In 1982, Agnes Denes planted two acres of golden wheat on the Battery Park landfill in Manhattan. A few weeks ago, I ordered a season’s worth of vegetable seeds that I hope to grow in my backyard in Portland, OR.
The writers contributing to this section and I were all asked to respond to an art manifesto, but the prospect of analyzing something so unpleasantly definitive sent me spiraling into an above-average level of frenzied anxiety. The distillation of ideas necessary for an impactful manifesto feels far too reductive in a world whose complexities, contradictions, and crises have exploded into our lives as though someone dropped a match into a bag of fireworks. In this time of persistent uncertainty, all I want to or can think about is growing things and learning to be a better steward of the world around me.
The word manifesto is rooted in the Latin manifestus, which means “plainly apprehensible, clear, apparent, evident.” Denes seems to have had that definition in mind when writing her untitled manifesto in 1970. In 20 inconsistently poignant vows, she announced her commitment to what she describes as “a new art form whose ideals served others, not the self.” Sharing resources, making things public instead of private—this is a big part of land stewardship, and it helps me understand this perplexing literary genre. There’s no better vehicle for sharing, or talking about sharing, than seeds.
12 years later, with Wheatfield—A Confrontation, Denes sought to literally serve others. After tending her wheatfield for four months, the artist harvested the crop and distributed the grain throughout 28 cities as part of the exhibition International Art Show for the End of World Hunger (1987–90). Obviously, Denes came nowhere near to ending world hunger, or even to ending hunger in New York City (though she did curb the appetites of NYPD’s horses, who received the harvested hay). The weight of her gesture lies both in her repurposing of space colonized by industry and capitalism, and in its scale: two acres of prime downtown Manhattan real estate. Looking at the archival photographs of the golden, satiny tufts billowing in front of the World Trade Center, I get Denes’s point. But I also think it was an incredible missed opportunity.
In her grand project ostensibly about the detriments of capitalism, she unintentionally reinforced capitalist ventures. First and perhaps most obviously, Denes “reclaimed” space for an art project while disregarding the violent theft of that land from the original Munsee Lenape inhabitants. Second, by planting only wheat, Denes produced a monoculture.
Monocropping, or the practice of growing a single crop on the same land year after year, has countless observable negative effects, from soil health to agricultural resilience and nutritional yield. It’s a favored practice of Big Ag and other industrial-colonial enthusiasts, and it almost always comes with a parade of GMOs, chemical biocides, and fertilizers to compensate for its imbalanced processes. Any conscientious farmer, biologist, financial adviser, or artist will tell you that diversity is essential to maintaining the resilience of complex systems—be it a garden, ocean, stock portfolio, or museum exhibition. Though Denes only planted her wheat for one season, her choice to grow a single variety of one plant (probably aesthetic; the field is beautiful) severely limited her project’s potential. What can we learn from monocultures? A field of only wheat is like an exhibition of only white men: all too common and devastating to the surrounding ecosystems.
I know this isn’t what Denes intended. Her later works planting trees, such as Tree Mountain—a Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years (1992–96) and A Forest for Australia (1998), do a better job of creating useful habitats, though they still prioritize aesthetics over biodiversity. Denes’s practice, and manifestos in general, are more often about grand gestures and bold statements than meaningful change or interactions. It seems, however, I wasn’t giving manifestos a fair chance. “They’re entirely about sharing,” Will Fenstermaker wrote to me in a response to my 11th-hour revised pitch to write about the growing instructions on a seed packet instead of my original choice. Manifesto, Will told me, entered English from the 17th-century Italian manifestare, meaning “to make public.”
Last summer I interned at Zenger Farm, which grows organic vegetables on just over two acres in southeast Portland. In about eight months, the farm produces enough nutritionally dense and flavorful cucurbits, nightshades, brassicas, and other plants to feed over 500 people, while maintaining the health of the soil, native plants on site, and adjacent wetlands. Imagine if Denes had organized an organic veggie farm in Battery Park and let people come pick perfectly ripe tomatoes off the vine and pop them into their mouths, bursting open the thin skins to release the sweet flesh, letting it mix with the salty sweat dripping down their faces on a hot August day. What if, instead of an artist statement, she offered historical context about the Indigenous history of Manaháhtaan, the island now called Manhattan? I can imagine the triumphant cognitive dissonance of slipping off my shoes and curling my toes into soft, cool earth, while the Twin Towers loom a few blocks away; a small triumph over the city’s insatiable appetite for progress.
That, I think, would be an extraordinary thing to share.