As a celebration of its two full decades of operation, Gallery 16 is hosting an extensive exhibition of the work of the artistic collaboration called Futurefarmers, who as it turns out, is also celebrating its 20th year of designing and implementing public projects. This is a much larger and more complicated exhibition than what one might normally expect to see in a gallery, and it argues for seeing the work of Future Farmers as representing an important bridge between an older generation of collaborative artistic practices exemplified by the work of Joseph Beuys, Mierle Ukeles and Ant Farm, and the newer vogue for social practice art that has recently gained some credibility in academic circles. Yes, Future Farmers (the longstanding collaboration between Amy Franceschini and Michael Swain) have been formulating projects in the area of cultural activism since 1994, and it seems that the world has taken that long to catch up to their imaginative vision of practical sustainability. In most cases, their projects have been undertaken as a do-it-yourself intervention into the dysfunctional marriage of flagrant waste production and impending resource scarcity, and they are all earmarked by a wry didacticism. Although we might want apply the term Ecotech fetishism to their work because of its apparent a-politicality, Futurefarmers rewriting of what counts as being truly practical nonetheless smuggles in some large political implications vis-à-vis its all-too-sensible violation of a closed system of economic operation that looks evermore like one big company town. And given Futurefarmer’s longstanding omnipresence in the northern California art scene, and given the group’s historical location in a time and place where, in a span of the past two decades, we have seen the emancipatory possibilities of advanced technology morph into a mega-corporate bitch goddess, Futurefarmers do-it-yourself revolutions from within now strikes a special chord in relation to the new political emergency of metastasizing wealth disparity. For this reason, Futurefarmers refreshed evocation of the “less is more” design strategies of Buckminster Fuller do manage to reach past northern California’s long-standing ethos of hippy craftsmanship. And if social practice art is indeed a thing with real social purpose apart from being just another art world pathway into the curatorial limelight, then surely Futurefarmers have done much more than most to lend credence to such claims.
Central to this exhibition are a cluster of eleven platforms that rise about eight inches from the gallery’s floor, each of which supporting a commemorative tableaux harking to one of several of the group’s most ambitious projects. Note here that the tableaus are not mere sites of documentation, although that is a part of why they look the way that they do; rather, they are stand-alone artworks that reframe the relationship between document, relic and formal display in several unique ways that are reminiscent of the ways that Joseph Beuys or Matthew Barney packaged the relics of their actions into fetishizable sculpture. The exhibition literature asks the viewer to look at the platforms as one might regard the pages of a book, and that does help in making sense of the exhibition, as does the smartly designed on-line exhibition catalog that can be found here.
It is sometimes difficult to gauge the relationship of the platforms to specific projects that have taken place in far away locations, although there is some benefit to leaving such relations to the reconstructive capacities of the viewer’s imagination. For example, there is Platform 7, which makes reference to an installation that took place at the Baltimore Contemporary Museum in 2010 titled “Reverse Ark II: In the Wake”. The platform contains 5 handmade rowing oars that in fact were used as performance props at the current exhibition’s opening, but its evocation of how they functioned in the original installation represents a leap of faith in after-the-fact written description. That much said, I also have to note here that the oars were deployed in an improptu performance at the exhibition, creating a disruption of the business as usual character of art world ritual. The platforms that refer to highly visible projects undertaken in the Bay Area made a different kind of sense. One of these is Platform 11, aka “Variations on The Power of Ten”, which points to an exhibition that Future Farmers had at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2011, although I remember or misremember something like it at the University Art Museum in Berkeley presented that same year. In any case, the original exhibition was a suite of ten large photographs of two or three people lounging on a clutch of differently colored checkerboard picnic blankets, each festooned with different picnic accoutrements, and each photographed from a homemade gantry that positioned the camera directly above its subjects. In these canny works we see a charming transposition that jumps from the idea of art as leisure to leisure as art, with all of the mental health benefits that appertain.
Platform 5 is devoted to a project that was staged at several international locations in 2007-2009 titled “Victory Gardens”, which evoked the mobilization of civilian agricultural projects during period of food scarcity during the Second World War. This was essentially an educational project pertaining to how people might grow their own food on land commandeered for that purpose, but the years bracketing this series of actions are of interest in that they are also the years of the financial crisis that was exemplified by the fact that the new and deeply insidious wars of the 21st century will be fought with banks instead of tanks. Exaggerated wealth disparity is the collateral damage of this new warfare, casting guerrilla home gardening as a subversive refusal of dependency on profit-motivated food production and distribution systems.
There is another piece relate to the “Victory Garden” project that stands out, titled “The Victory Garden Trike” (2007), that being a three-wheeled velocipede that functions as a delivery vehicle that could bring the constituent parts of a guerrilla gardening project to almost any location, while also facilitating the retrieval of produce when the time comes. Here the political lesson lies in the way that we might imagine a disregard for land ownership while fully benefiting from secretive albeit well-organized agricultural labor.
There is additional platform that stands taller than the others, but it does not have a numerical designation, because it is called “Now.” There is nothing on its surface, but nearby are about twenty ink on paper drawings that suggest Part of the exhibition are a series of about 30 ink-on-paper drawings, some looking quite finished while others being concept sketches in the true sense of the word. Too casual to be called “works on paper,” and too clearly focused to be called doodles, these works might best be called working drawings, some reflective of projects that have been undertaken and others harbingers of things to come.
“Futurefarmers: Taking Stock” is on view through January 31st, 2014.
For more information visit Gallery 16, San Francisco.
-Contributed by Mark Van Proyen
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