FoAM interviewed by Melinda Sipos, Autumn 2010
What were your motivations to start research on food?
Working with food is a practice-based confirmation that it is a material, practical and very human way to connect people no matter which disciplines or cultures they come from. In FoAM's multicultural setting, food became a way to smooth out conflicts and misunderstandings in transdisciplinary collaborations while celebrating diversity and creativity. We noticed that seemingly unresolvable issues and dogmatic jargon-clashes were more easily resolved over a good meal and a glass of wine. Most of FoAM's public events are conceived as total experiences which stimulate all senses, food became an essential medium to enhance the sensory experience and provide an entry point for new audiences. Akin to matching food and wine in gastronomic restaurants, we began matching food with discussion topics, digital media, responsive environments, etc. Finally, we include food as a research topic, food is tightly woven into everyday life throughout the world - as a means for survival, a social glue, an expression of artistry and a focus of scientific studies. It is highly transdisciplinary, touches all levels of society and is a pressing concern in today's turbulent ecological and economic environments. As such, food is an inevitable topic for FoAM as a creative lab working on increasing cultural resilience in uncertain times.
What did you have/do you have as inspiration, references?
Our inspirations come from a variety of sources. People working at, or passing through FoAM regularly cook meals in our studio, thereby inspiring each other through cooking together. When travelling to conferences or festivals, we make a point to meet locals, eat and shop for local foods, bringing techniques, ingredients and cookbooks back from all corners of the world. “Foods of the Kingdom of Bhutan” and “Tukka: Real Australian Food” are two examples.
We are curious about culinary traditions, informally passed on from generation to generation through stories and communal cooking. What inspires us here is the oral transfer of knowledge - both through spoken word and by actual cooking and tasting of the food. Culinary traditions are often overlooked pillars of the world's cultures and an important part of people's daily activities, as Michel de Certeau reminds us in “The practice of Everyday Life”. Moreover, traditional food systems such as Ayurveda appeal to our holistic worldview. In Ayurveda, food is considered as both nourishment and medicine, where one person's ideal diet can be detrimental for another. In other words, food nourishes the human body, mind and spirit, and as such a diet must be personalised to a individual's constitution, age, emotional state etc.
Food science is another source of inspiration at FoAM. Scientists like Harold McGee and Herve This have demystified the physics and chemistry behind ingredients and processes in the kitchen. Not only can their elucidation of science help us create more delicious meals, but understanding scientific principles behind such simple tasks as cooking an egg can make food and cooking more interesting, rewarding and resilient in the face of climate chaos.
How the different food related threads are coordinated within FoAM? Do you channel information between the different activities?
Often the most important information transfer happens during conversations over communal meals in FoAM's kitchen. In addition we use FoAM's wiki “The Libarynth” (http://libarynth.org) to plan projects, collect information and distill references. We are also experimenting with various ways of collating our food related discussions on the Open Sauces site (http://opensauces.cc).
Can you describe the different approaches to food related work within FoAM (maybe lead by different members)?
The approaches to food at FoAM range from daily meals to long term research. All food prepared at FoAM is vegetarian, unless the topic or setting demands an flexetarian cuisine (i.e. primarily vegetarian, with considered exceptions). The most down to earth approach is that all FoAM collaborators participate in cooking lunch or dinner. During our public activities, we are conscious of our responsibility as a cultural organisation to curate our 'public diet'. We do this to ensure a more sustainable, healthier and more imaginative food consumption in and around our lab. Most of FoAM's public activities have a food component that is thematically linked with the topic, which makes the food a conceptual part of the event, rather than an afterthought.
In addition to incorporating food in all FoAM's activities, we also design experiments with food as its research topic. To raise awareness and promote discussion around these topics, we organise 'Bite-Size Lectures' by experts on food art or science. We conduct educational and participatory workshops on food-related topics for children and adults (such as the 'Edible Perfume' workshop, or 'Art in the Kitchen' series for children). We design participatory symposia and conviviums on food and cooking and explore presentation formats with food at their centre. At FoAM in Brussels maintain a collection of food-related books in our library. We practice permaculture in cities. FoAM Amsterdam developed Boskoi, a mobile phone app to help foragers identify urban edible plants. FoAM member Christina Stadlbauer produces urban honey. and so on…
What is specifically your field of action? What is the most interesting part of this dynamic, collaborative research for you?
Specifically, FoAM's 'field of action' is generalist in nature - it connects food to other aspects of contemporary culture and environment, in order to examine food from different perspectives and seek unexpected alliances between different ingredients, processes and people. The most interesting part (with the exception of tasting delicious food) is learning about diverse approaches to food and cooking, as well as finding surprising connections and insights and applying them in the kitchen or lab.
What kind of audience do you reach? Do the events attract the same people or it varies depending on the kind of activities?
Our primary audience is professional - curious generalists interested in food and food systems. The audience varies depending on the type of activity. In some cases food is incorporated in activities that are not focused on food, but where we provide food to accentuate or illustrate a topic (say on a “Rocket Boat Day”, or a “Mathematickal Arts” workshop). Children's workshops about eating insects attract a much younger audience than for example a lecture-demonstration on molecular gastronomy.
Is there a direct educative purpose present toward a wider public?
Yes, primarily in workshops for children, but also in lectures for an interested adult public.
New (related) plans?
We have founding the Open Sauces Cooking Club, which arranges dinners in studios, venues or private homes, as well as sharing and adapting recipes online. From the Open Sauces book:
“Open Sauces began as an experimental food-event. After the dishes were cleaned and the courses digested, our food-related investigations continue in workshops, residencies, bite-size lectures, performative clinics, dinner parties and any other formats conducive to tasting and learning from each other. Open Sauces became a club for people interested in environmental and cultural, as well as scientific and systemic aspects of cooking, eating and sharing food. We come together in members’ kitchens, in labs, studios and public spaces, keeping the source of our sauces and other culinary delights open, editable and shared.” -pp 7
Some questions about the Open Sauces:
What was your role(s) in the preparation and during the evening?
A small group of people at FoAM designed, organised and conducted the event (see Acknowledgements on page 7 of the Open Sauces book). During the evening, Maja was “head chef” and Nik the “sous-chef”.
What is your feeling about the evening? What's the main impression remained?
It was an inspiring event, where curious scents and tastes sparked curious conversations. It was quite a feat for us to feed 25 people 13 courses, match speakers, music, wines, dishes and conversations as a small team of artists, scientists and performers. The main impression was of a buzzing chatter, a whirlwind of smells and colours in the kitchen, mixed with distant sounds of eating and laughter, and a marathon of chopping, cooking and mixing ingredients and washing mountains of dishes.
What was your personal motivation to initiate it?
There were many different reasons. We wanted to organise a symposium on food that would focus on eating food, rather than just talking about it. Also, we found match-making food with wider cultural and societal topics through speeches and conversations a creative challenge and inspiration. We wanted to draw closer parallels between food and food systems, to software and the open source movement, as we believe that the food industry and society could benefit from openly sharing discoveries, processes and inspiration. Creating a synaesthetic atmosphere with music, tastes, colours, scents and drinks attracted our transdisciplinary sensibilities.
Is there anything you learned/experienced that has become part of your everyday life on any level?
Most topics that we researched were of interest to us before, during and after the event. A few examples: seeing the city as a source of food for humans and non-humans alike, through foraging, gardening and bee-keeping. At FoAM, many a meal is spiced up with wild urban plants and honey. We use techniques from perfumery to get more intense tasting oil and rakija (a grape-based spirit) infusions. We are one of the Feral Trade hubs, suppliers and couriers. A few FoAM members follow Ayurvedic principles for designing personalised diets. Flavour pairing, a molecular gastronomy technique, is used in FoAM's improvised food performances, to create unexpected combinations of found ingredients.
Do you know about/Have you joined any other similar initiatives (which is not run by FoAM)
There are quite a few people working on food culture and technology, so we will only mention a few groups who work with Open Sauces-like experimental meals. We are in touch with all of them, and have had exchanges with them in the past. The Italian collective Arabeschi di Latte and Australian artist Boo Chapel create ludic and provocative meals in public spaces and galleries. Food #3 in Singapore is a small eatery of the Post-Museum, where they have chef-artists in residence and topical evenings, Flemish Primitives is a large gastronomic event of advances in food art and science.
How you see the role of food and cooking in our contemporary lives?
From the Open Sauces introduction: “Contemporary food culture is a concoction that includes the casual conversations between home cooks and their greengrocers, the exchange of recipes between friends, foodstuffs traveling through thousands of human and mechanical hands, manuals for arcane cooking apparatus, scientific papers in prestigious journals, degustation menus, soup kitchens, mysterious multicoloured powders and many other things.
In an era riddled with environmental and cultural anomalies, we believe that transdisciplinary and trans-local connections are key to our survival – as individuals, communities and species. Due to planetary climate chaos, conditions for producing and consuming foodstuffs are changing dramatically. Therefore, having a deeper understanding of the substances and processes that make up our diets is now more essential than ever. On the one hand, a better grasp of cross-cultural culinary traditions can inform and transform currently unsustainable habits. On the other hand, we can more easily adapt to new diets, or even invent whole new cuisines, based on the availability of energy and ingredients.
The mixing of disciplines, of multicultural traditions and playful explorations that make up contemporary European food culture can greatly benefit from openness and sharing. Akin to the open source movement in software development (where the source code remains accessible for anyone interested to copy, adapt or learn from), the traditionally secretive world of food and cooking has already begun to benefit from demystifying the source of its ingredients and processes. This is leading to new perspectives on sustainable food production. Furthermore, openness can stimulate more informed take-up by home-cooks, healthier diets, better science and more inspiring dishes. Sharing knowledge can invigorate food preparation and consumption, as well as undoubtedly evoke other improvements that we can’t yet conceive of. By increasing the accessibility and transparency of food systems we can enhance their resilience, an essential trait in the face of unstable climatological and economic conditions.” (pp 5-6 Open Sauces)
Since writing Open Sauces, we have thought about and experimented with food as medicine, understanding the effects of different types of food on different people, as well as the connections between food and emotional and mental states. Both traditional food systems, herbal medicine and scientific discoveries regarding phytochemicals all tell us that food should not just be seen as a mere fuel, but can effect our health and well-being on many levels. In Ayurveda for example, people with different constitutions (or body types) should prioritise different tastes. In this philosophy, the taste of food - in addition to the time, place and season of consumption - effects our metabolism, that influences the flow of energy through our bodies. We find that with the rise of food allergies, obesity and other food-related disorders the role of food in contemporary culture re-emerges as a part of the healing process for bodies, minds and communities.
How do you think new technologies and art&tech culture affect our relationship to food/eating/cooking/growing etc?
Technology has been intertwined with food since we stared using fire for cooking. The second half of the twentieth century in Europe was dominated by a paradox of technologically assisted abundance and the tastelessness of processed food, propagated by the post second world war drive to 'feed the world' through industrial monoculture - where quantity of food was more important than its provenance, taste and gastronomic quality. This approach began changing both within the industry (driven by entrepreneurial chefs and food scientists), but also through the pressure of tradition, society and culture, with demands for healthier food that tastes better and doesn't exploit its human and non-human producers.
Today's new technologies allow us to prepare food differently than we did in the past, whether to preserve essential nutrients, to reduce the amount of waste, or increase the sensual experience of eating. Think of tools for low temperature cooking, precise temperature regulation, slow cooked 'perfect eggs', high pressure 'infusion', fine emulsification, etc. Contemporary food technologies enable us to look more closely at how we experience taste, texture, etc. For example, using chemical analysis to combine ingredients in unexpected ways, or improve our understanding of how flavours are composed. In addition to tools used directly in the kitchen or kitchen labs, communication technologies have enabled us not only to have interconnected global distribution networks, but also to to share, annotate and adapt food-related knowledge, transforming recipes from top-down dogmatic programs, to generative, algorithmic arts.
Contemporary art & technology can approach food and cooking in a similar manner as it works with software and hardware - as a system that should be pried open, reverse engineered and experimented with, questioning food consumption, or finding alternatives to global food production and distribution. For example, at FoAM in Stockholm Anna Maria Orru and her collaborators are working on Foodprints, looking at urban food production and regeneration of cities (http://fo.am/foodprints); at FoAM in Amsterdam, Theun Karelse and his team developed Boskoi, a mobile app for urban foragers. Wietske Maas and Matteo Pasquinelli initiated Urbanibalism to explore hunting & gathering in urban environments (http://www.urbanibalism.org), Natalie Jeremijenko founded the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club to experiment with gastronomic delights to be shared with our animal neighbours (http://www.environmentalhealthclinic.net/ooz/projects/xspecies), Kate Rich's Feral Trade has formed a wide community of 'slow shoppers and couriers', trading goods along social networks (http://feraltrade.org).