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Playing with your food

Playing with your food

 

Sonja Stummerer and Martin Hablesreiter, Honey & Bunny

 

 

Food is a prerequisite for life itself. If we neglected to eat, we would die. Yet quite apart from the purely physiological role of food in maintaining our bodily functions, eating also plays an important role in our cultural and social self-perception. As such, it is hardly surprising that a whole plethora of rules, traditions and rituals have sprung up around how we as a society consume food. Societies that lay claim to being civilised are especially proud of their table manners and set great store by the utensils that they use to cut up food and insert it into their mouths.

 

The way in which we eat is not hardwired into our biology, but rather culturally acquired. In every society, the natural compulsion to eat is constrained by a rigid system of conventions and rules that specify exactly how food should be consumed. Opening your post with a butter knife, choosing to spoon your wine out of a soup bowl or picking at a pizza topping with a pair of tweezers would contravene the unwritten rules of etiquette that we often adhere to much more closely than many actual laws. We are scrupulous about sticking to these learned diktats – cheese on bread, never mixed in with your muesli – and we deploy the tools that are associated with them, whether out of habit or a desire to conform, never straying from their prescribed use. We don’t drink coffee from a red wine glass or use a fork to comb our hair. Sitting under the table to eat, standing on chairs or spearing food with a pair of pliers rather than a fork simply wouldn’t enter our heads.

No other area of our lives, with the possible exception of sex, is as ritualised as eating. When, where and how we eat are informed by myriad rules and codes of behaviour. Defying these is seen as a sign of a poor upbringing, as something barbaric, even immoral. Instead, it is incumbent on us to sit up straight – no slouching – and eat without smacking our lips, talking with our mouths full or waving our cutlery around. Playing with your food, meanwhile, will earn you a reprimand to be grateful for God’s bounty. Every child has been admonished by their parents in the following terms: ‘Don’t play with your food!’ But why not? As long as it gets eaten, that’s all that matters – isn’t it?

 

Although play is one of the most important building blocks of learning, in the West it has profoundly negative connotations when it comes to food. Once one has reached adulthood, such behaviour is judged to be indicative of a nitwitted indolence and pointless time-wasting. Those who play are deemed to be stunted, detained from what is really important, serious and worthwhile in life: working, praying and eating. For all that, playing opens up certain human abilities that we don’t develop by performing any other kind of activity. It is hard to conceive of creativity without a playful approach to objects, while playful experimentation was behind the very genesis of such cultural accomplishments as literature, art, music and science. So why is playing so disdained in the context of eating? Is playing with your food actually immoral? Or is it not playing with your food that in fact can be immoral too?

Morality is used as a tool for ensuring the survival of cultural mores. This and the entreaty not to play with your food is a superb mechanism for embedding the established code of conduct in practical life, legitimizing it and providing it with a rational basis. Infringements of such moral standards, whether out of provocativeness, decadence, a penchant for the exotic or as a game, threaten to impinge on collective eating habits. Transgressing moral boundaries throws culturally prescribed behaviour relating to food into jeopardy. Morality acts as a gatekeeper for previously defined rules of behaviour and manners. Insistence upon these conventions thwarts changes that may come about as a result of experimentation or play. Prohibiting people from playing with their food is also an instrument of power that ensures group cohesion.

The act of eating might appear to be an intimate one, but it actually happens according to relatively fixed modes of behaviour. The way in which we use a damask napkin, a fish knife or a soup spoon reveals who we are and where we come from. By painstakingly teaching our children how to handle a knife and fork, we are imparting some of the basic principles that underpin our society. In following the tradition of serving every course separately and then immediately clearing away the dishes, we voluntarily submit to endemic hierarchies such as the patriarchy. In other countries, unused crockery remains on the table until the end of the meal, so that no one has to get up to serve their fellow diners.

Food fulfils the function of keeping the body alive. Yet our manner of eating also puts various social and cultural ideals into effect. The ultimate purpose of this is to satisfy the ideology that underlies the eating culture in question. After all, nourishment is not just a physical necessity, but also a metaphysical component of our very self-image. Moreover, eating is a man-made artefact and is therefore treated in the same way as other objects of everyday use. As a product, food in the West is thus produced with a view to making it as efficient, cheap, durable, hygienic and uniform in quality as possible, such that it meets the requirements of our modern, industrialized society. The composition of mass-produced edible goods thus comes up against two value systems that at times prove contradictory: food as part of nature and its living creatures on the one hand, and food as a commodity with a specific monetary value on the other.

This contradiction creates a conflict within the mindset of Western industrial nations, which is reflected in the whole issue of playing with food. While religious and bourgeois mores inhibit such practices, as far as the marketing departments of food manufacturers are concerned, playing with your food is not only condoned but positively encouraged. Casting all moral scruples to one side, when designing products food manufacturers often deliberately attempt to harness their consumers’ instinct for play. There cannot be many of us who don’t feel a sense of glee as we dip our hand into a packet of colourful fruit jelly sweets, delve into a bowl of crispy crocodile-, owl- or fish-shaped snacks, or study an array of muffins, doughnuts or cakes with garish, over-the-top icing. Breakfast biscuits come adorned with flowers and spirals, while colourful pasta shapes bring a bit of colour to even the most humdrum of dishes. People love to indulge their playful side with everything that surrounds them, including their food.

While the purpose of the urge to play is primarily to help children to learn, our performances use play as a way of unlearning. Food gets our minds going, in several senses: the choice, method or preparation and (right or wrong) way in which we consume our food reveals who we really are. Going about eating the ‘wrong’ way elicits a strong response from others. Make no attempt to hide your penchant for mustard on cake, and you’ll earn tuts and head-shaking. Tucking into the leftovers from the neighbouring table at your local pub could lead to stern words from the management, and scant regard for table manners could, in the worst-case scenario, result in your whole party being barred. ‘Incorrect’ or unconventional behaviour at the dinner table may be interpreted by your fellow diners as a provocation, triggering an aggressive response.

On 29 January 2016 we sat down at a table we had laid for ourselves in the Raphael Gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum. As part of a ‘Friday Late’ event organised by the Museum we spread a dining table with soil and covered it with medical instruments and antique china. On these were arranged items in the palest of colour palettes: cauliflower and celery stalks; butter and sugar; meringues and peppermint sweets; milk and a whole round of Camembert. White food might look soft and innocent, but when juxtaposed with the medical paraphernalia of forceps, pipettes, scalpels and tweezers, it takes on a sterile, sallow and somewhat emotionless air. The dark earth, which served as the tablecloth for this family feast, formed a stark contrast with the pale food, both aesthetically and symbolically. On the one hand, soil is the fertile ground from which all of our food ultimately comes, but it is also insalubrious dirt, a haven for bugs and bacteria. A floor lamp, chairs and a white rug laid out beneath the dining table transported viewers to an intimate living-room setting, thus divesting the Museum of its traditional function. The two of us, dressed all in white, served as living projection surfaces for videos that addressed rules of etiquette, in ironic fashion.

Many visitors had a somewhat emotional reaction to this installation. When they entered they would start feeding each other morsels from the exhibit and touching us. Some told us that they felt rather needled by the soil and the medical instruments. Others sampled the soil and discussed how it tasted. Over the course of the evening, their reactions became more robust, with some visitors throwing soil around the hall, spoiling the food, and later going so far as to smash the crockery. When questioned about it they said that they felt energized by the installation and perceived the deliberate destruction of the food as a means of psychotherapy. Ultimately the Museum staff put a stop to the commotion.

 

The V&A was not the only place where we witnessed this kind of emotional interaction. Quite the opposite, in fact: this is what we want and seek to provoke, even if it does not usually manifest itself in such an extreme fashion. As artists we are particularly interested in the symbolism of food and the meanings that it conveys, such that it triggers reactions that are sometimes irrational, or at any rate out of the ordinary.

 

We see Eat Art as simply the thing to encourage people to let themselves go. The fact is that whenever food is used as a creative vehicle, those who experience it are touched in a way that goes beyond a ‘classic’ appreciation of art. As a rule, art takes place at a certain remove, which prevents direct interaction with the exhibited objects. By contrast, performances allow

 

Many visitors had a somewhat emotional reaction to this installation. When they entered they would start feeding each other morsels from the exhibit and touching us. Some told us that they felt rather needled by the soil and the medical instruments. Others sampled the soil and discussed how it tasted. Over the course of the evening, their reactions became more robust, with some visitors throwing soil around the hall, spoiling the food, and later going so far as to smash the crockery. When questioned about it they said that they felt energized by the installation and perceived the deliberate destruction of the food as a means of psychotherapy. Ultimately the Museum staff put a stop to the commotion.

 

The V&A was not the only place where we witnessed this kind of emotional interaction. Quite the opposite, in fact: this is what we want and seek to provoke, even if it does not usually manifest itself in such an extreme fashion. As artists we are particularly interested in the symbolism of food and the meanings that it conveys, such that it triggers reactions that are sometimes irrational, or at any rate out of the ordinary.

 

We see Eat Art as simply the thing to encourage people to let themselves go. The fact is that whenever food is used as a creative vehicle, those who experience it are touched in a way that goes beyond a ‘classic’ appreciation of art. As a rule, art takes place at a certain remove, which prevents direct interaction with the exhibited objects. By contrast, performances allow immediacy and interaction. In the case of food, it is not only possible to touch the artwork and experience it with one’s senses, especially smell, but also to actually devour parts of it onenself.

 

Handling food in a way that violates social norms is bound to be confusing. People are triggered by eating situations that undermine traditional conventions, even if only in minute details. And that is precisely what makes Eat Art or Food Design so remarkable. By detaching food from its ubiquitous manifestation in our day-to-day lives and placing it in new, unfamiliar contexts, food performances can trigger certain feelings and thoughts. At best they can open up new possibilities and usher in change. The sight, smell and taste of food all affect us, as do the implements and rules associated with its consumption. When we eat, we are prepared to let ourselves fall away, abandon our customary habits and experience something new. If we examine our traditions and delve into our cultural memory, we find ourselves asking why we eat the way we do. Could we not eat quite differently?

 

It’s a valid question. After all, the way in which our usual food is designed is not just a matter of tradition, cultural, health, diet and culinary quality, but also reflects such issues as CO2 emissions, land use, water consumption, energy and transport systems. Any change to our eating behaviour has a direct impact on social and economic processes, not to mention on the ecosystem. What, when, why and how we eat might help to alleviate precarious working conditions among harvest workers in Spain, contribute towards logging in Southeast Asian rainforests, or lead to soil erosion in Central Africa, whether directly or indirectly. The eating culture determines what we eat and what value we place on quality and the conditions in which our food is produced. In the interests of our planet and its inhabitants (that is, us), it matters whether a society chooses a monocultural, centralized, industrialized model, or one oriented towards democratic, sustainable food production. Ultimately the production of food uses the lion’s share of the earth’s natural resources, with agriculture responsible for 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water consumption and around 30 per cent of its overall CO2 emissions.1 In addition, around 53 per cent of the earth’s land surface is used for agricultural purposes, thus creating mankind’s ‘agricultural footprint’ on the earth. Finally, in Europe up to 40 per cent of food is thrown away.

 

Eating is a profoundly political act. With every bite we change the world, environmentally, economically and socially. Playing with food also means discarding common (eating)

Eating is a profoundly political act. With every bite we change the world, environmentally, economically and socially. Playing with food also means discarding common (eating) behaviours and questioning existing values in a childlike and open-minded way. Playing opens up possibilities for new ways of interacting with food. Don’t we even have a certain duty to play with our food in order to constantly examine the boundaries of our eating culture and to give way for future development?

We are the result of our actions. We design, produce, consume, and then leave leftovers in our wake. In everything we do, we follow cultural conventions – traditions, rules and laws. These reflect the values of our society. Many of these cultural practices run contrary to the idea of a sustainable lifestyle, for instance the notion that food is particularly elegant and worthwhile if it requires as much crockery as possible. Many consider it unseemly to serve up leftovers, or embarrassing to divide up servings, box up the rest of your meal to take with you or give it away. Then there’s the belief that steak tastes better and is healthier than lights (game or livestock lungs), and that meat is more valuable than vegetables. Why is it not the done thing to ask how much natural gas has gone into producing a greenhouse-grown tomato? And why do we consider the ability to buy grapes from the supermarket in spring a sign of progress? As citizens, we can stick to these conventions or create new values. In doing so, we are defining our relationship with nature, our fellow human beings and our own future. Finally, it can pay to play with food.

 

 

1 Source: European Union Joint Research Centre, Erwan Saouter.

 

 

 

 

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