2.5 / The Food Issue

Serving, Cooking, Giving It Away: Food, Art, and the Places in Between

By Twilight Greenaway November 14, 2010
Natasha Wheat, in collaboration with Sarah Magrish Cline and Mark Gravel. Bean In, April 2010; installation view, California College of the Arts, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artists.


At OPENwater, the latest installment of the theme-based pop-up restaurant/art event OPENrestaurant, some things were as expected. Food was on the plates and art on the walls—but that’s not all. The plates themselves were handcrafted and highly symbolic—one in every five had the ghost of a local Chinook salmon burnished in its center; the screen-printed menus detailed the hydrology of the origin of the meal’s ingredients; and the live soundscape (pounding rain, crashing waves, and water dripping, dropping, and sloshing) alternately interrupted and soothed the diners. 

The components of the event, which took place Nov. 13–14, 2010, were nearly as complex and varied as the many ways one could interpret its theme: water. For those looking to explore the tenuous boundaries between food production and art production, there was much to see and do. A person could taste calamari and oysters while standing beside makeshift wetlands. Or pump air into a “chandelier” made from a series of hanging algae-filled vessels, and then sample tap water from districts around the Bay Area.

The makeshift kitchen, built for the event inside the cavernous St. George Distillery, in Alameda, included a gas burner held inside a skiff. Sitting beneath was a hanging cauldron in which a team of volunteer chefs assembled a giant San Franciscan cioppino stew. The dishwashing station sourced its water, in part, from the melt of a giant ice cube posing as a mini-Sierra snowpack, high above the room. A huge painting of a Delta smelt stared down at the crowd, as though the normally tiny fish at the center of the statewide water dispute was tired of being underestimated. And, at the edge of the dining room, a table with a surface like the texture of drought-stricken earth was set for service but remained empty all night, perhaps communicating the event’s most memorable statement: without water, there can be no food.

Throughout the day, visitors wandered in, ate, drank, and interacted with the amorphous group of chefs, artists, and curators who had put it all together. And some may have wondered: were they there to eat or to see artwork? Both, OPENrestaurant founders and Chez Panisse colleagues Jerome Waag, Sam White, and Stacie Pierce would tell you. “The border between the art and food is now completely blurred,” says Waag, who’s been cooking for over two decades. “I think that’s what we want—for artists to have a strong and present voice as people who shape things. It seems to me that the most important thing that needs shaping is our everyday lives. Food is at the center of those lives, whether we like it or not.”

The OPENrestaurant crew is far from alone in experimenting with this liminal, potentially transformative space. The food world is currently being stretched by chefs and artists looking to subvert expectations about what we eat and drink, from DIY food makers—many of whom rely on highly visual brands, quirky narratives and personas influenced by the art world—to more literal cross-over cases, like Jennifer Rubell, a high-profile “food artist.” (Rubell melds her culinary and art training to produce large-scale, interactive food spectacles inside art institutions. Think 1,500 doughnuts nailed to a wall or slices of cake served inside inflated balloons.)

As environmentalists, foodies, and locavores work to ensure that food is seen as more than the product of a faceless industry, it has also become an increasingly aesthetic endeavor. It only makes sense that meals—and the spaces they occupy—have landed front and center in many prominent artistic dialogues.

Through an ever-evolving mélange of sculpture, performance, and relational aesthetics, Bay Area artists are approaching the subject of food from multiple perspectives. Reflecting the current expectation of artists to engage and gratify their audiences in more than one way, many are exploring the implications of giving food away for free. Some are interested in this generous gesture for the way it disarms an artwork’s audience, while others use the distribution of food as a means to examine social systems. Still others are engaging with it as a way to disrupt larger systems of food production and access. The prevalence of such projects attests to Bay Area artists’ and chefs’ willingness to embrace ambiguity and find inspiration within it. 

Miles Ake prepares a meal in a makeshift kitchen at Queens Nails Projects (formerly Queens Nails Annex), San Francisco. Photo: Brian Storts.

The Meal as Form

Ted Purves, professor and chair of the Fine Arts graduate program at California College of the Arts (CCA), says many artists use food and meals in their work because it provides an accessible form. “Most people aren’t necessarily going to know how to be part of an art piece,” he says, “so artists [working in the social realm] will begin with a form their audience is familiar with—like a restaurant—and then they’ll play with it.”

Socially engaged artworks especially benefit from this approach. “It’s through form that the rules of interaction are set,” he explains. “In a common form like a painting, there are clear rules around how you make them, where you put them, how they’re seen.” In the world of socially based art, says Purves, recognizable forms are just as necessary.

Bean In, an April 2010 event, is one project that relied on the meal for this sense of structure. A temporary, free restaurant established at CCA by artists Mark Gravel and Natasha Wheat and designer Sarah Magrish Cline, the project stemmed from a series of meals Gravel had been serving at Mission Boutique Gravel and Gold. Wheat saw Bean In as part of a larger “investigation of the convivial experience” happening in today’s art world. Her approach is to use food as one of many sensory experiences in a space, a kind of accoutrement to a larger, conceptually based project. “If you were just giving away food in a gallery I wouldn’t necessarily consider it art,” she says.

Bean In took place over the course of twelve hours, during which participants could wander into a room filled with living, potted bean vines, eat a free bean-based meal, and lounge on recycled burlap coffee bean bags. “Micro-lectures” were delivered as a complement to the visual and gastronomic experience, and a set of accompanying posters leading up to the event referenced the be-ins and sit-ins of the 1960s.

Although Wheat has worked to incorporate larger questions about agriculture and food production into past works, these recent pieces use food to transform her audience into co-participants in the work. “I was interested in creating a reciprocal relationship, rather than just expecting someone to view what I’d produced,” she says. Food is a worthwhile way to create that relationship because it’s something with which all people know how to engage, she says. “In art spaces, many people don’t feel entitled to their opinions, or you’ll hear them say things like they ‘don’t understand’ the work.” When food comes into projects, however, the same viewer/participant is more likely to feel included and to let their guard down.

She points out that museums and galleries normally fit into a kind of biological schedule; “We fit them in between meals,” she says. When an art space is also a meal space, however, she says she’s observed a marked difference in people’s receptivity to new ideas, and that “people are really present when they’re not thinking about getting to their next meal.” 

Having Your Cake and Painting It, Too

Artist Leah Rosenberg also uses food in part for the way it affects her audience. Rosenberg (who works at SFMOMA making baked goods that interact with and mimic the museum’s exhibitions) started decorating cakes as a student at CCA as a way to improve her technique as a painter. She started bringing cakes to class and, as you’d guess, her fellow students were ecstatic. 

“I started wondering what it would be like to make a painting knowing it would get the same response as cake,” she recalls. “So I started thinking more about what it means to offer something to people when they’re viewing your work.” And while some of Rosenberg’s audience may opt to buy her paintings and sculptures after an opening, it’s much more likely that they will go home with cake in their stomachs.

At a time when so much of our culture keeps us from developing in-person connections, feeding other people can be very gratifying, she says. “There are lots of changes in the world, and I think people want to contribute. When you feed them, and it makes them feel good, then you feel good.”

Gift Economies

Purves and fellow artist and CCA professor Susanne Cockrell also give away food as part of their art practice, though they’re less concerned with making people feel good and more with the ways the exchange of food can highlight and define social systems.

From 2004 to 2007, the two worked on Temescal Amity Works, which played with the idea of the store as a social form. Before foragers were posing alongside celebrity chefs in national magazines, Purves and Cockrell collected fruit from backyards in their neighborhood and offered it free of charge in a temporary storefront. Their hope was not only to make use of neglected resources, but to create a kind of informal community space, where they could “facilitate the exchange of services, favors, stories, and the everyday desires of residents,” according to the project’s website.

As with Wheat, Purves and Cockrell’s concerns transcend food to focus on the social and narrative possibilities it creates. In fact, Purves says, they have since become more invested in these possibilities than in the food. “One thing we realized with Amity Works,” he says, “is that we’re really interested in food as it relates to social economies, more than as a subject in and of itself. We liked learning who these people were who planted the lemon trees in their back yards. They had economic ideas around that in similar ways that farming cultures have had those ideas—that what they produce is both a resource and a commodity, and you actually have a little bit of autonomy.”

Art that involves person-to-person exchange, interaction, and participation exists largely to get people thinking critically about what has value and why. “There’s been a long history of artists, like the Diggers, creating free stores, free boxes, etc., people who have used modes of cultural production to create autonomous, generous spaces,” says Wheat.

As in those earlier projects, participants in Bean In and Temescal Amity Works were immersed in a gift economy—a way of doing things that is based on mutual generosity, rather than on buying and selling.1

Susanne Cockrell picks lemons in the backyard of a home in Oakland, California, in January 2006 as part of Temescal Amity Works (2004–2007). Courtesy of the Artists.

Give What You Can

Yet, the ability of such economies to infiltrate communities where a true need exists is unclear. While an estimated twenty-five million people in the United States visit a food pantry, soup kitchen, or food assistance program every year, it’s doubtful that members of this population are frequently participating in socially engaged artworks.Many might find it impossible to attend even the most low-budget DIY food-art event without hearing echoes of a larger set of questions about access.

“When you look at who actually participates in these kinds of meals,” says Cockrell, “it’s not often those who can’t afford them otherwise. Food is very fashionable right now—and at the same time there are all these issues of food security.” The opportunity, as she sees it, is to take the gift economy to a level that also inspires critical dialogue about the tangible complexities of food in our culture.

When Cockrell looks back at the work she and Purves did with Amity Works, she says, “There’s something about free that has a kind of passivity to it.” In other words, a number of people in the surrounding neighborhood took the access to free fruit and preserves for granted. But, she says, “I think we really hoped to instigate something else.”

As a way to speak directly to food access issues, Bay Area artist Jay Dion is gathering food, rather than giving it away. While completing his MFA at CCA, Dion was inspired by the grassroots art project Empty Bowls, which draws attention to hunger on a national level. As organizers of that project do, Dion asked participants to donate groceries to a local food bank. In exchange for their donation, he gave them a handmade ceramic cup in the shape of a soup can. He set up the cans to make Untitled (Cans) (2009), which was part of Super Pop-Up Shop, a temporary artists’ store that existed from November to December 2009 in an empty mall space at the Alameda Towne Center.

Dion’s audience was made up largely of shoppers who encountered the work unplanned. “Some people donated one can, some people gave whole bags of groceries; either way, they took home an object to use in their kitchen that reflected their own generosity and reminded them daily of what they’d been willing to give. So we were kind of testing people’s charity,” he recalls.

While not every exchange was “equal,” he saw a number of participants who became inspired by the offer of a free, handmade object and who gave a great deal of food once given the prompt. “The daily filling and emptying of the porcelain can is what I hope will inspire continual efforts to reach out to [hungry] community members,” he says.  

Jay Dion. Untitled (Cans), 2009; ceramics, wood; 8 x 8 ft. Courtesy of the Artist.

From Printmaking to Plating

Artist Miles Ake’s goals are aesthetic, but, like Dion, the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) student also wishes to affect larger food systems. One of the intentions behind his and fellow artist Keith Pasko’s underground dinners is to upset the traditional service-industry hierarchy. “We’re trying to neutralize the high and low between guests and the kitchen—trying to put everyone on the same plane and break up that binary,” he says.3

On an evening in early fall 2010, Ake was preparing to cook a five-course meal for a group in a small Dogpatch loft. In his prep area, with blue painters tape, he had affixed two copies of the evening’s menu—neatly printed on cream-colored paper and reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’ fat-smeared list, Food for Thought (1977).

Ake and co-chef/artist Keith Pasko bill their informal dinners as “part dinner party, part restaurante de puertas cerradas,” an in-house restaurant popular in South America. This night’s theme was barbeque, and the meal featured a course called “smoke,” made with a smoked scallop, carmelized cauliflower, sea urchin aioli, and pancetta powder. The “slow-and-low” dessert included gin-poached strawberries, juniper custard, and licorice streusel.

Though Ake has worked in kitchens for a living, he isn’t cooking for money these days. (His and Pasko’s meals cost less than the average underground dinner, and the hosts generally break even.) He cooks now because each meal poses a conceptual challenge and gives him room to explore a theme. For example, an early dinner was called Temperature and included “133-degree short rib” and “a 148-degree egg.”

Although these events allude to artworks, Ake does not consider them pieces of art themselves. “I don’t like to frame it like this is a [art] piece,” he says. But is his position an objective assessment or a reflection of his resistance to formalizing the difference between cooking and art making? He’s willing to acknowledge the similarities between the two, comparing the act of preparing and plating each meal to the printmaking process. “I do think of these dinners as editions, and the plates are multiples,” he admits.

Jay Dion. Untitled (Cans), 2009; ceramics, wood, canned goods; 8 x 8 ft. Courtesy of the Artist.

Culinary Crossover

While Ake and other artists are concerned with the inequalities of the service industry (perhaps a result of so many artists’ working in restaurants to support their art), the restaurant world is increasingly taking its cues from the art world.

“I think restaurants are borrowing more from art than they may recognize,” says Purves. “Most of these restaurants rely heavily on narratives—like you may know something about the chef’s story or that they may keep their own chickens in the back. That can really help shape an interest in the business.”

Perhaps the best example of food professionals who are also artists are White and Waag of OPENrestaurant. Like artists, chefs are inherently interested in playing with social structures, says White. Parallel to his and Waag’s desire to change restaurants, the two also want to disrupt the traditional artist-audience divide. By displacing the restaurant and re-building it in an art space, White says, OPENrestaurant hopes to “create an environment that will pull latent creativity out of our audience—and reject the notion that artists are this very specialized group of people.”

Of course, there are many ways to push the boundaries between artist and cook, or artist and eater. Recently Purves and Cockrell asked friends and neighbors to contribute canned goods to a collective art and community space that would utilize them at events throughout the year. Each participant was told to label the food with an anecdote or detail about collecting or canning it. This might sound similar to their other projects, but there’s one key difference: this isn’t an art project. “Obviously the canned fruit isn’t going to be a work of art,” says Purves, “but the narrative might turn into something that creates unintended consequences.” It was a modest way to play with an old form, but that didn’t keep it from landing safely in the gray area between art and food.

On the larger urge on the part of artists and chefs to blur the boundaries between their worlds, Purves says: “It’s great to sit down and eat a good meal, but sometimes that meal also gets spun so that it becomes something else—because an artist has infected it with meaning—and I think that’s always the mission of art when it attaches itself to this stuff. To create extra.”



Ed. Note: For more on OPENwater, see “OPENwater,” in this issue. For more on Leah Rosenberg, see “18 Reasons: Conversation with Rosie Branson Gill and Leah Rosenberg,” in this issue.



  1. Lewis Hyde’s 1983 book, The Gift, outlines the elements of the gift economy.
  2. For more on statistics on U.S. food security, see “Food Security in the United States,” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
  3. For more contemporary examples of an artist making work inspired by the service industry, see Service Works, by Josh Greene. 

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