Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Ephemerata Garden’s back wall mosaic grotto is starting to crumble, and I can’t find any mortar. We used up the last of the half-ton I bought three years ago from a bankrupt construction company to repair the Garbage Gyre mosaic and patch up the greenhouse bottle wall. Sinking foundation on the grotto’s left side is causing the façade to crack, and a Chinaberry seedling that got in the crack on the alley side of the wall is speeding the process.

Given cement scarcity since last year, I’ve been making do by bolting parts of the façade to the substrate. Limestone and clay mining operations are at a slow dig with their limited solar energy rations, and the coal kilns used in the calcination process work within strict carbon emission regulations. All available cement is first allocated to government agencies for infrastructure repair, and to public sector institutions like hospitals and schools.

In Philadelphia, the Magic Gardens’ caretakers are experimenting with bacterial biocement using castoff concrete chunks pulverized with sledgehammers. Following Ginger Dosier’s method,* they mix the powder with Bacillus pasteurii and urine to make a very slow setting mortar suitable for repair work. The nonprofit Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, instituted in 2002 in response to the art environment’s threatened demolition, preserves Isaiah Zagar’s mural works around South Street and organizes events focused on folk and self-taught art.
I was encroaching on somebody else’s land and we had to buy it. The owner came back and wanted to sell it. He didn’t care about the land, just about the money, so we paid him three hundred thousand – where you gonna get that kind of money? So Lawyers for the Arts made me into a nonprofit organization and raised the money. It became a wonderful thing for me. It scares the shit outta me too, now I got some kind of responsibility. We’ve been very lucky about code. [When Zagar started Magic Gardens] the area was a derelict area so there wasn’t a big problem. But now, nobody could do anything now. It would be impossible to do now. He bought it for 70K and sold for 300K in ten years – maybe because of art. Maybe art has that power.
When I first talked with Zagar by phone a dozen years ago, he was busy repairing one of his mosaics with a volunteer. He had become an ant at the center of the hectic nonprofit nest.
Everything is vulnerable to the weather. Any kind of thing like this has got to be eventually taken over by an entity to preserve it. To actually pay people to preserve it. Preservation is the key – but you can’t always do this. Vandalism is a big thing. People will feel that what you’re doing is ungodly. “Squash it, kill it, kill it!” But I’ve certainly been very lucky… In the nonprofit there are administrators, I have an executive director, someone for education, for outreach, a daily manager, garden guides, people who tell my story to 35-40 people on a tour. It’s very mysterious to an artist who is still living. 
Art is a collaborative social-economic venture that can inflate an excess nonprofit value within a rarified atmosphere assembled by aesthetic practices themselves. Aesthetics and cement can hold together bits of broken ceramics, cast-off glass bottles, bent bike wheels, sensations of unity, and derelict urban areas, but these borderless compositions are materially fragile and in a sense require undervalue or abandonment to firm up. Some other form of wealth rises up out of conditions of poverty or making do. Preserving fragile art environments often depends on unpaid volunteer labor at the same time it makes jobs for a few administrators and skilled restoration workers. But when cement prices inflate, mosaics struggle to take shape or stay in good shape. Philadelphia's seasonal heating and freezing has its toll on the Magic Gardens' mortar. And there are vandals who kill someone else's sense of beauty for cruel fun or righteousness.

This mortality makes evident that mosaics, junkitecture, and other urban forms in the City of Living Garbage only survive through aesthetic behavior or the relationship of care and repair between artistic characters and landscape patches. Agencies and institutions are epiphenomena that mysteriously redistribute the behaviors, supplies and moneys, and affective attachments required for preservation; their support and continuity is itself vulnerable. When the 1994 Northridge earthquake severely damaged Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley, California, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pledged close to a half million dollars in restoration funds (while the Watts Towers, another self-taught architectural art environment on the National Historic Register with the Bottle Village, received nine hundred thousand). FEMA responded to controversies surrounding the worth of the Bottle Village, including a petition to block the funds introduced by City Councilwoman Sandi Webb, by rescinding the restoration money, claiming that it was inappropriate as the Bottle Village had not been regularly open to the public for years.** Webb was joined by Representative Elton Gallegly in the call to bulldoze the Bottle Village, “an eyesore 25 or 30 years ago that has gone downhill dramatically ever since … How in the world can we spend half a million dollars on something no one wants” when so many real world problems need money thrown their way?***

Grandma Prisbrey wanted and needed her luminous Bottle Village where she lived with her collection of 17,000 pencils. Volunteers with the nonprofit Preserve Bottle Village continue to give occasional tours, organize events like weeding parties, and rally small injections of money from individuals and private foundations. Their mode of survival is more about preserving Bottle Village by asking people to help physically create it, more than by donating cash. In 2010, Disneyland offered support by including the Bottle Village in its “Give-a-Day, Get-a-Day” program whereby volunteers earned a free day at the theme park by donating a day of work to a nonprofit, including Prisbrey’s DIYsneyland. A group from the Anthropologie store took a tour as part of its “Inspiration Day” for drumming up design ideas. By 2016, the Bottle Village had still not received enough funding for a major restoration, and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens stepped in to help with preservation efforts—sixty years after Grandma Prisbrey started building. By 2020 masons and mosaicists had repaired the remaining 14 structures, just in time for the 8.2 magnitude earthquake that hit, like the weaker 6.7 magnitude quake in 1994, only eight miles form Bottle Village. Rebuilding is still underway, but five of the buildings are large piles of glass shards and masonry that the engineering assessment deemed “beyond repair.”

To Isaiah Zagar, the five destroyed structures are mosaic shards for a new composition. His team plans to pulverize Prisbrey’s old hand-mixed mortar to use as the grit for biobricks. The broken glass from bottles dating back to the 50s and 60s**** will be used to mosaic the bricks’ outer sides, and a new building will be constructed out of the resulting modules. They are learning to cultivate their own B. pasteurii colonies to make the restoration project more independent of money; the other main ingredients are our everyday urine stream and worthless cement chunks like highways after earthquakes. Zagar talks about how things like mosaics, mushrooms, and  B. pasteurii spread as spores with roots in particular cultural landscapes, something that's "in the air, they spread in the air ... For the mural projects in Mexico, the roots are all in the Renaissance. Diego Rivera – he loved to see the murals and mosaics in the churches. He dug it. ‘I can do this thing, I can do it. I can give it a twist,’ and then others followed him." The roots of preservation and reconstruction are more ecological, with the model of a landscape that never stops making itself out of its own life forms. The roots are also biotechnical, and artists and self-taught biologists are saying "I can do this thing" and giving their own twist on scientific bioengineering.

If you have any B. pasteurii or know how to culture them, please get in touch so we can repair Ephemerata Garden’s back grotto. The Cathedra of Junk could also put the biocement technique to work in its constantly growing amoeba of mortar, bottles, and junk.


*Mike Larson, "Professor Uses Bacteria to Make Eco-friendly Bricks,"  Engineering News-Record online, July 7, 2010, 
**FEMA eventually dedicates close to 20K for an architectural engineering assessment for rebuilding and preservation. 
 *** Quoted in Patricia Leigh Brown, “Reading the Message in the Bottles, New York Times, February 6, 1997,
****See wonderful letter to Grandma about bottles at "Nowadays, most of the bottles are plastic and they are EVERYWHERE! ... We have these big gray 'Recycle Cans' and I know you'd get arrested for messing around with those cans... Well Grandma, all that stuff and all those bottles you got from the dump; it's hard to find today, except maybe on eBay."

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