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The Way Potatoes Go

A potato patch initiated by Åsa Sonjasdotter as part of EATLACMA, a year-long investigation into food, art, culture and politics curated by Fallen Fruit at LACMA, USA, 2010.

The potato is a domesticated plant that was developed into edible varieties by a long history of human interaction. This is a complex process involving knowledge exchange on multifaceted levels. Only recently has such knowledge become a target for claims of ownership. The question of access to knowledge when it comes to the breeding of edible plants is especially interesting since it also involves power and control over sustenance and livelihood. For the EATLACMA gardens, I made a survey of potato varieties grown in US that, for various reasons, it is impossible to claim ownership of – they belong to the cultural commons.

Breeding plants is a cultural activity. It makes sense to reflect upon it in the context of an art institution. While preparing my contribution to the EATLACMA project I became interested in the hosting institutions’ own relationship to cultural production. The
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the largest public art institution in California, though its public status can cause confusion for visitors since most of the buildings and artefacts have been privately donated. The LACMA puts a so-called “mini-didactic sign” next to each donated item informing visitors of, in the following order: the name, birthplace and birth date of the artist, the title of the artefact and when it was made, the materials used, and finally, the name of the donor. I followed the logic of these “mini-didactics” in the title format of my contribution:

The Way Potatoes Go
Worldwide, 8000 BCE – present

A Potato-Perspective on a Cultivated Matter, 2010

The following potato varieties are growing in this field in the order listed: All Blue, Ozette, Pink Fir Apple, King Edward, Lumpers, Cow Horns, Garnet Chile, Early Rose, Burbank Potato, Russet Burbank, All Red, Ajawiri.

Ownership of these varieties cannot be claimed since they are, for a variety of reasons, part of the cultural commons. The cultural context of each of these varieties presents models of things and knowledge that do not involve ownership. The thread of each variety’s development can be followed on the EATLACMA website.

This project was initiated by Åsa Sonjasdotter (Sweden, 1966, living in Norway and Germany) with great help from gardener Lora Hall (living in Los Angeles, USA), and Katrina Quisumbing King at ANDES, (Cuzco, Peru, founded in 1995) and Curzio at the Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, Iowa, founded in 1975), and with kind support in potato farming expertise from Yvonne Savio at UC Cooperative Extension's Common Ground Garden Program, (Los Angeles, USA, founded in 1978).

Because potatoes were originally domesticated by Andean farmers, the potato garden was planted on the plaza by the Art of the Americas Building in the LACMA campus area. Inside the Art of the Americas Building, each artefact is presented with a sign explaining its authorship and ownership, even though most of these historical objects were not originally made in the context of such relationships. Outside in the potato field I planted varieties that, for various reasons, have no owner: All Red’s contemporary breeder shares the variety freely on the Seed Savers list; Ozette is an ancient Andean variety that Maka Indians obtained when Spanish explorers brought it to the Washington State coast in the 1800s; the Burbank was developed in the late 1800s when there were no patent laws to protect it, so it can never be claimed, and Ajawiri’s custodians in the Andean highlands made an agreement with the National Gene Bank in Peru on legislation that prevents the patenting of their varieties. The “mini-didactic” sign presenting my project invited visitors to look into the EATLACMA website for more information on the stories behind the different varieties growing in the garden and the culture of shared knowledge they represent.

The EATLACMA project culminated in a participatory harvesting day (Let Them Eat LACMA) where the potatoes were harvested, cleaned, baked and finally tasted. A folder of the varieties’ narratives was printed and handed out for the occasion.

The Way Potatoes Go folder >>

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Photos by Åsa Sonjasdotter