The artist Sandra Kosorotova participated in the artist-in-residency programme at NART during the summer, where she worked on a community garden project. She started with a single, elevated 1.4 × 1.4 metre vegetable bed, where she was growing mostly edible cultured plants: radish, kale and courgette. Soon after she decided to expand the project when receiving positive responses from passers-by.
AMV: Why did you decide to work on a community garden project during your residency?
SK: Among many issues the coronavirus crisis exposed “the fragility of a just-in-time global food system, which relies so heavily on the oppression of the working classes to grow, transport and sell it” and the need to “understand the unique importance of learning how to find, grow and preserve our own.”¹ This spring, I expanded my practice of growing food and soil, learning about the most sustainable ways of farming, making gardens for other species, foraging for wild foods and including them in my diet, ways of preserving food, and so on. Being able to provide nutrients for myself and others, while not being dependent on having a job or exploiting other people and natural resources was empowering, and I was also feeling the therapeutic effects of growing and foraging on my body and mind. Having had the privilege to learn about and practice these things myself, I was looking for ways to share the knowledge with others and a community garden seemed to be a good idea for that.
It is hard to overstress the benefits of communal gardens. Besides stating the obvious nutrition related benefits like providing the vitamins and minerals most of our diets lack, an affordable way to get organic fresh seasonal produce, communal gardens also hold ecological benefits like reducing the food miles of our meals, make us more self-reliant and self-sufficient (in a time of crisis) not to mention the numerous educational, therapeutic and community-building benefits it provides. In Tallinn, I was watching several community gardens appear on the wastelands in Lasnamäe district transforming the area into a lively and friendly place and was envisioning this in Narva with its vast unoccupied land around the Kreenholm area.
Also speaking of communal urban outdoor space, there is a lack of women occupying it. At the entrance to NART, designers have built a really cool-looking ramp² and each evening boys hang out there on their bikes – but what about the girls? I think a community garden can become a safe space for women outdoors.
Standing just between a hospital, a shelter, a retirement home, an elderly day activity centre and a centre for neurodiverse folks, the place seemed to be asking for a community garden with its therapeutic and free nourishment providing possibilities. However, the idea of coming over to Narva and starting a community garden seemed questionable, as I believe this is something that should come from the local community. Therefore, I started by making one raised vegetable bed near the residency. Tending to the box outside I was being approached by local people who expressed interest in having beds of their own. Luckily, I came to know that a group of young activists³ were at the same time working on setting up community gardens in Narva and I thought it would be an amazing thing to make a garden together, on the premises of NART.
AMV: What are the specifics of making a community garden in Narva / Kreenholm district – how does it differ from doing it elsewhere (e.g. Tallinn)?
SK: Although, as in Tallinn, the majority of the people here live in multi-storey apartment blocks, there are many allotments (dachas) just outside Narva. So, in that sense probably more people in Narva have access to land within a short distance. However, it would be an exaggeration to assume that every household in Narva has a dacha. Also, there are older people with a passion for gardening but unable to travel and look after an allotment.
When tending to my box outside I was often warned by well-meaning passers-by, that in Narva flowers are often stolen from flower beds even in the city centre and the Kreenholm area is particularly unsafe. However, vandalism is something most community gardens are affected by in one way or another, and as to this day nothing has been vandalized in our three garden beds. So far, we do not have any personalized beds and all the produce is for everyone to use; therefore, I was particularly delighted to learn that a courgette we grew got picked by someone.
AMV: How do you understand your role as an artist initiating and founding a community garden?
I graduated as a designer and I think I have always treated my practice more as a service. I take the responsibility to decide what service to provide based on what I sense is most urgently lacking in a society and limited by my set of skills. I mean, if it is an argument around a certain issue I cannot practically address, it can be a solo show with regular artworks, but if this is something I can really act on, my “art” can take the form of say co-running an NGO⁴. Starting a community garden and educating myself and others around issues of consuming and growing food right now felt most pressing. And as someone with a background in art and design, I believe I could find different angles to approach these themes.
AMV: You started the garden project by giving a performative tour of the surroundings of NART introducing all sorts of weeds that were growing there naturally – how can we think of gardening as an educational tool?
SK: A garden is a place to learn not only from and about other humans but also other species like plants, insects, microbes, minerals and so on, and ways of nonviolent coexistence.
AMV: How do you see the garden project in the long term? What is the dream (version)?
SK: A place for contemplation and action, food AND thought, where perma(ment)culture meets contemporary culture, a way of growing the community (around the residency), a community of local people, visiting residents and artists and other species. Perhaps during the waves of the coronavirus, a community garden holds potential as a place for people to keep coming together by being outside while maintaining a safe distance.
¹ Instagram post by artist Sean Roy Parker
² Ramp made by the Estonian Skateboarding Association, design Silver Liiberg, Narva Urban Lab, 2018
³ Narva Community Garden, a part of youth organization VitaTiim – Youth organization of Narva
⁴ Together with Gustav Kalm, Sandra Kosorotova co-managed the NGO New Russian Culture in Estonia (UVKE), which was most active in 2014–2015 and was a platform to bring together Estonian- and Russian-speaking communities via cultural events.