Recorded interview with chef Eric May, the owner and founder of Roots and Culture. He talks about Roots and Culture, living in the UK, working with schoolchildren in relation to food, and Eric’s own school lunches experiences.
An Interview with Lindsay Hopkins
by Alix Anne Shaw
I’d like to begin with some questions about your artistic work and activism.
You are part of a theater company, Dramatis Personae. Can you describe the work that you do? How long have you been part of this company?
Dramatis Personae is a performance collective. We focus on original performance and try to build artist community through our multi-disciplinary Artist Gumbo events. Inspiring social change is part of our mission. I have been working with DP for two and a half years. A small but exciting part of the work that we do is in a new partnership with the Howard Area Community Center; I worked there for three years prior to the partnership. To stay involved, I began to do programming involving both.
Dramatis Personae is currently putting together a performance based on issues of food justice. It will be called Food & The Soul. Could you describe this project?
Sure. This spring, we are digging into the questions: What role does food play in our lives? What is our relationship with food and food systems? We have been working on a collection of shared stories about identity, community and our relationship with food. We have interviewed urban farmers in Chicago, people who live on the gift economy and gift food from their farm in Oakland, CA, foodies, and restaurant owners, all with the hopes of collecting stories about food, food sharing, locally grown food. The stories will then be turned into a performance. We are exploring the ritual of food in our lives and in our communities, in order to more deeply explore participation and authenticity in daily life.
During the rehearsal process, these stories will be used to create an ensemble performance piece. This performance is interdisciplinary in nature and will include elements of theatre, movement and sound installation. As a performance artist, I am interested in curating stories as a way to tell personal journeys through a collective, interpersonal lens. What do we have in common? What sets us apart? How do we support each other? How do we destroy each other? I am interested in using this performance as a vehicle to tell stories and explore different identities and perspectives.
How do you balance being an activist and an artist?
[Laughs.] Well, if you’re doing that kind of work, it probably also means you’re working really hard to pay the bills! For me, being an activist has been doing youth work, talking about these issues through theater. Theater gives you the chance to teach in a different way. You are learning through play and not being talked at. Sometimes it’s hard, but sometimes it goes really well together. And I love the combination of the two. For me, there has always been something more behind wanting to be creative.
What are some points where these two practices don’t merge as well
For me, there is no conflict between the fit of the two. I see that more in expectations outside of me…what other people view as social justice as opposed to art and what kind of art they want to see.
What got you interested in this issue? Have you always been interested in food justice, or is this an issue you came to through experience?
So many things happened because of Howard Area Community Center. I knew that I was interested in social justice and food but not in a structured kind of way. I had a so many awesome co-workers I learned from. For example, a staff member I was working with in Spring of 2011, Chris Stortenbecker, got us a grant to make some beds for a small garden at CMSA in Rogers Park. The next spring I was able to invite a friend and local urban farmer out to use the garden beds and lead some workshops with the youth about gardening. I co-created some social justice content about food supply, access and food deserts. That led to a lot of documentaries.
What have you learned that most shocked or surprised you in the course of collecting material for this production?
What shocked me the most were the major differences in the way people view food. That sounds simple, but it’s huge. There are people in Oakland who do permaculture and see food as its own entity with the soul, and there are people who are well-intentioned but who refuse to change things because they are busy and don’t want to take the time. That’s a cycle—the way we live and the food we eat makes us tired, and then we don’t want to deal with these issues. I think the most shocking thing was the contrast in people’s ability to think about things in a reflective way. But I’ve noticed that a greater social awareness can come from changing the food that we eat and looking at food production in a more holistic light.
What do you hope to accomplish through this production?
I think I’m learning to not “hope to accomplish” anything. I think for too long I wanted to accomplish something to make the pain I was seeing and feeling go away. So I’m not trying to accomplish anything except to tell these stories in a real, authentic way. My hope is that somebody takes five minutes to connect with a story. I try to remain true to the stories I’ve collected, and enjoy the process of what I’m getting out of it as an artist. That makes for better art anyway.
Do you believe that art can effect political change in the world?
I believe it absolutely has the power to, because it helps us see things from a different brain-space. For example, Theater of the Oppressed has actually changed legislation in Brazil. But sometimes I’m afraid that in the United States, we’re too far gone as a society to have that kind of reflective change. I do think that art has a power to help us reflect, grow and change. I think on the individual and neighborhood level that we can build something better and more inclusive.
Now for some questions about food.
Tell me a little about your personal relationship to issues of food and food justice.
In my own life, I had a lot of anxiety and depression. I got lost in the medical system and prescription drugs. I did not have health insurance and was paying out of pocket. Personally, I felt this has got to stop. There was no sense of relationship in the medical system. I realized I had the ability to create a plan for myself. I also realized that you can really help some of those problems with food. I started thinking about preservatives and how they could affect my brain. Once I started changing my eating habits and becoming more aware of how I felt, I had to figure out how to eat differently based on my own access and on label reading. I realized how socially-conditioned we are not to look at labels. It’s not that we don’t read them—because many people actually do—we just aren’t educated about what we should be looking for.
What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?
Knowledge. Access to information about what it is that’s really in our food. The information we have is quick and short. It’s meant to shock and awe. It’s an advertising system that doesn’t leave room for real information. I think a huge issue is people not wanting to take the time to think about changing their choices. We do lack time because we are so dictated-to by how we’re supposed to live and all the stuff we’re supposed to buy. We’re working so hard we don’t have time to think.
What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?
There are so many. The media and advertising systems in the United States love to say that we have choices. They say that to cover up the fact that we don’t have a choice, and to makes us argue with ourselves and each other. But we don’t have a real choice because we don’t have real information. If we don’t know that what we’re eating can create diseases down the road, or if we are not informed about GMOs, then we don’t have choice. Not having access to information means that people can’t make decisions about our own bodies.
What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?
It would be neighborhood-based. At this point, because the systems have gotten so big, we need to work locally and small. Locally, because sustainability and local factors are better. Not having to ship food, using small systems, is better. Even for getting information out, focusing on one neighborhood at a time is easier. Information can be shared from neighborhood to neighborhood. You see that happening with farmer’s markets. You can walk to them in your own neighborhood. It’s easier for people. I also love the simplicity of a community garden: it’s small, something people can access, walk to, you know what’s being planted and how it’s being planted, you can get involved even if you don’t know how to grow things.
And finally, a few political questions…
Most people involved in these issues wear many hats. Are there other activities that you personally do that have to do with issues of sustainability/ political and/or food justice?
I’ve spent so much time exploring information, I feel like that’s kind of my role right now. At my house, we are starting to compost, but it’s hard in Chicago because you have to figure out where to take the compost and what to do with it if you don’t have the room to have your own garden. I want to get involved in either a food co-op or an urban farm. I’ve been teaching and collecting information and doing youth work for so long and making artwork about it….now I want to do something with food and I’m trying to find out what that might be.
Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way? If so, what is the simplest and most radical component of your practice?
Yes. I ask questions every day. I use asking questions as a model in youth work a lot. For example, What is the root of different forms of oppression? It takes lots of questions to get there. We use the metaphor of a tree to think about this: you have leaves, branches, trunk, soil and finally you get to get down to the root. It’s the same with the food system. What’s coming from the ground?
Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?
I do shop at Whole Foods. I don’t always want to. I want another option. Whole Foods locations often take time to get to. Their bulk section is the reason I go. It’s hard to find places that will have a bulk section and access to organic produce that isn’t too expensive. During the winter in Chicago, you have everything stacked against you: winter, traveling, and you can’t get access to locally grown vegetables.
At my house, we get all of our produce from New Leaf Grocery because they are small and more local than Whole Foods. My food-buying process is everywhere, to get certain food for certain reasons and to keep the price down. That’s why I’m excited about the fact that there’s a food co-op starting on the north side, although it will be a while before it’s up and running.
What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to make them more sustainable/ to improve or alter their relationship with food?
Just take ten minutes to think. Sit. Turn off your computer and your tv. Allow yourself a minute or ten to think while you’re eating while you sit there. How does your body feel? We often don’t think about ten minutes of not doing something. Think and ask yourself questions…who knows where that will lead?
I think of this process as brain cleansing. A friend of mine in Oakland once said, “ We clean our bodies and go to the bathroom but we don’t let things exit from our brains.” Just being quiet for a minute and flushing your brain of things can be so beneficial—and difficult. You don’t have to spend more than ten or 20 minutes doing it. Just think about cleansing in your own mind and what that means for you. It doesn’t have to meditating or even quiet, but take ten minutes with yourself.
When will your performance on food justice, Food & The Soul, take place? Where can folks read more about it and about your work?
Well, we’ll be doing a preview at the Rooting Symposium spring meal on May 5th.
The longer performance will take place on May 18 and 19 and June 2. You can read about it here:
You can also read about the awesome Howard Area Community Center here: http://howardarea.org/
An Interview by Alix Anne Shaw and Megan Issacs
AS: The Rooting Symposium brings together artists, chefs, and farmers. Your practice is very diverse: you do urban foraging, have an urban homestead, have done art exhibits to showcase soil-building, and have helped establish a seed archive, to name only a few. So your work seems to span all of these realms—artist, farmer, and chef. Can you talk about that?
NK: My academic training is in anthropology, not art. I use artistic strategies to reinvigorate the issues that are important to me. That’s because I work with very broad audiences—conservative evangelicals, immigrants, architects, academics—so my language, visual strategies, and performances need to bridge a lot of worlds. For example, if I want to demonstrate how our bodies are a microcosm of the landscape, that how we treat our bodies is how we treat landscape—these are ideas that people can’t or don’t want to hear. As a result I have to use creative ways of getting involved and gauging reactions. Often these involve humor. I consider humor to be an artistic strategy that opens people to things they might not otherwise consider.
I’m a rural person. I grew up on a farm and it took me a long time to realize that when I went outside in the city, I was in public. Any action in the city is a public performance. I use that idea as a way of reaching people.
AS: You call yourself an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticulturalist, and permaculturalist. What got you interested in this work?
NK: I grew up in northern Illinois on what used to be hundreds and hundreds of acres of farmland and wild land. It has now become the sprawl between Chicago and Rockford. I’m a fifth-generation horticulturalist. What I’m doing is my nature, is really deeply rooted since birth and possibly biological. It’s not theoretically-driven.
AS: Can you describe in more detail the way you see the work that you do?
NK: So much of what I do is deep practice. They are lifetime practices, things that I do naturally every day. I make some of these practices into short-term projects—for example, Humble Pile. In that project, I collected 22 people’s shit in buckets for three months. Then I transported it on my bicycle, composted it, and gave the soil back a year later. It was a way of demonstrating our capacity as soil-makers. I tell people that I’m not doing that project at present, but I still shit in a bucket. Some of the people from the project still shit in a bucket! But people aren’t interested in that; they are interested in a project rather than a way of living. That’s a very urban problem—urban people conceptual, not necessarily interested in practice. They are moving from one idea to the next, from one consumptive moment to the next.
AS: So, are you also an artist? What are your thoughts on art?
NK: The art world draws lines to me but I don’t call myself an artist. I think things being framed as art is impoverishing to the dialogue. The best thing artists can do is get involved as citizens and as neighbors in their cities and townships. The labeling and institutionalization of creativity is not productive in the long run. I’m more interested in the creative, grubby-monkey spirit!
AS: I’m very interested in the work that you do as an urban forager. For you, what is the driving force behind this work?
NK: I’m trying to help people understand that their bodies are connected to landscape, and to help them feel that connection. When I do a public forage, I want people to be able to be outside in a subtle way, an intuitive and sensory way, instead of a recreational way. It’s about observation and small changes, and connecting people to a larger dynamic.
On a forage, the first question is always, “How is it safe for me to eat anything in my environment?” I ask, “If it’s not safe for that plant, why do you think it’s safe for you? You’re breathing the same air, you’re exposed to the same environmental pollution.” We are no safer than the plants around us. We are in communication with all our orifices—nostrils, mouth, pores. Every breath is a liter exchange with our environment, so we are filtering our environment through our bodies. Because it’s all the same, we need to work more carefully with our environment.
I tell people that we’re going to make a pact to eat and nibble and enjoy. If you’re queasy, you don’t have to partake of anything—you can just watch. I tell them, we’ve all ingested dog urine. Don’t worry about it. Anytime you eat a plant in your environment, you’re increasing the probiotics in your body. You can engage homeopathically with both the joy and the contamination that’s out there.
AS: When I tell people that I urban forage for apples that I make into applesauce, they always ask two questions: “Where did you find apples around here?” and “But HOW do you make it?” Do you find this same set of responses? What do they say to you?
NK: I usually don’t answer the questions. To me, they are consumptive, not indicative of true curiosity. I say, “You’ll have to look for the trees. There are five within a two-block radius.” If people are truly curious, they look at you and get wide-eyed and go look for the apple tree. But people lack true curiosity. I’ve also had people who’ve stripped trees and bushes to take more than they need.
I underline that my walks are about spirit and connection and relationship. We drink from a communal cup, and people get over their heebie-jeebies. On my walks, I get chef types, concerned healthy mothers, burning man hippies, people who want to know how to have an abortion, people who want to find psychotropics in their environment. There are people who bring an intention and those who don’t. I’m about protecting the environment and teaching people deeper care and attention to themselves. There are things I won’t point out, that I let people find themselves. By the end of a two-hour forage, people get very close and start sharing with each other. It becomes intimate, deep learning. People get to know each other because they’ve been walking slowly and noticing things. People are changed.
This year, I have a series of seasonal foraging workshops. They are four hours each, one walk in the spring, one in summer, and one in fall. It’ll be in Garfield Park Conservatory. I’m really excited about it!
AS: Is dumpster diving a form of urban foraging? Why or why not?
NK: Sure, loosely. But there is a different set of ethics at work than there is when you are looking for plants in the environment. I’m not a freegan. I support them but I don’t work like that. I don’t forage because it’s free—I do it because I’m connecting with my environment. I dumpster dive for compost because I compost about four truckloads a week. Food waste, landscape waste—I dumpster those for balancing my piles.
AS: What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?
NK: Curiosity. I do see a big difference now as compared to ten years ago. But still, no one is asking deeper questions. Many people are satisfied with their vegan smoothie from Whole Foods. They don’t ask deeper questions. I’ve found that most people don’t like to live with questions because it feels risky and too open-ended. There’s a lot of responsibility and personal discomfort. That’s what I’m pushing for.
AS: What are your thoughts on urban farming?
NK: I think there’s no such thing as urban farming. A lot of it is boutique. Half an acre is production gardening. No one knows the land, and no one really has to produce. It’s conceptual, not real. And it’s righteous. When you talk to farmers who actually pay for the land, maintain it, you find that they never earn as much as someone working for a nonprofit. Urban farming grant-funded so there’s no responsibility for land. It’s all kind of a false economy and a false relationship to land. It’s already built on an unsustainable economic base.
AS: I’m curious about your own decision to live in the city.
NK: After college I was in South America working as an anthropologist. When I came back, I got job at the Field Museum and got into a long-term relationship. That grounded me here. I’m pretty uncomfortable in the city—I talk to everybody and am fluent in Spanish—but I see people as consumptive, sad, faddish, and righteous. I like working with people who are interested in the health of the land, land-based people. But I’ve made a career of translating issues to urban people, to trying to get people to act and ask questions. I want to push the eject button every day. I’m currently looking at some property. It’s in a sea of GMO corn and soybeans. I don’t know how I’ll make it unless I have a connection to the city, but I want a deeper connection to the land.
MI: Can you say a bit about your urban homesteading project? Who do you host?
NK: Sure. Lots of different people come to stay with me. You have to be involved in chores and some kind of project. I host activists who want to have a garden, bicycle, use greywater, to form that kind of relationship. I also host sociologists, architects, and artists. It’ have a wide range of people. Right now I have a graphic designer and sculptor. I have a mushroom person coming through who works on remediation projects. You have to be actually engaged and you have to have a project—something you want to learn.
AS: What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?
NK: We need to work with diet and eating things that protect the soil better. There’s a difference between annual and perennial agriculture. We need to be eating more perennial-based vegetables and fruit—and wild foods that are perennial or are self-sowing annuals. Not something you put in and pull out, like lettuce. Lettuce is one of the most ridiculous things that we eat. I will always grow kale and collards but I work with wild plants—dandelion and burdock, cress, ground ivy, chickweed, plantain, early spring stuff.
All our “superfoods” are tropical plants—that’s my problem with the raw food movement. It’s based on tropical agriculture. Also, it’s cold as opposed to warming on the body, and a lot of people I’ve met who do raw food seem to need deeper, more warming foods in their bodies.
I do believe in eating animals. I understand the politics of being vegan, but as human beings we need to see how we can co-exist with animals. I’m a vegetarian and have been for 36 years but I believe in living with animals and eating them and their products, even if I only eat eggs from my birds. So we need to be eating things that help build soil and habitat. Growing eggplants, tomatoes, spinach—that can be done less.
AS: What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do to change their relationships in the way you’ve been talking about?
NK: Go outside and try to connect deeply to what’s happening around you right now. Listen to the questions that float up from that connection for yourself. Drop the theoretical conceptual bullshit and just ask those questions. Connect your body to the landscape. Grow food and cook at home—stop going to restaurant. Look at the bugs, watch the birds, be curious about how a dandelion grows from a seed. Watch sparrows mate and the tree buds grow fatter and fatter.
AS: What else would you like to say about these issues?
NK: There’s a real lack of bodily engagement in our culture today. I think everybody wants to jump in the mud. They want to be given permission. That’s what I do.
AS: How can folks get more involved?
NK: Find me on Facebook. I’m Nance Klehm. Or go to my websites:
I’m also speaking at the School of the Art Institute on April 24th at 4:30. It will be held in the Sharp Building, Neimann Center, 36 S. Wabash.
MI: Thanks so much for talking with us today!
Interview with chef and artist Alane Spinney by Alix Anne Shaw
I’d like to begin with some questions about art and food.
You are an illustrator and photographer and as well as a chef. What connections do you see between being a being an artist? Is being a chef a practice in the same way that being an artist is?
Yes, they are absolutely one and the same. It’s about making things. It is part of the ethic that was instilled in us at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] that we craft things with our hands. This is what makes us different as artists. The beauty and tragedy of cooking is that what you craft disappears. The workmanlike part is the same—the idea that you get up, pick up your tools and go to work—wherever that work might be. At the end of the day, what you’re looking for is the same, too: engage the person who’s looking at your work or eating your food. Hopefully, you both charm and challenge them.
On the other side of the question, do your interests in food manifest themselves in your artistic work? If they don’t, why not?
That’s something I’m struggling with right now—how to make the artistic work I make mesh more seamlessly with the food I make. I think there’s going to be a confluence, but I’m just not sure how that’s going to look. You know, the way you can feel something about to break in your work, but you’re just not sure where the fault line is? I find myself pouring over images I’ve taken of vegetables, trying to make a new sense out of them. There’s more than just a tomato or greens. I also don’t know how it’s going to manifest in future work; I just know it’s going to.
William Deresiewicz has written forcefully that being a foodie has replaced knowledge of high culture. According to him, “A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.” Do you agree that being a foodie is replacing our knowledge of music and art? Is this a problem?
Yes, I find the whole idea of the foodie problematic. I hate the way that it’s become an upper-middle class conceit. I hate the trophy kitchens it’s spawned, because no one cooks in them. And I hate the way that real food meant for real people has become a spectacle and consumption…in no small part because I go to the butcher shop and I’m supposed to pay $9.99 lb for a lamb shank—that’s peasant food, dammit! [Laughs.]
Somehow being a foodie is acceptable in certain circles—people can still be “just folks” and foodies. I grew up with a classical music playing in my house, but for many people now, knowing anything about classical music or painting is considered pretentious. That’s a problem, because music and art weren’t created to be pretentious.
In our present historical moment, do you see a connection between our relationship to food and our relationship to art—as viewers or consumers?
The consumption of fast food and the consumption of advertising seem analogous. The vast amount of food that Americans eat is, well, dreck. Whether they have the trophy kitchen or a subscription to Food & Wine, when you look at what they had for lunch, it’s Subway or a Big Mac. In the same vein, sometimes advertising is the closest thing people get to art. It may very well be the only time they hear classical music—that, and at a movie.
Now for some questions about food.
Describe what kinds of work you do as a chef. (You can construe “work” as openly or specifically as you like here.)
I have been a volunteer chef at a soup kitchen in Providence for the past 5 years, and I recently started working at a new upscale bakery / cafe in town. So my current culinary work can be defined like this: fine dining and soup kitchens. No mushy middle. That’s fine by me. The soup kitchen is really a meal site [called City Meal Site], where we serve a sit-down, 3-course meal for anywhere from 150 to 275 people each week. We operate out of a church hall that’s in smack in between the state’s largest homeless shelter and the Providence Police Department headquarters. We do a brisk trade, and we’re a very motivated bunch of cooks. Most meal sites think it’s fine to just open a can of Chef Boyardee, but I think that everybody deserves a good, delicious meal. Obviously, the menu will be different [than at a fine restaurant], but that doesn’t make the culinary effort different. Every week, we work with what we have and with the budget we have to try to make the best meal we can. And I think we do a pretty damn good job.
Tell me what got you into this food justice work.
Unemployment. I graduated from culinary school just as the economy tanked. I found that the meal site was in need of cooks, I called the Director, showed up with my knives, and that was five years ago. I’ve been volunteering ever since. I’ve been very grateful: I did find full-time employment and my employers have been accommodating, not only in giving me time off each week, but in giving donations. Without them, I couldn’t have kept doing it. Some Tuesdays it’s hard, but when I get to the kitchen each week and start cooking with the guys, it’s all worth it.
Tell me about one of your earliest vivid experiences with food. How has this shaped the way that you engage with food now?
There are two, actually. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 and we were eating a stir-fry she had made. It was very exotic. It was a summer night in the Adirondacks and we were sitting on a big old porch and the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling was on the record player. It was one of those moments in childhood that you remember with vivid clarity—the music, the sun on the mountains, the food—and liking it—loving it all. I wanted to replicate that. As a chef, I’ve been chasing that moment, and sometimes finding it—either cooking myself or with someone else.
Later on, I was at Apsara [an Asian restaurant in Providence] and I wasn’t very hungry. I ordered egg drop soup. What they served was the simplest and most perfect of foods. The stock was clear and beautiful and the egg couldn’t have been more than a day old. Chicken stock with an egg in it and a little sesame oil on top: it was a miracle. That’s what food should be.
What so you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?
The communal. We spend too much time eating in cars. We spend too much time eating alone. We spend too much time eating in front of the television. That sounds like scolding, but I think that to divorce food from the communal act of eating together is to turn it into fuel. It’s supposed to be more, to nourish the soul. Does that mean every meal has to be some sort of high communion? Of course not. But by not eating together, we’re really losing something. I’m going to go back to the Meal Site here. We have many guests who could probably afford to feed themselves, but they come every week to have somebody to sit down and eat dinner with. They have friends that they meet. These are very poor people, and it’s gratifying to watch them eat with a friend, linger over coffee, and leave renewed. This is probably the most gratifying part of the Meal Site work. It’s something that folks with the trophy kitchen should look for.
What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today—locally, nationally, or globally?
Wages. American wages have been stagnant since 1970. People don’t have enough buying power and they go to Wal-Mart because they have to. If you go to Wal-Mart you end up with crappy processed food. Yes, I know they sell organic, but can you afford organic food on $7.25 an hour? If you don’t make enough, you end up buying crappy food, or you work two jobs and you don’t have time to sit down and eat the food. If you eat crap food, you have health issues. If you track most of the problems Americans have with their food, I think you can put it right back to stagnant wages. Type II diabetes is not a health concern for the top 1%, nor is obesity. But when all you have is $7.25 an hour, it’s not surprising that you start to have problems, both social and medical.
What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?
I hope we haven’t lost the chance to get to some kind of new ideal. I hope for a future in which we can all afford access to healthy local food. I’m gratified by the growth of farmer’s markets and gratified by the fact that in Rhode Island you can use food stamps at farmer’s markets. That’s great. And in my own little personal utopia, we would have outreach workers and teachers—cooks and chefs—showing people how to make tasty, healthy, food, pretty food, food anybody can make.
What is the most important thing you know about food? About art?
Food has the power to transform the way you look at the world. Food is the gateway to different cultures, different worlds, and different communities. It’s also the easiest and most accessible way to access a culture that’s not your own.
Would you say the same of art?
Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way?
Yes, inasmuch as a radical is a person who wants to address issues at the root and not the surface, I am an unapologetic radical.
Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?
I do shop there. [Sighs heavily.] Put down that I sighed! I am conflicted, because I can purchase food there that I cannot purchase anywhere else….for instance, grass-fed beef that’s reasonably local. I could get into a CSA that supports beef, chicken, and eggs, but right now I don’t have the income to do that. The owner’s politics are absolutely appalling–he’s an Ayn Rand libertarian, and that’s anathema to me, but my sister works there. I know personally that Whole Foods is very good about wages and health insurance for their employees. They’re very proactive in making sure that they have a healthy workforce that has access to healthy food. In Providence, there’s no food coop—so it’s either Whole Foods or pink-in-plastic [factory farmed meat]….so what are you going to do?
What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do to improve or alter their relationship with food?
There are two things. First, sit down with somebody and share a meal. Try something you haven’t tried before. The second, and perhaps even more important, is go meat free at least one day a week.
I’m surprised to hear you say that.
I loves me a steak, but from everything I’ve been reading, if people really want to reduce global warming and climate change, the best way is to reduce consumption of factory-farmed protein. Just one day a week! It’s one small thing that would have a huge impact globally. It’s an opportunity to introduce new food into your diet and it would affect real change right now. Sit down, have a nice curry dal, and greens! And chickpeas!
What else would you like to say about food, or art?
I would just tell people to go make something. Make a sketch, make an omelet—just make something. It’s not grand or glorious, but you’ll feel much better for having made something with your own two hands.
I realized a while back that I look far more to non-art sources for inspiration, or if I’m looking at art, it’s generally vintage naturalists prints, or historical art and art objects from Western and non-Western sources. I read a lot and take inspiration from both fiction and non-fiction, as well as nature/activism magazines (favorites include Orion, YES! and National Geographic). One unusual source, in particular, is a collection of pre-1900’s nature books that I own. The etchings in them are endlessly interesting.
I also watch a lot of films, and will admit to loving to browse my Tumblr feed, when I have free time, to search for all kinds of interesting images which I keep organized on my computer for future reference. I dream about art often, and sometimes get good ideas from reading through the dream journal I keep near my bed to note strange images or interesting ideas.
Do you ever work collaboratively? If so, what type of projects have you worked on and what was your role?
I enjoy working collaboratively as I find that it always provides a new way of creating, and often allows you to recognize and get outside of the “rules” you may have set up in your own practice.
Some projects that I have collaborated on include “In a Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists,” a performative project for the 100th CAA in Los Angeles (2012). The project was orchestrated by fellow artist/environmental activist Dai Toyofuku who assembled a group of artists and conservation biologists to create the project, which asked people in the audience to take conceptual responsibility for certain endangered species in California. In exchange, as as a reminder or their commitment, they were given an original artwork of the species. The project, which included animal, insect and plant species, was about creating generosity and community across species lines.
Myself and artist/illustrator Molly Schafer also collaborate on The Endangered Species Print Project (ESPP), which we founded in 2009, and to date has raised over $10,000 for biodiversity conservation efforts.
Through ESPP, we were invited by the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization revered in environmental circles for their hard-hitting legal activism on behalf of threatened species and wild-lands, to participate in their amusing Endangered Species Condom Project, an effort to raise awareness about the link between overpopulation and species loss. Molly and I created the artwork for the first round of the project, which included 450,000 condom packages given out nation-wide, and was covered in a New York Times article and featured on a billboard in Times Square.
Thank you, we truly appreciate your support!
Molly Schafer and I came up with ESPP when we found ourselves increasingly frustrated by the limitations of the white wall gallery system. While we were both making work that spoke about the human relationship to the natural world (and I do still feel art has an important role in any movement), we wanted to do something that also had a direct, tangible impact on biodiversity and critically endangered species.
We came up with the concept of creating limited-edition prints of these species, where each edition number would be the number of that species remaining in the wild. For example, only 45 Amur Leopards remain, so the print edition for that artwork is 45. We saw this as a way to link the concepts of scarcity and preciousness between both this rare art object and the endangered individual species. In order that 100% of the purchase price goes to conservation, project is sponsored by OtherPeoplesPixels, the artist portfolio website company I co-founded with my husband in 2005.
Artwork for the prints is created either by Molly or myself — or one of the 11 other artists who have collaborated with us on the project. To date we have created prints to benefit 21 species (both animals and plants), and interest in the project continues to grow. (To learn more about the project and to support the species of your choice with the purchase of an archival print, please visit: http://endangeredspeciesprintproject.com)
Do issues relating to food ever enter into your artwork/activism?
Sure, I think that anyone interested in connecting to the Earth and their environment has to think about where our food comes from. My interdisciplinary practice includes leading wild-foraging walks and workshops, most recently at the ACRE residency in Wisconsin. Leading more of these walks is something that I’d love to continue to do, since I think that learning about the edible plants that grow all around us makes us more attentive to nature, provides historical context for food-culture, and inspires people to get more involved in the natural world. One of the main focuses of my practice is to have people engage/re-engage with the wonder inherent in our participation in nature, so watching anyone realize that those little “clovers” (actually Common Yellow Woodsorrel, Oxalis stricta) that grow all over taste like delicious lemon-lime is always a joy!
An Interview with Amber Ginsburg
by Sarah K. Benning
Could you describe your practice?
I have a research generated and site generated installation practice that looks at questions of bodies of knowledge, really two bodies of knowledge. One of them is archival knowledge that is stored in traditional forms like libraries and the internet. There is this interesting relationship to that about completeness. I’m interested in the aspiration and failure of the completeness of that archive.
At the same time, I am really interested in the performance of the repertoire, knowledge that is passed down, requires presence, and is enacted and performed through the body and is transmitted generally from person to person. That body of knowledge is often considered relatively unstable, but I think there are many beautiful and long standing human performances that are very stable. I think that’s where I kind of circle around a couple of areas in my work. One of them is objects and how they are used and often food or shelter or survival. And these kinds of networks of knowledge coalesce around these things.
Given the scope of the upcoming Symposium, could you expand on the food aspects of your work?
I didn’t’ realize that food was such an important part of my work probably until the last two or three years. I think part of that is because my background is as a production potter. I kind of came to art-making leaving that behind, if that makes any sense at all. I was going to work in a very new and different way and break that very understandable and known relationship between object, food, and body and I wanted to really kind of move away from that. And I now realize five or ten years later that actually I have been, not so much moving away, but actually cracking that open and looking at it through all of these different kinds of lenses.
And so I engage with food in a number of ways, and one of them is very directly. I collaborate with an artist named Lia Rousset, who’s also a graduate form the School of the Art Institute, and we work together. I work, perhaps, more on the metaphoric end, but she has actually become a full time farmer, grower, and educator and has an art practice within that and separately. I have a full time art-teaching practice with an interest in those subjects. So, our projects very often center around food.
Our most recent project was Cure at 6018 North with Tricia van Eyk. Lia grew roughly 300 bulbs of garlic and Tricia’s space is in transition, so all the walls are busted out and it’s just 18 inch studs, and we wove the space with the garlic. And some really interesting things came out around that. This is this interesting thing between performed knowledge and archival knowledge. Garlic has a long history as a curative very literally, but also the impetus for that exhibition was this little-known necessary performance that garlic needs to hang in a cool, dry place for three weeks for it to be able to store. So we were actually putting on display this very beautiful object, but at the same time showing very literally this functional farming aspect. So it’s these little intimate knowledges of farming that we are interested in bringing to the public. But also at the same time, were learned about the garlic itself. We expected it to be overwhelmingly olfactory, to have just this overwhelming garlic smell. It turns out chefs, when they often press garlic with the side of a knife and crack it open, there are enzymes and proteins in garlic that hold until they collapse and are pushed together and activated, and that’s what releases the smell. There are many little ways in which we are both providing the little bit of expertise we have and also receiving expertise from people when they interact.
Collaboration seems to be a large part of your practice, could you talk a little more about that?
It is [laughs]. I would say there are two levels of collaboration. This is where food sometimes intersects rather interestingly. I collaborate in a very tradition sense with other artists on projects, but I also feel as if I collaborate with certain histories. Those become another character or narrative in the work.
An example of that, Katie Hargrave and I have been working for the last five years on Johnny Appleseed and his history. We collaborate, I would say, on multifaceted lore in American history and we are always interested in bringing a multiprismatic view to something that is either not known at all or something that is almost too well known.
Johnny Appleseed falls into the ‘too well known.’ So, we started our collaboration by doing massive archival research on every reference we could find to Johnny Appleseed. And his image has transformed and been used in really interested political instruments for the apple industry, for prohibition, for entrepreneurialism, for anti-American Indian propaganda—a huge story. We have a kind of memory game that we play to explore that, but we also are interested in embodying the knowledge of his, as we call it, patron saint object: the apple. So Apples are poly-zygotic, which means that, like two people mating and getting an unknown mixture of chromosomes, it’s the same with apples. If you plant an apple seed you basically have no idea what you are getting. In colonial America, where there were very few flavors, apples were mostly tart. They were used for alcohol, not even cyder but hard alcohol called applejack, and most were either inedible or used as a flavor of sour or bitter when they were dried. So, we have been doing lots of experimentation with the full range of flavors within that apple, while simultaneously learning to plant trees, grafting, and we have found a source of the “original” and last Johnny Appleseed tree. We have a project that we hope comes to fruition in about 20 years where we pair a poly-zygotic seed trees with our original Johnny Appleseed trees across the Midwest. So the practice operates on, what I would say, slow and fast, right, two trees is a very slow project that we would like to see unfold in x-number of years. And there are very fast projects where we’ll go into a gallery and host a broad sense of tasting or a game or something about Johnny Appleseed.
This 20-year growing project is really fascinating and I am curious about how time enters into your work. You talk about archiving and history and many of your projects are very methodical, and I am wondering how time influences you as a maker and what affect you hope it to have on the viewer.
Yes, there are so many ways I could answer that question. These issues are larger than food. So, I’ll try to give you a couple of answers that maybe circle around the fact that I don’t really know yet. I think that is a really important question I am working out. So, there was an exhibition up at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. One of the pieces called Charge had a light box with 500 potatoes lighting up 100 diodes that weakly lit this light box. And then I’m working with another artist, Marissa Lee Benedict, where we ground all those potatoes down in a blender and milked them by hand, squeezing them through cloth to harvest the potato starch, which we are now doing experiments to create a castable bioplastic. That is going to be connecting with another piece called Break, which was breaking hundreds of dishes in a 16mm film. And, what I would say is that piece and that work is operating as a laboratory, it is changing.
I’ve come to use this performative space of the gallery if I can as an auxiliary studio space to address a problem that I call the “Ta-Da Problem of Art.” So, it’s almost a feminist questions. It comes from theories of having a dinner party. You work really hard and someone says to you, ‘Oh this is wonderful, it must have taken you so long,’ and you say, ‘Oh it was nothing.’ And this kind of refuting of the importance of labor I really question. I question that because it’s refuting the underlying knowledge that goes into the processes that make a result. And since I am interested in webs and bodies and structures of knowledge, to not find mechanisms to reveal those, which almost always require time and labor. If you deny those then you are stuck with the “Ta-Da.” You are stuck with the result. I am working to open that dynamic of knowledge systems through very open performances.
But I think these issues are very much related to our food system here in this country.
The “Ta-Da” problem [laughs]. Yes, all we have left is the “Ta-Da” moment. It’s all perfectly wrapped, it’s never seen dirt, it’s never seen nutrients, it’s never seen any of these intimate little moments of knowing when you need to clip a bud or all of those things.
So there’s that sense of time, which I would say is a kind of micro-knowledge scale of time that I am interested in. On a more macro scale, I would say that knowledge is something that we experience in the moment, but it has this really wonderful elastic stretch to the past and, with technology, to the future. Technology can be wildly complicated or extremely rudimentary, like taking the palm of your hand and scruffing the ground to put a seed in. I use that term very loosely. So time, this idea of past, present, future, in terms of knowledge, I am always curious whenever I begin researching or engage in a project, Where is the nexus or nugget, or kind of hidden curiosity around the knowledge of that thing that stretches in both directions? And food, because it’s so elemental and part of our survival, is constantly in such cultural flux—such tremendous dynamic, exhilarating, terrifying—cultural flux. It’s inevitable, I think, not to be curious about this direction of past, and present, and future.
So time is very important in my work. The duration of the present process that is happening, but also the durational history of a specific facet.
More of Ambers work can be seen on her website: http://www.amberginsburg.com/
“The Loud Grade Produce Squad is a new, Chicago-based 501 (c)(3), not-for-profit, organization dedicated to educating community groups, businesses and individuals about the benefit of local, organic food production and WVO Biodiesel. Our mission is to educate while constructing projects that are self sustaining and environmentally positive. We approach each project through the principles of permaculture and sustainable development.”
I had the pleasure to meet with William Pool, co-founder of The Loud Grade Produce Squad. I spoke with him regarding the development of the space and his background. On a snowy March day I toured the LGPS founding location in Uptown on the rooftop garden at Weiss Hospital. Their other locations throughout Chicago include; Homan and 16th, Delano Elementary, and the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Their international projects include Chile and, coming soon, Haiti.
William’s family roots are Indiana. He grew up in Chicago, specifically the Evanston and Rogers Park neighborhoods. However, Pool always had a foot in the country. He escaped the city to enjoy the pleasure of his aunt and uncle’s farm. Those precious childhood moments developed his passion for agriculture.
While attending college, Pool studied political science, the politics of agriculture and food systems. When Pool moved back to Chicago he farmed in his own backyard and began to volunteer at the Talking Farm in Evanston, IL . Jared Schenkier, a co founder of LGPS, was doing projects around uptown at that time. The Weiss Hospital approached the alderman, Helen Shiller, to find someone to lead the rooftop garden project on top of Weiss hospital in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. It was only natural to select Schenkier to obtain the space. Schenkier approached Pool regarding the project. Pool was excited to participate, and for two years they worked together to develop the space. They were lucky to be working in construction at the time, including working on private gardens and Homewood Square community. That experience made the development of the garden a natural transition. From the positive responses they received, the team realized that they could start an organization focused on access to nutritious food, education, and social justice.
Pool is passionate about helping people. When he begins working on an open space in a neighborhood he believes it is important to be respectful of the community. His goal is not to beautify or gentrify the neighborhood by making it aesthetically pleasing. It is purely centered on connecting those who live in the community to the garden. Pool believes it is important to avoid imposing in on a neighborhood because he wants the community to feel as if the space is completely their own.
When Pool begins a project in a vacant location, his presence intrigues the neighbors. While working on a new garden, community members approach him with questions. It is this moment that Pool finds the most satisfaction in his work.
Pool is best described as a people person. His goal is to connect communities through agriculture. His down to earth personality attracts people to become involved. He wants his work to relate to their lives rather than be an added burden. Pool will not open a space unless he knows that it will be kept. His philosophy is to please to neighbors and to put a full force effort into all his work. It is important to understand the neighborhood before starting a garden. These spaces are already alive with people congregating, and it is not his wish to impose. Pool stated “The most important thing is being out, hands dirty kicking ass on a block where there is a vacant lot where people need access to food. Being natural, approachable, communicating with people. Nothing works better then that.”
Pool grew up with many international people which gave him the desire to travel and understand various cultures. His travels throughout South America and South Africa taught him that community gardens are an important factor in bringing communities together. Food is a common necessity for all cultures. Therefore, farming serves as a language that can link people together internationally.
The name Loud Grade comes from terminology used by Pool’s target demographics – children. The term refers to high quality, and he uses this name to intrigue kids who would not normally be interested. He is devoted to the children of Chicago. Pool treats kids as his equal, and I imagine him as a big brother or friend to the groups he works with. Pool works with Chicago Public School students in all LGPS locations. I asked what kind of involvement the children have with the farm and if they can eat the food. He replied saying they can help with all aspects of the farm and of course they eat the food, even too much at times. Pool laughed as he remembered one of his favorite stories working with children, saying it was one the greatest memories he had with them. A day when the school group was assisting in collecting greens from the garden, there was a large bucket full of muddy water, kale, mustards and other mixed greens. A little girl ate half of the bucket before anyone even noticed. He said the girl must have been was so hungry and malnourished that she needed these scraps. It was a beautiful moment because she found the nutrition within his farm that she couldn’t get at home.
The children have the opportunity to work on the farm. Teenagers are employed by LGPS to tend to the projects. Pool is proud that he can provide jobs to these teenagers.
Financially, the group supports itself through the classes they provide, and sales made to local grocery stores and restaurants. He is proud to say that they have sustained themselves without grants. The hospital purchases some of the vegetables for their food court, but not much. It is not easy to incorporate their produce into the hospital’s meals, but this is something they will continue to work towards.
LGPS produces kale, spinach, mustards, leafy greens, peppers, eggplant and grows beans as a recovery crop. They also maintain a chicken coup and keep bee hives that produce honey. Pool is also passionate about LGPS creating their own bio fuel from waste. He refers to WVO (waste vegetable oil) as the golden child of bio fuels. His belief is that crops should not be grown for fuel because when growing for fuel you are not growing for food. WVO is already used from food, therefore you get twice the bang for your buck by being able to reuse and create a fuel.
The website http://loudgradeproducesquad.org/ holds information on how to get involved, how to buy, more insight on the spaces and cultural exchange. Loud Grade Produce Squad has only been around for a year and already offers so much to the community. William Pool is a pioneer for educating communities on sustainable farming and I am excited to see what he does next.
Article by: Stephanie De Re