Our Town Spotlight on Fargo, North Dakota

By Rebecca Gross
Washington, DC
Artist Jackie Brookner leading a charrette in St. Louis for a community-based design project called Public Art & Ecology: A Watershed Project for The Confluence. Photo courtesy of the artist
Our first Our Town grants were officially announced today, and we congratulate the 51 communities of the program's inaugural year! Our Town seeks to improve community livability by expanding the role of art and culture in civic life. Projects range from new artist live/work space in Memphis to the restoration of the Boone Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, and each presents an innovative, regionally-specific approach to creative placemaking. Today, we're shining a spotlight on Fargo, North Dakota, whose Our Town grant will help transform a stormwater detention basin into a dynamic neighborhood commons. The City of Fargo tapped ecological artist Jackie Brookner to help lead the project, which will serve as a pilot for the renewal of 19 other local drainage basins. Based in New York, Brookner focuses on the reclamation of stormwater and polluted water, and her living sculptures are at once both functional water purifiers and stunning pieces of visual art. We spoke with Brookner about Fargo's Our Town grant, the importance of design in community planning, and the relationship between art and the natural environment. NEA: Please give a brief description of the project. JACKIE BROOKNER: The Red River runs through Fargo, and it threatens to flood or does flood every year. The last huge floods were in 2000; after that in order to create less of a problem, they put in 20 detention basins in neighborhoods throughout the city. If you imagine a big soup bowl, excavated, [they're] that kind of shape—a shallow excavation that's covered with grass in the middle of a neighborhood. They break up the neighborhoods, they're rather ugly, they're barren. When I was invited to Fargo to explore potential opportunities for participatory ecological art related to water, the city manager directed my attention to the detention basins. Concurrently, we scheduled a number of conversations throughout the city. Whoever wanted to show up could show up. I wanted to get a sense of what people thought was great about Fargo, what they thought needed help, where there was room for improvement, what would make the city more exciting. After all of that, looking at the detention basins and hearing folks, I thought that this presented an amazing opportunity to have local citizens experience their own possibilities for creativity. I don't just mean art creativity: problem-solving in creative ways, making positive changes in their own local situations, working collaboratively. We're going to analyze where the detention basins are in terms of their strategic quality within the watershed, and also which neighborhoods seem to be in most crucial need of amenities. We're going to try and get it down to a short list of three to four neighborhoods and then have a kind of mini competition between these neighborhoods to see who can really demonstrate that they are interested in and capable of carrying through a year-long process to create a commons out of the detention basin in their neighborhood. That's where it gets really exciting: people figuring out collectively what this could be. There are many, many possibilities—tons of possibilities—for different kinds of social spaces, different kinds of uses. Once that's agreed upon, there will be a collective design process. The wonderful thing about Fargo is there's a very thriving art and design community there. Part of the project is to create partnerships with the local artists and the chosen neighborhood so that the artists will also be part of this design process. Then people will participate in the building of it. The city will help in terms of things like excavation and earthmoving, but it's again meant to be, to whatever degree possible, a collective implementation project. And then also, [it's] people committing to helping with the long-term caretaking of the space. The idea is to create a real commons in the old sense. We'll be documenting this whole process with film and blogs so that we create a pilot project so that the other 19 of these spaces can eventually be transformed through similar collective process. NEA: What do you hope it will bring to the residents of the affected community? There are really two layers to this: one is this project itself, whatever particular detention pond is transformed. But equally important is setting up a sustainable process with all the resources there—the human resources, the knowledge, and a kind of test-run process—so that this can go on and gradually transform many more places. The idea is that it can be a model for other kinds of situations. It doesn't have to be a detention pond. It could be some other kind of infrastructure or some other local issue. It's really about how do you nurture creative agency in people? I feel our culture is far too passive and malleable and so controlled by advertising and public relations. I think it's very important to have a more active civic population. NEA: This project relies very heavily on community engagement. Is there anything in place to ensure the community remains committed, and is going to be present throughout the process? BROOKNER: There are no guarantees about that. That's part of our job as the people who are leading the project. It's one reason why we're going to have this competition in the beginning to really see where the energy is. Who's got the energy and the insight and the motivation to sustain a long and complex process. Part of what this project is about is understanding all that better. What does it take to maintain engagement, when does it tend to flag, what are the proper rhythms. I don't think it's that different from any individual. We all have our moments when we're highly engaged with something, and then our attention might flag or [we] get distracted. What do we do with ourselves to get ourselves back on track with something? That's going to be really exciting. I like challenges. NEA: Why is it important to have arts and culture at the table when planning community revitalization efforts? BROOKNER: I think it brings a different kind of imagination in. More room for surprise and tapping into the whole person, which means not just a rational approach to community revitalization which is what tends to happen with planning approaches, but approaches which, like art, integrate our rational aspects with our emotional aspects, with our kinesthetic selves, things that are below the level of consciousness. [Art] brings all that together, and taps into all aspects of what it means to be alive. NEA: How do you view the relationship between art and the environment? Why do you think it is important for communities to maintain this relationship? BROOKNER: Art really has the capacity to bring together so many different ways that we humans function, and so many different parts of our psyches. It may be the really painful feelings, or the difficulties of the flood need to be brought into this, and dealt with quite consciously, as also with the life-sustaining and totally necessary aspects of water. So how do we create understanding, full comprehensions of the world we live in that are complex and contradictory? I think art really has the capacity to do that by its nature. I think there's no issue more pressing today than the human relationship to the world we live in, to the natural systems we live in, and to the other species that support our lives. Art has a way of being able to make the invisible visible, and part of its raison d'être is to test limits. So I think that it's crucial right now. We need art as much as we need science, to help us reimagine what I call the being of human, how we exist. One thing I like to say is if we literally can't breathe without trees, where does a tree begin and end, and where do we begin and end? Art can open up questions like that really beautifully I think. And not just ask the questions, but find ways to manifest responses to those questions. We take care of what we care about, and the arts have the capacity to touch our hearts, imaginations, and dreams. I believe if we are going to thrive as a species we need to transform "our caring" at these deep levels. NEA: Is there anything else you'd like to add? BROOKNER: Just to say that Fargo is a great place to be doing this. I was very, very impressed by the creative engagement of people there. And for a relatively small city, how much creative energy there is there. I?m excited to engage with that, and very honored that they wanted to support this vision.