The Mural Arts Project has spent months planning a series of community engagement events, called "What We Sow," that was supposed to culminate Saturday evening with a massive meal at a 900-foot table stretching the length of Independence National Historical Park.

But the park is run by the federal government, so all those plans sank, literally, overnight.

 

"When we arrived in the hotel Monday night, we received an email: 'Our federal government is a mess!' It was from our assistant, who is American," said Lucy Orta, the Paris-based artist who, with her partner Jorge Orta, designed the event.

"She said, 'Lucy, what's happening with the meal?' And of course we didn't know. On Tuesday, we met with Mural Arts and they said, 'It's off! It's off!'" she said.

After 24 hours of scrambling, the dinner is back on, at the plaza of the Municipal Services Building at the intersection of 15th Street, John F. Kennedy Boulevard, and the Parkway -- arguably the densest corner in Philadelphia. The al fresco meal will take place amid the giant board game pieces permanently installed on the plaza.

The 900-foot, linear table that had been planned to stretch, unbroken, across two blocks of the Independence Mall lawn will instead be arranged into an L-shaped labyrinth of crisscrossing tables.

Either way, the artists wanted to give guests the experience of being part of something much larger than themselves.

"This is our ideal location," said Orta. "We feel we are in the heart of the city. We've got the fantastic historical buildings, the high-rises, and I think there's a nice intimacy about it as well.

"Independence Historical Park was very long," she said. "It was useful because it was so stretched out, but you wouldn't be able to talk to your neighbor at the other end of the table."

The Ortas have designed the experience as an art project -- distinct from, say, a massive wedding reception. The public engagement experiment is meant to foster discussion among strangers about food, agricultural biodiversity, and the extinction of plant species. The artists designed the table runner and plateware with layers of text and illustrations about foodways and food production.

They slipped in a political message, too.

"We're losing biodiversity at a vast rate. We've got to take care of the knowledge of our growers. We need a collective kitchen," said Orta. "As an example, there were 7,000 species of apple 100 years ago ... there are 100 left today. If you look carefully at the table runner, you will see indicators of what this is all about."

The vegetarian menu for the 900 guests (no more seats are available) has been designed by celebrated chef Marc Vetri, featuring locally sourced heirloom vegetables. Seven restaurants will be featuring similar meals at the same time, with a piece of the original runner, and 500 boxed dinners will be distributed to food pantries around the city.