Jacob Hashimoto 

Published: Chicago Reader, Arts and Culture, Critics Choice, December 8 2005

By Erin Hogan and Rod Northcutt

Jacob Hashimoto's "Skip Skitter Start Trip Vault Bounce--and Other Attempts at Flight" at Rhona Hoffman is a revelation, a tightrope walk between the ineffable and the physical. With one exception the works are installed like paintings, but each is composed of six layers, each made up of many small kitelike structures of translucent rice paper stretched across stick frames. Printed, painted, or bare, these hand-tied hexagons and ovals challenge the relationship between figure and ground, dissolving into and emerging from their companions and in the process redefining two and three dimensions. The work is in dialogue not only with traditions of Japanese kite making but also--incredibly--with the conflict between surface and the traditional three-dimensional illusions of painting that have energized modernist artists since the impressionists. The exhibit's centerpiece is the installation Super Abundant Atmosphere II, which, when viewed from the corner of the gallery, aims for the sublime. But the works against the walls are what speak eloquently in many voices: those of the craftsman, the modernist, the child with his paper and string, the laborer who finds the infinite in repetitive tasks. Both delicate and grand, Hashimoto's work is some of the best we've seen in Chicago this year. Through 12/23: Tue-Fri 10-5:30, Sat 11-5:30, Rhona Hoffman, 118 N. Peoria, 312-455-1990. Free.



2011  From Need & For Protest: Motivations for Urban Gardening

Presented at the Society of Architectural Historians Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana


Long ago I abandoned the isolated, item-centered definition of sculpture (sculpture as “thing”) and chose instead to support a model based in relational aesthetics. This is essentially work that comprises "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”{C}{C}[i]{C}{C} When I discuss objects, I focus on the reasons that they are made, how they are used, the event they serve, and the relational contexts that affect their existence. I intentionally put a fine point on the investigation of material culture by identifying trends and guessing at their impetus to better understand the relationship of the items to the built environment. To extend my purview, I additionally frame my discussions in what can be called an expanded field of sculpture that often side-steps traditional art exhibition in galleries and parks and instead embraces Arthur Danto’s idea of “embodied meaning.”{C}{C}[ii]{C}{C} With this inclusive a definition of sculpture, the events and the items the serve them can be presented and transmitted through the modalities of architecture, activism, performance, digital media, design, and craft.


In this paper I will discuss the “stuff” of urban gardening systems with an emphasis on the comprehensive observation of the garden objects—this requires both the description of items as well as an understanding of the context in which they are observed and the event that they support. Parsing out the driving forces behind designed objects (gardens in this case) is an arduous task at best, so I offer a method to organize my discussion as well as guide our observations. I focus on the intended purposes of the gardeners, as well as the related benefits reaped by individuals, communities, and environment. The benefits, and related purposes, of urban gardening vary greatly, so I am dividing them broadly into two purpose sub-categories, A) situations in which the garden satisfies a requirement (need), and B) situations in which the garden is used to resist tradition and convention (protest). With this dichotomy established, I will then discuss some selected examples of relational aesthetic urban garden projects, their events, how they may embody meaning, how they are connected to need/protest gardens, and how they have impacted the social environment. I hope that I can offer a method of seeing the stuff of the urban gardening phenomenon with as comprehensive a look as we can muster.


Systems theory

Urban gardening and independent food production is not new, but recently it has risen to a trend status in the United States. The phenomenon is vast, so I find it constructive to organize my topic using a systems theory{C}{C}[iii]{C}{C} method. We can say that the acquisition and use of urban gardening objects can be observed to create a recognizable pattern, and is therefore a system. We can then divide it into elements, interconnections, and purposes/functions. The elements include things that we can easily identify: the designed objects, participatory artifacts from past events, and the constructions of the built environment (think greenhouses, composters, and water harvesting barrels). In the second category, the interconnections are the relational ties that link the elements to each other. These could be theories of plant/human interrelationship and codependence or communication systems and teaching. In the third category, the purposes are the reasons that the systems are initiated and maintained. They are closely related to, and often driven by, the benefits gardeners enjoy. They are additionally the toughest to identify because there are so many practitioners and reasons driving events.


Elements provide the most sign-value{C}{C}[iv]{C}{C} (the ability for an item to impact the identity of the person who possesses or uses the thing), and allow us to conveniently begin to discuss our system. The elements common to urban gardening include the devices of nutrient systems (composters, hydroponic and soilless systems, bio-char kilns, closed loop aquaponic systems, and worm units), water harvesting and storage devices (catchment fields and cisterns), purification systems (bio-accumulation and water purification fields), plant location devices (gardens, containers, green walls and towers, green roofs, and pergolas), fertilization- and pollination-related features (beehives, bat-houses), and guerilla activist devices (seed bombs). These items are not new by any means, however we are seeing their technology, often born in rural areas, resurge as solutions that are hybridized with new materials for the urban milieu. Let us not forget that the most important elements of urban gardening are the gardeners themselves.


The inter-connections of urban gardening include relationships between the gardeners and material physics, climate specifics, and available resources, and can be seen as structural and inspirational guides to the elements in our system. Here we find theories of making, theories of plant/animal history, philosophical quasi-science (perma-culture and bio-dynamic theories), teaching methods (oral tradition, edible schoolyards, and master gardener programs), community initiatives (garden organizations), climate characteristics, and social habits.


The purposes of urban gardening are many. The acceptance of broad definitions may be valuable when discussing the purposes for urban agriculture generally, but these do not help us to narrow down the subtleties of the objects we study. For instance, the Council on Agriculture, Science, and Technology (CAST) defines urban gardening and its purposes as:

“A complex system encompassing a spectrum of interests, from a traditional core of activities associated with the production, processing, marketing, distribution, and consumption, to a multiplicity of other benefits and services that are less widely acknowledged and documented. These include recreation and leisure; economic vitality and business entrepreneurship, individual health and well-being; community health and well being; landscape beautification; and environmental restoration and remediation.”{C}{C}[v]{C}{C}

While this describes legitimate benefits, and therefore purposes for participation, I am placing the objects of urban agriculture into the two aforementioned sub-categories (need and protest) to yield a more productive inquiry. On the need side we find a focus on sustenance, the actors are often in marginalized socioeconomic groups, utility is prioritized, and methods are primarily practical. Conversely, those who produce food to protest traditional systems often do so from privileged positions and their projects tend to be guided by aesthetic concerns and ideological zeal. It should be noted, however, that while it may be convenient for discussion to divide the interconnections and purposes in this way, the elements (gadgets, devices, objects, etc.) are not similarly aligned and therefore cannot be as cleanly divided. In the examples that follow, we will see intersections, confluences, and hybrids of every garden technique under the sun linked by multiple interconnections and in service for multiple purposes.


It is important to mention another important group of gardeners (again, elements of our system) that consists of people whose garden objects are guided by novelty or habit. The gardeners in the novelty group readily embrace gadgets (such as Aerogrostm, Power-Plant Herb Gardenstm, EarthBoxestm, and Chiatm-whatevers) while the habitual gardeners may simply do what they (or their families) have always done and use what has always been used when it comes to gardening objects. While both groups may produce…produce, there is usually a lack of innovative problem solving resulting from a limited connection to, investment in, or investigation of the system itself. The objects of this group, often purchased “off the rack” and ready to use, are founded in mimicry, are highly derivative, and are “type driven” (designed by slightly modifying an archetype) rather than “event driven” (designed to fit the need of an event). For the purpose of brevity, I focus only on the elements of our system that are creatively innovative and exclude the novelty/habit items.



There is often a discernable difference between the gardens of the haves and the have-nots. The stereotypical garden of the privileged gardener may feature less utilitarian, more aesthetically governed garden areas and environments (including topiaries, fountains, and mazes) while the gardens of the lower socio-economic classes often exist to solve a tangible problem or enhance sustenance. While we should not base a comprehensive observation on stereotypes, I have found that individual gardeners in the need-based group work primarily to satisfy their food requirements and provide what is truly needed (linking them with lower income gardeners). We should also avoid the assumption that the actors involved in need-based events provide entirely for their own sustenance through gardening. Often, this gardening simply supplements (adds to something that seems deficient) that which can be provided through conventional means. We will see that this supplementation is the plumb-line common to many of the design specifics.


The objects (elements) that are used for need-based growing function similarly to the devices that any efficient gardener would use. They support nutrient systems, water harvesting and storage, purification, plant location, and fertilization. They are unique in that they are commonly constrained by space and therefore must utilize otherwise “unused” space by hanging, stacking, etc., and they often spring from DIY methods. If we look at the examples of inverted hanging tomato systems, seed sprout growing containers, and worm composting units, an interesting reciprocal correlation can be found when we compare similar-function items in the manufactured, novelty group to the DIY need-based objects. While it would be an overstatement to suggest that either DIY or off the shelf items can be specifically linked to need or protest, it is interesting to see how the readymade and homemade items influence each others’ designs. The Tops-turvy Tomato Planterstm work physically in the same way as 5 gallon PVC buckets with holes in them, the Biosta Sproutertm Kits work physically in the same way as a mesh covered jar, the Can-O-Worms Vermicompostertm is arranged physically the same as a modified hinged lid plastic tote. The similarity may suggest either a DIY response to designed objects or, conversely, the influence of the “home-spun” variety on the industrial novelty.


When we try to further dissect the purposes of the need-based group (further because need itself IS a purpose) so that we may better understand the decisions of design, build, and use, we see that the reasons and benefits of this group are primarily based on individual or household economics and health. Urban gardening has the capacity to allow gardeners to save money, purchase fewer consumables, and it permits them to increase the amount of income allocated to other needs. Additionally, surpluses can be sold in urban markets to generate income. This can also serve to fight hunger and improve nutrition in impoverished urban areas.


While the gardening in the need-based group primarily supports individuals and households, the gardens and projects are not initiated exclusively by the people who will reap the benefits. An exception to the individual or household model can be found in gardens and projects that are started by progressive, social groups. Multiple organizations have sprung up in urban areas and have pledged to instruct, empower, and facilitate need-based benefits for individuals that would have great difficulty gardening without this service. These include Growing Power (Milwaukee), the Threshold Foundation’s Dig-It program (Lancaster, PA), and the Sustainable South Bronx/Greening the Ghetto program (New York City). They all share the mission to develop food security events (dictating how available food is and how individuals may access it) that allow marginalized urbanites to grow, distribute, and have access to high quality, safe, and affordable food.



The projects of protest are often initiated in an attempt to improve upon a system that is available and serviceable, yet may not be as attractive or individualized. The products of these enterprises can be seen to complement (added to something to make it better or perfect) conventional food procurement. The (often of more economically privileged) gardeners in this group create projects that tend to be guided by aesthetic concerns, a pursuit of individualism and ego, and ideological zeal. Because the latter, the sign value of objects is critical, as they must communicate rebellion as well as function, therefore the events can be seen as inherently, and often intentionally political.


To begin again with the elements, we can see that in the protest group they do much more than support food production. To signify a rejection of traditional aesthetics and gardening methods, many protest gardeners make choices that include the placement of gardens and devices in public view and blogging/communicating about their gardens and projects within communities of like-minded rebels. If either group trends toward the manufactured end of the elemental spectrum, it is the protest group. This is perhaps because of the ability to purchase more expensive (and tested) objects, however there are multiple examples (again highly visible for increased sign value) that creatively employ common materials.


Again, we see the common gardening devices (systems to engage nutrients, to harvest and store water, to purify soils and water, to serve as sites for plant growth, and to fertilize) however we can add to this list items in service of a perceived, philosophical greater good, such as “green zones” and non-edible rooftop plots (designed to mitigate urban heat island effects or for air or water purification), plants grown specifically for pollinators and seed dispersers, plantings to re-introduce native plants, and items and systems designed to intentionally work outside of the legal system (such as seed bombs) to satisfy any of the above criteria.


As previously mentioned, the elements of urban gardens themselves seldom align with need or protest, but the way that they are executed, the material from which they are made, and how they are made often do. For example, the popular EarthBoxtm works by providing water to the planting medium (soil) more effectively than simple watering would provide (it is difficult to gauge evaporation when water is poured into a vessel). Because of the physical arrangement of the unit, the gardener is now free to over-water, as excess water overflows into a secondary reservoir that can wick it back to the soil later when needed. This is the same arrangement of a Sub-Irrigated Planter (SIP) made from two reclaimed five-gallon PVC buckets. They both serve the same overall function (providing enough yet not too much water to plants) and one that, again, is not specific to need or protest. An obvious difference may be economic—the EarthBoxtm costs from $40 - $130, depending on the model, while the SIP system is nearly free to build.  Another difference may be the actual skill (or lack of it) involved in building a device. And finally, a significant difference in design or build may be to space, or a lack of it. The spaces utilized in the protest gardens are often not as constrained as those in the need-based group, primarily because with privilege often comes room.


The interconnections of the protesters differ greatly from those of the need-based group. As the sign value of the objects is equal to (or in some cased overshadows) utility, the protest group is generally connected to other organizations that further the protest rather than those that will provide more effective sustenance. Theory, rather than utility, often structures protest gardens. This can be contemporary (such as the writings of Michael Pollan, Wes Jackson, and Eric Schlosser) or may be historical in nature (such as the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner’s Biodynamics{C}{C}[vi]{C}{C} or, more recently, Mollison’s and Holmgren’s Permacutlure{C}{C}[vii]{C}{C} systems). To illustrate one example of the many suggestions for unconventional gardening issued by the above writers, all suggest the importance of growing perennials instead of annuals and the saving of seeds. These two things counter conventional (capitalist) farm methodology so doing them therefore can be seen as political resistance.


Another important interconnection, the training and education of the protest group, also deviates from that of the need-based group in that it involves more technology (blogging), community gardens, government initiatives (such as state master gardening programs), and may target gardeners early in life through programs such as Alice Waters’ (now national) edible schoolyard projects.


The most noticeable difference between both the elements and interconnections of the need-based group and those of the protest-based gardeners often comes down to resources, so this will have socio-economic implications. While more affluent gardeners enjoy a different type of experience that the more marginalized, resource challenged gardeners will, there are initiatives designed to bridge this divide and to create inclusive objects and events that serve people regardless of their resources. I am most familiar with those that spring from artistic practice, so I will discuss three that embody intentional meaning in their presentation and who’s events are organized to embrace relational aesthetics. They are Nance Klehm’s Greenhouses of Hope, Futurefarmers Victory Gardens, and HaHa’s Flood Project.


Nance Klehm, a gardener, activist, and urban forager splitting her time between Chicago and Los Angeles, designed and manages the Greenhouses of Hope in Chicago. In November 2007, a new facility for the Pacific Garden Mission, “The Old Lighthouse” established in 1877, officially opened to serve Chicago’s homeless (it had moved from its location in the South Loop to the just West of the loop on South Canal Street). The building was designed with consultation from Klehm, so that it could feature a system that would effectively deal with waste while at the same time give a service opportunity to the residents of the shelter (all who stay at Pacific Garden must contribute in some way). Klehm designed the greenhouses for the facility (two at 2500 square feet each) and now oversees their operation and works directly with the resident gardeners. Klehm’s idea was to connect the events served by the greenhouses with those of the mission: the greenhouses are adjacent to the cafeteria and can be viewed from them, the greenhouses are used as a social learning spaces, the food that is grown is prepared in the mission’s kitchen, and waste (including food and newspapers) is composted by a large vermicomposting unit that provides worm castings to fertilize plants as well as some that can be distributed (for a donation) to Chicago residents—it is an attempt at a closed-loop system. In addition to serving the residents, there is an exterior “butterfly and bee” garden designed to attract pollinators for the greater good of the urban biome. The greenhouses physically and visually connect the growing of food, its consumption, its preparation, and discard of waste to the residents of the mission—the signification of connection is one of action.


Another initiative is Futurefarmers’ Victory Garden 2008+ Project. Futurfarmers is group of San Francisco bay area artists and designers (together since 1995) who’s studio supports art projects, an artist residency program, and research interests. Common themes of this research involve food, energy, and waste systems. Victory Garden 2008+ (named after the patriotic support gardens, or war gardens that were planted in parks, yards, and public areas during World Wars I and II and continuing in its current iteration since 2008) has the mission to:

“…create and support a citywide network of urban farmers by (1) growing, distributing and supporting home gardens, (2) educating through lessons, exhibitions and web sites and (3) planting demonstration gardens in highly visible public lands; garden at city hall, schools and Golden Gate Park.{C}{C}[viii]{C}{C}

The group has redefined “Victory” as the reduction of CO2 emissions, the organization of communities, an increase in self-reliance, the encouragement of seasonal growing, the saving of seeds, and independence from corporate food systems{C}{C}[ix]{C}{C}. The gardens themselves (previously abandoned lots, unused spaces, and backyards) create a network of independent food producers across the bay area. The project was piloted in 2006, but has been supported since 2008 by grants from the City of San Francisco. It works like this: urbanites with some land and a desire to grow food apply for a garden and 15 are chosen each year. Futurefarmers then contacts the applicant, surveys their land, samples the soil, and delivers a starter kit (via tricycle) that includes non-toxic materials for raised beds, soil, drip irrigation systems, natural pest control items, and a solar powered water timer.  The team then provides lessons in installation of all of the above, planting, harvest, and saving seeds. The garden is built with the labor of the garden recipient, the Futurfarmers team, and by neighbors, and the recipient is encouraged to host a planting party the same day as the building. Until recently (2010), the gardens were provided at no cost, and they are now offered on a sliding scale. In addition to the gardens, Futurefarmers has enjoyed “solo” exhibitions featuring Dada-ist hybrids of readymade gardening items, all of which are presented in association with the Victory Garden project, at art centers in San Francisco, giving the group an opportunity to proselytize to and connect with more people than those exclusively seeking gardens.


The final example, Flood, was the project of HaHa, a four-person collaborative that consisted of Laurie Palmer, John Ploof, Wendy Jacob, and Richard House, which provided a garden-centered social service in North Chicago from 1992 – 1995. With support from Sculpture Chicago (a nonprofit institution) as part of their “Culture in Action Program,” HaHa rented a storefront in Rogers Park and transformed it into Flood: A Volunteer Network for Active Participation in Health Care. The storefront was turned into a hydroponic garden, volunteers (about 30 of them) were trained, and the group began growing leafy vegetables such as kale, chard, collards, and therapeutic herbs for people with HIV. In addition to distributing healthy food for people that certainly needed it but often did not have access to it, Flood also provided educational activities, bi-weekly meals, hosted discussions on alternative therapies, supplied meeting space for support groups, and simply offered a place for Rogers Park residents to garden indoors. Although the project closed its doors in 1995, during its existence Flood organized meetings between social services organizations and integrated community groups that laid the groundwork for a comprehensive HIV/AIDS facility in Rogers Park that opened in 1997 and features a food pantry, a community center, and an alternative high school.


The elements of all three projects are still those of any garden enterprise, however they varied in their sophistication, function, and standards. For example, while there are impressive plumbing systems in the greenhouses, many of the grow boxes are fabricated from re-claimed materials. According to Klehm, this teaches residents that effective gardening requires a good physical working knowledge and resourcefulness, not the purchase of expensive gadgets. For the Victory Gardens, the intended functions of the elements reiterate protest—they push beyond the provision of healthy food and are often set up to alleviate heat island effects, the promote the saving of seeds, etc. And while the elements of Flood had to support effective gardening, the cleanliness of all parts, troughs, vessels, etc. had to be maintained with high rigor because of compromised immune systems of some volunteers and all beneficiaries.


The interconnections and networks are vastly different between the three projects, however they similarities can be found in the education and training of the project designers (all hold degrees in the arts and humanities) and the inclusion of gardeners and beneficiaries that are in some way needy. Notable interconnections for Klehm’s project include: the social workers at the Pacific Garden Mission (who help people who are seeking food, shelter, clothing, medical assistance, and assistance with addiction), Klehm’s teachings in the greenhouses (based on her vast agricultural knowledge), and the physical relationships between the food and waste at the mission. Klehm’s interconnections are common to both need-based gardeners (training is in service to needy individuals) and protest-based gardeners (closed-loop systems that are based on agricultural theories are created). The interconnections for the Victory Gardens also straddle. We can associate some with need, (interconnectivity across socio-economic divisions and service to the individual or household) and some with protest (connections with municipal systems designed for community and ecological benefit). The interconnections of Flood were unique in that the links work within the organized administration of healthcare (and its deficiencies) rather than with those dedicated to the general food security needs. For instance, dietary requirements and medical information (suggesting betacarotene as a cancer preventer and tumor reducer) connected the elements (hydroponically grown leafy greens and people with HIV/AIDS).


The distinctions between need and protest are perhaps most salient when we look at the purposes of our three systems. Klehm’s project equally represents the purposes of need and protest. The events of the Greenhouses of Hope suggest that utility should be primary (the goal of the need-based group), yet they also propose that the conventional, open-loop system of food procurement and waste disposal is ineffective and that a new model will politically signify a rejection of the city’s offerings.


The purposes of the Victory Garden system skew towards the protest end of the spectrum. While there may be some families that are gardening to satisfy a need, the mission of the project (and subsequently the way that it is executed) suggests that the art-related networking and high visibility of the events subordinate the feeding or provision of social nourishment of those in need. Futurefarmers chooses recipients based on their desire to represent the diversity of the Bay Area, however even when the garden projects are in impoverished neighborhoods, it is not the supply of food as much as the interconnectivity that is prominently featured in their exhibitions and print material.


While there is a sort of rebellion to providing healthy food in an urban area, the real benefit for HaHa, and therefore Flood’s purpose, was to satisfy the needs of people with HIV/AIDS. Working outside of a conventional system is, of course, a protest of that system. In the early 1990’s the disease was beset by associations with sexual orientation, promiscuity, and immorality and  (as it is still today) and as long as this can be seen as political so can our understanding of the purpose, and even contemporary benefit, of Flood. Like Klehm’s project, Flood’s purpose spans need and protest—there was certainly an unconventional, highly visible, and rebellious side to everything Flood facilitated, yet the events were essentially founded in service to individuals.


While the interconnections and purposes of the three projects differ in many ways, the values that they share reveal their similarity in relational form. It is not surprising that all have evolved from artistic practice, as the foundation of progressive art is resourceful problem-solving. This mode of inquiry allows the unpredictable relationships within a system to guide the event. Although all three of the projects provide for need as well as signify rebellion, they are unfettered by the requirement to yield entirely to one or the other, as this would necessarily prescribe the event. The form of these events, un-scripted and perpetually changing, are those that can be discussed as a relational aesthetic that defies independent and private space and embraces change.


To systematize the elements, interconnections, and purposes of all gardens, all event-driven works, or all agricultural additions to the built environment, again is an impossible task. It is important to sift through the details, though, if we are to thoroughly understand our built environment. While it is important to decode the designed objects of urban spaces, it is equally critical to understand how to apply this system theory “on the fly,” because everything—gardens, plants, people…the zeitgeist—constantly change. As they do, so must those who study them.


i Bourriaud, Nicolas 1998 Relational Aesthetics, p.113

ii Danto, Arthur 1998 After the End of Art, p. 195

iii  Meadows, Donella H. 2008 Thinking in Systems, pp. 11-17

{C}{C}i{C}{C}v Baudrillard, Jean 1981 For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Ch. 5, pp. 112 - 122

v  Butler, L. and D.M. Moronek (eds.) 2002 Urban and Agriculture Communities: Opportunities for Common

Ground. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. Ames Iowa. CAST May 2002

{C}{C}v{C}{C}Steiner, Rudolf 1924 Agriculture: A Course of Eight Lectures (Given at Koberwitz, Silesia, June 7 - 16)

vii  Mollison, Bill & David Holmgren 1978 Permaculture One