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Making art a team sport

Artists congregate, ideas live and breathe, creativity soars. All around the city, a communal process feeds a vibrant new scene.

September 30, 2007|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

Farmlab, for its part, feels every bit a laboratory. Located in an old warehouse just under the Spring Street overpass downtown, the sprawling headquarters includes indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces, offices, large workshop and discussion areas, a spacious kitchen and, tucked between the concrete overpass supports, an open-air performance venue they've dubbed Under Spring.

The centerpiece of a recent exhibition, "The Garden of Brokenness," was a working carousel built from old chairs, tables and other found objects, designed by Bon, artist George Herms and composer Jeremy Mage and intended (somewhat ironically) as a monument for Confluence Park. Surrounding it, and spilling out into the outdoor space, were a number of "Junker Gardens": abandoned cars, reclaimed by the Farmlab team, whose various cavities had been filled with soil and planted with vegetables and flowers.

The organization, which includes a core crew of six and a rotating array of consultants, is non-hierarchical and all decisions -- "from budget decisions," Bon explains, "to things like the dishes" -- are made collectively.

Stop in for one of their weekly Friday salons, when they serve lunch and host a variety of speakers (recent visitors included a team from the L.A. Planning Commission, an L.A. River activist, a carousel historian and a mushroom expert), and you might think you stumbled into some utopian hippie collective: people of all ages, from all (or at least many) walks of life, milling about, talking about the saving the planet, while children and dogs scamper happily underfoot.

"This is a place where people come together," Farmlab's executive director Adolfo Nodal says over slices of his wife's bread pudding, just after one of the salons. "From the art world, from the environmental world, politics, science -- all together to rub shoulders and figure out what to do."

To call Farmlab "alternative" might be a stretch, given its scale, its affiliation with the Annenberg Foundation (where Bon, granddaughter of founder Walter Annenberg, is a trustee) and the stature of many of its team members. (Nodal, for instance, ran the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department for 13 years and now heads the Cultural Affairs Commission.) This is not a starving-artist enterprise. Its mission, however, is far from mainstream.

Recent projects include rescuing fruit trees from the South Central Farm, a community garden that was recently lost to development (they're being replanted at the Huntington Gardens) and installing 30 portable "ag bins" -- wooden crates converted to planters -- on skid row for growing vegetables and flowers for the homeless community.

"Farmlab feels that creativity can bring recognition to some of these things," Bon says. "It's really an action-based project that's about revealing values we all share; we just don't know how to manifest them because we're in a strange juggernaut between politics, real estate and the disempowerment of those without the capacity to buy into those arenas."

When Bon described this network of alternative spaces as a "mushroom spore," it was likely because she had mushrooms on her mind: another of Farmlab's current endeavors is an investigation of microremediation or, in her words, the "healing of toxic sites through the growth of mushrooms."

We might consider the metaphor, then, on another level as well: that these spaces play some part in regenerating the soil of the art world.

Without overestimating the present toxicity of that soil, it's safe to say these spaces bring a number of qualities deficient in periods dominated by the logic of the market: ideas, convictions, a communitarian ethic and -- something one almost forgets to even expect anymore -- integrity.

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