Fallen Fruit Celebrate Their Endless Orchard in Los Angeles

Inspired by the Old Testament’s commandment to property owners to plant trees on the edge of their land so that passersby could profit from the fruit, Austin Young and David Burns have been working for decades on a collaborative project centered on this idea under the name Fallen Fruit. Their ongoing Creative Capital Project, Endless Orchard, engages communities in cities all over the world to encourage people to plant fruit trees in public and on the margins of private spaces for all to enjoy. The public fruit trees are mapped in an online database. Fallen Fruit celebrates Endless Orchard on November 13 at their Monument to Sharing in Los Angeles State Historic Park with a Fruit Tree Adoption and public gathering.

We spoke to David and Austin about the origin of Fallen Fruit, their goals for the project, and what to expect.

Alex—How do you describe the Endless Orchard?

David Burns—The Endless Orchard began as an idea, long ago, where we thought, what if we were able to plant fruit trees in parks, public spaces, and cities across the United States, and eventually around the world? We realized that this project would be limited by our own capacity to do the work ourselves. We thought maybe we could make an art project truly collaborative—meaning, anyone anywhere can add on to it and make it bigger and better and more available for other people to enjoy.

What if there was an orchard that was connected by social media and geography and by time and space, but it didn’t happen in one location—what if it happened seemingly randomly all over the world at the same time?

Austin Young—At the core of the Endless Orchard is a question: can we share fruit in public spaces in cities? It’s also a call to action for people to share their fruit by planting a fruit tree on the margins of public and private property, in front of their house or in a community center.

David—One of the great things you always bring up, Austin, was this idea that not just Fallen Fruit, or artists, or social activists, or political advocates—what if people decided to change their neighborhood and turn them into communal gardens? Wouldn’t that radically change so much about the world?

Austin—It’s so intense to be on the planet right now, and it seems like you can get lost in everything that’s going wrong. We see the Endless Orchard as a small, achievable gesture that can actually make a difference in the community and in the world.

David—One of the things that people don’t realize about food is that several generations ago, food was completely regional. As far as you could bring it was where you could sell it at market. In our recent generations that changed. Food started being transported around the planet in airplanes and boats. In the US, the average piece of produce on your table travels at least 300 miles to get to your kitchen. In many cases, it travels over 1,500 miles. In a lot of places in North America, there’s no reason why you couldn’t walk around the corner to get the very thing you just bought from another state, or perhaps a different country.

So, our relationship to food, as well as our relationship to our neighbors, has completely transformed. The point of the Endless Orchard is to bring that paradigm together again.

Alex—There is a long history of planting fruit trees in Los Angeles specifically. How has that influenced your work?

David—A lot of cities in the US did not begin with the goal of becoming a city. That wasn’t the original intention, it was just an area, and Los Angeles particularly was, in its early days, a sprawling agricultural area. Before Europeans contacted the area along what is now the Los Angeles River, it was a nexus of communal exchange. In the 18th-century, the Spanish and others introduced figs, grapes, pomegranate trees, and other things that do really well in this climate.

In the late 1800s, grape vines were planted near what’s now Union Station. All of Bunker Hill, which is now downtown LA, was covered in orange trees. So, there’s this newer history of agriculture specific to the area where we started our work.

Austin—This history includes migration, colonialism, and cultural displacement, which is part of the story of fruit and it’s movement throughout the world.

David—Yeah, and in some neighborhoods you can still see the trees, like ancient fruit trees planted on a grid where there was once an orchard, and now it’s a neighborhood.

People think they are the most important thing in a neighborhood, but in fact, communities support a lot of different types of co-dependent ecosystems. Some of that support is determined by plant types, and they support not only humans, but other animals—birds, pollinators, insects, and more—that are super healthy to all environments.

Alex—What are you planning for the Endless Orchard project and the Monument to Sharing at the LA State Historic Park?

Austin—When we first did our Creative Capital Artist Retreat presentation in 2013, we discussed our idea to create our endless orchard, a non-contiguous orchard of fruit trees planted by the public. We had this ambitious idea that the trailhead for the Endless Orchard would be a Monument to Sharing located at LA State Historic Park. It was really exciting that we actually got the permission to build it. We celebrated that public artwork in 2017, when the park opened. It’s a really incredible piece. We also planted fruit trees with neighbors all around that historic area near Chinatown and Olvera Street.

It’s a neighborhood filled with a lot of immigrants from China, El Salvador, Mexico, and Guatemala. We recorded interviews in different languages, and we created a 32-line poem about sharing from all of their stories. One line appears around each of the orange trees. All the trees are publicly accessible.

You can see the city landscape of downtown LA in the background. It’s a place where anyone can go and pick oranges. When we have our opening for the Endless Orchard, we are going to have it at the Monument for Sharing.

Alex—You mentioned that you always engage the community with your visual and sculptural work. How do you plan to do that with the activation of this project?

David—We’ve been doing this for 16 years, and the work is always in a state of evolving. What we’ve come to realize is that our capacity to do the work is limited by us as two people. We’re interested in expressing our enthusiasm about other people collaborating with us. That doesn’t actually mean that we have to be there or directly involved with the Endless Orchard. As far as community engagement projects that people know us for, like the Lemonade Stand and our magazine project, we love them and want to do those participatory projects more to celebrate community.

As far as planting trees and expanding the Endless Orchard, we encourage people to do it on their own impulse, to transform their communities into public artworks using fruit trees and the public right-of-way as the framework. We feel that the work should carry on with or without us.

The artist in history is one of the only cultural characters that are allowed to go through social boundaries. We can move through class systems, political systems, and language barriers.

We were able to create this project with support of foundations like Creative Capital and other foundations, like Muriel Pollia Foundation. The result of this incredible effort, that Creative Capital took a risk with us in making, is that we were able to install fruit parks in 19 different cities across the United States. We were able to impact communities in incredibly various ways that are not temporary. A lot of times you think about public art—it might be a sculpture or a mural, that might last forever. Other times it may be sensational or experiential, like an event, and it might be extremely temporary. What we’re excited about is that these trees will be here for generations. In many cases they are declared as works of art, so that those spaces we co-created with community leadership and the public must persist in the public realm as a place for sharing. The fruit trees will be replaced, if necessary.

As far as moving forward with the project, we’re working on a publication where we’re taking all of the notes and ideas—including interviews, papers, and documents—from some of our favorite projects we’ve worked on, and making that available for everyone. We are going to share that openly as an electronic download, so that people can use our projects as an example of successful community-engagement, achievable government support, and collaboration with local leadership to get everyone involved and expand the Endless Orchard project.

Alex—How do you approach each project and commission? Since you’ve worked all over the world, I’m sure it’s a different process each time. 

Austin—When we get a commission, our workflow is always different because it’s always a different ask. We have started doing more immersive art installation projects. For instance, at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, we also did an epic art installation, called Block After Block, along with two permanent public park projects in the city. For the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, we were commissioned to create a wallpaper from their permanent collection, which we exhibited alongside maps we made of public fruit in different areas of the city.

Monument to Sharing by Fallen Fruit, at the Los Angeles State Historic Park in California.

As we began working with fruit, the subject of fruit opened up exponentially. There are so many ways you can think about it. We became really clear that fruit is a cultural object. It’s really exciting to get invited to places like Tel Aviv and discover which fruits are important to those cities, and what is growing in public spaces there. We’ll talk with a lot of people and photograph fruits that we find in those public spaces. We will map the city while we’re doing this, and we’ll go deep into local culture. For example, in Tel Aviv, there is thousands of years of history of cultivating fruit.

We then create an immersive artwork as a form of portraiture of the city and the area with the fruits and other fauna and flora. In the case of Tel Aviv, we photographed endangered species of birds, some now extinct. And then we created a huge installation artwork for TAU Art Gallery in Tel Aviv, that is a tribute to and portrait of the area—the project is called Promised Land.

Sometimes we get to put historical objects or works of art in context to the installation artwork. In Melbourne, we worked with the NGV to create Natural History, an immersive artwork that reorganized selections from the permanent collection. We created a story of not only colonialism, and removal of local original cultures, we also reframed the story through the objects collected by the museum since the mid-1800s. You get an idea of what culture meant to the colonizers with little reference to the original inhabitants. It was a history really absent of aboriginal culture until the 1980s. After the 80s the permanent collection became more informed by pre-European contact culture. We made a pattern of our photos of native flora and one of naturalized flora—mostly roses—and one pattern using only images painted or drawn by colonizers closer to original contact. This becomes an interesting story about how people and objects move through the world.

David—It sounds abstract, but in fact it’s a process that took years of development. Through the Endless Orchard project, we were able to work with museums and we were encouraged to take risks with public bodies of knowledge, like when we worked with the Portland Art Museum to curate anthropomorphic sculptures to create an exhibition called Paradise, which was an abstracted reorganization of ideas about Western expansion and Manifest Destiny.

The idea of Endless Orchard is to make concepts of “otherness” an idea left behind in history, or that sharing and goodwill is an essential part of life, it’s not a condition. We’re looking to continue working with these powerful ideas. These basic ideas have continued to thread the fabrics of world cultures for hundreds and hundreds of years, if not thousands.

Austin—The origin of our collaborative name, Fallen Fruit, comes from the Old Testament. It was a law which mandated not harvest fields to the edge, but to leave the fruit from the edges for the stranger and the passerby. In 2004, when we created this project with Matias Viegner, that was the inspiration and has been the guide of our work.

Interestingly enough, why we ask people to plant a fruit tree on the edge of their property has two reasons: you can plant the tree for yourself and it’s a gift that is easy to give, but also it creates a legal loophole. Maybe we can’t plant an orchard in a public space because of local legislation or other conditions, but we can plant something in a private space that’s next to the sidewalk without special permissions. The fruit can grow over the sidewalk and is easily accessible. This becomes the largest artwork on the margins of public space.

David—That is our goal. So why not make more? More is more. The same thing happened when we started working with museum collections, starting with LACMA in 2010. Many museums have incredible collections that the public never gets to see. Less than 10% of public art collections are on view, and the rest is in storage.

The same thing is true with the mandate from Leviticus. The fruit of cultural knowledge should be there for all of us to view freely, to learn from, and profit from.

Alex—There’s an interesting parallel between your description of the fruit trees on the edge of someone’s private property and the boundary-crossing work of artists.

David—The artist in history is one of the only cultural characters that are allowed to go through social boundaries. We can move through class systems, political systems, and language barriers. Not just in visual art, but in all forms of cultural production, the artist is given permission to listen more and think deeply, be prophetic, make ideas happen, and take risks.

Austin—Through being an outsider we can get a different perspective on things, especially as an artist invited to do a project in another city that’s not familiar. It’s easy to have a fresh view of what’s going on in that place.

Alex—This project has shown all over the world and impacted so many people. How has Creative Capital been instrumental in helping you work on Endless Orchard?

Austin—Creative Capital was so pivotal in our trajectory as artists. When we presented at the Artist Retreat back in 2013, it was such an important moment for David and me to form a way to work together.

David—A lot of what happened after we received the Creative Capital Award helped us galvanize our thinking about who we are as artists, to think about what we make, and think about everything intentionally and wholeheartedly. When the opportunity came forward, it helped us expand the vision of the project beyond what we had initially intended and to have a greater impact on the communities we engaged.

One of the key fundamental differences in the way we work after receiving the Creative Capital Award is that we started getting projects in cities that have connected histories. We got projects in places like Omaha, Nebraska with Bemis Center for the Arts. A short time later, we started working in Portland with Caldera and Portland Art Museum. If you start looking at the history of the United States, you will see all these connections, for instance, between the two cities along the Oregon Trail. It’s very strange and very exciting. We started doing things that really uncovered camouflaged histories and misinterpretations of bodies of knowledge through the Endless Orchard project.

Austin—The other thing that was great about Creative Capital was working with other artists. Our cohort was a group of artists working on legal issues. It was such an incredible thing to have a connection to these amazing people and ideas.

David—We received the Creative Capital eight years ago, and it’s completely changed our approach. So we say thank you!

Read more about the Endless Orchard and the Monument to Sharing in Los Angeles on Fallen Fruit’s website.