Futurefarmers is a collective led by Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine that includes an evolving roster of artists, designers, architects, scientists, and farmers. They deploy strategies borrowed from design, examining a situation or an object and proposing potential alternatives. Their show at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts was organized into two sections: two new commissions in the lobby and a mini-retrospective in an upstairs space.
The commissioned works were Erratum Two and Erratum Three (both 2017), which revolved around the notion of mistakes or flaws. Erratum Two stemmed from a Futurefarmers workshop with students, who combed through books in one of Harvard’s libraries for errata inserts. Several of the books were displayed in a tall, elegantly customized wood case with glass panels. Gently slanting pedestals supported the open books, revealing errata cards with corrections such as “p. 232. The penultimate paragraph on this page should begin ‘If we are to achieve a clear conceptual distinction between . . . ‘”
Erratum Three was slightly more complicated. The artists noticed that a brick in the sidewalk near the Carpenter Center had fingerprints on it. This led the group to find the brick factory that made the bricks, where they learned that each brick is personally tested for dampness––which means that many of them have been marked by a human hand. The apparent flaw on the brick is, in fact, an important moment in its manufacture. Erratum Three consisted of nine hundred bricks outfitted with canvas handles and tightly arranged in rows on the floor. They provided a platform for a performance on opening night.
For a group that thrives on site-specificity, the excitement of discovery influences subsequent representational decisions. The many layers of research that go into Futurefarmers’ projects are difficult for the viewer to take in, and even more so when the works are removed from their site of origin. Curator Rebecca Uchill used a particular sense of error to link Erratum Two and Erratum Three to two earlier Futurefarmers projects showcased in the mini-survey upstairs. In the exhibition brochure, she noted that the etymological root of “error” is “errare,” which means “to wander” in Latin. Futurefarmers’ free-associative, restlessly curious approach is, Uchill pointed out, a form of wandering.
One of the two prior “wanderings” was the 2010 artist’s book Erratum: Brief Interruptions in the Waste Stream, which began as a study into toilets as a source of nitrogen (derived from urine). Turning to Duchamp, who “destroyed” the toilet as a useful object by displaying it as a work of art, Futurefarmers demolished porcelain toilets––some of the sparkling shards were on view on a low platform––grinding the porcelain to make bricks for a purpose that was not clear. Letterpress prints illustrating chess pieces (Duchamp famously gave up art for chess) are included in the artist’s book and were also displayed in vitrines.
The other investigative wandering was For Want of a Nail. Commissioned for the 2014 SITElines biennial in Santa Fe, the piece originated with a 1943 memo from a staffer in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s office in nearby Los Alamos that stated that Mr. Oppenheimer would like to hang his hat on a nail instead of a hat rack. This exchange inspired Futurefarmers to produce three nails, one made from a meteorite, another from 1943 steel pennies, and the last from Trinitite, a glassy residue found at the Trinity test site in New Mexico after the 1945 nuclear bomb test. Futurefarmers’ foregrounding of this relatively inconsequential detail in connection to destruction on such a monumental scale registers somewhat gratingly.
The group’s “connect-the-dots” style of art-making can be a frustrating experience for the viewer. While it’s clear that the research stage of their projects is both rigorous and innovative, the end results feel anticlimactic. For instance, the three Oppenheimer nails are mounted in frames and hung on the wall, serving as a rather inert trace of the overall endeavor. Viewing the artwork that emerges from their admittedly riveting studies can often feel like walking into a room of empty wine bottles and discarded party favors––something really fun took place, but you arrived too late to join in.
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.