Doug Reinemann didn’t know anything about Amy Franceschini when he and a colleague, Elisa Graffy, took shelter in the Sunset Lounge of the UW Memorial Union from a pesky April shower. The serendipity would become obvious.
Franceschini, a California-based social practice artist who founded a group called Futurefarmers in 1995 to explore alternate farming methods, is finishing up a semester residency in Madison as the Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence sponsored by the UW-Madison Arts Institute.
She’s been teaching a class, “Ecology of Research: Seeds of Time,” that focuses on a public art project in Oslo, Norway. Project organizers, including Franceschini, are making a “seed journey” from Oslo to Istanbul this fall, bearing ancient grains grown in Oslo to their original home in the Middle East.
Franceschini’s class has been helping to prepare for the journey. She had publicized a casting call that Friday afternoon in the Sunset Lounge for people to sing sea shanties in her final class presentation this Friday.
No one showed up to try out, so Franceschini started soliciting strangers hanging around the area. That’s where Reinemann, chair of Biological Systems Engineering (BSE) in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, came in.
Reinemann, it turned out, is an aficionado of the sea shanty, once sung by sailors on large merchant vessels. Reinemann owns a boat he sails around Lake Mendota, singing sea shanties and accompanying himself on a concertina. Franceschini asked Reinemann and Graffy to try out, and faster than a minnow dodges muskies, Franceschini brought them on board. Both Reinemann and Graffy, a senior sustainability scientist who teaches at Arizona State University, will sing Friday.
“It was a bit surprising and quite a wonderful coincidence,” Reinemann said. With his colleagues, he usually sings shanties about milking machines, he said. “I like the rhythm of sea shanties and the group participation aspect of it.”
Serendipity is common in Franceschini’s social practice art. Many names are attached to her project about ancient grains — they range from Futurefarmers, headquartered in California, to the Flatbread Society, based in Oslo, and Seed Journey, a planned sea voyage from Oslo to Istanbul in the fall.
“My main residence is in San Francisco,” Franceschini said. “I have been working on a public art project in Oslo since 2011. This public art project includes Seed Journey. My residency here is to prepare for Seed Journey, and the class is a mode of this preparation.”
Franceschini said the sea journey leaves Sept. 17 from Oslo and goes one year ending in Istanbul.
“It seems strange to be in Madison preparing for this, but at the core of the journey is a collection of ancient grains that we have been growing in Oslo,” she said. “The connection is a seed initiative here started by two professors. We are trying to protect these seeds from becoming privatized or patented, to protect every person’s right to grow and share and distribute them and not be something you have to pay for. That is the core of this journey.”
Emily Lewis, coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program, said the project generated two public talks this semester through the Art Department’s Visiting Artist Series. The residency, which was formalized in 1999, is funded by UW-Madison’s Office of the Provost.
Franceschini said there is a rich pool of research to be done in connection to the journey. For example, a handful of the class members met with Franceschini that Friday afternoon to make presentations on aspects of the journey. Paige Lyons, a UW-Madison environmental design student, studied octopi. Alfonso Borragán, a London-based artist, is planning to bring an octopus on board the sailing vessel to generate a latent image of the journey in the octopus brain. “We are still working out the feasibility of doing this,” Lyons said, putting her laptop away, “but I did some research on their ecology.”
Meg Mitchell, UW-Madison assistant professor of art, wrote the proposal to bring Franceschini to Madison for the semester.
Mitchell said she had envisioned students would work closely with Franceschini on a collaborative project related to Seed Journey. “...She has let the students generate a lot of the structure and content according to their own broad interests,” she said. “So we didn’t have a set plan for exactly what the students would be doing.”
Mitchell also said she hoped Franceschini’s presence would draw attention to global agricultural policy issues and the connection to broad themes in art.
Students in the class are a diverse group of less than a dozen, but none will receive formal grades for the class, Franceschini said. “I do not believe in grades,” she said. “I think standardized evaluation is a farce and sets up false expectations and unnecessary stress and competition.” She favors reflection and evaluation. “I will evaluate each student according to how they have grown, challenged themselves and others and how they articulate their final project as it relates to what they were wishing to articulate,” she said.
“I will also ask the entire class to reflect on me as a teacher, and as the class as a form of research and art.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that tickets are no longer required to attend the class' final presentation.]