Field of Our Dreams
by Nick Tobier
For the past year, when friends ask what I am working on, I tell them that I have been selling fruits and vegetables on street corners and in housing projects in Detroit. The next question usually is: But what are you working on as an artist?
I have served hot chocolate from an embroidered and upholstered cart, and built a portable picnic table for New Yorkers eating from food vending carts to eat their lunch at. F.O.O.D. (Field of Our Dreams), the Detroit produce business I have been working on and which aligns with these earlier projects — both within the rubrics of relational aesthetics or social practice and in the spirit of providing a service as part of a cultural inquiry. But F.O.O.D. means many things to me and asks many questions for me — about the impact of art and social practices, about the blurring of art and everyday life, and about the role of an artist in society.
In the summer of 2008, I was working at Earthworks Urban Farm, and eating my meals at the adjacent Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which runs the farm. At a table in the lunchroom, I became friends with Keith Love and Warren Thomas who were guests of the kitchen. Among the things we shared was an interest in doing something to enable access to the produce we were fortunate enough to be around. F.O.O.D. was born of these conversations, and the persistence of Keith and Warren along with Greg Bostic and EarthWorks staff, Gwen Meyer and Lisa Richter.
F.O.O.D. shows up 2 days a week, for regularly scheduled stops on the lower East Side, one of the many neighborhoods in Detroit that are food deserts — for most residents, this is their only access to fresh food. Not to mention the social aspect of being able to gather at a corner and talk with neighbors and strangers alike. Produce is purchased wholesale and sold with a small mark up so that the partners can earn enough to make it worthwhile and to continue the work. Initially we sold produce out of the back of my car and earned enough to buy a small used pick up truck, which has since been built out (with help from our friend John Baird) to incorporate display and storage. Our aspiration is to acquire a surplus ice cream truck or postal vehicle and retro fit it for a mobile store.
Through its regular and recurrent presence, F.O.O.D. is a (sometimes) viable business, as well as tangible evidence that individual action and motivation have the ability to respond to pressing social needs with innovative, appropriate and interesting responses with critical and interrogative design process and projects. For Warren, who is retired, the business gives his time and interests in eating well and activism for his neighborhood a focus — he even got to meet Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. For Robert Mitchell, Greg Bostic and Keith Love, F.O.O.D. is not only a source of income, but a solid emblem of respect and admiration locally, not too mention that we enjoy each others’ company and conversation — about food, life and art.
At the truck, I am a staff member working for the business, although I am most often introduced as an artist. This always gives me good pause to reflect on practices I value and aspire to, as well as those I have questions about. I have been the form giver —uniforms, precedent study and inspiration for envisioning small markets around the world, business cards, web site, display, infrastructure design and construction. But these are the artifacts of a process that is based in building relationships between all of us working, and with the people who come to buy from us.
In previous work of my own that I see as relational, my relations ended up being with other artists or privileged participants who understood the experience as part of a creative endeavor. F.O.O.D. asks me to be alert to questions of race and class along with responsibilities and concerns that are culturally more complex than the isolated art event. At the same time, I am alert to the questions that arise when art and everyday life merge in the social, and critical discourse takes a back seat to answering quotidian concerns, approaches social service or becomes overly earnest. In what I hope is part of a legacy that idealistic groups and practitioners around The Artists’ Placement Group (APG) in Great Britain in the 1970’s advocated for, artists can and should be part of projects and processes in which creative thinking and energy take precedence over surface manipulation or pure form giving.
Field of Our Dreams (F.O.O.D.) is a MOBILE MARKET bringing fresh produce at the best possible prices to Detroit neighborhoods.
Once, I overheard my great friend, Keith Love, describing me as an artist to a customer who asked “What’s the white dude doing here?” “His work,” Keith continued, “is that he gives shit away. Isn’t that beautiful?” What I have gotten from the opportunity to truly build complex relationships is far more than I could have anticipated through any other project — including insight, commitment to others and challenges to reflect on and respond to.