This piece originally ran here in April 2011.
Something sprang up in northern Philadelphia last week that had never been there before. By April 1st, the skyline of Northern Liberties was dominated by a twenty-five foot tall windmill, rising off the rooftop of an abandoned building at 2nd and Girard. People took notice. What had been a nondescript corner that city-goers hurried past suddenly became a place to visit. The angled corners of the windmill drew the eye, prompting a variety of people walk inside the building and ask, What’s going on in here?
Those who ventured inside found Soil Kitchen, a temporary public art project offering free soup and free soil testing to Philadelphia. From the 1st to the 6th of April, hundreds of interested parties from all over the city brought in soil to the site, where they ate bowls of soup, talked with EPA scientists about the chemical composition of their soil samples, and participated in free workshops ranging from wind turbine construction to the mechanics of compost. “It’s about getting people connected to their landscapes,” said Dan Allende, a member of Futurefarmers, the San Francisco-based art collective responsible for the project. “It’s about pointing out the connections between our land and our food.”
While its run was brief, Soil Kitchen has already effected certain changes. Funded by the Philadelphia Office of Arts and Culture and the William Penn Foundation, it was the first temporary installation of its kind in Philadelphia. As such, getting it made was a group effort. Through the collaboration of Futurefarmers, the owner of the abandoned building, city officials and other volunteers, 350 soil samples were collected over the course of the week, which EPA scientists gauged for levels of cadmium, arsenic and lead. The Farmers composed a map of the city’s neighborhoods to mark out results of the soil studies, creating a visual indicator of the city’s soil composition. “This was a case,” Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer since 2008, said last week at an EPA conference, “where we used art to uncover and shine a light on a critical problem.”
This isn’t the first time Futurefarmers have acted as such a light. A collaborative of twelve individuals – a blend of artists, engineers, gardeners, scientists and illustrators — Futurefarmers has used civic art to respond to social, economic and political systems for nearly two decades. While the collective has exhibited in high profile settings like the New York MOMA, the Farmers specialize on insinuating art into unlikely spaces. For Amy Franceschini, a longtime member of the collective, ensuring that Futurefarmers’ work is publicly accessible is a way to “be more present in the world. Outside museums, there’s more space for improvisation and conversation.”
The Farmers work hard to make those kinds of conversations accessible to all. Victory Garden, an ongoing piece that began in 2007, brought demonstration gardens to visible public lands, like San Francisco’s City Hall and Golden Gate Park. “We wanted to re-introduce food production gardens into modern life,” Franceschini explained, “So we created a visual language to invite people to participate.” Other projects have included a temporary bike share program in San Francisco aimed at sparking wider discussion about alternative transportation, a human roulette wheel at the 2009 Shenzhen Hong Kong Biennale that addressed China’s changing market economies, and a roaming wooden horse built to incite the imaginations of local farmers in the aging agricultural region of Abruzzo, Italy.
For the Farmers, Soil Kitchen was a way to spur dialogue about Philadelphia’s urban future. “We approached soil science with a non scientific perspective. That opens up a new kind of conversation,” Franceschini said. The site was chosen primarily because of the Don Quixote statue across the street, a figure who has long inspired the Farmers to fill unappreciated places with potential. “The windmill is intended to act as an invitation towards a greener future. The soil testing and the soup are about revealing the links between the ground we walk on and the food we eat.”
While it wasn’t the Farmers’ primary focus, the project was also an act of economic revitalization. Sited in Northern Liberties, one of Philadelphia’s most rapidly gentrifying areas, Soil Kitchen undeniably brought new life to a previously vacant urban space. “We were fortunate to have (Futurefarmers) come,” Steiner said. “While art certainly has intrinsic value independent of its impact on civic engagement, etc. it’s also a real way to transform our societies and facilitate local reconstruction.”
How Soil Kitchen will play into local reconstruction in the long-term remains to be seen. Neighbors have been talking about using the space for monthly meetings and other community events, but need permits from the city to do so. The EPA is interested in using the collected soil samples in larger data sets. Even if the windmill is taken down, however, we can be sure that Don Quixote will still be standing at the corner of 2nd and Girard, pointing towards the Soil Kitchen rooftop, encouraging us to see potential in unlikely spaces.