SiteWorks: San Francisco performance 1969-85

HomeArtist InterviewsBonnie Ora Sherk

Bonnie Ora Sherk

Interviewed by Nick Kaye, San Francisco 6 February 2015

Follow the links for discussions of: Sitting Still l (1970) | Sitting Still Series (1970) | Public Lunch (1971) | Crossroads Community (The Farm) (1974-80) | Rat Run (1971) | Portable Parks I-III (1970 with Howard Levine) | Portable Park I (1970) | Portable Park II (1970) | Portable Park III (1970) | Living in the Forest: Demonstration of Atkin Logic, Balance, Compromise, Devotion, etc. (1973) | The Raw Egg Animal Theatre (TREAT) | Champagne and Sonata (1974) | A Triptych, within a Triptych, within a Triptych, within the Context of a Counterpointed Diptych (1980) | Snow Job (1970) | A Living Library (Bryant Park) (1981) | History Of Parks and Gardens From Around The World (1985)

Why did you begin making performances?

Because, it was the best way to be expressing ideas and feelings at the time. I saw my work in those early years as Environmental Performance Sculpture. I either used found environments or I created an environment and then integrated it systemically with the performance or performative elements. Over the years my performances have evolved to become systemically integrated community programs and/or hands-on, transformative, interdisciplinary curriculum - always relating directly to the place. In recent years, these performative elements literally transform the environment, resulting in place-based, ecological learning landscapes of green and wonder with systemically integrated community programs, each called A Living Library, or A.L.L. Not only does this work meaningfully engage people, but, it also greatly improves the public realm making it healthier, more beautiful, more ecological, and often helps solve local environmental or social problems.

I've always been interested in the environment and what happens in an environment. A long time ago I realized that everything happens in a place. And when we create the place or use an existing place and then integrate it systemically with some kind of performance or activity then we are creating whole experiences. And that is really what is most important: Creating Experience.

In the early performances I was an element, a material to work with, a person in a place, sometimes with other performers like live animals. My persona, my being, was one element in the installation. For example, Sitting Still l (1970) used a found environment and I was a performer in the space. At the time I was exploring the nature of performance - what and where it could be, and, who was the audience. I was thinking very much at that time about transforming dead spaces - derelict places - into much more interesting environments and incorporating surprise as a strategy to make change while changing people's perception about possibilities. I did this not just with the performance alone, but with a combination of the environment and the performance as an integrated whole. At this time I was thinking about what I now call systemic ecological design. I was understanding how everything - how every part - fits together. So for me the performance was always a very ecological system in terms of integrated elements all working together. That was the way I worked, and still do, although the scale is much larger now and my work is meant to last and be ongoing in an environment and a community.

Bonnie Ora Sherk, Sitting Still I. Army Street/101 Freeway Interchange Construction Zone, San Francisco. © Bonnie Ora Sherk.

In October of 1970 I came upon this large area of garbage where water had collected. That was because there was heavy construction of the 101 Freeway Interchange and debris was all around. In the center of this particular space was a large, overstuffed armchair floating in the water with tires, a tricycle, and other objects. I saw this and immediately could see myself seated there in the chair, so I went home, changed into an evening gown, and called my friend Bob Campbell to come and photograph it in a certain way. I waded in and sat in the chair facing the 'audience,' which was comprised of the people in the cars that were moving very slowly because of the construction of this Freeway Interchange. The audience was a structural component of this piece. That was part of my concept. Then I thought: OK, well this is interesting, I'm going to take this idea of the seated human figure and I'm going to go to very different kinds of environments and see what happens.

With this piece I originally thought I was merely showing how a seated human figure could simply transform an environment. That seemed like a powerful idea at the time. This work unfolded to become the Sitting Still Series, in which I took an armchair to very diverse urban environments - different street corners in several neighborhoods, the Financial District (the original Occupy) including the Bank of America Plaza, the Golden Gate Bridge, and many diverse indoor / outdoor cages in the San Francisco Zoo. All of this later culminated in Public Lunch (1971).

What I did not realize at the time, in Sitting Still l, was that I was actually facing my future: what would become the site of Crossroads Community (The Farm) (1974-80) and the northern frame of the Islais Creek Watershed. This is the largest in San Francisco that interconnects eleven neighborhoods that I am completely involved with today in systemic ecological design and transformation. And, I was actually sitting in water from the Islais Creek, which converges with two other creeks in this area of the Freeway Interchange and was released due to the construction. I am currently trying to daylight the Creeks in this Watershed wherever possible and am proposing to city leaders and Caltrans [state highway authority] that this same 101 Freeway Interchange become the Northern Gateway to the Islais Creek Watershed - and another Interchange further south at 101 and Alemany, to become the Southern Gateway. City and state officials are interested and looking closely at these ideas and opportunities now, but, at the time, I had no clue about this. I thought I was simply showing how a seated human figure could transform that environment, which in itself was a good and interesting idea then.

Bonnie Ora Sherk, Sitting Still I. Army Street/101 Freeway Interchange Construction Zone, San Francisco. © Bonnie Ora Sherk.

There is a synchronicity involved in this, which is very profound - and provides much more than some kind of abstract, intellectual idea of how to transform the environment. I think Sitting Still l has been thus far, the most powerful piece that I have made, because I was actually facing my future. It was a precognition, but I did not know it then. This tremendous synchronicity speaks to the power of art, its spiritual dimension, my intuitive being in my personal alignment, and the power of water. This is very exciting to me! It actually turned out to be a very prophetic piece, as I say. I call it my Watershed Piece – all meanings and pun intended.

How long did you sit for?

About an hour. After this experience, I brought another chair - which was also an armchair, but not so heavy - and I carried it to different street corners. I sat at 20th and Mission Streets; I sat at Church and Market Streets; I went to the Financial District and sat at California and Montgomery Streets; and then I sat on the Bank of America Plaza. I then went to the Golden Gate Bridge and sat there facing the traffic and later to diverse indoor/outdoor cages at the San Francisco Zoo. So again I was exploring the nature of diverse environments, performance, other participants, and who could be the audience. I was exploring all of these ideas. The idea also included being a human on view - a woman, female - being an object on view - which of course had many feminist implications. So then there were these other issues that came out.

Did you think of these various performances of Sitting Still as separate pieces?

I think of them all as the Sitting Still Series. There are many more that have never been shown, but there will be a big show this September [2015] at Mills College Art Museum that will feature the Sitting Still Series. The work was very emotive; it was very powerful. And then of course being in a cage at the Zoo brings a lot of other issues to the surface: being an object on view in this society; and then the animals who were also seen as objects on view. This was before PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] was in existence and long before there was a consciousness about the native intelligences of different species of animals and their rights as living creatures.

Can you talk about Public Lunch?

Bonnie Ora Sherk, Public Lunch (1971). San Francisco Zoo Lion House. © 1971 Bonnie Ora Sherk.

The Sitting Still Series culminated with Public Lunch. During Public Lunch, I had a meal in a cage in the Lion House at the San Francisco Zoo adjacent to the cages of the lions and tigers. The piece began at the public feeding time of 2pm on a Saturday. I was let into the cage in the same way as the other animals, from an outdoor cage through a door that opened automatically and then closed again. I was one of the animals being fed on that Saturday, which was a surprise to most of the spectators who had come to see the Zoo animals eating. I had previously placed certain objects in my cage, which I thought of as a proscenium stage: a well appointed table set with a white linen tablecloth and silverware, a chair, a ladder to the platform above, and another small cage, with a rat in it. I paced waiting for my human meal - which I had arranged to be catered by a then-famous SF restaurant. My lunch was served in dishes and delivered from a wheelbarrow by the Zookeeper in the same way that he delivered the raw meat to the lions and tigers. In the cage with me was another cage, with the rat inside. So there was a cage, within a cage, within a cage. So, who's in the cage? This opened up a lot of other kinds of questions.

Bonnie Ora Sherk, Public Lunch (1971). San Francisco Zoo Lion House. © 1971 Bonnie Ora Sherk.

My performance involved human activities. After I ate my meal, paced, climbed a ladder to the platform above, wrote what I was experiencing, and lay down to rest on the platform, something extraordinary happened. What was really significant for me is that the tiger in the adjacent cage got up on his haunches and looked at me. That's when I realized this creature was looking at me and perceiving me. I thought: Is he thinking? What is he thinking? Is he feeling? What is he feeling?

This experience led me to research different animals, their behavior, and to begin working directly with different species of animals. I brought the rat in the cage with me back to my studio and I created an environment between two pillars, which I called Rat Run (1971). At the bottom of it I placed green sod. I made a wire mesh enclosure, but left it open at the top - so the rat could leave if she chose to. I gave her a choice: you can be here, or you can leave, it's up to you. But she seemed quite comfortable and stayed there. I named her Guru Rat and she became my teacher.

I slowly introduced other species of animals to what soon became a whole environment in my studio. I began doing work with the animals who I saw as performers as well, with me in relation to them and with them, and the animals in relation to each other and me. They were not pets, which I thought of as being 'animals of compromise'. I was not fully controlling their behavior. They were domestic animals, so there was a certain human imposition to begin with that I was very much aware of, but I also was very concerned about my imposition on them. I was dealing with all of these kinds of issues, again before PETA. What I discovered is that these animals were very intelligent creatures. They had a native intelligence of their own and they had languages of their own. I was interested in showcasing their native intelligences in the work. Most people, for example, think chickens are stupid - they're actually very smart and they have their own language - they have a complex language. It's just people who are ignorant by measuring other species' intelligence in relation to human intelligence. That's a fallacious argument. These were issues that I was thinking about and dealing with. I was learning so much from the animals about natural systems, ecology, and art.

And you were awarded the SECA [Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art] Award for Portable Parks I-III (1970). What kind of response did you have to Sitting Still and Portable Parks - were they well known at the time?

The Portable Parks were well known because the SFMOMA Communications Director, Mary Miles Ryan, loved them. She was great and we had a Press Conference on the Freeway at 10am. Reporters came and got tickets on the Freeway right-of-way. Although I had an Encroachment Permit from the Director of Caltrans to be there and perform the piece and to have a cow, palm trees and sod on the freeway where it crossed Market Street, the reporters did not, and the Highway Patrol was not pleased and gave them all tickets. The Portable Parks at that time were known and written about all over the country. Sitting Still was not known, but now it's becoming more known, exhibited and written about. But even now most people are not aware of all the diverse pieces that I made.

So, here I am on the freeway. This was a performance installation, or as I say, Environmental Performance Sculpture.

Portable Park I was a tableau vivant, which you could see from the street or driving by. I thought of it as a still life. This was not a participatory piece. Portable Park II, however, was participatory. This was on concrete islands adjacent to a freeway offramp with more cows, chickens, the palm trees and sod, picnic tables, and bales of straw. Portable Parks I-II transformed these environments for 24 hours. Portable Park III was in Maiden Lane near Union Square and the whole street was closed for 48 hours and became a park. This was the most participatory piece and included all of the other elements - plus I borrowed many animals from the San Francisco Zoo. These were really the original parklets, which are so common today, developed as a way to reclaim public space for people.

In those early works the idea of performance was integrated and each became increasingly participatory. I was also exploring the idea of the place with the integrated activity. Portable Park I could be viewed from the street below or as you were driving by on the freeway, which is different than being able to come and have your lunch – which Portable Park II enabled you to do. The third site in Maiden Lane was even more engaging, and that lasted for 48 hours - it became a park for two days with more animals and people participating.

It strikes me that it might be much more difficult to get permission to do that now.

In 1970, this kind of work was so new that people didn't know how to deal with it. For example, when I went to meet with the head of Caltrans I brought a prominent architect with me, Piero Patri. I didn't want to go alone because I knew that it might be too odd for me as a young person and an artist to be able to do this. His name was Mr. Hart. He was the man who directed the highways for the whole state of California. On his desk was a little easel and he had this framed drawing with a watercolor of the rainbow arches around the tunnels going from the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito. He said to me, and asked: I'm thinking about doing this, do you think it's a good idea? I said: Oh yes, I think it's a great idea, I think it's a fabulous idea - of course I knew because he asked that question that he would easily give me an encroachment permit for such a brief, non-permanent event. It was a very different cultural moment; doing these kinds of performance interventions in real places was unique at the time.

Were you involved in Tom Marioni's Museum of Conceptual Art?

I did some work.

Was that important to you at the time?

Sure. MOCA was wonderful because I felt this was a place to have some sort of comradery with artists - although there was a lot of sexism at the time. It was pervasive in the whole culture. As I was one of the few 'women artists' I was sort of accepted, in what felt like a token way.

Did you go to Tom Marioni's gatherings at Breen's Bar?

Yes, I went to Breen's Bar. I was very interested in MOCA. It was a very compelling group to relate to because nobody else in the art world really understood what I was doing at all. And Tom did a great job by creating that venue, creating that framework for this kind of work.

I just kept doing my work. I felt I had tapped into this rich vein of fascinating material, so I kept working through it. I really became very involved in studying the behavior of animals. I did a lot of performance installation pieces with animals including one that you may not know about called Living in the Forest: Demonstration of Atkin Logic, Balance, Compromise, Devotion, etc. (1973). It was a major installation in the De Saisset Art Museum.

I had a room in the Museum and I set up the installation on a north, south, east, west axis so that it had a relationship to the larger world, with a tree stump representing the Center of the Universe. There were many elements in the environment including diverse animals that lived there for the whole exhibition that lasted six weeks: chickens, rabbits, doves, Guru Rat, Pigme - a pig that lived with me since she was nine days old - and me. People could come into the space and experience it directly. There were two entrances and before entering one could see all the foliage and the animals moving around. It was like looking into a giant Easter Egg with a landscape scene that you could actually enter. I built a large, long box, aligned it to face southwest, filled it with soil and planted six trees, each in a different stage of life. The trees that looked dead were actually dormant. The tree that looked the most alive had no roots. It was a Demonstration of Illusion and Reality.

Each tree was surrounded by a wire mesh enclosure and initially had fresh, green sod on the ground surrounding it. Each week I would open a section of that area and then the animals could interact with that part of the environment. However, during the course of the exhibit, the Lady Doe, a female rabbit, found the one safe place in this environment in which to dig her warren to deliver her young. That was in the section of the tree with no roots. So I did a Change of Mind piece and decided to stop opening the wire mesh so her litter of young would be protected. I wrote Change of Mind on the wall to make it known. I wrote a lot of other things on the walls to express my human thoughts and actions; the other animals did their own activities relating to their normal behavior in that environment. There was an extremely intense series of actions and performances including Demonstration of Territorial Struggles, during which the Buck Rabbit chased his son and almost killed him, as well as other Demonstrations of Life, Birth, and Death. It was an extremely powerful and intense piece with a lot of action.

Living in the Forest was of course a metaphor for life - and the different animals did their own thing. Different species interacted in their own ways - and it was an opportunity for people to actually enter this place. You could see this environment from other parts of the Museum - it looked like a very mysterious place. This installation was the forerunner of The Raw Egg Animal Theatre (TREAT) at The Farm. So everything led to everything.

Did Living in the Forest precede The Farm?

Yes, it immediately preceded The Farm. And The Raw Egg Animal Theatre was at The Farm. One of the reasons that I wanted to develop The Farm was to create a healthier, indoor/outdoor environment for the animals to live, and a place for people to experience the native intelligences of these different species. I wanted to share what I had experienced and learned – all that had informed me.

I was on fire - it was so interesting and so relevant. I guess part of my MO in my work is to be communicating, to be sharing what I've learned with other people.

By including them in the experience?

Yes, and educating people, so these are all learning experiences.

How complex was it to establish The Farm?

It was very complex and existed on multiple levels. The original concept was to link different land fragments in the crossroads of four neighborhoods; Mission, Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill, and Bayview communities; where the freeway had severed them - and to bring people of diverse cultures together with each other and plants and animals. The relationship of The Farm and Freeway was a conscious surreal juxtaposition: a diptych, with the Freeway as a technological monolith next to The Farm as a non-mechanized form of nature, both in counterpoint. I saw all this and had an epiphany - and Crossroads Community (the farm) emerged.

In addition to wanting to find a healthier place for the animals to live, at the time I also was very concerned with the fact that artists from different disciplines were not recognizing and respecting one another, and I wanted to create a place where people could come together. In 1974, a big building that had been on the site, the former Borden's Dairy, was razed. It was torn down, creating a concrete plaza, a large open space. And adjacent to it was another open space, and further south, there was a cluster of warehouse buildings that were for rent, and there was a state-right-of-way owned by Caltrans adjacent to the 101 Freeway Interchange that had just been built and opened. In the center of the Interchange was more land owned by the City and managed by the San Francisco Department of Public Works. I saw this space one evening with a musician friend who was looking for a place for dancers and theatre people to rehearse. The rest is history.

And Sitting Still l was done there.

Facing what would become The Farm and facing Cesar Chavez, the northern frame of the Islais Creek Watershed and the land in the center of the freeway, which is DPW [Department of Public Works] land, which I am now proposing to become the Northern Gateway to the Watershed.

The idea of The Farm, the concept - the underlying structure and raison d'etre - was to create a place for people from these four neighborhoods to come together, sharing their multicultural and multi-economic diversity with each other and also with plants and animals - and to create a place for different kinds of artists to come together. At that time there was a lot of prejudice between different kinds of artists; there were a lot of negative attitudes. I just wanted to show the connections and the diversities, and to link all these land fragments, creating a contiguous whole - transforming these derelict places into more green ecological spaces.

Immediately after I had this epiphany, I created this drawing, which expressed all that I saw. It was the first drawing that I made for The Farm, which showed the opportunity. And it was my first proposal for The Farm, that I hand-carried - rolled under my arm - to all the different city and state agencies to get people excited about developing Crossroads Community (the farm). Another drawing I made shows the side elevation with rolling hills. I thought, if we're going to create a park, it doesn't have to be flat, let's use all of this concrete as an armature - and so now you can see rolling hills in the resulting park.

I actually thought the freeway was very beautiful here. It looked very Egyptian to me. This is the center of the freeway. I installed three lacy white iron benches from Mexico in the center of the Freeway Interchange. And we also had beautiful organic gardens there too. Now it has become a very derelict place. It's derelict because it's a void that has been filled by the homeless. A point is that we need to activate spaces so they are safe and beautiful. The idea of the performance in the place - or the community program in the place - is a very smart idea, because then you're creating whole experiences. It makes places safer - among other benefits.

How many people were involved in The Farm at its inception?

There were a few key stakeholders, but thousands came. It became a popular public venue and was one of the first Alternative Art Spaces in the US.

Did you live there?

I did initially, just for a short time. And I was doing the Performance of Being with all of my diverse roles as Farmer, Politician, Administrator, Teacher, Director, Planner, Cook, Dishwasher, Artist, Outreach Coordinator, etc.

This picture shows a brass quintet from the San Francisco Symphony in the center of the Freeway. This was a performance installation party, with an engraved formal invitation that states subtly: In Humor of the Freeway Gardens and the Cityscape Exhibitions at the Fine Arts Museums. The party was called Champagne and Sonata (1974). People drank champagne in the middle of the freeway interchange, the brass quintet played music, and dancers from Tumbleweed performed on the freeway. It was a very lively place and party.

It's amazing how you mobilized so many different cultural groups.

I got about 11,000 signatures to get that land bought by the city of San Francisco to become a public park. I made the card that I showed you for two purposes. It was actually a very powerful, practical, important piece. It was an announcement for an exhibition that I made about The Farm at the San Francisco Art Institute, but more importantly, it was given to all of the Supervisors, the Mayor, and Planners from the Planning Department, to interest them in buying this land to become a park. The card showed the opportunity of linking all these land fragments through my drawing. It was designed and printed as a blueprint in green and blue. I've been a planner and I have become a landscape architect over the years.

And a social activist.

Always integrating all of these elements - so now the work has evolved to become what I call A Living Library,or A.L.L., for short.

How did The Farm change over the seven years of its existence?

The Farm was a microcosm of civilization. Everybody showed up: the good, the bad and the ugly (laughter). It was challenging, it was definitely challenging. I got my PhD in life at The Farm and then when I left The Farm at the end of 1980, I thought, OK, I have to make a book: How Not to Make a Farm. I learned a lot: it was very intense and challenging, but it was also a wonderful and very rich experience. I was there for seven years and then I left at the end of 1980 because I felt I had done as much as I could do at that time. The Farm continued for a few more years after I left, but then it imploded as the people who remained had a smaller vision that was not supported by a large mainstream culture.

When I left The Farm I went to London because Lucy Lippard had invited me to participate in an exhibition at the ICA. I created A Triptych, within a Triptych, within a Triptych, within the Context of a Counterpointed Diptych (1980). In it I created three Exhibits and one of them was my resignation letter from The Farm.

Did The Farm continue without you?

It continued for a while and finally self-destructed. I had a vision, basically, of all of these interrelated parts. It was an integrated conceptual and social vision that was very inclusive - including animals and all life forms. The people who remained had a narrower vision, which was not supported by a wide audience, and it eventually ended, although the park is still there with community gardens, and there is a private school and many artist live-work spaces in the buildings. And I have continued to evolve these ideas and this work through A Living Library.

With The Farm, as mentioned, I had an epiphany, and I could see the site as a flower unfolding, everything happening simultaneously. Then I made that first drawing. It was a very intricate drawing and a collage. It's very detailed and there's a lot of activity with multiple performances within this place - multiple activities. So there's a lot to learn about what was going on in my thinking just from looking at that drawing. I had this vision. I saw all of these disparate pieces of land being integrated and transformed. I could just see how everything could be happening simultaneously. So then the work was deconstructing the vision to actually realize it. Easier said than done.

Because it's so inclusive.

I realized the 'life frame' is a way to frame life, so that you can see it and experience it more profoundly. That was a term that I thought very much about at The Farm. I realize that my earlier works were all life frames in different, varying stages with performative elements - like Portable Park I, which was a still life. And then they became increasingly participatory.

And you did Snow Job (1970).

Snow Job was a very simple piece - a temporary piece. At the time I thought nothing is permanent, so I'm just going to create these very temporary interventions and see what happens and see how they impact the environment and how people respond to them.

And you did it in two places?

It was created and performed in three places. In the middle of the night, I unloaded a pile of snow at Mission and 1st Street, right near where they're building the new Transbay terminal.

Was part of it in the Financial District?

There was another pile in the Financial District, on the corner of California and Montgomery - again another original Occupy. I chose that site because it's a very powerful symbol of corporate financial business in our society - the strength of corporate power. And then I placed snow in front of the Museum [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] at a later hour - 10 AM. The press was invited and I gave out snow cones. It was kind of a light piece. I was wearing a very formal gown and the men who unloaded the snow were wearing tuxedos, so visually it had surreal imagery. It was also surreal because it doesn't snow in San Francisco.

Where did you get the snow?

From an ice company - it was frozen water (laughter). But they were very fine, small granular pieces. The juxtaposition is something that I was interested in visually and conceptually - a way to catch people's attention. The Portable Parks and Snow Job used that kind of imagery and Sitting Still used that kind of imagery. It was very subtle, but it was so simple: a seated human figure.

That's why it's so powerful. You have described so clearly the way that these things accumulate around the image.

It's the context. The site and situation are important: you know what the situation is, what is going on here and at that time. I mean, now, we see a chair and table on that street corner right there - it's common. In 1970 it was not common. So the cultural moment has a lot to do with the potency of the imagery. Now, Parklets are common. In 1970 they were uncommon. It took 40 years for the mainstream to catch on. The cultural moment is part of the situation and is a consideration in my artwork. For example, now Urban Agriculture is common and using Freeway-Right-Of-Ways is common. In 1970 and 1974 it was not common; now integrating land fragments is more common. All of these ideas have evolved and my work has evolved too. I'm not doing the same thing. I'm doing work that is much more layered and complex, but has the structural underpinning of everything that we've talked about. I think of A Living Library as Cultivating the Human & Ecological Garden - which is a metaphor for the transformed landscape integrated systemically with the community program or with hands-on interdisciplinary curricula; this has become the performance. So, for me, performance has evolved to become much more of a public engagement. Now people call this genre of work Public Practice, Social Practice, or Ecological Art.

So when did you first create A Living Library?

1981. The first Living Library was designed for Bryant Park in New York City. In 1981, I found myself in Bryant Park - it was called Needle Park, because it was where all the drug dealers went to sell drugs. It was a very formal, Beaux Arts design, adjacent to the Main Research Branch of the New York Public Library, but had become a very seedy, neglected place. I spent time in this place, understanding and feeling the energy of it, because that's how I work. I really see, look, feel, think - and then sometimes I become inspired and have an epiphany. Then I have to figure out how to manifest the vision.

So how long did it take you to evolve the Bryant Park piece?

A few years. At first I had an incredible epiphany in Bryant Park. After spending some time there I realized this is a seedy place, but it has a very elegant structure. We need to change the energy in order to attract good uses to the Park. The drug dealers were there because they really filled a void. To change the energy, I saw we could bring the inside of the Library outside and create Gardens of Knowledge based on the Dewey Decimal system that would fit very neatly around the peripheral gardens of the park. In each Garden of Knowledge would be plants that relate to the subject, visual and performed art works, programs of lectures, demonstrations and research institutes, and state-of-the-art communications technologies that would link this place to other Branch Living Library & Think Parks in diverse communities. And in the interior of the Park would be the International Gardens that would involve the United Nations and various consulates and embassies in NYC. It would become a programmed landscape that could involve all sectors of the community in its creation, use, maintenance, management, and communications.

I thought - Oh, The Living Library, and then I thought, well, no, I can't call it The Living Library, because that would be an insult to its neighbor, the New York Public Library. So I thought, I'll call it A Living Library - meaning another. That's when I realized the initials spell A.L.L., which is really a framework and the embodiment of what it's about: providing an interactive place for people that brings knowledge together, so we can better understand linked systems: biological, cultural and technological. And each place, or Branch Living Library, incorporates local resources; human, ecological, economic, historic, technological and aesthetic - seen through the lens of time - past, present and future. Using A Living Library Framework of Local Resources we can understand that every place has incredible richness and content that can be incorporated for its relevant transformation.

How does the Dewey Decimal System map onto the garden?

The different categories fit very neatly into the existing layout of Bryant Park. You can see that in the drawing of the site that I made in 1983. My original idea or epiphany was in 1981 - that's when A Living Library was born. But it took me a while to actually be able to articulate it in words and images. At that time the idea of a programmed landscape was very new and most people thought of a park as being a green space, as in Frederick Law Olmsted's designs.

Central Park?

Yes. A notable example is Central Park, the typical English style greensward and pastoral place. For example, when I met with Brendan Gill - at the time a very famous art and theatre critic for the New Yorker - I showed him my site plan, and he said: This is not a park!

I was at first taken aback - then I thought, this is very interesting. So then I began studying parks and gardens from around the world through time. It was actually a fabulous remark and led me to my future, because then I studied the history of landscape architecture from around the world and found incredible precedents for the kind of park that I was envisioning - in Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian Gardens. In Renaissance Gardens, French Formal Gardens, Medieval Gardens, and many others. I wanted to create a very content-rich place. Then after that I studied landscape architecture formally and became a landscape architect.

In 1985 I made an interactive videodisk of the History Of Parks and Gardens From Around The World. I thanked Brendan for saying that to me, because it really made me expand my vision and knowledge. A Living Library for Bryant Park was to be a Contemporary Botanical Garden of Correspondences and an International Culture-Ecology-Technology Park, a picture-book park of changing participatory landscapes, with integrated multi-generational, active, and passive activities. With all of this, the park becomes a living, learning laboratory and library. So this was a very profound idea that led me on a new, rich path that I am continuing to follow.

Bonnie Ora Sherk's website is available at: