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Jumping the Walls
The Guggenheim engages New York's urban environment.
Diagram of Pedestrian Press, where shoes with lettered soles write messages of rolls of paper.
Courtesy Guggenheim

The Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building is one of the most iconic buildings in New York, but for its spring 2011 season the museum is taking to the streets. The contemporary art museum turned its focus to urban life with Intervals: Futurefarmers, which investigates the craft of shoe-making.

“The shoe is a good vehicle to start speaking about how you perceive your life in the city,” explained David van der Leer, the Guggenheim’s assistant curator of architecture and urban studies, who organized the installation. The ten-day show that ended on May 14 was inspired by Simon the Shoemaker’s studio, the setting of philosophical conversations between Socrates and young students, and strives to help people find another way to think about the city they walk in and their lives, said van der Leer.

The installation was created by Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine of Futurefarmers, a San Francisco art collective founded to create projects that encourage a different way of thinking. Van der Leer said the brief was to find ways to move visitors out of the museum. “We’re trying to do many programs looking at the city, while being in the city. Amy and Michael developed a project that includes walks, dialogues, strange places, food collecting, and it’s quite beautiful to see.”

Intervals: FutureFarmers, Sketch 1 (left) and Sketch 2 (Right).

Though the exhibit was anchored in the museum’s rotunda by a re-creation of the shoemaker’s atelier, its venues ranged from the Gowanus Canal and Jamaica Bay to the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York. Events included “The History of the Shoe,” “New York Shoemakers Confront the Industrial Revolution,” and “The Urban Ecology of New York Starts With a Knowledge of the Land Under Your Feet.” The show also featured a walk to collect sidewalk soot to combine with honey and eggs for ink, to be used in the Pedestrian Press, which asked participants to print text wearing shoes with rubber letters on the bottom.

Intervals: Futurefarmers marks a trend for the Guggenheim, which is setting more projects outside the museum’s walls. Van Der Leer remarked, “We were initially doing big architecture shows, but if you’re starting to look at cities, it makes more sense to work in the city than in a museum.” One example is StillSpotting, a two-year project that highlights areas of respite in the city; its first installation opens in Brooklyn in June. The project asks architects and visual and sound artists to transform a “still spot” in the city every three to five months. Van der Leer’s biggest project is the BMW Guggenheim Labs, a six-year tour showcasing innovative ideas for cities from researchers, engineers, artists, and others.

Van der Leer even lobbied the museum to make his title of assistant curator of architecture and “urban studies” not design. “I’m interested in design,” he explained, “butI think you can use many fields to speak about cities.”

Katherine Fung