Instructions for Eating: Naming Nature – Eric May

“Instructions for Eating” is a new monthly column from Tracy Candido about food as a medium and eating as a social practice.  Invited artists present recipes, preparation instructions, directions for hunting and gathering, lists of ingredients, etc. for public consumption.  These experimental essays function as a site of learning and action: readers are encouraged to perform the instructions laid out before them. Each invited artist is asked to propose/suggest two other artists who would be well suited for the column.  This creates a participant/artist driven effort. The following entry is from Eric May.

I’m all for “going green.” I have to wonder, though, what exactly is this ideal of “green?” Is it a utopian state where mankind reverses the impact that we’ve had on the planet, finding a perfect stasis of man and the original design of nature? It seems like an impossible feat. In terms of our consumptive relationships and habits in an ecosystem, I wholeheartedly support ideas of seasonal, local, heirloom, and genetically pure food. However it seems to me that by focusing so much on an ideal, we may be overlooking the way nature actually looks in the 21st century.

Man is nature, so I’m not here to say we have irreversibly corrupted the planet. We ought to take a close look at how we’ve changed the environment and take more responsibility for the altered ecology of now. Its time to unpack our value judgments towards species that are considered impure or nuisances, for typically we are the reason they are here. In my practice I examine these relations. I am interested in the language we have created around other beings.

Genesis 2:20: Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field. I’m looking at language beyond just taxonomy here. In animistic belief systems, animals are given the status of spiritual figureheads. The medicine man or shaman of these cultures would induce visionary states to commune with the animal spirits. They put themselves in the place of the animal. In Western civilizations there is an inversion of this type of relationship with nature, in fables and other such tales, animals are put in the place of humans to allegorize our own virtues and misgivings. On one level, we look for a commonality between our own behavior with that of the animals, we look into them for emotion and expression, we find an empathy in their “cuteness.” We name animals, in this case, to reflect our perceived innocence of nature. The teddy bear, a surrogate human child. On the other hand though, when the same such creatures are tipping over our garbage cans or eating our tomatoes we name them pests.

In my “Dinner Party” and “Picnic” projects, in which I play host to anthropomorphized fantasies of animals, I invert the relationships we have with pest animals and recast them as guests to our privileged, typically off-limits dinner tables. However, these aren’t the cute animals of You Tube video follies or the gentle, cultured creatures of “The Wind in the Willows.”” The beasts at my parties typically don’t have such dainty table manners. We despise these animals because they reflect our nasty brutish side. It happens to be animals such as raccoons, opossums, and bears that play the roles of our despised backyard invaders. Yet they are simply just clever, omnivorous scavengers with attuned motor skills, just like us, and in this case it’s physiological rather than allegorical.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t empathize – by all means, Rousseau and Betham have taught us that the beasts indeed feel. Perhaps we just ought to join the animals in their place as the shaman may have on a vision quest. Meet nature head on. It’s with this on-the-ground, face-to-face attitude that we must approach the contemporary state of nature. The animals are invading our preened suburban lawns because their woods are shrinking. And they love to eat our delicious scraps.

Some of our interventions in the landscape have yielded much more sinister results. Species end up where they aren’t supposed to be due to any number of reasons – sloppy agricultural practices, unchecked hitchhiking on vessels of trade, shrinking natural habitat, fucked up shifts in weather, mismanagement of environmental policies, etc. Yes, thorough, long term, pragmatic solutions to manage invasive species are tantamount. However, adopting a more hands on, aware perception of these species would help us better live with them, as they are (accidental) citizens of our localities and we are typically responsible for their residencies. We give them a name – invasive – a slightly more threatening term than immigrant.

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Rubbish Project – Anne Elizabeth Moore

. . . and then there are situations where social practices aren’t so much an art form as they are the only way to get anything done. This is often the case in former socialist countries, or countries near former socialist countries, or in places of extreme poverty or political distress. Like Cambodia.

In the past three years, I’ve spent a great deal of time in, and studying, Khmer culture. Since the extremely destructive Khmer Rouge regime ended in 1978, and following a subsequent 15-year civil war, which included bouts without government as well as stretches under Vietnamese-style socialist rule, little infrastructure remained to support art or culture. This is actually an understatement: little infrastructure exists even now to support the life of the majority of Cambodians, who earn less than $60.00 per month. Educational systems, sewage systems, economic and monetary systems, food systems, even working government systems are still barely forming, over 40 years later. Hell, toilet paper is still a luxury here. Traffic lights are new gadgets. Dental plans wholly unheard of.

What does exist—and what has kept the place going through times of excessive strife—are family and kinship circles. These function, stronger even than ever before, and still offer a genuine retort to poverty, failing schools, and lack of jobs common throughout the country. Continue reading

On the Shop Floor: From “Silence, Work In Progress” to “Work In Progress, Speak!”

While part of the inquiries Bureau for Open Culture is making in On Symptoms of Cultural Industry involves research into former manufacturing industries in North Adams, specifically the history of Sprague Electric as discussed in recent posts, the workforce today is another focus. Major Fordist manufacturers have largely disappeared from the North Adams and Berkshires region. But a concentration of production is very much part of the texture of this area. And, it often takes place inside the very same factory spaces—now converted lofts—into which the multitude of workers once filed. The workers today are commonly referred to as freelancers—designers, copywriters, illustrators, educators, artists, computer programmers, curators, web developers and animators. In other words, communication is the central crux of their work. They make up a vast networked community of immaterial laborers that are dispersed throughout the world. The Belgian sociologist and philosopher describes this kind of worker:

Immaterial workers work mainly with their head, which they can (and indeed have to) take with them wherever they go. Immaterial labor doesn’t stop, then, when the worker leaves the office. Immaterial workers can easily take their work home, to bed and even, in the worst case scenario, on holiday with them. They are accessible via mobile phones or the Internet, and can plug in to the shop floor at any moment. [1] Continue reading

World Making

In a recent post, we drew on propositions elucidated by Hardt and Negri in Commonwealth to contemplate our questions with regard to the commodification of identity in service to radical identity politics and cultural capital. Their text continues to influence our thinking about the problems of how to make the liberation of identity a reality in the work On Symptoms of Cultural Industry. While any kind of vague historical assessment can give insight into how the world actually is and illuminate what the world can actually be, it does not give specifications about how to rectify radical politics now. This is part of the lure for us. Continue reading

Sharing Experiences: Sprague Electric and North Adams, MA

Mike Hutchinson

Mike Hutchinson is a musician and songwriter. He plays jazz piano, French horn, organ and violin and currently sings in the Northern Berkshire Ecumenical Choir.

He began work for Sprague in 1961. He moved to North Adams immediately after graduating that year with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Northeastern University in Boston. During his 38 years of service with Sprague, he developed, researched and oversaw the manufacture and quality control of products such as ceramic circuit designs and aluminum and tantalum capacitors. He was responsible for the quality functions of over 1 million pieces a week of a commercial film capacitor.

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Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives on by sucking living labor and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.*

The story of Sprague Electric in North Adams, Massachusetts, is a story that we have all heard before, that has been heard throughout multitudes of cities in the United States, about when labor became a commodity that could be outsourced—and suddenly the jobs were shipped away. The project On Symptoms of Cultural Industry by Bureau for Open Culture seeks to suture this everyday social reality with the affects created through Post-Fordist capitalist production. What does the redirection of Capital mean to those who had every intention to pay their children’s college tuition, finish home improvements and retire to Florida and on time? How does failed investment, or belief, in the capitalist American dream lead not just to alienated disillusionment, but initiate a whole new situation where production in the form of culture and image becomes the essential economic agency? What are the alternative creative and practical ways of finding economic stability in arenas where jobs manufacturing material products simply are not there? Continue reading

On Symptoms of Cultural Industry by Bureau for Open Culture

View of North Adams, Mass., with former textile mill on the left

Bureau for Open Culture has been invited to participate in Open Engagement 2011. We will make a work called On Symptoms of Cultural Industry. It will examine the way North Adams, Massachusetts, and many other cities around the world (including Portland, Oregon) have transitioned from manufacturing goods and materials to manufacturing experiences and knowledge: from Fordist to post-Fordist economic frameworks. The total work will include performance, photography, video, sound and programming. Continue reading

Bureau for Open Culture is a guest contributor this month!

Bureau for Open Culture is a curatorial and pedagogic institution for the contemporary arts based in North Adams, Massachusetts, founded and directed by James Voorhies. We work intentionally to reimagine the art exhibition as a discursive form of education that creates a kind of new public sphere or new institution. Exhibitions take shape as installations, screenings, informal talks, and performances and occur in parking lots, storefronts, libraries, industrial sites, country roads, gardens, and galleries. They respond to the issues of these situations, operating in real time. In doing so they generate platforms for learning and knowledge production that make ideas accessible, relevant, and inviting for diverse audiences. This model encourages overlaps of art, science, ecology, the built environment, philosophy, and design. To realize this work, Bureau for Open Culture initiates and cultivates collaborations with institutions as well as produces projects independently whenever possible.

Conversation with Kristina Lee Podesva

Kristina holding George in New York City around the time of this year’s New York Art Book Fair.

Kristina Lee Podesva is an artist, writer, curator, & editor based in Vancouver, Canada. She is editor of Fillip magazine (if you are unfamiliar with this publication, I highly recommend you look at it). This conversation was conducted via e-mail over the past month.


DH: Hi Kristina. You’ve been in New York for a week or so now, having come here for the NY Art Book Fair. I think we’ve eaten together almost every night! What has been your favorite or most memorable meal so far? (On a side note, completely by coincidence, right now I am listening to the Gang of Four record I received through your Ripping Library project).

KLP: Dear David. I’ve just missed my flight out of here, which leads me to believe that New York, after nearly two weeks, is not through with me yet. I guess there is still more I have to do here…For instance, I have to get this interview going. Moreover, I haven’t yet said goodbye to you, which is a shame especially since you’ve been tremendously hospitable and generous by sending out announcements for my talk at Art in General and by also cooking for me. Despite all the meals we’ve shared in restaurants, I’d say the one that you made and then brought to me in Williamsburg was primo not only because it was home-cooked but because you then cycled it over to where I was  staying! I can still taste the savory sausages and leeks, refreshing beet salad with dill, and tangy soba ensemble. I guess if I think about it, the whole context of the meal made it more valuable and memorable. The meal was by itself tasty and nourishing, but what makes it really stand out is how it was made and how it came to be delivered and presented. It’s not too different from contemporary art making in that sense because it is never about the “thing” itself, but rather its framing and context that endows a work with significance and value.
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Interview with Paul Branca

Paul Branca in a Cameo apple orchard in Marlborough, New York.

Paul Branca is a painter living in Queens, New York. His most recent exhibition, Couch Crash, was exhibited at Golden Parachutes in Berlin. Paintings in the exhibition were made specifically for the handful of friends the artist has in Berlin, who were invited to the opening to take home their painting. Though Branca primarily focuses on a painting studio practice, I talked with him about some older projects that related to Couch Crash.


What was your favorite moment the day we drove Upstate to go apple picking?

If I remember clearly I attempted to read out loud from Emile Zola’s l’Oeuvre, the text where, upon publishing it, he severs his relationship with his childhood friend, Cezanne, by casting him as a misfit completely lost in his own high standards and fantasy. I think I barely got through the first page when we were distracted by a military Boeing 747 that was landing somewhere nearby. It was flying so slow, and extremely quiet.  I don’t know if that answers your question, but it was quite impressive. Oh, and after being warned that there were no apples, we found lots, and even tomatoes to boot.

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