If your knowledge of the San Francisco collective Futurefarmers ends at the Twitter logo (which they designed in 2007), you’re in for a surprise. This multifaceted design team runs the gamut, both in terms of production and strategies of audience engagement. They are designers of lunchboxes enabling students to discover hydrogen-producing algae—which they showed in MoMA’s 2008 exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind—but also an antiwar computer game and bingo cards intended to explore the nations with the lowest GDPs. These cultural critiques are immediately appealing because of their visuality. Their work is a crossbreed between the Californian optimism of Fritz Haeg and the primitiveness of Atelier van Lieshout. The environments surrounding their projects are often dotted with cartoonish drawings as in Presidio Trails workshop, where Futurefarmer Amy Franceschini and her students developed proposals for “nonintrusive” systems of directing hikers around the trails of California’s Mountain Lakes. On the special microsite that Futurefarmers built for the project, the motto “Trails Forever” is embedded in a simple tree emblem made from dotted lines that cheerfully floats over a map of the area. Objects with friendly rounded corners in the blatantly cute Shoelace Exchange lure the viewer in to an examination of the lost American art of shoemaking.
The strategic use of color is best expressed in the neon website that is the Futurefarmers hub. The visual language of their work connects it to city planners, schools, and, especially, grassroots urban movements. As part of the Victory Garden project for San Francisco, Futurefarmers developed the Urban Garden Registry, an online map of yards, window boxes, rooftops, and unused land as possible food production sites; it became so popular that the city adopted it. Much of today’s more obvious protest work dealing with sociopolitical issues is embodied in work that because of its placement in gallery spaces neglects to connect with the average citizen. A conventional Futurefarmers project exists as part of a portfolio of interconnected, critical yet optimistic, and pragmatic works that because of their web-based structure and focus on the environment, are more visible and resonant to a general public. I see the art world slowly coming to understand that a direct engagement of audiences is more than just environmental activism or auxiliary educational programs. The subtle, indirect implications of a project such as Sunshine Still/Speak Hard, a platform to provoke discussion on the subject of the future of fuel that will be at the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art this fall, is legitimately tackling complex political and environmental issues, and doing it while connecting art institutions to new and distinctly engaged audiences.
Amy Franceschini is my favorite kind of propagandist: she creates enticing imagery you can’t help but rally around, but backs it up with dirt-under-the-fingernails pragmatism in service of a nearly indisputable cause: resurrecting San Francisco’s legendary wartime Victory Gardens program.
When I first stumbled upon Franceschini’s work at a small gallery in San Francisco in 2007, I saw it through the lens of the Iraq war that then seemed like it’d never end. The art related to her then-new Victory Gardens project: a prototype rainwater harvester, and documentation of items used to plan and implement trial gardens. Across town at SFMOMA, she was part of the SECA Art Award exhibition, which showcased related sculptures, including hybrids like the “bikebarrow” and “pogoshovel,” which struck me as the result of a collaboration between Beuys’s Green Party and TV’s Mr. Green Jeans.
But two years later, it’s easy to frame the work, which is created under the auspices ofFuturefarmers, in the context of the current economic crisis. The 2006 version seemed to respond to an era when the president equated patriotism with shopping, whereas today’s version offers instruction in living in bounty through hard work, communal labor, and a sense of humor.
Catching up with Franceschini this week, I learned about the history of San Francisco’s World War II Victory Gardens and about her own background that makes this such a winning fit for her. At its heyday, San Francisco had the nation’s most vibrant system of Victory Gardens, plots planted to help grow food for citizens so government could use its reserves with the war effort. Some 250 plots were growing food on public land, but Franceschini says that’s probably a lowball figure, given all the gardens tended by private individuals on their own land. The last time the city studied it, in 1970, there were 1,800 acres of usable land. “If we’re thinking about the city as a farm,” she says, “networking all this open space as an 1,800-acre farm, that’s a pretty big food-producing area.”
Franceschini’s interest in such issues goes back to childhood. She was raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where her father owned a pesticide company and ran a 6,000-acre industrial farm. She marveled in her dad’s inventiveness, recounting the time he pondered how to shorten the time spent cultivating fields. “I should invent a twelve-row cultivator,” he told her, laying out specs that include hydraulics, a need to fit in a barn and be highway-ready.
“The improvisation is an exciting part of it,” she said. “Even on the farm when I was a kid, it was so exciting when something would break because the farmer would have to invent some way to fix it or invent something new.”
From her mom, she picked up a love of chemical-free agriculture: When she was five, her parents divorced and her mom started an organic farm.
More recently, Franceschini was fed up with San Francisco and left. “I was mad: ‘I’ve put so much into this city and I can’t afford to live here. I’m leaving.’” She moved with her husband to his native Belgium and marveled at how the city of Ghent subsidized green efforts like capturing rainwater or opening your basement as a bat habitat.
Inspired, the couple returned to San Francisco, and Franceschini began preparing for the SFMOMA show. She decided to “use that time and space to create a utopian proposal for a reimagined victory garden program that I could take to the city and say, ‘Here, here’s a really small portrait of what I wish the city would adopt.'”
“I wanted to invest in a real way in the world and affect a larger population than just the art crowd,” she said.
She began making promotional posters, inspired by the art of the original Victory Gardens, and built starter kits for gardeners that included everything they’d need to get growing, from seeds to instructions.
Wanting to welcome the broadest range of people, she struggled with what role aesthetics should play in the project. “I tried to convince myself that aesthetics could get in the way of a potent message,” she remembers. “Some people maybe would only go to the surface and not go any further. And I think in the last couple of years I’ve tried to figure out a balance. If you look at Futurefarmers’ work, the aesthetic is always very strong, and that’s been a really positive thing. But I think it can also be a negative thing where certain people only see that surface layer…Right now I’m very much like: aesthetics are really important. That’s what people respond to, it lures people in, it lures in people who maybe wouldn’t have looked at it in the first place, and if they only get to that surface level, fine. At least they got there.”
She sees objects like the pogoshovel as propaganda in sculptural form. She wanted to create a “wonderful and fantastical image —that if someone saw a bike and a wheelbarrow connected, it would make them do a double-take,” she says. “Just to provoke people through a playful image was interesting to me.” (Some of these pieces are functional, as well. When a family is selected to be part of the program, the project delivers their starter materials, fittingly, via pedal-power in a VG Trike/Wagon.)
The program, co-produced with Slow Food Nation, ran gardens last June through October. Now, the project has 15 gardens that receive city funds. And on March 10, Futurefarmers meets with city officials again to see if they can get buy-in for administrative help, more funding or—the cherry on top—the OK to create a permanent demonstration garden at Golden Gate Park, the site of the original gardens in 1943.
Franceschini’s group is also trying to build awareness of the project and get an accurate map of how much open land the city has and who’s gardening where. On Friday, Futurefarmers announced the launching of GardenRegistry.org, a site that allows participants to register where they’re growing or to list what kind of extras they have to share. (A current “surplus alert” shows that one gardener has extra asparagus, should you want some.)
“The main complaint we heard last year is, ‘We have too much food, what can we do with it? So much bok choy, we don’t know what to do with it! So much squash, we don’t know what to do with it!’”
Franceschini’s Victory Garden idea—like her many other projects: the Creative Capital-funded traveling Local Landscape Campus; a collaboration in Cali, Colombia, with artist Wilson Díaz on a new body of work—is going on the road. The project is on view through April 19 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Actions show.
But it’s the local impact that seems most gratifying to Franceschini. She excitedly told me about the project’s “poster child,” Vincent Lin, the patriarch of a Chinese-American family that has “just gone mad” with its garden, filling the entire yard with plants and improvised accessories that would make Franceschini’s father proud, like a compost box made from Levelor blinds welded together.
“One time I came over, and [Vincent], who doesn’t speak any English, wrote us a note in Chinese, and then wrote the phonetic translation: ‘we hope we can cooperate in the future,'” she says. “He’s built a green house out of junk, basically. It gives such an optimism to this project and influences other people: ‘I don’t need to have plastic and PVC pipe, I can just use weird old windows or a sliding glass door with broken glass he’d taped.'”
The story seems to epitomize what Futurefarmers’ projects are all about. A fitting motto for the group came up when Franceschini explained the name of Futurefarmers’ Reverse Arkproject, which will be revisited in Baltimore in late March.
“It’s a play on Duchamp’s quote,” she explains. “He said the reverse readymade is like taking a Van Gogh and turning it into an ironing board. It means taking everyday objects and turning them into art. Reversing that is flattening the hierarchy of what’s art and not art.”
To me, the best part of Franceschini’s Victory Garden project is that the art—which I understand to be that which results from a sometimes long, always creative process—is something that, in more ways than one, gives life.