BY Brian Karl in Opinion | 24 APR 18

Futurefarmers: A Motley Collective with a Utopian Mission

At once whimsical and practical, the international art collective offers a cheery antidote to today’s hyper-efficiencies

BY Brian Karl in Opinion | 24 APR 18

The international collective Futurefarmers is temporarily resettling back home in San Francisco, where the group was founded in 1995 by the artist Amy Franceschini. Its return has been occasioned by ‘Out of Place, In Place’, a retrospective survey at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that runs 20 April until 12 August. Originally composed of only a few Bay Area-based artists, the number of participants has now swelled into the hundreds, forming a goofy but effective group of builders, kindly but serious pranksters and anarchistic community organizers. In a time of bleeding-edge, new-tech proliferation for hyper-efficient capitalism, Futurefarmers asks us to further contemplate how social and physical worlds might be re-made more thoughtfully and intentionally. 

‘Out of Place, In Place’ documents earlier projects (some re-worked) by the group involving physical and conceptual transformations that trace both art-world lineages (from Marcel Duchamp to Gordon Matta-Clark) and, more crucially, real-world histories of land use, resource allocation and the pursuit of alternative social and cultural formations. Newly created objects and events will also be staged both inside and outside YBCA gallery spaces to stimulate performative and interactive moments that unfold at different times during the exhibition and beyond. These include the disassembly, display and re-purposing of a large-scale antique industrial sewing machine; a musical chorale about the Hoover Dam; and an ongoing radio station which reconnects the etymological roots and social implications of broadcasting to the scattering of seeds as a way to address modern notions of free speech, free press and free airwaves. 

Futurefarmers, This is Not a Trojan Horse, 2010, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artists; Photograph: DAniella D’Arielli

Futurefarmers makes site and context-specific installations, architectural interventions and performances that generate new sources of community through disparate material and metaphorical interventions and re-locations. Their projects slyly and deliberately counter tech trends of the 1990s and 2000s, when San Francisco boomed with startups and speculative profiteering. As an antidote to unreflective techno-boosterism, Futurefarmers invests its labour in creative work that stands – or sometimes bobs and weaves – like a handmade loom or ad-hoc vessel: simultaneously apparent and allusive, at once whimsical and practical. 

As the Futurefarmers moniker suggests, theirs is a utopianism trajectory, even as they re-appropriate and communalize the patriotism-through-productivity message of Future Farmers of America, the 20th youth organization namesake. The members of the collective act as down-to-earth shamans, healers, and handy-people, tinkering with procedures that humans have previously thought up for better or worse, providing a series of do-it-yourselfer inspirational messages pointing toward alternatives to established systems. 

In perhaps their most ambitious project to date, Flatbread Society (2012–ongoing), a public work that takes ‘the form of a Bakehouse, a cultivated grain field & public programming’, the group commandeered a portion of a major harbour-side redevelopment site in Oslo, Norway, where they established a gathering place ‘in perpetuity’. Highly idiosyncratic yet elegant, custom-designed and hand-built, the Bakehouse is a transparent open-planned, multi-purpose space that invites public bread-baking and exchange of grains and other seeds through an open-access library. The Bakehouse also serves as a base-site for ongoing cross-species encounters with birds, bees and plant-life, with an overarching mission to promote revitalized creative social relations. 

In one expeditionary project, Futurefarmers launched a spinoff that addresses the fundamental concerns of drastic changes in food-sourcing in our times, the land-to-sea-to-back-to-land Seed Journey (2015–ongoing), ‘a voyage in which [ancient] grains will be transported back to their geographic origins in Jordan.’ This ‘reverse migration’ of grains collected and grown in the northern hemisphere is imagined as both a ‘rescue’ and act of resistance to protect the rights of small farmers in the wake of genetic modification and the intellectual property claims that govern modern agriculture. 

Futurefarmers, Shoemaker’s Dialogues, 2011, installation view, Guggeheim, New York. Courtesy: the artists 

Futurefarmers offer oblique comment on developing social tendencies, such as the increased narrowing of human agency and affect that might be understood to come with the greater integration of systems of artificial intelligence to fulfill human needs. In A Variation on Rossum’s Universal Robots (2013), the group attempted to both highlight and counter such constrictions in generating a loose sort of instant community by inviting audience members to participate in an impromptu reading of Karel Čapek’s 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots. This early piece of science fiction introduced the word ‘robot’ into modern usage – from the Slavic ‘robota’, meaning ‘forced labourer’ – along with suggestions of distorting aspects with which such automatons threaten human society. In the Futurefarmers’s staging, the use of an overhead projector created a low-tech ‘shadow-play’ of relevant small object images as backdrop for a series of pantomimes by the on-the-spot performers who were at times darkly poignant comic and light on their feet.

Manifestly upbeat in tone and attitude, Futurefarmers sow their own seeds via durational participatory projects, which include, for the survey show, a local procession to chart movements of the rising oceans, starting at sea level in San Francisco’s Bay View Boat Club and climbing to a signal transmission tower adjacent to Mount Sutro. Re-seeding the famous atmospheric conditions of the region, the artist group will invest in a series of fog-making contraptions and fog-related activities, playing on multiple metaphors of fog as mystification as well as a sign of unnatural climate conditions produced by industrial output. 

As a final sort of destabilizing self-intervention, the group also inserted into the mix trickster docent figures – donkey-suited interpreters of the artworks – who will provide a sort of unreliable commentary and re-figuration of selected works. The donkey is, of course, a complicated creature symbolically, notorious for both its stubbornness and its role as a beast of burden, ready to follow its own path even after being bred and pressed into service for others. It is a metaphorical figure that could stand for Futurefarmers’s own ongoing profile and performance – playful yet urgent, shape-shifting, unruly and process-oriented while still generating outcomes that can be highly impactful in the material and social world. 

Main image: Futurefarmers, Flatbread Society, 2012–ongoing, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Monica Lovdah

Brian Karl is a writer, curator and artist based in the Bay Area of Northern California.