Over the past year, Japanese artist Aki Onda has been visiting East Village community gardens and making field recordings for his project "Silence Prevails: East Village Community Gardens During the Pandemic." (Find the video here.)
Although now back in Japan, his project has recently gone live, and I was able to talk with him about his work, the inspiration behind the project and what’s next for him.
I had an idea to do a project about the East Village community gardens for many years, although it took a long time, nearly two decades until I could work on it.
I started visiting NYC around the end of the 1990s and often stayed in the East Village. Back then, the area was home to artists and musicians. I had many friends and it was easy to hang out with them as well as sublet their apartment. I also loved watching avant-garde cinema at Anthology Film Archives, spent hundreds of hours there and met Jonas Mekas.
His film "Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania," which I watched in Tokyo in 1996, had a tremendous impact on my life and art practice. So, it was a big deal for me to meet him. I would visit him at his office, and he would offer a drink to toast even if it was morning. Then, we would go to lunch at his usual Italian restaurant nearby, or Mars Bar.
Mekas organized two exhibitions of my photographs at the Courthouse Gallery in the basement. I donated a couple of large-size prints, and in return, he gave me a small print of his still image, which I still have. I met so many filmmakers while I spent my time at the AFA, and that helped me to absorb the Downtown culture.
I found community gardens such as Albert’s Garden, Liz Christy Community Garden and 6 & B Garden around that time. Each had a very distinctive character and I sensed there was something to look into. My favorite was La Plaza Cultural, although the garden itself was rough around the edges and unpretentious, I found it a cheerful and festive space.
Much later, I learned that the garden was founded by Carlos "Chino" Garcia and fellow local activists. Their associations with Buckminster Fuller and Gordon Matta-Clark, and the intersection between art and activism, was also inspiring.
My work, both sound- and visual-based, are often catalyzed by and structured around memories —personal, collective, historical. So, the community garden was the perfect subject, and slowly over the years, I kept visiting those gardens and learning historical backgrounds.
Finally, I decided to embark on the project in 2019 and there was a strong twist. The original idea was to document the gardens by making field recordings, taking photos, and writing texts through the four seasons from spring 2020 to winter 2021.
However, the pandemic swept the globe, and as of March 2020, New York was its epicenter and under full lockdown. GreenThumb made a decision to close all community gardens until further notice. Only members were allowed to enter, and my project ground to a halt.
Nonetheless, I thought it could be interesting to document the gardens in these unprecedented times and began contacting individual gardens directly. In the end, I visited around 25 gardens in spring and summer 2020. Spending time in the gardens was somehow comforting. Those are sparsely populated outdoor spaces and there is low risk of catching the virus.
And, if I look back to the past, those gardens started as "green oases" by local residents when the city was going through a severe financial crisis in the 1970s. This was the hardest hit area with many low-income residents, and buildings descended into ruin. In that traumatized neighborhood, there was a strong need to improve lives and find sources of hope.
Somehow, in the midst of COVID-19 crisis, though it’s a different type of crisis, I saw a sort of cycle and thought it’s worth researching and how those garden spaces changed over the last half-century.
What was the most surprising thing that happened while you were recording?
When I was recording in Campos Community Garden, suddenly the wind blew, and the wind chimes hung from a tree, started making beautiful sounds and vibrations. It lasted until I pressed the stop button.
What were the reactions of others as you set up your equipment and recorded sound and images?
I use a handheld cassette recorder, only with a cheap attached microphone. It’s low-key and not like a high-end digital recorder with a fluffy expensive shotgun microphone attached to a long boom. The presence of my equipment is unobtrusive and people feel less uncomfortable. Taking photos is a bit different, and I usually ask them to get permission first as I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.
What’s next for you as an artist?
I'm preparing my solo exhibition titled "Letters from Dead Souls" at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) in summer 2021, and as well as a few other upcoming exhibitions.
As for the community garden project, luckily, I developed good relationships with core members of the community garden movement during my research. It's a deep subject and there is a lot more to dig into. I'm planning to continue the research for the next several years and expand the project for another opportunity. Let's see what comes with it...