Saturday, December 17, 2011

Feel-Good Holiday Post: Food and Art as Uniting Forces

Michael Rakowitz, Enemy Kitchen, Hudson Guild Community Center, 2006. Image via More Art
Now I don't want to go all "kumbaya" on you, but I would like my last post of 2011 to end on a high note. It's the holidays, everyone's frazzled, needs to get in the spirit, remember what is really important, yadda yadda yadda. But seriously, with all the crazy divisive political rhetoric that has gone on this year (and that will continue next year, no doubt) I think it's a good time to look at some uniting factors. In the past I've talked about how art connects us to our ancestors thousands of years ago, but how can we connect to people today who are different than ourselves today? Well, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on, or vote on, no matter who you worship, no matter what country to pledge your've got to eat. Read on for some musings on the power of art and food to connect across differences.


Uniting across nations...and across the aisle
    Recently I heard an interview with food personality Anthony Bourdain in which he talked at length about the power of food to cross potentially volatile cultural and political boundaries.* As you may know, Bourdain is a sort mouthy but charming chef and food writer who travels the world sampling local cuisine for his TV show. Often his experiences with food serve as a window into the broader culture of a place, from Saudia Arabia to New Jersey to Iceland to the American South. Needless to say he has feasted at the tables of all sorts of people.
     In this interview, Bourdain commented that breaking bread with people who operate in totally different value systems (and ones that most Americans might find offensive or suspect) is actually a great exercise in unity, as it forces you to put politics aside and think "hey, if these folks are behind this delicious food and tremendous hospitality we must have something in common, no matter what they believe." Bourdain thought that this line of thinking should be applied not just in other countries but within the United States as a way to unite red and blue-staters during this especially divisive political time.

Cooking in the Enemy Kitchen
     I thought back to that interview when I came across several articles about the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. Rakowitz has been getting a good deal of press in the last week or so, since the official end of the Iraq war. His projects are participatory works that use food in much the way Bourdain describes. But in Rakowitz's work the food isn't just a vehicle for cultural understanding but also a jumping off point for cross-cultural dialogue.
     For his ongoing piece Enemy Kitchen, Rakowitz cooks Iraqi food for different groups of people while asking his guests questions about the Iraq war and America's relationship with Iraq. Enemy Kitchen is meant to create a safe space where participants can discuss their feelings about the Iraq war, and, more broadly, American and Iraqi cultural differences. Many participants don't know much about Iraqi culture due to its relative in America - which makes food a good entry point for the topic. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Rakowitz's practice operates on the idea that "food creates a 'social platform and circumstance' that can stimulate a 'cultural puncture' among distinct geographical, political and psychological realms."

Food as "cultural puncture"
     To me, Rakowitz's concept of "cultural puncture" as an entry point to empathy with another culture, is quite similar to Bourdain's idea that food and hospitality are an equalizing force across difference. Of course, we aren't all as lucky as Bourdain who could plausibly go to Iraq and enjoy Iraqi hospitality and a home-cooked meal. It's almost as though Rakowitz understands this and has created that opportunity for us regular-folk in the United States. Not all of his projects take place in strictly art institutions either- in 2006 he conducted an Enemy Kitchen at the Hudson Guild Community Center in Manhattan with a group twelve-year-olds.
     You can read more into Rakowitz's creative process, the philosophy behind Enemy Kitchen, and reactions from participants in the SF Chronicle piece and on the the Smart Museum of Art's Feast blogFeast also details the next installation of Enemy Kitchen: a collaborative food truck staffed by Iraq War veterans and chefs from Chicago's Iraqi community.

Art and food are two things that are hugely important to me (obviously!) so I thought this was a great place to end 2011. Not only is Rakowitz's work an example of the uniting power of food and art, it's also, for me, a reminder of why we advocate for art in the first place. Increased funding for artists and arts organizations means creative artistic minds such as his will continue to make moving and important works of art - ones that are beautiful, but also ones that might open minds. In fact, an Enemy Kitchen-style artwork could be a great way to encourage cultural understanding here at home in the current politically divisive climate. Any takers?

Thanks to all my readers this year. Happy Holidays and best wishes for a fruitful, artful, and peaceful New Year. I'll see you in 2012!

*If you are interested, the interview was from Marc Maron's podcast. Warning: profanity ahead!

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