April 18 2012 12:00 AM

Broad Museum infiltrates the soil with the launch of 'The Land Grant'

What would happen if Fritz Haeg, the L.A. artist/gardener and (literally) groundbreaking author of “Attack on the Front Lawn,” brought his message of liberated land use to the only university in the nation with a turfgrass library?

The culture shock of the ultramodern Eli and Edythe Broad Museum springing up at agricultural-rooted Michigan State University has already been compared to a spaceship landing in a cornfield. Little did we know the infiltration would start from the grass roots.

If “The Land Grant: Art, Agriculture, Sustainability,”  a new artist residency program to be launched this week by the Broad, is any indication, art can speed the plow — and divert and subvert it — in ways yet unimagined in East Lansing.

The Broad Museum building isn’t set to open until late September, but curator and Land Grant project mastermind Alison Gass is already thinking outside the steel and glass box.

A series of between-the-cracks “art as social practice” public events will launch the Land Grant project Friday and Saturday, inside the temporarily reclaimed husk of the defunct Barnes & Noble bookstore across from the museum.

“I love the example this sets in terms of finding art in uncommon places,” Gass said.

It begins with a Friday screening of “The Greenhorns,” a film about young farmers, with producer/director Severine Tscharner Fleming on hand to answer questions.

At 3 p.m. Saturday, there will be a town hall discussion with the first Land Grant artists in residence, Amy Franceschini and Fritz Haeg, along with Laingsburg farmer Alex Bryan and a slate of sustainability-conscious MSU brains, from landscape planners to organic gardeners. From 5 to 7 p.m., a community party is planned, with local food, beer, music and art.

The idea for a major mashup of art and land use came to Gass as soon as she came to MSU last fall and began to take in spectacles like Beale Gardens, the agricultural pavilion, the surrounding farmland, and, yes, the turfgrass study center.

Right away, she wanted a program that would graft the university’s land-grant history with 21st-century sustainability issues — a concern she found in common with professors across several departments. 

While Gass was a curator at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, she got to know the work of Amy Franceschini, founder of Futurefarmers (a wry riff on the Future Farmers of America) a San Francisco-based artist-activist collective.

“She did this amazing community garden in San Francisco City Hall and a series of sculptures you could use in a garden that we bought for the museum,” Gass said.

Gass also enlisted Haeg, the kind of un-hierarchical, all-over-the-place artist Gass wants the Broad Museum to showcase. His projects turn up at places like the Tate Modern in London and the Whitney Museum of American Art, but he isn’t above popping in on Martha Stewart’s show to talk about his “edible estates.”

Haeg’s manifesto echoes that of Gass and the Broad, with its ambitious talk of “bridging audiences of artists, architects, environmentalists, foodies, urban planners and typical homeowners.” 

Where is the art in all of this? In your mind, mostly. Although Land Use artists-in-residence may or may not produce physical objects like Franceschini’s garden sculptures, Gass suggested that their work is closer to conceptual or performance art.

“They work in the medium of social activity, whether it’s farming, building, and teaching,” she said. “They’re doing things people do every day; they’re just framing them in an aesthetic and philosophical context.”

Haeg’s “edible estates,” for example, is mental amalgam of what gardens are and what they are not.

“If we see that our neighbor’s typical lawn instead can be a beautiful food garden, perhaps we begin to look at the city around us with new eyes,” Haeg wrote in the book. “The seemingly inevitable urban structures unravel as we begin to realize we have a choice.”

The art of art-ifying life, a primary tenet of much contemporary art, extends to the choice of venue for the Land Grant kickoff. Gass was saddened to see the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Grand River Avenue close Dec. 31, only a few weeks after she moved to town. 

“Part of what I want the Land Grant project to do is reactivate senses of what spaces can be,” Gass said. “I love the idea of seizing a single moment in this building’s long life and totally changing its meaning for a minute.”

Gass and her team are already scanning for more ways to infiltrate and art-ify the surrounding university and community. Maybe farmers can reciprocate by sneaking into the Broad Museum and growing a few radishes before Jeff Koons takes notice.

‘The Land Grant: Art, Agriculture, Sustainability’

Sponsored by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum

7 p.m. Friday, April 20:

Screening of "The Greenhorns," 107 South Kedzie Hall, MSU

Saturday, April 21:

333 East Grand River Ave., East Lansing (former Barnes & Noble space)

3-5 p.m. Town hall meeting to explore what The Land Grant means for MSU.

3-5 p.m. Students for the Broad Art Museum present farming and sustainability activities for kids of all ages.

5-7 p.m. Indoor farmers´ market featuring local food and musical performances.