The Taste of Participation

Invitation for a dinner is a participatory art project that I am developing with the Peruvian artist Pilar Talavera (who is currently based in Barcelona) in the framework of an artistic-theoretical research, aiming at studying food and cuisine as forms of re-elaboration of identities and personal lives.

The research focuses on two main coordinates: the symbolic declaration of daily routine and the redefinition of identity through food and cooking, within a foreign, cultural and traditional context.

Starting from these considerations, last March, I invited Pilar to Bologna (Italy, the city where I live) and we started to involve people who live here but are originally from other countries. We asked for some of their time to cook together what they used to prefer eating back at home, so they could tell us about their experience of arrival, transit and permanence in the city and eventually how their culinary habits have changed.

The attitude towards their own traditional cuisine becomes a reflection of the process of adaptation to a foreign new tradition. How do these people cook their own traditional meals here? How do they find their own ingredients in a very traditional culinary environment, such as the Italian one? Do they modify their recipes or strongly maintain them unvaried? Are the culinary rituals (time, rhythm of cooking and eating as well as the presentation of meals) adapted to the new context? We have spent time together, talking, cooking and eating with people coming from Japan, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan and Croatia. We wanted to create an intimate experience, a temporary, intense relation, where personal narratives could overlap the culinary lives.

We have created what Laurie Beth Clark and Michael Paterson define as “Temporary Aestheticized Community”Laurie Beth Clark, Michael Paterson | Ways of Eating. Tradition, Innovation, and the Production of Community in Food-Based Art, in The Taste of Art. Cooking, Food and Counterculture in Contemporary Practices | Silvia Bottinelli, Margherita D’Ayala Valva | The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville | 2017: provisional groups of people which spontaneously produce an aesthetic experience of shared community, in which we feel the surprise and the beauty of sharing this moment with somebody we have never met before. However, our aim is not limiting ourselves only to this goal. The project wants to open a reflection about how it is possible to become spontaneously closer to other cultures through food, following a microsocial approach. I strongly believe that the best way to approach different habits and getting to know them in-depth on a small scale, is to build temporary micro-communities. In these, I recognize that “the value of this temporary bond is in its capacity to model alternative social relations” Laurie Beth Clark, Michael Paterson | Ways of Eating. Tradition, Innovation, and the Production of Community in Food-Based Art, in The Taste of Art. Cooking, Food and Counterculture in Contemporary Practices | Silvia Bottinelli, Margherita D’Ayala Valva | The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville | 2017.

This is the point where our project can be placed in a continuum, starting from the avant-garde movements of the early XX Century to today’s relational art. Our attempt to build moments of collective sharing in a semi-private dimension definitely responds to the historical avant-gardes. Contrary to what Clark and Paterson affirm (as for them these temporary socialites related to food have the function of directing people to traditions, in contrast with the spirit of individualism and social break of the XX Century avant-gardesLaurie Beth Clark, Michael Paterson | Ways of Eating. Tradition, Innovation, and the Production of Community in Food-Based Art, in The Taste of Art. Cooking, Food and Counterculture in Contemporary Practices | Silvia Bottinelli, Margherita D’Ayala Valva | The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville | 2017, I think that the creation of these provisional micro-societies reaffirms the value of alternativity and the propulsion of break towards the settled society, with the consequent declaration of new forms of spontaneous creativity.

We simply have to look back at the first avant-garde movement, Futurism, whose Futurist Cookbook proposed new flavours, tastes, time and rhythms in the Italian cuisine rituality at the beginning of the XX Century.G.A. Pautasso (ed.) | Cucina futurista. Manifesti teorici, menu e documenti | Abscondita | 2015 We can notice that the same objective which Futurists had, i.e. creating a group bound by aesthetic and ritual values, is also declared in today’s participatory micro-communities. The difference lies especially in the fact that Futurists were considering only themselves within a closed artistic sphere, whose protagonists were united by the same credo and Manifesto. Today’s participatory artistic communities, instead, are open and are composed not only of artists, but of people coming from different social positions, professions and interests.

In order to deeply understand this gap, we have to make an inevitable jump in time, which redirects us from the avant-garde movements to the ‘60s, when the formalization of convivial relations becomes a historical constant. If we think about Daniel Spoerri’s Spoerri Restaurant in Duesseldorf (1968), Allen Ruppenberg’s Al’s Cafe (1969) and Gordon Matta Clark’s FoodRestaurant (1971), we have three situations of conviviality which gravitate around food, growing from the same intention: providing the ordinary rituality of cooking with the value of aggregator and activator of new languages and relations in the public sphere. Thanks to these projects, places as common as restaurants and actions as conventional as ordering a menu became aesthetic opportunities for those who entered these restaurants: experiences in which a conventional occurrence was interrupted, allowing another situation to take place.

Through the performativity of staying together by cooking and eating, these artists succeeded in opening new scenarios, made of relations and commonalities. In his restaurant, Spoerri was proposing dinners based on specific themes, while Ruppenberg used to invent new recipes and innovative combinations of ingredients, both launching a new era of futuristic gastronomy.

At Food, Gordon Matta-Clark prepared unusual meals while inviting other artists to cook (e.g. Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage), making the act of cooking and the meals themselves a performative art. The Food restaurant worked as an artists’ cooperative in which someone different would cook each day, yet it was not only a business as performances and meetings were also held there, turning it into a kind of Food Theatre.

Food was an element with a strong presence in the performance art of the time, which started from the Fluxus movement and reached its climax with Joseph Beuys.

Through artistic performativity, daily routine has become the theatre of all of us, the manifestation of the creative expression of everyone.

As we already know, Beuys’ first aim was to extend art to life. This means that every creative activity would consist of an art of living that works as counterculture (i.e. what he called “social sculpture”), implying the idea that society has to be considered as a creation in which all individuals can participate as autonomous creators of their daily life.

In Jeder Mensch ist ein Kuenstler/Everybody is an artist (1979, cooking documentary), Beuys puts the activity of cooking at the center of his philosophy of extended art. In the video, Beuys simply cooks and exhibits this ordinary everyday activity to the general public through television as a form of art. In this way, he represents self-cooking both as an important change maker and as a convivial and creative activity available to everyone, everyday. Beuys added a fundamental tile to the avant-garde research for a new culinary aesthetics: everyone takes part in this collective artwork everyday. Consequently, not only artists properly defined as artists are allowed to propose a new practice related to taste, but everyone is.

By legitimizing every person to their innate creativity, applied in their everyday life, Beuys places the human being at the center of their feelings and expressions in society. This legitimization of creativity to each individual gives us the opportunity to make a meaningful and conscious jump to nowadays, to the manifestations of micro-cultural change that we want to achieve in Invitation for a Dinner.

The next chronological passage after Beuys is relational art NicolasBourriaud|RelationalAesthetics| Presses du Reel | 1998: since the early 1990s, relational art has recognized the artists involving the public in the creative process to give life to an experience of sharing and participation, as relational artists.

We all remember Rirkrit Tiravanija, who created an exhibition called Untitled (Free) at the 303 Gallery in New York at the beginning of the 1990s. For this occasion, the artist converted a gallery into a kitchen where he served rice and Thai curry for free, inviting the visitors to interact with contemporary art in a more sociable way. The intention of Tiravanija was to specifically address the functions of a gallery space in order to explore this site’s functionality and designate it as a space of conviviality. His aim was firstly to overcome the lack of cooperation, spontaneous communication and sense of community of the last stages of Capitalism he was experiencing in the US during those years.

The same need to share her own meal was expressed in 1993 by Georgina Starr in Paris, where lone diners at the same restaurant were invited into the wine cellar, where they could dine by candle-light while listening to Starr's thoughts from her own dining alone experience. In a text, Starr described her anxiety about dining alone in a restaurant: “I know I can taste this meal but something in my brain is stopping me from enjoying it. It is the first time I’ve dined out alone and I feel everyone knows it. (...) Eating alone is no fun”.

Both Tiravanija and Starr wanted to stress everyone’s necessity of overpassing the boundaries of contemporary alienation in the urban daily life (represented by the acting of eating alone). In both contexts, the distance between artist and viewer were blurring, as in their experience people weren’t looking at the art indeed, but were part of it—and were, in fact, making the art as they ate together and talked with friends or new acquaintances.

This means that the public became part of the artwork, and the artwork was their experience.

In Invitation for a Dinner, there’s no public at the moment, as there’s no institutional space universally recognized as an artistic place where people can join acting as a public. We meet people only in private and domestic spaces. In a certain way, with this project, we look back at the purest Beuysian experience, as there’s no distinction between artist and public. At the same time, we move one step forward, because our aim is not to be just testimony to the story of these people but making them visible to the artworld and eventually connecting one story to another. This represents the second step of the project which is going to take shape in the next few months. The project aims at connecting people, places, recipes and stories, within a multi-layered theoretical structure, where avant-gardiste taste and relational aesthetics live together, making the first nurture the last and vice-versa.