Described as “a museum without walls … a modern park with edible plants and a vibrant community”, Losæter is a place that defies easy definitions. Starting out as a temporary art project, it grew into a large public space that is in fact a fully fledged organic farm in the midst of abandoned concrete structures. It is supported by a large community of creatives and organizations, and it is endorsed by both the local government and developers: a rare coordination of intents that we have not found elsewhere in Oslo.
The San Francisco-based artist Amy Franceschini, the co-creator of Futurefarmers and a key figure at Losæter, tells us how the project came about. Invited to Oslo to work on a series of performative, participatory art projects, Amy was engaged from the beginning in working in Grønland – according to many, one of the last truly multicultural neighborhood in the city center.
“I thought maybe it’s more interesting to understand Grønland by going very far away. For another project, I was assisting a botanist who was driving from the north of Norway all the way back to Oslo in search of a rare plant. So I traveled through Norway and just asked people as I met them, ‘What do you think of Oslo and the development of the city?’ On that trip, we ran into this big house in a village and it was kind of bustling with energy. There was a station for frying fish. There was a slaughterhouse and a shared kitchen, and the people there said it was like a ‘new church, this is where all the gossip happens, this is where we meet’. And I thought, ‘Wow, that would be great to have a big house in the city.’ It was just an idea, and then Anne Beate said, ‘That would be great, a big house in the city, let’s do it.’”
Anne Beate Hovind commissioned the initial artwork to Amy. She is an urban developer, working for Bjørvika Utvikling, with a long history of successful experimental projects in Oslo. Among other things, she ran a theater and cultural cafe on a boat (we talk about that in NBT), and she commissioned the Future Library – a durational art piece involving the management of an entire forest for producing sustainable, unique publications for 100 years. Anne Beate facilitated the connection between Amy’s initial ideas and various decision makers, including the property developers, local institutions, and the Norwegian Farmers Union.
The project really took off when the first seeds were planted. Amy recalls how they collected seeds of ancient grains, farmed centuries ago by the Finns [nomadic forest farmers], and how they started to produce bread – a production that turned out to be a fundamental glue to bring many different actors together. “Some historians found nine grains of these ancient crops in the roof of a sauna, and they planted them and got them back into production. Those were the first greens we planted at Losæter. We started meeting other farmers who are part of this network of ancient grains. So the project developed different hubs that I think connected to different communities, which made it like a strong fabric. We proposed to do a first experiment in Grønland, so we made this canoe oven, and we named ourselves as a working group the Flatbread Society. The idea behind it was to connect to Grønland, to bring that neighborhood here [to the harbor]. One thing that was common in Grønland is that there were many people baking flatbread: Sudanese, Pakistani, Irani, Turkish bakeries, all baking flatbread. And ethnic Norwegians too were eating flatbread. So we thought flatbread could maybe be a currency between the different cultures.”
The project developed for two years with farmers hired through the Farmers Union, and within a short time it managed to really turn the empty plot into a productive organic farm. The next key step was to somehow give the place back into the hands of the city, which happened through the appointment of an official “city farmer”, a position that did not exist before but that is already being replicated in several cities throughout Norway.
Meet Øystein Hvamen Rasmussen, current city farmer of Oslo. “My professional background is actually as a musician. I’m a jazz drummer, but I’ve always been really into food. From the first sugar pea I tasted at the age of three or four … it was like an epiphany, I got goose bumps. Those peas grew in the allotment garden of my stepmother, and since then I have always been fascinated by food cultivation.” Øystein lived most of his life in Oslo, or touring other big cities across Europe as a professional musician, but he grew increasingly dissatisfied with city life. “We actually sold our apartment. Many people talk about it, but we did it for real. It’s a strange and big thing. We cashed out our loans and bought a small farm in Sweden that we still have and run. We have lived there for seven years and tried to be self-sufficient on stuff that we could make on our own, better than anything we could buy here. Yeah, so we have sheep, ducks, chickens, honey, hunting, fishing rights, vegetables inside and outside. The whole package. And of course, foraging mushrooms and our own firewood from our own forest. We have lived that life for seven years and it was amazing.”
When Losæter advertised an open position for their new head farmer and local manager, Øystein felt that his profile was a great match. The call was for someone who was able to run single-handedly a fully organic farm, while promoting and managing participatory art projects and a variety of cultural events. Despite his deep criticism of city life, Øystein realized that this position would allow him to pursue his passion while contributing to something bigger.
“I just felt like I wasn’t finished studying in a way. I looked at this as an opportunity to verify all I had done hands-on. What I learned in plants’ Latin names, the input from other farmers, try stuff out. We’re not doing this for commercial purposes, so we’re free to fail. And that’s always been a mantra for me: ‘fail better’. This is what this place means to me. I have of course visions and dreams and plans and some are secrets [laughing], but, yes, what I really love is that I am still working in farming as I was doing before, but now this brings up new ambitions. My job here is of course for my own well-being, but now I can transmit it to others.”
In fact, from the very beginning Losæter has always been conceived as a learning space. Anne Beate highlights how the interaction between artistic methods and agricultural knowledge generated an extremely fertile context for both worlds.
“The project is about literacy: teaching farming principles to everybody. That’s the really hard part, the transmission of knowledge. Amy’s contribution was great because she brought to the table something that was lacking in the farming community: aesthetics, recognition, and media from the arts perspective.”
Even if accessibility to all is at the core of the project, that doesn’t mean that the farming techniques that are performed and taught need to be dumbed down or caricatured – as it often happens in many other superficial ‘greening’ city projects. On the contrary, Øystein seems very excited about the potential for experimentation that the unconventional setting of Losæter affords: “I am in this unique position where I’m doing this job in two different worlds, in the urban context and out in the countryside, with ‘real’ farmers. That’s what led me to realizing that I don’t like the word ‘urban farming’. That’s one of the first things I said to my bosses, and I tried to get rid of that in all communications. Rather, it’s ‘farming in the city’. It could be so important what we are testing here. It is totally like you can transfer it out to the bigger conventional farmers. In some experiments we are actually having great success. Like, I don’t know how much you are into farming, but for instance in regenerative farming: no digging, no extracting organic materials from the ground. Using only nutrition that you have around. Pee on your plants and the like. This is only logical, but we have forgotten.”
Øystein’s words resonate with the first impressions of visiting the place: a multitude of plants grow in wild arrangements, the paths are almost completely overgrown, there is a decided “organic” scent in the air, and a few people are seen working with simple tools, their hands deep into the soil. A very different sight from the usual manicured pop-up urban farming projects populated by smartly dressed “creatives”. A very refreshing sight indeed.
Losæter is still considered a temporary project by many, but the radical transformations that it has brought to the understanding and the management of public spaces will have long-lasting effects for sure. As Amy aptly points out, “Losæter is a good demonstration of how we could operate from within the state. It’s ours. We vote for it. It’s our house, and we have to participate in it rather than break it down.”