Of the Place: An Interview with Amy Franceschini

Artist and educator Amy Franceschini is the founder of Futurefarmers, a San Francisco-based artist collective and design studio that designs projects that address current social, environmental and political challenges through the use of diverse forms of audience engagement. The essence of Futurefarmers projects has been described as “a balance of critical and optimistic thought with the use of inventive and pragmatic design elements.” The collective is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art and will contribute to a group exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2012, Six Lines of Flight. DailyServing contributor Allie Haeusslein recently met with Franceschini at her studio to discuss some of her recent projects with Futurefarmers.

"Shoemaker's Dialogues" at the Guggenheim, New York. 2011.

Allie Haeusslein: Perhaps the best way to contextualize the projects we will discuss is to talk a bit about the birth Futurefarmers. Can you identify some of the key issues or influences that sparked the creation of the collective?

Amy Franceschini: It wasn’t something that was created, which I think is important; it sort of became – and it is always becoming. But it really came out of a design studio in the 1990s, in which I was doing design work. At that time, I had to start collaborating with lots of different kinds of people – programmers, engineers, copywriters, photo editors, and researchers. So, the studio became filled with all of these different thinkers who were sharing the space. That ethos of collaboration was really exciting. And then, we started to get asked to do art projects by museums. I wanted to keep that multidisciplinary ethos going.

AH: The collaborative spirit you’ve described really seems evident in your project at the Guggenheim this past March. Can you describe the genesis of this project and how you feel it responds specifically to the New York City environment?

AF: The exhibition was part of a new series called Intervals, which is supposed to show artists who’ve never had a solo show in NYC. They ask artists to respond to the building in a way that it hasn’t been used before and for the exhibitions to be short.

When we went there, we were like “what do we do at the Frank Lloyd Wright museum in terms of speaking to the building? And what do we say in New York? What do we say on this stage that has such a spotlight on it?” What we felt in our several site visits was that Manhattan, specifically, has changed so much over the years. We felt like the soul of it had gone, like that thing of New York wasn’t as strong as it had been before. Maybe it’s out in the other boroughs, but Manhattan is starting to feel like a caricature of itself. How do we respond to that? That was part of the starting point.

Conceptual sketch for "Soil Kitchen." Drawing by Dan Allende.

We found this story about Socrates going to visit a shoemaker named Simon outside of the Agora. Socrates was involved in the politics of the Agora and was fed up with it and wanted to find people who were thinking in a way that wasn’t about power and control, but more about questions and wonder. We wanted to recreate the situation of Simon and Socrates meeting and it all just kind of fell into place. We had this idea of remaking a cobbler’s studio. There’s this curved bench in the bottom of the rotunda in the museum – its a place that is still free. Something that we always try to do is find a place where people don’t have to pay entry fee so that you get a diverse audience. We proposed to extend that bench and turn it into a cobbler’s bench and frame the sitting area on the bottom floor and turn it into a cobbler’s studio. That was our base for several excursions we did with different types of thinkers who we asked to respond to the story we found about Socrates and Simon. We met in 6 different places around the city. And then, we did a book called Soul/Sole Sermons that went along with the project that is printed in soot ink. Part of the project was to go on an excursion and collect soot from all these different boroughs in the New York area and make ink out if it. And we created a pair of shoes that had letters on them and printed texts commissioned by three writers in both the streets of New York and in a book.

AH: This idea of collecting earth or something of the place seems to be a recurrent theme in your work. I’m wondering if you can speak a bit about this idea and how it fits in with your recent project in Philadelphia, Soil Kitchen.

Select photographs from "This is Not a Trojan Horse," 2010.

AF: We all fetishize history, and maybe lost histories or unidentified histories. I think that the earth is the greatest archive. The landscape is an archive. With the case of Soil Kitchen and the soil sampling shoes and the soot collection in New York it’s about collecting this matter that has a lot of information in it that maybe we can’t see at first glance. But if you take it into a lab and get it tested or examined, there is quite a lot of information in there.

With Soil Kitchen, the specific context there was really exciting. The city of Philadelphia called and said “we want to be the greenest city by 2015 and we want to commission a work from you that happens during the Environmental Protection Agency Brownfield Conference.” We proposed to take over an abandoned building and open up a soup kitchen for the duration of the conference and ask people to bring in their soil samples in exchange for free soup. The Environmental Protection Agency had their labs there and did testing on the spot, which is really rare. The scientists tested it and then consulted with each person. That was the hi-tech soil science. Then, we had students from two different universities doing more of a nutritional test to see if there were contaminants in the soil; 80% of the soil was not contaminated. This secondary test was a really beautiful test where these scientists got people excited about soil. They did tests where they would put different volumes of water into soil and then the soil would separate into different substrates and you would realize “the soil I have has 8 different kinds of rock and silt and clay in it” and you could see it separate in front of your eyes.

AH: I think this connection to place also plays into This is Not a Trojan Horse, which considers the fate of traditional farming given the modernization of agriculture in the Abruzzo region of Italy. What drew you to this region in particular and to the “Trojan Horse” as a point of departure for this project?

AF: That project was inspired by Cooley Windsor’s story called “Epios, A Sculptor,” a story about the architect of the Trojan Horse and this imagining of what that sculptor thought when he was commissioned to make the Trojan Horse. Cooley’s story was always sitting in the back of our minds. We were asked to do a project in Italy as part of a residency program on a farm where the person who runs the residency, Gaetano, wants to revive his grandfather’s farm. He is bringing artists there to regenerate an excitement on the farm and in the region about farming because local youth are leaving in herds to go to the city.

Amy Franceschini, Michael Swaine & Ignacio Valero. Selected photograph from "A Variation on the Powers of Ten," February 17, 2011.

So we built this horse and went to 12 different villages and farms. We used the horse as a symbol of a time passed and a projection of the future. In this region 20 years ago, there were still wild horses running. So the horse is a very familiar icon. To scale it up and have it human powered was a spectacular invitation to engage with it. We just showed up in villages and didn’t know if it was going to work. At first, we’d sometimes go to a village with a maximum of 100 people and go in front of the church. And people would just look at us like we were freaks. But then the kids would come up and start engaging in the horse because you could run in it. That would invite the older population to come. It gave people a way to think about the future of that region and of farming. Many people kept saying, “this is a gift. We’ve actually stopped imagining what the future of farming is here because what we see is so dire.” So it gave people a platform. Inside the wheels of the horse was blackboard paint. We asked people to write down their ideas of the future of farming. And we interviewed different people about their memories of farming. As we would roll into the next village, those statements from the previous village would be presented to the next village. I think that that project was inspiring because it was outside of a museum context and it didn’t have the same pressure. We were fortunate that this man commissioned the project with such open-ended expectations.

AH: So what is next for Futurefarmers?

AF: One of our recent projects, A Variation on the Powers of Ten, is continuing on. It will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 2012 and in Sweden, at a museum called the Bildmuseet. And we’re working on a public art project in Norway that we’re still trying to figure out. It’s a really long public art project – four to six years long. So we have a lot to think about.

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