Fritz Haeg in the orchard of Salmon Creek Farm, photo by Katja Mater

Makers of their own time - Chapter 1: Salmon Creek Farm - Fritz Haeg

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021
Fluidity

Metropolis M's research fellow Jessica Gysel presents the first text in a series on alternative forms of cooperation and collaboration in queer & feminist cultures. Her first contribution is devoted to Salmon Creek Farm which was founded by Fritz Haeg in California.

As founder and editor of Girls Like Us magazine, a queer and feminist arts publication, I have been interested in artist collectives and collaborations for years. Their ways of working and living are deeply rooted in queer and feminist culture; countering patriarchal principles such as ‘ego’, ‘individual’ and ‘genius’, they offer alternatives to the current and crushing culture of capitalism. I think one can learn a lot from them; what do concepts like economy, currency and identity and also art mean when you look at them from this more collective point of view? And how to do things in your own paceH, outside the pressures of the market?

And what can they tell us about ‘the system’? Quite a lot of artist collectives have a troubled relationship with both the institutional and the commercial art world. The work they make is often not object-related, making it complicated to sell. Selling work, however, is often also not really what is at stake for them. At stake is the possibility to embody a different kind of practice: a shared one, focused on doing things in one’s own rhythm, often with one’s own means, outside of the institutionally subsidized or commercial circuit. Or at least minimizing one’s involvement with it: making money by selling art only to invest it in one’s projects again immediately. But does this really work? And how to achieve this?

Since 2017 I have been visiting artists slash activists in their own designed biotope on a regular basis. I want to hear their stories, not only to explore their ideas, but also to provide tools and assemble some kind of best practice list.

Not everyone I interviewed identifies as queer, nor does everyone work completely collectively. But every one of them shares a drive to create their own place, away from the institutional and commercial world. To create a project - often but not always from scratch – which attributes equal importance to the (research)- process and the final result. A project that is inclusive, carried out –and built!– by many different hands. A project that is perhaps also more intuitive, leaving space for failure, imperfection, doubt, and self-care. Safer spaces of beauty are never fully finalized. They are being shaped step by step while constantly, and endlessly, being adjusted.

Hello Salmon Creek Farm!, photo by Katja Mater

CHAPTER 1: SALMON CREEK FARM

I start my trajectory with artist Fritz Haeg, who is in the process of converting an old hippie commune into a cultural complex: Salmon Creek Farm in California. The American West coast (and America at large) has a long history of communes and alternative life forms, and this is exactly what Fritz has in mind. He has spent years looking for a suitable piece of land to realize his life's work: a community of mainly queer artists.

Fritz's work as an artist - architect has always focused on community building and collaborations, often commissioned by museums and institutions. In his artistic practice he never made marketable objects, so his 'earning model' was different from most artists right from the start. He has also never worked with a commercial gallery. In 2000 he created the Gardenlab, a project around community gardens that he rolled out over 10 years plus at various institutes all over the world.

In 2006 the Sundown Salon saw the light of day, a dome somewhere in the hills around Los Angeles, which served as a gathering place and stage for other artists and performers. But the temporary dome turned out not to be satisfying enough, Fritz wanted a more long term and sustainable project, and after selling the dome to an institution, he gathered enough starting capital to finally buy his own piece of land.

Salmon Creek Farm Orchard, featuring cabin 1, Orchard, Fritz’ home, photo by Katja Mater

The Triangle aka magic deck next to Cabin 8, Salmon, photo by Katja Mater

After a long search, he was tipped off in 2014 about Salmon Creek Farm, an old and abandoned hippie commune in Albion, 200 km north off San Francisco. When he visited the estate it was love at first sight. The negotiations took some time (even though none of the original owners still lived on the property, several people still had a say – negotiating with a collective of owners was not easy) but eventually his offer was accepted. A couple of intensive years followed in which Fritz, with the help of friends & strangers, started the process of gradually restoring the place.

When we meet there he tells me that just a month before he has discovered a new cabin on the terrain. Many parts of the estate are still completely wild and overgrown, he explains, and he is confronted with some kind of challenge every day. It was as if the terrain wanted to reveal itself very slowly, waiting to see exactly what he intended to do before letting itself be completely known. Fritz tells me that these first years will focus mostly on the physical effort needed to transform the place into one that can house and welcome a community; later on he hopes the place will enable other activities to take place. The community will have a fixed core of visitors who ideally would visit regularly and participate with dance, performance, writing and reading.

Pruning the giant Redwood (understatement), photo by Katja Mater

Pruning the giant Redwood (understatement), photo by Katja Mater

I ask him about his motivation for this project, and his decision to withdraw from the art world. For him it counts as ‘a super logical step’. All his life he has been interested in the real basics of everyday life: cooking, cleaning, building, gardening and producing his own food. He’s always been interested in questions such as 'where does our food come from?’, ‘who grows these vegetables?’ and ‘who cleans the kitchen?’. For him these are not just rhetorical questions. He seeks to find the answer by putting the questions into practice; by embracing a radically downscaled lifestyle that throws all unnecessary junk overboard.

From this perspective, Salmon Creek Farm was only a natural next step to take in life. It was also the most radical one, he explains. SCF is more than a full-time job; he hardly has time to do any other art projects, let alone exhibitions.

I personally think it’s a great idea; to leave the institutionalized art world, or ‘system’, behind and create an environment where people from this world come to visit you instead of the other way around. On your own terms and with the unexpressed intention to let the visitors help build the place. Because that is, of course, part of the deal.

SCF does not really generate income; everyone pays a small fee (a voluntary contribution) for the stay and helps with the work. Think of gardening, pruning trees, building a sauna together, composting, taking turns in the kitchen. I wonder how one can keep such a place going financially in the long run?

Fritz’s credo for this (and his credo for most of his practice) is trying to get as much as possible out of the limited resources available. He says to have been very inspired by the actions of the young hippie university dropouts who built the domain in the sixties. They constructed everything with found material. They were incredibly inventive and also very self-sufficient.

From all the things I experienced at SCF, I have the most fond memories of the cabins. One cabin Fritz shows me was designed and built by an thirteen-year-old boy with the help of his mother. None of the original inhabitants had a degree in design or anything; all the cabins have been built very intuitively. While staying there, there were a couple of experiences that struck me as very special: going outside to use the toilet and composting it afterwards; lighting my stove every day (I was there in February); taking a shower in the cold, outside air and finding my way through the pitch-dark forest to the communal kitchen. Ever since this experience I am not afraid of the dark anymore.

Cabin 6, River, photo by Katja Mater

Cabin 2, Rainbow, currently renovated, photo by Katja Mater

Anyway, back to the topic of money. Fritz does not believe in subsidies or support from businesses, foundations or art fairs. He thinks this kind of support creates a completely different dynamic, and that you can never make the place your own. For him, money solves far from everything and that is exactly the problem in the contemporary art world. That so much money circulates, and it's not clear where exactly it comes from, and who controls it. It all becomes very abstract. SCF wants to show that things can be done differently. That you can extract from this incredibly complex and opaque economical system by undergoing a process of enormous simplification. At SCF there is no exchange of money but only a pure exchange of help and free time for becoming part of the community, because after all, that's what this is all about.

SLIDESHOW - Detail from cabin 1, Orchard, Fritz’ home, photo by Katja Mater

Cabin, photo by Katja Mater

Cabin interior, foto Katja Mater

Cabin, photo by Katja Mater

DOuche, photo by Katja Mater

Terrace, photo by Katja Mater

Lunch, Katja Mater

But one thing should me made quite clear: SCF is not a utopian place, no matter how beautiful and ideal this all sounds. The word ‘utopia’ sounds all too modernistic in Fritz’s ears - echoing the idea that you can do things ‘all over again’. In reality, you can of course never truly start from scratch. You will have to work with limitations, obstacles and compromises. A well-thought-out and nuanced process, in which things are organized and adjusted slowly and step by step, is essential for any such project The fact that everyone is so preoccupied with the idea of creating an utopia says a lot about how things currently stand in the (art) world, Fritz continues. The art world is a very much an urban world anyway; focused around a few big and influential cities. This causes alienation, and a longing for nature, a kind of wilderness and simplicity.

These longings might sound naïve. But after twenty years of facing and being surrounded by overproduction and love of spectacle in the art world, one longs for something else. For a different kind of involvement, away from the over-professionalized and over-capitalized world. Away from the fact pace and high thresholds that mark art institutions. And perhaps most importantly, away from the MFA's and other diplomas that are apparently needed today to become an artist, or at least to be taken seriously as an artist.

A love for amateurism and for ways of learning that leave room for failure and experimentation is rediscovered. A desire for randomness, too.

In recent years people from all walks of life have been flocking to SCF, as if it is a new place of pilgrimage. Some visitors are old friends and collaborators of Fritz, others are people with an (artistic) practice that closely matches what SFC proposes. Practices that involve wildlife picking, gardening, picking and fermenting, but also yoga, performance, and all kinds of body/mind-like practices that flourish in an environment of like-minded people in perfect isolation. But there are also people who just want to help with building, concreting, renovating, and cleaning.

Fritz Haeg and Jessica Gysel at work, foto Katja Mater

Sorting wood, photo Katja Mater

Since I visited a few years ago, SCF has undergone thorough transformation. A sauna and a deck for dancing en performance have been built, the communal cabin now has a large outdoor kitchen, a greenhouse and some new cabins have been added, and other cabins have been further renovated. Many hands make light work. In recent years there were also workshops for black, queer and non-binary people, who have one cabin (called ‘Dawn’) completely for free and permanently at their disposal.

It is nice to see that if you create the right environment and conditions, people are naturally attracted to come out and help. SCF can be seen as an experimental school, one where people are not paid to teach, and where young people can learn something from the older generation, but also vice versa.

SCF also challenges the traditional system of work vs. play. There is enough to do, and many activities are hard work, but you are never obliged to participate. Work and relaxation seamlessly flow into each other; I’ve spent a whole afternoon weeding and it was one of the nicest things I've ever done, just saying.

When I speak to Fritz in November 2020, he says that SCF has been running at full speed in recent years, with a continuous flow of people. A busy schedule with all kinds of activities distilled from open calls and other proposals. Never a dull moment, basically. But then Covid-19 arrived and since then everything turned tranquil.

At the moment there are hardly any external visitors, but the people who were present when the pandemic started stayed and now there is a more or less permanent group that lives at SCF. It’s an on-going challenge to figure out how to keep things running financially, but so far it works. Every guest pays a small monthly contribution and every Saturday the group works on chores together.

And Fritz? He’s a full-time carpenter and woodworker now (something he always wanted to learn), and he’s writing a book of his experiences and thoughts on building SCF. He says he doesn't miss the art world at all, and that he's so happy that Salmon Creek Farm has its own timeframe. He hopes to keep it that way.

To be continued...

ANNEX 1: THE WHOLE EARTH CATALOG ETC.

My guiding tool for this research was the American counterculture magazine The Whole Earth Catalog, originally published in 1968. Especially its subtitle, Access to tools & ideas, resonated with my intentions.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be handed some kind of tools that help to shape our lives? That help us in becoming resourceful on our own? That guide us in building makeshift furniture and houses, or creating an orchard? And learn us more about legal self-care, plant-empowered drugs and mysticism?

The Whole Earth Catalog tackles all of these topics. From ‘Whole Systems’ (think: Astronomy, I and Thou, Grasslands, World Biomes), to ‘Land Use’ (Farming Philosophy, Edible Landscaping, community Gardening, Bees), ‘Community’ (Tactics, Mediation, Gay Politics – this was pre LGBTQI+), ‘Household’ (Christopher Alexander, Earth Building, Living Simple, Home Security), ‘Craft’ (Japanese tools, Weaving, Spinning, Dyeing, Leather, Bookbinding), ‘Livelihood’ (Money, Personal Finance, Funding), and finally ‘Health’ (Medical Self-care,, Sexually Transmitted, Disabled, Adoption), Nomadics (think: Good Guides, Portable Boats, Caving, Paying Your Way), Communications (think: Symbols, Language, Books on Cassette, Satellite), Learning (Single Parenting, Home Schooling, Lifelong Learning), and finally a chapter called Gate Five Road about the Whole Earth Catalog’s genesis.

Digging a bit further I found the New Woman’s Survival Catalog (1973): a feminist interpretation of the Whole Earth Catalog tackling subjects such as art, abortion, marriage, divorce, auto-defence and related topics – all in a D.I.Y. and accessible manner. A tour the force that was collected and written in a mere 5 months!

Possibly even more impressive is the Circle of Lesbian Indexers, led by Clare Potter and active between 1970 and 1986, which covered subjects such as Black Lesbians, Coming Out, Hotlines, Menstruation, Softball and Transpeople. [1]

 

ANNEX 2 – SCF CATALOG

In 2018 – after 4 years of renovation Fritz published the Salmon Creek Farm – The Whole 2018 Catalog (rings a bell?) in which he spells out the aim for the project. An excerpt:

To commune, compost, construct, convene, converse, cook, clean, climb, create, cultivate, dance, design, eat, engage, drop in, drop out, garden, gather, inquire, labor, lean in, lean back, listen, make, mend, move, nurture, organize, perform, plant, play, prune, read, reflect, resist, surrender, see, speak up, share, sing, smell, sow, step back, step up, touch, tune in, tune out, taste, quiet down, walk, wonder, watch, wonder, work, write…

ANNEX 3 – CEDAR CABIN

As I write this, one of the cabins, CEDAR is rented out for $750 a week, for a minimum stay of 2 weeks, providing a small income to this quite precarious project.  

ANNEX 4 – FOR THOSE WHO DO WANT UTOPIA

For those looking for more background on the utopian communes of California, here are some books worth exploring.  

The most entertaining in my opinion is Paradise Now, by Chris Jennings, published in 2016, telling the story of American Utopianism. Exploring movements such as the Shakers, New Harmony, the Fourierist Phalanxes, Icaria and Oneida, all of which were actually founded by European emigrants who could build their own world on the vast American lands.

If you want to go even further back in history, Mark Holloway wrote Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880, published in 1966 (a forerunner of the 1968 revolution).

I got very inspired by Doing it in Public, about the Woman's Building in Los Angeles, which has slogans ‘Scratch Pink and it bleeds' on its inside cover and 'The personal is political' on the backside.

The most recent publication is In the Canyon Revise the Canon, edited by Géraldine Gourde, published in 2015 by Shelter Press.

[1] For more info, look at the amazing work done by Cait McKinney, especially their publication Information Activism, A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies, 2020 (Duke University).

THE RESEARCH FELLOW IS SUPPORTED BY THE MONDRIAAN FUND

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021