Intervju: Formafantasma, 2023
Bringing worlds together: from chaos research to interconnected design
Formafantasma is a design studio based in Milan, Italy, working with a commercial design practice, in addition to a less conventional research and teaching practice. As part of their research, Formafantasma founders Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin spend multiple years investigating the ins and outs of the most common materials used in the design world, building informational exhibitions which expand radically on how we commonly perceive these materials. They focus often on the interrelationships between the production of the material, the humans producing it, and the living, natural world they are being extracted from – always with an environmental awareness at the heart of what they do.
Having focused on electronic waste in the exhibition Ore Streams at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia and the timber industry in Cambio at Serpentine Gallery, London, U.K, they now turn their focus to wool and the long-intertwined relationship between sheep and humans. Oltre Terra, meaning ‘across ground’ in Italian, refers to the practice of transhumance – the moving of grazing livestock, including sheep, between different landscapes. This research will be presented at the National Museum in Oslo from 26th May to 1st October 2023.
Kunsthåndverk spoke to Simone Farresin about the project in advance of the opening of Oltre Terra. Why Wool Matters.
Ruth Aitken: Where was the start point for you both and Oltre Terra?
Simone Farresin: The curator of the exhibition, Hanne Eide, works at the National Museum and saw a previous work of ours, Cambio, which was about the industry of wood. She actually commissioned us to work with wool. It wasn't a subject we necessarily chose to work with but we thought it was interesting. Some of the subjects we explored previously at Serpentine were related to the complex relationships that exist between humans and living creatures related to production – in the case of Cambio it was about wood. So we looked into these issues through the lens of wool.
The exhibition is not necessarily about wool. Or, this is not an exhibition that is glorifying wool. It's not an exhibition about nostalgia, and it is definitely not about local production versus global interactions. But it is an exhibition which questions some of the complex ecologies of production that we are used to dealing with today.
RA: So, were you going into the project with any knowledge of that ecology of industrial sheep or livestock farming, or of transhumance more broadly?
SF: I have to say, one of the aspects that we realised is really interesting for us to talk about in the exhibition is about how materials and techniques are presented in museums versus how, for instance, the natural environment is represented in our museums. The museum of natural history takes care of the representation of nature, and you have the representation of techniques in, for instance, the museum of art.
But the thing that is interesting with wool is that the development of techniques changed the biology of the animal too. And, for us, this exhibition is a way of bringing these worlds together and showing they are not apart but that they are a complex ecology where humans making [things] influences a ‘biological mother’, I would say, and animals and other living creatures influence us back.
The exhibition starts from a very simple observation: wild Mouflons, the animal from which the sheep derives, lose their wool. Wild Mouflons do not need to be sheared and evolutionists think that life in proximity between humans and sheep led to sheep developing the way they have. They need humans to be sheared. Sheep are dependent on humans. Scientifically this has often been described as a domestication, humans breeding sheep and engineering them .
Humans and sheep probably started to live in proximity with the help of another animal – a dog. Sheep started to move around and humans followed where the flock needed to go, where the grass was greener, and hence humans started to create trails across countries.
With the passing of time, humans also started to breed sheep, for instance to have longer wool or more milk, and for us it is bizarre how museums’ narratives are separated. As such, the wool exhibition is designed as an open-ended diorama, as you would find in a natural history museum, but it includes not only the landscape and the animal, but also the manmade, the humans, the products, and the archival materials that we have been working with.
Of course, we could not avoid tackling how British colonialism and the expansion of wool production in Australia is changing, and changed, first of all, the ecology of Australia and the life of indigenous communities in Australia, and also how we produce wool. Many farmers in Europe struggle to find ways of applying wool because the market is not there anymore. It is much more common to import fine wool, merino, from Australia, causing trouble for farmers in addition to the ecosystem.
RA: Is there an area that you have ended up focusing on more than you expected to, because it had an unexpected impact on you?
SF: In the exhibition there will be six sections. One [section] for us which is definitely key is the beginning of colonialism in Australia, as I mentioned before.
Something that I was really surprised by, is that when colonists arrived in Australia, introduced sheep and decided to farm sheep there, it meant that they introduced an animal - sheep - which have hooves. But no animals in Australia had hooves and so the walking of these animals in the landscape ruined the landscape. To create grazing land for sheep, trees have been cut in enormous quantities and out of those trees fences were created. The quantity of farmed sheep was so large that the ecology was not able to handle the excrement and so there was a project of importing [non-native species of] the Stercorario - the Dung Beetle . This insect that eats the excrement of other animals needed to be introduced in Australia because the ecosystem was not able to handle it.
To me it's interesting how there were two different kinds of violence. One is manmade, against the indigenous community in Australia, that the land was taken to make those places. But there is also this weird thing where an animal that contributes to biodiversity and to maintaining land in Europe, that creates connections between countries, was actually counterproductive in Australia and it participated in the destruction of the ecosystem.
This was all to get us to a point that wool is so fine that it doesn't itch anymore. The reason everyone loves merino is because it doesn't itch the skin. For me this is emblematic of wool being this wonderful material, that it's not itching and soft and so on, and that we love it at the expense of many other realities.
RA: I feel like research on topics like these could go on forever. At what point do you feel like you are finished with the research? Do you continue beyond these exhibitions?
SF: We had always conceived of the Cambio exhibition as a starting point, (the exhibition) is not the ‘ta-da moment’. As an exhibition for us it was concluded, but when the exhibition travelled – it went to Italy, Switzerland, Finland – we made changes to adapt to a local context every time, so for us it doesn't end. When we engage with these sorts of subjects, I think they are more important as a way of thinking than for what they have to say about a specific material. The attitude is more important – you can do it about wool, you can do it about wood, if you see what I mean?
RA: Like an approach and a curiosity?
SF: Yes, and the understanding of things as interconnected. I think that is what we are trying to do.
RA: I think one definitely gets that. Just going through your instagram feed, in the run up to this exhibition, is very exciting and endlessly fascinating. You get a sense of this really broad understanding, of all these stories connecting. It's like a chaos research.
SF: It's good you say a chaos research. Instagram is another tool, so in a way you have a different kind of exhibition online, – it is more fragmented – but in the exhibition it is edited in such a way that it suddenly becomes sensed as a coherent body.
RA: But then how do you edit, how do you make those decisions about which stories are the important stories to include, or which directions to follow?
SF: It's really a process, it takes a lot of time. It's like a funnel, you start really wide and then at some point you start to understand what you are really interested in, and for us everything was guided by this idea of sheep trusting humans and needing a human to be sheared. It's incredible if you think about it, that an animal can change to trust humans to that level – for me it is touching…
I can just say another thing because for me it is really surprising. Some scientists were calling certain features of sheep a ‘domestication syndrome’. For example, sheep don't have erect ears anymore, they are floppy. That is because they have dogs and humans protecting them, they don't need to be careful of what is around them anymore. And scientists think of that as a syndrome, as something degrading. But we as humans have plenty of that, because we self-domesticated ourselves, or better, many other animals domesticated us too. To me it says everything – that we think that's a syndrome and it's not simply that these are animals that live in cohabitation with us and that they don't need certain features. So for me, these biases to see wilderness as superior to domesticated, to see man as superior to animals and so on, these are the main things that are guiding the exhibition, in addition to the ecological concern.
Then of course, when you build the exhibition, things suddenly begin to make sense in a certain way. I mean, we found a plant in Europe that develops tiny hooks to grab onto the wool of animals, and we think this is wonderful. It is so complex and interconnected – we think it's important to tell these stories of connections.
RA: With your other exhibitions it seems like you've been looking at how you can impact on the design landscape through this research. How has this worked in Oltre Terra?
SF: When we do these large research projects, we do not necessarily provide solutions but they could provide design briefs. For instance, in the exhibition we will have an area where we will present a film that we are producing with an artist, Joanna Piotrowska. The film will be displayed on top of a very large carpet that we are producing in Italy with wool that struggles to find application because it’s not like merino with long fibres. They tend to be shorter fibres and coarser fibres, they are not beautiful or good for fashion, but they are suitable for carpets. So, this is a simple example of how to find a way to provide a solution, to understand how this can be applied. Or, as an outcome of this exhibition we will be presenting a project for a furniture brand called Tacchini, where we convince them to rethink some of their upholstery of their sofas and furniture to make use of these ‘unwanted’ sheep wools.
But to us, when you present things in a museum it's not necessarily important to give solutions. It has almost an educational component, and then the solutions, or the applications, is what we do with our partners while working, as with these two examples.
RA: That brings me to ask a little bit more about how you see your practice – you have your commercial design for clients and then you have these big exhibitions like Oltre Terra, Cambio and Ore stream. How do you approach what you are doing? Is it as a design brief, are you seeing what you are doing as art, or as more of an educational outcome?
SF: To be honest it is not necessarily art – for us these are two different worlds, it is research. It is not art because it is in a museum space. It is – in the format of an exhibition – a way of presenting ideas in a spatial way and it's a form of research. We look into subjects that are relevant for our practice. Waste and electronics with Ore Streams and the timber industry, which is also of course connected to furniture, with Cambio. With wool there is then, for instance, the whole collaboration with the carpet makers or with a furniture maker. We take some of these subjects to our partners who we work with at different levels. It can be in the form of a product, it can be the form of a symposium, it can be the form of a private consultancy. For instance, after Cambio we started working with the Finnish furniture company, Artek, and are working with them to make some changes in their production line, where we want the company to accept the natural flaws of wood such as knots or with the defects given by bugs leaving traces in the wood; all the things which were usually discarded. With these changes, the company will be able to use a much larger percentage of wood from the tree that was cut. This is an outcome of the research that we have been conducting. Of course, we also take this knowledge into the department we run, the Masters department in geo-design at Design Academy in Eindhoven .
RA: Do you experience resistance or conflict with clients or exhibition audiences regarding what you are trying to do or trying to push for?
SF: Actually no, at least for the exhibitions no. I think generally the audiences are engaging with what we are trying to say and do because they have the feeling that it is meaningful for the life we live today, and there is a general movement, in which we are all, as citizens, interested in trying to understand what lies behind the things that we buy, that we consume, that we eat. If you think about food, we are much more used to engaging in these kinds of conversations, but it is all related. I think, for me, it would be highly uninteresting to do a design exhibition about the qualities of a material because that is almost old fashioned. We know that wool has certain properties and I’m not trying to neglect that, in fact we should celebrate those qualities, but I think it is also important to question the way we produce things and what they mean.
It is extremely touching that there is an animal that because it started to cohabitate with humans, it somehow biologically decided that it trusted humans to take care of them, and so to me it is tragic to think of intensive farming. But I think we should also understand at the same time this [cohabitation] happened not because humans ruled over animals or that animals don't have anything to say or to give us back. We are also here because of wool and animals. Norwegians certainly would not be living in Norway without wool. In the exhibition for instance, we are featuring samples of viking sails produced with wool, so that says everything. That kind of power would not have been there without wool.
1: See Jackson, N., Maddocks, I., Watts, J., Scobie, D., Mason, R., Gordon-Thomson, C., Moore, G. (2020). Evolution of the sheep coat: The impact of domestication on its structure and development. Genetics Research, 102, E4. doi:10.1017/S0016672320000063. Available here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/genetics-research/article/evolution-of-the-sheep-coat-the-impact-of-domestication-on-its-structure-and-development/881352ED4C130F24D64E6F1D2DC928A1
2: 1960’s Dung Beetle project: Native dung-beetle species were evolved to process marsupial excrement and not the dung of newly introduced and industrially farmed livestock. For more info see https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/dung-beetles-in-australia