2.5 / Review

18 Reasons: A Conversation with Rosie Branson Gill and Leah Rosenberg

By Bean Gilsdorf November 14, 2010

Rosie Branson Gill is the acting program director of 18 Reasons, a nonprofit organization owned by Bi-Rite Market that engages “the community through food and art” by offering art openings in addition to farm-to-table dinners, classes, and workshops. Leah Rosenberg is an artist and baker whose solo exhibition, Time Will Tell, was on view at 18 Reasons from May 13 to June 30, 2010. She received her MFA from the California College of the Arts in 2008 and has been exploring the simultaneous presentation of traditional art media with food for the last few years. I sat down with Rosie and Leah on October 20, 2010, to discuss the correspondences between art, food, and social practice.1 The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

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Bean Gilsdorf: 18 Reasons’ website cites “art and food and community.” Could you talk about whom that community includes?

Rosie Branson Gill: Our community is evolving and changing. Currently, it’s a food-curious audience, and we’re reflecting now on how we can expand that. We don’t want segregated programming—“This is for the underserved, this is for children, this is arts programming.” We recognize that the same program can draw diverse audiences.

Audiences are more willing to engage here than in a white cube gallery. And I don’t want to be strident—it’s not “the gallery versus us”—but I do think that expectations change in an official art context. Questions such as “Can you touch it? What is edible? Is there a performance?” come up less here.

Leah Rosenberg: I don’t think that one is better than the other, but a venue becomes important when considering how serving food engages an audience in a different way.2 It’s different to bring a cake that matches my artwork into a white cube gallery space, because people don’t know how to interact with it. [18 Reasons] just seemed like the perfect venue where both of those things could co-exist.

BG: It’s interesting that you are talking about environment, because 18 Reasons could be a gallery, with its storefront, good location, and white walls—except that there’s a kitchen in the back.

RBG: In addition to Leah’s point that context shapes things, I think about the expectations of the audience within that context. If an audience at an opening is unfamiliar with 18 Reasons, they’ll treat it more like an art gallery. If the audience is familiar with 18 Reasons, they perceive the fluidity between one type of an event and another. We finally get beyond the idea that art happens between these hours, while food happens during these hours. Creativity gives us a bridge and makes those barriers unnecessary.

Leah Rosenberg. Time Will Tell, 2010 (detail). Courtesy of 18 Reasons, San Francisco. Photo: Blair Sneddon.
Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik. To Curry Favor: Scented Work on Paper by SITA KURATOMI BHAUMIK, 2010; installation view, 18 Reasons. Photo: Blair Sneddon.

LR: What’s really neat about this space is that there’s the opportunity for a more diverse audience to see the artwork.

RBG: We try to engage the artwork with the programming. For example, when Sita Bhaumik’s work was up, we had a dinner that was all about spices.3 In some ways, the artwork facilitates our mission—I know it is a huge taboo in the art world to say that art is a means to an end—but I am absolutely celebratory about the fact that the goals for our programming go beyond the disciplinary confines of a traditional art or food venue. I am all about public access. I want things to be as approachable as possible because my larger mission is getting people more engaged.  

BG: Rosie, it sounds like you’re interested in flexibility in these definitions, and that maybe you don’t care if people call it food or art. But, Leah, what happens for you when you bake a cake, take it to the gallery, and someone says, “That’s not art, that’s food”?

LR: I feel that I’ve always been interested in food—the process of making and serving something and the reactions I get when I do that. Being an artist means making something, too, and I see the similarities between those processes. In school, I was interested in making food—like baking a cake—as an extension of the artwork. I enjoy serving or offering something edible in conjunction with an artwork. It engages the audience in another way… I felt that one couldn’t stand without the other.

What I do is about pleasure. There’s an article by Richard Shusterman that I always return to, in which he says, “The most valuable of all the arts is the art of living well. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.”5 He also quotes Montaigne: “It takes management to enjoy life. I enjoy it twice as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends on the greater of lesser attention that we lend it.” I love the collision of the senses that happens when cake is served and it reflects the artwork. It induces a different kind of memory of the thing you’re looking at.

RBG: It’s about intent. An artist working with food can make the same thing as a professional chef, but the intent is very different.

BG: How does one go about making that intent evident and experienced in the event? That seems to be such a challenge.

RBG: I think it depends on how much the individual wants it to be clear that it is or isn’t an art action. That may not be as important to the people I encounter. The end result of eating and talking about ideas may be more important than being identified as the author or the artist. There’s a real generosity there, a humbling of their personality. They can say, “I’m clear on why I did this.” What’s most important is the event, the social practice/community building side of it. As a curator of these things, I’m learning to not worry about my authorship.

LR: What’s the audience’s responsibility in participating in that? If the dinner is organized, are they there to be a part of the piece? Perhaps a way to look at it is as a platform for making artwork accessible.

RBG: Food as an access point.

LR: That’s important when you talk about pleasure in life. Looking at art is a leisurely thing, which suggests having a good life. Nourishment is another pleasure in life, but it’s also necessary for survival.

RBG: We live in a world where there is less art all the time. If you want people to be interested in art, you have to give them an access point. Here, that’s often food.

Notes

  1. Victoria Gannon was also present for the interview.
  2. In addition to her exhibition, Rosenberg has participated in 18 Reasons’ Sandwich Series workshop.
  3. To Curry Favor: Scented Work on Paper by SITA KURATOMI BHAUMIK was on view at 18 Reasons from March 18-April 30, 2010.
  4. Richard Shusterman, “Come back to Pleasure,” Naked Punch.

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