What it smelled like in 1971 at the "Matta-bones dinner" of the New York artist restaurant FOOD, you can only guess. In any case, it looked good, the remains of the oxtail soup and stuffed marrow pipes, which after the dinner had been worked, drilled and strung together to make jewelry for the guests. When the illustrious artist's dinner was recently re-performed, the chefs advised to let the bones cook for a few hours and let them dry for a few days before hanging them around your neck - not immediately after dinner. Fortunately, history has no odor.
Restaurant FOOD in the New York district of Soho, then a no-go area, was founded in 1971 by dancer Caroline Goodden. It was best known for its partner the artist Gordon Matta-Clark (known for his monumental cut-outs from buildings) and for guest chefs such as painter / sculptor Donald Judd, pop art leader Robert Rauschenberg and composer John Cage.
FOOD was at the cradle of many trends. A restaurant that was run by artists; with a large open kitchen in the middle of the business where cooking became a performance; that seasonal products preferred and (re) used residues; that one of the first to cook complete vegetarian dinners; that did community-building and, moreover, was the first restaurant on site to be the engine behind the gentrification of a district. How Soho fared is known.
If artists are involved with food - and they have been doing this since the first petroglyph of the bison - you know for sure that there is an agenda behind the plate.
The Futurists, an Italian art movement from the period between the world wars, were happy to present their ideas in the form of manifestos, but also of recipes and dinners. Art and life had to go together, the "arte-vita" osmosis, and where could it be better than at the holy Italian dining table? View the menus in the Futuristic Cookbook (1932) and you will not only see absurd theater (eating in the dark, dancing waiters, sandpaper as a napkin); initiatives were also given for the molecular kitchen that turned gastronomy upside down for more than half a century. And the current fight against carbohydrates was already included. Because the real ideological agenda of the Futurists was conducted through a fight against pasta, which made the Italian people cumbersome, stupid and not ready for the future, says founder Marinetti.
More than half a century later, in the 1990s, the cooking performances of Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija and related artists formed the heart of "relational aesthetics"; art that wanted a much closer connection with daily life and that wanted to remove the line between art and viewer. These performances meant a lot for literally opening up museums and galleries. And even more important: through a medium that is understandable and familiar to everyone, usually a bowl of soup, artists warned against the then-starting digitization of society. The idea was that food would keep us away from the screen and bring us together.
There are countless examples of moments when artists switched from portraying food to food preparation. And it was to be expected that artists would become involved with food in other, more intensive ways. The image of our food has deteriorated considerably in the last 30 years. The way in which we produce and distribute our basic needs; scaling up; the bio-industry; climate change ... responsible eating (healthy, non-environmentally harmful and enough for the growing world population) has become the holy grail.
For a professional group that is above average in food, these are subjects that require (re) action. This is where the bio and food artist come into the picture. First there was a wave of awareness. Do we actually still know what we eat or how it grows? For example, designer Christien Meindertsma discovered all 185 products containing parts of one pig, from pork chops to soap and ammunition, and made the book PIG 05049 (2007) about it. Or take the Dutch artists from the Tostifabriek who started making a sandwich from A to Z in 2013. Sowing and harvesting grain for bread, keeping cows for cheese and butter production and the pigs for ham.
You could say that an innovative phase follows after the didactic phase, although in this case they are running quite parallel. Developments in biotechnology are important for artists and designers. Genetic modification and plant breeding, accelerated by new DNA techniques, are used for this and there is collaboration between scientists and artists. They immerse themselves in edible fungi, in cultured meat, in vertical food greenhouses and in plastic, the most problematic by-product of the modern food chain.
Artists use their position outside the regular chain to do two things at the same time. They make a new product and at the same time provide comments on the mechanisms behind that product. For example, the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac - who also coined the term "bio-art" in 1997 - developed the fluorescent rabbit "Alba" in 2000. A genetically engineered rabbit (Kac combined DNA from jellyfish and rabbits) that glowed green under UV light. The work of art, at the same time a living animal, made clear for the first time what the moral questions behind that technique were. Can humans do something like that?
Kac still had to fight to be able to conduct research and gain access to laboratories and resources. If you now look at the list of partners of, for example, the Bio Art & Design Award initiated from the Netherlands (the BadAward, € 25,000 annually for the winning project), you will see a multitude of scientific links: with clinical genetics from UMC Leiden, tissue improvement at the University of Maastricht, biomechanics at TU Delft. The added value of artists and designers is widely recognized because they provide ideas that are often radical, strange or sometimes downright nasty to initiate outside the arts. Grow edible fungi on plastic and chemical waste? The Austrian collective LivinStudio did it with their project Fungi Mutarium and it looked good and tasty too.
These are ideas and images that may not be realized anytime soon, because regular producers cannot or will not yet take the risk. Just like an average restaurant will never let it's guests bring home the bones of their food.
"OPENING THE DOORS OF FOOD" (1971) TINA GIROUARD, CAROLINE GOODDEN AND GORDON MATTA-CLARK IN FRONT OF THE DOOR OF FOOD. PHOTO OF RICHARD LANDRY, WITH ADJUSTMENT BY GORDON MATTA-CLARK. OWNERSHIP OF GORDON MATTA-CLARK / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; COURTESY THE ESTATE OF GORDON MATTA-CLARK AND DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK.