Q & A: Bonnie Ora Sherk and the Performance of Being

Bonnie Ora Sherk is a San Francisco and New York-based environmental performance sculptor, landscape architect, planner, educator, and founder of A Living Library, a project that engages communities in creating unique ecological transformations. Sherk’s varied projects are united by her interest in cultivating what she calls “the human and ecological garden”: connecting people to new expressive landscapes such as the multicultural diversity and natural ecosystems that surround them. This approach is manifest in her “life-scale environmental and social artwork,” Crossroads Community (the farm) and in her more recent work with A Living Library that calls attention to, and rehabilitates, San Francisco’s Islais Creek Watershed.

In her public art practice, Sherk has staged performance-based interventions that bring the experience of nature into unexpected locations, presaging the current interest in “pop-up” architecture and parklets. As a pioneering Conceptual artist in the seventies, Sherk sat in a chair for hour-long intervals in various parts of San Francisco (Sitting Still Series); ate lunch in a cage at the zoo (Public Lunch); and brought turf, palm trees, picnic tables, and live farm animals to San Francisco streets and freeway ramps (Portable Parks 1-111). Documentation of these interventions is currently on display in State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970; the BAM/PFA presentation closes on June 17, after which the exhibition travels to other venues.

It’s really quite remarkable how your early performance art of the seventies has blurred into your other work and activities, even today. Do you consider your current activities, such as A Living Library, your art?

Yes, it is so interesting that my early work and current public practice is synergistic and evolutionary, one thing leading to another. Everything that I have done in my life and art has led me to develop A Living Library, A.L.L. for short. I put together all the things that I love and A Living Library is what emerged. I do think of A Living Library as an artform: it is a powerful framework, a series of methodologies and strategies to make relevant, ecological change in communities and schools. The goal is to systemically integrate local resources—human, ecological, economic, historic, technological, aesthetic, all seen through the lens of time—with community programs and interdisciplinary, hands-on curricula. Performance has evolved to become community participation in a place, so whole experiences are created. A.L.L. is a replicable model that is practical and provides unique solutions for diverse places that also function as beautiful learning environments for all ages. A goal is to develop Branch Living Library & Think Parks in diverse places of the world that will be linked through Green Powered Digital Gateways, so we can experience the commonalities and diversities of cultures and ecologies, near and far. I also think of my work as “Funcshuional Art,”, a term I coined that marries the east and west with north and south. Funcshuional Art is a planetary genre that I am working on. A Living Library is an example of Funcshional Art.

You’ve described the Sitting Still Series as the “original Occupy.” Can you explain?

In 1970, I was exploring the nature of performance and the diverse environments, created or found, in which it could occur, and what constituted an audience. I found an unusual environment: an area where garbage and water had collected because of the construction of the Army Street Freeway Interchange. In the middle of this garbage area was an overstuffed armchair facing the slow-moving traffic. When I saw this site, I immediately realized that this was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how a seated human figure could transform the environment by simply being there. I went home and changed into an evening gown and came back, waded into the water, and sat in the chair for some time, facing the audience of people in the passing cars. I then took this simple idea of how a seated figure could transform the environment to diverse locales: Mission and Twentieth Streets; Church and Market Streets; the Financial District, both at California and Montgomery and in the Bank of America Plaza (which is what I call the original Occupy because of its prominence as the financial center of the area); the Golden Gate Bridge; and diverse indoor-outdoor cages at the San Francisco Zoo. The Sitting Still Series then culminated in Public Lunch in the Lion House at the San Francisco Zoo.

How did passersby react to you? Did they respond the way you expected?

People were curious. I did not have a preconceived idea of how they would respond, except that I thought that the situation that I was presenting at that time was an unusual juxtaposition, perhaps strange, and a bit surreal. 1970 was a very different cultural moment than 2012. In today’s world, this kind of imagery is more commonplace.

I’m fascinated to know how you managed to get the San Francisco Zoo to allow you to each lunch in a cage next to tigers and lions for Public Lunch. It seems like that would be impossible today. How did that arrangement come about?

I had already completed the Portable Parks piece and had successfully borrowed animals from the San Francisco Zoo for Portable Parks 111. That was an extremely positive event with great press and community support. Because of that, the zoo personnel knew me and were more amenable to my request to sit in the various indoor/outdoor cages, and eventually have lunch in one of the cages adjacent to the tigers and lions in the Lion House. My guess is that it was probably the first time they had ever had to respond to such a request, so there were no protocols in place to say no. Fortunately, they said yes, and were extremely cooperative. The lion keeper, especially, was very helpful and supportive. He served me the human meal during the public feeding time on a Saturday at 2 p.m., when the public knows that the animals are being fed. I was one of the animals.

In some ways your Portable Parks series predicted the current trend for parklets and urban agriculture. I’m curious, what did city officials and others think of these initiatives at the time?

Again, this was completely unusual at the time, and I think people were intrigued and had no protocols in place to say no, so they said yes, because they had no real reason to say otherwise. I remember vividly having to get an “encroachment permit” from Caltrans for the freeway where it crossed Market Street for Portable Park 1 on for the concrete islands adjacent to the Mission/Van Ness offramp for Portable Park 11. I went with the prominent architect Piero Patri to visit the director of Caltrans. His name was Mr. Hart. On his desk was a small, framed drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge tunnel on the Marin side with a painted rainbow. At the time he was contemplating whether or not to pursue that imagery for the tunnel, and he asked my opinion as to whether or not he should go forward with that painting. Of course I said yes, and when I saw that he was even considering that makeover, I knew that he would agree to give me the necessary permit for Portable Parks. Mr. Hart had vision, a sense of humor, and a big heart. It was an amazing time! Very different today.

I know you are passionate about restoring the little-known Islais Creek Watershed in San Francisco. One of your seventies performance pieces Sitting Still I was actually staged in a site facing the northern frame of the Islais Creek Watershed. Is this purely coincidence or did your artistic interests lead you to learn about the existence of the creek?

This is really extraordinary, extremely powerful, and was completely intuitive! I now think of Sitting Still 1 as my watershed piece with all its multiple meanings and many implications. In 1970, when I originally made the piece, I had no idea that I was facing my future: the site of what would become Crossroads Community (the farm), which was located at the convergence of the Islais Creek and two others—Precita and Serpentine—and the whole northern frame of the Islais Creek Watershed—Cesar Chavez Street (formerly Army Street) and the 101 Interchange. And I realized years later that I was actually sitting in water from the Islais Creek that had surfaced because of all the construction!

For me, this demonstrates the power of art and its spiritual dimensions, and also the power of water. By being in my own alignment, I intuitively was magnetized to this site to do this work. This power and energy has continued over decades in unusual ways: In 1998, for example, I found myself at James Denman Middle School in the Excelsior. The principal of the school had heard of A Living Library and asked if I would begin one there. I said yes, and during the master planning process, we found some old maps. One of the Sanborn Maps from 1907 clearly shows the Islais Creek running under the adjacent Balboa High School. At that moment, I knew I was still working in the same watershed. But this was not by design; it was completely synchronistic. I was being guided by some other powerful force. And currently I am working diligently to showcase the Islais Creek Watershed and demonstrate the extraordinary opportunities that I see to link the eleven communities that are interconnected by the watershed, and create a new expressive narrative landscape to delineate it, including daylighting the Creek where possible. As a preliminary initiative, the Bernal Heights Living Library & Think Park Nature Walk is underway on the south side of Bernal Heights, linking two schools, two parks, two public housing developments leading to the hidden Islais Creek at the south side of St. Mary’s Park, and Alemany Dwellings. Already we have planted about seven hundred California native trees in this Living Library nature walk, and we are poised to continue. This is just the beginning opportunity!

Can you talk a little bit about The Farm? How did it come about?

For me, envisioning Crossroads Community (the farm) was an epiphany, and developing it was an extraordinary adventure. When the 101 Freeway Interchange was completed and opened in 1974 (the same site that I had faced in Sitting Still 1), and the old Borden’s Dairy was razed by its new owner, Knudsen, I could see all the rich opportunities afforded by all the available open spaces, including a cluster of derelict buildings for rent. I immediately envisioned Crossroads Community in its full flower and multiple, interrelated potentials. I was completely inspired and thrilled. I remember visiting the site with Jack Wickert, a musician who was interested in finding rehearsal space for diverse performers and we decided to rent some of the buildings. I named it Crossroads Community because it was that: literally and figuratively. I saw it as a place for cultural transformation, and the phrase “Your City’s Cultural Karma” came to my mind and was part of the first poster made for the farm. For me personally, it was the coming together of so many elements that I had been working on and dreaming about: connecting disparate land fragments adjacent to and including the freeway interchange and transforming them from separate concrete “dead spaces” into an interconnected, living, ecological wonderland; juxtaposing the technological and nonmechanized forms of nature—the freeway and the farm; linking four communities where the freeway had severed them; creating a place for people to come together with plants and animals; creating a place for people to experience the native intelligences of diverse species of animals; creating The Raw Egg Animal Theatre (TREAT), an indoor/outdoor magical learning environment for children (and adults) that was also the home of the farm animals; creating a place for different kinds of artists to come together; creating a place for diverse cultures to share; creating a place of collaborative community to learn about natural systems, each other, and art. On a very personal level, it was also for me the performance of “Being.” At this time, in my continued explorations about the nature of performance, I realized that the ultimate performance was being a total human being. So that is what I began then, and I am still working on that piece. At The Farm, I performed many roles: director, politician, administrator, designer, gardener, fundraiser, educator, artist, cook, etc. I believe I also got my Ph.D. in Life at The Farm. It provided an amazing and challenging set of experiences and was full of everything—good, bad, and in between.