A few weeks ago, I sat myself down at a table full of strangers and donned a crepe-paper mask for a fifteen course dinner I would never get to see. I’d pick up a small dish, pop it into my mouth, and try to decipher just what exactly I’d eaten, before the server would whisk away my now empty cup. This was “Blind Tasting Bingo.” And I’m proud to say I was one of the evening’s winners, though I’ll admit I missed a few curveballs (deep fried dried chiles!).

Photo: Shawn Linehan

First organized for last year’s Time-Based Art Festival by Lola Milholland of Edible Portland magazine and Jeanne Kubal of Ecotrust, the bingos invited some of Portland’s more interesting chefs to challenge eaters with unexpected flavors and sensations. The point—as wonderful as the food was from each of the chefs—wasn’t to savor a decadent meal, but rather to think differently about how we eat and consider how our experience shifts when we change the rules of engagement. And it got me thinking about some of the artists who’ve brought food on stage and into the gallery, and how this simple act can change the rules dictating our usual experience of art.

Tunisian-born choreographer Radhouane el Meddeb brings tradition and cooking into his quite literally named performance, Je danse et je vous en donne à bouffer. His dance lasts as long as it takes for him to prepare a meal of couscous and lamb, which introduces new senses to our experience of a dance (smell and taste). By making food for the audience, he literally acts as host, giving a deep sense of his personal history and welcoming them into the space of the performance. His actions complicate the standard “contract” between artist and audience—el Meddeb steps over these protocols to push theater-goers beyond passive, visual reception. And he does so in a generous way.

One of the more famous food/art interventions was enacted by the Thai-Argentinian artist Rirkrit Tiravanija in New York’s 303 Gallery in 1991. Untitled (free) saw the artist transform the gallery office into a crude kitchen, where he served up rice and curry, for free, to daily visitors. In the moment, his piece challenged how people interacted with a commercial gallery; much like el Meddeb’s couscous on stage, it made the entire experience more casual and welcoming. It’s become such an iconic project that Tiravanija has re-created the exact piece (right down to roughly-hewn framed-out walls in the dimensions of the original gallery) at MoMA, somewhat erasing the informality and transgression of the original piece, turning it into a ticketed spectacle.

Decades earlier, and more utopian in scope, the artists Gordon Matta Clark and Carol Goodden took over a defunct Puerto Rican restaurant in 1971 as the home for their artist cafe FOOD. For nearly three years, they employed a rotating cast of modern dancers and luminary artists (Cage & Rauschenberg among them) to cook an ambitious and flexible (and sometimes inedible) menu. But rather than changing the art scene with the injection of food, the artists broke down the strictures of fine dining by reviewing it through the lens of art. Their project presaged many counter-culture restaurant icons (Chez Panisse among them), and brought the idea of a “perpetual dinner party” into the more formalized space of a restaurant, while also supporting low-income artists with a communal act of food-based charity.

You can watch Matta Clark’s FOOD documentary in its entirety on UbuWeb.
Or download the FOOD catalog from White Column’s 2000 retrospective exhibit.

And now today, in Pittsburgh, a small takeout window on East Liberty Avenue beckons hungry passerby to order from Conflict Kitchen. Every six months, the entire restaurant changes its storefront and simple menu to highlight the cuisine of a country with which the US is currently in conflict. They’ve featured Cuban, Venezuelan, Iranian, and Afghan foods, wrapped in specially-designed papers featuring interviews and quotes from regular citizens and immigrants from these countries. Acknowledging how food can be an entry point to experiencing another culture, Conflict Kitchen attempts to provide an alternative perspective on these maligned nations, in contrast to the dominant media rhetoric we usually witness.

Through Conflict Kitchen, artistic practice is used to draw out the ways in which food can be weighted with heavy political significance. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan wrote:

“Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it.”

While many of us don’t pause to consider the daily symbolic potency of our eating, when food collides with art, it shines a light on the intersections of daily life and political meaning. Art can strip away the layers of commerce and transaction and etiquette in every meal, but food can have a similarly interesting effect on our engagement with capital-a Art, exposing the many power structures at play in galleries, museums, and ticketed performances.