Artist-researcher Carmen Wong, a valued contributor to the work of Sustenance Partners, shares a thought-provoking piece to challenge our thinking about our perceptions of food and the systems surrounding it.
A few years ago I made a food performance to feed hungry ghosts. I recognised some of them as the restless spirits of my past selves, and had wanted to make them a dish that would bring comfort. I thought using abstract yet meaningful materials might signify that this offering was made expressly for their calming, and consumption.
Object set I
One packet of Golden Boy wonton wrappers
A pulpy pink filling made with spices, ginger, and red packet pieces
A battery-powered Walkman playing a song and story of home-sickness
Ball of tangled string used in place of rice noodles
I invited audience-participants to help me wrap dumplings stuffed with a filling made of symbolic paper materials. They could also listen to a short narrative played over headphones about my self-displacement through a series of migrations (and were invited to re-speak this narrative into a loop pedal which looped/overlapped their voices). We boiled some of the communally-made dumplings to serve in a soupy bowl of string noodles, and pan-fried the others. The finished meal sat as offering to our ghosts of previous selves, some of which belong to homes no-longer, all of them companions to the living present, who tucked into a set of more palatable post-show crudités.
The writings of feminist materialist and philosopher Karen Barad inspired some of the entangled meanings in my performance, where the addition of specific non-edible materials troubled the usefulness of food as nutrition, indeed, also food as culture. And yet, as many of us working within food systems already know, food holds a multitude of meanings. Food, as all matter, can be seen as a constantly re-constituted material “diffracted, dispersed, threaded through with materializing and sedimented effects of iterative reconfigurings.” It is dynamic even before we apply heat, ingredients, and ritual to change it further to suit our tastes and habits; evolving as it interacts within systems in the soil, factory, plate, gut biome, sewage system.
Object set II
An “arctic-sized” refrigerated truck
A cup-sized tin of Spaghetti hoops, in a tangy sauce
A bowl, orbiting in the orange glow of a microwave
Leptin, a hormone that lets your body know it’s had ‘enough’
This metaphor of feeding beyond-human hungers has felt apt when I consider how the above things assemble, interact, entangle, and trouble our current food system, with its odd stashes of power, energy, wealth; and the inevitability of inclusion/exclusion as we eat our way into being who we are. I have (especially since COVID-19) volunteered with a number of local food and food-aid projects, and awestruck by the disruptions in our usual way of procuring food, and how top-down mechanisms are able to bend the flow of food (at which point did it become surplus?) to feed those hardest hit by the pandemic. Food parcels, social supermarkets, cooked meals, and energy subsidies have indeed helped a number of people find ground, and in some cases, find community again as mutual aid efforts brought neighbours together.
“But what else needs feeding?” a trickster voice asks, “why is so hard to attend to hunger that exceeds the individual human body?”
Introduction in the Middle
This blog-post aims to serve as an introduction to a series of posts that take shape addressing concerns and actions around the majestically wide spectrum of substances we ingest in myriad ways, fondly known as ‘food’. My co-conspirator Sophie Paterson (Sustenance Partners team member & Sustainable Food Places Coordinator with Food Plymouth) and I hope to open conversation and form coalitions with various expertise-holders, those who have spent time traversing, scaling these looming quandaries around our food-ways, through lived experience at some point of their lives as eaters. My self-ordained quest in this dialogue and writing is to stay limber to trickster sleights, mannerisms, and viewpoints that offer helpful disruptions to our usual ways of eating and being.
One of these ways (which we will to return to in a future post in the series), is JARSQUAD, a living social art project that I am co-animating with Rachel Dobbs and Tess Wilmot, which involves communally making jams and preserves with interested publics using communal abundance (foraged/grown fruit & veg) or surplus from supply chains. One of the key disruptions that JARSQUAD employs (we have several) is that the jam we make as a squad is not marked for sale. This resistance to an easy transaction via backed currency, is one of the ways we try to strike conversations about solidarity and diverse economies, aided by the JARSQUAD Exchange Rate. We are looking at ways to emulate an Open Franchise Model (inspired by Premium Cola) in our plans to scale – encouraging other folks to start JarSquads in their own localities, in a way that centers proactivity, connection, and joy (an attitude which we’re discovering can be subversive!)
Object set III
A “Food Grade Disposable Clear Clamshell Plastic Fruit Packing Box for 1500g Cherry” made in Huiyang district, in Huizhou, Guangdong, Southern China
Green, hard plastic collapsible produce crates
Botrytis cinerea, a ubiquitous grey mould that I cut away from strawberries
A jar of ‘Everywhere Blackberry Jam’ tradeable for 2 bags of sugar using a negotiable Exchange Rate.
Might the trick that helps us manage complex change be the ability to play? To experiment with different apparatus (or chuck them altogether?) whilst trying to produce the least harm, serving the entities that have the least voice and representation? Perhaps play affords a state of flow that opens up more listening possibilities, so we form a taste for patterns, feel into constellations of interdependencies. Might we come to appreciate the sensations when we realise we have failed, and begin to fail better?
Tell us, trickster-reader: what are some of the invisible beings, the ghosts, the microbials, the intangible emotions, or subtle forces that are part of our food system that you think need feeding, representation, or perhaps playful disruptions?
1 An exhibition that comments on the impacts of global consumerism that trickles into the afterlife in Chinese Taoist ritual practice might provide some insights to the ideas in my performance Unmade, Untitled. See https://www.skd.museum/en/exhibitions/archiv/supermarket-of-the-dead/ and http://blog.sarahledonne.com/2015/04/supermarket-dead/
2 Karen Barad, “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart”, Parallax 20, 3 (2014): 168.