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People's Park — Its Place in the History of Land Art
by Bit of an artist myself
Much has been said about the political history of People's Park. People's Park is also an important piece of Land Art. Art historians and artists should speak up to preserve it. The destruction of the park by the University of California has temporarily been stopped by activists; however many trees were cut down. Legal advocates have requested a hearing, which a judge has granted. All demolition and pre-development work is legally halted until the October court hearing.
In September of 1969, ArtForum magazine printed Jack Burnham's article 'Real Time Systems'. Burnham wrote: "People's Park is a real time work of art". That essay was revisited decades later in an article by Bob Nickas, in the November 2013 issue of ArtForum.

In 1970, ArtForum printed Philip Leider's article 'How I Spent My Summer Vacation'. He expressed concern over "a state that kills a boy and gasses its population just because people made a park where there should have been a parking lot". This article was revisited by Thomas Crow in ArtForum's September 2012 issue. Crow wrote about Leider's "foreboding over... a state regime that has just rained lethal force on the protesters at Berkeley’s People’s Park".

People's Park was also briefly mentioned in the ArtForum articles 'West Coast Blues' by Peter Plagens (February 1971) and 'The Summer of '69' by J. Hoberman (Summer 1994 issue).

The creation of People's Park was undoubtedly influenced equally by both radical politics and radical developments in art, in particular: Land Art. The Land Art movement (or Earth Art or Earthworks) focused on the de-commercialization of art, and taking art outside the walls of galleries. Land Art is often, though not always, used to explore ecological concepts. The history of People's Park fits perfectly with this tradition - both in ideology, and within the timeline of the development of Land Art as a movement.

The first People's Park protest took place in May 1969. This was around half a year after the first Land Art exhibition 'Earth Works' in New York (1968), and mere months after the second exhibition 'Earth Art' in Ithica (1969). The University of California took control over the space through force in 1970, and used the land as a parking lot. After more protests in the following 2 years, activists gained victory, and People's Park became a park in 1972. The replanting of the park by activists was a political act, an ecological act, and an act of art. The planting of trees and other botanical specimens in that empty Berkeley lot was similar to the ideas explored by artist Alan Sonfist. Sonfist used plants as public monuments to remember "events in human history" and to "embody shared values" (from Alan Sonfist's essay 'Natural Phenomena as Public Monument', 1968). As planting in People's Park continued, an effort was made to place native plant species into the park, which mirrors Sonfist's 'Time Landscape' in New York.

In the earlier years of the development of People's Park, mounds and berms were created from the old parking lot asphalt. Ditches were carved; some for drainage purposes, others made out of innate primitive desire to make a ditch. Paths were formed and delineated, shifting over the decades. The physical ground was used as a medium by artists sculpting the landscape in conjunction with the growth of the horticultural elements.

Joseph Beuys (Fluxus artist, Land artist, co-founder of the German Student Party in 1967, and co-founder of the German Green Party in 1980) defined his work with the term "social sculpture". Beuys believed anyone had the potential to be an artist, and that art is "capable of dismantling the repressive effects" of the social order. He believed in a social organism as a work of art. Beuys, being in Germany, would not have had any direct influence in a protest happening in Berkeley. However, one can see how the ideas behind People's Park were parallel to the ideas Beuys was developing. Similar political, social and artistic shifts were happening in the United States as in Europe.

In 1968, Robert Smithson said he wanted viewers of art to have "confrontation with the physicality of things outside." He believed the world is an art museum. People's Park was created from a literal direct physical confrontation with the power of authority (the Blue Meanies, and the National Guard), and given new life through activist-artists directly confronting the asphalt that covered the fertile land. There are still physical reminders of the events of 1969 to 1972 in the asphalt that peaks through the topsoil. To visit the park is to confront California's history. Visiting the park is also a confrontation with the vitality and strength found in nature. The basic elemental features of trees, rocks, dirt, are juxtaposed to the economic world of Telegraph Avenue and the industrial interests of the University.

People's Park is Land Art. Back in 1969, art critics and writers immediately recognized People's Park as part of the contemporary art scene. It was a conceptual, political 'happening' mixed with new modes of making art through Earthworks. At 2.8 acres in size, People's Park is one of the more substantial pieces of art to come out of the late 60s and early 70s. To save People's Park is to preserve a piece of art history, and to allow future generations of artists to play with it.

A recent judge's decree has temporarily stopped the UC from further cutting more trees, and has frozen the housing development timeline until October. People have time to urge the University to reconsider it's actions, and/or to urge the governor of California to step in and stop the project. There are other venues for new housing in Berkeley.
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