Companion Planting: A Manual for the Ecology of a New Art

Companion Planting: A Manual for the Ecology of a New Art

Companion Planting: A Manual for the Ecology of a New Art is a three-day event that applies the concept of age-old sustainable farming techniques to sort through, gather and identify an ecology for contemporary art, today’s art, where many factors coalesce into complex and intertwined—sustainable—infrastructures in order to provide support. In other words, what does support look like for a robust and healthy contemporary arts scene—today? What is a new art?


Michele Carlson, Brian Conley, Matthew Gordon, Agnieszka Gratza, Shannon Jackson, Kim Nguyen, Ryan Peter, Frances Richard, and Calvin Rocchio

Salmon Creek Farm
Albion, CA
June 7–10, 2018

Organized by James Voorhies and Nate Padavick with Fritz Haeg

Made possible with support from Salmon Creek Farm.

Over the course of three days in June 2018 at Salmon Creek Farm in Albion, California, a group of artists, writers, curators, and educators convene to explore these question and others related to the forces that shape the production, presentation and experience of art. A roundtable, dinners, walks, actions and readings organized around six pillars of inquiry—Artists, Audience, Economics, Education, Institutions, and Publicity—guide the program. These pillars generally define what is made and distributed, indeed what is understood, as contemporary art. What does it mean to be an artist today? What are the responsibilities of curators as representatives of institutions to the artists and audiences they work with? What radical changes are needed in arts education to properly prepare practitioners for life in the contemporary arts? What is publicity and how does it inform economics? These are just a sampling of overlapping points of inquiry that seek to foment a discourse about what is necessary—now, at this very moment—to sustain a healthy ecosystem in the contemporary arts in order for it to remain a viable field for future practitioners.

A New Art?

What is a new art? Today the use of “new” is awkward, sounds antiquated, even a bit uninformed or naïve. What could be new in a contemporary culture when images and ideas are continually appropriated and recycled, transformed into something else but never really new? New already happened. Modernism already took us down that path. After all these years, however, it is the legacy where we continue to dwell—culturally, socially, politically, artistically, technologically, architecturally. The West’s tacit authority over the modernist imperative created a narrative about where and who were responsible for the twentieth-century modernization of the world. In the 1950s that imperative of continual cultural transformation infected art with the new. In the 1970s and ’80s postmodernism’s critique of modernism’s dominant voices, not least of which were white privileged males of European and American descent, initiated the long postmodern moment where we also continue to linger. It’s a moment where a kind of folding back onto the modernist ideologies becomes the primary objective of postmodernist discourses in art, theory, architecture, and visual culture. Modernism’s wake is the stuff postmodernisms are made of. These moments don’t end. The critiques continue to resonate, mutate.

A new art? Art and its discourses created an industry out of the modernist new. In the mid twentieth-century, critics, artists, curators, educators and institutions rallied to define and reinforce the new in art. They devised a new based on the critique of art’s legitimacy by demanding its autonomy, away with the responsibilities that art represent something—the world. Abstract everything. The new for art encompassed creating its own discourse out of the very things it’s made of. That discourse could ultimately release art from the centuries-old shackles to portray things. Part of this new, part of this abstraction encompassed a kind of catalogue of art’s structural components. What could art claim as its own? What makes painting painting? Surface, pigment, the wall, shape. For those in the know, you know. But for those not in the know, well, you don’t. Modernist art retreated to a rather exclusive place. A self-reflexivity positioned art in dialogue not with representing the world, but as a kind of closed cultural ecosystem reflecting on the structural qualities that made modernist art so. Art moved to a discourse all its own around its materials and disciplines. Medium specificity. Materials and disciplines ultimately produce objects. And this is where we arrive at the imperative now for a new ecology for a new art. The objects created an industry. Objects need an audience, from museum and gallery goers, to arts journals and collectors. But then came Conceptual Art and things like institutional critique, that in their determined focus on the immaterial ushered forward a solid critique of the object-centricity of modern art. But that didn’t help make anything new. Their extreme referentiality further pushed art’s discourses to a realm of opacity. As decades since the 1970s have shown, capitalism has not only continued to fixate on the art object but also on the identity of the artist figure. All of this has Frankensteined an economic art market that is contemporary art with its attendant galleries, fairs, academies, and biennials.

If an industry has objects and artists as the primary components of a capitalist art system, it needs an educational infrastructure to supply the system. The focus on materials and objects that emerged during the modernist new furthered the proliferation of art departments and programs at colleges and universities across the United States and Europe. Then with the rise of the artist figure—let’s call it the second-generation object born unexpectedly out of a postmodernist critique of art—the ecosystem needed a source of figures who see art as their profession. This figure is typically schooled in materials and ideas at a graduate level while also gaining a vocabulary for how to situate themselves as professional artists in the ecology of a professional art world. The economy of the industrial art education complex is responsive to these conditions, an unsustainable ecology of objects and artist figures. 

The shimmering signs of a new art may now be happening alongside but not outside these conditions. In a kind of third generation reaction to modernism, the ephemeral situation in art is now part and parcel for providing audiences immaterial experiences, the need for which has developed over the past 15 years and is both reactive to the economies of the material object and stewarded by new institutional platforms. The new platforms are often aligned with biennials and art institutions that attract visitors by supplying unique, exciting—individual—experiences for their audiences. This situational art seems to be separating, splintering from art in ways not always easy to delineate because not only is this art bringing to the fore urgent questions about the economic precarity of the artist figure produced steadily by the industrial art education complex, it is demanding artists devise different and combined economic and social support structures. They are required to be entrepreneurs who reach outside of art for resources to produce and present work while questioning the industrial art education complex on which the entire thing rests. The industry of contemporary is rooted on a wholesale belief in the modernist object and the subsequent postmodernist artist figure. The new is now old. And the ecology that supports it is outdated. We need something new—a new ecology for a new art.      

James Voorhies (June 2018)                                                             

Companion Planting follows Companion Planting: A Prologue, an initial convening of practitioners in arts and design in February 2018 to discuss new strategies for a new art. We are grateful to the following participants for their time, minds, and attention toward helping to develop a pathway. 

Susanne Cockrell, Fritz Haeg, Ron Kirkpatrick, Nils Norman, Helen Maria Nugent, Nate Padavick, Calvin Rocchio, and James Voorhies

Salmon Creek Farm
Albion, CA
February 2–4, 2018

Organized by James Voorhies and Nate Padavick with Fritz Haeg

The overall intent with Companion Planting is to publish a manual reflective of all the complex and messy characteristics and forms contemporary art takes. This manual, call it Companion Planting: A Manual for the Ecology of a New Art, will include the ideas, actions, exchanges, and conversations culled from these ongoing gatherings. The manual, in its totality, will define an aesthetics of a healthy ecosystem by identifying the characteristics of support, what it looks like for the wide-ranging artistic and cultural production of today’s contemporary arts scene.

Salmon Creek Farm is located two miles from California’s Mendocino coast on 35 acres of mostly second-growth redwoods. Established in 1971, Salmon Creek Farm was founded by a group of young people disenchanted with mainstream society and searching for something else. The commune completely dissolved in 2012 and in 2014 Fritz Haeg purchased the land. Today, Salmon Creek Farm continues as a place to take a step back from contemporary urban society and starts a new chapter as a long-term art project formed by many hands, a new sort of commune-farm-homestead-sanctuary-school hybrid.

An extended community of returning comrades contribute to the land’s revival and daily operations with projects, gatherings, and workshops where each person involved with the land asks how their skills, interests, curiosities meet and contribute to the needs and potential of the place.