Oltre Terra is an ongoing investigation conducted by studio Formafantasma focused on the history, ecology, and global dynamics of the extraction and production of wool. Commissioned by the National Museum of Oslo, and curated by Hanne Eide, the exhibition is open until October 1st, 2023. In this interview, we talked about rethinking the diorama as a curatorial platform, the relationship between humans and other-than-human species and how to expand the ecologies of the design professions.
KOOZ Before developing Oltre Terra, Formafantasma had already engaged with research projects closely related to other ever-present materials: Ex-cinere had to do with volcanic ash, Cambio with forest wood and Ore Streams was based on the recycling of e-waste. What interested you the most about the commission to research the historical, ecological, political and social impact of wool? How does Oltre Terra relate to your other previous research?
FORMAFANTASMA Oltre Terra started from a request from the National Museum of Oslo, specifically from its curator, Hanne Eide, who really wanted to do an exhibition about wool. She had read Cambio and she thought we were the right people to engage with her idea. It's not that we were sceptical, but we have been for so long engaging on the subjects of Cambio—the timber industry and so on—that we thought it could have been reductive to focus on another material based exhibition. However, Ana understood very well what we did with Cambio and she also gave us space to understand what we actually wanted to talk about next. Cambio ended with a film that we did in collaboration with Emmanuel Coccia. In it, an entity—you could say a forest or a tree—was speaking back to humans. Through a process of rendering an anthropomorphic tree, we were wondering about the implications of producing, extracting values and interacting with other living creatures. We thought working with wool could allow us to explore much more complex relations, specifically with sheep. That became the starting point of the exhibition. We don't think it is necessarily an exhibition about wool, it's more about the interaction with living creatures and the ethical political implications of doing so and how the development of the industry of wool-making expanded. Also thanks to, or in a way against, the domestication of sheep.
"It is not necessarily an exhibition about wool, it's more about the interaction with living creatures and the ethical political implications of doing so."
KOOZ You have stated that the research process for Oltre Terra “revolves around books, scientific papers and interviews with practitioners of the field.” Furthermore, you have produced an interesting diagram that synthesises this statement, organised around three axes: Human-Animal, Co-Evolution and Global Economy. Could you talk a bit more about this diagram and the process behind the research project itself?
FF The three areas you mention are not in the exhibition anymore because the exhibition is much more organic and open. But we can definitely talk about the major issues or the major things we try to tackle with Oltre Terra.
"What Oltre Terra is doing is thinking on a meta level at design exhibitions."
What Oltre Terra is doing is thinking on a meta level at design exhibitions. How is design generally presented in the museum space? We started to think about how nature is represented in natural history museums and how objects are represented in the museums of applied art, or museums of design, and how these two realities rarely interact with one another. When we present an object in a museum space, it is either for its technological qualities or for its innovation in terms of material application, social, ecological impact and so on. But there's rarely a way of presenting and seeing objects and manmade outcomes in direct correlation to the natural environment. To see nature somehow represented in a museum space, you go to the Natural History Museum. So the exhibition became a reflection on this and problematised how we construct narratives about design, how we tend to separate these environments. It is always about placing nature outside of our own self, our own realm, and humans observing it.
"There's rarely a way of presenting and seeing objects and manmade outcomes in direct correlation to the natural environment."
We think that is epitomised extremely well by the diorama in the natural history museum: a glass box where the human is placed outside of it, observing from a position of safety and possibly of superior wilderness. Of course, that was a system invented to show the natural environment where animals actually live. It also represents nature literally in a static position, as if it is immutable, not changing. In a natural history museum, you will never see domesticated animals represented (or at least I have never seen that, it's not the norm). It is always about the wilderness. And that's because sheep and domesticated animals sit together with us on this side of the glass. Of course, this is a metaphor, but what we mean to say is domesticated animals are sort of the result of human intervention—or this is what we think them to be—hence they are part of the manmade, they are not in a way relevant to look at.
This exhibition is trying to clear out all these biases and it is structured as a gigantic diorama, but it's an open diorama, there's no more glass. The glass becomes the horizontal surface where to lay objects, documents, antique and contemporary artefacts, photographs and so on from several different museums, together with reproductions of different sheep, seven different typologies of sheep, seven different breeds, together with other media and film. So people can enter the installation and be part of it.
"This exhibition is structured as a gigantic diorama, but it's an open diorama, there's no more glass."
The idea here is not to separate or to read things in dichotomies, natural versus artificial. It is about seeing things in relation to one another. It is also about understanding, literally and visually, how things relate in regard to the subjects that you touch upon. We looked extensively into the idea of domestication and in the relationship with sheep. Well, not yet sheep, maybe the mouflon. What happened is that the wild mouflon evolved to become a sheep, which does not naturally lose its hair, a feature present in many wild species as mouflons. For us, this was extremely interesting because this trait is generally discussed as an outcome of human intervention—breeding. However, when this human-animal relationship started, humans were not able yet to practise crossbreeding to obtain specific outcomes, which now is common. It seems more likely that this was the outcome of a cohabitation. The question here is who, when, what happened? Not even evolutionists can say specifically what happened. But for sure it was not human intelligence shaping these animals, it was humans starting to pull the hair of sheep and helping them to shear, so over time sheep didn’t need to lose their hair naturally—humans were taking care of that. For us, this is a very interesting point because it's almost as if this biological fact, almost a love story, started where humans and sheep started to live in symbiosis. However, relationships can start one way and then become abusive over time, and this is what we are trying to question in this exhibition: we cannot look at animals from a perspective of objectification anymore. And there are processes of crossbreeding or intensive farming that have become abusive when once they were relationships that started from trust. Humans provided food and protection from predators to the sheep, thanks also to the collaboration with dogs. From their side, sheep provided milk, hair and wool and also meat—at the end of their life. We are talking about a process of coexistence, co-evolution and co-domestication. So, if sheep have been domesticated by humans, humans have been also domesticated by the sheep that provided wool, which permitted us to live in contexts in which we could not have lived before.
"If sheep have been domesticated by humans, humans have been also domesticated by the sheep that provided wool."
If you look at the infrastructure across countries in Europe, the basis of that infrastructure is based on transhumance, which is the practice of moving cattle from one land to another, generally in the mountains in summer, and the lowlands, or flatlands, in winter. You cannot argue that shepherds imposed the path to sheep, but on the other hand, you could also say that sheep with their needs lead the pack. So, we are questioning all these notions of human supremacy over animals and problematising also, of course, what happens in production. Hence we look a lot into the economy. Mostly, the intensive farming of merino sheep in Australia, which also disrupted the European economy and local production of wool to the point that farmers in Europe struggle to make use of wool because there is no infrastructure, or at least a large enough infrastructure, to wash wool. The exhibition tries to tackle all these different aspects. It is not geographically specific, so it's not an exhibition about wool in Norway or in Italy. It's looking more at global and geopolitical dynamics to shape this industry of wool making. I think this is quite a good overview of the general subjects and it does so presenting several artefacts, also historical artefacts that we got as loans from the museum here in Norway.
KOOZ Hanne, in your text for the exhibition catalogue, you write about the late 19th century World fairs (and the spaces built to house them) as places where the harmful process of “othering” non-human materials was particularly encouraged. How has your expertise, as a fashion historian and Curator for Fashion and Dress at the National Museum shaped the exhibition? How does the curatorial effort stimulate visitors to re-connect and correspond with their material surroundings?
HANNE EIDE Well, not very much has changed since the late 19th century, has it? The fashion system of today is still othering the non-human. In that sense, this project is an effort to connect past and present. I truly believe that there is no better way to highlight the most pressing contemporary questions than to look at history.
The idea behind this exhibition was based on a very concrete observation of the “real world”. In the last decade or so, there has been somewhat of a boom in the market of merino garments. Various versions of merino sets can be found in all segments of that said market. As a fashion historian, I cannot help but always wonder how the constant shifting trends in the materiality of the fashion world come about and why. I’ve always been very interested in the so-called “back-stage history” of the modern fashion system. This commission is very much in line with the current redefinition of fashion and its history and shifts attention from the symbolic meaning of fashion towards its materiality. The fashion field at large, I dare to say, has been unfashionably “late” compared to the design field in embracing this shift. This project attempts to compensate for this lack and I could not come up with anyone better than Formafantasma for the job.
"In Oltre Terra, the function of the narrative has been used as a tool to create awareness about human exceptionalism and to re-center the materiality of things."
- Hanne Eide, curator of Oltre Terra
Narratives play an extremely important role when it comes to the general understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. In Oltre Terra, the function of the narrative has been used as a tool to create awareness about human exceptionalism and to re-center the materiality of things. On a curatorial level, Oltre Terra really attempts to encourage the visitor to engage with questions of materiality, with the story behind what we see and with the vast research process Formafantasma has undertaken.
KOOZ At KoozArch, we are very interested in the interview as a format for the dissemination of knowledge, ideas and critical thinking. For Oltre Terra, Formafantasma engaged in conversation with various scholars from different fields (available for listening on your website), three of which appear on the exhibition’s physical catalogue. Could you tell us what makes the interview particularly appealing for you as a method of research, how you curated the list of interviewees and expand on the lessons that you wouldn’t have learned if it were not for these direct interactions?
FF What we realised very early on is that you can find plenty of published materials and information online, but engaging with people one to one is a completely different way of interacting and discussing ideas. First of all, it is more interactive than reading a book or a paper. But there's also many people, specifically scientists, that because of the scientific method, which we really appreciate of course, they cannot express their opinions and personal positions in scientific papers, but when engaged in a conversation, they feel much freer to do so. They would make links between things and associations, which is much more of a struggle to do in scientific papers. And we think that from that perspective, interviews remove this sort of restriction and allow for a much more human interactive conversation that leads to the almost involuntary construction of a small community of people. Whenever we speak with somebody, they'll suggest we speak with somebody else, and whenever we have critical questions regarding, for instance, this project—the relationship with men and sheep and the biological evolution of sheep in connection to wool making—the conversation we had with an evolutionist went much more in depth than the papers that we read, all thanks to the conversational nature of interviews.
"Interviews remove this sort of restriction and allow for a much more human interactive conversation that leads to the almost involuntary construction of a small community of people."
KOOZ The exhibition will take the diorama as a starting point, expanding and deconstructing it to allow all the components showcased to relate with each other. Hanne and Emanuele, can you further explain how you approached this aspect of the exhibition from your field of study?
HE The idea of the “exploded diorama” came from Andrea and Simone. I thought it was really “on point” as it works very well with the overall content of the show. Dioramas were also an invention of late 19th century visual culture and a technology that enforced the idea of a static, unchangeable nature. This deconstructive gesture allowed us to “house” all the main themes of the show in one big installation.
EC A diorama is a representation of a shared ecosystem inhabited by several species, from a particular point of view. Examining this technique reveals that one cannot make an observation of life without taking into account the particular perspective from which it is observed, in this case the mutual relationship between two species. Understanding the life of a species requires more speculative and conceptual imagination than biology has been willing to admit so far. For this reason, I believe that ecology must become a form of speculative design, a strange hybrid of design and philosophy.
"Understanding the life of a species requires more speculative and conceptual imagination than biology has been willing to admit so far."
- Emanuele Coccia
KOOZ To finalise, the exhibition argues that only with the understanding of design in its larger ecology will design professionals be able to provide real, transformative interventions. How do you envision these conversations taking place and what role do you think architects, fashion designers and philosophers should play in them in order to better face the climate crisis?
HE Andrea and Simone have been explicit and very clear about this from day one. Their agenda with this project is to make real, transformative change. The exhibition is only one component in this effort. As a curator, I think it is important to acknowledge this vision and to really make an effort to correspond with it. For me, this means to bring forth the research behind the project, to engage the local design and fashion practitioners and to take into account the afterlife of the show. And for a big institution like the National Museum of Norway, to contribute with new knowledge and innovative perspectives on questions of ecology—the most pressing issues of our time—is mandatory. Museums play a very crucial role here too.
ECI believe this exhibition, along with Andrea and Simone's work more generally, showcases that ecology has become the space where all disciplines mix and unite. Contemplating the lives of species and their relationships necessitates a reevaluation of the order of knowledge. Hence, I strongly advocate for a complete restructuring of the education system. It is unacceptable to believe that studying biology and philosophy, design and literature, cannot coexist within the same undergraduate course. Furthermore, it is unacceptable that humanities universities do not acknowledge design or creation as valid forms of knowledge production and verification. Conversations across disciplines should lead to the emergence of innovative methods for knowledge transmission.
"Communities of animals, in the process of producing something, are also our clients, our end users."
FF We cannot look at things as fragmented anymore. What we're trying to do with the exhibition is seeing things in relation to each other. Even physically, the exhibition doesn't properly have a beginning or an end. Of course, it has a structure that we conceived, but when visitors come, they see everything presented in one huge platform, equally important, equally relevant, equally related to another, which is also a way to visually allow people to make associations between objects in a looser way. While this might be apparently confusing, it allows a much broader understanding of how an object plays within a larger ecosystem. Objects cannot be read only in relation with designer and user and designer and producer. There is a much larger ecology. There's not only one user, even. Communities of animals, in the process of producing something, are also our clients, our end users.
When we say “ecological development”, what we are saying is we need to see these larger ecologies, otherwise we will continue with a system that has been designed to create a specialised knowledge, fragmented knowledge and fragmented responsibilities. When I think that the boundaries of what I do are very limited, I also feel powerless. If I see what I do in relation to other larger mechanisms, I can see how what I do relates to other things. When the design process and even governance is divided in small little chunks where everybody tries their best in their own little garden, they don't see the relationship between what they do and what came before or after.
"We cannot look at things as fragmented anymore. What we're trying to do with the exhibition is seeing things in relation to each other."
The word ecology just says it all. We often use ecology to mean a form of respect for the environment, but the word ecology means how things relate to one another and how they are interlinked. The exhibition is trying to elaborate on that and show, even visually, how things relate to one another.
The format of the exhibition is a form of gathering different knowledge in one design form. Of course, the catalogue is another way. The symposium we create for Prada is also a way of doing that. Forms of education where a multiplicity of actors are involved in the education system is another. Of course, this is still a struggle, but we see this happening everywhere, and we need to be influenced by other disciplines and expand the conversation of every discipline. This does not mean that we need to break down disciplines, as what we do is extremely rooted in the design discipline and we want our work to be within that context. But it does not mean that because I operate within this discipline, I cannot interact, enter conversation and implement the knowledge of others. Actually, the work of design has always been about this. What we are saying here is that the ecological challenge is extremely relevant—being so upfront and important for what we do. We need to learn other tools and implement the knowledge of others also because we can't know everything. We think we all need to be in conversation with others and understand what the real implications are of what we do as designers.
Formafantasma is a research-based design studio investigating the ecological, historical, political and social forces shaping the discipline of design today. Since founding the studio in 2009, Italians Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin have championed the need for value – laden advocacy merged with holistic design thinking. Their aim is to facilitate a deeper understanding of both our natural and built environments and to propose transformative interventions through design and its material, technical, social, and discursive possibilities. Working from their studio in Milan (Italy) and Rotterdam (The Netherlands), the practice embraces a broad spectrum of typologies and methods, from product design through spatial design, strategic planning and design consultancy. Whether designing to a client's brief or developing self – initiated projects, the studio applies the same rigorous attention to context, process and detail. As a result, Formafantasma's entire portfolio is characterised by a coherent visual language and meticulously researched outcomes.
Hanne Eide is curator of contemporary fashion and dress at the National Museum, Oslo.
Emanuele Coccia is associate professor for Philosophy in Paris. He is the author of Sensible Life (2010), The Life of Plants (2018), Metamorphosis (2021) and Philosophy of the Home (2023). He wrote, together with Viviane Sassen, a photo-theory book (Modern Alchemy 2002). His books are translated into several languages.