Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study


Description of Project

The format of the project is as follows: students in the class divide into groups of three each. Ideally the three members of the group live in fairly close proximity to each other, as the idea of the groups is to be neighborhood based. Groups can vary in size depending on class size, but three seems to be the ideal target. Once students have formed the groups, each group begins to explore the neighborhoods in which they reside or neighbor, in search of unused or neglected spaces. These dormant spaces will eventually be transformed into working spaces, by means of group involvement. Groups will pick their location based on some of the following considerations: visibility, accessibility, history, use, etc. Calvin students discovered a wide range of unused spaces from vacant lots to train tracks, from community centers to downtown intersections. The variance in site character contributes to the overall complexity of the project. In preparation for searching for these sites, class discussions center on psychogeography and the derive (aimless drift), experience and exploration (1).

Once locations have been chosen, each group begins to inhabit their site during class time. The activity will differ from group to group, some starting seeds, some preparing earth, some researching, some theorizing, some collecting, and always a particularly unique experience. During the Calvin College Plant! project, some groups would meet for meals or coffee during sessions, some would make acquaintances with neighbors or passers-by, and one pair began walking lines, treading the earth in service of form. A requirement was made in terms of the acquisition of materials: aside from seeds, groups could only use materials found within a two-block radius of the site. This requirement enhances site specificity and encourages involvement with neighboring businesses, residences, and institutions. This requirement also introduces alternative economies, appropriate technologies, and place based resource investigation. Groups’ work develops as gardens are cultivated, sculptures are constructed, earth is moved, collections are maintained, irrigation systems are devised, and spaces are transformed into places. As the meetings continue, the groups begin to realize their own identity, an identity formed by community, and one formed by place awareness and engagement. 

The activity of each group is documented online by means of a group blog (2). This form of documentation seems most appropriate as it can be updated in close to real time, and can allow for photography, writing, video, drawing, and contextual positioning via hyperlink. The blog format also allows for a public viewership to be part of the conversation via comments. This is really important to the spirit of the project, as the conversation is so focused in the content of the piece. Blog technology is also quite accessible to students, so it can be expected of them as a means of documenting their participation and level of engagement. As an evaluation tool, the blog becomes equivalent to the created object, the record of process, decision-making, query, and risk. The art, however, lies elsewhere, and this can be the subject of one of the many interesting discussions surrounding this project. After a number of weeks of these work sessions, the project culminates with public viewing. The gardens are on display! The public viewing can happen in a number of different ways. Van tours, bike tours, walking tours, maps, pamphlets, and catalogues are all among the possibilities. A central information station is another possibility, and this can be imagined in a traditional gallery space, alternative space, commercial or institutional space, or a public space via mobile technology.


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