The Environmental Health Clinic (xClinic), based at New York University (NYU) and directed by Natalie Jeremijenko, launched a clinical trial of The xClinic Farmacy Agbag at Postmasters Gallery in the summer of 2011. During the trial the facade of Postmasters was converted into a vertical urban farm comprised of suspended AgBags.
Agbags (an xClinic Farmacy product) are growing platforms created out of Tyvek—a high tensile spun olefin material—and filled with soil, growing nutrients and a range of edibles. Agbags can be suspended over existing architectural features—railings, double-hung windows, parapets—as they are counterbalanced, which allows for easy instalment into urban spaces such as balconies.
Farmacy uses an existing medical model—a clinical trial—to directly involve people in re-imagining the health of their urban environment. It is a public experiment, a tool to test and develop scalable urban agriculture. At each of the different clinical trial sites, in which AgBag’s are installed, the growth responses of plants are monitored and air quality improvements are evaluated. During the exhibition at Postmasters the AgBags were available for people to purchase from the gallery and from xClinic’s website. Those who purchased an AgBag were invited to take part in the clinical trial and to share their research with xClinic.
Subsequent trials and AgBag workshops have occurred at a range of different sites, including a workshop at Curating Cities, Sydney (2011) and at Socrates Park, New York (2013) as part of the exhibition Civic Action, A Vision for Long Island City. Like a traditional clinical trial xClinic Farmacy is iterative in nature. It takes a socioecologic systems orientated approach and also intersects with other xClinic projects such as The Cross(x)Species Adventure Club—a cross-species supper club that creates culinary experiments to augment food practices, remediate ecological systems and restage human/non-human relations.
Each Agbag has a retail value of $300 (includes plants, soil, polymer and $120 time lapse camera).
One of the central aims of xClinic’s Farmacy installation at Postmasters, and a key driver of xClinic, is to stage public re-imaginings of socioecological systems. The AgBags were positioned on the Facade of Postmasters to create a spectacle, or what Jeremijenko refers to as “mediagenic evidence” (Jeremijenko 2012). Each of the white Tyvek Agbags were adorned with a red cross, like the typical medical red cross, but rotated on its side. In reference to this symbolic rotation and xClinic’s aims Jeremijenko said “It’s a twist on health.” She elaborated:
Because, really, what I’m trying to do now is redefine what counts as health. It’s a clinic like a health clinic at any other university, except people come to the clinic with environmental health concerns, and they walk out with prescriptions for things they can do to improve environmental health, as opposed to coming to a clinic with medical concerns and walking out with prescriptions for pharmaceuticals.
The installation of Farmacy at Postmasters sought to engage participants in clinical trials to research and document urban farming practices using Tyvek AgBags. This interactive component endeavoured to enlist people in researching and redeveloping their urban ecological and food systems. “People who may never have farmed can install AgBags and become active U-farmers, using their window or a railing as a ‘growcery’.” By entangling agricultural and health related provocations, through the mode of reformatting social practices, Jeremijenko sought to mobilise networked individual and collective reflection and action. On the Farmacy website Agbags are described as providing “a platform for imaginative systems design to improve, rethink and adapt agricultural and food growing practices for urban contexts and provide the capacity to experiment inexpensively with a wide variety of parameters”
Another aim of the Farmacy Postmasters clinical trial was to develop networks of uFarmers (urban farmers). xClinic outlines this intention on their website:
People who may never have farmed can install AgBags and become active U-farmers, using their window or a railing as a ‘growcery’ and reaping the benefits of tending and cultivating, as well as participating in a farm exchange through Feral Trade (trading thru social networks) and ‘Commuter Food’ distribution
The installation at Postmasters and the ongoing Farmacy project endeavoured/s to foster understanding and engagement in farming edibles in urban environments. A Ning site was established to develop online communities that could share their AgBag experiences and co-develop urban farming knowledge.
Central to the project at Postmasters was a concern for how to address biodiversity and environmental health within cities. Rather than seeing aesthetics, society and the environment as separate domains the clinical trial worked at the intersections of these fields. By encouraging people to take up urban farming xClinic hoped to provoke people to increase the leaf area index in New York, improve air quality, mitigate heat-island effect and create resilient interactions between humans and non-humans. As Jeremijenko states on the the xClinic/Farmacy website:
The AgBag addresses the issue of little or no access to soil, little or no space, compromised air and water quality among other challenges. Further than improving air and water quality, its value lays in improving the quality of life for humans and non-human organisms alike in the urban environment—aiming for a resilient and healthy BiodiverCITY
OUTCOMES & IMPACTS
Cultural, Social and Environmental
The Agbags at Postmasters were designed as a provocation to improve air quality and therefore people’s health, for example by increasing the leaf area index in that neighborhood and reducing toxins in the air. Participants that became part of the clinical trial, by installing an AgBag in their home or alternate location, did view it as a means of engaging with local air quality. One participant said, “I know that the city has terrible air quality. So, I think it’s really important; it almost… the AgBag became sort of like a filter for me, for my apartment (Vo 2012). “
As Jeremijenko states on the xClinic/Farmacy website, one of the original aims of the Farmacy AgBag was to create a “durable inexpensive growing structure to facilitate participatory research and to experiment with vegetation based systems design.” However, the price of the AgBags—$300 (includes plants, soil, polymer and $120 time lapse camera)—prohibited wide spread adoption and participatory experimentation. Reviewing the Farmacy show at Postmasters, the critic Lily Bouvier reported in the Downtown Express that the cost of the AgBags limited people from purchasing the bags. She argued that this price tag caused the Farmacy clinical trial to operate as a symbolic project. But she did highlight that nonetheless the show succeeded in “challenging perceptions:”
The gesture is a symbolic one. While some nearby residents have already caught on, the bags are expensive (buy one from Postmasters for about $300), and can only hold a limited amount of plant life. Nonetheless, the “xClinic Farmacy” is challenging perceptions of how local ‘local’ can really be.”
It is this ability to challenge perceptions where Farmacy, and xClinic projects more generally, achieves greatest success. By combining aesthetics and socioecological interventions Jeremijenko stages public re-imaginings of socioecological systems. She draws on the aesthetic tradition of Institutional Critique—extending a critique of art institutions to a critique of medical institutions—to demonstrate that human health is deeply connected to environmental health. However, rather than focusing solely on critique, she appropriates aspects of existing medical institutional models—both aesthetically and technically—to re-imagine alternate practices and networks. In Jeremijenko’s words (Evans, 2011):
The more radical way to redesign socioecological systems is to understand that we are designing within complex systems, and we have very specific opportunities that we can use and exploit that require participation, not fascist bullying, and engaging the imagination. I know it works to engage people’s imagination.”
It is Jeremijenko’s ability to playfully and intelligently entice people to re-imagine socioecological systems, through projects such as Farmacy, that gets her listed by Fast Company as one of 2011’s “Most Influential Women in Technology.”
Prior to the installation of Farmacy at Postmasters (summer 2011) earlier prototypes of the AgBags were developed and trialled in different locations in New York City. The iterative nature of Farmacy, and the AgBags, contributes to its successful installation. The clinical trial is still continuing at different locations, allowing for modifications and improvements to be made for each new installation of the project. For example a larger trial occurred at Socrates Park, New York (2013) as part of the exhibition Civic Action, A Vision for Long Island City.
During development of the AgBags—ongoing—tyvek proved to be a tough material to work with as it blunts sewing and cutting equipment. Cost-effective commercial enterprises willing to work with it were hard to find, so expertise had to be developed by the xClinic in conjunction with local seamstresses. This has meant that the cost of producing the AgBags was more expensive and time consuming than originally anticipated. So although the AgBag was relatively easy for people to install, these economic barriers caused the project to function more as a proposal, or speculative provocation, rather than a large experimental network of U-farmers during the Postmasters exhibition.
IMPACTS OF ARTWORK PRODUCTION
Jeremijenko sourced Tyvek as the material for the AgBags due to its durable, biodegradable and recyclable properties. The bags are designed to hang on railings and other architectural features that provide existing structural support, therefore minimising materials and the need for attachments. It can be easily assembled, moved and stored with a sensitivity to the local environment. As she states on the xClinic/Farmacy website, Jeremijenko designed the AgBags to create an agricultural system that takes into account its impacts on the surrounding environment. A system with “NO nutrient run off which means NO degradation of local ecosystem or water quality: a demonstration that food production need not externalize the environmental costs, like fertilizers, contaminants or other additives”
Bouvier, Lily. “’Farmacy’ Artwork Has the Rx for a Poor Diet.” Downtown Express, entry posted July 13, 2011. http://www.downtownexpress.com/2011/07/13/%E2%80%98farmacy%E2%80%99-artwork-has-the-rx-for-poor-diet/ (accessed July 12, 2013).
Evans, Suzie. “Natalie Jeremijenko.” Fast Company: 2011 Most Influential Woman in Technology. http://www.fastcompany.com/women-in-tech/2011/brainiacs/natalie-jeremijenko (accessed July 13, 2013).
Environmental Health Clinic. “Farmacy Rx.” xClinic: Environmental Health Clinic + Lab. http://environmentalhealthclinic.net/farmacy/ (accessed July 13, 2013).
Environmental Health Clinic. “Farmacy Rx: Clinical Trial.” xClinic: Environmental Health Clinic + Lab. http://environmentalhealthclinic.net/farmacy/clinical-trial/ (accessed July 13, 2013).
Environmental Health Clinic. “Farmacy Rx: How Does Farmacy Work?” xClinic: Environmental Health Clinic + Lab. http://environmentalhealthclinic.net/farmacy/how-it-works/ (accessed July 13, 2013).
Environmental Health Clinic. “Farmacy Rx: What is an AgBag?” xClinic: Environmental Health Clinic + Lab. http://environmentalhealthclinic.net/farmacy/agbag/ (accessed July 13, 2013).
Jeremijenko, Natalie. Interview by author, February, 2012.
Jeremijenko, Natalie. “The Art of the Eco-Mindshift.” TED. Filmed lecture, October 2009. http://www.ted.com/talks/natalie_jeremijenko_the_art_of_the_eco_mindshift.html (accessed July 13, 2013).
Vo, Doanie. Interview by author, February, 2012.