At a table set with a locally grown feast — hearty potato, kale and white bean soup, cornbread, fresh butter and mushroom gravy — sits a group of individuals all involved in sustainable farming in the Bay Area. As they discuss strategies in environmental activism, they sit below a makeshift covered wagon, the culmination artwork of the “Land, Use” exhibit at Berkeley’s David Brower Center.
The exhibit features two activists and artists, Amy Franceschini from San Francisco and Fernando Garcia-Dory from Madrid. Described by the director Amy Tobin as a home for environmental and social action, the Brower Center commissioned Franceschini to create a show, and she brought Garcia-Dory on board. “I’ve always been interested in bringing Fernando’s work to the Bay Area because I think it resonates especially well (here),” she said. Consisting of past solo works and a collaborative piece, the exhibition actualizes the intersection of agriculture, activism, food, technology and art.
With “Shepherd’s Wagon, A Blueprint,” Franceschini and Garcia-Dory transformed the gallery into a space for communal discussion. Painted with a blueprint for a covered wagon, a canvas sheet is suspended above a foldout table and chairs. According to Franceschini, the inspiration came from the “idea of mobility and moving around and lack of infrastructure” in a shepherd’s life. Both aesthetically engaging and completely functional, it provides a focal point for the other projects in the exhibit.
One of these projects is Franceschini’s Victory Gardens in San Francisco, which is an initiative to transform backyards, vacant lots and window boxes into gardens. Funded by the city, the project involves educational programs, a seed library and movable artworks that spread this visionary goal for an urban farmscape. At the Brower Center, she has hung event posters and two pictures of gardens in front of the Civic Center, one from the 2008 project and one from 1941. Multicolored seeds sit in a display case with an instructional manual on planting a home garden. Through these objects, she has brought the citywide project into a condensed exhibition.
Similarly, Garcia-Dory brings a concentrated version of his project, “A Shepherds School as a Micro-kingdom of Utopia,” into the gallery. Working in northern Spain, he connected with young people interested in pastoralism and set up a school to teach the traditional occupation. Through snapping photographs and facilitating local events, Garcia-Dory used art to convey the importance of pastoralism in the region. At the Brower, photographs are arranged on the wall amidst a simple oil painting of a lodge and a watercolor map depicting a village at the base of geometrically rendered mountains.
Opposite, handcrafted bags, hats, shirts, bracelets, bowls and other artifacts hang on the wall as mementos of Garcia-Dory’s “A World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples.” He assembled a forum of 200 pastoralists from 44 countries, supporting meeting and discussion among otherwise isolated individuals. In return, the traveling shepherds gave these artifacts to Garcia-Dory.
The spirit of community is a thread that weaves throughout the exhibit. Both artists see the power of art in bringing people together to effectively promote change. In “This is Not a Trojan Horse,” Franceschini constructed a wooden, human-operated horse. For 12 days, the massive horse was rolled through rural Italy, mobilizing villages to sustainable agricultural reform. “There was this initial confusion in the village. Some people thought it was a TV ad; some people thought it was a children’s play,” said Franceschini. As the local villagers gravitated toward this provocative artwork, the confusion opened up a space for conversation and change.
The innovation and cooperation integral in each project build powerful momentum in the gallery space. “This exhibition is about bringing past works that happened in other contexts … to a new context, which means recontextualization and possible new readings,” Garcia-Dory said. The issues raised by each project converge at the wagon structure. He explains, “It’s ad hoc. It’s made for location. It’s about having a place to sit and gather and talk around.”
In their efforts to promote dialogue, they invited the public on Saturday to share in the conversation. Beginning with a movie screening of “Our Land,” a documentary about urban farming communities, the day followed with a potluck and social. Sitting among the art, enjoying locally grown food, the participants came to see the importance of collaboration in enacting this food revolution. “For me, all the groups working here, all the people invited on Saturday, the shepherd’s heritage, and the small farmer’s heritage, serve as anchorage for our new movement,” said Garcia-Dory.
The fuel for this movement is visual art. “The one thing that art has done with all of these projects has been to evoke a sense of wonder that transgresses language and rationale. It creates an opening for new ideas and new conversation,” said Franceschini. Utilizing art, like the covered wagon, both artists share and spread their food revolutions. The creative use of space echoes their message about a creative outlook on land use. Although the space they created is temporary, the art has sparked relationships and discussions that will continue long after the show closes.
Anna Carey is the lead visual art critic.