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  • Writer's pictureRiot and Roux! Editorial Team

Seeds on fire, seeds of hope. Artivism by Franca Formenti

By Aleksandra Jaszczyk

In her inquiries about our ethical bonds, Judith Butler asks a question that is very often the axis of reflection for activist activities in various areas: "(...) [Does] any of us have the capacity or inclination to respond ethically to suffering at a distance and what makes that ethical encounter possible, when it does take place?" The first part of the question deals with the deep issue of the condition of our empathy in its globalized version. Food, as one of the goods most strongly subject to the laws of the market, is also a determinant of identity, culture, status and development. It can be a source of conflict, a work of art, a tool to change entire societies. It is linked to climate change, the imposition of values and the domination of more developed economies over weaker ones. However, the ethical response to suffering, also caused by food crises, can take the form of art which, by raising the challenge of facing the subject in a positive way, influencing the crisis situation, becomes artivism.

However, the artists' response does not often take the form of a specific economic activity. Entrepreneurship, although in its essence close to the artist's work, requires planning and strategic skills and the control of many a hearth. In a very literal sense, locally and globally operating artivist, Franca Formenti controls the hearths in the kitchen of her Zona Franca.

This text is an attempt to capture the activities to promote ethically and artistically engaged food and the main ideas behind Franca's activities: drawing attention to food as an enormously powerful medium, the smallest dose of which can change lives.

Even before entering the place that brought me here on my activist journey through Italy, I notice the concrete surroundings of the restaurant. They strongly contrast with the pots of herbs placed in front of the entrance, which tempt you to touch them, to tear off a leaf, to smell it as an entre to the further sensory impressions awaiting us inside.

Crossing the threshold of Zona Franca for the first time, I am immediately noticed by the woman responsible for this place: by Franca herself. She calls my name, standing behind the colorful counter. She approaches me, smiling and sincere, wearing an apron. You can feel the ease of her movements and the many hours spent in the kitchen, which filled her with the energy of fire, like an ancient tiled stove. You just feel it right away.

Before coming to the place, I read that Zona Franca is a take away gourmet kitchen. After looking at the space from the inside, it's hard for me to say where I am and what the main function of Zona is. I allow myself to reject the thoughts of functionalism and the necessity of nowaday’s utilitarianism, and allow myself to enjoy observation at ease. It strikes me that at first I don't see menus or dishes, but people: guests at the tables, girls bustling around the kitchen, Franca of course. Food is one of the leading elements, but also changing here thanks to the surroundings of a multi-layered narrative of objects. Therefore, I have the impression that it is a very fluid space, where the observer's eye slides over the signs of the times, adding even more space-time fluidity, memories of Franca's several-year-long activity as an artivist". However, I quickly stop feeling like an observer because the space is so open that no one can go unnoticed here: I am a participant in this fluid exchange, transaction of goods and meanings when one of the cooks brings me a meal. She has a mask on, but I'm sure a friendly smile ran across her face. She is a small dark-skinned young woman who feels very confident here. She made the dishes that I am about to eat. Hands that came very close to me for a moment. I felt the friendly warmth of them, like a tiny touch of a transforming flame.

The interior design has been marked with a strong accent of Franca’s creative energy. The dining space arranged by her is full of furniture, which Franca took care of, renovated in such a way that it would be associated with hospitality and food as a multifunctional activity: nourishing not only the body but also the sense of aesthetics. If you like something, feel free to ask if it can be found in your home.

The very word "zona" can be associated with a clearly separated space, isolated from the rest of the world. Zona Franca is a space that initiates change, in which, like in an alternative laboratory of life, you can break reality into small pieces and look at them closely. Political zones are closely guarded, no outsiders can be found in them. Franca turns it all over by inviting each and everyone. This is also reflected in the way the kitchen is arranged and the food is displayed. Most often, you can come across a separate, closely guarded kitchen area that is not visited by customers. Here, the kitchen is not hidden by anything, except for a low, colorful counter, which separates consumption from the place where the dishes are made in a non-obvious way. Franca says that she had to fight for it with official institutions dealing with the regulation of work in restaurants. Thanks to Franca's persistence, it was possible to have such an open kitchen. The exhibition of dishes that can be eaten at Zona is set in such a way that the visitor will pay attention to it, but only after being saturated with the atmosphere of the place. I only noticed this exhibition after a short conversation with Franca. The bowls are full of a very diverse set of vegetables. Salads have nuances of color and taste. You can find filling hummus and lasagna rich in good meat. Everything is prepared on the spot by female hands, including Franca herself. While contemplating this exhibition of abundance, we talk about who is responsible for what, where the kale comes from, the story of preparing chicken...

Franca organizes Zona herself. The table for office, administrative and creative work is set a bit off the beaten track, but inside the restaurant area, from where Franca has a view of everything that is happening in Zona, and the "outside world", the street, which can be seen in all its glory thanks to the expansive glass window.

Some elements of the interior seem funny, but not cheering at all. Irony and humor are only a medium for the viewer to swallow content that is neither sweet nor easily digestible. They can even give you heartburn, a fire in your stomach that cannot be quenched by water. Once heated, it will pressurize, seek an outlet. It will not find an outlet. Just as the hunger among millions of people in the world is not being satisfied at this very moment. It is difficult to be exposed to this subject all the time. Franca deals creatively with the awareness of the problems of feeding humanity. Her business is part of a resistance movement. Every customer is a potential changemaker and Franca knows it; she uses it with a great deal of love and creates an atmosphere of warmth and compassion. Therefore, despite the fact that our sensitivity is exacerbated and we receive clear information that now we are negotiating our position on what the food situation in the world will look like, we are not overwhelmed by it, but strengthened, being able to look for hope in a creative, empathetic dialogue with each recipient participating in these negotiations.

Franca goes far beyond indifference. It does not exist in her space. Everything has a meaning, or even several, as we are invited to search for them on our own. In Zona, through family contact with clients, friends and employees, there is a constant renewal of life in the form of a phenomenon and, at the same time, an object, which is food, which has the power to mediate between meanings, but is never indifferent or neutral, because it affects our vitality or the lack of it. It can make us feel good, but thanks to the ambiguity and political entanglement of the food we eat in Zona Franca, we can also feel very anxious and moved. Our imaginations are set on fire, set in motion. It's hard to eat a meal without thinking: what depths does this fish come from? Who picked these tomatoes?

The client can find him or herself in a problematic situation, the solution of which he does not know and cannot find out for him or herself. However, we are not left embarrassed in the street with no way out. A huge inscription on one of the walls tells us the solution. FOOD poses the POWER to change, not only the status quo but also our sensitivity to it. It is a tool of dialogue, a zone to go beyond the vicious circle of increasing precarity and the gap between the situation of the poorest and the percentage of the richest in the world.

Setting fire to your meal

Franca's "working out" of food problems was stimulated by a very personal experience. She had to deal with the drug addiction of a loved one, which was associated with an attempt to alleviate the situation by preparing meals for the person. Food has become a medium of communication, a contact between her and the problem of a close relative. Franca, who was also busy with artistic work at the time, received numerous inquiries from the addicted relative about the preparation of meals and recipes for dishes. In the midst of it all, she noticed that “food has great power, that's what it was all about – the change that food starts". Not without exaggeration, it can be said that the dedication Franca put into the prepared meals during that difficult time of dealing with the addiction of a loved one influenced the transformation and the recovery from the addiction. As she recalls: “the anger at first was more than just the disapproval of it”. Anger was able to transform, just as fire can transform a matter or attitudes. A relative was "infected" with the power of food, becoming a cook himself.

At the same time, Franca felt that food would become a new hotspot also in the field of art. She, as an artist, began to explore this subject long before the concept of "food porn" became popular and instagram flooded the stylization of exquisite dishes prepared diligently or eaten in restaurants and bars of all kinds. It was 2007. Franca writes in one of her texts that: Today, in journalistic production, in artists' projects, in the interests of sponsors, food seems to replace fashion. Because there is no doubt: fashion, which at the end of the last century seemed to be the most appropriate element ensuring the bond between material and non-material culture, today sets the pace in the imagination, and food activities are increasing in number. Isn't it so fun to dress up our bodies when above all you have to feed them first?

Indeed, there is fire put under our imaginations. This applies to the burning issue of those who want to rule the food market in such a way as to be able to mark their material status, shout out “I'm here!” (manipulation which is known at least since the time of Dutch still life painting for the wealthy citizens). One of the Sustainable Development Goals is Hunger Elimination. Franca often takes up this topic, showing the relationship between the speeding machine of the economy and mass production of food, as well as deconstructing the creation of houte cuisine, and confronting it with the situation of people begging for food.

You can also ask yourself: can fashion in really change the position of forces in the world, affect millions of people, and ensure a dignified existence? In a very indirect and far-fetched way, we would be able to prove it. In this, however, food seems to trump all other phenomena. Of course, it is hard to say that food can save us from the prevailing crisis, but the way we think about it and how we manage food systems and the narrative about food can save people (and the natural environment) in the long run.

Franca pursues several goals by working with the subject of food under the FOODPOWER project for thirteen years now. She creates valuable artistic activities, touches upon the food politics in Italy by highlighting the most pressing issues and promotes food as a universal factor transforming our way of thinking about the world.

In FOODPOWER, Franca touches on a sensuality that almost reaches the borderline of taboo, of a sexual act when it comes to the eating experience. Also, as the project aims to show, each stage of food distribution is included in taboo, albeit not because of its intimacy, but because of the exploitative nature of the work of collecting food, processing it, and delivering it to our homes. It is one of the most personal activities, the greatest part of which consumers are most often unaware of. Even in such farming systems, where mechanization has largely replaced human labor, farm workers are often needed for activities such as harvesting and packing delicate fruit and vegetables.

It is worth noting that dependence on hired workers, often with working conditions below the required standards in large corporations, is also common in many small, family-run and environmentally-oriented farms, where labor-intensive techniques are commonly used as substitutes for agrochemical inputs and mechanization. Feeding the cities is literally in their hands. And the farms, in turn, are dependent on seed.

Seeds of hope (need fire!)

There are seeds in the world (ie. of redwood trees) that will not grow unless a wave of wildfires passes through them. Primordial peoples saw this by starting a controlled fire in the bush, allowing the seeds to undergo transformation.

This is also how Zona Franca is created. Franca is a full time businesswoman, managing a company, which is close to, but is not, a social enterprise. Nevertheless, Franca can be called a social artist. Managing through values, through the prism of empathy, full of humanitarianism and refusal to harm, is a management full of hope.

A leader's legitimacy is expressed in the respect shown to them, in the universal acceptance of his actions. This acceptance, when it comes to small businesses, often takes the form of a personal relationship, mutual support and a strong network of contacts. In theorizing about the role of a leader and the role of a manager, there is sometimes the conclusion that the manager is oriented towards the present and structure, the leader towards the future and people. The manager stabilizes, maintains the current state. The leader changes, creates new rules of the game, leads the members of the organization. The manager aims to do the things right, but the leader aims to do the right things, and it is often more important to him or her that the right things are not done properly. Franca trusts herself and her intuition, her actions are people-oriented and stimulate feelings through food and artistic interventions.

Zona Franca is also part of a local alternative food network formed by a group of people that aim to reverse the social and environmental damage generated by the dominant food system, and support alternatives and local solutions. Their efforts often focus on localization, direct marketing, and small-scale organic food. A “moral economy” that connects farmers, consumers and nature through caring relationships is one of Zona Franca’s main strategies for transformation of power over food. Franca, although she seems to have a full vision of the place and activities happening there, does not apply one-man leadership. She strengthens her subordinates, encourages them to make choices on their own, gives them some responsibilities as they learn. Franca's management could be compared to that of a permaculture gardener. Its main pillar is the good of the other person and the environment, sharing the excess and giving a lot of room for things to take their course freely, which she closely observes and translates into the artist's reflection.

The entrepreneurial spirit also makes her look for consensual solutions in order to keep the place and continue her artivistic activity: not all food can be obtained locally and in the cleanest way. However, Franca is forward-thinking and aware of the dependencies an entrepreneur must find oneself in. Acting alone or creating the only such place in the city, it is difficult to have an extensive network of contacts that can live on its own without goods from distant countries or produced on non-organic terms. Most importantly, what resonates in the work of an activist, artist and businesswoman, she devotes a lot of attention to seeds as the main actors, creating their image and their due place in the debate on the state of food and preserving people's cultural identity and their sense of dignity.

Now, many years of searching have given birth to a new project in which the role of food is shown quite literally, but behind a veil of cultural associations with illegal substances. “It's just taking shape, this "il Cibo bandito" (“The banished food”) initiative”, says Franca. The legality of food is becoming an increasingly hot issue, as old varieties of seeds and plants are restricted. Eating healthily becomes illegal and has to be hidden. However, in places like Zona Franca there is room for debate on this topic, and kindling of the creative fire of joint efforts to defend the common good that is: seeds.

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