Everything I need to grow I learned in Kinder/Garden

Posted on October 1st, 2010

Every day of the festival when I arrived at the gallery, after plugging my computer in and dropping everything off at my couch-station in the reception area, the first thing I would do is check in on the performances in the gallery spaces. First I would look into the black rice bowl of Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s Hourglass performance to see how much work had been done since I was last there.

For the first few days, I was quite distraught at how slowly the work was going; it always looked like a few dozen grains had been completed but no more. Finally by the last couple of days of work, I could see that the grains of rice had started to pile on top of one another – she was far from covering the bottom of the bowl, but the bowl was also far from empty. The work pretty much went, in this way for the first few days, exactly as expected: a futile task earnestly undertaken, seeming never to get anywhere even as the artist spent whole days working.

As the week wore on, Chun Hua Catherine seemed to be in the gallery less and less, though I know that she was always working the appointed hours; the reason she seemed to be working less is that random people were working more and more – somehow this work had compelled people to come and paint even when the artist was not there – even when the gallery was closed. Catherine and I had a brief conversation about this. She told me that in her mind, the most successful performance is one where there is no performer at all. She was pleased and surprised at how this performance played out, that people were compelled to assist – to perform the work – even in her absence. I agree with her, and I think this project will give her a lot to think about in her broader practice, in ways that she may not have expected.

The second thing I did every day was to spend time in the Culinary Cultures in the Kinder/Garden space, to see what was new and what sort of experiments would be going on that day. Alison Reiko Loader (and, when she arrived a couple days later, Kelly Andres) worked all day every day in the space, and quite the opposite to Chun Hua’s performance which seemed never to progress, their space was constantly evolving, changing, and – ahem – growing.

- - Alison gets some help from Rob installing the kitchen lab - -

The base of their kitchen lab space appeared both sterile and fertile, cold and warm, and seemed at first to belong to a field known in contemporary cooking circles as molecular gastronomy. Fermentation, bacterial culture, growing things – biology and science in general have always been there in the kitchen, but it’s gotten really trendy over the last few years.

Upon reflection, however, considering the artists’ extremely loose adherence to any sort of real science (seeming to prefer merely the appearance of or reference to science) and their lack of devotion to the culinary arts as well, I coined a new term for the genre Alison and Kelly were working within: the field of science-kitchen/fantasy. Not only was their scientific method as employed in the gallery space completely spurious, but their end products were largely inedible, or at least not specifically designed to be all that tasty.  Yet there they were in their kitchen lab every day, earnestly slaving away over a hot hotplate, dissolving agar, culturing yogurt, grinding plant matter down and turning it into something new.

So if not chefs, if not true chemists, biologists, botanists – who are these women? Why, in true science-kitchen form, they are mad scientists, of course! They are the culture-mothers of the future, growing babies and food and artistic decoration. One day, these women may indeed grow the very building-blocks of our civilization!

Well, maybe not exactly. But my point is that what was happening in Culinary Cultures in the Kinder/Garden was a fiction, a fantasy – a generative project whose fruits were extraordinary imaginings meant to stimulate dialogue about what could be.

One night Alison and I were hanging around talking about the festival thematic. I know I already mentioned in the blog how strange I thought it was when I got here and found out that there was no body diversity art on the schedule, no “fat” art, but when I said this to her, she said that SHE had thought exactly the same thing – but about how odd it was that there was no performance in this food-themed festival that took on themes of sustainability, urban gardening, genetic modification or things like that. Themes which to her seemed like no-brainers. Huge issues in the world of food. Huge issues for artists and activists, and ripe territory for exploration. It made me realize just how vast the world of “food” is, how connected it is to all aspects of our lives and our world. In a festival whose theme is so bread and multi-dimensional, I guess it’s probably next to impossible to touch on all the various performative practices that engage the theme, topic, medium and inspiration of food.

That said, I think Alison was a bit off the mark – there was a project dealing with the themes that she was interested in – it was her own! She and Kelly were the representatives of art addressing food safety and sustainability, of genetic engineering and of the future of food. They may have presented the only work on those topics, but they addressed them simultaneously from many angles, for there were several different things going on in the space at once:

There were documents and artifacts from one of Alison Reiko Loader’s projects, Kinder/Garden. In this project the artist aimed to control and manipulate living things through mechanical means, to make it resemble another living thing. Specifically, she forced plants to grow their vegetables in the shape of human fetuses. This project in particular lent much of the “creepiness” factor to the artists’ installation and performance. There were pickled babies in glass jars on plinths in the space, and a fresh baby tomato still on the vine.

Kelly’s own work seemed to have influenced much of the active work in the space, or the performance activity carried out by the artists – the agar molds seemed to stem directly from her own practice, and the “doughbie” I adopted was one of Kelly’s ideas – but the crazy frankensteinian nature of the project is wholly the realm of the two artists together, and the cobbling of 2 disparate practices only adds to that “frakensteined” feeling. Besides photos, pickled babies, and an active kitchen/laboratory with live plants, scientific tools and kitchen appliances, there were also video projections displaying animated microscopic views of plant matter and bacteria. The close-up speedy microscopic views in the projections as well as the time-lapse shots of plant growth which came from work the artists did together in the Concordia University Greenhouse referenced time travel, further lending an air of mad science-kitchen fantasy to the space, though because it wasn’t a dark space (the work was installed beside a large sunny bank of windows), it came across less as “spooky evil” mad science and more like slightly bent optimistic futuristic fantasy utopia. Maybe a creepy sex utopia, though; the videos also showed the artists carrying out hand pollination, or what Kelly describes as “aid(ing) the plants in their reproductive functions in an environment where they lack symbiotic counterparts such as pollinators or exposure to rain and other beneficial nutrients.”  If Alison’s images and objects provided much of the madness-feeling of this pairing, Kelly’s text (available on her website) and her descriptions of her research provided the science-feeling:

“Darwin was incredibly perceptive and diligent in his observations and I feel it is necessary for my own process to begin to understand his methods to some extent. I am interested in learning and sharing an altered perspective, to begin to unfold my own understanding of the complex relationships to other species so that a possible shift in perception may be possible and furthermore, in an attempt to displace the naturalization of other non-human organisms.” 

Talking with Alison about the experience of the festival, it sounds like this project has been a transformative thing for the artists – putting together their projects has made a mix of “cultures” greater than the sum of its parts. Since this was the first chance the artists had concentrated time to work together, rather than a performance, this project ended up being like a residency, and it allowed them to workshop their ideas and prototype. Visualeyez gave the artists the time to talk and actually work together, figuring out what might come next.

I loved being able to be a part of the project in the most intimate of ways – I examined the plant fetuses, sniffed the vinegar mother. I sampled the agar delicacies, tested the creamy cultured treats, and I adopted a bread dough baby to “raise” as my own, eventually baking it and sharing it with the artists and visitors to the performance. (My partner Megan has begged me not to talk about the dough baby again in this blog; that’s a pretty strong sign that it’s evoking potent imagery!) Through the work I was encouraged to slow down, to interact with the work and with the artists consciously.  Both artists have talked about becoming more like plants (becoming more patient, moving more like plants), and making plants more like people (making them look like people, observing them in ways that are analogous to our human experience). The artists wanted people to become more conscious of growth in all its forms, more respectful of life in all its forms, more in awe of life in its most tiny incarnations. I was being gently prodded to reconsider the nature of life and the nature of culture, and therefore to reconsider the nature of performance.

- - Kelly Andres helps fit Jamie Hamaguchi in his new doughbie sling! - -