Installation view of “Out of Place, in Place,” 2018. Photo: Charlie Villyard, Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts


San Francisco

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

“Out of Place, in Place,” Futurefarmers’s recent retrospective, offered members of the collective a chance to think about the concerns that have driven their work since 1995. For visitors, the show was a unique opportunity to see a range of sculptural objects generated by 10 participatory, process-based projects. These pieces—attractive, clever, and sometimes quite funny—offer an entry point into ideas that suggest “alternatives to the social, political, and environmental organization of space.” Over the years, Futurefarmers have worked with numerous communities, creating everything from temporary schools, books, and bus tours to maps of food-production networks, anti-war computer games, and an online registry of unused arable land in San Francisco.

Futurefarmers’s work often embodies the Beuysian idea of social sculpture, in that its structures—whether words or actions, objects or experiences—use language, interaction, and visual art to consider social issues. But Futurefarmers are not interested in solving problems for others. As Michael Swaine, one of the group’s original members, explains: “I want to create a situation where we have to try to solve something for ourselves with others. We are problem solvers, but not in a linear way.” One manifesto (included as a wall text) states that their practices employ the assembly—putting all the elements of a project together—as well as the disassembly (as in deconstruction) of various systems related to food, transportation, or education. Sometimes, they offer a more sustainable alternative.

The show filled YBCA’s first-floor exhibition areas, spilling from the entry area into two large galleries. In one of these, seven projects created a pleasantly crowded display of sculptures and videos accompanied by text panels, manifestos, and dense, idea-rich object labels. The atmosphere deliberately invoked an ethnography or possibly archaeology museum filled with charismatic artifacts telling stories, rather than art. A series of platforms and cases in the middle of the room featured relational objects from several projects. Used in walks, talks, and workshops, these works served as catalysts in communal encounters, instigating dialogue as well as action. Many of these relics of past events require activation—for instance, a boat with two pairs of rubber boots attached to its bottom like the legs of a horse costume or shoes with a single raised letter on the bottom of each sole (used, collectively, to stamp out a message and titled Pedestrian Press). Most of these inventions combine inviting humor with an air of the surreal. Seeds of Time, a stoppered, hourglass-shaped vial lying on its side, both compartments filled with seeds, was enchantingly nonfunctional. A video revealed that it is part of a multi-year seed bank project.

Some ideas have been better than others; and some pieces, though they address issues of great importance, seem less successful. But that doesn’t really matter. As Swaine puts it in the exhibition brochure, “Futurefarmers and efficient systems do not go together.” Saving seeds, for example, is crucial to our survival as a species, and air pollution—the subject of another project—is of obvious universal concern. But Futurefarmers’s projects do not attempt to do more than draw attention to these issues in a visually poetic way. The desired “result,” if any, would be getting people to think. One of the most memorable projects documented in this first gallery was a 10-day “urban thinkery,” sponsored by the Guggenheim in 2011, which combined a focus on the pleasures and importance of labor (always an undercurrent in Futurefarmers’s projects) with the exercise of free speech and autonomy. Loosely based on the open forum of Simon the Shoemaker’s Athens workshop, where Socrates supposedly led discussions, this dialogue on the conversational history of shoes featured a cobbler’s bench and shoe racks, which supported various actions and encounters (including Pedestrian Press), for which Futurefarmers collaborated with poets, labor historians, and philosophers to talk about caring for both the soul and the sole.

After the convivial clutter of this gallery, it was startling and refreshing to experience the artists’ strategic use of the sprawling acreage in the adjoining room—a space that has the tendency to overwhelm whatever it contains. Futurefarmers used it for a single project, the specially commissioned Speculative Machine, which considered the “harvesting, connotations, and metaphors” of fog (ever-present in San Francisco). In recent decades, fog collecting has been used around the world as a source of water—something California will have to contemplate as temperatures rise and the state’s population continues to balloon. The objects on view—described as tools for thinking through what a machine for capturing fog might be like—included a freestanding stage/platform and, above it, several large fabric triangles resembling sails. An elaborate system of ropes, strung across the room and hanging in coils on the walls suggested that the fabric might be rearranged to enhance the gathering of moisture. (Vertical canvas panels are often used as fog collectors.) Other items included a bevy of teakettles—indoor fog generators?—and an enormous industrial sewing machine that was to be disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled in one of a series of public workshops. Another event involved a procession of people “becoming a body of fog rolling through the city” as they walked from YBCA to Mount Sutro, a San Francisco landmark often wrapped in white clouds. One of the large triangles of cloth had a map-like group of squares cryptically excised from it—a possible reference to the foggier neighborhoods in San Francisco’s grid.

The kind of social change that Futurefarmers consider or instigate is mostly long-term and subtle, even when the issues are immediate and relatively urgent. The workshops and events that anchor their projects bring people together to make and to think—experiences that have continuing, lingering effects, though they might be difficult to quantify. This is what Futurefarmers mean when they talk about “cultivat[ing] consciousness.” Firmly committed to exploring alternatives to destructive human behavior, they demonstrate that it’s possible to sidestep existing systems through imaginative, cooperative forms of interaction.