How much food can you grow and give away under the guise of an art project?
Adam Basanta's Artist Survival Station pushes the limits of the artist residency
Adam Basanta isn't an ecologist. He isn't a gardener. By his own admission, he isn't even much of a plant person. Still, he sees nurturing "life" as absolutely central to what he does. The Montreal artist's kinetic installations and sound sculptures have long held metaphors for ecosystems, he says. But lately he's had the desire to transcend metaphor by incorporating in his art components that actually live and grow — less in the poetic sense and more in the biological one. So, just a few months ago, he began farming microgreens as a test.
Cheap, easy and quick to grow, microgreens are young vegetable plants picked just after their first leaves have developed. Basanta harvested his first batch the same week in March that everything shut down. He had grown more than he could use himself, so he dropped off care packages in the mailboxes of two friends he hadn't seen in a while. It seemed like, he says, a nice way to connect when that was impossible.
"It was such a rewarding feeling that I started to think, 'Is this scalable? What is the limit of food I could grow under the guise of an art project?'"
That's when the Phi Centre announced its virtual artist residency facilitating creative projects themed around "being alone together," and he decided to take on the challenge in earnest.
Over 60 days, Basanta built an automated food-growing sculpture called the Artist Survival Station and delivered its produce by bike to two dozen households in his Villeray neighbourhood. He calls the project an "anti-business." In this moment disrupted by a global public health crisis, when policies and practices are in an unusual flux, it proposes that the base nature of our relationships and of our transactions can also be reimagined.
Basanta began his research on YouTube, where he found a community of home microgreen farmers and acres of "how to" content (he also documented his own project there in a series of videos). The Artist Survival Station is a DIY hydroponic system housed in a rolling, chrome shelving unit. Water circulates from its reservoir to the grow trays sitting on the racks vertical; the pump, fluorescent lights and fans all operate on timers to maximize efficiency. He's built in a homemade water distilling unit, which proved to be one of the trickier sideroads to navigate in the project's fabrication. Nearly all the station's parts were purchased from the neighbourhood hardware store, but that doesn't mean his system is somehow third-rate — the Artist Survival Station, he says, can raise microgreens ready to harvest within seven days.
He wanted to experiment with different colours and textures, so the artist grew more than a dozen varieties, including corn, arugula, bok choy, radish and fennel, boxing up a salad mix from the week's harvest before making his drop-offs. His favourites, flavour-wise, were speckled pea and wasabi mustard. He started with a list of friends, and as others expressed interest in the free fresh produce, his delivery route grew. "My policy was to say yes to everybody."
Basanta calls the tiny, post-shoot plantlings that he raised by the trayful "the crop of our time." They can be grown rapidly and efficiently in a highly automated and stackable system using very little real estate. On top of that, because they're nutritious and also beloved by fancy fine dining chefs, they command a very high price — upward of $50 a pound. These make them, he says, a capitalist dream. But he wanted to employ the unique productivity strengths of microgreens not to enlarge a profit margin, but rather to maximize the project's reward to his community. Framed as an artwork, the Artist Survival Station proposes that things could be otherwise, from farming and food distribution to public health and the market economy.
"Why make art?" Basanta asks. "I think it's exactly for these reasons: it allows us to imagine things in a different way."
"And, of course, once you realize you can do things a different way, you also realize it doesn't just have to be art — it could be reality."
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