A SEAT AT THE TABLE
When artists serve aesthetical conflict risotto, help yourself.
- Jun 17 2021
- Chris PaxtonChris is an artist, curator and writer living in Berlin. His research focuses on mediation in art and cultural institutions. He currently studies Cultures of the Curatorial at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig.
BEFORE SITTING DOWN TO SHARE A MEAL, the table must first be set with all the wares, containers, and textiles endemic to the ritual. These conditions, however varied, come together and set the scene, impacting to an often underestimated degree the reception of the meal itself. As a precursor to commensality, the conditions of hospitality become the medium through which cultural ideas and imaginations are realized and thus, the table takes precedence over the meal as the primary arena for social engagement. No wonder then that the labor associated with restaurants is known as an industry of hospitality, rather than one of dining. Yet a seat at the table should not be taken for granted – some must demand one for themselves while others still are left without – and those who do manage to find their place face the uncertainty of their own position as a guest; negotiating tastes, social interactions, and the eventual digestion of the experience before making an exit. Much like food, artistic practices affect the transformation of human systems, often with far-reaching social, cultural and political implications. Artists have long experimented with the potentials of food and its connections to the aesthetic, but often in favor of staging convivial relationships of hospitality through social engagement, resulting in palatable encounters for those lucky enough to find themselves there. But, if considering the space of the shared meal as a contact zone, a term coined by theorist Mary Louise Pratt as “a social space where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other,”  the table can become a contested site, rife with conflict and encounter.
"Loaded with the ability to sustain social energies, the art of a shared meal carries radical potential for metabolizing social and cultural change through provocation rather than mass appeal and easily digestible participation."
Considered by many the hospitality artist par excellence, Rirkrit Tiravanija is best known for his gallery installations and performances where he reappropriates th exhibition space to serve pad thai, green curry, or even instant noodles to visitors. All are welcome to take part in the meal, often under the condition that they give something back to the interaction, either by assisting in the preparation or by washing up afterwards, for example.
While creating an open and accessible platform for social engagement, the table Tiravanija sets lacks political pretension. In a pointed critique, art historian Claire Bishop claims the challenge of Tiravanija’s work lies less in the quality of social relations produced as in their simple
occurrence.  Drawing upon Chantal Mouffe’s political theory of antagonism as a precondition for social democracy, Bishop argues that “a democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased,” and shows how the radical democratic potentials of Tiravanija’s work often collapse into the formation of common consensus. The erasure of conflict in Tiravanija’s work
is perhaps most tellingly exemplified in a review from critic Jerry Salz, who fondly recalls conversations with blue-chip art dealers, gallerists, and artists during visits to Tiravanija’s seminal work Untitled (Free) (1992) at New York’s 303 Gallery, signaling a contentedness with the social relations of the ‘capital-a’ Art world. 
Whether addressing a casual international art audience in Basel or an exclusive group of connoisseurs in New York, Tiravanija’s works, Bishop argues, ultimately generate “a community whose members identify with each other, because they have something in common.” 
So the question then remains: how can one identify with someone with whom they have nothing in common?
The challenge then, for practices concerned with finding mutualistic ways of being together, lies in arousing a sense of discomfort at the table to mobilize possible responses to conflict. In contrast to the politics of idealized participation seen in Tiravanija’s works, the dynamics of a de-idealized implication within oppressive systems activate a critical moment in the flow of cultural metabolisms. Setting the table for conflict means addressing the entanglement of artists, audiences, and institutions within oppressive systems as a means for imagining new ways of coming together.
The performance art inspired projects of Nigerian-American chef Tunde Wey, for example, generate frictions through the price tag of his meals. In Nashville, Wey gave out hot chicken for free to the neighborhood’s Black residents, while asking white diners to pay $100 for one piece, $1,000 for four, and the deed to a property for a whole bird and sides. Wey’s interventions raise questions surrounding racial disparities in wealth and land ownership, gentrification of cities, and reparations for Black Americans, which has gained traction in recent years,  and negotiate a complex web of social relations, challenging a (mostly white) audience to pinpoint their role in upholding systems of oppression and to take action to counteract systemic injustice.
The role of institutions too can be disputed through culinary discourses as a means of activating alliances. In 2015, Politique Culinare, a collective of four artists and curators, set out to try and digest historic moments through the lens of political banquets that often accompany major events or decision-making processes. In a proposed dinner at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, whose collections are now held as part of the recently opened Humboldt Forum, the group sought to reenact the banquet that accompanied the Berlin Africa Conference of 1885, where colonial claims to the continent were mapped out.Refugee activists, entrepreneurs, and supporters and crit-
ics of the Humboldt Forum project were all invited to a symbolic return to the table to raise questions about the impacts of colonialism through short table speeches.  By bringing together disparate, often contradictory perspectives to the same table, Politique Culinare questioned the role of institutions in dealing with imperial histories. As the event failed to launch due to the museum’s own concerns about its image, the invitation remains open for the Humboldt Forum to meaningfully deal with the implications of its colonial collections.  In all, the responsibility of hosting and mediating conflict through artistic interventions with food goes beyond simple commensality, prompting reflections on the conditions of social and political engagement, the activation of which produces a cultural metabolism of “transformation that would go beyond action, that would live in us, transforming us first, and then the world.”  A recipe for social change requires an ingredient of conflict, not as a means of inciting division, but of bridging gaps and embracing difference. In the case of Tunde Wey, such interventions are perhaps the beginning of a critical investigation of systemic injustices, while institutional blockage marks the end of this process for Politique Culinare. While such approaches may be limited in their conflation of consciousness-raising with implication within oppressive systems, responses to conflict are often more processual than prescriptive. In the overlap between food and art, the table can become a site of sustained conflict, forcing us to reflect and mobilizing us into action.
Read this piece in print in the issue 16 "Food Eats the Soul", out now!