Fermentation Fest’s changing relationship with art

The Driftless-area festival is turning its flagship art tour into a biennial event.

The Driftless-area festival is turning its flagship art tour into a biennial event.

Baraboo artist Beth Persche's seed mosaic was among the pieces in 2016's Farm/Art DTour. Images courtesy Wormfarm Institute, illustration by Scott Gordon.


Baraboo artist Beth Persche’s seed mosaic was among the pieces in 2016’s Farm/Art DTour. Images courtesy Wormfarm Institute, illustration by Scott Gordon.


The Reedsburg-based nonprofit Wormfarm Institute’s annual Fermentation Fest might center around food—specifically anything that requires yeast or bacteria eating up sugar to make. But what really makes Fermentation Fest a regional hit is how it sets up a porous relationship between the esoteric food stuff and a refreshing approach to art. That usually means large-scale installations, strewn about public spaces in the festival’s nexus of downtown Reedsburg and the surrounding countryside.

The biggest part of that by far has been the Farm/Art DTour, in which artists create installations on farmland and in towns along a roughly 50-mile loop of country roads, and visitors drive or bike their way through it. Along the route there are performances, tastings, and festival vendors. In 2015 the DTour even had its own soundtrack, featuring artists like Tenement, Holy Sheboygan, and Milwaukee experimental outfit He Can Jog.

As the festival heads into its seventh year—running October 6 through 8 and 13 through 15—it’s taking a different approach. This year will be the first without a Farm/Art DTour, and that part of the event will happen every other year from now on. Wormfarm Institute executive director Donna Neuwirth says organizers have been thinking about this change for a few years.

“When we started, we didn’t realize how big it would get and how fast it would grow,” Neuwirth says. The first year, the DTour drew about 4,000 visitors, and by last year that number grew to 22,000. “Had we realized it we might have planned it that way from the start.”

The DTour involves artists from around Wisconsin but also from around the country, making pieces that have ranged from seed mosaics to a giant walk-in structure made of tree limbs. These pieces have to stand out in a wide-open, rolling landscape, so that often requires working on a large scale. Last year’s DTour comprised nine major pieces. Planning and executing all that is tough work, and Neuwirth is glad to have the extra time for 2018’s event.

Neuwirth also admits that funding is a concern. Political threats to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities would have a disproportionate impact on arts projects in small communities across Wisconsin and the rest of the country. The Wormfarm Institute received $250,000 in NEA grants between 2010 and 2016, and most of that went to support the DTour. Public funding is generally used to leverage funds from private donors and foundations, but that is harder to do for organizations in small towns and rural areas.

The switch to every other year also gives organizers a chance to rethink just about everything about the DTour. For instance, the route could be changed up—maybe another big loop in a different direction, or a couple smaller ones—which would require working with a whole different set of farmers and landowners, but would help the event reach parts of the nearby area that it hasn’t before. “When we first began we naively thought we could change the route every year, not realizing the enormity of that task,” Neuwirth says. With more time to plan, artists could also collaborate on a deeper level with the farmers hosting their work.

“So much of what we do is about the conversation between culture and agriculture,” Newuwirth says. “We use farmland, and if you’re working with the landowner a year in advance then there’s the possibility of the artist being involved in how the land is planted…we’ve never even had the opportunity to explore that.”

Art will still have a big presence at the 2017 Fermentation Fest, just one more concentrated in Reedsburg itself. This year’s City Park Food Chain, in the middle of downtown Reedsburg, will feature interactive poetry, a “peace posts” project from Milwaukee sculptor Muneer Bahauddeen, a community mosaic project, and a couple of large-scale sculptures and installations. The festival also includes an October 7 screening of the documentary Fermented. Neuwirth says there will be more art and music components added to this year’s schedule, though of course some of it’s coming together pretty last-minute.

In the short term, it’s a bit of a bummer not to have the DTour in 2017. But the more important thing here is preserving the spirit in which Fermentation Fest operates. The event’s focus on food and agriculture helps draw in people who might not otherwise be all that interested in installation art; its focus on art draws in people who might otherwise be intimidated by the craft and science involved in fermented food and drink. Neuwirth even refers to art as a “social probiotic”—an adorable but apt way to put it.

“Everything we understand about culture and art is part of how we form our land and how we till our soil and how we grow our food,” Neuwirth says. “We are very fortunate to be in the midst of a working landscape…to bring the art into that stage and have it not be ironic and strange, and have it be kind of at home, we think it’s critically important, especially for people who think that it’s odd, or think a white wall is a more suitable place for these kinds of ideas.”

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