Food Wars: Postmortem

Posted on October 2nd, 2010

A couple of days ago, Edmonton food blogger Sharon Yeo made a great post about Visualeyez on her blog Only Here for the Food.

It’s great to read a take on the festival from someone who’s connected to the food world more than the art world, and it’s nice to hear that she really got into the art!

She’s not the only foodie getting into Visualeyez this year; as Sharon notes, Carla from the Junction Bar and Eatery stopped by to take in Food Wars by Naufús Ramirez-Figueroa and Manolo Lugo, and was conscripted into service covering the Guatemalan cake with fondant.

- - Naufús Ramirez-Figueroa assembles his cake - -

Food Wars brought out the best – and worst – in Visualeyez’s audiences this year, provoking thoughtful conversation, enthusiastic over-indulgence, pleasant dinner company, and yes, voter misconduct.

The artists seemed to think it was just about the perfect ending to the performance, evoking memories of electoral fraud in Mexico and Guatemala’s histories. Personally, I think it was perfect because it highlighted the ridiculousness of the competition, of reality TV competitions and of the way political elections usually play out in general.

But I think that was sort of the point of Food Wars, anyway. Naufús, talking about how he came to this performance, said at the Feedback session that when he was a kid in school he used to dread the day when everyone had to bring a food from their culture, because no one would eat his “weird” Guatemalan food. Clearly, then, for Naufús, this performance is wrapped up in issues of cultural pride and maybe a teensy bit of inferiority complex? Naufús seemed to really embrace that ‘underdog’ role in this project, almost expecting to lose, and describing his food, in comparison to Manolo’s spicy Mexican cuisine, as “much more subtle.” Manolo admitted that he was originally self-conscious about the ‘didactic gesture’ of describing the food for the audience within the performative space, but that since this whole project was a spectacle, it was okay.

As a social experiment, Food Wars was especially curious. It’s clear that both artists were truly invested in the outcome of the performance, which is what made the project so potent – and the food so tasty! The competitive element of the performance was absolutely integral to its success, because it made the connection between the artists and audience real. The real emotions that drove the artists to cook the best meals of their lives definitely came through in the food, and also made the judging so difficult! Though audience members could admit that the competition was clearly an important element of the performance, still many people told me that they were reluctant to vote at all, as both meals were so good and clearly prepared with so much care that people were afraid of hurting either artist. That’s a first for me – an audience-voting mechanism that failed to work because people were afraid of hurt feelings – ?

So I guess the ballot-box stuffing could just as easily have been caused by a desire to simply spoil the results as for a desire to see one artist win over the other.

As the artists pointed out during their feedback session, wars have been fought over food, have been lost and won over food. This is something we hadn’t seen at Visualeyez: FOOD yet – a demonstration of the raw emotional power of food, both in the making and in the sharing. Maybe the audience didn’t want to have to decide who cooked the better meal, but they were more emotionally invested because of the pressure, as much as the artists were emotionally invested in making it.

- - Manolo Lugo preparing a dish for Food Wars - -

As they say, all’s fair in love and war. There were some allusions to fighting dirty in the feedback session, though it was mostly to say that both artists considered the role of cheating in this project, but mostly rejected it. I think that secretly each artist wanted to maintain moral as well as culinary superiority, which, to me, just confirms that this game – this performance – was real for them.

During the performance (but after we had all been served), Scott Smallwood told the small group I was sitting with that he was worried that after 2 hours of waiting, 2 days of cooking, introductions, descriptions of each dish and what exotic ingredients were used, finally, he was afraid that the artists would just start hucking food at each other and that we wouldn’t get to eat it at all! I agree that that would’ve been another powerful way of emotionally manipulating the audience, albeit in a terrible way! I have to say that after Scott told me that story, I was even more grateful for the delicious meal!

Naufús and Manolo also noticed food-related themes missing from the festival this year, as others had. They talked about how they were surprised that there were no performances touching on the negative aspects of food such as starvation, obesity, corporatization of the food supply, food prices, and access to food. It seems that there are many places this festival could have gone with the food theme, but didn’t. I guess it boils down to time and resources. Maybe someone wants to take on an annual food-in-performance art festival? It seems like fertile territory…

Naufús did bemoan the lack of food-centred socializing at this year’s festival. As Visualeyez’s senior performer (this was his 3rd festival), Naufús has been here when dinner parties and socializing around food have been a major part of the festival. This year, I think mostly because the festival was just so much shorter (and there were fewer projects) there were less potential dinner dates to be had. That said, I felt I had plenty of food-related socializing both in the gallery and outside of it, and I think Naufús’ need to be holed up cooking for most of the festival coloured his experience of the social elements of the festival this year. I think Manolo encapsulated his experience perfectly when he, having been asked where the ‘art” of the project resided for him, explained that it was a process of finding the aesthetic experience through the making of the food. I’m sure the interpersonal experience of the cooking was a very important – although invisible – feature of Food Wars for both Naufús and Manolo, as having to share a small kitchen and its tools must have brought them closer while simultaneously creating tension.  That’s something that we didn’t get to talk about during the feedback session that I’d still like to know more about – how has this project changed their relationship and where will this collaborative effort take them from this point on?