architecture world?

FH: Yes, they are intended to engage a broad audience. With Edible Estates in particular, the initial goal of the project was to do something for the entire country. It grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with how removed contemporary art and architecture conversations were from the realities of how most people live. That dialogue can become so insular – a very small community talking to itself.

I wanted to do a project that not only was about how we’re really living, but actually intervened and participated in it. I didn’t want to just passively stand back and aestheticize a cultural critique, which I think is a very common convention in the contemporary art world. I discovered that active participation and intervention into the common quotidian issues that interest me is a thrilling and very vivid way to operate, which has inspired much of the work that followed.

KL:  In an interview with Harrell Fletcher you mentioned that how we as a society view, organize and implement education says a lot about who we are and what we value. Could you elaborate on this?

FH: One of the few books by Buckminster Fuller which I was actually able to read and comprehend is called Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. There is fascinating chapter where he claims that specialization is a form of slavery, implemented by the “Great Pirates,” as he called them, (or “The Man,” as we might say today) to prevent the common person from seeing the big picture. I would further interpret this notion by saying that if you have your eyes down low with blinders on looking at a very small bit of territory, a narrow trade or discipline, you do not need to consider, or take responsibility for the effects of your actions as they play out in the world. To some degree I believe that specialization is inevitable, it’s powerful and of course it can be very effective. I value my deep background and training in architecture for example. But this focus can come at the cost of  the broad comprehensive thinking that we really need today. Specialization can also make implicit this feeling that you can only do one thing and are dependent upon hiring others to do everything else for you. This attitude can create a very passive and dreary society, where everyone is a “professional,” only doing what they are “qualified” to do. Of course this also happens to be the foundation for our current system of higher education.

KL: You were recently selected as a Rome Prize fellow. Are you extending the projects that you’re working on already or are you doing something new?

FH: The official project that I originally proposed for my year in Rome is called “Roman Wilderness MMX: Animal Architecture, Urban Agriculture and Street Choreography,” which would be a synthesis of recent projects and activities. Before I go, I’ll be finishing up a book of collected writings, interviews, essays, and project texts from the past ten years – wrapping up that period with a comprehensive archive. So when I arrive in Italy I’ll also be open to the possibility of starting entirely new work that I can’t even anticipate.