High Tide in Astoria

Can extremely thoughtful, attentive urban design be art? The Tidal Rock project in Astoria may have some answers.

Tidal Rock—a green space in Astoria, Oregon, formerly overgrown and obscured from the public eye—has received a makeover courtesy of three artists, Agnes Field, Brenda Harper, and Jessica Schleif, who have rallied their community to create a space for public art in an unlikely spot. Known for its role in marking the water level for its coastal community, Tidal Rock is officially designated as a historic site. Since late 2017, the three artists have been hard at work cultivating the space as a place for temporary public art installations and community gatherings. A public art event at the site, taking place Saturday evening, September 8, is the sort of thing they have in mind.

Oddfellows dance collective at Tidal Rock; photo by Brenda Harper

When I connected with the artists to speak about Tidal Rock, I was shocked to learn that Field had severely broken her leg less than two weeks before this big event. “It’s just one of those crazy things that happens when you don’t expect it,” she said. “I was helping my friends with their new roller skates.” At this point, I let an unseemly pun slip out about rolling with the situation, to which she kindly replied, “I think that the truth. It’s the only choice you have.”

“I’m like, ‘gosh, how is she doing this?’” Schleif remarked of Field’s predicament. “She’s chipper and looks great.”

Field’s high spirits bodes well for Saturday’s event, and this pervasive positivity has likely had an impact on the progress of the project thus far. The artists talked me through some of the details surrounding how they were able to convince Astoria City Council to allow them to adopt the Tidal Rock site.

“I don’t think they had experienced anything like this before,” said Schleif. “It was a leap for them to start picturing what might happen.”

Luckily, a boost of validation and momentum helped fuel the project to fruition. On December 7 last year, a mere four days before the artists were to present their project to Astoria City Council for approval, they learned they had received a grant from the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund that would help fund the endeavor. Then, the Astoria City Council voted to approve the project, and the artists signed a memorandum of understanding with the city in early 2018.

After that, the dirty work began, taking shape as a regular gatherings to clear the overgrown site. “Each Sunday we hosted this salon. I think it helps to call it a ‘salon’,” laughed Schleif. “It sounds more fun than: ‘come pick up dog poop’.” Clean-up days became a way to build community interest in the project, and the artists began hosting a series of art events over the course of the year, working with the materials available at the site.

Agnes Field, Brenda Harper, and Jessica Schleif signing of MOU

Agnes Field, Brenda Harper, and Jessica Schleif signing the Memorandum of Understanding at City of Astoria Parks & Recreation; photo by Angela Cosby

At some point, someone dropped a mattress in the green space, “threw it over the railing and just left it there,” explained Field. “And I was very upset,” Schleif continued, picking up the story, “until I thought, ‘wow, we could actually make art with this mattress’.”

In fact, both Schleif and Harper have been addressing themes of homelessness through their engagement with the site. Astoria has not escaped concerns about gentrification. “So much of current development is impersonal,” says Harper, the third organizing artist of Tidal Rock. In her creative work for the project, she decided to record and highlight the voices and personas of those actually inhabiting a place. Her documentation will become part of the public presentation of artwork this Saturday at Tidal Rock, and the program will also include a talk with Seth Tichenor of The Philosopharians entitled “Gentrification, Colonization, and the Nature of Home.”

“Brenda is doing interviews of some of the people who used to spend a great deal of time in the park, whether they were living or occasionally sleeping,” said Field, speaking to Harper’s contribution. Field made sure to note that the artists do not enforce any regulation of sleeping or camping at Tidal Rock. “We are not addressing [gentrification] just as a homeless issue in this project,” she said, continuing, “we just want to highlight that one of the needs that this place had provided was a place for people to sleep.”

For Saturday’s event, the artists will also set up a cozy street level environment to sit and relax above Tidal Rock, which will allow visitors an overhead view of the festivities who do not want to make the trek down into the space. Tidal Rock itself seems to have evoked a sense of comfort in the artists working within it. “It’s like an amphitheatre you can look down from the sidewalk above, right in the middle of downtown,” describes Harper. And yet, the site can be difficult to locate. “This space is not totally public, and it’s not totally private. It’s kind of in-between,” notes Field.

An integral part of the Tidal Rock project involves acknowledging the land. Saturday’s event will aptly begin by honoring Tidal Rock’s past with a drumming and smudge ceremony by the Chinook Nation, the original residents of Astoria.

The project had some unexpected consequences. Both Field and Schleif underscored how the Tidal Rock project has shaped their relationship to the plant world. “It’s a good starting place to think about how interdependent we are,” says Field, remarking that, without plants, “We wouldn’t exist. We couldn’t breath, and we couldn’t live.”

For Schleif, the act of clearing the site and learning about the plants that were being cleared away shifted her perspective on what has been commonly deemed invasive species. Take, for example, the invasive plant known as Himalayan Blackberry, which spreads rapidly with thorny arms in plenty of the state’s green spaces, producing deliciously juicy berries mid-summer.

Schleif notes that the common attitude toward this species has been a hard line of eradication. However, as far as Tidal Rock is concerned, “the blackberry was a real protector for this site,” says Schleif. “I was removing it, and studying it, and studying about the medicinal uses of it, the way that it could hold the land and protect the land [e.g. by building soil and filtering out toxins] until something else could come along…like us.” Schleif’s creative work at Tidal Rock has evolved to acknowledge and celebrate the roll of this species, even as it is cleared away from the space.

For Field, the question remains: is this whole process meant to be seen as art? Is clearing land, picking up dog poop, going to city council meetings, and hosting rituals in a green space an artistic endeavor? These questions, for her, continue to fuel discourse and public engagement with the project.

All in all, “I think that it has been really well received,” says Field, “and has made the city feel that projects like this are possible and good public relations with the community and with artists who are working here.”

NOTE

The Tidal Rock Celebration will take place as part of Second Saturday ArtWalks, Saturday, September 8, 5-8 pm on 15th between Duane and Commercial Streets (adjacent to the Blue Scorcher Bakery & Cafe) in Astoria, Oregon.

The event is free and open to the public and will include video installations, sound, performance. Featured participants in this event include the Chinook Tribal Nation; organizers Jessica Schleif, Brenda Harper, and Agnes Field; Marco Davis and dancers; Derek Ecklund & Friends; Dinah Urell; Seth Tichenor; and Charissa Brock.

 

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