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Why Food Now?
Kitchen Lab Sparks a Conversation on Food Activism’s Moment

By Susy Bielak & Sara Nichol

With the tandem rise of food activism and foodie consumerism, such as food trucks, the slow-food movement, CSAs, and cooking shows, the residency topic Carl and Betsy DiSalvo are digging into on Open Field this summer is particularly timely. Their Kitchen Lab focuses on the home hearth: how we think of kitchens, what they do, and how we can reconceive their role. In a recent conversation, the DiSalvos joined the Walker’s Susy Bielak and Sara Nichol to talk food, politics, and ways that the Kitchen Lab can be a “mobile hearth for social and political action.”

Susy Bielak

We’re having a food moment: There’s a boom in foodies, food activism, and food art. Food is a medium activating pleasure and politics at dinner tables around the Twin Cities and the world. As Public Art Review put it in its summer 2012 issue, “We’re faced with the failures of industrialized agriculture and declining health due to poor nutrition. At the same time, we’re seeing the flowering of farm-to-table initiatives and millions of Americans returning to backyard vegetable gardening.”

That’s being translated locally into many food projects, ranging from Appetite for Change, which grows, cooks, and delivers food to people in need, to Mannafest, a pop-up restaurant serving courses synched to installations and performances in a queer community space, to Roots for the Home Team, a partnership bringing locally grown produce by young people from ethnically diverse areas of the Twin Cities to Target Field.

Which all prompts a question: Why food now?

Carl DiSalvo

I’m really not sure. It’s hard to understand how certain themes become part of the cultural moment. But certainly, food is. In part, it may be because food is so easily able to stand in for a host of issues, including sustainability and health. So, advocates interested in these issues come to find food a productive subject and medium. But there’s another side that we have to acknowledge: food and many aspects of “food culture” are popular because they’re easily commoditized. Many people have found ways to make more and more money with food and all of the products and services surrounding it. So the food culture feeds on itself.

Whatever the causes, food is definitely a focal thing, something that allows us, no matter what our political perspective, to materialize and express and engage a wide range of issue and desires.

Susy Bielak

Which is why food has been so central to life, and ritual, throughout history. That said, we’ve seen a huge shift in perspective on the fundamentals of food.

Sara Nichol

Here’s one example: I grew up surrounded by farms, but I remember when my 7th-grade class scoffed at the kid who said he wanted to be a farmer. At that time, we thought farms were archaic, and saw the farmer as an uneducated laborer. That’s certainly changed.

Susy Bielak

Agreed. Today’s farmers could be urban dwellers gone back to the land, Brooklyn hipsters with chickens in the backyard, or an inner city school group.

Sara Nichol

Recognizing and respecting food itself has certainly inspired contemporary cultural trends like this, along with gourmet food trucks, the slow food movement, and community outreach programs advocating diet awareness and access to healthy ingredients. In art, food is just one tool for artists who strive for a utopian, democratic social aesthetic. So it seems that, increasingly, we value food as more than just sustenance, but also as an inherent element of a dynamic culture.

Betsy DiSalvo

And when we first introduce people to our culture we frequently do so with food. We experience different foods as a way to experience different cultures.

Susy Bielak

Now that we’ve been delving into food and culture, let’s talk about food and art. Artists have long employed food as an expressive medium, used as a means to foster and rattle cultural traditions. Take Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurist Cookery and “anti-pasta” banquets in the 1930s, or Rirkrit Tiravanija serving curry in the gallery in the mid-1990s. Many such projects are chronicled in this spring’s exhibition at the Smart Museum, Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art.

A point of difference with Kitchen Lab—a 10-day investigation in the Open Field aimed at reenvisioning the space, potential functions, and very idea of the kitchen—is a focus on the kitchen as much as the food. Why is this?

Betsy DiSalvo

By looking at the kitchen, rather than just the product of the kitchen, we’re hoping to get a deeper understanding of how culture, history, and social structure shape the food we eat.

Carl DiSalvo

The kitchen provides a perspective that allows us to connect with various aspects of design, art, and more generally, “maker” culture that we participate in and that interests us as researchers. Kitchens are places where food is prepared in order to be shared with others. The Kitchen Lab is a place to experiment with the material and social processes and products of making food as a communal and communicative act.

The kitchen also gets us closer to design, so this is important to me, as a designer. The kitchen is very much a designed place and filled with designed objects. Food is also very much a designed product. In this moment, I’d argue, we are seeing a spike in awareness of design’s importance as a social form. The kitchen allows us to play with the history and practice of design and to really use design methods for exploring the practices and products of making food.

Betsy DiSalvo

As a researcher focused on learning, I’m also interested in how the kitchen is one of the places where we first become part of a community of practice. When we sit on a stool watching a parent clean or stand next to our dad when he grills, we are observers of the practice of cooking. As we start to take on small chores such as emptying the trash or sweeping the floor, we become apprentices of a sort in cooking.

Susy Bielak

In our conversations over the past six months, you’ve prompted me to think about the many facets of the kitchen—as a space of labor, family, tradition, recipes, and rules. It’s also a space of pleasure and comfort, for sharing and the world of the senses. It’s where people want to be.

The kitchen is where I learned the fundamentals of salsa from my father, how to make kasha from my mother, paella from my auntie, and stuff chickens from my mother’s dog-eared copy of The Joy of Cooking. In our house, the kitchen was where we spent most of our time together.

Betsy DiSalvo

I think that’s quite common. For so many of us, the kitchen is one of our first learning environments. It’s a place where many people feel comfortable participating and asking questions. Because of this comfort, it’s a natural place of informal learning. I hope the Kitchen Lab can encourage engagement with art and design and act as a platform for social and political questions.

Susy Bielak

We do too. While some art projects tackle politics through food—in recent memory, Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen, in which Iraqi war veterans served Iraqi cuisine from a mobile kitchen—many food-art projects skirt hard issues. Will you speak to what you see as the elemental politics of food and hunger?

Betsy DiSalvo

Historically, food has always been intertwined with politics because of its necessity for meeting basic physiological needs. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we see food explicitly mentioned in the most basic level of needs—physiological. But we can also trace the presence of food and the kitchen through the remaining needs: safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Over the past century, the abundance of food in Western culture has made access to calories no longer a concern for most Americans. Yet, while we have an abundance of calories, a hunger for nutrition and health still drives some of our politics. For example, many urban centers have plenty of empty calorie offerings, and there are food deserts where finding fresh foods is difficult.

Sara Nichol

OK, so this hunger for nutrition and health is about nourishing the body physiologically, but also about ensuring that the food we eat, the way we eat, and the way we gather and associate around food feeds into more complex and social needs.

Betsy DiSalvo

Exactly. Food as a medium and the kitchen as a workspace feed our higher needs, as food has become a way to demonstrate our love, gain acknowledgment, and express ourselves.

Susy Bielak

So true. It’s interesting to think about the different ways in which a kitchen can provide nourishment. On that note, will you talk about why you would bring a kitchen—or the conceptual frame of a kitchen—to a contemporary art museum?

Carl DiSalvo

It’s important to note the specifics of this project—this is not a kitchen at any contemporary art museum. This is a kitchen as part of the Open Field program at the Walker Art Center.

Open Field, and the Walker more generally, has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to truly public programming and transforming the civic purpose of the museum. Doing Kitchen Lab as part of Open Field provides an opportunity to work together to explore new roles for the museum. In particular, we’re interested in how museums can support social innovation and become hubs for all kinds of cultural production. Food is certainly a kind of cultural production, and moreover, it’s a kind of cultural product that is right now capturing the attention and imagination of diverse publics. So, as part of Open Field’s programming efforts to transform the museum, and as part of our work as researchers interested in new forms of public learning and design, a kitchen—a place to make and share food—makes sense as a platform to explore.


Synched with installations at Minneapolis’ queer community space, Madame, Mannafest is a pop-up restaurant combining the performative with the culinary.

Photo: Chris Roberts

Roots for the Home Team

Roots for the Home Team partners with youth garden programs in ethnically diverse neighborhoods across the Twin Cities to grow produce to make into salads for sale at Target Field during Sunday home Twins games.

Photo: Dennis Becker Photography

Picnic Operetta

Mixed Precipitation’s picnic operetta—”operatic performances in community gardens and other green spaces throughout the Twin Cities metro”—for summer 2012 is Mozart’s The Return of King Idomeneo.

Photo: Brooks Peterson

Michael Rakowitz, Enemy Kitchen

For the first half of 2012, this food truck traveled throughout Chicago “serving a rotating menu of regional Iraqi dishes, with American veterans of the Iraq War acting as servers and sous-chefs.” The food was served on limited-edition, paper reproductions of china found in Saddam Hussein’s palaces.

Photo: Babelglyph, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

The Sassy Spoon

A recent ordinance change in Minneapolis has sparked a food truck boom, with trucks like dietician Tamara Brown’s Sassy Spoon bringing meals to workers across the Cities.