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Futurefarmers: A Variation on the Powers of Ten at the Berkeley Art Museum
Futurefarmers: Study for Powers of Ten, 2010; digital photograph; courtesy of the artists. Photo: Jeff Warrin.
BERKELEY, CA.- What are the limits of knowledge? Where is there still mystery, and how are researchers moving towards these “unknown” territories? Futurefarmers, the San Francisco-based collective (artists Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine), is asking these and other questions as part of a multifaceted research residency inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’s film, Powers of Ten (1977).

Powers of Ten is a short documentary film that depicts the relative scale of the universe in factors of ten. It illustrates the universe as an arena of both continuity and change, of everyday picnics and cosmic mystery. One iconic image from the film depicts a couple picnicking on a blanket, serving as a human-scale grounding for the macro- and micro-explorations in the film. Futurefarmers is using the film as a conceptual and aesthetic framework for exploring related ideas—the production of knowledge; how its limits are understood, measured, represented, and transgressed; and the relationship between diverse fields of inquiry—while they are embedded in the University during the 2010–2011 academic year. With methods both formal and informal, the research framework includes ten picnics with invited scholars, recasting the picnic blanket as a space where the quotidian and the cosmic comingle, as a simple picnic serves as the setting for folding scientific, theoretical, and philosophical conversation into everyday ritual. These research moments will be documented and made available through the project website and related publication, and will also serve as fodder for the series of public programs at BAM/PFA.

A Variation takes the museum’s context inside a major research institution as both a conceptual and practical opportunity. Unlike exhibitions where the final products of thought, inquiry, and production are presented as static objects, this project foregrounds the process of thought and inquiry as its own production. It engages in forms that are fluid, contingent, and mutable—the picnic, the conversation, the workshop—as a means to extend the metaphor of research and discovery into the arena of public presentation. UC Berkeley is a preeminent public institution, but as more research institutions receive funding from private corporations, much of their research occurs behind closed doors. This project is fueled by an interest in bringing this research out into the public eye and ear and inviting the discourse of academic research into an art context and vice versa.

Like all research, the project is driven in both form and content by questions; importantly, these are not just concrete questions about what we know and how we know it, but fuzzier questions about the use and consequences of that knowledge. Where does the desire to expand our knowledge and understanding come from? To what lengths will we go to “know?” Who is impacted by this quest and where has this knowledge led us? What is the human factor within the search for knowledge? Like the film Powers of Ten, A Variation is a journey through various fields of inquiry, from human psychology and philosophy to ecology, microbiology, astrobiology, environmental science, and zoology, that collects and presents knowledge (in this case, as it is constituted inside a major university) that will provide a contemporary portrait of various perspectives on our changing world.

The public phase of the research launches in February; additional events will be announced in the March/April issue of Art & Film Notes. By nature of its form, this is a fluid, changing project, so follow along with documentation of the research and updated details about events at futurefarmers.com/powersoften.





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