3.S1.2 Land Knowledge: Utilizing Social Art Practice to Reclaim Vacant Urbanized Space with Native Ecology

Matthew Garcia
Arizona State University

Project LAND Knowledge attempts to explore the vanishing relationship between urbanized Phoenix dwellers and native Sonoran desert ecology. Exceeding the biodiversity of many forests, the Sonoran Desert is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. However, for many living in the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, encountering the ecological realities of the Sonoran Desert are rare in its urban environments. Over the past 100 years, Phoenix has witnessed massive population growth which has resulted in the stripping and transplanting of its desert ecology. Through this attempt to manufacture a more desired environment for the new desert dweller, a dead and vacant landscape now stretches through Phoenix metro area. What was once a lush dense desert forest, is now a checkerboard of gated communities, golf courses, strip malls and brown-fields. As this effort to transform the Sonoran desert continues, LAND Knowledge questions what we forfeit when our relationship with native ecology is sacrificed.

In August 2011, an exhibitionary component of LAND Knowledge was created to engage the urban Phoenix community and call the community to action. Utilizing the traditional artists’ tools and the techniques of social art practice, LANDKnowledge used an art gallery setting to distribute prickly pear cactus pads to community participants. The prickly pear cactus pads were stacked and placed on pedestals as sculptural displays, and spread throughout the gallery. Each pad carried a hand-sewn tag, which later would be numbered for documentation purposes.

During the four hour exhibit, 81 cacti pad were distributed through a check process which asked residents of Phoenix, Arizona to: 1) actively engage in ecological interventions in order to reclaim a native ecology, 2) plant nopal cactus in vacant public spaces in urbanized settings, and 3) document the process of planting and the location of the plantings. LAND Knowledge is currently digitally mapping the location and documentation of the planting for a future harvest process. Currently over 40 cacti have been planted by members of the Phoenix community. Documentation of the planting process continues to be shared.

By transforming the cactus pads, considered weeks by some, into objects of art, the cactus pads were awarded a value absent in many social environments.

For thousands of years, in the Sonoran desert region and beyond, the nopal cactus – prickly pear – has served as a source of: food, medicine, intoxicant, dye, mythology, and even water purification. Today, while the nopal cactus can survive with little or no human care in desert regions, the significance and uses of the plant are largely unknown to much of the Phoenix population. As a sustainability movement sweeps through the hearts and minds of western culture, Project LAND Knowledge challenges us to consider how indigenous ecological and cultural practices can inform our progress.