Friday, 1 May 2009

What's in a name?

Mary Paterson considers the meaning of 'Rooted in the Earth' by Joshua Sofaer.

This article originally appeared on the Rooted in the Earth website.

In Victorian England, public parks were festooned with blocks of riotous colour. Carpet bedding – the practice of planting brightly coloured flowers into patterns – was a popular way of creating floral displays. The designs could also spell out an explicit message, and, where the practice continues today, carpet bedding is often used to represent flags, community emblems (like the logos of football clubs) and civic shields.

This summer, the artist Joshua Sofaer is going to create five new carpet bed displays, with the help of residents in the London boroughs of Greenwich, Hackney, Stratford, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest. Rooted in the Earth is one of two projects supported by the first Bank of America CREATE Art Award, designed to engage with people who live in the five boroughs that will host the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. Sofaer is inviting people who live in these areas to nominate someone whose name they’d like to see spelt out in a carpet bedding display. The five winning names will be planted up and unveiled in the summer as part of CREATE 09, the annual arts festival taking place across the region.

But what will the names actually mean? Any name could be nominated – your friend, a member of your family, someone who is already well known. But can an individual be contained within a name? Famous names (like Mahatma Ghandi, say, or Princess Diana) resonate with the residue of the person who owned them, but only because they link up with fragments of information from elsewhere. In fact, the resonance comes from the person who recognizes the name and can link Mahatma Ghandi to the country he was born in, for example, or the words that he said. This means that a name is just one part of a network of ideas, which becomes meaningful in connection with the rest of the world. And this poses a problem for Rooted in the Earth because, for the majority of people, the planted names will not link up with any other information – they could be the names of private individuals, strangers that you don’t know. Each nomination may be submitted with an explanation of up to 250 words, but even this will only tell a small part of the story.

In fact (and fittingly), the answer to this question lies in the name of the project itself. Rooted in the Earth is not only embedded in the literal earth of public parks, but it is also rooted in the metaphorical earth of the local community. Nominations for the competition will be encouraged from people who live in the boroughs where each name is to be displayed; the flower beds will be planted by a team of volunteers from local gardening clubs and allotment organisations; and, planted in public parks, the names will be maintained by local councils for public use. In this way, the final displays will not simply stand for individual members of the community, but will also represent the joint effort of nominating names, of building beds, and the communal act of viewing. While on one hand the names shown in Rooted in the Earth will be plucked from the local communities of Greenwich, Hackney, Stratford, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, on the other hand, the process of Rooted in the Earth will highlight the workings of the communities as a whole. You might even say that the communal acts encouraged by the project will help build communities in the first place.

This focus on collaboration and community is particularly relevant given the role these five boroughs will play as ‘hosts’ to the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. Preparations for the Games are well underway, and obvious in, for example, the massive building projects taking place across the region. Already part of the landscape of east London, the Olympics will be absorbed into the lives of its residents in ways that are impossible to predict. Creating a platform for local residents to choose their own representatives, as well as a process through which the community itself comes into view, Rooted in the Earth offers a gentle counterbalance to this period of rapid change driven from the outside (driven by the planning decisions of the Olympic committee, for example). Waxing and waning over time, the floral displays act as a metaphor for the ways that groups of people change and grow: like plants, communities absorb the nutrients of their environment and adapt accordingly.

Rooted in the Earth also confronts the Olympics in a more direct way, as an alternative model of rewards and prize giving. In 2012, east London will be occupied by hundreds of elite athletes, specialists who travel the world in order to dedicate themselves to competition. There are big prizes at stake: medal winners at the Olympics do not only win bronze, silver or gold, but can also expect a lifetime of lucrative sponsorship deals, media appearances and celebrity. It has not always been like this. In the early Olympics, winners were rewarded with a single laurel wreath, and until 2004, Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs – individuals who did not earn money from their sport. In this Olympic context of concentrated, individual achievement Rooted in the Earth presents alternative role-models, manifest through the values of shared co-operation and understanding. Perhaps Rooted in the Earth is a platform for a different kind of heroics: one that is tied not to the individual but to the community, not to elite achievement but to shared goals, and not to competition but to collaboration.

And yet the individual focus of elite sports and, more precisely, of the advertising that grows up around it, is not a true representation of reality. Like the names displayed in Rooted in the Earth, great sportsmen and women are also the product of a community – a community of trainers, supporters, fans and sponsors – which blooms inside a system of competitions like the Olympics themselves. In fact, Olympic athletes, when they stand on the podium to receive a medal, occupy the same conceptual space as the names displayed in Rooted in the Earth: they do not just stand for an individual, but also attest to a whole body of support (a community) that acknowledges the individual’s special importance, at the same time as it allows him or her to thrive.

This is not to say that Rooted in the Earth is a straightforward emblem of all kinds of ‘community.’ For one thing, not all of the connotations of flowers and gardens are easy to understand. In Victorian times, for example, flower arrangements were used to send messages between people in secret. Inside this precise and detailed system, a red carnation means, ‘my heart aches for you’, and a striped carnation means ‘no’. Will the displays in Rooted in the Earth respect the language of flowers, and, if so, how many people will read them? In fact, the project’s double allusion to Victorian negotiations of private and public space (through the symbolic use of flowers and, specifically, carpet bedding) has its own problems. The Victorians held some beliefs about public duty that don’t seem reasonable any more – beliefs governed by strict rules about class and gender, for example.

There are also more contemporary confusions involved in Rooted in the Earth. The project is structured around a competition, and it is not clear what criteria the judges will apply. In this respect, Rooted in the Earth alludes to the talent shows and phone-in programmes on prime time TV – formats where the public is invited to submit to a judging panel, who represent a kind of expert common sense. But those formats are often cruel or deliberately misleading about the people that take part; they work on the assumption that the process of the competition is more important than the individual involved. Is this the other, darker side of community? A system that can suppress one person in the name of an unchallenged, collective authority?

As well as an act of community building and a representation of community heroes, Rooted in the Earth could be a system of coded messages, a reference to unnamed authority or a conquest over the agency of the individual. But the point of Rooted in the Earth is that none of these ideas replaces the others. Oscillating between the duties and codes of the Victorian era, the international event of the future Olympics, and the local interests of east London residents, Rooted in the Earth does not dictate its terms of engagement, but suggests a number of ways that an audience can take part. In fact, by presenting a wide collection of references and allusions, Rooted in the Earth comes closest to mimicking the productive life of an actual community. It is not the meeting point (for instance, a visual display, or a club house) that creates a network of individuals, but the individuals who continue to build and cherish the network itself. Rooted in the Earth is not a fixed set of rules, but a continuous process of negotiation. In this way, perhaps it is a model for civic life itself: negotiation that grows and reaches out to the future, fed on its ties to the past.

Anyone from anywhere in the world can suggest a name. After the competition closes on 22 May 2009, a panel of judges will choose five winners from the names and reasons submitted, one for each of the participating boroughs. 

The winning nominations will be displayed as decorative flowerbeds in parks and green spaces across Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, the five host boroughs of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.  

Rooted in the Earth is a Bank of America 2009 CREATE Art Award commission to artist Joshua Sofaer, who devised the concept for the competition and installation. It is part of CREATE, an annual arts festival across East and South East London.

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