How Fallen Fruit is Changing the Art World & Life in LA

How Fallen Fruit is Changing the Art World & Life in LA

Michael Herren
July 1 2015

Fallen fruit: It’s a visual, evocative, nearly palpable phrase fecund with groves of meaning and metaphor. A Hollywood talent agent might see a Loveboat of actors ripe beyond their close-ups, sinking on the rocks way past prime time. A fire-and-brimstone finger-wagger would likely envision a spiritual descent steeper and even more perilous. A philosopher would perhaps ponder lost opportunity, whereas a supersize corporate farmer would almost certainly decry laxity while fearing lost profits.

Artists David Burns and Austin Young however, see nothing but positives: Fruit as a delicious, nutritious, at times viscous bounty that symbolizes abundance and generosity, intercommunal exchange, and social collaboration; a nonpolarizing connector that transgresses culture, class, race, nationality, age, and epoch—and which serves as the fruitful media through which they hope to change the topography of the planet and improve the geography of your mind, all while making organic, vitamin-enriched snacks readily available, too. Judging by the success of “Endless Orchard,” the duo’s most ambitious project to date— which this month grows into one of the largest collaborative art projects in the world (and it’s just in its sapling stage!)— they’re well on their way.

What exactly is this incredible fruit cocktail, and what’s its recipe?

First, take a healthy pinch of inspiration…

The collaboration germinated in 2004, when cofounders Burns, Young, and fellow artist and cofounder Matias Viegener (who exited the group in 2013) responded to a call for proposals fromThe Journal of Aesthetics & Protest—a call that came with an intriguing curveball. Basically, as Burns explains, the crux-in-question was: Is it possible to create a project that engenders positive social momentum that isn’t in the form of opposition, as protests or activism typically are?

In response, the trio scrutinized their own Silver Lake neighborhood. What they confirmed was nobody walks in LA. What they discovered were pedestrian-challenged streets lined with fruit trees laden with ignored produce, all free for the picking, all seemingly invisible in plain sight.

What they then asked themselves was: Is it possible to explore a place in a way that’s more meaningful or magical, and if so, how could that be encouraged? “We were interested in getting people out of their cars, to interact with their environment directly without the mediation of a windshield or cell phone,” says Young, age 49, who hails from Reno, Nevada, and has lived in LA for decades, studied painting at Parsons in Paris, and has a practice across many media, including photography (he’s captured the likes of Debbie Harry, Leigh Bowery, and Amy Poehler in his signature pastel palette; and you might recognize him from recurring appearances on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Gene Simmons Family Jewels). The exercise also led them to question how “California art” differs from art from other places. “We decided that California art, and maybe LA art in particular, was really fun and unpretentious, and when we were starting off, we really had that in our minds. We wanted to keep that tone,” Young explained in a TEDYou talk at TEDActive 2013.

For their project, which they titled “Fallen Fruit” in reference to the Bible’s book of Leviticus (which decrees that fallen fruit on the edge of a field should remain unharvested so as to feed the stranger, the poor, and the passerby), the trio drew a map of all the fruit trees growing in or over public space, such as streets and sidewalks, in their immediate Silver Lake environs. They also took a series of stylized, humorous photographs of themselves advancing their fruitfilled agenda and wrote a manifesto exploring the concepts of public space. “We learned there is no definition of ‘public’ in US law. There’s no language for that,” says Burns, a 44-year-old LA native with a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts, an MFA from UC Irvine, and who, in addition to his arts and curatorial practices, has held faculty posts at CalArts and California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

“[Our frst Fallen Fruit project] was going to be a one-off, a one-time thing. But it was picked up by the press quickly… Then we got ambitious about it.”—David Burns

Interesting, undoubtedly. But is it, uh, art? “‘Fallen Fruit’ was at the forefront of social practice in LA,” says Allison Agsten, the public engagement curator at the Hammer Museum, referring to a fresh and vigorous iteration of an arts medium also known as “public practice,” “socially engaged art,” and “nonmaterial art,” in which the lines of object-making, activism, performance, community invol ve ment, and even investigative journalism blur and blend to create immersive environments and participatory results.

With this first project completed, the three artists intended to return to their own individual practices. “It was going to be a one-off, a one-time thing,” says Burns. Except that’s not what happened. “That first little action,” he adds, “was picked up by the press quickly and was on the radio within a couple weeks after being published. Then we got ambitious about it.”

Next step, select your choicest fruity ingredients, throw ’em in a bowl, and mix, baby, mix!

In short order, Fallen Fruit started to grow… and grow fast.

Public fruit maps sprouted in other LA neighborhoods, such as Sunset Junction, Venice Beach, Larchmont, and Sherman Oaks; spread around the Golden State; colonized other urban centers in other states; jumped North American borders; and crossed oceans. Each map is online, readily available, without copyright, free. And according to Burns and Young, every mapped neighborhood has since seen an increase in numbers of fruit trees, additions the duo attributes to the maps’ agency in focusing people’s attention, raising consciousness, and planting the seed of a bigger vision that builds on what’s already there. “The maps are symbolic. They don’t have addresses; they don’t tell you when the fruit is ripe. They instead invite you to walk through a space and reconsider it,” says Burns.

Additional ongoing projects include the wildly popular “Public Fruit Jams,” collaborative happenings in which the public is invited to bring homegrown or street-picked fruit, to sit with people they don’t know, and, without recipes but with general guidelines, work together to make jam from whatever fruit they have in hand—with every participant leaving with a free jar of the sweet stuff (a “Public Fruit Jam” is planned for August in Pasadena); spirited “Neighborhood Infusions,” in which fruit picked in a particular locale is infused in vodka to get to the “essence” of a place, in which docents (not bartenders) offer an enlightening tipple to the of-age public; “Lemonade Stand,” where participants are offered an organic glass of lemonade in exchange for a selfportrait on a lemon with black-ink marker (a “Lemonade Stand” will go up sometime this summer at City Hall in Downtown LA); and “Fallen Fruit Factory,” in which the public collaborates to make eye-popping images created in an almost automatic process (think Arcimboldo on acid). “We create tasks, and there’s no right or wrong way to do what we invite people to do,” says Young. “There’s no fail,” adds Burns.

Other branches of Fallen Fruit extend to group shows, residencies, and one-off projects across the US and the globe, from north of the Arctic Circle to South America, from Australia to Athens; as well as solo exhibitions at museums and cultural institutions, including the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), the Hammer Museum, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

To give a taste of how bananas (and oranges and avocados) these fruit-packed extravaganzas can be, consider the project’s yearlong residency at LACMA in 2010. Titled “EATLACMA,” it included an exhibition that reorganized pictures, paintings, and sculptures in the permanent collection according to the fruits depicted in the respective works and then hung the pictures and paintings against a wallpaper made by Fallen Fruit. “It was generated by photos of all the fruit we picked in the streets in LA on one day,” says Burns.

The residency then culminated on a single day when over 50 artists and collectives reimagined the entire museum, galleries, and grounds—resulting in such fruity actions as a massive tomato fight, an electronic melon drumming circle, an interpretation of Josephine Baker’s famed banana dance, and a selection of the food served to prisoners in California’s jails. Called “Let Them Eat LACMA,” the series of tasty spectacles smashed the museum’s attendance records.

And then there’s “Endless Orchard,” the project’s biggest endeavor to date, which got extra juice as a seedling as the recipient of an extremely competitive  Creative Capital Award in Emerging Fields . Says Ruby Lerner, Creative Capital’s executive director, “The panel that selected them was enthusiastic about their project as an exploration of food and public space that truly engaged local communities.”

The roots of “Endless Orchard” stretch back to “Public Fruit Tree Adoptions,” an ongoing project Fallen Fruit launched in 2007 through which hundreds of bare-root fruit trees have been distributed for free through art spaces or cultural centers to residents throughout LA. “Recipients sign adoption papers promising to care for the tree, and we, of course, encourage them to plant the perimeter of their property so a part of that tree goes to feed their family, and part of the tree goes to feed the public,” says Burns, who underscores that after fruit trees are established, which takes approximately three years, they’re drought-tolerant.

“We’re asking everyone to participate, to plant a fruit tree for public consumption… It’s the largest collaborative art project in the world!” —Austin Young

This correlative concept—increasing the amount of publicly accessible fruit trees, ergo increasing the amount of public fruit—was expanded in 2013 with the dedication of the  Del Aire Public Fruit Park , California’s first public fruit park (located in Hawthorne near LAX). Fallen Fruit planted 27 trees in the park itself and distributed 65 more in the surrounding blocks. “You don’t have to be an art historian to get it, to have an immediate connection [with the park and fruit trees], and that’s what matters at the end of the day,” says Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles Arts Commission, which provided financing. “Expanding people’s ideas about what art can be, that’s one of the most joyful aspects of this project.” The idea was then enlarged even further with last year’s “Urban Fruit Trails,” an ongoing project in which walkways through underserved areas of the city are lined with fruit trees.

All of which leads to “Endless Orchard.” “Ultimately, that’s exactly what we want to create: endless orchards,” says Burns. While there are hopes for projects in urban centers the world over, for now the vision centers on Los Angeles: its goal, to connect urban fruit trails with public fruit parks and the pockets of already-existing fruits trees to create uninterrupted ribbons of fruit-bearing verdancy— which, in turn, will change the nature of the city by bringing back nature. “We’re asking everyone to participate, to plant a fruit tree for public consumption and then map it,” says Young, explaining that these fruit trees will be marked online in mapping systems similar to Google Maps, and that this data will then integrate with already existing databases into the largest single-source map of public fruit trees in the world. “It’s the largest collaborative art project in the world!”

“And it’s such an LA project,” says Burns, his enthusiasm infectious. “Its approachability, its cheerfulness, its politeness, its complexity under an apparent simplicity.” He’s not just talking about “Endless Orchard,” but about Fallen Fruit as a whole. It’s a description—and a mission—that fits Los Angeles snug as an orange rind.

To contribute to the “Urban Fruit Trails” project, go to  fallenfruit.org/urbanfruittrails