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Questioning Food: FOOD – RESEARCH – ART – DESIGN

Self-evidence, or Why Food Should Also Be Researched in the Arts (an Editorial by Peter Sonderen)

With contributions from Peter Sonderen, Jeroen Lutters, Amir Avraham, Peter Klosse, Daniëlle Bruggeman, Hanka van der Voet, Paris Selinas, Mark Selby, Otto von Busch, Jeroen van den Eijnde, Miguel Bruns Alonso, Emilie Baltz, Klasien van de Zandschulp, and Nishant Shah.

 

Edited by Catelijne de Muijnck and Peter Sonderen

 

Peer review by Paula Albuquerque (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands) Hazel Clark (Parsons School of Design, The New School, New York) Zeenath Hasan (Linnaeus University, Sweden) Bart van Rosmalen (HKU University of the Arts, Utrecht, The Netherlands)

Food and Life

If we had to spotlight something that is really intimately and immediately connected to all human and non-human agents, then it would be food—in all of its appearances and varieties. Food is the very one matter that really matters to us because it fundamentally helps us prolong our lives and life depends on it. Without food, we ultimately die; it is just that simple. Death is, then, the outcome of the absence of food, of the lack of the true and only vitaliser that keeps us alive and gives us a life. The same, of course, applies to water and oxygen and other similar agents, although we can view them all as other kinds of food, yet in a more remote and perhaps abstract way.

Food’s presence, its ubiquity and pervasiveness—at least in the Western part of the world—has, however, become so self-evident that food even enters our bodies without being noticed. Thoughtless and boundless eating seems to have become our dominant connection to food—i.e., thoughtlessness about its origin, about the foundations of its taste, about its ingredients, about its whereabouts, its political and aesthetic meanings, and so forth. Is such a generally seemingly indifferent attitude, though, strange or bad? That is hard to say. We tend to say yes. If we compare the sense of taste, however, with the everyday use of all our other senses, the indifference seems not to be odd at all. How much of our daily time are we really consciously looking at something or hearing things, or being touched by things such as the clothes we are wearing or the chairs we are sitting on? Most of the time, we are not at all aware of our senses or our sensing, and even less so of the meaning or impact of all phenomena that we come across.

Still, since eating and drinking are primarily, but not exclusively, connected to the sense of taste, they are also usually recognisably associated with and framed in specific acts of behaving that are interrelated, and which are characterised by certain habits and inherited forms—setting the table, using plates or knives, visiting supermarkets and restaurants, ordering or preparing meals. The other senses are triggered by all kinds of actions that are not necessarily connected (watching TV, looking into the distance, reading a book or a recipe, looking at a work of art, listening to music or going to a concert, looking at your lover). Chewing gum comes perhaps closest to our general way of looking and hearing. It just goes on and on and will only become a conscious act when biting one’s cheek, which is not connected to taste at all, except for the possible flavour of blood. While eating, we are not aware of all the bites we are taking, either. Eating just goes by as well, with some eruptions of likes or dislikes of its tasty nature. Still, as stated earlier, eating seems generally more connected to specific related forms and procedures than the other senses.

After finishing our meal, our tank is mostly refilled. In any case, it is satisfied enough to pick up our current agenda, ‘the things to be done,’ as the Romans put it. Doing things and fuelling our bodies to do things are closely connected. In fact, they presuppose each other. Food and vita (life) correspond, entangling agents of our vitality. Life starts by feeding and ends when the body stops accepting it. Stopping seeing or hearing is also bad, but death is not their end point per se.

Food and Research in the Arts

But how can we relate food to research in the arts? What can this emerging branch of knowledge production do with it? Both questions were the starting point for this special issue of APRIA. Why? There is only one simple answer: because any research starts with the act of wonder. And wondering appears, for instance, when a phenomenon seems to have become completely self-evident. Self-evidence of things is a rich source for putting a research quest in motion. And that is what happened.

How do we recognise self-evidence? It appears when things have become perspicacious, i.e., have become transparent and perfectly clear. Self-evidence and perspicuity are, therefore, akin. The root of the latter concept is connected to perspective, which literally means ‘looking through,’ a concept that has, since the Renaissance, put humans at the centre of the world. Perspective makes the human—the white human, in particular—central in the act of ordering the world, i.e., making the world viewable and, therefore, understandable and usable by giving it transparency. Clear lines of thought, a specific form of rationality, mark and order the general outlook of the world when seen in perspective. The same accounts for self-evidence, which clearly expresses its connection with seeing; videre, and e-videre, coming out to be seen, that is to say, clear to be seen, i.e., evident. The addition of the prefix self to evidence makes its own perspective even more visible: self-evidence suggests being seen as coming from itself (not from ourselves). It makes itself clear and transparent, and worthwhile of being there. Of course, not off course. It shows its own perspective, its being transparent to itself.

The question therefore arises: what makes food appear so self-evident? Why does it look so transparent in its appearances, and is it, really? In general, we think it is because of its abundancy. Its ubiquity makes it self-evident, but, and that is the other side, it is also a wicked phenomenon, i.e., a singularity that is so complex in its transparency that we do not see any more how intricate it really is. Food has so many appearances, has so many roads, has so many producers, has so many users, has so many tastes, has so many outlooks, has so many manifestations, has so many aesthetics, has so many rules, has so many ingredients, has so many matters, has so many supply routes, that it in fact escapes a unified view and analysis, and therefore loses its transparency at the moment of its appearing.

In this respect, food resembles the ‘hyperobject’ (a nice concept by Timothy Morton), which stands for phenomena that are so large in their (time-related) appearance that we can never completely understand their underlying structure, if that exists at all.[1] We only see some of its appearances. Food not only resembles this ‘post-sublime’ concept;[2] it also appears to be an ‘intra-active’ agent, to use Karen Barad’s phrase,[3] which already incorporates the other— that is, us. Food relates to us, and we relate to food. Food and we are presupposed. We produce ourselves by feeding ourselves. In that respect, we are foodies, although not in a gastronomic sense. Nor in the sense of Ludwig Feuerbach’s saying ‘Man ist, was man isst’ (‘You are what you eat’). He saw food as the last cause of us, as our purely material basis. We think it might be a bit less simple and also the other way around. We and food produce each other.

Wicked

Food is thus both a self-evident and wicked issue—a ‘wicked problem’ as it is called. Wicked problems are a special sort of problems. They are far too complex to understand by one knowledge discipline alone, as we have already noted, and they resist clear definition; they pop up at different societal interfaces and mostly require a change of system. Wicked problems are interrelated: they cannot be completely solved, they can only be approached; they can even be denied, they can be understood differently, which leads to different approaches. There is no ultimate test of a solution, and, finally, they are characterised by various responsibilities, including the fact that stakeholders are mostly part of the problem, too.[4]

Food thus obscures its wickedness by its transparency and self-evidence. It is quite remarkable that the word ‘wicked,’ which has many meanings, is originally derived from ‘witch,’ the name of the woman who was supposed to have secret and satanic powers.[5] A witch was generally connected to bad or negative phenomena that were not easily explainable or that could not be explained or solved (easily) by reason. Problems that are unsolvable—say unreasonable—are thus originally associated with the female. We can, as such, easily put food’s wicked state also in the realm of research in the arts, which is also notorious for its seeming unreasonableness and its invasive or even destabilising powers.

Due to this specific complexity and allure of the matter next to the implied absence of a specific knowledge field or discipline that can satisfactorily analyse and explain the multilayered appearances of food in the world, we decided to invite a few ArtEZ art research professors to delve deeper into their ideas on food from their fields of expertise for this issue. Not to solve any food problem, which is impossible, even for the arts, but to unwrap alternative aspects of and other perspectives towards the world of food that in other research fields hardly appears, if at all. The result is an assemblage of idiosyncratically forged food enquiries, which are given a context by connecting them to other makers/designers/artists/researchers in the field of food. What to expect?

Before publishing this special issue, a one-day conference was organized by the ArtEZ professorships, entitled Food Friction in 2018. For this artistic and scientific event, we invited the inspiring food designer Katja Gruijters to organise the conference and tease out the concept. This led to a very lively and multisided event, in which the research professors took a side role by moderating different sessions. Using this as a basis, we then decided to challenge some of them once more to unpack their relationship with food in writing.

Food and Art Research

The professorship Art Education as Critical Tactics contributed ‘Peter Greenaway: A Demonstration of Research-Based Art,’ a text that ponders how food could become a research tool in cinema, and how the director becomes a researcher, focussing particularly on the work of Peter Greenaway. Jeroen Lutters’ central question is: Does artistic research differ from scientific research? And if so, how? The accompanying photo essay by ArtEZ Werkplaats Typografie alumnus, Amir Avraham, is a specially selected analogue sequence of film stills from Greenaway’s well-known, food-rich movie The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989).

The Theory in the Arts professorship has provided a jointly written conversation piece: ‘Taste: The Lost Sense, or Why the Culinary Arts Should Integrate with Art Education. A Conversation.’ This dialogue between ArtEZ professor Peter Sonderen and Zuyd University of the Applied Sciences professor Peter Klosse enquires why the culinary arts—representing the sense of taste in relation to food—have hardly found ground in art education. The optical, the audible, the touchable and moveable have found fertile soil in all kinds of art disciplines, whereas the sense of taste and tasting—historically connected to the aesthetic judgment of artistic objects par excellence—hsas barely found refuge for its proper object, i.e., food.

The Fashion professorship (read the introduction on the three fashion articles) has taken the comparison of the world of food and fashion as its focus and starting point: ‘Living-With and Dying-With: Thoughts on the Affective Matter of Food and Fashion’ is the title of the text written by ArtEZ professor Daniëlle Bruggeman and co-researcher Hanka van der Voet. It is a plea for a review of our connection to (raw) matter or materiality, by focussing on affect, touch and smell. Art researchers Paris Selinas and Mark Selby elaborate in their art contribution, ‘Action Recipes,’ how food hides its true nature and background by being (especially visually) aestheticised. Fashion theorist and activist Otto von Busch reacted with ‘Fervent Pharmakon: Food, Fashion and the Haul, in which he concentrates on how quick (and, therefore, thoughtless) consumption has led to unhealthy addictions, to hunger and emotional starvation. Cooking or making clothes collectively could restore a healthy relationship to both food and fashion.

The contribution by ArtEZ professor Jeroen van den Eijnde, of the professorship E-Scape (read the introduction on the three design articles), concentrates on food’s relation with space—i.e., the spatial environment in which it is being prepared, particularly the kitchen. An historical overview of the function and place of the kitchen and its current state shows how technology is entangled with the social practice of food preparation. Miguel Bruns, associate professor of the Future Everyday research group at Eindhoven University of Technology, shows how new technologies are going to change our food consumption in the fourth industrial revolution (artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things). Interaction designers Klasien van de Zandschulp and Emilie Baltz focus on the question of what new technologies imply for humans as social-cultural beings. Through a performance, they lay bare new kinds of rituals caused by new technologies. The texts conclude with an epilogue by Nishant Shah, ArtEZ professor in Aesthetics and Cultures of Technology. He was the only contributor to write his piece during the coronavirus crisis, and therefore reflects on the impact of COVID-19 and food, particularly ‘foodporn.’

How we eat, how we feel, how food iconises, how food relates to the body, how it functions within the media, how it functions on the street and in the house, how it makes us act, how it relates to other arts, in short, how it unveils its particular wicked character, its complexity, makes food a fascinating and self-evident but nonetheless obscure matter. Diverse knowledge fields—not to say, knowledge abysses—are being laid bare here by relating to various aspects of art, revealing other matters regarding our relation with food in doing so.


Peter Sonderen

Peter Sonderen is Professor of Theory in the Arts at ArtEZ University of the Arts, Arnhem, and head of the honours programme Theory and Research. His PhD research on sculptural thinking (University of Amsterdam, 2000) foreshadows the focus of his current research, viz. theory, practice and research in the arts, performativity, ecology and the role of the new materialisms. He published Denken in Kunst (with Henk Borgdorff, Leiden University Press 2012), The Non-Urban Garden (AFdH, 2014), Unpacking Performativity (with Gaby Allard, ArtEZ Press, 2016), Theory Arts Practices (with Marijn de Langen, ArtEZ Press, 2017). In 2019, he opened the interactive platform Let’s Talks about (Artistic) Research (with João da Silva) and published The Entanglement of Theory and Practices in the Arts (ArtEZ Press, 2019).

Footnotes

[1] Morton refers to climate change, for instance. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[2] Whereas the sublime stood for the immense (the larger than large, the awesome) that resisted (temporarily) our reason, the hyperobject seems to refer to an even larger scale phenomenon that fully withstands reasoning or any one-sided rational domestication.

[3] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

[4] Rob van Tulder, ‘Introduction on Wicked Problems, https://www.rsm.nl/research/centres/prc/connect-knowledge/wicked-problems-plaza/theory/. Cf. Timothy Morton, Duistere Ecologie (Boom: Amsterdam 2016), pp. 57-59.

[5] The phrase ‘a wicked witch’ is, therefore, a strange doubling.

 

Bibliography

  • Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Morton, Timothy, Duistere Ecologie. Boom: Amsterdam, 2016.
  • Morton, Timothy, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
  • Van Tulder, Rob, ‘Introduction on Wicked Problems.’ Accessed August 21, 2020. https://www.rsm.nl/research/centres/prc/connect-knowledge/wicked-problems-plaza/theory/.