Hold the banana.
Close Your eyes.
No, friends. These are not the beginning poses of Yoga for Primates. They were, rather, the first series of instructions for participation in The Banana Hotline, a collaborative art project aiming to create a “living monument of sound” to honor that silly yellow fruit with the slippery peel.
Fallen Fruit artists David Burns and Austin Young created The Banana Hotline for TEDActive this year. Fallen Fruit, which includes third member and co-founder Matias Viegener, is a long term LA-based art collaboration that has been paying homage to apples, oranges and every fruit in between for nine years now. Ongoing projects include the wildly popular Public Fruit Jams, in which communities come together equipped with homegrown or street picked fruit to create custom jams sans recipes.
At TEDActive 2013, they focused their artistic efforts on the world’s most popular fruit: the banana. In addition to the Hotline, David and Austin also hosted a banana eating contest, gave a TEDYou talk and created the (world’s first?) Banana Sound Circle, in which attendees gathered with kazoos to squawk tribute to the bananas of the North, South, East and West.
We caught up with our favorite fruit aficionados to talk California art, community and the endangered Cavendish.
You both have a strong background in photography. How did you transition from a more static form to doing work that is so interactive?
David: Well, my background in photography is a foundational background really. Austin is still a photographer – photography is part of what he does now. I went to school at CalArts and I got a degree in the photo program, but just as long ago, I quickly became known more for making event-based stuff happen, and less for making camera based stuff happen. The foundational idea of how cameras work – not mechanically, but socially – is what’s interesting to me, and that still carries forward.
Austin: When we were looking and thinking about Fallen Fruit as an idea, we also became really interested in California art, and what California art is versus 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 for our project. As far as being interactive, I think that all of a sudden there were a lot of projects that happened all at once (kind of how the collective conscious works) that were engaging audiences and it was a really exciting time to be making art in Los Angeles, and it still is.
What was the big moment when you decided it was about fruit?
David: Well, that was the beginning. The project’s origin was a response to a call for ideas from a publication called the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. Basically, the original impulse was: Is it possible to create a project that inspires people to have an agreement, or to be likeminded, in a way that’s not against something? Is it possible to do what protest does, but not have an opposition? So we got together and we looked at what was around us, and what was common to the three of us, and we made the original manifest for Fallen Fruit, which is “Who is the public, how do you define the public, and what do you do with public resources? Is it possible to explore a place that’s familiar in a way that is more meaningful or magical?” So we mapped and took photos, and that was the foundation of Fallen Fruit.
And that project was about mapping all of the different fruit trees in LA, correct?
David: Yes. But it was also about walking. It was about not being on cell phones.
Austin: Right. We took a look around our neighborhood and it’s interesting, because if you ever hang out in LA, it is like a ghost town on the street. Nobody was walking the streets in Silver Lake Beach. People get in their cars even to drive three blocks to go to the corner store or to the cafe. We thought it would be great to have the project be about getting people out of their cars, off of their cell phones – have them maybe meet their neighbors, and at the same time discover the hidden treasure of fruit trees that were growing in public space.
David: I think what’s important is that we realized that fruit was a connector. It’s non-polarizing. Nobody gets upset about an apple, or a banana, you know? But its also something that moves through class boundaries, and through geography and generational knowledge – it’s this funny thing that can be the subject of something and yet an object at the same time. So we learned from the project that we are working with an idea that’s also a material, and that gives us incredible permission socially, but also as far as art making goes. One of the first things we did that was really participatory and immersive were the Public Fruit Jams, and those have been an incredible success around the world. One of the key components to a Public Fruit Jam is that we don’t use recipes at all, and there is no real instruction – it is completely immersive, and everything is done by ratios, but it’s really done by negotiating with strangers - meaning if you brought peaches, and I brought lavender, and Austin brought figs, then maybe we would make peach, fig, and lavender jam, but we would just figure it out.
Austin: One thing that I think is true about Fallen Fruit is that it’s a project that exists in the moment. It’s a living project – its not something that you’re just going to see on a wall – it’s existing in the moment, and through doing it so long, it keeps on growing and expanding in different ways. The more we did the Fruit Jam, the more we learned how really passionate and emotional people feel about fruit and their memories about fruit and the connection to their families through fruit. One thing that became clear is that getting people together around an activity creates the space for connection and conversation about fruit and about family and the ways the world is going, and the ways that it was. We love to create a space for people to have those experiences.
How did you guys get involved with TEDActive?
David: We were invited to come up with a proposal for TEDActive for how Fallen Fruit might imagine a series of projects that would create progressive engagement that also had meaningful, critical content.
Austin: Our main project was The Banana Hotline, which came from thinking about how the Cavendish banana may be endangered. We were encouraged to come up with a project that might live well beyond TED, that could kind of use TED as a place to experiment, or start a new process, but that could grow, exponentially perhaps. So we came up with the Banana Hotline – it was this plush-y banana and we put an iPad inside with a recorder in it and you could tell the banana how you felt about it or say what the banana tastes like, or maybe a memory about the banana in life, or just anything. Our intention is to keep collecting those stories.
David: One of the things that we’ve done in the recent past (meaning up until the past year) is we’ve worked on some projects that were more serialized and more encyclopedic – they were also more a response to place. So, one project might be more specific about the jungles of Columbia and the origins of banana plantations, and one might be about the wild berries in the tundra of the Arctic Circle in Norway. Then, we made a shift toward thinking about fruit in a more universal way. So, instead of focusing on location or geography or a particular context or locational history, we are interested in this other possibility of really focusing on the subject matter, and maintaining its sense of being an object at the same time. So, we focused only on bananas to be really playful and to make TEDActive “bananas” – to really celebrate something that’s common to everybody. It was an experiment in a way, and for us it was an incredible success. I had an incredibly great time.
Austin: It was a fantastic experience. I think I was high for a few days after; it was so incredible to be there. And really inspiring in personal ways as well.
Did you have a favorite moment?
Austin: Doing the TEDYou talk was really exciting. It really felt like we were being thrown into a whirlwind – it was fantastic.
David: I enjoyed TEDYou because we don’t normally do talks like that and it was actually very challenging for me to rescript. However, that wasn’t my favorite moment. My favorite moment was the banana sound circle. It was such an experiment, and for me personally, the amount of anxiety I felt – that I gave myself about it being good – was ridiculous. I mean, I was almost crying! Because it was important for it to be fun, and to just be joyful and not be dogmatic. It was supposed to be a celebration of something kind of insipid, right? I didn’t understand how to approach a group of people I don’t know in a way that was okay, to be honest. It seemed very stressful to me. And somehow we did it, and I feel like it was a big success. It was this really lovely calling to something absurd and great and familiar.
Austin: Oh yeah – that was a huge thing for me too – that banana sound circle felt like a perfect expression of California art. It was completely just goofy and fun. I can’t wait to do that again. I don’t know how it read from your point of view, but one of the things that’s really important to us when it comes to the work we make, and the projects we support, is that we really believe in collaboration. It’s about inviting an opportunity that takes a group of people who don’t exactly know each other to have a bond for a short amount of time and then break away again. And the part that you get to keep is the memory – your personal experience is the art part.