Francis Cape, Utopian Benches, 2013 (photo by Aaron Igler)
Nestled in upstate New York, Francis Cape reflects upon the local histories of Utopian Societies and their shared objects. With his project “Utopian Benches” in zing #24, Cape samples a much larger path that includes 25+ carefully measured and carved benches, a comprehensive book, and a now global dialogue about communal societies and their unique benches. Trained as a woodcarver and holding an MFA from Goldsmiths College, Cape creates various furniture installations that reference both historical and contemporary societies and their politics. Bringing these historical benches into contemporary relevancy, spaces, and dialogues, Cape makes us think about the histories of alternative, intentional communities. These benches that once lived outside of mainstream culture are brought into art spaces to remind us of idealism, orientation, and non-hierarchical conversations that can still exist in a very materialistic, hierarchical art world. Leveling us to an even playing field, Cape’s work brings forward a much forgotten history in the US and a much needed reminder that we are all after all, equals.
Interview by Madeliene Kattman
How did you become interested in benches from utopian communities in the first place?
It came out of what I had been doing previously, and that work started when Bush was re-elected in 2004. I decided I couldn’t continue with what I had been doing and needed to make work that somehow addressed the current situation in our country. It took a while. Initially there was work that dealt with post-Katrina New Orleans, which wasn’t just about New Orleans and the storm but also about class and poverty in America. From this, I was able to move the conversation to where I live in upstate NY. This more local body of work is called Home Front, and used something called the Utility Furniture Scheme, which was a wartime British furniture design scheme. I used it to talk about idealism, dreams for society and the relationship between idealism and material culture.
When I talked about that work to peers and students, I started getting some pushback particularly about Home Front because I was using a British model to talk about American society. So I decided I to research social idealism in America, and ended up with these Utopian Communities (the correct term is actually intentional communities). I then discovered the benches, which are the perfect symbol for communalism, in that a bench is something you sit on together, you share, it is non-hierarchical—you sit at the same level. Initially there was one Shaker bench here in the studio and it was the best thing I made in a year, so I just started making more benches.
Are a lot of these Utopian Communities abandoned?
The historic ones are, with the one exception of the Hutterites up in Canada who are still very active. They have been in existence since the late Middle Ages. But the historic ones in the United States, the ones we all think about—with exception of the Shakers—such as the Harmony Society, or the Separatists of Zoar, they lasted for about a hundred years. These are mostly now museum villages, so the material culture is preserved. You can travel to them—you can go to Old Economy village in Pennsylvania, you can go to Zoar village, or Amana in Iowa—and take tours. I had the privilege to go behind the scenes, jump over the braided ropes and measure the benches. The benches are now preserved by curators who are in charge of the collections, and who were very welcoming. They were happy for me to work with their collections and bring them to relevance in the contemporary world. The contemporary communities were also very welcoming and I had great visits with them. I actually continue to have relationships with two of them. Particularly with Camphill Village in Kimberton Hills. My guide who’s the art therapist has become a good friend. I stop in and see them and she stops in here when she goes to see her in-laws up in Albany.
So you’ve developed a relationship with the people who work there now?
Yeah, I actually had an existing relationship with the Camphill Villages, not in the United States but in Britain. My brother lived on one for a while and a couple girlfriends moved to them. So I was already familiar with them before I began making the benches.
Are you originally from Portugal?
You know, I was actually born in Portugal but my father is a British diplomat. So I am British, although I spent many years in places around the world.
How do you choose to display the benches in various art spaces?
The benches are always displayed in the same way, gathered in the center of the room in a rectangle. The reason doing that, for arranging them in the center of the room, is that in museums and churches benches are used as objects to sit on and look at other things. I specifically didn’t want that to happen with these benches because they are about themselves and so they face towards each other. So far as any of the benches have a front and a back, the front is always facing towards the center of the group and then they are aligned longitudinally in the space. Within a church they would be facing the altar at the one end, instead of which I arrange the rectangle long ways.
Within the exhibition space the benches are used to hold conversations, meetings, and discussions. The dialogue is set up so that whoever is leading the conversation sits on the benches with everybody else. It’s not like there is a panel discussion or somebody leading a lecture who is outside the group. This isn’t audience seating, this is participatory seating. While the benches were in San Francisco they wanted to mic me and the gallery director, with whom I was leading the conversation. I said you can only mic us if you mic everyone else. Ultimately, this project is about sharing and everyone being on the same level. I am very insistent upon the placement of the benches but I am less firm on the format of the conversation, as the work is about sharing. When it is shown I send out guidelines, but it’s up to each venue to do what they will as they organize the conversation during the exhibition. However, some places have used the benches as what I call uncomfortable audience seating, which is not my intention. But that’s just the same as sharing and living in a community—you accommodate other people and their views.
The benches then also exist in an exhibition booklet that is printed for each occasion. The first version of the exhibition booklet from Arcadia can be found on my website with a link from the Utopian Benches page. The booklet describes the communities that are represented by the benches in the “gathering” as I call it. The other part of the booklet is research conducted by each venue about the communal societies that are close to the exhibition site. They decide what this locality means, so the societies can be in a 100 or 200 mile radius. The purpose of this is to bring these alternative ways of living close to the audience. I want to emphasize the fact that this way of living is not something unusual that some weird people did in the past, in some other state, but that it has actually existed or does exist all over this country.
What are some of the conversations or programs that have taken place on top of these benches?
They have been very wide ranging. Each venue plans and executes their programs and conversations. At the beginning, I started to collect a list of the conversations but it very quickly fell apart. I encourage discussions on utopia, idealism, communal living, shared values or non-materialism, a dialogue that relates directly to the benches. There is now a European group of benches that I’ve done in collaboration with students in Lyon, exhibited for the first time last Fall. There were two conversations, with the first one about the anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who was born in the city where the exhibition took place. The other was led by the director of the second venue, which is a Fourierist communal site, and was about Charles Fourier who was a utopian, socialist philosopher who was also born in the same city.
Were the students a part of the conversation or did they facilitate it more towards audience members?
This was different. So the Utopian Benches that I showed in zingmagazine are the original, American benches. The original grouping was 20 benches, which grew to 24 then began to splinter off. Now there is one collection of 17 permanently in San Francisco and a smaller group of eight that is still touring. Meanwhile, I was approached by someone who teaches in Lyon to do a workshop with their students. I proposed that the workshop would be about European communal societies with the purpose of making a European collection of benches. So the workshop that I did with the students in Lyon included research parameters, process and discussion. The students then went and found the communities, measured the benches, and raised some financing for the benches to be made in a professional workshop. The students also participated in the construction process, which we wanted as these were design students rather than sculpture or woodworking students. They saw the project the whole way through. By the time we showed the benches for the first time, they were onto their next project, and since the exhibition was in a city about two hours away from Lyon only two of them came to the opening; but they were not a part of the conversation. The students handed it off, they shared it with the museum. I shared it with them and then they shared it with FRAC Besançon.
That seems really cool.
I think so too. I love the way this thing has just sort of taken off on its own. You’ve seen the book that was published by Princeton Architectural Press?
I was about to ask you about it. How do you feel the benches function differently from their exhibition spaces like at Murray Guy versus publication spaces like your book entitled We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar or even zingmagazine?
Well they’re all very related but the experience of walking into an exhibition of the benches is of course radically different from picking up a book or a magazine. There’s no way that seeing a photograph is the same as experiencing the artwork in itself. The book is a different but related work. It’s not a catalogue of the benches, it’s its own thing. It came out of the exhibition booklet, which is what the publisher approached me about developing. Through the book, I took it into this realm of describing the various communities through their benches. I describe the communities, their beliefs, ideology through the design, the form, and the use of their benches. The other thing that it did, because we published measured drawings of the benches, was provide information where people could actually make the benches, and use it as a teaching tool. It ultimately had the potential of establishing this community outside the gallery walls. Applying the whole Marcusian notion of what happens within the gallery walls makes no difference outside of them.
What is your favorite shared space and what kind of architecture and furniture does it have?
I am not a religious person, but I did grow up a Catholic and I do really respond to Gothic Churches. In England, Gothic Churches now are not Catholic, so I don’t have the experience of really using them for religious purposes myself but they are incredible. The best way to experience them is to go for evensong. When the choirs are singing, the acoustics of the church are absolutely incredible. Just purely architecturally speaking, they are amazing spaces.
But Camphill Villages also have an incredible feeling to them. It has something to do with the architecture because there is an anthroposophical sense of design or architecture that comes from Steiner that they use. If you go to these newly built communities, the buildings are unusual by our rectilinear standards. They use organic, soft shapes instead. Because of what goes on there, they attain this atmosphere that is really lovely. In terms of the material culture, like the furniture, it’s not utilitarian in the sense of having hard, Formica surfaces but it does have to be easily cleanable. Because half or more of the people that live there have special needs, it has to be simultaneously soft, organic, natural, warm feeling, while maintaining this utilitarian function. There’s a particular kind of look that comes with this special use. My first sculpture teacher had a handicapped child and they designed and built a lot of the spaces for their daughter and came up with a very similar kind of look. There would be the use of wood, but then it would be heavily varnished so it can be wiped down easily. The edges would then be softened so if somebody falls against it, it doesn’t hurt them. There’s a kind of functionality but it’s not just material function it’s a more human function.
What artists or woodworkers do you look to for inspiration?
Well my work is very different from others, but there are of course people who I greatly admire and in the field of furniture sculpture Doris Salcedo is huge as far as I am concerned. I additionally look to artists, Rachel Whiteread, and Andrea Zittel.
What is next for you and your work? Any planned exhibitions or projects for 2016?
Some of my time is still taken up with the ongoing tour of the benches in Europe. I am collaborating with the Lyon students on drawings to be shown with the benches at the next exhibition that opens in April. Then I’d like to expand this European gathering of benches by collaborating with another community of students or others to research and fabricate additional benches. And meanwhile I’m developing new work in the studio. That is still in the development stage, so too early to talk about.