Edible Ecologies and Industrial Food
EdibleEcologies is a series of social sculptures that remediate a cultural memory disorder that we call “industrial amnesia.” Through a series of participatory happenings and performances, EdibleEcologies revives endangered food practices, saving them from extinction and remixing them for the future. Unlike industrial, government, and media “experts” that generate endless advice telling people how easy it is to eat healthfully, treating the public as a collection of passive consumers, EdibleEcologies deploys participatory performance’s unique qualities to resuscitate an ethic of democratic experimentation and open-ended, multispecies collaboration. In four integrated happenings and performances, historic and future food practices are brought into poetic visibility, new forms of feeling-perception, and simple everyday acts.
This past winter, we were artists in residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts for three months, just a few blocks from ConAgra’s headquarters in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, and just miles from its factory hog farms scattered across the state. On many days, dog-walking and exercise led us to the Big Ag corporation’s nature park, which is situated atop what was once Omaha’s historic Jobbers Canyon district. While we were careful to heed the park’s signage reminding passersby to not disturb ConAgra’s wild plantings along the pond, our minds were distracted by dozens of American flags waving from light posts and by signs advertising ConAgra’s most well-known brands: Peter Pan, PAM, Jiffy Pop, Hunt’s, Swiss Miss, Kid Cuisine, Blue Bonnet, Wesson. As we explored this private park opened to the public after ConAgra razed a historic district, we could feel, on a much more visceral level than before, just how much industrial food was reshaping the ecosystem of the human body, intimately intertwining with our species’ needs and pleasures, redefining standards of public health, while mistreating animals, polluting rural landscapes, annihilating microbial life-forms, and turning food biodiversity into shelf-stable, pasteurized, irradiated, and culturally dead “Foods You Love” and “Brands You Trust.”
OS Fermentation Salon Series
We conducted our first EdibleEcologies performance, titled OS Fermentation, at the Bemis Center. OS Fermentation is a slow-cooking class, a healing ritual, an environmental artwork, and a spiritual revival of human-microbial collaborations. At each meeting of the four-part salon series, we worked with the public to revive the ancient practice of fermentation as an alternative to industrial processes of food preservation, such as refrigeration, irradiation, and pasteurization. By working with the medium of fermentation, we are continuing our long practice of creating environmental artworks: fermentation enables us to create, with the public, a relationship to the internal ecosystem, or microbiome, of the human gut, inhabited by hundreds of trillions of bacteria. It also allows us to engage in a performative exploration of modernization, its regimes of purity, cleanliness, and sterilization, and its creation of a “hyperhygienic social order,” as Heather Paxson calls it.
The first meeting was a reading group about microbiology, public health, the industrial food system, and the modernist declaration of war on bacteria. The reading we chose was the EARTH chapter from Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked. Although we don’t subscribe to the popular veneration of Pollan as expert on all things food-related—we are uncomfortable with his failure to interrogate neoliberalism and his application of social Darwinism to factory farmed animals—this particular chapter is an entertaining and popular read for members of the general public, many of whom have never read cultural criticism about food, modernity, and biology before. During the discussion, we served our signature live-culture, homemade, non-industrial, non-standardized, non-conventional acclaimed fermented beverages, including Coffee Banana Hard Cider, Strawberry Matcha Wine, and Blueberry Chocolate Kombucha.
Besides generating public dialogue about industrial food, we are motivated by the desire to bring the proprietary, expensive academic education we provide to our university students into the public sphere.
The second salon involved a hands-on fermentation workshop for making veggie krauts, hard cider, and honey-wine, reviving the ancient process of microbiological fermentation that provided our ancestors with a reliable method of food preservation as well as regular source of diverse intestinal flora. Fermentation-based preservation is a process of carefully managed decomposition and death. It is a wild, unpredictable, playful collaboration between species to create living yet long-lasting food. It is a scientific experiment (and bio-art) taking place in the kitchen with an apron instead of a laboratory with a lab coat. Fermentation is a skill being lost in our industrial food society, which has positioned eaters as passive consumers rather than participants while declaring war on all bacteria, including those that support our health, through processes of sterilization and pasteurization. Each jar of fermented veggies taken home by participants was its own unfolding, unfinished, interactive artwork, part of a future meal that will boost digestion and immunity, and a viral performance of food independence in a time when diet, nutrition, and humanity’s relationships with edible substances have been industrialized.
At the last OS Fermentation meeting, a tasting party took place, and participants enjoyed their creations in a communal setting, affectively enjoying the collaborative habitats they created for both microbes and for humans.
The gallery installation that accompanied our performances included chalkboard notes made by participants during the reading and discussion group and digital prints of microbial “selfies.” The selfies are created by custom electronics and software that allow microbes to take their own “selfies” and add image manipulation effects to their images based on the shifting pH levels, oxygen, and color values of the fermentation process. (Prints can be purchased through our website.)
Art, Affect, and EdibleEcologies
Like all EdibleEcologies projects, OS Fermentation positions art as an urgent and necessary intervention operating between utility and imagination. Its objective is not to propose specific solutions to the global environmental health crisis—even when an ostensible solution, such as fermentation, seems to be suggested. Rather, OS Fermentation uses fermentation as a medium for aesthetic experiences bringing the in-articulable complexity of contemporary food into the realm of psychic unsettling and creative stimulus, asking and inspiring questions that industry, science, analysis, and entertainment media cannot. To put this in the language of recent critical theory trends: EdibleEcologies is not effective; it is affective.
Unpredictability, experimentation, collaboration, spontaneity, interactivity, wildness: fermentation and contemporary performance share the same essential qualities, and these happen to be the same capabilities so needed in our current food crisis. By recovering historic food practices and breaking through the cacophony of food misinformation that constructs eating as a passive consumer act, the Edible Ecologies performances revive and remix creative ways of participating with our own healing and sustenance. Like social-sculptor Joseph Beuys, we see ourselves as both artists and healers facilitating the healing of modern bodies and the recovery of memory for modern minds, working collaboratively with participants to reimagine, as Beuys said, “how we mold our thoughts or how we shape our thoughts into words or how we mold and shape the world in which we live.” We believe art can help people navigate the contemporary food crisis, which we see as a crisis of memory and imagination caused by the industrialization of food.
At the ASLE 2015 Conference in Moscow, Idaho
Leila and Cary will be presenting their work at the ASLE Biennial Conference in Moscow, Idaho—at the Prichard Gallery during the Progressive Party, and as part of the “Unruly Cabinets of Wonders: Multispecies Catalogues & Edible Cultures” panel co-organized by Allison Carruth and Heather Houser, in the Borah Theatre.
Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint have been working together for over a decade to explore evolutions of food, ecology, media, and memory. Working simultaneously as artists, teachers, and critics, and sometimes known as EcoArtTech, they create participatory situations and social sculptures that facilitate recovery from a cultural memory disorder that they call “industrial amnesia.” Through open-ended, experimental collaborations with the public, their projects bring endangered food and environmental practices into poetic visibility, feeling-perception, and the simple acts of everyday life. Their work has taken form as architectural interventions and urban wilderness tours, internet art and public performances, scholarly articles and poetic essays. Leila and Cary have earned support from Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Center for Land Use Interpretation, New York Foundation for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, K2 Family Foundation, Culture Push, Franklin Furnace Fund, and numerous academic fellowships.
Leila Nadir is an Afghan-American critic, scholar, artist, and creative writer, and teaches environmental humanities courses in the Sustainability and Digital Media Studies programs at the University of Rochester. She earned her PhD in English from Columbia University in 2009, where she studied environmental thought and literature, and was Andrew Mellon Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow of Environmental Humanities at Wellesley College in 2010-2011. Cary Peppermint’s solo art performances were some of the first to examine the effect of online spaces on the ways we imagine the environment, and his internet art was described by Artforum as “twenty-first-century takes on Warhol’s Factory.” He is currently Assistant Professor of Digital Art at University of Rochester.