New York City, April 2010
Katie Holten is an Irish artist who often works with the environment to produce art. In late 2007, she was selected for a major commission to celebrate the 2009 centennial of the Grand Concourse, the primary artery of the Bronx, New York. She created Tree Museum and transformed the Grand Concourse into an open-air museum. One hundred trees were selected to tell the story of the street through the voices of residents and others via telephone recordings. The project was organised by The Bronx Museum of the Arts and Wave Hill with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, cooperation from the NYC Department of Transportation and support from The Greenwall Foundation’s Oscar M Ruebhausen Commission. It was on the Grand Concourse from 21 June 2009 to 28 February 2010. Podcasts are available at http://www.treemuseum.org.
Can you explain how you approached the Bronx project?
I immediately told the curator that I didn’t know anything about the Bronx — I’d only been there once for a Yankees game. She said that was no problem — it was specifically a public project looking at the ecosystem of a place and they were interested in my work and curious to see how I would respond. I started at zero, I knew nothing. The borough was abstract for me, more an idea of a place than a place. I thought it was really far away, way up north. Actually, it’s only 15 minutes by subway from my apartment in Union Square. Everyone told me it was really violent, but it turned out that they hadn’t been there either. I went on a site visit in October 2007. The other two shortlisted artists knew the neighbourhood really well, having lived there and, in one case, having grown up there. And they were both native Spanish speakers and the community is largely Puerto Rican and Dominican. I can’t speak Spanish. But I got hooked — I fell for the Grand Concourse and started going there to walk.
I had one month to make a proposal — one month to wrap my head around it — how to create a public artwork related to the ecosystem of the Grand Concourse, a 100 year old boulevard that stretches 4.5 miles through the South Bronx? I wanted to work with the whole street and not just place something in a park — which was suggested. I’m not interested in that kind of public art and, in the context of this project and site, it wouldn’t make any sense. I wasn’t just thinking about the specific place, but about public art in general. I live in Union Square, we have a lot of public art plopped around in the neighbourhood. Manhattan’s a crazy city, but the Bronx is different. Regular people go about daily life, unused to seeing public art, whatever that is. Things happen slower in the Bronx, I enjoyed going there.
How did you reconcile producing public art in a place where it isn’t prevalent?
As the commission was specifically to celebrate the ecosystem of the street, I felt that inherently it’s really a positive project — something that everyone could embrace, as everyone is part of the ecosystem. I didn’t want to impose something on the locals that wouldn’t have any connection with their daily life, so I wanted to work with what was already there. I realised that the street trees are like ready-made markers that stretch the entire length of the Concourse — almost every block has street trees — I could use them to tell the story of the street, block by block. Physically the Grand Concourse is like a wobbly line running north/south with a lot of smaller streets/veins running off it. I was seeing the place as a living system. The trees became ready-made marks, or dots, along that wobbly line. I was literally seeing the street through the trees. I selected 100 trees to celebrate the Concourse’s centennial. I was starting to see it like a drawing that had to be filled in — join the dots. I had to mark and connect the trees with the stories. -Leaving the rest up to the viewer, the -‘visitor’ to the Tree Museum.
Do you initiate a project with collaboration as a goal? Would you say collaboration is a byproduct of your work?
Collaboration is never a goal. It’s a tool. My projects are problems I have to solve. To understand and solve the problem I have lots of questions: What is a Tree Museum? What could it be? What objects should it contain? What form should it take? How could museum objects survive outside on the streets of the Bronx? Wait a minute — what is a museum? What could a museum be? I was excited about the possibilities of the commission and the opportunity to question public art, museum display, art and ecology — all issues that have recurred in my work.
Regarding collaboration, I reach out to experts and people who might have answers. For example, the Tree Museum solved the problem of looking at and celebrating the ecosystem of the Grand Concourse, but I needed to speak with experts to understand that ecosystem, people like Damian Griffin at Bronx River Alliance, Majora Carter at Sustainable South Bronx, and Joyce Hogi, a long-time resident and community gardener. I met with Jessica Arcate, the director of the native tree forest at the New York Botanical Gardens, and we discussed labelling, how do you label a tree? How do you present information to the general public outside, under a tree?
Were there other ways you tied the project into the fabric of the local community?
I was meeting so many local people and hearing their stories about the street. I had to find a way to let others hear these stories. That’s how the audio guide came about. I wanted the trees to literally tell the stories — you dial the tree’s number and hear a story that’s somehow connected to that tree, that building, that block, through the voice of a local who lives in that building, or an arborist who knows about that tree, or a school kid who walks past that tree every day, or a scientist who uses ‘fake’ trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, etc. I also visited the archives of the Bronx Historical society. Seeing photos of the area over 100 years ago, when construction of the Concourse first started, gave me goose bumps because it looked like where I grew up in Ireland: farmland with fields, trees and stones.
There surely are major differences?
Yes, of course. Most of what can be seen on, or around, the Grand Concourse today is man made — there is nothing ‘natural’ — even the parks are constructed. I grew up in rural Ireland, but that’s also a man made place.
Do these differences relate to Robert Smithson juxtaposing the realities of New Jersey non-sites with what he understood as the systems through which nature functions?
Smithson’s non-sites involve taking actual stuff from a site and re-presenting it in a gallery. The Tree Museum is completely self-contained outside on the street. But I did see it as a conceptual project, like an invisible line drawing, there would be very little to actually see as I was just using small markers and signs — most of the project is virtual. But it took on a life of its own — people on the street, seemed genuinely excited. The Tree Museum triggered pride about the place, their home. The streets of a city are inherently a public space. In the Bronx, a lot of people don’t have air conditioning. When it gets really hot, people move outside under the street trees. In the morning they’d set up chairs, stereos, speakers, ice-coolers, barbecues, babies — and sit there all day. When I’d talk with people sitting under the trees in the shade they’d tell me the Concourse used to be pretty back in the day when there were trees. I’d point at the tree above and they’d chuckle. I discovered there’s a real disconnect — people see the trees and don’t see them. They’re part of the street furniture: a lamppost, a parking meter, a tree, a trashcan, a bus stop, a fire hydrant, a fence, a tree. I see things as part of an inter-connected system. The people on the Concourse weren’t seeing what I was seeing. They didn’t see the earth under the concrete, the tree roots reaching down, the branches reaching up, the sky, the clouds, the rain soaking into the dirt inside the tree pit, seeping down, and later coming out of their taps, then swooshing down the drain pipes into the river and all over again…
Do you know the Blaschka flower specimens at the Museum of Natural History in the Botanical Galleries at Harvard University? They are often used to assess museum practice, specifically, divisions between inside and outside, use-value and nature morte, or between departments, nature museum or art museum. These divisions seem woefully lame in the face of projects like yours, did you struggle to overcome and dissolve such classifications?
I came across the Blaschka flower specimens a few years ago. It would have been 2002, in preparation for a solo show at Temple Bar Gallery. Vaari Claffey — then curator at the TBG — gave me a present of Cabinet magazine’s ‘horticulture’ issue. I did spend time researching museum display and as I was developing an outdoor, public project it was also vital that I find out as much as possible about museum outreach and education programmes. So, yes, rethinking objects like the Blaschka flowers was important. I read everything I could find on museum display and of course I visited a lot of museums and the New York Botanical Garden.
There is the famous instance of Andre Malraux’s ‘museum without walls’, but there are also other attempts to subvert the confines of the gallery space, would you say you were trying to be provocative?
Yes! Essentially, I was turning the street into a museum-without-walls. Everything on, or around, the Concourse was part of the Tree Museum — as if a giant, invisible bubble was hanging over it. The street trees could function as the markers, the wall labels providing the relevant information. No need for me to add any objects. When you’re in a regular museum you read the wall text and/or listen to the audio guide in order to make sense of what it is you’re looking at. In this case, the trees were going to function as the markers. The Bronx Museum was excited to see what could happen. They have problems trying to get locals to go inside the museum doors. By taking the museum outside to the street, what could happen?