A traveling farm spectacle educates
on the origins of our food
By Claude Smith
Edible Carnival, Rolling Field, 2019, pipe, steel, trailer wheels, rubber, wheat, burlap, coir, stilts, weed whip, solar panel, plumbing, water, 6 x 17 x 12 feet. Photo by Russell Bauer.
Minutes after walking through the front door of Russell Bauer and Ayrton Chapman’s Los Lunas homestead, I see that Bauer is eagerly fanning out a few sheets of graph paper on their dining room table. His hand-drawn blueprints show an awning that will provide a covered outdoor work space. Bauer and Chapman—normally early risers—are already taking a break and coming back inside for a second cup of coffee by the time I arrive early one Saturday morning, and I can tell they are keen to get back to their work. As we walk outside to survey the construction area, Chapman says, “We’re really excited about the possibilities for creation that this space will give us,” gesturing to a roughly twenty-by-twenty-square-foot concrete pad beside their house. Nearby, there’s a flatbed trailer loaded down with twenty-foot-long oil well stem tubes and a couple of massive I-beams destined to become the joists for the roof. As I scan the yard for some kind of machinery that would be capable of lifting these hefty beams, Bauer seems to read my mind and says, “We’re going to build a crane on the back of my truck to rig those guys into place.” For the time being, six lonely poles demark the outer perimeter of the workspace that will eventually shelter fabrication equipment and tools, along with the ever expanding fleet of interactive sculptures that comprises the Edible Carnival, a project that bridges agriculture, ecology, art, and technology.
A rural New Mexico homestead might not seem like the most opportune place for two art school graduates, but for Bauer and Chapman, this was the most logical outcome they could have imagined. “I’ve wanted a farm since forever—probably since I was a little kid,” Chapman says as we walk the perimeter of their almost two-acre backyard. Between discussing natural uses for invasive plant species and composting, and pointing out the varieties of eighty-something fledgling fruit and nut trees that they planted the previous seasons, it’s clear that they both know a thing or two about what they’ve gotten into. As we watch their dogs wander just out of view behind some overgrown tumble brush, Bauer recalls having a crisis of conscience and walking out of an undergraduate class on biotechnology at Michigan State University. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says, shaking his head. “The ethics were compromising and there are so many problematic things about food and food systems in this country that I realized I couldn’t work for ‘Big Ag,’ but I realized I could make art that was kind of about it.” Bauer eventually finished his undergraduate work at MSU with a degree in art and then enrolled in the University of New Mexico’s Art & Ecology program, where he found himself returning to food and food-related issues time and time again.
As an undergraduate at the University of North Texas, Chapman, whose early primary interests included analog photography, felt increasingly unsatisfied and limited by the medium and started making videos centered on food and consumption, along with collages rooted in what has often been considered “women’s work” and the perceived roles of women in domestic spaces. Performative aspects naturally evolved into the work and she found herself headed in an entirely new direction. It was while visiting UNM as a prospective MFA student that she first saw Bauer’s work. “I didn’t know anything about Land art or Art & Ecology, and I was walking around the art building and saw the kinds of things people were making and was like, ‘That guy!’” Chapman recalls, laughing. “I didn’t know who he was, let alone even what he looked like, but all I knew was that was the kind of work I wanted to be engaged with.” Coincidentally, they hit it off and began to collaborate on various projects, eventually turning the bulk of their attention to Bauer’s brainchild, Edible Carnival.
Comprising a series of mobile interactive sculptures, Edible Carnival began as a wildly conceptual, ambitious idea that presents the possibility to grow and prepare foods using a variety of contraptions that take their cues from carnival-type games and attractions. Bauer’s MFA thesis project, entitled Livestock, proved generative by laying the foundation for much of what was to come. It included three hanging hydroponic pods equipped with LED lights that grew wheat grass during the month it was on view to the public. Bauer outfitted the pods with cameras and custom electronics that sensed movement; if a viewer got too close, it prompted the pods to recoil or pull away. As a culminating event, aerialist performers harvested the wheatgrass while dangling above the ground, pressed it, and passed out the juice to viewers to enjoy.
In 2016, after receiving funding from the Fulcrum Fund—a regional regranting program of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, administered by 516 ARTS, that supports experimental, artist-led projects––Bauer designed and created Rotisserie Rickshaw, the first attraction in Edible Carnival. As the name implies, the piece co-opted the portability of a hand-drawn cart and combined it with the rotating spits of a fire-roasting mechanism as a means of cooking food. A mobile grill housed inside half of a five-gallon propane tank uses convection hot air to turn a turbine and rotate the spit. Bauer’s design harnesses excess heat as it dissipates through thermoelectric generators to power LED lights. “It’s the kind of thing you see on the street and people just gravitate to it,” Chapman says, “Russell is there just cooking vegetables and explaining the technology and people just love it.” One of the core aspects of the project is accessibility—to both food knowledge and technology. Bauer’s designs are all publicly available for download as open-sourced plans, theoretically replicable by anyone with tools and some building knowledge.
Earlier this year, Bauer spent a month in Nebraska while in residence at the Sandhills Institute, where Chapman joined him to complete Edible Carnival’s largest and most ambitious sculpture to date. The Rolling Field consists of an elevated cylindrical support wrapped in a twelve-by-twelve-foot length of burlap or “field” coated in sphagnum moss, which serves as a substrate for growing plants. A solar-powered watering system provides regular irrigation to the interior of the cylinder which, in turn, causes the cylinder to rotate as the moss-and-burlap substrate becomes weighted with water. Bauer designed and fabricated the piece mainly using scavenged and repurposed steel from a variety of sources, including an old flatbed trailer, oil well stem piping, and various ranchers’ scrap piles. While the piece is intended to be mobile, moving it requires some serious effort. Chapman, gesturing to the massive sculpture in their yard, says, “Sure, moving this thing around is hard, but what we want to convey is the excitement that comes with putting something in the ground and enjoying the fruits of your labor, because that’s the fun part.” The Rolling Field is not only a spectacle, but a conceptual work that pairs the idea of sustainable agriculture with the possibility for integration in urban settings where access to garden space might be more limited.
In late 2019, the duo secured a second grant from the Fulcrum Fund to expand the project further. They are conceptualizing the next phase of activities as a play on classic carnival games, adaptable to virtually any location––festivals, bars, or public parks––as a means of connecting with diverse populations. Chapman names two projects that are in various stages of development: Popcorn Plinko, a custom Plinko board equipped with a hot air popper which will challenge participants to catch as much popcorn as they can, and Grass-Roots Claw Machine, with which, instead of stuffed animals or plastic toys, participants will attempt to grab herbs or local seed mixes. In both cases, produce used in the projects will be grown and harvested directly from Bauer and Chapman’s farm. Chapman has become an advocate of gardening and sees it as a logical entry point into their work, saying, “It made me so happy to come out in the morning and just harvest stuff from the garden, and in a lot of ways, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with the Carnival––trying to marry the joy of agriculture, learning about plants with the interactivity of the artworks, and bringing that to the public.” For Bauer it’s all about the interactions that he has with participants and creating atmospheres to facilitate dialogue regarding food and power systems in our country. Recalling his experience in that fateful biotechnology class at MSU, he says, “The professor was heralding advances in genetic engineering—mainly splicing ethanol genes in corn, and making crops more bug or pesticide resistant—but here there are millions of starving people and these industrial farms are being paid by the government to turn food into fuel, or farmers are buying these GMO seeds that produce crops that are less appetizing to bugs. If bugs can’t eat it, imagine what it does to us!”
For Bauer and Chapman, art and art making aren’t just something that gets completed in the studio. While they both also have talents for traditional fine art practices and make objects that could satisfy conventional notions of art, they are constantly bringing art into other aspects of their daily lives. Fed by relentless creativity and ingenious desire to use all the tools and knowledge at their disposal, they strive to create a multi-sensory experience that translates their passion and excitement for working with living systems. Art has become so integrated into what they do that at times it’s difficult to see where the art ends and “regular” life takes over.
Whether it’s building complex architectural projects at home or strategizing what to plant to improve the soil pH at their farm, Bauer says, “I think it’s the process of continually learning how to do new things and being pushed in new directions that make this [Edible Carnival] in particular so exciting for us.” Considering the variety of work in which they are invested, one can’t help but be compelled by their confidence and enthusiasm to dive headfirst into their pursuits. In a way, their own mutualism has evolved to be perfectly suited for the kind of work Edible Carnival requires, each bringing something unique to their collaboration. “From the get-go, I’ve never really thought of Edible Carnival––this traveling farm spectacle thing––as something that is necessarily possible,” Bauer says, laughing. He goes on to clarify but is quickly interrupted by Chapman who enthusiastically offers, “This is where he and I disagree. I’m always like, ‘This is going to happen, there’s absolutely no question that we can do this!’”