Industrial Harvest

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

Sarah Kavage: Industrial Harvest

Since 2008, Seattle artist and urban planner Sarah Kavage has been exploring the world of commodities trading and its influence on Chicago’s history, farming, and what we eat. This past summer she was in Chicago, inserting herself into this system in a learn-by-doing experiment to discover how an abstract “wheat futures” contract connects to real wheat, real food, and real people. She purchased a 1,000-bushel futures contract on the Chicago Board of Trade and also bought 1,000 bushels of real commodity wheat.

After getting the wheat milled into flour, she began giving it away to food banks, soup kitchens, farmers markets and the like, encouraging people to nourish others with it and send her documentation. In preparation for this project, she visited Chicago several times collaborating with InCUBATE’s person-in-residence program at the Congress Theater,  Nance Klehm’s Urban Homestead and working out of Mess Hall as an artist in residence in September. Kavage presented some of her initial research for this project in a map entitled “A Geography of Illinois Wheat” for the 9th issue of AREA Chicago. Now we catch up with her to talk about what her summer has been like.

industrial harvest


Interview by Daniel Tucker:

Why are you doing the project here?

The way I see it, the history of Chicago and the Board of Trade is so unique that the project could not take place anywhere else. The Board of Trade is the largest commodities and futures exchange in the world, and it had a significant influence on Chicago’s development into a hub for trade. To be a trade hub, you need three things: A steady supply of goods moving in and out, a transportation network, and a marketplace or means of exchange.

Back around when the Board of Trade was established (the mid-1800s) Chicago had all the pork bellies, wheat, and lumber coming from the rural areas around it that could be sold to buyers further east. The city “fathers” used all their political pull to consolidate rail lines in Chicago, they changed the drainage of an entire river system, and they invested in other supportive infrastructures like the stockyards and grain elevators in strategic locations near that transportation network. The Board of Trade was how buyers and sellers were connected, and transactions took place. These three factors all reinforced each other over time to decisively establish Chicago as a primary hub. Even today, over 30 percent of the country’s freight goes through Chicago. It’s a big middleman of a city.

Is there anything about the arts in Chicago that drew you here?

I didn’t realize when I started this venture that Chicago had such a history of socially engaged artwork and learning that was really inspiring. Throughout this whole process, I’ve been really encouraged by all the people and organizations here not only doing fantastic work but creating a history and a language around it. All of this was especially inspiring and validating, but total coincidence (synchronicity?), because even if it were an entirely different scene, I would still have come to Chicago to do the project.

People in Chicago (the ones I interact with, anyway) are super intellectually engaged but in a practical, grounded way. It’s so straightforward and Midwestern – enough talk, what can we actually do about this? Maybe I relate to that approach because I grew up in the Midwest, but it seems so balanced.

How much on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most) do you know about the way commodity crops are traded on the futures market?

I want to answer 5 because that’s how much it feels like I know based on what I knew before (0). But when I consider everything about the topic that I don’t know I don’t know, the correct answer is probably about a 2.

What is an example of interaction you’ve had giving out flour where you were really able to talk about the speculation on commodity crops that happens at the Board of Trade and have a kind of pedagogical moment?

Futures trading is tough to explain, especially if you don’t know all that much about it yourself. I gave a talk to the students in an artisan baking class at Kendall College culinary school this summer. And as I was telling them about the futures markets – and this seems to happen pretty consistently – I could say that some of them were getting it and some were utterly glazing over. Then one of the students asked me to tell them precisely about my futures contract and that transaction, and once I explained what actually happened to me, they began to get it. So I’ve been doing that more and more. Something about telling one’s own personal experience, as opposed to the theory, seems to make it comprehensible.

And when I think about it, that’s part of why I did this experiential project as opposed to just doing a bunch of research and writing an article about it.

What is an example of the interaction that you’ve had giving out flour that totally surprised you?

Earlier this summer I was part of an art show (“Women in Grains”) in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. It’s a small town about 4 hours outside of Chicago in an agricultural area. I gave away flour as part of the opening reception, most of it to older folks and families still farming. Now, with “city people” and the art crowd I’ve often had to spend a lot of time explaining what I’m doing with this project, and why. But these folks just took it in stride. Of course, they are affected by these systems all the time, so it makes perfect sense. But I thought they would be thrown off by the fact that I’m calling this art, or imagine doing something like this was really weird, but they just got it intuitively. There’s something about the futility of being a small farmer these days that I really relate to as an artist – you are continually slaving away, working other jobs, busting your butt for no money because it’s a part of you and your identity. So perhaps these folks and I were on the same wavelength more than I expected.

What has been the hardest part about this project?

Trying to come up with the money to do it. I am very cynical about the funding structure for the arts; it just seems like everything else these days where there are very few folks on top with all the money and all the attention, and everyone else is just fighting over scraps.

It becomes hard not to be resentful. Ultimately, I decided not to rely on grant funding – the timeframe was just too long, and the process is so opaque and uncertain and not really designed to support something that’s political and cross-disciplinary. I ended up doing a funding campaign (which is still going on) and self-funding the rest. So I’ve had to do it on the cheap, I’m not getting paid for my time, and I’m still in the hole financially regarding covering my expenses. But I’ve been able to do it exactly the way I want, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the generosity of people. I also find it really funny that the point of this project is to “de-commodify” this commodity and to do that I have had to obsess over money all the time.

I didn’t expect it, but on a very personal level, this project is becoming all about generosity. I’m doing this Robin Hood thing, giving away all this flour, but I’ve received so much from people. All kinds of gifts. And that’s just been really special. Sometimes I think the act of asking for and giving help is one of the cornerstones of a properly functioning society. By asking for help, you make yourself vulnerable, and allow another person to demonstrate their goodness. We don’t do that so much these days – I think people feel pressured to be entirely self-reliant and independent. Otherwise, you’re a failure.

What’s been the most rewarding part of this project?

I have loved getting to be a voyeur – interacting with all these amazing people doing amazing things. It’s really inspiring.

How do you intend to present this project when it is complete? Is it more about the process or creating an artifact that communicates the full complexity of what you are up to?

At the moment, it’s all about process, but I have been documenting as much as I can just to remember it all. I am going to assemble some sort of photo book/compilation of essays/recipe book at some point.


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