food & hunger (2012)

Marcella.B & Elke Van Campenhout

1) Food and art production

Knowing about food and where our foods come from, or even knowing what exactly it is we are eating, has been the leveller for a new movement of engaged and interested citizens-artists who want to come to an understanding of the different factors that are running the all-encompassing trade of our alimentary products. Talking about global food production, we must come to the conclusion that making ‘healthy’ decisions is an almost impossible task. Faced with the everyday realities of food miles, (the lack of) farmer’s organization or union support, the huge gap in economic power between the industrialized mega-states and the (often poor) production regions, the carbon footprint of global distribution, the non-ecological industrialized farming methods and the subsequent constant production of toxins, the limited range of possibilities of the ‘fair trade’ label etc, we come to the conclusion that eating healthily and taking care of your body does not necessarily mean you are taking care of the community nor the environment. Taking into account the situation of the workers that are producing your food for less than the money they put into their work, as a direct result of the so-called ‘free trade’ (but heavily subsidized) food policies promoted by the strong industrial food powers, it is hard to find your way around the shopping isles of your supermarket. But even the neighborhood shop or farmer’s market is not above suspicion. In the food industry nothing is what it seems.

In answer to this seemingly insurmountable problem, artists and citizens alike have taken up the challenge in very different ways. Collectives concentrating on city gardening, gathering food in public parks, working on solar energy, devising alternative economies, are all interesting and locally invested initiatives that somehow try to grasp some of the left-overs of the individual agency in matters that seem largely to surpass its level. Because there are few characteristics that shape our current food production that are not so easily airbrushed by good intentions and local initiative.

The first, and probably most important fact is that Food is Class-Conscious: the way food production and distribution is organized today has created, aggrandized and sustained major inequalities in our society: on the city level as well as on the global level, not to forget the discrepancy between the attention dedicated to city (consumers) and the rural community. In the cities American studies have shown that it is hard to find any decent supermarket in predominantly black neighborhoods. The ‘good’, but also often the cheapest food, is to be found on the outskirts of the city, impossible to reach by foot or public transport. Local, inner-city shops often offer lower quality products at a higher price. Which offers the have-nots only a limited choice: since no fresh produce is available they depend on nightshops, local, relatively expensive small-scale super markets, or just don’t bother and go to the Mc Donald’s, which in these neighborhoods is always just behind the corner. Although this study was performed in the megapolis areas of the USA, which structure does not exactly mirror similar sizes cities’ organization in other countries, it is safe to say that the equal access to fresh, healthy and nutritious food is limited to those who are living on limited means.

This glaring inequality does no more than reflect the same kind of imbalance produced by the global food market system: over-subsidized food industries in nations like the USA and China dominate the market by artificially bringing down the prices for the goods produced in other parts of world. Since they are not forced to sell, they can sit back and wait until the market turns out more profit, which is something most other regions cannot afford to do. On top of that the USA has been consciously overproducing (especially corn and grain), and dumping their excess produce on the world market at prices that often are below the cost of production. Which is a sure way of cutting down all concurrency, forcing whole countries into the subservient state of mono-culture produce for mega-companies that are putting even more pressure on the farmers, and rendering them in that way completely dependent on the often capricious swifts and turns of the market and the weather.

What concerned artists-citizens are concentrating on, is to find ways out of this globalized and subsidized inequality system that is fed into us every day when we go shopping ourselves, and come to the understanding that there is no locally grown produce to be found, since it seems cheaper to transport apples over a 3000km distance to the supermarket than to eat the ones the soon-to-go-out-of-business local farmers are producing. What they reclaim as human beings is their right to food sovereignty: the right to be able to make the right choice. Or as the activist group Via Campesina formulates it in mock-answer to the WTO demand for the elimination of trade barriers between the nations: ‘Access to markets? Yes, we want access to our own markets.’
Food sovereignty in the first place has to do with accessibility, as said before, and with the communally constructed rethinking of sustainable food architectures in our communities. But there are also more radical ways to put into question the hierarchies and dependencies of the food market, as the hunger artist exemplifies.

2) Hunger as artistic attitude

Working as a hunger artist means you take a distance from the world. Food is what greatly shapes our social relations, our daily schedules, our meetings and our professional environments. Try to imagine not being able to go out for dinner anymore, have a beer with a friend until late in the night, go to a business lunch meeting, have a glorious Sunday brunch with the family. What does it produce if you break off all these easy and light engagements that somehow keep your network, your links with the world outside of you, intact. The hunger artist will always be the one that introduces a kind of friction in the social setting, the one that doesn’t play the game anymore, the one that sits soberly watching the other ones. It is an awkwardness that creates distance, provokes questions, and -more often than not- a certain degree of scepticism or even hostility.

For the hunger artist the body turns into a completely different vessel: slowly hollowing itself out it becomes little by little a pure exterior, a testimony of the practice that carries itself outwards into the world, the inner core emptying itself out every day a little bit more. The hunger artist is, to speak in Deleuzian terms, the ultimate Body without Organs. Deleuze speaks about different types of BwO’s: the masochist, the anorexic, the addict, etc… Each of them developing a ‘micro-politics’ that will leave the body undone, stripped of all it organs, of its most essential machinistic sense of functioning. The body seen as a machine that has to be filled up every so many hours is dependent on the food architecture he/she lives in to do so, has formatted his/her social environments to fit into these pigeon holes of meeting and exchanging. In contrast, the Body without Organs opens up the possibility of a body that is no longer mechanic, that frees itself from its dependencies, only to reconstruct them from a new perspective. A BwO is assembled out of a desire for experiment, for the potential breaking through. It pushes the organizational lines of time and space that regulate our ordinary social encounters. ‘If the machine is not a mechanism, and if the body is not an organism, it is always then that desire assembles.’

The hunger artist, much like the anorexic as Deleuze sees him, reorganizes the social space. When distanced from the initial desire to consume, prompting us into obeisance and consumerism, food items start to tell a completely different story. Walking through the aisles of the super market, the long rows of repetitive food items take on an almost alien characteristic. The absurdity of the abundance of food, of this constant movement of goods from the other side of the world, from the rural areas, into the city, keeping the heart of our community pumping takes on an almost grotesque character. Taking a distance from the food object is a first step into questioning our dependencies. Not only to eating, but to how these food items shape our lives and relations.

The reason the hunger artist is often looked at wearily is because he questions our sense of pleasure and the social bonds that create it. Food has off course more than a nutritional value: food marks the important moments in our lives, food is an indicator of good taste, of worldliness, and of – not unimportant – class. Food places us fixedly on the social map of belonging. We buy certain products because our parents did so, because the advertiser sold me his body image, because of the comfort of its proximity, because of our craving to be ‘filled up’. ‘Comfort food’ as preached on so many TV channels and in countless cook books, is not by coincidence often fatty and ‘nostalgic’: referring to a previous age, childhood recipes which remind us of home, of the clear safe boundaries of a house in proper order. Comfort foods are our vessels of consolation, not by coincidence mostly targeted to single consumers. They are the consolation for not fitting the social pattern (yet). Comfort food is what creates food addicts and a dependency on food as a social and/or professional readjuster. No wonder then, that from this perspective the hunger artist is seen as a loco, and the anorexic as diseased. In reaction to the full plate of richess offered to him, he declines politely, as Bartleby did before him: ‘I would prefer not to’. (It is no coincidence that Melville’s Bartleby dies of starvation at the end of the book).

But if we look at the hunger artist with a bit more distance, we could argue that he is probably the true ‘relational aesthetics’ manager. Having become a pure exterior, he rearranges the borders of social conduct. If we go back to the anorexic, we see that the ‘I’ of the anorexic undeniably rearranges the fabric of the family constellation. In the same way, if we see the hunger artist practice as a public, artistic practice (which it would have to be to overcome the limits of the narcissistic experience), the ‘I’ of the artist is restructuring the relations among the bodies he is closest to. His collaborators, curators, programmers, public, providers, care-takers and so on. By refusing the imposed organ-ized ways of dealing, by making them impossible to apply through a pure passivity of food denial, he rewrites the potential outcome of the situation introducing this simple moment of openness for what might be there on the other side.

As Deleuze notes the anorexic is not the one that refuses his/her own body, but the one that refuses a particular ideology of the body. It is not the one falling victim to his/her own body, but the one emancipating it from the all-encompassing demands of its environment. It is a twisted logic of the current food system that on the one hand produces more and more fatty and unhealthy food items, and on the other hand glorifies a perfect, trained, ‘normal’ body, shunning the rest of us out of vision. Out-of-size bodies are the ones that launch a counter-attack against these hypocritical and often obtuse moral hygiene of the food market. Why anorexics as well as overweight people are regarded suspiciously is because they trespass the norm, the middle space, the common ground we all agree on. But if we make a more militant reading of this ab-normalcy we could say that ‘The anorexic void has nothing to do with a lack, it is on the contrary a way of escaping the organic constraint of lack and hunger at the mechanical mealtime.’ The psychiatric reading of anorexic practices or the undue fear of the hunger artist ignore other traditional ways in which these practices were considered spiritually liberating and ascetic practices experimented with for thousands of years. As echoed through the witnessing of these traditions the hunger practice is an emancipatory gesture taking a temporary distance from being subjected to the body’s incessant and dictatorial demands.

During le Château Marcella.B picked up on these intuitions and sent out a call for hunger artists all over the world (in response to the score of Morice Deslisle), to strive for an artistic practice that is built on social transformation, fair-trade and the rethinking of the relation between our and other bodies out there in the world. In a second phase she works on the development of her ‘Pratiques Anorexiques’ in different, public residency settings. In her practice she point out the parallel between the ways we deal with food and the ways we deal with our arts practices. Using the body as a transformative tool in the exploration of current societal questions off course places the artist right back into a tradition of long-durational body arts. But also, and more importantly in this context, in the middle of a societal debate that is larger and more accessible to a larger group of stakeholders than the restriction to the usual suspects of the arts scene. The hunger and anorexic practices open up a field of debate that can be shared by anyone, offers an opportunity to digest various concerns, and incorporate them into the empty body of the artistic work.

Off course the Hunger Artist is only one way to deal with the questions raised by global food production. Overall the strategies that deal with these questions are based on creating a ‘state of attention’: which can be achieved through creating zones of attentive cooking, building sustainable food architectures, inventing new foods, etc… What the Hunger Artist in this whole debate is a moment of standstill, a period of tranquility in the middle of the roaring velocity of movement and speed that directs our existence. A moment of suspension in the eye of the storm.

3) Fair trade in the arts: take out the middle men

If we talk about fair-trade in the food industry we talk about returning to the farmers the right to be paid fairly for what they grow. We talk about the unfairness of the middle men, the refiners and distributors of the food, the supermarket chains that push the prices up for the customers and down for the growers. We talk about a clear policy on what exactly it means to deal within ‘free trade’, when the big industrialized nations are paying massive amounts of money to over-produce bulk food which destroys the (potentially) healthy price concurrency regulating the markets. We talk about over-subsidizing governments that don’t take into account the needs of the farmers nor of the consumers. But most of all we talk about the right to decide how and what to grow (from the farmer’s side) and to be able to make healthy and informed decisions on the part of the consumer.

If we talk about the arts market, we seem to have entered into that same state of deadlock. Policy makers and commissions, curators and programmers, everyone is trying to make sense of something that should be fairly simple. There are artists producing a multicultural (in opposition to the monocultural agricultural practices) range of practices and art works, and there is an equally multi-oriented public, looking in the arts for a satisfactory reply to questions or cravings as diverse as critical awareness, aesthetic pleasure, soothing reassurance, political insights, historical framing, and lots and lots more. What is been happening in the last ten years though is a subsidizing policy that grew out of a more or less sane self-organizing artists field, and that now has become regulative to an almost absurd height. (We write here from our background as a respectively Dutch and Belgian artistic researcher).
In his State of the Union at the performance festival in Belgium, a few days after the Dutch cultural subsidy system all but collapsed under the weight of populist demands and managerial efficiency, cultural sociologist Pascal Gielen rightly remarked:
‘The arts field follows a ‘neutral politics’ strategy. One doesn’t utter politically tinged statements, one speaks with just about all democratic parties, one provides evenly divided political distribution in the boards and even sometimes in the governmental commissions. At the same time one incorporates the efficiency and management rhetorics that please today’s policy makers: the arts sector as well wants to prove its ‘good management’, while research ought to legitimate the arts sector economically.’. As a direct result of this managerial approach though, Gielen claims, the arts sector opened up the possibility for its most interesting, experimental, ‘non-efficient’ practices to be cut from one day to the other. Because this kind of understanding of ‘good policy’ ‘has a politically colored history, stemming from the UK politics of Margaret Thatcher, and is certainly not politically neutral since it joins forces with the neo-liberal rhetorics of the free market as the fundament of our society. And does that with all semblance of political neutrality’ As pointed out before, the cultural scene in the Netherlands was crushed by its own embrace of neo-liberal Newspeak. In Belgium, the sector is crushed by the slowly suffocating motherly hug of the subsidiary system. Mom says what we should wear, where we have go to school, how we should behave and present ourselves in public. Mom tells us which words to use in our dossiers, and who to speak to to ‘step up’ the social and professional ladder. The problem is that also in this sector the cards are being dealt by the middle men, by the producers, and subsidizers. Although of course most of the programmers and curators also are stressed into defending their ‘niche format’, their ‘name’ and their ‘brand’. Just as the many commission members and cabinet members and other advisers and decision takers probably have the sector’s best interest in mind. The problem is not situated with the individuals, trying to grasp the reality of what is happening, and responding accordingly. The problem is that the system little by little has made itself indispensable, has become the (half)hidden ruler of the arts. A system that has produced format after format for production, creation, research, distribution and sales is now desperately trying to fill in the holes of the raster, but cannot see over its little devising walls what is happening outside. What people are processing outside of these well-prepared holes in the wall. Which is no wonder, since nobody will ever be able to see what these artists are doing since they didn’t fit the profile of the venues they were supposed to be shown in, or meet the people that might have appreciated what they do. If we talk about a fair-trade in the arts therefore I think we talk about a fair chance, not only for artists, but also for experimental programmers and curators that don’t tick all the salonfähigkeit’s boxes of what is hot today. We talk about the public as well, that often is confronted with a made-to-custom program that is supposed to serve all tastes. And we are evidently also talking about policy makers that should not be burdened with the power to decide on who has and who has not. If we talk about a fair-trade we’re talking about giving the power (and the money) back to the artists: let them decide what to do with all these heaps of bricks supposingly built to host the artist’s and the public’s interest. Let them meet with these publics directly, uncensored, and let them find out what it means to take position. What it means if art again starts to mean that you stand for something, and that we can disagree. Violently or not. And that we can do this directly. Where free trade meets fair-trade. What would the sector look like then?

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