Blurring the boundaries between the roles of artists, research scientists, and social activists, the San Francisco-based art collective Futurefarmers creates projects that engage the imagination while addressing public concerns with the hope of finding solutions. Working together as a team of artists and designers since 1995, the group has collaborated with environmentalists, engineers, teachers, technicians, and others to produce experimental endeavors around the world. For its premiere offering in New York—the installation of a Shoemaker’s Atelier and Cobbler’s Bench at the Guggenheim Museum and interactive events that extend beyond the museum—the collective mixes metaphors of the sole, that carries one through the streets, and the soul, which takes one through life and requires constant searching and mending.
Futurefarmers’ project at the Guggenheim taps into the tale of Simon the Shoemaker, a fifth-century associate of Socrates who ran a shoe shop in Athens, for its point of departure. As the story goes, Socrates engaged the cobbler and the local youth in philosophical discussions while Simon worked. Socrates believed that craftsmen possessed some form of secure knowledge. Shoes have also played a central role in several of the Futurefarmers’ past projects and since craft is an important part of the collective’s pursuits, the interpretation of the shoemaker’s shop at the museum seemed like a perfect fit for what has amusingly been billed as a 10-day “thinkery.”
“The Guggenheim project started with an article we read by a British historian about Socrates having these conversations with a shoemaker,” said Michael Swaine, a co-founder of the collective. “No one knows if it's true or not, and people argue about it, which we also found interesting. There is a debate over whether another philosopher may have just been trying to imagine what Socrates was saying and came up with a list of dialogues written by Simon; but there’s something very beautiful about the idea of a philosopher searching for knowledge in a traditional craftsperson.”
The Cobbler’s Bench at the Guggenheim extends the built-in seating, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, on the ground floor of the museum’s rotunda for people to gather upon, while the Shoemaker’s Atelier provided a setting for the Sole/Soul Sermons that were delivered on the first day and houses objects used in a series of walks and excursions around the city. The sermons, which can be heard on the nearby phone booths in the rotunda, are fictional texts composed by an author, an essayist, and a poet in response to the British historian’s article about Simon the Shoemaker.
“Since this is our first project in New York, we were a bit nervous about the big stage, which made us reconsider our practice: what is Futurefarmers, what do we make and what are some of the lines that run through the work,” said Amy Franceschini, the other Futurefarmers co-founder. “Shoes have continuously found their way into our work through various manifestations—from making snowshoes that helped scientists find green algae in the Colorado Rockies to constructing platform shoes with little vials that secretly took soil samples that were sent out for testing from brownfields and Superfund sites.”
The shoe theme continues with three guest speakers at offbeat locations around the city delivering Shoemaker’s Dialogues. Two soot-gathering walks will provide part of the materials for making ink; and at three Pedestrian Press events, core members and volunteers will wear special shoes, fitted with letters and stamp pads, to print the sermons and selections from the dialogues on scrolls of papers. Meanwhile, two educational programs— Making Our Own Rules, in which participants make their own rulers from the length of his/her foot and the screening and discussion of Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life, about eight contemporary philosophers—rounds out the project.
“What I find most interesting about the Futurefarmers’ practice is that there’s a performative aspect to it as well as an interactive aspect, and it’s all overlapping. It’s not clear what is what,” said Guggenheim Assistant Curator David van der Leer, who organized the show. “The other thing that I find so beautiful, which we saw more of in the 1970s, for instance, is that things become so multilayered. Right now things tend to be so direct and so clear. But I like that this project takes some time before you understand what you’re looking at. You need to see part of the two weeks before you get a sense of ‘OK, this is what they are doing.’ You’ll get a different understanding if you only see part of it: the first part of it, second part of it, or the third part of it. I like that multilayered aspect of it. You don’t need to exactly know everything. I find that beautiful.”