Monday, May 2, 2011

a guidebook to Ephemerata Gardens

“The City of Living Garbage” is a guidebook to my backyard, a holographic catalogue of a whole city/world crammed into a quarter-acre of land called Ephemerata Gardens. Parts of other Austin yards are grafted into Ephemerata Gardens through flows of things – windows, doll heads, morning glory – and practices – building junkitecture, cultivating tiny wetlands, excavating rain catches, making soil. Each piece of living garbage takes us to another site in Austin, vernacular art environments around the US, or global sites that practice informal accumulation and recycling of urban waste. Each thing comes into being through trash, decay, or pollution, transformed into unanticipated life forms and landscape patches. Each is sustained by the creative labor of human and nonhuman agents in long-term relationships of mutual education and full-bodied sensory labor. Together they make habitats that thrive on urban waste, a utopian resistance to the ecological apocalypticism that permeates global climate change and other environmental discourses. They are post-apocalyptic in that they start off with the substances of the trashed world and end up in relationships of care and repair.

Like Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens of mosaics on South Street in Philadelphia, the City of Living Garbage inhabits a dream of junk art environments seeping out of their backyard confinement and taking over the city. Zagar moved to South Street in 1968 and began what became a lifelong project to mosaic everything--first walls of alleys, then entire buildings. Zagar stockpiled ceramic shards of all kinds, then composes mosaics out of the beautiful fragments. Each fragment resolves into a busy composition at the scale of the mosaic, and then up a scale to the city itself – a mosaic of mosaics. Zagar wrote on some of the tiles, and signs pop out of swirling fragments: “art is the center of the real world,” names of jazz musicians or the builders of art environments, and prophetically, "All wars ended on planet earth 2038." At Zagar’s Magic Gardens, a vacant lot transformed into a multilevel labyrinth, mosaic stairs take you down into an underworld of body parts and mirrors dancing across surfaces. Zagar spoke of art like a quack ecologist: “No one can predict where art will emerge. It’s like a mushroom, with roots that extend for miles and miles underground, unseen. If the climactic conditions are right, the fruit will emerge.” It might emerge without recognition as aesthetic, in the sculptures of monk parrot nests, jerry-rigged home plumbing, or the decompositions of compost heaps.

Here, art is an aspect of ecology, and vice versa. Rather than being the special purview of trained people, aesthetics are something that just happen, infusing places with patterns and possibilities of inhabitation. Aesthetic improvisations strive to make a living and a home for their practitioners. Sometimes they break codes and magically cross categories and borders, becoming something else. They transform thermodynamic matter in mysterious ways, into rhythms of color or flashes of sounds.  Wind in leaves and falling water compose a different-feeling atmosphere than the sounds of desertification or traffic. The patina of aging bottle walls feels different than rusty galvanized sheet metal. We may not know exactly what bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and macroinvertebrates enact the art of composting, but the collective works its magic, offering up the conditions in which the intensity of gleaming purple eggplant and bright yellow crookneck squash might dot the garden.

Seasonal colors amplify time or mortality; they enter us through the eyes and then the mouth, then find some way out, too. The vibrant colors get lost as little pixels in a screen flood of colors washing over urban senses, propelled by electricity, satellites, fiberoptics. Color grays when screens fail or the power goes out. Mosaics last much longer in color transmission time, while the bloom and fade of garden hues depend on our coordinating multispecies and elemental labor--saving seeds, cultivating soil, tending with water, primping dead leaves, managing sunlight. This guidebook collects and preserves some of these ephemeral practices. The City of Living Garbage is a chancy refrain laid out across Austin's futures, a place to inhabit and wander inside, a place to build. The writing is a form of bricollage or gardening that cultivates improvisational aesthetic expressions, a mosaic of places and moments that could only happen thanks to trash. A public dreaming of possible real worlds caught up in the catastrophic mess of this one.


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