1.11 / Review

Book Review: Recipes for an Encounter

By Dena Beard March 24, 2010

Encounter, intervention, participation—these are three of the many buzzwords that have been used since the 1990s to describe artistic practices that create tools or develop actions to facilitate social engagement. As both a critical text and an artistic project, Recipes for an Encounter is certainly an offshoot of this milieu. Editors Marisa Jahn, Candice Hopkins, and Berin Golonu focus on the potential of the recipe as a model for art activism, one that encompasses facets of utopian strategy, information organization, and poetry. The term recipe has feminine connotations as well, and the editors immediately imbue this model with a radical feminism by calling forward the disruptive precedent of the Anarchist Cookbook (1971) and the de-sissified vehicles of choreography, fashion, and, of course, cooking.

Developed out of the 2008 exhibition “Kits for an Encounter” at Western Front organized by Jahn and Hopkins, Recipes enlists the help of Golonu to refashion the concept in book form. Although I can’t speak to the exhibition, the book is relevant: theoretical texts often dilute conversations about radical actions from an artistic standpoint. Recipes, however, is like Guy Debord masquerading as Julia Child, or vice versa; its friendly instructions undermine elitist tropes, embracing the occurrence of a happy accident while maintaining a healthy distrust of empty gestures. In our over-branded society it’s increasingly difficult to trust terms when they are imparted redundantly—like an incantation that reeks of insincerity. Buzzwords tend to dilute in impact with increased use. Perhaps for this reason, Recipes’ chapter headings, each containing a repetitive insistence of the “encounter,” has little resonance as a framework. Instead, the radical narrative seems to lie between the introduction’s call for a “tactical reordering of ingredients” and the artists’ projects themselves, which rely on the reader to participate in their completion.

Two projects in Recipes illustrate the potentials of feminist re-coding. Francisco J. Ricardo’s description of ELIZA, a computer program developed between 1964 and 1966 that features the first seemingly female chatterbot, is an intriguing commentary on the conservative nature of software programs that presume to facilitate interpersonal exchange. Timely in the wake of social networking, Ricardo dissects ELIZA’s code and finds a misogynistic fear of social transformation buried within the software’s predictive language. Undermining the pervasiveness of this very same misogyny, Recipes recounts how Janice Kerbel exhaustively surveyed the inner workings of a London bank in preparation for an elaborate heist. Passing unnoticed for two years by security personnel, Kerbel’s project, Bank Job (1999), prefigures the heist and inserts a female interlocutor into the playing field. Both of these outline social experiments, whether successful or not, that test the boundaries of female identity and pressure the status quo.

The 09 F9 Archive (2007), compiled by Kristina Lee Podesva and Alan McConchie, makes visible popular resistance methods to digital encryption. Skirting a legal mandate, the alphanumeric “unlock” code for HD DVDs was made available online, embedded in photographs, mp3s, videos, HTML color fields, and other aesthetic forms that evaded web searches. Recipes points out that the Center for Tactical Magic also adopts this strategy of circumvention in a project that licenses the reader to co-opt spaces relegated to schools, corporations, governments, or other powerful agencies. Impersonating the voice of authority, this recipe uses

Jahn, Marisa, Candice Hopkins, and Berin Golonu, eds. Recipes for an Encounter. Vancouver: Western Front & REV-, 2009.

incendiary signs sanctioned with institutional logos, posting responses to this threat on institutional letterhead, and convening town hall meetings on institutional premises. Instructions state, “The following sequence of actions also serves as a general spell for revealing that ‘authority’ is a subjective force, and victory is awarded to those who play the ‘Sign Game’ best.” [1] Spelled out so simply, it seems thoroughly possible that seemingly benign actions—like posting “hacktivist” code and co-opting letterhead—can incite popular resistance to dominant power structures.

Recently, books such as Nato Thompson and Greg Sholette’s The Interventionists (MIT Press, 2004) and Creative Time’s Who Cares (Creative Time, 2006) rise to the challenges of socially engaged practices, functioning as dialogues and tool kits in their own right. Recipes for an Encounter continues in this exercise, enabling a contingent of artists whose work naturally exists in the public realm rather than in the gallery or museum complex. Critically, at the end of the introduction, the editors embrace the inherent discord of art activism, quoting Chantal Mouffe’s The Return of the Political: “Instead of shying away from the component of violence and hostility inherent in social relations, the task is to think how to create the conditions under which those aggressive forces can be diffused and diverted and a pluralist democratic order made possible.” [2] Testing the recipes of a variety of artistic experiments, Recipes for an Encounter preempts certain failures and posits the possibility for success; the book paradoxically leads us away from the happy, harmonious promise of “encounters” and toward a more aggressive type of questioning essential to artists within a democratic society. Appropriately disruptive, Recipes ends with Jamie O’Shea’s exact and apt instructions, adapted from the Anarchistic Cookbook, on how to blow the book up upon completion.

 

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NOTES:

[1] Aaron Gach (Center for Tactical Magic), quoted in Jahn, Marisa, Candice Hopkins, and Berin Golonu, eds. Recipes for an Encounter (Vancouver: Western Front & REV-, 2009), 146.
[2] Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London, New York: Verso, 2005), 153, quoted in Recipes for an Encounter, 28.

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