Sam Van Aken's Living Art Practice
This Fall we planted a truly unique apple tree in the Pioneer Works Garden. Tree of 40 Fruit: New York Apples is a living sculpture by artist Sam Van Aken, grafted to produce 40 different varieties of New York-specific apples. Van Aken crosses artistic genres and disciplines to develop new perspectives on such themes as communication, botany, agriculture, climatology, and the ever-increasing impact of technology. Van Aken’s interventions in the natural and public realm are seen as metaphors that serve as the basis of narrative, sites of place making, and in some cases even become the basis of scientific research. His work has been exhibited in museums and in various natural settings, including the Open Orchard Project, where he planted 50 specially grafted peach trees on New York's Governor's Island. He teaches his hybrid practice at the University of Syracuse.
When I mentioned to Brendan Parker, the head farmer at Red Hook Farms, that Maria Popova would be hosting a ceremony around planting a new apple tree at Pioneer Works, Brendan asked me “are y'all burying the cow horn?” He was referring to an initial preparation for Biodynamics that details how burying cow horns packed with manure can help to connect more closely with the rhythms of the earth, as outlined by philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner in his 1924 series of lectures on Agriculture.
Brendan and I have discussed the art of following Biodynamic practices in formerly-industrial spaces—Red Hook Farms sits one block away from the former Columbia Smelting and Refining Works, and beneath Pioneer Works’ garden are the remnants of Pioneer Iron Works which manufactured steel machinery parts for over 100 years. Adhering to earthly rhythms and the cycles of the moon may seem obscure in an urban setting, but the ties between environmental justice issues and the rhythms of the earth are too strong to ignore; Red Hook is majorly affected by rising tides which have also affected soil contamination and air quality. Brendan and I organized around these issues with the help of youth activists and neighbors this past July by hosting a rally and march about air & soil contaminants, and water outages during construction at the NYCHA Red Hook Houses.
When we planted the Tree of 40 Fruit: New York Apples at Pioneer Works we wanted to coincide with the Harvest Moon in early October—a time for transplanting and tending plants that grow below ground, like trees. I asked Sam if he had any cow horns, which he did, and we packed them with compost and planted them alongside the new tree.
Can you talk a little bit about any relationship you might have with biodynamics, anthroposophy, or the work of Rudolf Steiner? And the impetus behind planting the cow horns?
Well first of all, I'm by no means an expert on Steiner, or biodynamics but I definitely am in line with the ethical and holistic aspects of biodynamics as well as kind of its experimental nature. I think a lot of my work with the trees recently has been looking at these pre-industrial ways of growing, and the idea is that there was the time before pesticides and chemical fertilizers were introduced. I find myself going back to a lot of practices of the 19th century and early 20th century, and kind of re-testing them within my own orchard to see how they work. Because it's 80 years on and we don't really have a blueprint for, or a history of growing organically except for those growers, those scientists and people like Steiner.
In some ways organic farmers are practicing some of the biodynamic principles without even knowing that they are, just because of the nature of how the Industrial Revolution has shaped modern agriculture.
Yeah, absolutely. I feel I have akin to the mystical aspect of it too. I mean there's no way to read those transcripts of Steiner's Agriculture lectures without seeing a mystical aspect. For me—and maybe it's part of growing up on a farm where I was subject to nature—there’s a certain point where you reach the end of all modern technology, right? You've exhausted everything that you could possibly do. And at the end of that is where I think mysticism is.
That makes me think of some of your earlier works where you interrupt technologies, including hijacking radio signals and inserting “hoaxes”—akin to Orson Welles' 1939 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which prompted widespread awe and somewhat panic among listeners—that embody an ethereality, interrupting the senses and opening spaces for an alternative type of storytelling.
A lot of it comes from David Hume, the philosopher who talked about miracles as transgressions of the laws of nature. I always thought that was really interesting—I wouldn't claim to be practicing the miraculous but I think that the hoaxes are trying to allude to that. It's this sort of transgression that opens up possibilities. I think that's something I'm always after.
I find that the more time I spend working with plants, the more I am able to perceive their abilities to weave magical or other-worldly stories. I see your project, the Tree of 40 Fruit, as one that embodies a sense of magical thinking or surrealism, where in assembling pieces of disparate living trees, the ancient process of grafting, feels like a magical, albeit contrived interaction between humans and plants. Do you feel like your upbringing and family history led you on this path to working with plants or being a someone who tends to trees in this unconventional way?
It's funny, because... well I grew up on a dairy farm. That's brutal. It's just a brutal amount of work and I remember being a kid, we'd never go on vacation. We tried to go on vacation once but we only made it two or three days before everybody got so worried about crops and animals and all that and we turned around and went back home. So it's seven days a week, you know? Every day of the year, morning and night. I really think as a teenager I wanted to escape that and thought art was the thing that was the farthest from it.
And I was really glad to get out, I think that was really important for me. But then this project really called me back to start thinking about my upbringing a lot more. I would in no way disparage farmers by claiming myself to be one, but I think I'm starting to draw on my own life experiences, and that starts to inform how growing and farming looks in my work, and in the future.
It's really fascinating to think about those evolutions, even just the way that you use tools, or strategies, like grafting. Can you speak a little more about grafting—what you've learned and how you found your path to grafting as a sculptural process?
It's interesting we've already talked about magic because I think that's part of what drew me to grafting was my great grandfather made a living doing it. I had never met him but everybody in my family tried to do grafting and nobody was successful at it. And then everybody in our community where I grew up—which was an agricultural community, spoke about my great grandfather as if he had this sort of magical capability.
I was just enamored by the process. Just the very idea that you could take one plant, cut it, and insert it into another and it grows. I learned about it very young and it informed a lot of my artwork leading up to the Tree of 40 Fruit. I became really interested in these ideas of hybridity, these chimera, and any type of amalgamations that would come from it.
I was really fortunate, of the things that helped me a lot—it's sad to say, is the Internet. It makes a lot of information available. But even more so than the Internet, driving around and talking to fruit growers and people that grafted. A lot of them are these older gentlemen, whose kids weren't interested in farming or running an orchard, and they had left. And then I showed up at their door asking about grafting and they had nowhere else to pass on that information. I feel lucky to be the recipient of that.
That is so important—you’re also working to grow these different varieties of fruits that—because you've cultivated conversations with folks whose families have been doing this work for many generations, you become the bearer of these stories and fruits for future generations.
I think that has become the really interesting part for me particularly over the past few years, is the idea of treating the fruit not just as an agricultural product but as a cultural object. There's so much history and narrative embedded in fruit trees and to think that varieties that we have now who were able to survive and not get wiped out by Industrial Ag is astonishing. A variety needs to be grafted onto a new root structure at least every 20 to 30 years to stay viable.
Some of these varieties have existed thousands and thousands of years, which means every 20 years someone has appreciated that tree or fruit enough to graft it onto a new root structure and pass it on. I see myself as taking part in this continuum as opposed to really starting a new thing. That has become a really nice thought in terms of the project, the passing along.
And the purpose of grafting is rooted in that, right? So that the trees continue to produce fruits...
Yes! Almost all fruit trees are grafted because the seeds of fruit are genetically unstable. It's sort of an adaptability trait of the tree. If you took all of the seeds from all of the apples on one tree, and planted them out, you would end up with a thousand different trees. That's a pretty interesting thought in and of itself—that you could develop a thousand new varieties. Most of them would taste horrible, some would revert back to crabapple. So when we find that variety that tastes good, that keeps well, what you do is you take a cutting from that year's new growth and graft it onto a new root structure. The earliest dated recordings that I can find of grafting in Western European culture is 3,000 years, and in China there is evidence that it's been done for 5,000 years.
Just to get technical- when you say grafting, what you mean is cutting the new growth of a tree—a green branch, and then making a cut onto an already existing tree, and connecting the two...
Yes! You go out in winter—the dead of winter like mid-January—and clip off the previous year's growth, cut them into small sections, put them in a plastic bag with a damp towel and put that in a refrigerator. Then, as the tree you want to graft onto starts to break dormancy in the spring, you go out and make a whip graft–a diagonal cut along the branch that's about an inch-and-a-half, and then a matching cut on the tree that you’re grafting it to. You put little notches in each branch so they lock together and then you wrap them together—traditionally sisal twine and beeswax, but I use about 1” of electrical tape.
It sounds so simple...
I think the thing that keeps me coming back is that I'm always shocked by the graft taking. [Laughs] It's always like holy shit, that did take.
It's so wild, this part. About plants in general, right? You plant a seed. Is it really going to grow? Then it pops out of the earth. That’s the magic...
I find it rewards you on a couple different levels in terms of grafting when the tree just breaks dormancy. Within three weeks it'll actually start to grow and produce new shoots from that part that you've grafted onto. The year after, it'll blossom, then about a year-and-a-half later it sometimes produces fruit. So you get three phases of rewards.
Do you have a favorite tree to work with? Most of your Trees of 40 Fruit have been different types of stone fruit, but this fall we planted an apple tree at Pioneer Works.
Yeah, and I think it was interesting because for the longest time I was only working with stone fruit because I live in upstate New York and there's an apple tree every 100 yards here. And so I was actually [Laughs]... I was kind of rude about it, I felt like apples were like tree potatoes. I was pretty much focusing on stone fruit until I started the Open Orchard project at Governor's Island. When I learned about the diversity of apple trees that originated in New York City and started tasting those varieties, I had to concede. I also probably eat ten times more apples a year than I do stone fruit, because they keep through the winter. It is very much America's crop in terms of fruit.
Do you see apples as fitting into the narrative about fruit as cultural objects?
It's interesting, up until the late 1700s most fruit grown in the United States was really grown for cider and livestock. Farmers were growing peach trees because they produced the quickest out of any of the fruit trees, so they would use peaches to feed livestock throughout the summer to fatten cattle up. And apples were saved for cider. It turns out when the apples were brought to the US they really succeeded. The Newtown Pippin apple that originated in Flushing, Queens as a chance seedling (that’s what pippin means) and the taste was so extraordinary that kings and queens in Europe paid to have barrels of it shipped from Queens to Europe—those kinds of narratives are extraordinary.
That makes me think about the origins of apples—which have all been cultivated from a wild ancestor in Kazakhstan, right? Apples have this incredible way of evolving very quickly and producing so much variety in the wild as each fruit falls and seeds can germinate and grow up to produce completely different trees, contrary to the legacy of human populations cultivating plants for their taste or flavor and exploitation. Are there stories you’ve gathered about how the indigenous people in New York, like the Lenni Lenape cultivated fruit? Are there any native varieties of apples that originate in New York, or did they migrate as part of the colonization of the United States?
Before Europeans colonized the United States, there was a lot of cultivation of fruit that was taking place here. There are numerous strains of prunus americana and along the coastal lines prunus maritima or beach plum. The Lenni Lenape were cultivating those in New York- they grow really close to the beach, and are small, lower-headed trees about six to eight feet tall. Crabapples were also here before Europeans came. As the Dutch colonized New York in the 1600’s, they brought new varieties of fruits through New York City. The first commercial nursery actually started in Flushing, Queens- Prince Nurseries which was established in 1731, but they imported everything. When you hear about Thomas Jefferson’s orchard at Monticello growing heirloom fruit—all those came from Prince Nurseries.
It seems like with the Open Orchard project on Governor's Island you’re trying to bring that conversation back into the fold—uncovering some of that agricultural history in New York City. What has it been like to collaborate with a park and begin growing a public orchard?
My artistic practice has opened up where everything is in progress and everybody gets to participate, [Laughs] it's like inviting people to become collaborators in all aspects, from grafting trees to planting trees, pruning them and then harvesting the fruits. It's strange to think of how agricultural New York City was, and the more I continue to research the more I see how the land has been influenced by that agricultural history.
There is an abundance of urban agriculture projects that have emerged across the city like artist Mary Mattingly’s Swale which advocates for public food forests and helped to spark a public food forest pilot in Concrete Plant Park in the South Bronx. Do you see your work with Greenthumb and Open Orchard School as windows that could potentially create more space for this?
When I started the Tree of 40 Fruit, one of the first things I thought of is that I would have to glean (harvest) the fruit from all these trees by myself, or that I would need to pay somebody to do it, but I've never had to do either. The trees become adopted by people in the communities where they’re planted, and by the time I go to visit them there's not a piece of fruit on them. [Laughs] That for me, as interesting as it is to talk about growing fruit and the history behind each variety, has implications on a broader scale about alternative ways of caring and value. When you engage people in those conversations, they start to appreciate that trees are much more than just plants or sources of food. The Lenni Lenape had this philosophy where no one could own a tree. You could only own the fruit that you harvested. This also relates to the German term usufruct, which informed how the United States government started to think about national parks, and was one of the guiding principles for the Open Orchard.
We first met at an event at Colgate University called Grafters X-Change: Branches and Networks, organized by Margaretha Haughwout, which served as a knowledge share for students, artists, activists, educators and growers, where we exchanged plant material, seeds and also participated in some pretty unique workshops. Do you feel like there are some unlikely collaborators that you have found in the intersections of being an artist and also a grower?
Oh yeah, I think we’re seeing more and more people working collaboratively with nature and that's always amazing to see. It's kind of weird, the artist—plant grower type... could you pick two more lonely occupations? [Laughter] The connection I see between artists and growers, both are very eager to talk because they've spent way too much time alone, and things can get weird. I can't say I run into too many people who overlap with the work specifically but I'm very interested in the Guerilla Grafters movement. But I always like to share things and am always eager to learn from other people.
It’s been really wild but also not surprising to see how heavily people have been using public green spaces this year, people in Red Hook have been coming out to help take care of Street Trees in large numbers. There has been a bit of a reckoning with the status quo- a shift towards growing, sourcing and distributing food within local communities, which I see as a direct response to the unstable aspects of the larger food system that become illuminated when the economy takes a downturn.
Yeah. I'm hoping that there's some kind of turning point. I know that going on walks and being outdoors and working on my trees have probably been the only thing that has saved me from myself this year. We have tragic immediate concerns but I'm hoping down the road it might cause us to start rethinking public space and green spaces.
Subscribe to The Broadcast