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Exhibition Review: FARM:shop

Published onMar 15, 2014
Exhibition Review: FARM:shop

FARM:shop. Something & Son. Curated and designed by Andrew Merritt, Paul Smyth and Sam Henderson. 20 Dalston Lane, East London, UK. October 2010 – Present.

FARM:shop responds to urgent challenges of global food security by experimentally redesigning the vernacular architecture of an East London storefront to accommodate urban farming systems and demonstrate how edible materialities, from seeds to sprouts, might play a more active role in the design of our everyday dwelling places. It draws upon the critical and formal dimensions of what I characterize as the agricultural line, in the sense of the furrow or a thread of flax, by using living threads, such as rainbow chard roots, to design interior and exterior landscapes that illustrate attractive ways of growing food in the city. FARM:shop consists of an interconnected series of installation spaces that function as dining and working spaces, living walls and outdoor gardens that connect to a central café where one can purchase and enjoy food grown in the shop or from local partners.

Eco-social design collective Something and Son, which includes sculptor Andrew Merritt and designer Paul Smyth, collaborated with sociologist Sam Henderson to create the project in October 2010. They aim to germinate a network of farms in shops, inspire locavores to supplement their income by growing their own food, and create stronger links between rural and urban communities of food practice.1 The hope is to expand this network to New York, Glasgow, Bristol, Tokyo, Sydney, Manchester, and, cheekily, “Everywhere?”2

The ‘shop’ draws upon traditions of systems thinking and landscape design but also upon a significant history of vegetable growing in collaborative art practice, such as Haha’s seminal Flood project that converted a storefront space into a hydroponic garden for growing food for AIDS patients in order to collectively organize health education.3 Similar to Flood (1992-95), FARM:shop has a strong pedagogical focus. Nutrition, cuisine, urban agriculture, aquaculture, and hydroponic growing systems are all part of the food curriculum. Following theorist Jane Bennett, “Food, as a self-altering, dissipative materiality, is also a player. It enters into what we become.”4 If food is one of the many agencies that enter into our moods, patterns of cognition and moral horizons, and simultaneously one of those materialities that we are increasingly disconnected from in our everyday lives, FARM:shop offers a learning space where we might start to reconnect our moods and eating practices with more sustainable farming practices.

FARM:shop intervenes between art and agriculture by working with plants, foodstuffs and, on a formal level, with the agricultural origins of the ‘line’. The etymology of the word line gives us “lint or flax” as one of its meanings, which is significant both because it is a thread, rather than a trace, and because it is an ancient agricultural product.5 Anthropologist Tim Ingold declares, “Lint is derived from the Latin linea, which originally meant a thread made from flax, linum.”6 The shop probes this agricultural genealogy of the line and the distinct properties of the thread in designing complex, three-dimensional spaces. Ingold explains, “The thread is a filament of some kind, which may be entangled with other threads or suspended between points in three dimensional space.”7 For instance, the vibrant green threads of nasturtium shoots are suspended between points on living walls and swiss-chard roots are entangled within the flow of nutritious tilapia excrement in the aquaponic system. This use of small-scale urban agriculture technology to suspend living threads between points, or alongside walls, engenders a variety of landscape installations and surfaces that illustrate how to grow food in unusual spaces. These landscape surfaces include vertical farming designs in the space’s hallways, living walls and gardens that are constructed by weaving together the threads of root systems with various technologies to represent the agricultural and design potential of various growing systems.

The landscape surfaces that adorn each room of FARM:shop offer rich opportunities for self-directed learning about how to use aquaponic, aeroponic, hydroponic, or polytunnel techniques, as well as chicken coops and mycology, by revealing the durational functioning of each system and referencing more detailed information about how to build each of the systems via small information panels and an urban farming library. For instance, viewers sit in the front dining room and watch dirty water from a tilapia tank move through the root systems of lettuce and swiss chard, where it is cleaned and returned as fresh water for the tank’s tilapia. Then, if curious about how to build such an aquaponic system, viewers can reference manuals in the FARM:shop library, which adorns the café, all the while indulging their taste buds with a fresh salad that originates from the aquaponic system they have just witnessed.

FARM:shop juxtaposes diverse growing systems. For instance, the red spectrum hydroponic system for growing tomatoes on the top floor utilizes energy-intensive fluorescent lighting that leaches huge amounts of electricity from the city grid; whereas the polytunnel in the backyard offers small-scale growers more economical methods by utilizing trapped solar energy to experiment with longer growing seasons and permaculture techniques for growing kale, winter peas, and tomatoes with less reliance on the city energy grid. Similarly, the energy intensive fluorescent lighting used for growing leafy greens on the ground floor is juxtaposed with LED lighting in the hallways of the shop where visitors encounter psychedelic surfaces formed by threading wall plants, such as nasturtiums, that are lit with low-energy intensive red LED lights. And while the installation in the dining room draws upon earlier explorations of systems thinking in conceptual art such as Hans Haacke’s Rhinewater purification plant (1972), and the café clearly references the inversion of the sensual hierarchy of taste by contemporary traditions of relational aesthetics8 and what Daniel Spoerri called “Eat Art,”9 each room is functionally and pedagogically interdependant. The café literally depends on the aquaponics installation for its greens and the demonstration of aquaponic growing in the dining room is only really convincing after you eat one of their salads. Crunchy with a perfect combination of bitter (mixed greens) and sweet (apple); you can’t taste the tilapia excrement that the roots of the greens helped to clean.

FARM:shop demonstrates a broad range of farming techniques, from energy-intensive but high-yield commercial growing to small-scale residential options, and foregrounds each installation as an ongoing experiment in how to make urban agriculture more economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable as well as popular. This experiment draws upon the agricultural genealogy of the ‘line’, as a thread, to illustrate the joys of growing your own food and to create convivial spaces for eating and conversing about local food production.


Andrew Bieler is a writer, researcher, arts-based educator, and PhD Candidate in Communication and Culture at York University. His research interrogates the nuances of collaboration between artists and scientists in the context of expeditionary field studies, and describes the potential of these collaborations in learning for a sustainable future. As an educator, he curates engaging conversations between artists and other social groups and experiments with tactile ways of knowing place. He recently designed a project called The Farm, which brought together youth participants, community groups, and artists to collectively explore the future of farming in Markham, Ontario, as part of a site-specific exhibition called Land|Slide: Possible Futures.

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