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On April 12, the Smart Museum's student advisory committee hosted the Feast-inspired party I Eat You Eat. Over 500 University of Chicago students and prospective students dropped in to take part in the collaborative activities. In the aftermath of the event, students Mallika Dubey, Kirsten Gindler, John Harness, and Nicole Reyna convened a digital roundtable to reflect on the program's development and student life at the University.

John Harness:When we first started to plan a student program, we thought: "Feast. LET'S HAVE A LOT OF FOOD!" And thus "Cakefest" (as I hear it was colloquially known around campus) was born.

Nicole Reyna:We went through a bunch of different ideas about cultural food-related practices and thought about having several different ethnicities of food represented. We definitely had the let's have a lot of food idea down, it was just a matter of deciding what and how it would be served. We also thought about having a sit-down dinner, but decided against that based on logistics and the possibility of having to turn people away.

Mallika Dubey: There was significant discussion around the way people come together in groups to eat. Do people always sit around a table? Do we pass food from one person to another? And is food shared communally or do we tend to serve ourselves? We tossed around the idea of having people walk around to different stations for food, but we decided it would be best to serve guests some of the items, such as the falafel.

JH: I don't exactly remember where the idea to decorate the cakes as part of the event came from...

NR: The cakes came about mostly from discussing how people could become a part of the making of the food -- decorating being the most logistically sound way of incorporating this.

MD: The cake deserved its own station, because we chose to highlight the collaborative process in decorating and beautifying the cake. As it is, when you eat a slice of cake, you are to some degree aware that you are consuming part of the whole. In this way, it's nice to get a glimpse of the whole cake before you sit down to eat your share. Furthermore, the act of decorating a cake made it seem more like a work of art to guests. There is an interplay of senses -- in that people are drawn to it visually, or aesthetically, just as much as they are drawn to it by their taste buds.

NR: The cakes were slightly messy, but everyone loved it! The line for the first cutting of the cake seemed a little hectic but everything turned out well and we had plenty of people involved and excited. A lot of people were comforted by the fact that you needed little to no skill to be involved in the cake-decorating. Some people would just write their name, the name of their house, some flowers, or even just some random patterns.

MD: During our planning, we discussed how cakes are often placed on a pedestal at weddings, bridal showers, anniversaries, etc. People always want to eat a really beautiful cake!

JH: What was fun (and terrifying) about the evening was that we learned -- literally as we were opening the doors to let folks inside the Museum -- that the event had been advertised to all of the prospective college students who happened to be visiting campus that day. Suddenly our expected attendance had doubled.

Kirsten Gindler: Yet in the face of this unexpected development, the Smart did not turn students away; we welcomed them graciously and hospitably, altering the setup of the event to accommodate additional guests, which resulted in a completely enjoyable and successful event for both current and prospective students alike.

NR: I think the fact that prospective students were there was a plus -- it showed them that our school can be fun and cool and probably brought them into the Smart Museum for the first time. It was a little alarming when we realized just how many people we'd be having as the crowd started coming in, but we handled it well and no one (even in the crowd) seemed to feel that we were unprepared or under-resourced.

JH: Yeah, I think we handled it pretty well, mostly because we had arranged to have so much food available! It did mean that we had to change a few things on the fly -- like we scrapped the idea of passing around most of the food and instead just served it buffet style.

MD: I think the event went well for the most part. I think, however, there needed to be more conversation triggered around the food, the ritual of eating, and the actual Off-Off performance.

NR: I heard several people talking about how the Off-Off Campus didn't really happen. I tried to explain that it did, but it was a little "under the radar." It would've been nice to have had Off-Off been more central to the event, but people didn't seem to be too upset.

MD: I tried explaining at the entrance to people what they were going to experiencing, but I felt that most of the time people walked in and went straight to the buffet. While they knew we were celebrating food and the act of coming together to eat, I'm not sure there was too much discussion around it. In this way, I think the cake decorating was more successful, because people were involved in decorating a part of the cake before they ate their own slice.

KG: The event reminded me that hospitality, one of the main themes discussed in Feast is one of the enduring roles of the Smart Museum in the greater University of Chicago community. I work as a barista in the café and the day after the "I Eat You Eat" event, as I served more prospective students and their parents who stopped by for snacks, I realized that the Smart really does play a unique and perhaps unsung role in welcoming people to the University. I remember my prospie visit, where I attended the museum tour with my father. We admired the collection, enjoyed espresso at the café, and he smiled and said, "Kirsten, this place is great, maybe you will work here someday!"

NR: Especially with the opening of the Logan Center, I'm hearing the campus in general start to talk about art more. People get really excited when the Feast exhibition comes up in conversation, mostly because it's so conceptual and far from a traditional fine-art exhibition. The publicity and attendance of this event was a prime example of how students not often involved in the arts on campus can come in and experience what the Smart has to offer.

Alex and Noah in Laura's kitchenblog.jpgThe Feast blog has been dormant for the past year--a calm that belies huge amounts of behind-the-scenes activity as we get ready for the exhibition's opening on February 16, 2012. To share that energy, we're re-launching the site with a bright new look courtesy of Jason Pickleman and JNL graphic design and fresh content by a new group of contributors. We'll pull back the curtain so you can peek into artists' studios and museum archives. We'll highlight classic older art and introduce works-in-progress commissioned especially for Feast. We'll unpack the many kinds of creative labor and collaboration that go into producing a complex exhibition like this one. And we'll look ahead to all the events that will kick off with the exhibition's opening in February and spill out onto campus and around the city until June. Watch for regular posts over the coming months.

Ace intern Sarah Mendelsohn will lead off with posts about her participation in Food for Thought, a University of Chicago class that that Professor Laura Letinsky and I co-taught during spring quarter 2011. Laura is one of the artists featured in Feast, and we designed the course to go beyond the meal--Feast's focus--to address the broader topic of food in art. Food and its consumption form essential parts of human experience and have played a correspondingly rich role within creative cultural production over millennia--as vehicles for need and desire, purity and danger, value and lack, connection and disruption. The course considered what's at stake when contemporary artists build on this longstanding practice to explore the complexities of current societal, political, and cultural contexts.

One especially satisfying part of the course were workshops and field trips in which we prepared and shared meals together as a way to ground theoretical debates. For three of these sessions, exhibiting artists Theaster Gates, Laura Letinksy, and Michael Rakowitz met with the class to discuss their approach to artmaking and share works-in-progress for Feast. Food for Thought followed a long tradition of connecting the Smart to University teaching--from Art 101 sessions focused on objects in the collection to seminars like this one that give students intimate views into the working processes of contemporary artists. (Any current UofC students reading this: note that a revised version of the course will be offered in Spring 2012, while Feast is on view. Sign up early. Tell your friends!) More soon on the course and workshops from Sarah.
Pie-Small.jpgMy mom's extended family converges on Kansas City every year to celebrate Thanksgiving with my grandparents. At age 89 and 93, they're sharp of mind but depleted of body--my grandfather, in particular, seems hollow-boned and fragile, in need of nourishment beyond the reach of the food-related rituals that fill our time together. These rituals have been shifting lately, in subtle but crucial ways. Wednesdays, for instance, have always been devoted to baking pies ranging from classic pumpkin to our own holiday variant, the sweet-tart slice-o-lemon (see two of them at the bottom of the photo).

Grandma has historically been Queen of Pies, but over the past few years she's grown more tired, we've grown more capable and more numerous, and the numbers of pies have increased, so we grandchildren have done more of the baking. This year, seven of us made six pies that were consumed to the last crumb by 17 children, grandchildren, spouses, and friends. Grandma stayed out of the kitchen except for a bit of hands-on correction--teasing and a bit acerbic, sweet-tart as the lemon pie.

This transition-in-the-kitchen got me thinking about generational shifts as they play out around meals. I've been doing a "Harvest Feast" for years, which is essentially Thanksgiving with friends: I pull out the china and we drink a lot of wine and indulge in dishes that riff on classic flavors but aren't bound by them. These two big meals satisfy overlapping but distinct needs; I love my family's interpretation of the classic Midwestern feast as well as this other epicurious-inflected  version, and I'm glad they both can run in parallel rather than one supplanting the other. This feels relevant to Feast. The show will cover several generations of artistic practice going back to the early twentieth century--its chronological range is, in fact, close to my grandparents' lifespans, although that's simply an elegant coincidence. Like our Wednesday of pie-baking, the exhibition will, I hope, prompt some consideration of change and continuity back across time (as well as out across cultures, a topic for another post). The materials and rituals that we chose to retain and to jettison and to rediscover over time offer clues to who we are--as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations--and that's equally true in cooking and in art-making.  


In 2012 there will be feasting in Chicago.

In February of that year, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago will premiere Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art,
an exhibition about the meal as a medium for contemporary artists. I'm
the curator of the exhibition, and over the next two and 1/2 years, this blog will host ongoing research for
the project.

Here's our current description of the show:

The act of sharing food and drink with others is a basic human pleasure and an enduring source of aesthetic inspiration. Today, the shared meal has become a compelling artistic medium: a surprising number of artists are using meals to advance aesthetic goals and foster critical engagement with our current culture. These artist-orchestrated meals can offer a radical form of hospitality that punctures everyday experience, using food as a means to spark encounters and perceptions that aren't otherwise possible within our fast-moving and overly segmented society. Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art surveys these practices for the first time. Through a series of new art commissions in public spaces and a presentation within the Smart Museum, the exhibition will introduce new artists and contextualize their work in relation to some of the most influential artists of the last century, from the Italian Futurists to Gordon Matta-Clark and Rirkrit Tirvanija. Feast addresses the radical hospitality embodied by these artists and the social, commercial, and political structures that surround the experience of the shared meal.

Here's what you'll find on this blog:

1) Searching and Sifting:

I've chosen a few of the artists and works for Feast but am still in the "casting-a-wide-net" phase of research. There are more artists working with the meal than I had imagined when I first proposed this exhibition, and as I gather more and more information about artist-orchestrated meals around the world, I'm trying to understand how the meal fits within in each artist's practice and how it relates to their individual preoccupations. I'm also curious about whether trends will emerge and if strong connections will become visible within and across different generations and locations. (This is for the contemporary material; the historical sections are smaller and already more tightly formed.)  And of course, the research process has to yield an exhibition in the gallery as well as in public sites, one that holds together conceptually and physically and brings out the best of the artists' projects so they hold their own while also supporting the overall thematic framework. This blog will be one place to track research, analysis, and musings.

2) Reading Notes

Discussion notes about relevant texts: art histories, food histories, calls for massive structural change our current Euro-American food supply system, theories of hospitality and its importance in contemporary society, etc.

4) Research and Planning Notes

Travelogues; notes from informal "Kitchen Cabinet" planning dinners that will bring a diverse group of colleagues together for discussions leading up to the exhibition; brief discussion of relevant artists, projects, and places; pictures; excerpts from interviews; recipes, etc. Notes about the logistical challenge of transforming the research into an exhibition, public projects, collaborative public programs, related courses, and a book.

5) Occasional Guest Bloggers:

Short posts on related topics from artists, writers, Kitchen Cabinet participants, etc.

6) Comments:

A call out to  artists, curators, scholars, students, interlocutors, critics, locavores, chefs, shopkeepers, salonistas, activists, everyday cooks, backyard gardeners, farmers' marketers, Chowhounders, LTHForumers, etc: please share your thoughts about the blog and the project. I'd love to hear from you if there are other artists, books, meals that I should know about, or if you have incisive critique or suggestions.

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Blog Description

This is an informal curatorial research blog for Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, an exhibition about the meal as a medium for contemporary artists. The exhibition opens at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art in February 2012.