Historical Background

Part of the original infrastructure of an Experimental Research Station in British Columbia. 2016. Photo by Denis Gutiérrez-Ogrinc.

Part of the original infrastructure of an Experimental Research Station in British Columbia. 2016. Photo by Denis Gutiérrez-Ogrinc.

As an artist-run project, Far Afield is a loose adaptation of a model provided by an unusual and long-since forgotten Canadian institution: The Experimental Farm Program. The legacy, priorities, and challenging agendas that drove the material and cultural research of agricultural practices at the farm have been inspirational in Far Afield’s consideration of the ways in which contemporary experimental art practices can be supported today. 

Although specifically intent on agriculture, the Experimental Farm’s aims, objectives, and overall structure are remarkably aligned with some of the experimental practices that forged artist-run cultural programs towards the later decades of the twentieth century. Developing new ways to work with audiences and publics, creating supportive networks and communities of shared interests, freely distributing and circulating experimental practices, and analyzing local conditions, are just some of the overlapping concerns between experimental farms and experimental art collectives.

 

Experimental Farms

The Experimental Farm Program was a nationwide federally-funded project that aimed to serve the needs of Canadian agriculture by abandoning big institutions for smaller, regionally-focused sites of research. The program began in 1886 and lasted for about one hundred years [1]. The Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa was elected by the government to oversee the many regional Experimental Farms across the country, but despite this, the local farm sites retained a significant amount of autonomy [2].

During their time, Experimental Farms were tremendously active in the public sphere: producing publications, organizing exhibitions, showcasing films and lantern slides, coordinating gatherings, providing opportunities and training for new farmers, and supporting any and every resident’s inquiries into local agriculture. The Farms endeavoured to serve both the experienced farmer and the novice gardener, all the while encouraging experimental practices. Despite a modest number of staff, Experimental Farms were open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; institutions “which everyone is entitled to use, to visit, to enjoy and to learn from” [3]. The history of this institution was one that aimed to “generate ideas and solve problems” [4], and to think creatively and sustainably about land, place, and resources. Over time, the Experimental Farms’ resistance to developing commercially practical results led to major shifts in their funding apparatuses, and the theoretical and experimental research programs began to be phased out in the nineteen-eighties.   

Yet, this localized and communal idealism existed within the larger scope of a fraught and oppressive national agenda. Today, a consideration of the Experimental Farm Program cannot exist without a dedicated acknowledgement of the Federal Government’s reliance on the Department of Agriculture to accelerate the settlement of Canada, which ultimately and violently displaced First Peoples. The farming practices encouraged by the Experimental Farms were tethered to settler colonialism, and complicit in policies that were disastrous to traditional and ancestral forms of land-use.

Wary of the nostalgic or pastoral tendencies that often accompany historical accounts, Far Afield questions whether a revisitation of the Experimental Farm model can be problematized in a way that recuperates the sentiments of egalitarian idealism, while remaining conscious of the ever-present specters of oppression that haunt those goals. Turning to face and grapple with the deliberate exclusions and omissions of certain communities from such a project, is the work that is left to be done.

 

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Anstey, T.H. One Hundred Harvests 1886-1986. Research Branch Agriculture Canada: Historical Series No. 27. Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing Services, 1986. <weblink>. Today, some of the Experimental Farm sites have transformed into Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Stations. It should be noted that the objectives of today's version of these research stations are dramatically different from the original aims of the Experimental Farms.   

[2] Kaesmodel, Ernie. An Interview With Walter Burns. Prince George: Prince George Oral History Group, 2000. Discussing some of the “peculiar” approaches taken by the farm, Burns notes, “Well, forging ahead with something that hadn't been approved was not deemed to be the thing to do. My view is that I was here to direct a program and in order to direct a program I had to develop it. So, I just went ahead and developed it. I say finally it was approved. That wasn’t deemed to be the right and proper approach, but when you have five thousand, or whatever it is, miles from headquarters and communications are not all that great, what do you do? You do what you think will be progressive.” (p. 15)

[3] Burns, Walter. “Agricultural Research Conducted Here.” Prince George Citizen, 24 May. 1961, p. 24.

[4] Anstey, T.H. Ibid.

 

 


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