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Theaster Gates shows how creating intentional space for community can drive artistic discourse, through the construction, layout, and use of the Dorchester Projects house, home to the Soul Food Pavilion dinners.
Feast artists Marina Abramović, Sonja Alhäuser, Mary Ellen Carroll, Theaster Gates, Mella Jaarsma, Alison Knowles, Suzanne Lacy, Lee Mingwei, Laura Letinsky, Tom Marioni, Ana Prvacki, and Michael Rakowitz reflect on hospitality.
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.
At a time when reproducable visual culture dominates spheres of human communication, how does photography transform our relation to objects? In her recent still life work, Laura Letinsky has worked with images from food and lifestyle magazines, both confronting traditions of composition and engaging with the "substitute and fetish" magazine culture constitutes.
The MCA exhibition of Letinsky's photography is on view through April 17; her work is also featured in Feast, through June 10.
While we've been staging a wide variety of programming offering visitors the opportunity to join the feast, no event exemplifies the intimacy of the act of sharing food so much as Lee Mingwei's Dining Project.
Lee's specially-built platform, encapsulating a dinner table built for two, is on view to all who visit Feast, but a handful of guests have had the chance to enter into the arena and dine with artist himself. UChicago undergrad and Smart café attendant Dory Fox described her dinner with Lee in a blog post earlier this year.
Lee will be returning to Chicago to stage three additional dinners on April 30, May 1 and May 2. To enter for the chance to have a one-of-a-kind dining experience of your own, submit your name to the online drawing.
Artist Theaster Gates considers his Soul Food Pavilion to be more of an idea than a particular place: "It's the opportunity to make a space where amazing interactions can happen around the foods of black people."
As part of Feast, Gates is collaborating with chef Michael Kornick and Ericka Dudley, an expert on soul food who works with the University of Chicago's Civic Knowledge Project, as well as others to host a series of ritualized dinners at Dorchester Projects, a group of once-vacant homes in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago's South Side.
Sara Pooley captured the scene at the March 11 dinner, The Art of Soul:
That evening's menu included gumbo and conversation focused on "how we color our food -- the choice of color, intention and usefulness in food preparation, and how cooking can be viewed as an art practice."
Want to join in the soul food feast? Enter for a chance to receive an invitation to the dinners on April 15, May 6, or May 20. Guests will be chosen in part by lottery and contacted two weeks in advance.
Celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović sat down with the Smart to talk about her work and how the public helps to complete a performance piece.
"I think that performance in the deeper sense is about hospitality," Abramović says. "It's that you actually open yourself to the public and show your vulnerability, your contradictions, and be there in the full sense, for them."
Abramović will expand on these topics during a sold-out lecture on performance and its future tonight in the Loop. The lecture is presented by the Smart and the Chicago Humanities Festival. The Smart's exhibition Feast includes Communist Body / Fascist Body, an influential piece by Abramović and her longtime collaborator Ulay.
From WBEZ's Art/Work series, a video about photographer Laura Letinsky's work and practice. Feast includes several photographs by Letinsky, and she will create a new work for the exhibition that's based off of a meal she will prepare for her fellow Feast artists.
Letinsky is a professor at the University of Chicago, is teaching a related course about the intersections between food and contemporary art, and has an exhibition on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through April 17, 2012.