2.5 / Review


By Brian Andrews November 15, 2010

On the weekend of November 13 and 14, a cabal of chefs, scientists, artists, and aesthetes gathered to find connections between their disparate fields as their interests overlapped within the tidelands of the San Francisco Bay. The event was OPENwater, the most recent incarnation of OPENrestaurant, a collaboration of restaurant professionals Stacie Pierce, Jerome Waag, and Sam White, all of Chez Panisse. In collaboration with SFMOMA, the OPENresturant projects endeavor to bring cooking and its associated local environmental concerns into art spaces in order to invite a shift in the language and meanings surrounding their gustatory preparations.

The two days of activity were held at St. George Spirits’ distillery, on the grounds of the former Alameda Naval Air Station. It is impossible to separate the visual presence of OPENwater from the impressive magnitude of St. Georges’ architecture, which is situated in a former aircraft hangar. The landscape is one of contrasts, a wasteland of concrete and weeds subsumed by the skylines of the port of Oakland and the city of San Francisco, and populated by vaguely Art Deco military architecture abandoned under a glowing California sky. St. Georges’ interior is composed of a well-appointed retro-military chic. The distillery’s production floor—which OPENwater converted into an art gallery, lecture hall, and restaurant without walls—houses a breathtaking array of copper stills installed on a raised platform fit for a mad scientist. 

The artwork and public presentations at OPENwater were curated by the trio Amanda Eicher, Rosie Branson Gill, and Valerie Imus. Underneath the stills was TheTank, a conversation and presentation space created by the Perish Trust that was ringed by numerous artworks. Activities in TheTank ranged from classes on salt preservation, conversations on cartography, and curator-led poker games. Most notable were a series of living installations by microbiologist and artist Denise King. Phytoplankton Bloom: Isochrysis, Nannochloropsis, Desmodesmus, Tetraselmis are self-sustaining biomes of algae drifting in a chandelier of cylindrical tanks.

Cured, Curated, Preserved, a roundtable conversation held on Saturday evening, featured a broad diversity of institutions and fields of study, including BAM/PFA MATRIX Curatorial Associate Dena Beard; Exploratorium Living Systems associate curator Jennifer Frazier; Oakland Museum of California Aquatic Biology associate curator Christopher Richard; Bay Institute hydrogeographer Peter Vorster; and Bi-Rite Market food preservation specialist Morgan Maki. This diverse panel was convened to bridge connections between these disparate fields, beginning with the etymology of “curate,” which comes from the Latin cūrātus—“to care.” Yet, there was a missed opportunity to engage these issues with the arts, as Beard, the art community’s representative, neglected to present any artists or artwork specifically. Unlike the content given by the rest of the panel, she only addressed the topic in a generalized overview. The audience may have benefited from an informed context for artworks that entwine the culinary and scientific issues under discussion.

Denise King. Phytoplankton Bloom: Isochrysis, Nannochloropsis, Desmodesmus, Tetraselmis, 2010; installation view, OPENwater. Photo: Stephanie Perez.
Briny consommé of Pacific seafood and seaweed simmering in a boat at OPENwater. Photo: Stephanie Perez.

The climax of Saturday’s events was a dinner themed around Northern California’s hydrologic cycle. The feast began with a divine amuse-bouche of sea urchin roe on toast with pickled fennel, the texture and aroma of which evoked the smooth cusp of a rose petal. A briny consommé of local seaweed, fish, mussels, and roe aggressively met the palette with the flavors of an estuary. The main course, a hearty risotto of duck, was sourced with rice and waterfowl from the Central Valley. The meat was deftly cooked with delightful components of squash and duck liver in the liquid. A communal salad of mixed cress with watermelon radish was snapped up by the table of diners, perhaps due to the liberal quantities of one of the hydrological cycle’s key components—salt. Completing the cycle was a lackluster buckwheat crepe with Sacramento River delta pears and a huckleberry sauce.

During the dinner service, a series of artist videos, featuring works by Christina McPhee, Martin Machado, and others, was screened over the diners—a  gesture reminiscent of the atmosphere of Foreign Cinema, the San Francisco theater restaurant. Unfortunately, the videos’ audio tracks were replaced with a soundscape of storms and rain. The acoustics cultivated a compelling environment for dining, but ultimately did a disservice to the artists, whose works were screened in a crippled form, stripping away their merits in favor of multimedia restaurant décor. Though most of the decisions that obscured the artwork in OPENwater were probably well-intentioned, arising from the collective production of a restaurant, as opposed to any deliberate obfuscation, it would have been more meaningful to have their intents ring clearly amidst the din of the collaboration—much like the taste of the pickled fennel.



OPENwater was held at St. George Spirits, in Alameda, on November 13 and 14, 2010.

CORRECTION: Initially, this article included Chris Sollars in the list of artists whose videos were screened over dinner on Saturday. His work was screened on Sunday evening. Additionally, the video sequences Sollars compiled and edited did not have a soundtrack; they were mixed to a live score by James Goode and Becky White.

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