Turf tagging

A new approach by David Stephens tags the city with urban braille gardens in response to the challenges of land vacancy across Philadelphia


Fields of Knowledge
  • Comm. Development
  • Design
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions



Aaron Levy, Robin Rice


Andrew Harris

Process initiated


Opens to public





4017 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104


0% Formal - 100% Informal

  • David stephens

Slought is pleased to announce "Turf tagging," a new approach by David Stephens to land vacancy in Philadelphia. The exhibition will open on Friday, July 25th, 2014 from 6:30-8:30pm, with brief remarks by the artist at 7pm, followed by a public conversation with Laura Wolf Powers and Amy Hillier, professors in City & Regional Planning at PennDesign. The exhibit will remain on display through August 2014.

Philadelphia, like many post-industrial cities in America, has become an epicenter of policy and action concerning vacant property. Currently there are approximately 40,000 vacant lots in the city. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's LandCare program manages more than 8,000 of these lots, totaling 10 million square feet. Each lot receives a "green and clean" treatment; debris and weeds are removed, grass is planted, and a picket fence is erected. This simple alteration in landscape produces dramatic results; researchers have documented increases in health, safety and property values. The program aspires to "transform Philadelphia's vacant land into neighborhood assets" and to improve "the appearance and livability of communities."

How else can we imagine the use of vacant land in Philadelphia, both in the short and long term? How can we incorporate imaginative design and non-standardized approaches to landscaping in order to avoid homogenizing neighborhoods? How can community planning and local ownership be encouraged? At stake is the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the city itself.

Against this backdrop, David Stephens proposes a new approach to landscape architecture entitled "Turf tagging." The exhibition at Slought will feature prototypes, templates and a mold for forming outdoor urban braille gardens. The templates, each in the shape of Braille bumps and approximately six feet in width, together form a large floor mantra ("act knowledge"). They are accompanied by "Peel turf" (2013-2014), a series of earthy-toned wall constructions that similarly incorporate Braille cells. In addition, "David's Mantra" (2014), a series of five prototypes for additional Braille gardens, each containing dried plant matter and live moss spores, as well as a large mold that is a tool for forming the Braille gardens, are on display. The floor-mounted templates and wall-mounted constructions and prototypes respond to the challenges of land vacancy across Philadelphia. Working with the earth itself as a medium, Stephens proposes an inclusive and organic approach to urban development.

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David Stephens received his MFA at Temple University, Tyler School of Art (1971) and his BFA at Howard University (1968). His sculpture has often been conceived for performance and includes interactive elements that subvert and transform Braille as a system of communication.

He has exhibited at the Peal House Gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He exhibited "Kovert Konflagration Kovenant" at Slought in 2004, which featured twelve 18-inch-high crosses that were burned in a public park to ignite discussion about a Supreme Court ruling that permitted cross burning in public. Group shows include "Anti-Aparthide" at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; "Reflections" at the Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, CT; the Twenty-Third Corcoran Biennial; and the Second World Festival of Black and African Art (FESTAK), Racetrack Gallery, Lagos, Nigeria.

As a teacher, Stephens has worked with elementary school, high school and college students in academic and community settings. In 1985-86, he worked with two culturally diverse groups totaling around 80 young people in North Philadelphia and a group of around 30 in Point Breeze making trompe l'oeil replacement panels to cover windows in vacant and abandoned neighborhood properties.

As an arts administator, Stephens has interacted and collaborated with child care centers, public schools, prisons, hospitals, and blind and disabled communities. In Philadelphia, he has served on the boards of the Fabric Workshop, the Clay Studio, the Center for Art in Wood, and the Brandywine Workshop. Stephens was the founding administrator of the Outreach Program at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C., 1970 - 73) and a Program Director at the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (1986-91).

Further reading

LandCare Program, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Mark Alan Hughes, Dirt Into Dollars: Converting Vacant Land into Valuable Development (Brookings Institute, 2000).

Related projects
Begins Nov 13, 2004

An exhibition by David Stephens about cross burning and the 2002 Supreme Court ruling in Virginia Vs. Black

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