Amy Franceschini in Conversation with the BDC (2008)

Amy Franceschini: So first of all, who are you guys, what is Participation Park and campbaltimore?

Scott Berzofsky: It’s a complicated history. We used to work under the name campbaltimore, but no longer. The three of us are now working as the Baltimore Development Cooperative (BDC).

Nicholas Wisniewski: But then we have several ongoing projects, one of which is Participation Park, which we’ve been working on for three years.

AF: But who are all you guys? Can you give us your names?

Dane Nester: Dane Nester.

NW: Nicholas Wisniewski.

SB: Scott Berzofsky.

AF: Do you all have an art background?

DN: We all met our first year at MICA. Nick and I were roommates. Scott lived down the hall. We all just became really great friends, and then we were all actually roommates the year after that and all through school.

SB: We were all Painting Majors.

NW: We started working collectively after graduation. Before that we had these very individual art practices in school. And it was after graduation when experiencing this sort of void of the community that the institution provided that we decided to start working collectively and continue a dialogue about art, and that very quickly moved into doing more politicized art projects.

AF: What motivated the Participation Park project to begin? What was the seed?

DN: We all have our own reasons, for me it was just coming out of graduate school, and I wasn’t working with campbaltimore at the time Nick and Scott were. I was just coming from New Haven then and I knew that they had sort of broken up. Maybe you should describe that now—I don’t really want to talk about that.

SB: So here's a very brief a history of campbaltimore: in 2004 we all graduated and Dane went to New Haven for graduate school. Nick and I stayed here and started collaborating with a few other artists and these two curators who were living in Baltimore at the time, Chris Gilbert, who was at the BMA and his partner Cira Pascual Marquina, who was at the Contemporary. To make a long story short, we were interested in the relationship between cultural production and social activism and Chris and Cira were really interested in that kind of work, and in using their institutional resources to support it. Chris was doing a cycle of exhibitions called Cram Sessions, and as part of that he started this study group that evolved into the collective campbaltimore, which went on to work with Cira on two exhibitions at the Contemporary that looked at urban redevelopment in Baltimore from a critical perspective. The first one focused specifically on the Johns Hopkins Biotech Park redevelopment project, which was displacing hundreds of families, using eminent domain to take over 80 acres of land. We collaborated closely with the Save Middle-East Action Committee (SMEAC), the neighborhood organization that had been resisting displacement to produce an exhibition that consisted of video interviews with residents, documentary photography of the neighborhood, a library of articles on urban renewal, a large wall drawing that mapped conflicts of interest between public officials and private developers, and the outside windows of the museum were boarded-up and wheat-pasted with anti-gentrification posters. We also organized a series of public programs, including a bus tour with long-time East Baltimore activist Glenn Ross and a discussion between David Harvey and Marisela Gomez, the director of SMEAC.

The second big project—which is relevant to your project because you guys are getting ready to do an exhibition at the Contemporary—was in the Summer of 2006, right as Cira was about to leave and Irene Hofmann had just arrived. This was an exhibition called Headquarters and it leads into our motivation to start Participation Park. That summer there were a number of artists-in-residence that worked with us, and we were all living in a warehouse space downtown. Everybody lived there, it was Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Emily Forman, and Taller de Costura de Codigo Abeirto (Open-Source Sewing Workshop), this amazing group of artist-activist-squatters from Barcelona that did sewing workshops in public space. We built this mobile trailer, that was pretty much our contribution to the exhibition. It was basically a used boat-trailer which we welded into this thing that could be folded together into a box and towed behind Nick’s van. We used it to reclaim public space and create social space in different parts of the city. All the sides, all the walls could fold-down and become stages or platforms—kind of like re-programmable platforms. Working with Emily and the folks from Barcelona we did cooking workshops and sewing workshops, and we collaborated with the Baltimore Free Store and did these temporary markets in the street. It was all about creating social space in collaboration with community groups. So my personal motivations for doing Participation Park were informed by this experience. That summer we were doing lots of these temporary interventions that were about reclaiming spaces and constructing dialogical situations, but I think a major limitation of all those things was their short time frame—one day, in and out, and even if we tried to form relationships beforehand there was only so much you could do. There's a limit to the kind of relationships you can build in those short interventions: someone comes to get food and then they leave, someone comes to get clothes and then they leave. You might have an informal conversation but ultimately it was too close to charity than we were comfortable with. We wanted to try to extend that experiment for a longer period of time, in a more strategic and site-specific way. So instead of going to a street corner or a vacant lot and doing something for one day, we asked ourselves, what if we did something for a year, for two years? That was the motivation for me to begin squatting this vacant lot, transforming the space and trying to initiate a bottom-up process of urban planning, to really build something. I’m talking too much.

AF: Nick has to leave soon, so I just want to make sure he gets to talk.

NW: Yeah, I agree with Scott’s brief history, and for sure this project was informed by our short-term interventions. This project wasn't really about urban agriculture in the begining. For me it was about reclaiming vacant space. Baltimore has about 40,000 vacant houses and 12,000 vacant lots. And this is a force that’s just present, and we wanted to address the absurdity of private property that allows this kind of abandonment to happen, to produce blighted neighborhoods. So we wanted to find a way to squat a building, but looking into the specifics of it we thought it would be too much work, or just unfeasible at the moment, so we decided to squat vacant land. We were thinking of a way to successfully squat vacant land without being evicted. We initially conceived of using food as this sort of trojan horse to avoid eviction, and at first all the food was distributed for free within the neighborhood. We tried to build participation just through a modest day-to-day presence. Just going everyday and talking to people and transforming this abandoned lot to vegetable garden. At first people thought we were building a house because we had these stakes and little flags in the ground, and it was ambiguous. We wanted it to be open and to change through people’s engagement. But in retrospect, maybe the ambiguity also hurt the level of participation we could have had in the begining, maybe we should have been more clear about what we wanted to do. That was my initial motivation, but it’s turned into much more now.

AF: Can we keep talking about that initial motivation because we have more questions that we’re already almost talking about?

DN: So short and simple, I was at graduate school for painting and had gotten into making paintings about utopian democratic spaces. And I was in dialogue with Nick and Scott the whole time but wasn’t collaborating on the previous projects in Baltimore, but just doing my own thing in graduate school with paintings that moved into sculpture, and gardens and mobile gardens, and other things. When they started talking about doing this larger long-term project based on taking space and gardening, and it being this form, that it would be the thing rather than making work about the thing. I was on board from there on and moved back to Baltimore.

AF: How does the local economy impact your work, or how you work? You’ve kind of answered that, but to make it Baltimore specific, the times and conditions of the economy, and I know it’s changed dramtically since you started it, but how has that impacted your project, or how you work?

NW: I guess again maybe, we should point out the extreme inequality in the city in terms of economics, which is in direct relation to the racial segregation that still exists in Baltimore. The poorest most blighted sections of the city are 100% African American. That's where all this abandoned land is, it’s where these speculative development projects get introduced and displace people. So that's the larger economic situation we're working in. We are also interested in developing sustainable economic models out of a desire to not be so dependent on non-profits and grant writing. We want to be more autonomous, and to move away from this charity, self-sacrificing artistic practice, you know, this “It was for the community.” To have our labor directly correspond to collective desires.

AF: It’s interesting that in your particular case you are motivated by the city economy, but also the artistic economy, and that will probably be different than the other people we profile, like farmers. I think I hear you saying that you’re currently responding to the artistic economy that can be limiting. If you can respond about some of your ideas about being autonomus. You talked about some last night that I thought were interesting, Like the CSA or the food cart. Because now how do you exist, how is the economy is effecting that.

NW: We are tring to establish this worker-run cooperative for next season to sustain our more experimental practice.

AF: So how would the coop work, can you describe it?

NW: It will be based on cooperative principles such as everyone getting paid an equal wage based on their labor and all decisions being made democratically.

SB: We’re doing the coop in collaboration with Latino immigrants from south-east Baltimore.

NW: We want to continue experimenting with the gift economies we started out with the first year. So this year we’re going to fence off half of the land to start the coop, but we’ll still have a large communal garden with no fence. There will be a CSA, we’ll try to establish a farm stand under 83 every Sunday during the farmer's market, and sell to local restaurants. We'll be selling vegetables to other worker-run coops that share our principles like Red Emma's as well as high-end restaurants that we can charge more money, the idea being that we generate enough surplus from the coop to both pay ourselves a fair wage and subsidize these more experimental activities at Participation Park.

DN: We haven’t figured it out entirely.

AF: Were there problems with the current model where all of a sudden you have to put a fence up when you’re thinking about income?

NW: Yes there were. But it doesn’t go against PP and the open communal space, but to have a commercial farm in the city you have to have a fence.

DN: There’s so much gleaning that occurs at times. Which we’re totally fine with for PP, but you cannot get people to come and work with you that you don’t know yet, you can’t give them any security without the fence because it’s in pubic space.

NW: And we encourage gleaning. Because ideally it's a reciprocal thing, but we don’t just want people to glean, we want them to help.

AF: Were you going to add something?

SB: Also in terms of the local economy, we started out with some money from small foundation grants and donations. But there are other resources in the city that we took advantage of, like the Department of Parks and Recreation will give you free wood chips and leaf mulch, and we’ve been getting free water from the City from the fire hydrant. We’ve gotten this non-profit to come out and till for us with their Bobcat, and we're having some trees cut down this spring by the Forestry Division. So there are cool people working for the City and local non-profits who have supported the project, who have the ability to redirect their resources if they want to. Like this guy Barry, from Parks and Rec. who gave us tons of wood chips when he was only supposed to give us one dump truck load. Or the people at the Fire Department. All the fire hydrants in the inner city have locks on them so you can’t just open them, so we asked them to remove it and they were surprisingly helpful. We just told them we were starting a community garden.

NW: But we also had a letter from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension saying we had permission to use the fire hydrant, which was based us lying to them about having permission to use the land. All of the grants we received were based on this lie. It was like this process of constructing an image of legitimacy, these layers of fiction that reinforced each other.

SB: For example, if people see the City trucks coming to dump woodchips, or we get a grant from a local foundation, or the former Governor William Donald Schaefer visits on a tour with the Baltimore Community Foundation, it all contributes to this illusion of legitimacy. We have this hilarious photo of us with Schaefer at the farm.

NW: We were bartering for a while too. There was this group called RICA in west Baltimore that has a horticulture center. They had a greenhouse for growing plants and they let us grow some early spring plants there.

AF: You are leaning toward this question already, but how could your work be coordinated with other initiatives at a policy level to restructure how the systems work? And, imbedded in that question is, like other people we’re going to profile are really focused on urban agriculture, and I think you’re beginning to. How would your project affect local food systems, or how would you interpret that question, or how could you coordinate your projects with other initiatives either at a policy level or at a community level?

NW: We’re already doing it.

DN: Yeah, but we’re still trying to understand how to engage with other initiatives. This year a huge group of people came together and formed this Urban Agriculture Task Force, one of the core goals of which is to have 600 jobs in urban agriculture in two years. And to have ten acres of farmable land in the City of Baltimore in the next year, and then a 100 acres by 2012 or something. So they have these ambitious goals. A lot of them.

SB: With people who are really serious about urban agriculture and land-use at the policy level.

NW: First we were invited to be in this thing and that was cool, and we thought well, wouldn’t it be nice if those jobs were good jobs with living wages. And if we can make sure that this urban ag thing is going to happen that it doesn’t happen through this cutthroat exploitative that way so many things in the city happen. So we’ve been on that task force from the beginning, and that’s one example of how we got involved on a policy level.

AF: You were mentioning all these other community groups that have already come together, which I think is important for people who are gonna read this book, to think “Whoa okay you talk to the parks dept. and the arts commission etc.

SB: The whole project has sort of an antagonistic attitude—squatting and all. But, it’s not like we feel as if we’re somehow outside the larger network of relationships that constitute the city. We’re constantly in dialogue with people, and partnering with people, non-profit groups when necessary, and the City agencies, community groups and educational institutions. And this Task Force does have potential, they’re already changing zoning regulations regarding livestock in the city.

AF: And did the developer organize it?

DN: Ted Rouse (the son of James Rouse) sort of put it together, but he’s not even a developer anymore. He’s more of an environmentalist. He comes into the restaurant I work at all the time, and he’s the uncle of one of my good friends.

NW: This leads to what I want to say about being cautious and questioning how we should engage in this dialogue, or this "green" movement. What does that really mean? It’s become really popular, and it’s a catch phrase that people have gotten really excited about. And we’re trying to figure out how to engage with it and have it actually benefit people who need jobs and not reproduce the same hierarchies that are already in place.

AF: So anyway, are there any reforms or policies that you’re currently working for? It sounds like they might emerge. But is there anything that you hope through this project to affect this policy or this reform?

NW: Not like explicitly yet. We have a lot of ideas of what we’d like to see. One comes from this group in Toronto. What’s her name?

SB: Shiri Pasternak.

NW: Yeah. She works with a group called Abandonment Issues that’s trying to pass this law, “use it or lose it” which is basically a form of squatter’s rights, that if vacant land or buildings are not being used you have the right to reclaim it and put it back into productive use. Which seems like a really democratic way to take land that’s not being used because I would think, that you wouldn’t have developers coming into a neighborhood like the one were working in, because its not a lucrative climate. It’s a whole process to build a secure, defensible place, for the upper class. So a law like that would emancipate people living in those neighborhoods to start using that land.

AF: In Portland they have a law, called the agricultural land trust, and it’s similar, not exactly, but if there’s a piece of land not being used the developer has to turn it over to agricultural practice until he or she uses it.

NW: That would be something to propose to the Task Force.

AF: San Francisco is trying to do it right now.

SB: Well, we want to change policy, but not necessarily by appealing to elected officials or that kind of thing. We’re more interested in a bottom-up approach.

NW: A grass-roots movement.

AF: I’m going to mention some things and I want to know if your project is affecting them: Land use, taxes, immigration, and labor?

NW: All of those things. A lot of urban farmers are trying to support tax breaks for urban farming. Baltimore has a program that is going to start next year where they’re going to give community gardens access to municipal water, and they are going to have a service where they come and hook up from the old house water mains.

AF: Nice.

SB: You know, we don’t pay taxes because we don’t own the land, and we have free water because we take it.

NW: But, it’s not exactly sustainable.

SB: Regarding some of the other issues you mentioned, with the coop we're addressing labor, we've already talk a lot about land-use, and we're also dealing with public health since the neighborhood we’re working in could be considered a food desert. We want to make fresh produce more accessible to people, and teach about nutrition.

AF: I think it’s interesting that in SF the Dept of Children and Families wanted to give us money because a lot of the children don’t have access to good food, and even their grades are suffering because they can’t think straight because they are so hungry and eating all this high-sugar, over-processed food.

DN: There are a lot of young people in the neighborhood who are really active in the project, they helped till the soil, plant seeds, weed, water and we would cook every Saturday, we’d have a salad with vegetables from the garden. We cooked French fries with the potatoes we grew, we’d make fried beets, and some of the kids didn’t know what beets were.

SB: One of them said the fries were better than McDonald’s.

AF: On the sidebar we’re going to highlight one food item from each person we profile. Like “potato” or one produce. And in that section we’re looking for some folklore about it. So, its been mentioned in something it will be a more folkloric connection to a foodstuff. Like do you have a food that—last night you spoke passionately about potatoes.

DN: We weren’t that focused on the potato, that was just our first year growing potatoes. But, tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes are something we focused on. Something that everyone likes.

NW: Watermelons are another thing everyone wanted us to grow, but we didn’t have a lot of success with. Rats kept eating them. Or people would come and tell us their methods. Tap on them to know they’re ripe, or how to keep the rats away. Infinite tips: plant marigolds, or other fragrant plants to deter rodents. So, we get a lot of good advice from residents because many of them are former farmers from Maryland or the South who migrated up north and don’t farm anymore but have a lot of old knowledge.

AF: We’re looking for stories in this section. The watermelon sounds interesting because it’s this problem and everyone wants to solve it.

SB: That would be a good story.

DN: Or the marijuana, every year there’s marijuana planted there.

AF: Did you plant it?

DN: No.

AF: Nice.

DN: Other people did, I think it comes from people just smoking it there.

AF: And the next question is, volunteers. You know every farmer has a story about this thing ruined my crop this year and I had to spray it—or that’s the old fashioned story.

SB: The watermelon is a great food story and the marijuana is a good volunteer story.

Michael: What were you saying, ‘voluntary’?

AF: It’s a polite name for a weed. It just volunteers itself. It can either be a great thing or a nuisance, sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised.

M: Oh I like that word.

AF: A PC term for a weed or an invasive plant

M: So I don’t know if you’re up for a question?

AF: Yeah add a question.

M: I was curious if you could each describe the ideal future for your project. If everything went well this is how it would look?

SB: There’s definitely a utopian dimension to the project.

AF: What would it look like if people walked past it?

DN: It would be crazy, it would be messy.

NW: My vision is that it would be a very heterogeneous space. A lot of people would be working on a ton of little projects. They would be there one day and gone the next. Or some would be there longer and it would get bigger. But really DIY, people could have the means to build the things that they want, to facilitate their desires.

SB: I agree with what Nick said, but this is how I'll respond: I think that one danger of utopian thinking is that it can easily slip into authoritarianism. Like if I have this vision that I think is an ideal thing and I try to impose it that can quickly become an authoritarian process. So I’d be reluctant to describe what my vision is. I just hope that whatever the space becomes that it’s based on a democratic process and the idea of the right to the city.

NW: That’s what David Harvey calls "dialectical utopianism." That's straight out of his book.

SB: Whatever the space becomes I hope it’s based on these principles, that it becomes the spatial expression of people's desires.

DN: My vision would be like the mare stem in the plant, that indeterminate tissue in the plant that can become whatever it needs to become. The part of the potato that can become a shoot, or the part of a cutting that can become a root. It always has the potential to become whatever it needs to best benefit people in the space.

M: I like that plant analogy.

AF: It’s not even a question but something to think about, and for myself too, why the garden? You mentioned that your original intention was to reclaim space in this crazy city you live in, and then the garden was used as a platform for that. What is it about the garden that makes all of that come together?

DN: I do think that the sensory experience of a garden is one of the most awesome. It's where everyone wants to be in the summer too.

NW: Unless its 90 degrees.

AF: But why does a garden mobilize people to look at these other issues? And, why does it seem like it transformed all you guys, maybe you weren’t all that interested in food, you were painters, but now maybe you are. Or I could just be projecting that.

DN: I'm still painting ...

NW: It’s an inherently social space, like eating. Well people eat alone all the time, but eating can be very social, and fun, and essential. Anytime someone brings food to a party it seems like a really good medium to work with.

SB: A garden is always incomplete, it’s always a work in progress, which is similar to the way that thinkers like Chantal Mouffe describe the conditions of democracy. I also like the the way Michael Pollan talks about the garden in his first book, Second Nature, as this ongoing negotiation between nature and culture.

DN: It also ends up as an index of all the people who work on it, and the weather of the place. So you can go there and get an immediate sense of who is there and who they are. A fingerprint: how the plants look, how they’ve been watered.

AF: A barometer.

DN: Yeah a barometer or index, something like that. It’s a sculptural thing.

M: I love that you started with a lie, and then you start getting all this weird truth piled up on the lie, and then no one can look far enough back to find the lie. That’s really beautiful.

AF: Yeah.

SB: Or even to use the term fiction, I like the idea that we constructed a fiction that transformed reality.