Art Review: Blake Gopnik on Baltimore Development Cooperative and Futurefarmers

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

There's not much to see in two art projects now on view in Baltimore. That's why it's worth rushing out to get a look at them before they close in the next few weeks. They're part of a trend that rejects the whole idea that art should be about providing yet another eyeful of attractive stuff. (Aren't museums already stocked with as much of that as we could ever need?) They propose art that comes closer to activism -- that gets people thinking about what needs to change, and maybe makes a start toward changing it. In these times of multiple meltdowns -- in the economy, health care, climate, world politics -- anything that speaks of change, of any kind, is bound to resonate.

The first project sits next to the grand neoclassical entrance to the Baltimore Museum of Art. It is nothing more that scrap wood, old signs and abandoned traffic cones, cobbled together into the scruffiest of geodesic domes by a three-artist collective called the Baltimore Development Cooperative. The BDC has invited the local community to use its ephemeral little building for anything from block parties to quilting bees. Along the same lines, the artists have built something called "Participation Park." It's an empty lot in East Baltimore that they've turned into "an urban farm and social space," complete with communal kitchen.

Such work recently earned the BDC the $25,000 Sondheim Artscape Prize, beating out a field of more than 300 other mid-Atlantic artists who entered the Baltimore competition. (The six Sondheim finalists, a polished and professional bunch, have work in a group show inside the Baltimore Museum of Art.)

The second project is by another three-artist collective, called Futurefarmers, based in San Francisco. Their installation, "The Reverse Ark: In the Wake," takes up most of the Contemporary Museum downtown. "The Reverse Ark" was constructed on site, from demolition scrap and industrial leftovers collected around Baltimore before the West Coast artists arrived.

Improvising madly, the newly arrived Futurefarmers sliced five huge oars out of floorboards from abandoned houses -- Baltimore has lots of those -- then stuck them into a row of openings they'd cut in the gallery wall. (Executive director and curator Irene Hofmann found out after the holes were cut and says she was okay with that.) Those oarlocks turn the Contemporary Museum into the "ark" of the exhibition's title, suggesting that such cultural lifeboats could help us survive whatever storms might come our way.

Futurefarmers also built a huge, primitive loom inside the gallery. Volunteers used it to weave scrap fabric from Baltimore's moribund textile industry into the beginnings of a "sail" for the ark.

And Futurefarmers launched the ultimate people's press: They attached rubber letters to the soles of clogs rough-hewn from fallen local trees, then invited visitors to stamp a text onto surplus newsprint from the Baltimore Sun. (Yet another local employer that may be on its way to obsolescence.)

When I stopped by, the text read: "If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone." Those are the first words of a long quote from Buckminster Fuller that could be a Futurefarmers mission statement: "If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday's fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem."

Around this framework of installation art, Futurefarmers then built a network of community activities: One Saturday workshop invited Baltimoreans to propose items for a 50-year time capsule to be buried in the gallery wall; another asked locals to bring in the objects that mattered most to them, then to release themselves from the relics' spell by smashing them.

Yes, artists have been doing things like this for 40 years. But, in an art world now dominated by fancy objects geared toward the market, this approach still somehow manages to feel fresh and even radical.

I can't pretend that I cared all that much about the details of these two projects in Baltimore. They could be a touch retro (two nods to Buckie Fuller) and romantic (the ark's portentous oars; a nouveau-hippie, dreadlocked Utopianism.) In fact, the projects tended to lack much detail about precisely which wrongs they'd like to set right. But their overall artistic attitude somehow seemed useful.

It's worth taking in these shows just to ask ourselves some questions. When has there been a style or movement in art that lasted so many decades without losing its edge? Why does this particular art still feel serious and worthy, when so much other art that once felt fine now feels like conspicuous consumption?

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company