Public Art and Sustenance for the City


For the first week of April, an abandoned building in a transitional neighborhood of North Philadelphia became a clamoring hub of activity as it was transformed into a soup kitchen, soil testing lab, and meeting space for urban farmers. This was Soil Kitchen, the first temporary public art project to be commissioned by the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Soil Kitchen used food, performance, and a giant windmill on the roof to engage and educate the local community about soil contamination, revitalizing urban spaces, and tools of self-sufficiency. I spent two days at the event, eating delicious soup and learning about wind turbines, farmer networks, and Don Quixote. 

While the meeting of art, nature, and urban culture is certainly not a new concept for Futurefarmers, the international artist collective responsible for Soil Kitchen, there is a growing consciousness and urgency among artists and designers, cultural institutions, and government offices to address the health and sustainment of their cities.

Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer, Gary Steiner, spoke of Soil Kitchen in the EPA’s Brownfields Conference the same week. “This important public art project demonstrates how the arts and artists can be a critical component in how we address our sustainability challenges.”

Dan Allende of Futurefarmers, and one of the main organizers of Soil Kitchen, says the project is about connecting people to their landscape by pointing out the relationships between our land and our food.

“We are giving to the community through sustenance. Sustenance is a currency.”

On the second day of Soil Kitchen he filled in for a friend and gave a demo on how to make soup stock, which he had never done. He asked the attendees to tell him what to do as he and fellow Futurefarmer and organizer, Ian Cox, threw vegetables into a tall pot. He called it ‘bouillon currency’ and encouraged us to take portions of the stock around the neighborhood to trade for other food and goods. “Let’s go across the street to George’s and see if they’ll give us some pizza,” he laughed. 

Using the idea of a trade economy, Soil Kitchen wanted to highlight the importance of natural resources, nourish the community, and educate people to potential risks within their own environments. The project had originally planned to do its own soup cooking, however turned to local business owner Chef Peg Botto of Cosmic Catering for soup donations when they couldn’t get a restaurant license.

“The city wouldn’t let us be an actual restaurant because we had soil and soup in the same space.” Allende commented. “It wouldn’t be “healthy,” which really speaks to the health of the soil here.” 

The EPA, one of the partners for Soil Kitchen, donated a mobile soil-testing booth, which ran for the duration of the event. Soil scientists from nearby Haverford University tested the samples brought in for levels of lead, cadmium and arsenic. Each sample had a corresponding tag, which was pinned on a giant hand-painted map of the city. As the map quickly filled up–at one point they had so many soil samples they had to turn them away–an archive of the city’s soil conditions was born. Simply by bringing a bag of soil in exchange for a bowl of soup, Philadelphia’s citizens directly aided in a mapping project that will affect the future of development and food growing in their city. 

“While art certainly has intrinsic value independent of it’s impact on civic engagement, it’s also a real way to transform our societies and facilitate local reconstruction.” Gary Steiner stated at the EPA conference. And while the OACCE’s goal for the project was to aid in the economic revitalization of the city, the artists’ aim was simpler; “to reveal the links between the ground we walk on and the food we eat.”

Most of Futurefarmers’ projects involve some kind of sculptural mascot. In last year’s Speak Hard, it was a mobile distillery, a bike and moonshine maker they called The Sunshine Still, that roamed the Sydney, Australia neighborhood of the event picking up green waste from homes in exchange for “sunshine.” In This Is Not A Trojan Horse, the group pushed a giant wooden horse with a hollow belly through the Abruzzo agricultural region of Italy, collecting seeds, tools, stories, and other traces of rural history to spark the imaginations of the farmers being slowly pushed out by industrial agriculture. Soil Kitchen’s giant roof windmill both symbolized self-reliance and created it by powering the event. All of these objects serve as a way of entry and approachability for viewers and participants, a way to play and engage with the pieces. However the real sustenance of these art events comes in the collections of workshops, speakers, artists, scientists, and community members they manage to assemble. In my two days at Soil Kitchen I watched a composting demonstration, listened to a talk on soil diversity, participated in the soup demo, and sat in on the meet up of The Greenhorns, a young group of farmers around the country whom Amy Franceshini, the founder of Futurefarmers, just profiled in the book Farm Together Now (Chronicle Books) and members of the local Philadelphia Urban Farm Network. As children wove their way around the gently curving benches for more helpings of wild rice vegetable soup, the room buzzed with stories, suggestions, and concerns over the future relationship of the city and its farmers. Big sheets of craft paper filled with mind-maps of ideas and were tacked to the walls in a motion of intent and hope towards feeding themselves from their own land.

Temporary art events such as Soil Kitchen have great power to educate and demonstrate potential to the public. By involving people in hands on participation, they spark excitement over problem solving and a deeper connectivity to others within their own community. There is some question, though, of the long-term effectiveness of such projects. Sculpture Chicago held a ‘Culture in Action’ event involving 8 large-scale public art pieces in several Chicago neighborhoods back in 1993. They held a parade and block party, started hydroponic gardens for AIDS/HIV patients and organized events for local youth. Today none of the impact has remained. Project M’s PieLab in Hale County, Alabama had initial success as a space to promote conversation and practice design, using food as a unifier. However, over time they aggravated themselves in a conflict with the local community that eventually led to the departure of the original founders and a redevelopment by the host organization. But while John Bielenberg of Project M never saw PieLab as more than temporary, which has garnered a fair amount of criticism, Amy Franceshini has had a strong commitment to her engagement with the public through all of her projects for the last fifteen years since she founded Futurefarmers.

And as to the future of Soil Kitchen? There were a lot of excited murmurs from participants on the possibility of keeping the building space for future urban farmer meet-ups and additional soup events, and hopeful yens to keep the rooftop windmill. As I waited for the results of the soil sample I had brought from my own neighborhood in Baltimore, Ian Cox and wind turbine specialist Sam Newman allowed me, and several EPA volunteers, up on the roof with them to shut down the windmill for the evening. It was a beautiful, looming figure, constructed of light colored wood stitched to a dark metal framework at just the right angle to catch the air and continuously turn, powering the generator for the building. On the street below, the neighborhood’s landmark statue of knight errant Don Quixote, whose encounter with windmills in Cervantes’s novel was the inspiration for the location and windmill of Soil Kitchen, pointed his javelin to the sky. After recounting the harrowing story of the windmill’s construction that week, Ian talked about the potential impact of the project. 

“We can only take it so far, and after that it is up to the community to decide if it is important enough for them to carry it on. We’ve been part of projects before where the people involved wanted us to be the answer, we have to hope that they’ve learned enough and are interested enough to create their own solutions. Now that they’ve seen something like this is possible, where will they take it?”