Plants & Transplants: Juanli Carrión’s Outer Seed Shadow #01

04/09/2014 4:00 AM |

Juanli Carrión’s Outer Seed Shadow #01

As governments and voters alike continue to wrangle with issues pertaining to immigration reform—locally and nationally, at home and abroad—Spanish artist Juanli Carrión, himself a transplant now based in Brooklyn, will add his voice and the voices of many others to the discourse with Outer Seed Shadow #01. Opening to the public in May in lower Manhattan’s Duarte Square, OSS#01 is part installation, part park and part garden. We asked Juanli some questions about his project as it nears realization.

Tell us a bit about the conceptual impetus for OSS#01. Was it your thoughts on immigration that led you to devise a project for Duarte Square, or was it Duarte Square’s own history that led you to devise something related thereto?

It would be impossible to discuss OSS#01 without recognizing that a significant part of the project’s inspiration comes from my own experience as an immigrant in NYC, but my foreign-born status is by no means the project’s only impetus. I arrived in 2007 and have lived in three different neighborhoods since then—Chinatown, South Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens—each with its own unique cultural identity and immigrant history, none of which fits 100 percent with my own. It was during my residency at LMCC Workspace in Downtown Manhattan in 2011-2012 when I first recognized in the streets an example of the American “melting pot” you always hear about, a place where people of all different origins coexist for a period of time, even if it only lasts the length of a normal workday.

After witnessing this daily, temporary coexistence of people in lower Manhattan, I began to think more about the realities of the immigrant experience I knew and observed versus the typical “melting pot” narrative that’s so common. Very often, immigrants don’t “melt” within the predominant culture. Rather, they create a fractured city where various minorities come together at certain crossroads, like Downtown Manhattan, but later return to different neighborhoods where their native culture has been preserved in many ways. And though this city and country may be diverse, I think the perceived assimilation of minorities does more harm than good in the end, as each of these groups is unique, with its own set of cultural values and degree of adaptation. It’s a very different situation for contemporary immigrants, with a broader variety of groups and cultures coming to the US, and more specifically to NYC, than ever before.

With these ideas in mind, I started reading specifically about plant migration and came across this concept of the outer seed shadow. It’s the region where there exists an influx of seeds from a plant species’ reproductive core, but where—due to any variety of adverse conditions—seed germination and seedling reproduction are complicated, thus limiting that species’ development in the region. I found this concept really interesting and complementary to my observations about human migration, and obviously that is how the project got its name. Furthermore, the adoption of a garden as the project’s “medium” also invokes NYC’s long history of community gardens.

As for the location, once the project took shape I was offered a few different locations by the Department of Parks and Recreation, and I ultimately chose Duarte Square for the social and political meaning of the plaza. Named after the Dominican Republican liberator, Duarte Square is on the Avenue of the Americas at the crossroads of neighborhoods with strong immigration histories that I wanted to reference with the project. And as these neighborhoods continue to change, notably with recently passed zoning laws, I thought it to be a central location for the sort of public discourse and reflection inherent to OSS#01.

Your preparations entailed interviews and input from immigrants all over Manhattan, including having them name their favorite plants to be featured in the park’s gardens. What was one of the more surprising narratives—or plant selections—to come out of that process?

The interview process has been an incredible journey, probably the most enriching I’ve ever had as an artist. Getting in touch with the participants and having the opportunity to be in their homes and listen to their stories without knowing anything about them was always a guaranteed surprise. Every time I did an interview I tried to learn as little as possible about the person so I could be completely neutral. Some of the interviewees had very concrete answers to my questions, which were pretty simple, asking only for a description of their arrival to the US and to NYC and their overall impressions of the immigration process. But other participants had so much more to say, providing amazing stories that could become a project in themselves.

I don’t want to pick just one to share. There are a lot of stories that have surprised me and inspired me both artistically and personally, so I would encourage readers to explore the interviews to find their own surprises.

This is of course a very timely project in strictly political terms, but it also works as a celebration of social interaction in general. Is its interactive online presence an extension of that?

Yes, the goal of the website is to serve as an archive for the project, as a document that can be consulted and used as a reference in the future in order to continue the discussion about immigration once the installation has come to an end.

Also the goal for OSS#01 is to have gardens in other places—editions #02, #03, etc.—and to keep documenting them to continue the investigation and conversation. The website would be the unifying presence throughout these different incarnations of the project, creating a common context.

You’re also a photographer. If I may, much of your photographic work seems to alter views of settings and landscapes so as to alter, in a way, how they’re regarded by viewers thereafter. If that’s a valid point, how do you hope visitors might view Duarte Square, or any other such public area, after experiencing OSS#01?

You have a valid point, but I don’t consider myself a photographer. I never studied photography, though I use it to document my interventions and sometimes even use images as the basis for my work. My practice mainly consists of using interventions to attract attention to something that lies dormant within a social, natural, political or personal landscape, and you are right in saying that my intention is to question that landscape via its alteration. Sometimes this takes place in a remote area, sometimes in a gallery or a museum, and sometimes in the urban landscape.

My interventions always have an audience, even when they happen in remote places, as was the case for the first representation of Opus 2012 in the northern desert of Mexico. I then document these projects in order to perpetuate their ideas, the goal being to transmit them to a different audience. Photography is just one of the media I use in the documentation; other times it is video, objects or installations. Sometimes my exhibitions function as archives or documents.

In the case of OSS#01, we are expecting that thousands of people will experience the installation, while for some of them it will be just a temporary visual change to their daily life. Duarte Square is a public space and as such it will keep changing, even more due to recent rezoning. The unique experiences of visitors in the garden and the insights derived from public programming will serve as documents just as much as the website or the photos and other pieces I create, and all of these forms will inform the viewers’ perspectives of the plaza’s physical landscape as well as the cultural landscape of immigration.

Residents and visitors will be able to enjoy OSS#01 for months to come. Aside from answering the questions of curious visitors—and interviewers—what’s on your artistic agenda during that time?

My artistic agenda will only be busier once the garden is planted! During the six months the garden is in place, its evolution will be documented using photography and video, including a live stream that will be broadcast on the website. The documentation will include a series of photographs and sculptural installations I will create based on the
garden’s evolution.

More importantly, the garden will serve as a physical context and laboratory for the continued investigation of contemporary immigrant experience, structured by public programming that will take many forms. Our main program will be our hosted “Open Garden” days, for which we’ve established partnerships with various organizations and institutions who will use the garden as a living classroom, laboratory and case study.

It’s also important to remember that OSS#01 is a community garden whose survival relies on the individual members of that community. Each plant in the garden needs very specific care coming from such diverse places of origin, like the people who selected them. We might have palm trees growing next to lettuce, or bamboo growing next to tulips—a great botanical challenge that works here as a metaphor of the reality of the people who selected the plants. We will have students, community members, artists, and interviewees themselves coming to the garden to learn about the project and then, with the help of professional gardeners, we will “get down in the dirt” and tend to the plants that require care.

Other programming includes a workshop addressing the history of gardening practices in NYC and their relation to the ‘experience economy,’ which will also analyze artistic projects developed in NYC in the name of city beautification or cultural development. And finally, in the fall there will be two panels to conclude the public programming, one addressing the use of plants in contemporary art and the connections between plant and human behaviors, and the other discussing more specifically histories of immigration in NYC.

At the end of the installation’s run in Duarte Square, the plants will be available to the public through an adoption process.

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