2.5 / Review

Introduction: The Food Issue

By Victoria Gannon November 18, 2010

Food is on our collective mind. We are concerned with its production, charmed by its producers, and taken with its presentation. Although eating has become a daily challenge for the fifty million people in the United States living in food insecure households, food has become an ideal, even an expression of cultural yearning for many educated urban professionals and cultural producers (of whom the San Francisco Bay Area has no short supply).1

While political awareness surely motivates our regional embrace of all things local, organic, and humanely produced, less explicit motives must also be at play. A desire for the tangible—inspired by our all-consuming virtual lives—manifests itself in slow food, homemade bitters, and home-pickled sauerkraut. As technology progresses, we look backward, embracing backyard chicken coops and a mode of food production many of our immediate ancestors willingly left behind. While globalization continues to obscure origins and blur boundaries, we seek to delineate the local by eating beets grown down the street, butter churned five miles away, and nettles foraged from the parking lot next door. The Bay Area, home to year-round locally grown produce, a thriving restaurant scene, chef Alice Waters, and writer Michael Pollan, is a prominent, even pioneering voice in this culinary movement. As though proof of this, the third annual food issue of the New York Times magazine, published October 10, 2010, focused on the Bay Area more than on any other region in the country (except for New York).

For our second thematic issue, Art Practical has departed from its traditional format to consider local artistic practices in the context of this regional preoccupation. Motivated by a strong curiosity and an awareness of the increased presence of food being used in artistic contexts, we began our research. Months later, we share our observations here.

Our writers and editors have discovered several things during their investigations. We’ve noted that the local popularity of relational aesthetics has translated into a large number of Bay Area artists’ using food for its ability to impose structure on social artworks. Many are revolting against an increasingly industrialized food system by creating communal projects whose goals are utilitarian, activist, and aesthetic. Local artists and chefs, respectively rooted in traditions of conceptual art and culinary experimentation, are increasingly collaborating to create meals, projects, and food-art extravaganzas, which occupy an undefined region between art making and cooking. Looking to Fluxus and the conceptual art of the ’70s, we established a historical context for this current crop of work. Looking deeper, we have pointed to the philosophical work of Hegel and Descartes to underscore how the senses of taste and smell were historically excluded from the aesthetic realm.

Gathered together, these articles paint an image of disciplinary evolution and transgression. Certain names and projects appear throughout this issue: OPENrestaurant, Jerome Waag, Gordon Matta-Clark, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Temescal Amity Works, Leah Rosenberg, and 18 Reasons, among others. Such overlaps are intentional and inevitable, and we encourage readers to draw connections among the various texts. Though the contributing writers share a broad subject matter—food and art—they are unique in their approaches to it.

In our first feature, “Serving, Cooking, Giving It Away: Food, Art, and the Places in Between,” Twilight Greenaway speaks with chefs and artists to learn why they have turned to food and to each other. Greenaway, who writes for the Center for Urban Education on Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), situates artistic practices involving free food within the broader context of food security. She writes, “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.”

Andy Warhol. Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962; synthetic polymer paint on thirty-two canvases; each canvas 20 x 16 in. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Laura Parker. Taste of Place, 2001–ongoing. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: David Matheson.

In our second feature, “Farm Fresh Art: Food, Art, Politics, and the Blossoming of Social Practice,” artist, curator, and art historian Liena Vayzman investigates recent artist’s projects involving food and gardening. Vayzman notes the communal nature of many of these works, which routinely engage with both social and aesthetic objectives, and writes, “Artists, fully empowered by postmodernism and historical precedents in performance and conceptual art to transgress boundaries of discipline, come to function as key contributors” to the food justice movement and its surrounding dialogues.

The eight articles that follow have multiple affinities with one another, though they are organized here to emphasize particular relationships.

Christian L. Frock’s “In Defense of Food: Recent Explorations in Contemporary Art,” and Art Practical’s interview with art historian and writer Terri Cohn both reflect on artworks from the past fifty years. Frock’s timeline of food-related art projects emphasizes the writer and curator’s interest in projects that actively interface with the public; Cohn discusses the work of Alison Knowles and other artists as she stresses the importance of the artist’s intention in conceptual and socially engaged art.

The power of the senses is the common theme in Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik’s “The Other Senses” and Jeanne Gerrity’s “Time and Decay in Jen Susman’s Recent Work.” Bhaumik, whose work as an artist is also discussed in this issue, draws parallels between the marginalization of particular senses and racialized Otherness, and investigates contemporary artists who engage with this paradigm. Susman, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, creates food-based installations that disturb the normally pristine gallery space. Case in point: her ice-cream sculpture that left a sticky puddle on the floor of the Silverman Gallery this past summer as part of the gallery’s Food for Thought exhibition.

The next three articles address the ambiguous territory between cooking and art making. Bean Gilsdorf interviews curator Rosie Branson Gill of 18 Reasons and artist Leah Rosenberg about the balance between these two activities in their programming and practice, respectively. Elyse Mallouk’s “The Dragon in the Room: Art, Eating, and the Aesthetics of Mission Street Food” approaches this commercial food-based project as an artwork, fully aware of the dissimilar lineages that make such a consideration potentially problematic. My article on Leif Hedendal’s Dinner Discussion approaches his dinner series both as an artwork and as a simple meal, and discusses the implications of those two perspectives.

We round things out with Brian Andrews' review of OPENrestaurant’s OPENwater, an interdisciplinary investigation of water politics, which took place Nov. 13 to 14, 2010. OPENrestaurant’s most recent event seems an appropriate place to pause our investigation. The shifting conglomerate of artists, chefs, and curators, responsible for staging aesthetically and socially conscious food-art spectacles, is a driving force in the Bay Area’s food-art community. In Greenaway’s feature, Jerome Waag, one of OPENrestaurant’s cofounders, proclaims, “The boundary between food and the art has now completely blurred.”

The writers of the articles here take Waag’s claim as their hypothesis. Their methodologies vary, and little consensus exists among their conclusions. We invite you, as readers, to draw your own.


  1. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSecurity/stats_graphs.htm#how_many

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