Posted by on Jul 22, 2014 in Article, News | 0 comments

 

Dedicated to examining the future of food by mapping its current controversies and looking for more biodiverse alternatives, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy explores the genomes and biotechnologies that configure our food systems. The research lead by artists, designers and curators Cat Kramer and Zack Denfeld has generated a wide range of outputs, from public lectures, to performances, exhibitions and dinners in which the audience is confronted with unknown facts about the food they’re eating. Raising awareness about gastronomic culture and the way food is manipulated, they aim at building a better and more sustainable future food system.

 

Your work deals with what you call “Speculative Food Design”, thereby using the tools of design to speculate about alternative cuisines of future food systems. You differentiate between Speculative Expressionist Food Design, that creates a fiction, and Speculative Materialist Food Design, where actual food is eaten. Which is, in your experience, more effective in conveying the subject of your research? How do you decide between one and another?

One of the things we’re really interested in is helping people get their hands dirty as they imagine the future. So, while we can just have pictures of food (that would be a more expressionist design about the future of food), the more materialist basis would be “what do we have at hand today that we can taste, and smell, and touch?” An example of the latter approach is Glowing Sushi. This project is about GMOs. There are many projects about imagining the future of glowing food and we thought: “there’s a glowing fish that exists today and it’s sold as a pet, we can certainly use it as food. It’s a fish, so why not?” By turning the glowing fish into sushi and offering it to people as food, we are forcing the audience to deal with their body and not only  their eyes. We have served the glowing sushi in the United States and have people actually try it, which is a lot more confrontational and real than just a picture of it. But both strategies can be quite effective, so we usually try both extremes.

One of the important aspects of the Glowing Sushi project is that it is possible to do it today and not only speculate about it. It’s more political, because in it we are pointing to different forces that exist today (whether they be monetary or biological) and we put them into a future context, rather than a totally imagined, science-fiction story. Another example is the hype around insect eating right now: there’s a lot of speculation that in the future we’ll be all eating insects and it will be a new, sustainable protein source. But as soon as you try and serve somebody insects the reaction tends to be negative, so you can say that insects are the future as much as you want, but unless you find a palatable way to present it, it’s not actually going to be true. Therefore, there is a considerable difference between merely speculating and trying out what the future of food can be.

 

Glowing Sushi. The Center of Genomic Gastronomy.

Glowing Sushi. The Center of Genomic Gastronomy.

By means of design, you create a “viable simulation of a possible reality” that makes the speculative scenario more real. Does this staging imply an affirmation of the possible scenario, in the sense that it may lead audiences into accepting the situation that is presented?

That is always a real danger with critical work or satire. For instance, in De-extinction Deli, we explore the possibilities and risks involved in the growing movement to bring back (and possibly eat) extinct species. Here our audience is not the general public, it’s actually the de-extinction movement. In this project, we are staging such an absurd future in which we take the idea of bringing back these animals that went extinct because of human intervention in their habitat, only to turn them into food for humans. It’s a really extreme satire in that way. But, of course, there is always the danger of someone taking that seriously.

We work with design as a way of taking a pop culture approach to get people’s attention. Creating something that people can recognize it makes the stories behind easier to approach. For our publications, we choose graphics that are familiar or catchy to have something that people want to read and spend some time with. We think that there is no shame in making something attractive for a broader audience. When people look at our work they may be laughing, smiling and pointing at first, but all of a sudden their face changes and they’re confused: that moment of confusion is hopefully the real power of what we’re doing. People are attracted by something that looks familiar, but as soon as they get a little closer, they start to ask themselves what is going on. So there’s definitely an intentional strategy, and for what we know some of our strategies can be quite effective.

We place ourselves somewhere between artists and hackers. Usually art is intended for a very elite audience, it’s not made for the general public, and on the other side wikis and documentation that is more akin to hacker culture tends contain too much information that becomes impenetrable, so we try to find a balance between those two cultures and use the visual power and the metaphor from art as well as the technical expertise that is privileged in the hacking world.

 

The projects undertaken in the Center for Genomic Gastronomy usually address the viewer in a playful way. Do you think that this is necessary in order to grab the audience’s attention? Is it more effective than lecturing them?

 Yes, definitely. It is always better to take a playful approach than to lecture people. Also, we don’t always present ourselves as artists: if we are serving food on the street we might not say anything about art, we’re just serving some strange food. We engage with people because they know how to interact with street food. So, there’s no need to even mention the art, it’s just a different version of street food.

 

Eating has increasingly become a leisure activity and a way of establishing one’s social class, values and beliefs. How do you address these aspects in your work? Do you focus on a particular segment of the public, considering their social status, education, etc. How do you reach a balance between a formative and an entertaining experience?

Every project we do has a different audience in mind and it is often a very specific one. Sometimes we’re interested in making work for a small group of elite scientists, maybe we think we can help them be more critical about their own work in the larger history of biotechnology, let’s say. So that would be a work for about ten people in a room. Other works that we’ve done, like the Spice Mix Super-Computer, which was this caravan that traveled around the United Kingdom offering blends of different spices, was really designed for anyone that walked by and hopefully would find something interesting and start thinking about their food, no matter what their class or ethnic background is. That was really effective and fun.

Reaching a balance between the formative and entertaining, or engaging, is still an evolving question for us, we haven’t figured it out yet. We’re trying out different things and seeing what works. We debate about this a lot, and one of the things we keep coming back to is: how do we know that we are reaching our objective? So it is very important for us to communicate with participants and have people ask their own questions. We don’t want to be aloof artists, our work is more didactic and maybe political.

 

While developing your projects, you have probably found yourselves working with different food cultures. Or has globalization turned us into globalized eaters?

Yes and no, we do quite a bit of traveling and there are extreme differences in how food is chosen and presented in different cultures. For instance, once were in Dundee (Scotland) for two weeks and literally all you could find between where we were staying and the city center were fish and chips shops. Everything was deep fried, and it was almost a source of pride. We have worked in Southern Europe, India, the Pacific Northwest and all of those places have specific food cultures that are trying to reclaim tradition or maintain it. They manifest differently: in Southern Europe it is more of a conservative traditionalism, while in the Pacific Northwest in the United States there is not this long history so there is a nostalgia for a past that actually never existed. In India, it is usually the rural communities that eat traditional food, while in the urban areas globalization is really at the forefront. But there is also a certain respect for food cultures, so for instance if you go to McDonald’s in India there is no beef, only chicken. Our politics are constantly shifting as the landscape is shifting, but what we tend towards is emphasizing the idea of choice. So that is one idea that prevails in our work, to provide more options and choices, because that may also help agricultural biodiversity and adapting food to changing climate conditions.

 

You have stated that “eaters are agents of selection”. Do you aim at creating an awareness that will change the future of food, one eater at a time? Aren’t corporations adapting to these changes in taste and redirecting them towards their products?

We think that raising awareness about what we eat is extremely necessary because the alternative is to have international food aid agencies or scientists deciding which products are best for each group of people, rather than learning from people and engaging in co-design. There is no one way to be a good eater, the food system is full of contradictions, as for instance when a replacement for meat is found in a product that includes a powerful allergen. Sometimes we’re just making gestures about things that appeal to us in their strangeness and communities read them in different ways. For instance, in our project  Vegan Ortolan we take the most cruel recipe you can find and work with vegan chefs to make a simulation of it. We don’t know what this means, but people have really interesting reactions to it. In that respect, art provides with the opportunity of trying things out that may not initially make sense.

 

The Center of Genomic Gastronomy. VIDA 15.0. Fundación Telefónica, 2014.

The Center of Genomic Gastronomy. VIDA 15.0. Fundación Telefónica, 2014.

Your project has won the People’s Choice Award, which means that it was the most voted by Facebook users among the Honorary Mentions in VIDA 15.0. Why do you think that your project was the most voted?

We’re really proud of it because part of our goal is to make art that is compelling and not superficial, that it has some depth. But it is also important for us that a large number of people can identify with it or get something out of it. It is also interesting because we think we’re pushing VIDA out of its comfort zone, suggesting that artificial life can beyond robotics, biology or technology. We are also happy to be part of an exhibition such as VIDA 15.0 at the Espacio Fundación Telefónica in Madrid, but our passion is working in restaurants or on the street with people, doing performances, and so it’s also interesting to bring VIDA out of the sacred space of this gallery. On another occasion, it would be great to do something with a restaurant here, or do food cart to really bring our work more directly to the people we want to speak to. The interesting thing is that, with most technology or robotics, things are standardized so you can more or less work with the same tools anywhere, but with food you always start from ground zero if you’re trying to be sensible to the local region or ecosystem. Whenever we do a food project we want to source the best food that we can afford, choose the best farmers, and so on. That implies a totally different approach in Madrid, Bangalore or Singapore, for instance. We need time to properly build connections with regional producers. So if we don’t have time, we prefer not to rush it and just get anything from the supermarket in a big department store, that would not work for us.

 

Mutagenic breeding and genetically modifying food questions the boundary between what we consider natural and what we consider artificial. How would you define artificial life?  

Marshall McLuhan said “after Sputnik, there is no nature, only art”. We agree with that statement to the degree that we consider our entire food system to be artificial life. You have a tomato, and it’s a generic round tomato but it wasn’t that way a hundred years ago, it looks like that because humans have manipulated it in a specific way. So, we could say that artificial life is everywhere in the supermarket shelves.

Moreover, as our technologies become more wet and more biological, will we have an artificial life in twenty years? Maybe all life will be artificial in a way and we will have to re-consider the concept itself.