Long before farmers’ markets and seed bombings became hipster lore, Amy Franceschini and her band of Futurefarmers were busy uncovering the intimate relationship between art, design, and agriculture. Founded in 1995 as an organic collective of artists, writers, designers, researchers, scientists, and farmers, Futurefarmers has created speculative futures, heirloom seed archives, home laboratory kits, and installation art, and has revived the World War II network of Victory Gardens – urban farms located across the United States. Since 2013, the group has been working on the Flatbread Society, a public artwork in Oslo that launches in September and is shortlisted for an Artes Mundi Prize.

The cultural significance of early farming goes far beyond the cultivation of seeds. Domesticating wild plants to create reliable sources of food resulted in the establishment of permanent villages and an increase in population, as childbearing was no longer restricted by how many infants could be carried. As Chris Harman writes in A People’s History of the World, the generation of myths, ceremonies, and rituals countered the drudgery of farm labour that curtailed the footloose life of nomadism; systems were established for dealing with conflict, disagreement, and communal interdependence, where previously hunter-gatherer tribes could simply split and go their separate ways. It was an establishment of a way of being, a culture: agriculture.

Flatbread Society Bakehouse, 2016 Oslo, Norway Futurefarmers
The new Flatbread Society grain field in Oslo, a commissioned public artwork by Futurefarmers in the heart of the contentious redevelopment of the Bjørvika suburb, shows just how potent accessing this most formative culture of our contemporary civilisation can be. The development sees the rehousing of major institutions such as the opera house and public library, as well as the controversial Barcode Buildings – a financial district comprising 12 skyscrapers planned by Dark Arkitekter, A-lab, and MVRDV. The impact that the height of the buildings has on views and how this might divide the city’s open, low-rise character had 71% of residents opposing the development in 2007. It was this antagonism that set Futurefarmers’ sights on developing an interactive community-orientated artwork.

In travelling through rural Norway as part of her research, Futurefarmers founder Amy Franceschini discovered the vehicle for these intentions: a bakehouse, which in many small towns still serves as a communal food production and storage site as well as a social gathering space. Traditionally, bakehouses facilitated the ‘flatbread storage economy’ that saw communities fire all their grain over a period of three days into really flat, dry breads with holes in the centre. These discs could be stored for up to 20 years in the dry rafters of the buildings.

Flatbread Society Bakehouse ovens Futurefarmers
Back in Oslo, a temporary, on-site bakehouse in Bjørvika was piloted. It took only two weeks for it to obtain a life of its own, with activists and schools doing workshops and people even having birthday parties there. It also served as a cultural meeting point for the wealthy, gentrified residents and for the nearby immigrant suburb of Greenland, where the city’s breakfast flatbread is produced today. The name Flatbread Society, with its echoes of Flat Earth Society, also sparked people’s imaginations and created conversations around questions of globalisation. “Most cultures share this idea that the Earth was flat”, says Franceschini, explaining how flatbread is associated with the lower or poorer classes, and rising dough is associated with the affluent urban classes, paralleling the perception that the round planet is supposedly a sign of advancement. “What have we actually gained from this knowledge of a round planet? Are we any more civil or moral?” asks Franceschini, also pointing out that grain availed us of the time to consider these issues, introducing notions of land ownership and control over other people.

Following the success of the now permanent bakehouse, Futurefarmers took to searching for original ancient grain seeds and uncovered a wealth of phenomenal stories about amateur historians finding heirloom seeds in the rafters and other obscure places, each with a unique story about how they reached Norway. A field for planting and growing these seeds has been included alongside the bakehouse as a way to visualise the production from seed to flatbread. A fulltime farmer has been employed to oversee this and the 150 allotment gardens that the enthusiasm for the project has inspired. The project has been renamed Losæter, referring to an open area where herds of animals are left to graze, also doubling as a cultural metaphor for someone going wild. It was baptised in a soil procession, with 50 local farmers contributing soil from across the country, highlighting these often underappreciated community members’ roles in everyday life.

Soil Procession, 2015 Futurefarmers
Flatbread Society Bakehouse ovens Futurefarmers
Now Futurefarmers is heading out to sea on an oldfashioned rescue boat from the late-1800s, to take the ancient grains “on a reverse migration” to the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East, where most grains can be traced back to. The majority of the crew are artists, scientists, and writers who have each proposed a different project to realise on board. For instance, microbial ecologist Ignacio Chapela will be sampling pollen; artist Jørund Aase Falkenberg will be making kites from cellulose cultivated in bacterial culture; and writer and photographer Vivien Sansour will be creating a narrative link to farming communities in Palestine. Franceschini is devoting herself to developing an oral history of the journey as well as building an on-board pinhole camera, turning the boat itself into a recording de- vice. The first leg sets sail on 17 September from Oslo to Belgium via London. The second leg takes place next year, venturing from Belgium to Turkey, concluding the project at SALT in Istanbul.

Artes Mundi 7: Exhibition and Prize / Showcased are works by seven outstanding international contemporary artists whose practices explore current social issues and everyday life, at the National Museum Cardi , 21 October 2016 – 26 February 2017.

This article appeared in DAM58. Order your personal copy.
Seed Journey Route, 2016 Watercolour by Amy Franceschini
Seeds of Time, 2016 Glass and seeds Futurefarmers
Temporary bakehouse built in Oslo in 2013, with the Barcode buildings in the background
Futurefarmers taking their mobile flatbread oven to Oslo Opera House, June 2013
Amy Franceschini of Futurefarmers in Bjørvika, Oslo