Despite the forward-looking nature of their name, the San Francisco-based collective Futurefarmers, who play off the nomenclature of an agricultural organization established in the early 20th century (Future Farmers of America), presented a museum exhibition with a very 19th-century feel. Items in the large main gallery included a row of five movable wooden oars coming out of a wall, an old two-person tree saw and a schoolhouse chalkboard. For “The Reverse Ark: In the Wake,” Futurefarmers recycled local materials to refashion the museum gallery into a ship’s galley. The “Reverse Ark,” an idea they leave open to interpretation, refers in part to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, to Duchamp’s idea of the “reverse readymade” and to history—a reverse arc of time.

Founded in 1995 by Amy Franceschini, Futurefarmers is an evolving interdisciplinary group whose work often explores social and environmental issues. When invited to participate in exhibitions, they routinely utilize the space for education, critique and actions, without precisely controlling what will happen. Three current members—Franceschini, Stijn Schiffeleers and Michael Swaine—came to Baltimore, a harbor city, for several weeks in March to construct the exhibition with the involvement of students from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Each day of labor at the museum was treated as if it were a day on a ship’s voyage.
The elements of the “ark” were chosen with an awareness of Baltimore’s particular industrial history and waste stream. The ship’s oars, for example, were cut out of floorboards salvaged from abandoned row houses in the city. A sail was woven from scrap textiles, fabric-making having once been a bustling local industry. The students took part in workshops, gathered materials and helped to build sculptural objects that were later the instruments of performative actions, such as the ship’s sail and a “pedestrian” press. For this low-tech printing press, Futurefarmers cut “shoes” from semicircular sections of fallen trees collected from the city’s tree dump. Stenciled letters were attached to the rounded bottoms of the shoes. Remainder newsprint rolls from the Baltimore Sun were also assembled. At the show’s opening, visitors put on the inked shoes and were called one by one to step on the newsprint, printing the beginning of a quote from Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Upon  Futurefarmers’ departure, the museum became the Reverse Ark Schoolhouse, and students took over the programming.

Always interested in further collaborations, Futurefarmers turned over a front gallery to successive exhibitions by Baltimore artists, who elaborated on the ark metaphor. Soledad Salamé created an 8-by-16-foot Mylar map of Maryland’s curving coastline, layered with information about population density, pollution and sea levels. Using resin, she indicated the flooding a 1-meter rise in sea level would cause.

With this, their first museum solo, Futurefarmers turned an exhibition into a vessel to gather items and ideas from the past with an eye to constructing a better future.

Photo: View of Futurefarmers’ exhibition “The Reverse Ark: In the Wake,” 2009; at the Contemporary Museum.