Stephen Urchick

Potted Plants, Public Parks

“(Provisional) Park” problematizes houseplants at the Co-Prosperity Sphere

For artist Allyson Packer, there’s a lot more than soil in the pot of a houseplant. “I really like to think of them as little, tiny pieces of land,” she said, “that are kind of moving throughout the city.”

Land implies histories, strategies of use and care, and a pretty firm distinction between what belongs to one guy and what belongs to another. Packer’s latest art installation, “(Provisional) Park,” unites nearly a hundred of these sovereign plots around one idea: the rhetoric of possession and public space.

Now up at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport, her work recasts personal plots of earth, the well-loved leaves and tendrils sprouting therein, as a collective experience for everybody’s enjoyment. It’s a plan that has stretched feelers across a growing community of contributors, and it’s also shot deep roots through Packer’s own daily living.

Admittedly, the pitch for “(Provisional) Park” sounds simple enough: turn what’s nominally an art gallery into a respiring, photosynthesizing green space. The Co-Prosperity Sphere will operate on the same policies as the Chicago Park District for a month. Packer’s “(Provisional) Park” is open from six in the morning to eleven in the evening. Kids and dogs are welcome. Patrons are expected to dispose of their waste in the designated trash and recycling receptacles.

The proposition ultimately materializes as a jungle of ferns and potted palms, mosses and cacti arranged sculpturally across repainted and repurposed furniture. A tent and picnic tables chill in the place of plexiglass display cases and pedestals. Jump ropes on metal hooks grace the walls as opposed to minimalist canvasses. A few UV-generating grow bulbs shine brightly from the overhead track lighting. There are even prospects of putting in a basketball hoop and a swing.

“Maybe,” says Packer, slitting her eyes and squinting at the ceiling, “there’s somewhere good for load-bearing in here. Somewhere.”

However, this description shortchanges “(Provisional) Park.” Staring at a kumquat sapling for ten minutes won’t make Packer’s journey to fetch it and care for it, or her plans to return it, any more or less visible. The little white placards Sharpied in with each plant’s hometown are only the slightest point of departure for telling the whole tale.

The vast majority of the plants that define the “(Provisional) Park’s” greenery have been borrowed. Packer jokingly considers the request to loan that clover on your windowsill to a gallery space for four weeks just weird and quirky enough to succeed. She remains amazed that local Bridgeporters, other Chicagoans, fellow artists, and arts institutions have banded together so readily to furnish her with foliage. Some plants come from as close as neighbors of the Co-Prosperity Sphere, others from large, institutional gardens (Plants, Inc. in Lincoln Square, the University of Chicago greenhouses). Some have arrived from as far away as a ranch in Kansas.

“I have a carbon-paper receipt pad,” explained Packer. “I write them out a receipt for everything they’re loaning me. They get a copy, and I get a copy.” At the end of the month, the owners will either gather their plants from the “(Provisional) Park” or arrange with Packer to have them dropped off at their doorstep.

“It’s been a lot of driving,” Packer laughs.

However, she hardly considers the journeys, or the meticulous organization needed to make good on her vows of safekeeping, too burdensome. Appointments for pick-up and drop-off are opportunities to satisfy the curiosity that drives her art.

“I haven’t even had to ask anyone about their plants,” she said. “They want to tell you the story about how they got it, or where it came from, which has been really cool, I think.”

The visits become pretexts for peeking into different spheres of experience and encountering people from whom she might not otherwise get the chance to hear.

“I like seeing where they came from, and what people’s spaces are like!” Packer says.

Every carload of domestic shrubbery Packer has imported into her “(Provisional) Park” comes down to her in a thicket of history. Each plant has a unique provenance, betokens a promise and a future transaction. The plants also require that Packer seriously accommodate herself—over the month of the exhibition—to their particular upkeep.

She shrugged. “Yeah, it’s just me and a watering can.”

The burden of hand irrigation, the need to physically superintend the “(Provisional) Park” for the Chicago Park District’s generous operating hours, translate into a heroically mundane obligation. Packer’s been gripped in the tendrils of her own ambitious social practice.

“I’m having to establish a new rhythm in my life for this month while I’m taking care of all these things,” she said. “More than any other project I’ve ever done!”

The theoretical punch of “(Provisional) Park” hides out in the role that Packer plays to make the show happen. One of the initial prompts for the project, according to Packer, was the sudden scarcity of public space in the wintertime. Sleet and snow had made her realize just how much she—and a vast number of citizens—relied on those spaces (for reading, for relaxation, for socialization). In trying to engineer a park using the gallery as a petri dish, Packer grew attuned to the elements that characterize free and open sites.

Civic engagement shimmers through the sheaf of carbon-paper receipts she holds. They’re living documents of an interest in collective creation. Moreover, the sheer energy Packer will commit to keeping her “(Provisional) Park” open is a kind of political will.

The undertaking proves that Packer means what she says when she claims interest in the implicit social contracts surrounding the public-private divide.

“I think for me the most satisfying moments artistically are,” said Packer, “when the art kind of blurs—when the line is blurred between the art, and my life.”

Packer’s art is built around a public policy. She creates an apparatus where the tensions between private life and that public policy lie a little closer than usual to the surface of perceptible, daily experience. “(Provisional) Park” isn’t just a goofy call for office-desk succulents. It asks, instead, if its visitors aren’t themselves much more than walking, talking pots of clay—if they haven’t been curated through a series of understated relationships with the city of Chicago at large.

Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219-21 S. Morgan St. March 6 through April 3, daily, 6am-11pm. provisionalpark.org.

Correction March 10, 2015: An earlier version of this article stated that Plants, Inc. is in Logan Square. It is in Lincoln Square.

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