Geneviève asks David about research-creation and food...

Geneviève: How broadly do you define ‘iteration’ and what does it bring to your practice? This is related to a second theme: performance and result. You favor the process, and not an ‘end result.’ Why?

David: Although the concept of iteration has been in my head for some time, it became more meaningful to me as an artist-academic when I read a Bruno Latour (2008) article on the philosophy of design. He notes that design is always re-design and that no thing, no moment, no idea is ever wholly new or original or unprecedented. We build on histories, we build on each other. I gained a sense of iteration as layering, in this way. For food, this is critical to acknowledge: agriculture is a sequence, a spiral of growth, life, and death cycles; gastronomy is a sedimentation of practices over time that come to be formalized; tasting and other forms of food perception require and build on a past set of cognitive and bodily memories, just as they set us up to be witness to future experiences. When performance became more central to my work, a similar but more nuanced sense of iteration began to anchor itself. Performance is also always re-performance, a building on previous performances—humanistic, ecological, abstracted. (This also circles back to the performance of natural systems, of ecologies and food webs and reproductive cycles.) In rehearsal, we iterate on our own past iterations, and interact with others, giving and receiving feedback, and the iterative loop is often both tighter and looser. In the writing of performance scripts, we iterate on combinations of past phrasings, of meaning, and of context. Each iteration is both new and old, a recombinant effect that in turn produces subsequent recombinance.

For food culture, in particular, attention to iteration shows us that the things we eat are reproductions of previous plants and animals (transformed and processed in many ways). What we cook are new instances of dishes that have been previously performed (made), documented (as recipes), re-re-performed (from those recipes), re-eaten (and critiqued), adjusted, re-documented, and then made again. Iteration shows us that there is no ‘authentic’ or original dish—it’s always both new and old, a reference to the past and an offer to the future. Iteration is at once empowering (we draw on a history of creation) and humbling (nothing we do is autonomous), and so it is a grounding process. Most importantly, for food-centered research-creation, the cyclical nature of iteration demands reflection on what we are sensing, as well as feedback from others that feeds into the next cycle of research-creation. In this way, we are constantly remodeling, rethinking, and re-feeling. Rather than asking ‘new’ food questions, iteration allows us to unpack assumptions about given knowledge (whether nutritional, cultural, environmental) and wonder about their genealogy. While an ‘end result’ is perhaps the magnet that draws me through the process, it’s usually only that—an idea that inspires and attracts, rather than a place to reach necessarily. Reaching an end ends things, and that seems contradictory to the history and future of iteration that we are all a part of.

Geneviève: What does your research-creation bring to you personally? What does it bring to the academic and social knowledge about food? Is it the same thing?

David: There have been a number of iterations of David over the years, both professionally and personally, in my education and practice and ways of knowing. This has made me something of a generalist. I am a scientist and an artist, a humanist and a technophile. I love using words, but I care deeply about materiality, performance, action, and interaction. While this has been both fun and gratifying (and valuable, to me), it also isn’t what most employers or funders are looking for. Specialization is valued by those institutions.

Research-creation, however, both in practice and in the community of those who deploy it, embraces pluralism and cross-disciplinarity. It seeks hybrid ways of making meaning and supports hybrid ways of showing that meaning (and its making) to others. It is experimental by nature, often unsure of its end point. It values failure and success equally and ascribes positive and negative (and neutral) qualities to all outcomes. In research-creation, I have found a kind of home space for myself. It represents the liberty to do things and see what happens, while recognizing that art and science can produce knowledge together in ways that are more interesting than when they are opposed.

For food, research-creation is invaluable because of all these reasons. If food is matter, meaning, and movement, then research-creation allows all of those things to be valorized while remaining entangled. Research-creation allows for holism to remain whole. For food, food systems, and food culture, this is a desperately needed approach. As areas of practice, they are far too complex to be parsed and scientized—isolating the ‘variables’ of food doesn’t help understand its wholeness, its opportunities. In fact, it does the opposite, and that’s why we are seeing so many individual and collective challenges arise within food systems and food consumption. Food has to remain whole, and research-creation allows for that.

Geneviève: In your practice, how do the ‘languages’ of food and body oppose and/or complement the verbal language? What does the foregrounding of one or another specific language allow?

David: I often talk about food being an assemblage of matter, meaning, and movement—or, more academically, material, discourse, and process. All three elements must be present for food to be itself: subtract one and you might be left with ‘edible substance’, or ‘sensory concept’, or ‘culinary gesture’, but not with a thing humans would fully recognize as food. Over time, scholars have spent a great deal of time on the meaning/discourse part of food. That is, its history and symbolic nature, culture and economics, the social significance, and political implications. This is generally because academics like to be specific, and aim at objectivity, and language is a useful tool for that. It is much harder to express concrete, scholarly ideas through the physical substance of food, or through gesture, movement, and transformational processes.

Artists, on the other hand, have always done this—they use physical media and their own bodies to express emotion, abstraction, and affect, as well as concrete ideas. In food, we really need to explore that tension more, through both academic and artistic work, because there is little more integrated than the human-food dynamic. I often call my work ‘messy’, because I sometimes use language that is loose and even a bit confusing, and because I also use matter and movement as forms of output. But what I really mean by messy is relational. Making meaning from my work depends on a series of exchanges between me, food and its sensory qualities, and the audiences of the work. When we have to negotiate back and forth on, say, the meaning of a lump of edible paste or ‘the taste of sound’, relationality is activated.

Language, with its (usually) agreed-upon meanings, doesn’t require as much negotiation—the conventions are already established. But the less-established meaning of food matter and food movement raise questions; it can provoke the perceiver into wonder, or inspire joy, or prompt rage. So, by foregrounding either matter, meaning, or movement, I can try to elicit responses of different kinds—some more bodily, some more cognitive. With each effort, I think there’s another layer of knowledge and understanding that is created (which brings us back to your question about iteration).


David asks Geneviève about research-creation and food...

David: Why text and images? What is it about discursive meaning that you find compelling, as a way to investigate the subject of food? What liberties do words give you, and what are the restrictions?

Geneviève: I describe SDV as a work of digital literature. It contains moving images and music that I imagined, devised, or supervised, but words are its first and founding media, its primary material.

In my creative process, I began by writing the texts of the core part of the work, ‘Life Itself’. I wanted to write about foods that were important to me. But the truth is, the content that first presented itself was a disturbing jumble of food, materiality, perceptions, memories. I felt I needed to explore that content with words to discover its meaning and give it some order or shape. In the writing process, I also realized that if some foods had a specific resonance to me, it was because they were inscribed into stories. Food was tied to my personal identity and to life-changing events. By telling those stories, I was reaching to aspects of my own life that had stayed hidden to me, repressed and confined to an unconscious level. The storytelling and the use of words allowed me to reach to these contents. Thus, my creative enterprise is one of self-discovery, a soul-searching process. The use of language, in that context, aims at creating a cohesive meaning out of my personal jumble.

But I am aware that there is a delicate balance at play here. Verbal language has this specific power of creating an abstract reality, a world of ideas. And being an academic, I am familiar with (and even expert in) this disembodied use of language. There is a risk that I would set myself on an intellectual level and limit the evocative power of images, sound, and food itself. By organizing the jumble, I could diminish its complexity and stop the production of meaning.

This is why, even if I have a somewhat constructivist approach to meaning and discursivity, I try to use words in a way that remains multiple and open, and to avoid the rational, schematic, and explanatory use of language. I leave blanks and silence in and between my stories. The fragmentary nature of the texts and the rhizomatic structure of the work as a whole are also attempting to break the linearity often associated with discourse. In addition, I strive for a linguistic multi-modality. Words are written but also spoken. They are sometimes poetic, narrative, or more reflective. I am at once a voice, a narrator, and a character, in a fluid and changing dynamic. This polyphonic use of language is, in a way, a device by which I try to escape the tendency to be overly intellectual. It leaves room for the indefinite, for what can be grasped between the lines or under the verbal reality.

I would also add that the making of the work, which supposed the manipulation of real food and an interaction with bodies and materiality, gave way to different meaning processes that have no translation in the world of language, but that resonate and can be felt in the result. Non-verbal signification arises. For example, in ‘Nourish’, bodies are shown, my hands touch my daughter’s hair and skin, and little gestures become signs—the slow braiding of the hair, a gentle push on the shoulders. Same with the lobsters in ‘Mourning’, which I had to boil and cut open thrice for the camera. This repetitive process took the mysterious quality of a funerary ceremony. These gestures enrich the work by allowing love or grief to become embodied and shown.

So, words are not the whole of the story, and the co-occurrence of images, especially images that go beyond the illustrative and testify to a process and of an emotion, opens the significance and allows space for interpretation. At this point, some meaning relies specifically on some things that are not said in words, but that are shown through thoughtful images of material objects.

David: What has research-creation brought to you as an academic-artist? What does it allow you to do that other forms of research and art-making do not? Do you feel that practicing research-creation has changed or transformed you?

Geneviève: Food is my obsession. I am constantly drawn to it. Food making and eating is of utmost importance in my daily life. I read about food all the time. My academic research is also on that topic. I not only think of or about food: I think with food. It is my language, one of the main angles by which I understand the world. It is the primary material of my life and of my psychic world.

For a long time, I felt that this way of being was somewhat ridiculous, embarrassing, or at least odd. On an unconscious level, I envisioned myself caught with my hand in the cookie jar by ‘serious’ fellow researchers who judged my subject to be trivial and shallow. My obsession was bodily, feminine, infantile, material. It could have no legitimacy in academia. So, I soaked it in erudition and abstractness, in an attempt to construct my professional persona. It was timely that the field of food studies was gaining traction at this point, giving a new theoretical justification to my choices.

But as my career went by, this abstract professional persona became a burden, heavier to carry each year. If I was gaining some reputation and broadening my ‘expertise’, I was not in touch with the very reason for my relish for food. Moreover, my reverence toward the abstract was threatening to kill the magic and the meaning I saw in it.

Chance or coincidence, I had the opportunity to contribute to an exhibition that would bring together various researchers in food studies and activism at Concordia University (What is Food? 2018). I was planning to make a series of short, narrated videos about various foods, with a tone that would not be traditionally academic. I was not aspiring to express anything deep. But in an unexpected way, I was literally unable to write the texts I wanted to serve as the base for my videos—that is, until I realized that if I were to do it, I needed to delve into the mysteries of my obsession. A hidden voice was longing to express itself. But in letting it go out loud, I would be revealing my wants, needs, and vulnerabilities. It was not something I wanted. So, creation is not always a decision. It may just happen.

This whole process has changed the way I see myself in the context of academic research. It has opened up definitions and ways of being. In short, I have come to think that I should follow my desire for that cookie jar. Because that desire, far from being laughable or insignificant, is a driving force that can create different kinds of knowledge. It speaks of the body, of the primitive, of materiality, and of the myriad ways signification can arise.

The main lesson I learned (or deepened) is that my material interactions with food create a meaningful relationship with the world. In the context of academia, it means that my body can become a research device. My perceptions and subjectivity are not barriers, but instruments. This approach is translating into my theoretical work, where I study the imaginary of food. I feel that I am better able to understand cultural representations of food if I am open to the knowledge of bodies, mine and others. It allows me to formulate new questions: What happens to a body when eating a specific food? What is the tone, the colour, or the atmosphere of that sensory experience? What or who do I become by eating that food? How does that relate to the imaginary of a community and a culture? My research has expanded with the possibility of creation, but also, I feel that the scope of what is searchable is now larger, situated not only in my head but in my body and sensory experience as a whole.

David: What tensions arise for you in your work? Which are productive, restrictive, or both? Are there any conundrums that seem unresolvable?

Geneviève: One main tension is between the material nature of food and the digital nature of my work. As I write in ‘Offscreen’, it is ‘a strange paradox or balancing act: how to represent food, through technology, without dematerializing it.’

Of course, the virtual world of SDV has nothing to do with the material reality. It is a representation, a transposition. It is composed of some more-or-less analogic signs (images and music), but even more of abstract symbolic signs (words and digital code). How can I navigate this primacy of the representational and the abstract, especially given the topic of food and the body that is central to my work?

In the making process of SDV, I realized that for me, a digital sign means nothing without the concrete experience and the living substance that made it possible. This has an important consequence for the experience I wish to provide for the visitor. I need the food represented in my work to stir the body and the senses, so there can be some sort of a shared experience. In order to do that, the representation has to keep the trace of a material existence. For Roland Barthes (1980), photography is a sign that says: ‘this has been’ (‘ça a été’). I want to be able to say this of the elements composing SDV. It may be a staging, a mise en scène, but at the same time, the elements of the setting are entrenched in real and concrete life, in events that happened.

Because of this imperative, the imperfections of the images and of the manipulation of food or various materials need to be preserved. The imperfect braiding I do of my daughter’s hair in ‘Nourish’ is showing just that, a relationship that is crafted in the making. In ‘Mourning,’ when I clumsily open the shell of the lobster, it speaks of the food, of my body relating to it, and it evokes the difficulties of my relation to my father. The audio narration also allows for some sharing of an entrenched experience. When the voice stops, when the intonation changes or breaks, it is the trace of something happening at a certain moment, the glimpse of an actual emotion that may be carried by the audio presence, which is always more concrete and relatable than the written word.