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Reviving Chicago's Commons: Garden for a Changing Climate

Community Engagement and Public Programs intern and artist Andrew Rutherdale reflects on organizing the summer 2018 Garden for a Changing Climate project as an opportunity to re-frame the idea of 'the commons.' 

Garden for a Changing Climate Recap:
April 23, 10am-2pm, Earth Day Sustainability Fair, UIC Quad
June 16, 11am-5pm, Juneteenth Celebration, Sweetwater Foundation
July 14, 11am-3pm, Marshall Square Garden Appreciation Tour, Telpochcalli School and Hammond Elementary
July 21, 12-4pm, Street Fair, American Indian Center
August 8, 12-3pm, Freedom Camp Comunity Celebration, 360 Nation 

A series of five ecological happenings organized by artist Jenny Kendler, Gallery 400, and community organizations throughout Chicago, Garden for a Changing Climate explored collective resistance in the face of environmental hardship. Events included workshops on soil and gardening, seed bombing, protest sign painting, t-shirt and button making, and food preparation—art installations, walking tours, and musical performances were also featured. Staff, interns, community members, volunteers, and artists facilitated these day-long experiences. Prompting actions that oriented people towards the environment, Garden for a Changing Climate introduced models for productively engaging with the commons.

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Gallery 400 intern and artist Andrew Rutherdale running a soil-testing workshop at Marshall Square

The commons are shared resources open to all members of a community. There is an environmental definition of the commons describing water, soil, and air, and an urban definition referring to parks, public schools, libraries, and community centers. This series attempted to blend these two definitions, providing methods that strengthen people’s relationship to shared space.

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A Chi-Nations walking tour at the American Indian Center

One strategy was to host workshops about seed bombing at each of the events. Participants made seed bombs by forming small balls out of clay, potting soil, and native wildflower seeds. They were instructed to throw the seed bombs into unused spaces in their community such as empty lots or railway yards. The flowers that grew from the seed bombs had the capacity to rewild these environments, bringing back flora that had thrived in these areas prior to urbanization. The flowers could also provide butterflies with food and places to lay eggs. Methods such as these allowed people to ecologically enrich unused areas of their community.

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Gallery 400 staff member Megan Moran running a seed-bombing workshop at the American Indian Center

Commoditization and privatization are the largest problems facing the commons. Policies of fiscal austerity and redevelopment seize elements of shared wealth and place them in the hands of corporations and private interests. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s closure of over 50 public schools in 2013 exemplifies political efforts to dissolve common goods. By contrast, Garden for a Changing Climate sought to highlight forms of value that have not been commoditized. By creating an opportunity to share ideas, skills, gifts, and tactics without money entering into the equation, these events demonstrated how value is generated within the commons and outside financial markets.

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Artist William Estrada leading a silk-screening workshop at Marshall Square

To push this resistance to finance further, Garden for a Changing Climate utilized the idea of the gift economy, where goods and services are given away without the expectation of immediate return. For example, there was a workshop where pickled vegetables were gifted to people. After tasting these, participants were invited to learn about pickling by preparing pickles of their own, using pre-cut vegetables, pre-prepared brine, and glass jars. The pickles made during these workshops were shared between participants, family, and community members. This type of gift giving is the fundamental form of commerce that undergirds community organization, and Garden for a Changing Climate provided an opportunity to see this economy at work.

To face the catastrophe of climate in the 21st century, an understanding of the challenges is not by itself sufficient. People also need active methods to address environmental problems, both within their communities and as planetary citizens. By forming and distributing ecological tactics, it is possible to create tighter links within local groups. It also enables people to create value outside the bounds of financial markets—that are themselves responsible for the destruction of ecosystems and the commons. By ambitiously advancing forms of ecological engagement, Garden for a Changing Climate grew from an art series into an incubator for unconditional exchange and environmental awakening.

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Lead Artist Jenny Kendler with Gallery 400 staff and interns
By Andrew Rutherdale, Gallery 400 intern and artist.