“Utopia now,” the title of a recent exhibition in San Francisco, may also be an apt description of the art of Nils Norman. Known for combining wacky invention with a vision of how cities should be used, the thirty-five-year-old artist has developed his own mix of art and activism. Take, for example, the Tompkins Square Park Monument to Civil Disobedience, 1997, a model-diagram that proposed an anarchic occupation of the East Village green, complete with passages between trees to allow squatters to escape the police. The Gerard Winstanley Radical Gardening Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center and Weather Station. (European Chapter), 2000, features a compact bicycle trailer with a library, weather station, and a solar-powered photocopier. A ready-made urban revolt—the project encourages visitors to photocopy books on topics ranging from organic gardening to historical utopian models. Norman’s most ambitious project to date, Geocruiser. The Mother Coach. Zone: Earth, 2001, recently became a moving reality. The mobile public sculpture, described by some as an “Eco-bus,” is currently on a European tour.
Jennifer Allen: Would you consider your work to be public art?
Nils Norman: Projects like the Geocruiser or The Gerard Winstanley Radical Gardening Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center and Weather Station (European Chapter) are specific to the idea of public sculpture, which is a more abstract and complicated discursive space than those of the museum or the gallery. I‘m also very interested in “autonomous” spaces—what the Danish artist Jakob Jakobsen calls “parallel institutions”—that can be used to develop more complicated, multiple practices around context and site-specificity. I’m also interested in mobility. Together with Wowhaus (artists Scott Constable and Ene Osteraas-Constable) and the curator Marina McDougall, I’m developing a mobile form of public sculpture for the Sonoma County Museum in California in March 2002. Called Ecology/Art Expedition Survey: A Sustainable/experimental garden and agricultural projects tour of the Bay Area. Phase: 1, the work is a tour of self-sustaining and experimental gardens and various ecological and agricultural institutions.
JA: Your work has been called utopian, but it appears more suggestive than prescriptive, more humorous than normative. Do you agree with the label?
NN: I am definitely interested in utopian thinking, but as a critical tool, a form of satire and irony, utopia is only one facet of my practice. Trying to actually realize projects like the Proposed Occupation, Redesign, Renaming and Reuse of Nelson A. Rockefeller Park. Battery Park City, NYC, or the Tompkins Square Park Monument to Civil Disobedience, was not my intention at all. They were meant to be more about trying to develop interesting methods of distributing propaganda and information within the hideous boredom of commercial space. I was trying to rethink the way certain spaces and models are locked into business-as-usual capitalism. The “white cube” school of corporate art dealing and its global manifestation in a Chelsea warehouse “style,” for example, is a model that I think should be radically reconsidered.
JA: How did the Geocruiser come about? What do you hope to accomplish with it?
NN: The Geocruiser is primarily a mobile public sculpture. It has a greenhouse built into the back and a reading room in the front. It contains a small library and information center devoted to city gentrification, experimental city design, radical gardening, sustainable design, alternative energy, and utopias. Some people read it as an “Eco-Bus,” but that's just one element of its function as a mobile propaganda machine. Onboard is a solar-powered photocopier and laptop. It also has its own wormery, which is used to compost and recycle organic waste.
JA: Aren’t there several versions of the Geocruiser?
NN: Yes. I came up with the idea when Stefan Kalmar at the Institute of Visual Culture in Cambridge invited me to do an exhibition. I produced four scale models of four Geocruiser combinations. The first was a mobile water filtration reed bed with library and reading room. A second design enabled The Gerard Winstanley Radical Gardening Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center and Weather Station, (European Chapter) [see introduction] to drive out of the rear of the vehicle when the Geocruiser approached more difficult terrain. The final, realized version is halfway through a successful European tour. It has visited museums, gardens, schools, and town squares around the UK, as well as in Berlin and Bonn. In 2002 it will travel to the Galerie für Landschafts Kunst in Hamburg, Germany, the Rooseum in Malmö, Sweden, Stroom in The Hague, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, and the UK. Tour details are available at Institute of Visual Culture.
JA: Can you tell me about the series of large-scale drawing/diagram proposals for redesigning Battery Park and Nelson A. Rockefeller Park in New York? In view of how the redevelopment of the World Trade Center is being dominated by big-money interests, your project seems unusually relevant.
NN: I was trying to present alternatives to the official plans of the Hudson River Park Trust. At that time they were very dodgy proposals benefiting corporate and private interests rather than public and community needs. Economic function superseded the broader social function of what could be an amazing public space. I took existing sculptures like Richard Artschwager's public seating sculpture Sitting Stance and redesigned them. In the case of the Artschwager piece, I made it so that park visitors could lock their bodies into the sculpture to avoid being removed from the park. A “locked-on” person can only be extracted by destroying the sculpture.
Many newly renovated, privately controlled, neo-Victorian-style parks and squares in Manhattan, like Bryant Park and Greeley and Herald Squares, have reached an almost utopian state of efficiency in terms of prioritizing corporate interests over a more democratic notion of “public space.” This form of gentrification makes for clean, safe, and highly lucrative inner-city space, but it also creates social inequalities in who is allowed to inhabit and use it.
JA: You seem to be influenced in some ways by Robert Smithson.
NN: Yes. Some of his subjects are of great importance to me, though not so much the mystic/esoteric elements of his work. I enjoy his constant overlapping and layering of disciplines—of geology, architecture, science-fiction, etc. When I was teaching at Columbia University, I retraced the tour of Central Park in the ’70s he described in his essay, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” [see Artforum, February 1973] with some of my students. It was interesting to observe the radical changes that have been made to the park through renovation. In some respects it is more Picturesque—a key term in Smithson’s essay designating a landscape that retains the changes visited upon it by time and history rather than an idealized one—than ever before, but in a more extreme exaggerated Disney-like way. It was also interesting to see what hadn’t changed in terms of vistas and small rustic scenarios. My research into Smithson, Central Park, Olmsted, and the Picturesque enabled me to make a connection between my ongoing work in city design and a contemporary idea of the Picturesque as an important tool of gentrification.
JA: What projects are you working on now?
NN: Most of my time is now spent on the Geocruiser tour, but I’m also trying to develop an edible playground in a primary school in South London together with Sarah Staton, Emily Pethick, and Simon Bill. This is a large unused garden we are now cultivating. A lot of the vegetation within the garden will be both perennial and edible, and it will hopefully be used as a large outdoor classroom and playground that the children can also eat. I have also recently opened up a space that presents research-based archival/documentary projects in my front room. Shows are only up for a weekend. The program is as irregular and as spontaneous as possible.