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Unpacking the Problems and Potentials of the Timber Industry with Formafantasma

“I think we came to this approach through the process of making things. It raises the questions: where do I source the materials, where do they come from, who is fabricating the objects, what are the conditions of labour?”

This interview between Formafantasma and Rebecca Lewin, the Serpentine’s Curator of Exhibitions & Design, was originally published in TL Magazine.

If there was any doubt as to the degree to which our understanding of the interconnectedness of human and non-human systems operates in a permanent state of jet lag, the current global pandemic has surely revealed it to us. For the privileged minority who are used to being able to travel to different places, or to bring into our lives, our homes and our bodies, materials and foods that have travelled to us from thousands of miles away, the relative standstill of 2020 has come as a profound shock.

Design has arguably been crucial to the exploitation of materials and a disconnect between origin and outcome, but it can also act as investigator and agitator for change. A more holistic understanding of the inextricable nature of humans’ relationship to materials, geographies and politics can be found in the work of Formafantasma, especially in their most complex project to date, Cambio.

Cambio was conceived in response to an invitation from the Serpentine Galleries to present Formafantasma’s process and thinking, rather than as a presentation of finished objects. It takes the global timber industry as its focus, showing different case studies from the perspectives of forensic analysis, colonial histories, scientific studies, transnational legislature and philosophy. In the exhibition space, Formafantasma offer up their conversations, collaborations and analysis of humans’ relationship with wood to the visitor, presented on specially-designed, modular furniture that is both a literal and conceptual support.

– Rebecca Lewin

Rebecca Lewin: How do you alight on one material or one line of research? Do you have a longlist of ideas that you add to over time?

Simone Farresin: First of all, it’s important to say that our practice is not composed of only one body of work; we have conversations with commercial partners as well as independent projects. These different projects require different attitudes; if we think about Cambio, it is an accumulation of thought that we have developed over ten years of practice.

Andrea Trimarchi: Design is a discipline that sits between the exploitation of resources and their transformation into goods, so it’s an amazing position that can look at the problematics and the possibilities.

RL: It seems as though there’s a space that you are looking for in all of your projects that tries to connect industries that have been designed so well that they prevent any intervention into their processes, or to connect parts of history where we have lost the thread of where products came from.

SF: I think we came to this approach through the process of making things. It raises the questions: where do I source the materials, where do they come from, who is fabricating the objects, what are the conditions of labour? It was because of this experience that we were able to take a project like Cambio and use it to unpack the problematics and the potentials of the infrastructure of the timber industry.

Formafantasma, stills from Cambio: Visual Essay, 2020. Green screen in Bosco del Chignolo, Montemerlo, Italy. Courtesy Formafantasma. Photo Credit: C41


RL: How has the process of exhibition-making, from your perspective, changed your view of design exhibitions?

SF: Early on you told us that you did not want to make a product-based exhibition; you were really aware that your role as an institution could be one of giving space to designers to show their way of thinking and operating, with less emphasis on the outcome.

AT: For us, Cambio was a good exercise of how to show research. You can sense that it’s an incomplete exhibition – you can see that there are plenty of entry points into research about the timber industry, from products to system design. Exhibition making allows us to expand our work into a very different scale and in very different directions.

RL: You have developed a methodology of presenting research in so many different ways, each of which responds to the material and to the nature of the collaboration that brought it into being. How do you develop these?

SF: We need a lot of time when we work; the first eight or nine months of developing Cambio was only about interviewing people, without even trying to think about what could come out of this research. At one point, however, we narrow it down when we realise what the main angle is – for Cambio, this was the governance of the timber industry. Not case studies on how wood is applied, but to look at the politics of the extraction of wood.

AT: And then it developed through a chain reaction – as soon as we spoke to the first specialist, Pieter Baas, it opened up a whole world of knowledge.

RL: And having been in contact with so many specialists, would you say that there is one other discipline or area of knowledge that ought to be followed closely by designers?

SF: One of the most fascinating conversations we had was with policymakers. I had the feeling that design underestimates the role that it could have, even on that level. Design is by its nature sometimes speculative, this imaginative component is not there in scientific practices, and this is a problem. As designers, we can think of what is unimaginable. And every discipline needs space in which to speculate about their own practice. We can facilitate a translation of ideas.

AT: That’s for the next ten years of the studio! To see if we can shorten this distance, either within companies or through education as we start the GEO-Design masters at Eindhoven later this year. The ambition of the exhibition is not to remain just as an exhibition, but how long it will take I don’t know – it could be the span of a career, it might last into the careers of other designers. We truly believe that when ideas are out in the world they never get lost.


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