Not a Cornfield was a living sculpture that consisted of a cornfield planted on a 32-acre piece of land in the centre of Los Angeles. This cornfield was stewarded by Lauren Bon and a large team of collaborators and volunteers for a full agricultural cycle in 2005 – 2006. The project was founded upon a desire to redeem a plot of once fertile and now depleted and derelict urban territory, as a symbol of renewal and hope. It was also designed to expedite the process of turning the site, owned by the State of California, into a State Historic Park. The project was a social movement of sorts, as it engaged members of the surrounding communities and numerous organisations in events and discussions around the value of urban public space and the previously fertile heritage of the site. The work’s provocative and inspirational power rested in part on its epic scale and the radical incongruity of a verdant cornfield growing within a dense cityscape. It also attracted a variety of insects and birds and allowed observers to witness the evolution of an ecosystem. Each phase of the agricultural cycle was documented and narrated via a blog and marked by commemorative events. These phases included: soil preparation (brown), growth (green), curing and harvesting the corn (gold), the end of the harvest (blue) and the final stage of harvesting the remaining stalks and clearing the land.
Once the site was cleared in 2006, the remaining plants that had been harvested were gathered into 31 substantial corn bales that were arranged in a circle. This inaugurated a new artwork called the Anabolic Monument. These bales, and 19 acres of the surrounding land, were hydro-seeded with wildflowers that bloomed in March 2008. This created a concentrated area of colour and vitality within the 32-acre piece of land that remained relatively featureless in subsequent years as the planning for the State Historic Park stalled. The slowly decomposing Anabolic Monument has remained a site for a range of social and ritual events and agricultural activities, and was tended by the artist and collaborator Metabolic Studio until 2013. Creator Lauren Bon describes the project’s achievements:
The Anabolic Monument as an artwork redefines monumentality as a working process rather than a commemorative one. It replaces the Neo-Classical monument’s herculean effort to erect a permanent form with the herculean effort to support life, which will always seek to rebuild itself and create form around that process.
Cultural/Aesthetic: The project sought to mobilise the transformative power of an agricultural cycle to rejuvenate an unloved and depleted piece of land. Lauren Bon and her team aimed to harness the inherently creative and beautiful qualities of organic processes on an epic scale to intervene upon urban space. As Bon wrote in her mission statement, “Artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.” As this statement suggests, Not a Cornfield was underpinned by a cultural/aesthetic activist philosophy that was concerned with the politics of land use within cities, citizens’ collective responsibility for the erosion and pollution of fertile land, and related questions about the subordination of nature to urbanisation and its implications for human relationships.
In the years prior to the development of Not a Cornfield, Lauren Bon had been involved in the activism and legal advocacy that was ultimately successful in preventing the publicly owned site from being turned over to commercial use. The art project was very much a continuation of this social movement. The project’s primary goal was to foster a sense of the importance of retaining spaces within cities for civic purposes, as venues for human relatedness and collaboration that are not oriented to economic objectives. Bon wrote in her mission statement that she intended for the work to give “focus for reflection and action in a city unclear about where its energetic and historical center is.” The artists also wanted to encourage reflection on the repercussions of the development of the city of Los Angeles on the surrounding environment and the Indigenous people who had inhabited it.
Not a Cornfield sought to generate a rare communion between the practices of urban living and the ecological processes of the natural world. The virility and dynamism of organic processes could be mobilised to provoke people into recognising that the city is not a rigid and unchanging system, but is highly malleable. Like natural ecosystems, a city can be subject to cycles of renewal and transformation. The implication of this endeavour is that a different balance of civic, environmental and commercial priorities can inform urban planning and infrastructure design if citizens demand it. The theme of redemption was central to the original vision, because Los Angeles used to be very fertile territory. The establishment of the City of Los Angeles destroyed the ecology of the Owens Valley due to the mining of silver and the redirection of water flows to irrigate agricultural lands, both of which caused a desertification of the region.
OUTCOMES & IMPACTS
Not a Cornfield was a highly sophisticated and cross-genre art project that resonated powerfully with a range of debates around socially and ethically engaged art practices, the politics of land use and land ownership, and the ecological impact of rapid urban development. While some members of the community found it obscure and confusing, there is ample evidence to suggest that the project was successful in stimulating new ways of thinking about these problems among residents of Los Angeles, and opened the way for other artistic, discursive and community-based deliberations on these themes. One consequence was the formation of Farmlab, a self-described ‘think tank, art production studio and cultural performance venue’ and ‘multidisciplinary investigation of land use issues that are related to sustainability, liveability, and health.’ The Not a Cornfield website presents layered insights from various media into the cultural, social and ecological history of the site, as well as the various phases of the project and associated events. It is a valuable resource for researchers and practitioners pursuing related concerns.
Not a Cornfield was successful in creating enjoyable, accessible public space that was used for many kinds of gatherings. Over 120 events took place at the cornfield during the year. Cyclists, walkers and school groups frequented the site and guided tours were staged, as well as gardening classes, drum circles, ceremonies and tribal gatherings. The cornfield also hosted Day of the Dead rituals, screen nights, conferences and open mic events for poets, musicians and filmmakers. At the centre of the field was an ‘Eye’, i.e. a fire pit/amphitheatre space which became the hub for many of these events.
In addition, Not a Cornfield engaged with over 85 different organisations and community groups throughout the project, including the Getty Foundation, the Natural Resources Defence Council, Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, Radio Sonideros, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Park, Friends of the Los Angeles River and the Echo Park Film Centre. Community groups continue to be engaged with the gardens located at the Anabolic Monument, and this part of the park has continued to be a venue for a range of festivals, fairs and concerts.
A significant environmental outcome of the project was that a derelict and organically depleted site was reborn as piece of a green space within the city. Not a Cornfield brought butterflies, crickets and herons to the city, and the decomposing corn bales that comprise the Anabolic Monument also became ecosystems unto themselves, attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. The vast numbers of people who visited the cornfield were not only able to observe natural processes and a food production cycle, but were made aware that this site had been retained for their use and would eventually become a State Historic Park.
In April 2010 California State Parks marked their commitment to the future of the park by working with local not-for-profit organisation North East Trees to plant 150 trees around the Anabolic Monument. In 2013 Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio were still caretakers of this section of the park, and a native plant garden and field of wildflowers is sustained there.
The Anabolic Monument has also served as a massive composting site, returning the nutrients created by the cornfield to the soil. A Development Plan is underway to enhance the full 32 acres of the park for public use.
The 32 acre site (owned by the State of California), which had long been known in the local vernacular as ‘The Cornfield’, was formerly a rail yard and had been a wasteland for about ten years prior to the initiation of the project in 2005. At the end of the 1990s it was the last piece of open land remaining in downtown Los Angeles, and the city approved a project to have private warehouses built upon it. This provoked a flurry of activism and advocacy on the part of a range of community groups who argued that it should be retained for public use. The Annenberg Foundation contributed to the legal fight to prevent the city from allowing the site to be used for commercial development. This advocacy was successful and it was designated a State Park in 2001, coming under the jurisdiction of California State Parks.
In 2004 Bon was contacted, in her position as a trustee of the Annenberg Foundation, by a representative of the Natural Resources Defence Council with a design for the site created by State Parks. Bon found the design uninspiring and made the decision that the foundation would not make any financial contribution. She then proposed the idea of establishing a cornfield for the duration of one year to the Director of California State Parks. The idea was inspired by the name and history of the site, and by a dream Bon had of the cornfield (which she had visited since childhood) brimming with corn and bathed in blue light. Significantly, her proposal would not require any funding from State Parks.
In April 2005, 1,500 truckloads of dirt were transported to the site from building sites around the city and replenished with organic fertiliser. The site was irrigated, powered with electricity, and the corn planted by hand and machine between June and July 2005. 875,000 seeds of multicolour ‘Indian’ or ‘Feed’ corn were planted in the field. Hopi Red and Hopi Blue varieties of corn were planted by hand in the central amphitheatre or ‘eye’ of the field in a ceremonial spirit, along with beans and squash. Corn, beans and squash have a symbiotic relationship and comprise the foundational ‘Three Sisters’ of Native American agricultural methods. The planting was thus a tribute to the Indigenous heritage of the site.
The corn reached fruition in October 2005. Irrigation was stopped and the corn was left to dry out for harvesting with volunteer participation in November 2005. A festival marked this event and blue lights were situated throughout the field. The stalks were machine-harvested and the land cleared in January 2006.
The site was accessible to the public every day of the project for approximately 16 hours per day. Events and gatherings of all kinds took place. The various stages of the project were given structure through the application of colour phases: the ‘brown’ phase of soil preparation, the ‘green’ phase of growth, and the ‘gold’ phase when the corn dried out and was harvested. The ‘blue’, contemplative phase marked the end of the harvest, and this was followed by the ‘clear’ phase, when the remaining stalks were harvested.
In 2006 Bon undertook a second project with permission from California State Parks, which involved installing the Anabolic Monument: 31 corn bales made from remainder of the plants, arranged in a 30 metre radius circle. The bales and 19 acres of the land that surrounded it were planted with ‘hydro-seeds’, a mixture of water and wildflower seeds. In the central area other seeds were planted, including some taken from a nearby community garden that had been demolished in June 2006. The hydro-seeds sprouted two years later in March 2008, after three days of rain.
The Anabolic Monument project was underwritten by a land-use agreement between Lauren Bon and State Parks. This agreement stated that Bon and the Metabolic Studio would be stewards of a parcel of the land within the park for as long as it would take for the corn bales to decompose (by which time State Parks hoped to have raised money to design/landscape the park). This arrangement lasted four years, during which a variety of further projects were enabled, including a mobile community garden with goats and hens. In addition, an Indigenous tribe local to the area, the Tongva tribe, was assisted to stage ritual practices on the land, which is sacred to them.
IMPACTS OF ARTWORK PRODUCTION
The dirt that was trucked to the site was retrieved from three major building sites around the city (where the soil was waste) and was not transported far. The builders paid the artist team to remove the soil, which piles up as a result of the digging of footings underground. An unambiguously positive impact of the work’s production was that the site, formerly depleted of nutrients and polluted, was left replenished. This is a major contribution to the project of establishing parkland on the site.
Bon, Lauren. “Anabolic Monument.” Pamphlet. Los Angeles: The Metabolic Studio, 2010.
Edsill, Sam. “A Cornfield Grows in L.A.: An Interview with Janet Owen Driggs for Not a Cornfield.” Mental Contagion: Making Space for Artists & Writers, January-February, 2008. http://www.mentalcontagion.com/issue85/causeandeffect.php (accessed March 8, 2013).
Hernandez, Daniel. “‘Not a Cornfield’ Idea is Food for Thought.” The Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2005.
Kinetz, Erika. “Putting the Culture in Agriculture.” The New York Times, October 30, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/arts/design/30kine.html?_r=0 (accessed March 8, 2013).
Rowell, Steve, Jeremy Rosenberg and Sean Dockray. Not A Cornfield. http://www.notacornfield.com/ (accessed March 8, 2013).
Rowell, Steve, Jeremy Rosenberg and Sean Dockray. The Not A Cornfield Project Blog + Podcast. http://notacornfield.com/events/blog.html (accessed March 8, 2013).