In 2004, we began to create social art projects that investigate the overlay of urban and rural systems on the lives of specific communities. We became interested in how people and place could be seen in relationship to their local history, ecology, and social economies such as voluntary and informal exchanges. This led us to think about how the customs or symbols that are stereotypically rural migrate into an urban setting, and how systems of art and cultural production might amplify local experience and traditions. Our Midwestern upbringings of weeding gardens, picking apples, and preserving fruit and vegetables have become part of the process and the narrative of our projects.
Our first collaboration, Temescal Amity Works (2004-07), was sited in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, California. We maintained a storefront, a series of free publications, a website, and a crop-sharing program called the Big Backyard. The Big Backyard was formed around a pushcart that we used to gather surplus produce such as citrus, figs, plums, apples, peaches, pears, avocados, vegetables, and herbs from neighborhood yards and adjacent public lots. We then gave them away at our storefront or else redistributed as collective preserves and marmalades. We’d been living in Temescal since 1997, and when we conceived of Temescal Amity Works we saw it as a way to localize our attention and work within our neighborhood.
Building on these themes and practices, Lemon Everlasting Backyard Battery was conceived for the exhibition This Show Needs You at the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art (March 29-May 19, 2008). We collaborated with Joe McHenry, a friend and local food enthusiast, to continue our investigation of the social economy of backyard fruit trees. It also provided an opportunity for us to experiment with how an exhibition space can hold, or frame, local issues and actively engaged the general public.
Inspired by San Jose's early agricultural history and the enduring popularity of the lemon tree as an emblematic California lawn accessory, we collected more than half a ton of lemons from yards in the area and preserved them with salt, allowing them to cure while on view in the gallery.
Rows of yellow jarred fruits, along with local stories and portraits of yards and trees, were displayed, thus turning the gallery into a charged space of culinary potential.
We also organized public gatherings, including a workshop for preserving lemons as well as an evening tasting event on May 2. In recognition of the bounty of San Jose yards, the city council declared it “San Jose Lemon Day.”
While many people manage to utilize a good portion of lemons that their trees produce, it’s impossible to use them all. For thousands of years, humans have experienced the predicament of how to make a temporary surplus not go to waste, spawning cultural practices of fermenting, pickling, and curing, as well as fostering traditions of barter and festival. The challenge of making the harvest last can be seen as one of the fundamentals upon which local economies and community traditions are constructed.
Although it may seem like contemporary urban life is cut off from these agricultural histories, we find that the citizens of our cities continue to creatively participate in them. Storing the energy of the lemon both demonstrates the potential bounty within the urban landscape and symbolizes the presence of an underused resource. The decision to plant a fruit tree in your yard can be an economic one. When our property produces such a commodity, the choice to harvest or plow under, preserve or share with neighbors, reveal a micro-economy in action. When a whole neighborhood has fruit trees in their yards, the seeds of a much larger system are present there.
For more information about social-art projects by Susanne Cockrell and Ted Purves, visit their website at www.fieldfaring.org.