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Futurefarmers, This Is Not a Trojan Horse, 2010. Performance view, Abruzzo, Italy, July 4, 2010. Photo: Daniela d’Arielli.

Futurefarmers, This Is Not a Trojan Horse, 2010. Performance view, Abruzzo, Italy, July 4, 2010. Photo: Daniela d’Arielli.

Futurefarmers

Gallery 16

Futurefarmers, This Is Not a Trojan Horse, 2010. Performance view, Abruzzo, Italy, July 4, 2010. Photo: Daniela d’Arielli.

In 2010, for a project in Abruzzo, Italy, the Futurefarmers art collective built a wooden contraption with a big central wheel. Steered from behind with a shaft similar to the beam of a plow and topped by a bucket- or kitelike appendage made of sticks, the wheel was powered by people walking hamster-like inside it. Trundling around the countryside like a cross between a tractor, a moon rover, and a gargantuan toy, the vehicle—titled This Is Not a Trojan Horse—was a conversation piece, designed to get weather-beaten local farmers, kids, and anyone else who might troop after it to talk, with a video camera present, about agricultural folkways. The artists explained that the rolling forum “wander[ed] freely on a ten-day tour collecting traces of rural practices: seeds, tools and products to enliven the imaginations of farmers through discourse [and] artistic production and to parade their truths to power.” A giant, mythologically inflected sculpture isn’t typically Futurefarmers’ style, but these concerns—archiving populist knowledge, honoring analog craftsmanship through whimsical pageantry, and encouraging food production as a social nexus—have defined their work since Amy Franceschini founded the group in 1994.

The recent survey showcased more than 160 items belonging to twenty-one projects produced since 1995, including objects, drawings, artists’ books, and video documentation of performance-interventions such as This Is Not a Trojan Horse. A sturdy bare table was on hand, too. Over the course of the show, curators and writers—“partners in thought”—were invited to meet the artists in the gallery, where the invitees selected items on view to place on the table as discussion prompts. These talks will eventually form the basis for a catalogue. Plowing their work under in this way to mulch new endeavors is central to Futurefarmers’ practice, as is dynamic exchange with experts of all stripes: from the Italian farmers to the residents of a North Philadelphia neighborhood notorious for brownfield pollution who brought soil samples to be tested in a self-sustaining laboratory-cum–soup kitchen (Soil Kitchen, 2011) to the shoe-repair guys—one in each of New York’s five boroughs—whose shops became conceptual focal points for a nine-day series of lectures, tours of the cobblers’ shops, and workshops at the Guggenheim, all inspired by the figure of Simon the Shoemaker, interlocutor of Socrates (Shoemaker’s Dialogues: Soul Sermons, 2011). What may be the group’s best-known piece, Victory Gardens, 2007–2009, was developed with the City of San Francisco to foster a network of community and home gardeners, dispensing free seeds, supplies, and educational support via a specially designed (and carbon-neutral) “Garden Trike”—which was itself parked jauntily beside the gallery desk.

The exhibition was visually full, and conceptually somewhat vexed. In addition to books, video on monitors, posters, banners, and drawings (plus the trike), there were twelve low platforms set out in a grid, crisp and white but otherwise suggestive of shipping pallets. Artifacts from the seventeen focal projects were arranged on these. Franceschini was a celebrated Web designer before she started Futurefarmers, and longtime collaborator Michael Swaine recently completed an MA in design. As makers of objects, they favor wood, canvas, cotton, and other organic materials (often upcycled), accented with molded plastic in Day-Glo hues; their clean-lined yet boxy shapes skew toward geek-chic. Perhaps inevitably, the installation felt like a charming store. The idiom of contemporary product design, from IKEA to Apple, whispered through the room, and the pristinely squared layouts of unblemished goods tended to contradict the participatory spirit made palpable in the videos.

Surely this commodity-friendly stance is intentional. How can urban farming or the cultivation of other community-based craft make a significant environmental and political difference if such practices are not widely adopted? And how are things widely adopted in our culture if they are not packaged and advertised? Futurefarmers’ affirmative radicality enters uneasily—that is, elegantly, seamlessly—into a display context, and out-in-the-world exchanges feel pushed rather wistfully far away. You had to be there? Can’t buy me love? It’s a conundrum of social practice. It might be insoluble, and it’s interesting in part for that reason.

Frances Richard