Food has a powerful aesthetic, which can be consumed multi-sensorially. Gustatory perceptions involve all five main human senses (plus some of the others, such as thermoception), and food appreciation is a complex multimodal process that requires synaesthetic confluences. Meaning acquisition via food is something that occurs naturally throughout human lives, from birth onward. What ultimately distinguishes mere gustatory aspects of food consumption from the aesthetic experience of food is that the latter extends taste perception with cultural meanings. Somaesthetic appreciation of food (Shusterman 1999) through its taste, smell, sound, texture, or visual appearance is never neutral and is always inscribed with meanings related to the social context of consumption. Food has a strong symbolic meaning (Douglas 1972; Lévi-Strauss 1965; Mead 1970; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1999) that differs between cultural environments (Munn 1986; Belasco 1987; Allison 1991; Wilk and Barbosa 2012) and between historical periods (Coe and Coe 1996; Flandrin and Montanari 1999; Bobrow-Strain 2012).
Roman and Greek emperors enjoyed vain food frenzies during decadent orgies, elitist feasts that were open only to the highest class and served as a sign of an attendant’s social importance. Renaissance royalty organised opulent banquets famous for expensive, delicate meals, but also for great portions of food intended only for visual pleasures: enormous pies, food sculptures, and even whole ‘edible monuments’ were created purely to satisfy the aristocracy with a spectacular feast for their eyes. Futurist intellectuals came up with the concept of avant-garde cuisine and threw tactile dinner parties in which they enjoyed food mainly through the enhanced sense of touch (burying their faces into salad bowls), smell (dispersing flavoured scents throughout the dining room), and hearing (sounds of chef Marinetti’s signature dish, the ‘polyrhythmic salad’, were played during the dinners) (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1999).
However, the aesthetic experience cannot be reduced to a form of pleasure (Pryba 2012), and artworks employing food as an aesthetic or conceptual tool do not need to cause solely enjoyable stimuli. Employed in a critical way, food can serve as a powerful medium to deliver disturbing messages and embody various meanings. Thanks to its multi-sensory appeal, food used as a critical art/design tool has an ability to convey these narratives in a more legible – or rather ‘digestible’ – way.
Even if a relatively new discipline, food art has existed since the beginning of civilisation, from the primeval cave paintings of hunted soon-to-become-edible animals, ancient Egyptian paintings, or Arcimboldo’s food portraits and seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes, to more recent initiatives such as Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food restaurant, the International Food Design Society, or FoodCultura. Artworks that employ food can take many different forms and so-called food art thus represents a broad field. Linda Montano (quoted in Roth 2000: 145) summarised the possible artistic approaches to food as follows:
Artists have used food as political statement (Martha Rosler, The Waitresses, Nancy Buchanan, Suzanne Lacy), as conceptual device (Eleanor Antin, Bonnie Sherk, Vito Acconci), as life principle (Tom Marioni, Les Levine), as sculptural material (Paul McCarthy, Joseph Beuys, Kipper Kids, Terry Fox, Carolee Schneemann, Motion, Bob & Bob), for nurturance and ritual (Barbara Smith), for props and irony (Allan Kaprow), as a scare tactic (Hermann Nitsch), in autobiography (Rachel Rosenthal), as feminist statement (Suzanne Lacy, Judy Chicago, Womanhouse), in humor (Susan Mogul), for survival (Leslie Labowitz).
Most of the categories mentioned in Montano’s list can be refreshed with more recent examples. As for overtly political food art projects, one recalls, for instance, the Pittsburgh-based Conflict Kitchen (2010), which only serves food sourced from countries with which the United States is in conflict, or Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen (2007), where the artist invited the audience to cook meals based on the recipes of his Jewish-Iraqi mother and encouraged a discussion about related political issues. In their Orphic Memory Sausage (2008), artists Mimi Oka and Doug Fitch employed food as a biographical conceptual tool. They asked audience members to bring along objects to which they have an emotional attachment, and, to preserve these memories, Oka and Fitch turned the objects into collaboratively stuffed sausages that were then hung to dry and discussed among the participants (Raviv 2010). Ritual use of food is typical of the work of Dutch artist and ‘eating designer’ Marije Vogelzang. Her Eat Love Budapest (2011) was a three-day-long performance in which Gypsy women hand-fed the audience with home-cooked food while recounting their life stories.
The aesthetic qualities of food as a sculptural material have recently become popular within the field of food data visualisations. The Data Cuisine Collective creates edible representations of various statistical figures. In Wasted Dish (2014b), they baked bread loaves according to the number of homeless people living in certain parts of the world; in Suicide Cocktail (2014a), they followed the same strategy, only with different variables and different sculptural media. Similarly dark humour was adopted by the art duo Taste of Data in their Is ma’ Wurscht (2013), in which they took the Corruption Perceptions Index (Transparency International 2012) of four countries and transformed it into unappealing sausages. ‘With the mass-produced factory-made sausage nobody really knows what the producers choose to be its ingredients. Identically there is difficulty in measuring corruption, which by definition happens behind the scenes’, suggests her blog (Krenn 2012).
The Is ma’ Wurscht project can be interpreted as a humorous political commentary on the corruptness of the sausage market – or, more generally, as a comment on the corruptness of the global food market per se. This shift from food as an artistic material to food as a self-referencing tool utilised to comment on food system issues is becoming more frequent among contemporary food artists. The aesthetic and sensory qualities of food are utilised as a medium to communicate the larger social context of global food production and distribution or (trans)national food policy regulations. These kinds of artworks differ from those on Montano’s list, as their authors not only work with food but also for food while referring to the pitfalls of the uneven food industry. As technological progress and new ‘smart’ tools play a crucial role in the development of the contemporary food agenda (Belasco 2008), artists also often employ these tools – be it in a serious, ironic, hyperbolic, or even metaphorical manner.
The development of ‘art for food’ research occurs in a media-lab spirit and is based in the confluence of art, science, and technological creativity. However, it is important to note that combining the technological element with the edible element is not the main criterion here: rather than concentrate on the formal use of tools, the key issue is the content of the artwork and that it aspires to be socially engaged in food-related issues. Contemporary formalistic food-art-tech trends – such as modernist cuisine or molecular gastronomy, which combine sophisticated technological processes with high-art culinary aesthetics to create hedonistic edible spectacles that formally please the diner with expensive gourmet delicacies – are a different topic that does not fit into the art for food scope. Neither does the opposite strategy of DIY food hackers and makers, who build food robots, machines, and tools to enhance the dining experience or just to have fun with food (see projects such as Perfect Shanghai Sandwich or MakeyMakey). Not that these food experiments, with all their alchemistic or kitchen-as-laboratory background, would not be a fascinating topic, it’s just a topic that doesn’t fit into the scope of this exposition (for more on the topic, see, for example, Pryba 2012; Cousins, O’Gorman, and Stierand 2011; Kera, Denfeld, and Kramer 2015). In artistic food-research practice, sophisticated technology is often used not as an end in itself but as a privileged means of expression (Jaques 2015). To demarcate the field, I suggest abandoning categorisation on the basis of the formal usage of tools and techniques and rather following the pathway delineated by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblet (1999), who proposed considering how food artists insert themselves into the food system and work with or against it.
The critical artistic interventions discussed in the next section often assume an educational and/or activist stance while extending common public knowledge through direct hands-on participation. Appropriating food-related themes that are simultaneously material and conceptual, this participatory practice-based research adopts the material-semiotic method (Latour 1987) and embodies a ‘materialising practice’ (Bolt 2004) as well as action-based learning (Barrett and Bolt 2007). This kind of artistic practice-as-research not only produces knowledge that may be applicable in many social food-related contexts – for instance in uncovering, illustrating, and explaining the causes and symptoms of food’s semi-living nature – but also has the capacity to promote a more profound understanding of how this knowledge is revealed, acquired, and expressed.
7. Eat Love Budapest by Marije Vogelzang: stories are shared more easily over a full dish. (Picture copyright © 2015 Marije Vogelzang).
8. Is ma’ Wurscht – sausages made from the corruption index of various countries in the world. Food can serve as an emotional and political design tool. (Picture copyright © 2015 Vesela Mihaylova).
A major facet of food as a semi-living substance is the food system’s massive adoption of genetic engineering techniques. The topic of genetically modified (GM) foods is often elaborated by bioartists, who work with food to challenge key premises of agribusiness, and, as suggested by Carruth (2013: 91), ‘make visible both the ecosystems and the technologies that agribusiness renders profitable in churning out trademarked products’.
A pioneer in the field is the tactical media collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), which focuses on socially engaged molecular interventions to point out the rising intensity of the top-down control of citizens exerted by the biotechnological industry. In Free Range Grain (2003–4), CAE invited audiences to test food that they brought from their own pantries for traces of GMO. A live action, the project was performed in a DIY laboratory that was situated in a gallery space. CAE’s aim was to popularise scientific techniques that the public can use on their own to test the content of their food, instead of relying on the potentially dubious labelling and testing provided by food corporations. While blurring the lines between lay citizens and expert food scientists, CAE promoted an open flow of information about (GM) food and redirected the flow of commercial food production to put it, at least partially, into the hands of consumers themselves. That the DIY laboratory was located in a publicly accessible space helped attract the attention of consumers, who would have otherwise remain uninformed.
Similar criticism of the intertwining of the biotechnological and food industries is at the core of Cobalt 60 Sauce (2013) by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy (CGG). Cobalt 60 Sauce is a barbecue sauce made from mutation-bred ingredients commonly used to refine mass-market food products. As the artists explain on their website:
Mutation breeding is an agricultural technology that has proliferated globally since the end of World War II. For over 60 years, scientists on six continents have been exposing plants and seeds to radiation and chemicals, in order to induce mutations. […] [Commercially-released varieties] populate our food systems and sit anonymously on our supermarket shelves. (Center for Genomic Gastronomy 2014)
While introducing Cobalt 60 Sauce in a fancy designer bottle, CGG highlighted the ubiquity of GM products, which are widely available in supermarkets and marketed as fine products. Consumers who are not afflicted with orthorexia nervosa and don’t spend time ‘obsessively’ scanning food labels are therefore likely to believe these aesthetically appealing food products are unproblematic and desirable because of the stellar look of their packaging.
The possibilities of GM food are taken to an absurd level by Eat Celebrity Meat (2014), a project recently introduced by the BiteLabs collective. In this work, the authors act as a serious start-up enterprise that claims to sell lab-grown salami created from celebrity tissue samples. The project’s website (BiteLabs 2014) proposes to take actual tissue samples from celebrities (so far, from James Franco, Kanye West, Jennifer Lawrence, and Ellen DeGeneres) to grow cloned meat for use in commercially available salami. Although the official call to action states ‘Eat celebrity meat’, the message hidden between the lines says, ‘think about where your food comes from and how far the food industry has already gone.’
Apart from general bioethical concern, one would assume the Eat Celebrity Meat project to be directly mocking the recent, heavily discussed Google Burger project, based on a multi-thousand-dollar investment in an attempt to grow an in vitro beefburger (Merchant 2013). BiteLab’s enterprise might also be a direct response to an outcome of a recent research study on in vitro meat (Weele and Tramper 2014). Weele and Tramper found that most people are uncomfortable with the idea of eating lab-grown meat; however, they would be more amenable to the idea if they were given the chance to see the living donors (e.g., cows) of the cells used to grow the meat. Eat Celebrity Meat could also be interpreted as a parody of scientific attempts to improve the food system through massive investment while trying to preserve the current pace and style of consumption rather than encourage consumer modesty.
Nevertheless, recent popularised visions of the future of in vitro meat (e.g., Carruth 2013; Schaefer and Savulescu 2014; Weele and Tramper 2014) should not be condemned as being entirely flawed. Industrial meat production is an environmentally demanding process that leads to natural resources wastage, as well as to land degradation and general biodiversity damage (Belasco 2008). The ethical constraints of meat consumption thus represent a complex problem and hence are a frequent theme of artworks dealing with the food system’s sustainability. A whole set of possible solutions to the global meat problem was presented by Next Nature Lab (2013), a group of designers running Next Nature magazine. With Le Bistro In Vitro, a taster street stall operated at the World Food Festival, Rotterdam, in 2013, they presented a broad range of speculative mock-meat dishes, such as meat flavoured fruits, meat ice cream, transparent meat sushi, vegan dodo wings, and even ‘cannibalistic medallions’ made from human cells. Through these more or less absurd ideas on how to satisfy our meat cravings in future times of meat scarcity, Next Nature Lab cheekily engaged visitors in discussions on the current meat market situation, as well as on possible future scenarios.
12. Le Bistro In Vitro – a public street stall presenting various ideas about the possible future of in vitro meat. (Picture copyright © 2013 Next Nature).
10. Cobalt 60 Sauce, a barbecue sauce made from ‘supermarket mutants’. (Picture copyright © 2013 the Center for Genomic Gastronomy).
11. Eat Celebrity Meat – what are the ethics of consuming lab-grown (human) meat? (Picture copyright © 2014 BiteLabs).
9. Free Range Grain brought issues of food purity into the realm of public discourse. The routinised processes of biotechnological industry and science were explained and offered for public testing. (Picture copyright © 2013 Critical Art Ensemble).
Marije Vogelzang took a similarly speculative approach in Faked Meat (2013), where she offered a playful solution to the meat problem. However, instead of relying on in vitro grown substances, she presented entirely new animal species. Why not play God? asks Vogelzang. If scientists in in vitro labs can, why shouldn’t we do the same? Her ponti bird, for instance, lives in empty volcanoes and to survive this environment uses its huge stiff tail to burrow in the firm magma layers. Vogelzang suggests that this actually makes the bird a perfect finger food and party snack as the tail serves as a convenient grip, which lets one eat while keeping one’s hands clean. The herbast, another of Vogelzang’s fictional species, needs to camouflage itself to evade predators and therefore grows clumps of herbs on its body. The herbast’s meat is thus ‘naturally pre-seasoned’ and supposedly very convenient for picnics (Vogelzang 2013). Similarly to the two previous projects, Vogelzang’s speculative designs can be interpreted as mocking the industry’s tireless attempts to satisfy consumer demand for meat with ‘victimless’ yet costly alternatives.
A far less cheerful response to the meat over-consumption problem is offered by a London-based art duo, Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen. In their Rusty Knives (2013), they visualised the fear of animals at the point of slaughter through hormonally manipulated raspberries. The installation consisted of raspberry shrubs artificially infused with stress hormones, which are naturally produced by animals in the emotional state of fear. These hormones are said to influence the eventual meat’s colour and flavour – as they did in the case of stress-infused berries. At the installation site, spectators were invited to taste the flavour of animals’ fear through the biotechnologically modified fruit; the flavour may taste quite inappropriate, but it is likely to be present in the majority of meat products available in supermarkets. The fresh and joyful aesthetics of raspberries, transformed into a symbol of violence, left spectators with cold and disturbing feelings in their guts.
14. Rusty Knives – stress-hormone infused raspberries and animal fear embodied in the taste of fruit. (Picture copyright © 2013 Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen).
But it is not only meat over-consumption that seems to pose a problem for the food system’s stability. Concerns about the future availability of certain kinds of food were the subject of the GhostFood project by Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster (2013), who through a public tasting of multi-sensory ‘phantom food’ explore the impacts of biodiversity loss brought on by climate change.
At the GhostFood mobile truck, Simun and Songster served meals in the form of aromatic scents consumable through a wearable smell-dispensing device. The olfactory prosthesis enabled spectators to taste certain kinds of food that are threatened by climate change and thus may soon become unavailable in certain parts of the world (GhostFood featured cod, chocolate, and peanuts). The scents of these scarce foods were paired with resilient and still available foods and served together as a multi-sensory menu. When tasting the common foodstuff, eaters wearing the prosthetic device were provided with the scent of the scarce food, and thus were placed into an immersive gustatory illusion. Meanwhile, the GhostFood truck staff guided visitors through this ‘pre-nostalgic experience’, while engaging in dialogue (Simun and Songster 2013). With this extravagant and slightly scary transformation of street-food consumers into cyborg-like figures surviving on an edible illusion, Simun and Songster pointed to the possible impact of climate change, which, according to them, is largely an outcome of our ‘collaborative project of mass consumption’ (ibid.). At the same time, however, their olfactory prosthesis conveys the possibility of reducing the intake of unwanted nutrients through an inhalation of harmless odours, opening a new universe of possibilities in the field of orthorexic consumption. Moreover, the idea of inhalable food replacements brings the vision of semi-living food even closer to quotidian reality.
The issue of food scarcity in the future leads to another frequently overlooked issue, namely the excessive global rate of food wastage, which, among other causes, makes it necessary to use complex mathematics to work out food miles and carbon footprint counts. The food wastage problem is a leitmotif of projects by Kitchen Dialogues, an art collective whose aim is to ‘change consumer sensory intellectual concept of overproduction of food from supermarkets’ and ‘present [a] series of food-environmental actions around the industrial kitchen in relation to the consumption of food surplus’ (Kitchen Dialogues 2015).
13. Faked meat of fictional birds – a designer’s alternative to current vegetarian foods. (Picture copyright © 2015 Marije Vogelzang).
15. Ghost Food – orthonasal enjoyment of sacred food that will soon be unavailable for us. (Picture copyright © 2013 Miriam Simun).
17. Temporary Food Lab – Oscar De Carmen from Kitchen Dialogues prepares a communal dinner from food scraps. (Picture copyright © 2014 Kitchen Dialogues).
Within their Temporary Food Lab built in Latent Spaces gallery Singapore (Kitchen Dialogues 2014), the artists prepared a huge communal meal from waste food solicited from a local supermarket: bananas, coconuts, apricots, tomatoes, beans, rice, and corn flour. With the (perfectly good) food scraps transformed into a delicious meal, they managed to feed the entire audience while using the opportunity to conduct table talk on present-day food wastage issues. The artists also raised the interesting idea of persuading popular Michelin-starred chefs to prepare their expensive gourmet dishes from discarded food – contributing not only to a reduction of food wastage rates but also to a defetishising of excessively expensive modernist cuisine. In places like Singapore, where food producers and distributors, as well as consumers, remain largely unconcerned with the volume of food they regularly throw into rubbish bins, Kitchen Dialogues managed to surprise the audience not only with data on the ostentatious wastage of food but also with the easily attainable solution, which they all have in their own hands.
The absurd level of food wastage practices commonly adopted by the majority of supermarkets was elaborated also by Uli Westphal in his Mutatoes series (2006a). There, the artist created a c-print collection of non-standard fruits, roots, and vegetables that are commonly rejected or wasted by supermarkets because they do not fit aesthetic criteria. According to Westphal (2006b), the Mutatoes project displays:
A dazzling variety of forms, colors and textures, that only reveal themselves when commercial standards cease to exist. The complete absence of botanical anomalies in our supermarkets has caused us to regard the consistency of produce presented there as natural. […] We have forgotten, and in many cases never experienced, the way fruits, roots, and vegetables can actually look (and taste).
Mutatoes serves as disturbing evidence of contemporary food market practices – replacing naturally grown fruit and vegetable ‘mutants’ with genetically modified but visually standardised alternatives that have come to be considered ‘normal’. The increase in orthorexic cravings for ‘good’ food, then, ironically shifts consumer attention back toward natural produce with ‘mutant’ aesthetics that doesn’t match arbitrary ‘beauty standards’ but comes from natural home-grown stock (see, for example, the growing popularity of farmers’ markets, or projects such as Disco Soup or Culinary Misfits).
A solution to food wastage applicable in real life was proposed by FridgeMatch (2010–11), a project on the border of art, design, and hardware hacking that was created as a collaboration between several universities and hackerspaces in Singapore, Prague, and Amsterdam. According to two of the project’s authors, Denisa Kera and Nur Liyana Sulaiman (2014), Fridge Match was designed as a platform for rethinking the future of food wastage through the strategy of online food sharing. The project brought the notion of online data commensality to a sophisticated level: through a FridgeMatch smartphone app, which was designed to enable users to offer leftovers from their fridges for a real physical exchange, the project actually managed to connect consumers over food data as well as over real food.
With the FridgeMatch app prototype, Kera and Sulaiman (2014: 1) raised a set of interesting questions, such as:
What [do] eating and cooking together mean in a society, where less people have time to meet regularly for meals and to enjoy family dinners? […] To what extent is [food] commensuality becoming a data-driven experience? […] How do we connect the data experiences of networking, recommending and sharing with the visceral experiences of enjoying the meals?
The idea of provoking real food-related encounters through online interaction with consumers is also part of Fallen Fruit (2014), a project created by a Californian art collective of the same name. Fallen Fruit features a collaborative online map mash-up of fruit trees located in various publicly accessible spaces. Anyone interested in participating is welcome to share the GPS location of an accessible fruit tree that seems to offer ‘freebies’ and to check the locations posted by other users. According to the artists’ website:
Fallen Fruit invite you to experience your City as a fruitful place, to collectively re-imagine the function of public participation and urban space, and to explore the meaning of community through creating and sharing new and abundant resources. Fruit Trees! (Fallen Fruit 2015b)
Fallen Fruit uses fruit as a common denominator to change the way you see the world. (Fallen Fruit 2015a)
The main idea behind Fallen Fruit’s ‘edible communism’ is to distort the commonly accepted rules precluding diffusion of private and public space. Through a collaborative rethinking of food as public property, Fallen Fruit rejuvenates the tradition of self-sufficient foragers and gatherers, who were able to provide themselves with enough food sources only through tribal collaboration. In this sense, the project helps liberate contemporary consumers from supermarket dependency, without the need to raise food expenses (as is usually the case in the ‘better’ non-supermarket alternatives offered by organic food stores and farmers’ markets).
Disrupting eating stereotypes through online collaboration is the aim of HotKarot & OpenSauce (2011), a project that I have been co-developing for the last four years together with the members of the Cancel collective. In the following section, I will present the project in more detail and reflect on artistic appropriations of semi-living food through my own (unavoidably subjective) perspective as a food art practitioner. After the theoretical review of existing food art projects which addressed various layers of the global food agenda, this subjective perspective gained through first-hand experience should offer the reader a comprehensive insight into the field of food art research.
20. Fallen Fruit – the urban collective organises hunts for edible commons that should belong to everyone. (Picture copyright © 2014 Fallen fruit).
18. Mutatoes – organic fruit and vegetable mutants that were removed from consumers’ sight. (Picture copyright © 2006 Uli Westphal).
19. FridgeMatch – collaborative consumption of food leftovers via smartphone app. (Picture copyright © 2010 Fridge Match).
HotKarot & OpenSauce is an experimental food-design platform that aims to spark public interaction through a high-tech carrot hot dog served with open-source data-based sauces – so-called OpenSauces. In the online recipe repository, users can add their own sauce recipes, share them with others, and eventually come to the HotKarot & OpenSauce street stall to get their ‘personalised lunch’. The project is designed as an interface that conveys edible online–offline interactions over gustatory perceptions.
We started the HotKarot & OpenSauce project in 2011, led by the desire to create new forms of jovial interaction in the streets of the city of Prague (CZ). Inspired by dissident culture’s forms of resistance (Morganová 1999), but also by Fluxus and Dada, we aimed to revive the rather dull and sleepy public space of our hometown. Walking through the city streets, we observed that even within the urban enclave of ubiquitous individualism and anonymity (Swader 2015) there are some points where people are willing to stop and talk to one another: street-food stalls, cafes, pub gardens, or picnic blankets covering the lawns in city parks appeared to us to be great communication hubs. That’s how we – all students of New Media Studies at the Charles University’s Faculty of Arts – ended up working with food: food as a seductive communication trigger and attractive design tool to initiate interaction among citizens. However, after some time, we realised that working with food inevitably involves contemplating food as an object of socio-political negotiations that transgresses its use as a mere design tool. The project thus extended our personal experience as new media practitioners into the field of food art, and enabled us to acquire knowledge not predetermined and anticipated by our curriculum. Thereby, we applied the educational potential of socially engaged food artwork directly to ourselves and, rather than acting as mentors, we learned together with our audience.
The image of a carrot hot dog is inevitably inscribed with a subversive vegan notion, which we further supported with the piratical rabbit-skull logo and the slogan ‘If you raise HotKarot over your head, it looks like a flambeau’ (HotKarot 2015). The carrot itself has a powerful aesthetic that evokes multiple interpretations: it is used as a sign of protest (see, for example, Food Not Bombs or Brink Freedom) but also as a cute orange vitamin-filled buddy and a symbol of a healthy lifestyle. The carrot has a strong memetic potential, which probably helped us spread the word about the carrot hot dog quite quickly – among Prague foodies, critical consumers, and alternative lifestyle devotees, but also among mums with kids. The initial message was clear: screw hot dogs, eat sustainable, vegan, local but also affordable food, and don’t spend money on expensive quinoa-and-kale raw cakes (warm carrot in a bread roll really doesn’t cost a fortune). Most importantly, though, do step out of established food stereotypes and open your mind to something new. Along with the OpenSauce feature, this distortion of established eating rules and dietary lifestyles reached a deeper level and the whole project began to take on new meanings. Issues such as nutritionism, orthorexia nervosa, quantifiable data-based effectivity, and the semi-living nature of food came to the carrot agenda.
OpenSauce represents an extreme food customisation that rejects the one-size-fits-all idea of the universal definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food perpetuated by nutritionist, governmental food and health boards and other ‘food police’ representatives (Belasco 2008). OpenSauces are sauces that we serve as toppings for HotKarot, just as ketchup or mustard usually goes with a hot dog. The sauces are created online, through the OpenSauce interface, allowing users to prepare sauce recipes from a variety of raw disembodied data, such as texts, sounds, or colours.
The principle is in fact simple: each edible ingredient listed in the online OpenSauce recipe book is inscribed with a unique colour. As each existing colour bears a unique numeric RGB value, each ingredient is easily translatable into any other kind of numeric variable (e.g., tomato = red = #f05c2b = unique numeric descriptor). Pursuing this logic, we can create sauces out of literally anything that is identifiable with a numeric designation: songs and sonic frequencies; pictures; a bunch of numeric raw data descriptors; books, articles, and letters; lettric datasets; life stories, biographies, or simply any kind of stories written in a text form – all these can be approached as numeric datasets that are transformable into any other kind of dataset, such as into a sauce. Playing with the concept of data-based cuisine, we have already created sauces made from ingredients such as tweets, sound compositions, spectators’ moods, biographies, travel diaries, and farewell letters, as well as letters of thanks, and even from the carrot’s own biofeedback.
HotKarot & OpenSauce has a rather special approach to taste. Through the technological enhancement of diners’ gustatory perceptions, we distribute primarily metaphorical meanings. To fully enjoy the served food and understand the message it carries, our audiences have to open their minds as well as their sensory receptors and expect surprises. Through the unconventional gustatory sensations, we aim to deliver unconventional messages, which always require diners’ critical reflexions. If they don’t contemplate the taste and hence meaning of OpenSauces, the project would turn into the mere kitchen tinkering of overgrown kids. Voltaire claimed one could distinguish between ‘sensual taste’ as the capacity to recognise different foods and an ‘intellectual taste’ that allows for metaphorical interpretations (Delon 2013: 1308). With HotKarot & OpenSauce, we first target spectators’ sensual tastes but always aim to arouse their intellectual taste thereafter.
24. All OpenSauce ingredients are identified with a unique colour frequency, which enables the direct translation of numeric data into sauce recipes. (Picture copyright © 2015 HotKarot).
In this text, I would like to talk more about story-based sauces, which have been the most frequent item on our menu during the last year. These recipes are generated via network text analysis, which extracts a given number of keywords from a source text. The generated keywords are visualised in a network graph that is then mapped onto a colour spectrum wheel. Each node of the graph is thus defined by a unique colour and translated into an OpenSauce ingredient. There is no semantic connection between the generated keywords and the names of the generated ingredients (tomato in the text doesn’t translate to tomato in the sauce) – the whole process is purposely arbitrary.
This strategy complies with the quantifiable ethos of the current data-junkie age; however, it stands in direct opposition to nutritionism, discussed above: counting numbers for the preparation of the HotKarot & OpenSauce snack mocks the idea that food has to be nutritionally effective. On the contrary, it shows that the effectivity of food is a pluripotent concept open to interpretations. Every food could carry different meanings based on its colour, texture, smell, and taste (Wei, Ma, and Zhao 2014), which opens up a great multi-sensory playground for people of all ages. The randomness and nutritional unpredictability of computer-generated OpenSauces might sound like a nightmare but also a relief to the orthorexic consumer: there is no way to count the recipe or tailor it to one’s taste or nutritional preferences. The computer code is the main driving force that controls everything, including one’s guts – an ironic reference to our data-based techno-age (Brown, Chui, and Manyika 2011), but is also a way to liberate oneself from food-related moral imperatives (the word ‘moral’ is important here, as we still don’t feel like denying the existence of some human biological traits, such as food allergies, and always provide a list of ingredients for each sauce).
On the menu, there is, for instance, the Twitter-based #hunger sauce, made from tweets produced under the ‘#hunger’ hashtag, the Wasted sauce made from statistics on global food wastage, or HugHugeHugh sauce created from the CV of Monsanto’s chief executive officer, Hugh Grant. Rumours say that the taste of this particular sauce is not very pleasant and has a strong bitter aftertaste.
Another set of story-based OpenSauces was composed from the life stories of two animals: Shaun the lamb and Mike the chicken. These two were (allegedly happily) bred at a Malaysian organic farm and then served at a festive pop-up lunch for start-up entrepreneurs in Singapore. Both Shaun sauce and Mike sauce were served together with the meat, topping it with a bittersweet reminiscence of life’s finiteness. This sneery vegan intervention into the carnivore feast offended some of the guests, who claimed that ‘giving meat on a plate names is very inappropriate’.
27. Mike sauce – an alternative taste of meat, or rather ‘a taste of meat consumption’. (Picture copyright © 2014 HotKarot).
All these sauces deliver a straightforward eco-activist message and point to some of the major causes that render our food a semi-living data-based entity (i.e., meat overconsumption, food wastage, GMO crops, and agribusiness monopoly). However, while being articulated through the HotKarot & OpenSauce snack, the message is not supposed to sound moralistic or pressing. Instead of making the audience feel overwhelmingly guilty because of their imperfect diet (the downturns of the excessively moralising strategy are well described, for example, in Koch (2010)), it lets them swallow these heavy themes in a lighter way.
For the Karot Tarot Food Divination project presented at the Prague Quadrennial festival in 2015, we prepared sauce recipes from Aleister Crowley’s interpretation of tarot cards (Crowley and Harris (1944) 1974) and offered the audience first a full card reading (we collaborated with a professional tarot reader for this one) and then the opportunity to digest the prophecy in the form of a sauce. For our residency at Czech Center Bucharest in 2014, we sampled messages from our Czech friends (e.g., from Honza or Lubomir), cooked the sauces for the Romanian audience of the Street Delivery festival, and then let them digest. We also asked Romanians to send messages to the Czech people in return, and performed the same ritual back at home in the Czech Republic. We thereby aimed to initiate an international food-enabled information exchange, as the ‘carrier-pigeons of the twenty-first century’.
28. Karot Tarot sauces: first go through the tarot reading process, then digest your fate through OpenSauce made from the leading card of your prophecy. (Picture copyright © 2015 HotKarot).
At the conference ‘Nightmares of Humankind’ organised by the Academy of Sciences Prague Library, we cooked a set of Eschatology sauces generated from eschatological prophecies predicted by the five largest world religions. We cooked the apocalyptic scenarios, served them to the audience, and invited the audience to a discussion about the taste of different religious faiths. Most of the participants agreed that the Christ sauce made of parsley, spinach, avocado, Provençal herbs, and green pepper has a bitter echo. The Vishnu sauce, with white beans, chickpeas, Parmesan cheese, lime juice, and banana, on the contrary, worked as a mild snack that was popular particularly with children. The most surprising was the Muhammad sauce, which was quite strong and spicy but, more importantly, contained red wine. We still haven’t figured out how exactly we should reflect on this – however, the discussion about Islam in Prague that was started thanks to this sauce was more than relevant to the current growing anti-migration mood of Czech citizens. A few brave spectators from the audience even offered their stomachs as a ‘communication interface’ by ordering a mixed Muhammad-Christ sauce – true gastronomical courage, as well as a highly political gesture.
26. Hunger sauce: a sauce recipe created from online Twitter posts discussing the issue of ‘#hunger’. Part of the Eat Your Tweet project. (Picture copyright © 2014 HotKarot).
25. A basic principle of story-based OpenSauces: keywords from the source text are visualised in a computer-generated graph, which is mapped onto a colour spectrum wheel. Keywords are thus translated into colours and subsequently into ingredients. (Picture copyright © 2014 HotKarot).
The latest – and so far also the longest – OpenSauce chapter that we have written is StreetSauce. The StreetSauce edition was made from the life stories of homeless women living in Prague and was created as a collaborative project with a non-profit organisation, Homelike, which supports the resocialisation of homeless women and engages them in various communal projects. Each of the participating women wrote down her life story – how she became homeless, how she lives now, what she likes and dislikes. These narratives were then turned into sauce recipes that were served by the women themselves in a street-food bistro. With each StreetSauce served, its chef offered the public a chance to taste her life. Each woman has a different sauce recipe, each sauce is based on a different story, and each story has a different flavour.
The StreetSauce project aims to help distort social stereotypes related to homelessness and allows the participating homeless women to express themselves publicly in a meaningful way – through cooking. Food and cooking play a crucial role here, because most of the participating women have naturally gained skills in these areas throughout their lives – as caring siblings, wives, or mothers. Running a street-food bistro and feeding the audience with good food require some level of responsibility, and the StreetSauce chefs are suddenly seen as active people who are able to take care not only of themselves but also of the lives (or at least stomachs) of others.
The public often associates homelessness with characteristics like laziness and an inability to lead a ‘normal’ life. Within our individualistic society, this is seen as an incompetence that is an individual’s fault, and homeless people are therefore often labelled as ‘parasites’, ‘problems of our society’, or even ‘non-humans’ (Rychlíková 2015). As the mainstream media is uninterested in this social issue (Stanoev 2014), the public’s view of homelessness remains superficial. Female homelessness represents a special case, as many of the women don’t sleep directly on the street; rather, they stay in provisional accommodation, such as an asylum hostel (FEANTSA 2013). This gender-specific homelessness, therefore, is even more invisible and hidden from the public horizon (Hetmánková 2013). The main idea of the StreetSauce project is thus to attract the attention of the public and make the phenomenon of female homelessness less hidden and more legible.
The goal is to benefit both sides of the communication process: the chefs as well as the bistro visitors. The StreetSauce chefs get a chance to feel useful and even to make a little money (all the food served is donated and revenues are shared). They are on a street but they don’t ask passers-by for anything – quite the opposite actually, they have something to offer them. The technological background of the open-source sauces distinguishes the project from a mere charity, and the served food is something unique. It’s not a biscuit or a teacup that you would easily find on a Tesco shelf. It’s designer food that you simply can’t buy anywhere else – something that needs to be explained further by the chefs and that can’t be digested fully without the chefs’ knowledge. This need for an information exchange is a crucial part of the project, and the bistro visitors have a chance to start a conversation with someone whom they might perceive as their other and whom otherwise they would never be able to confront. From what we have seen so far, the bistro visitors who come to order usually do wish to talk to the operating chef and ask her about the taste of her sauce. One of the chefs, Zuzka, said that many people ask her whether ‘her life really tastes like that’ and sometimes even start to share their own stories with her (Dolejšová and Lišková 2015).
Each HotKarot with StreetSauce serves as a personalised storytelling medium, requiring a level of mutual trust in order to be accepted. Through the sauces, the homeless chefs agree to disclose and share their personal story with visitors. In turn, visitors need to trust the chef's cooking capabilities – which doesn’t always come automatically. Accepting food prepared by a stranger always requires some level of consumer trust. Accepting food from a homeless person within a face-to-face interaction is thus a powerful exchange, a personal statement that can’t be neutral and always requires some level of conscious decision making. Who can eat with whom has always indicated an individual’s hierarchical social status; to eat food with and prepared by a homeless person disrupts stereotypical social codes. However, some StreetSauce bistro visitors refuse to consume the food offered and only wish to talk with the chefs and question them. The main reason is usually a concern about presumed lack of hygiene standards and the belief that homeless people must be unclean: ‘No matter how much I like the concept, I just can’t swallow food prepared by them’, one of the spectators told us. This kind of reaction highlights the need for more activities that help show that life without a stable address doesn’t automatically render one a walking pack of viruses and other dangers.
30. StreetSauce follows the same logic as all the other story-based sauces. Eva is one of the most active StreetSauce chefs and her sauce tastes a bit sour. During the last year, she managed to do many things: she undertook training to become a street social worker, so she can now help other people living on the street; she also started writing newspaper articles about homelessness. In consequence, she asked us to change her story, and we did. It tastes different now. (Picture copyright © 2014 HotKarot).
31. StreetSauce bistro at a farmers’ market in Prague, with chefs Růženka and Zuzka doing a ‘shift’. (Picture copyright © 2014 HotKarot).
32. The StreetSauce project is based on a collaboration with homeless chefs, (hungry) open-minded members of the public, food artists, and computer code. (Picture copyright © 2014 HotKarot).
Even if we aim to convey direct contact, the computer-led translation of someone’s life into a (no matter how personalised) sauce simultaneously depersonalises the interaction. The sauce serves as a more neutral representation of the message that it carries. It should be more convenient for both the chef and the visitor to ‘digest’ the shared story. The uncertain, random nature of the computer-generated recipes, which do not follow any existing culinary recommendations (instead, letting the source code ‘be the chef’), is supposed to symbolise the uncertainty and randomness of homeless life. The often-extravagant taste of these recipes then works as a metaphor for the eccentricity of homeless lifestyles.
StreetSauce is a trigger, not a complex solution. Its geeky, cheeky nature makes the project palatable for a public audience that would probably not otherwise be interested in the social issue. Through a small survey of visitors to the StreetSauce bistro (Dolejšová and Lišková 2015), we found that most of those asked had become more familiar with the issue of female homelessness through their visit. To cause real long-term effects, though, the topic needs to be discussed on a deeper systemic level, among game changers such as government and NGO representatives. As artists, we can, to some extent, support this shift, mainly by attracting public attention: we continue to present the StreetSauce project at conferences (CHI 2015, FoodCHI 2014), exhibitions (Random Blends 2015, HateFree art 2015, Cyprian Majernik 2014), hackathons (Squat & Grow 2015), festivals (Festival Performance 2015, Bric & Chick Design 2014, StreetFood Fest 2014), workshops (FoodCHI 2014 workshop), and university lectures (Food Visualization 2014, Food Design for Social Good 2014). Most importantly, however, we want to let the chefs speak for themselves and support the power of their voices in front of the public. We hope that all the participating homeless women will soon be able to speak for themselves and get accepted within public discourse – the StreetSauce project may be seen as one small yet valid step in this journey.
The OpenSauce cookbook has many chapters, which have been written in different contexts and with different goals. Apart from the sauces created by us, the online cookbook contains over 250 recipes made by the public. These range from wedding blessings, book excerpts, prayers, and jokes, to straightforward messages such as in the I Love You sauce. All our sauces are an edible data visualisation designed to communicate social issues as well as casual messages and to allow consumers to ‘digest’ them in a multi-sensory way. Our research is ethnographical when we sample data from various environments and social settings. HotKarot & OpenSauce is often presented over our mobile street-food stall, which has enabled us to adopt a nomadic lifestyle. We travel from one place to another, visiting festivals, exhibitions, workshops, hackathons, conferences, and farmers’ markets, or we just camp on the street and feed random passers-by. The settings of these events vary greatly as we happily accept even the most far-fetched and sometimes also somewhat absurd invitations: we’ve already performed at punk and techno music festivals, as well as at a festival of mind balance. We cooked carrots and sauces in a squat, as well as in Prague National Gallery. We went to present at a TEDx conference, joined Nomadic Science BioHackLab panel at Mutamorphosis conference, played on carrots at Prague Art-Sci-Tech Biennale, and let participants of a data-cleaning conference eat their tweets. We travelled all the way to Australia to perform in the kitchen of QUT Brisbane and visited the biggest convention centre in Seoul, Korea.
Through this nomadic food-networking practice, we aim to connect different people from different places, serving them real food in different social and geographical contexts and inviting them to come to meet online at the OpenSauce interface. Different social contexts confront us with different audiences, and public reactions vary greatly. Some people are interested in the idea of a vegan hot dog, some are interested in the technological background of OpenSauce. Some are keen to taste even the strangest sauces made from radical ingredient combinations; some can’t stand that the taste of an OpenSauce is random and uncontrollable. Some people share their stories with us and transform them into sauces, others tell us to go home and find a proper job.
The HotKarot & OpenSauce project combines art, design, technology, and research perspectives to investigate the semi-living nature of food. The amplified personalisation and customisation of the sauces contradict the growing trend of food anonymisation (Pollan 2008), a strategy that blurs the relationship between consumers and their food and instead shifts it into the hands of nutritional experts, food corporations, and PR managers. Through its ironic and hyperbolic stance, the project confronts audiences with an alternative view of the rising trend of data-based dieting as well as subsequent orthorexic obsessions. Via experiential practice performed within live street-based interventions, we aim to spark public attention and make audiences think about what, why, where, and with whom they eat and wonder what it all means.
34. StreetSauce chef Zuzka giving an interview to a local radio station. (Picture copyright © 2014 HotKarot).
35. HotKarot & OpenSauce nomadic stall is actually inspired by Indonesian street-food push carts, called angkringans, which we got to know through our food experiments in Yogyakarta. (Picture copyright © 2014 HotKarot).
My aim in this text has been to provide an overview of some recent art/design interventions dealing with socio-political issues surrounding the contemporary global food agenda, and to discuss the potential of these interventions to affect the public’s food-related mindset.
In the first part of the text (Starters), I conceptualised food as a semi-living entity located on a fuzzy border between a living substance and a disembodied data-based circumstance. The shift in consumer perceptions of food through nutritional tables and food-related statistics was defined as being a consequence of anonymised food production and power relations wielded by the global food industry. The over-saturation of food discourse with – often contradictory – information and recommendations on ‘good’ diets, often provided by the most powerful food industry players, makes consumers confused and uncertain. Together with the problem, however, the food industry also briskly offers a number of cashable cures. In accordance with the techno-progressivist paradigm, governments and food companies churn out myriad smart dietary tools, ‘good food’ apps, and calorie counting gadgets that should help the consumer to find a way out of the nutritional maze. Nevertheless, this strategy of quantifiable dieting, or so-called nutritionism, entails some serious problems, such as the increasingly ‘popular’ food disorder orthorexia nervosa (which, again, represents nothing less than another asset for the food industry to exploit financially).
This vicious production cycle of food commodities has come under the spotlight of food artists and designers, who work with food to point out the pitfalls of the global food agenda. The second chapter of the text (Main course) offered some of the most recent examples of ‘art for food’ projects, including a case study of the author’s own piece HotKarot & OpenSauce. The brief theoretical outline of eleven art/design projects, plus the detailed description of the author’s own practical contribution to the field, should provide a comprehensive insight into the motivations, outputs, and possible contributions of ‘art for food’ practice-based research.
The majority of this research investigates present-day food issues while engaging the public in an active dialogue. This dialogue, often accompanied by a direct, hands-on engagement with the audience, offers a tool to demystify the food industry’s agenda and has the potential to support the critical thinking of participants/consumers. The main contribution of these artistic interventions should thus be seen as their ability to produce and support the knowledge production process. The utilisation of food as a self-referencing tool endowed with powerful aesthetic dynamics and/or seductive gustatory potential seems to be an effective way to attract public attention and deliver the critical message in a more ‘digestible’ way. Therefore, it can be suggested that the participatory methodology and hybrid practical-theoretical approach adopted within ‘art for food’ research interventions represent a promising strategy to mitigate consumer uncertainty and de-anonymise the relationship between consumers and food. This de-black-boxing of food and related processes should be seen as a first step in the process of rebalancing the uneven power distribution within the global food market, and hence as a way to bring semi-living food ‘back to life’.
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