The broad context for this research is the increasingly informationalised context in which our food products are sourced and distributed: a proliferation of gourmet desires and additive fears, a growing consumer appetite for food miles and other metrics of provenance, and the rise of Fair Trade and 'local food' as standards for engagement with the politics of supply. This research aims to challenge these markers of equity/ethics, and collect and cultivate a broader and more complex landscape of references for food trading, beyond the overworked binaries of Fair vs Free Trade or local vs global.
The physical context for the research is the medium of food reporting, both embedded in the product (the text and imagery found in food packaging) and external (in marketing and media). It is in part a response to the substantial data gap between the ubiquity of information sharing on screens - the multiplication of news agencies, blogs and other feeds – and the scarcity of expanded, critical, documentary or contestual viewpoints in other contemporary media operating closer to the surface of real, circulating commodity culture, such as food packaging.
The research is an extension of an already active project, Feral Trade (www.feraltrade.org), an actual grocery business trading goods along social networks since 2003. Feral Trade was established to develop an alternative set of protocols to Free or Fair Trade: a public experiment to test the capacity of computer-formed social networks to carry more substantial traffic, such as groceries. This research is intended to further that investigation and place Feral Trade itself in a larger context of trade methodologies.
The work takes place at the intersection of several networks: art, information and food. It uses the tools of art production and curation to investigate how our daily grocery products can be otherwise selected, articulated, packaged and delivered.
The research findings are designed for release in the cultural realm, to supply thematic information that might inform and advise the purchase plans of the individual grocery shopper or institutional catering manager.
Conversely the data is designed for reverse legibility from the other side and could form useful market research for the grocery producer or provider.
Situating the research in the realm of art is a strategy to redraw the coordinates of the common global grocery product, to restore its essential foreignness and its potential as a conduit for other experience. More practically, I am interested in the public diet of cultural entities: to assess how food and drink can be served and considered in art and cultural organisations, including their relationships with local and international food suppliers, and how this aligns or collides with the other activities and concerns of the organisation.
A particular focus is the nomad/resident diet: prescriptions for survival in the art world via nutritional suggestions for the travelling artist or stationary institution, to attempt a continuity between knowledge work and the immediate environment it takes place in.
At a daily level the question is how to unravel the clamour of often conflicting criteria that ambush the critical shopper at point of sale - your time, its sell-by date, freshness, additives, freight and its attributes, your travel to purchase it, vendor politics, packaging, localness, farming methods, labour relations, seasonality, economic impacts including global responsibility, and of course the price - with the aim to identify actionable priorities.
The central interest of this research is to take a sample grocery item or group of items into deeper investigation to better articulate its provenance. To explore the relationship of Commons to Commodity: the proposal that the commodity is the opposite of the commons as it conceals human relations except for the money relation, while the product of the commons is filled with human relations, including possibly unpleasant ones.
Expected outcomes include:
In our general alienation from the food delivery system, food packaging is often our main means of interpreting and digesting what we eat. Consistent with the nature of groceries as commodities this information is often minimal, stupefying and produced primarily for the market - although along with the rest of the market, tempered by some force of legislation which reigns it in, such as nutritional information, ingredient listings, factory address, sell-by date etc. The forcefields of the self-regulating market play out in miniature on the food packaging, making it an ideal site for study or intervention.
The research takes food packaging as a starting point - to look at how the product speaks of/for itself and to counter those narratives, aesthetics and opinions (both the onboard information which accompanies the product to cash register, and external media such as corporate narratives) with primary research: multifaceted, locational, traceable, contextual and contestable data. This data collection will involve land journeys to trace the products to their production and distribution sources. The resulting findings will be returned to the public realm with the product, as annotated packaging, run alongside the product's official story.
The work has been conducted with a nomadic focus, using information networks built up over five years as a trader and in the course of cultural travel incurred while working as an artist. Products for study have been sourced from a range of destinations, including Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Montenegro, UK and USA. Consistent with the subject of diets for artists and art organisations, the list of objects studied is a curated selection: a non-comprehensive survey with occasional incursions into unmanageable complexity, in contrast to the proposed objectivity, clear categories, guarantees and limits of Fair Trade and other certifications.
While not providing an actionable shopping list for any particular location, the sum of findings is designed to present general conditions in the global food trade landscape that can be interpreted and extrapolated for practical local use.
As expected, the assemblage of comprehensive, instructional information on where and how to shop was not possible within the parameters of the research (or within the complexity and shifting nature of the field of research).
On the other hand, one of the motivating problems - the overload in strident truth claims and fuzzy data in the bewildering business of shopping for food - seemed to resolve itself without much further interrogation. Both in the context of Feral Trade and at the FoAM events there emerged an apparant consensus that relations with supplier, whether the goods' producer or its handler (vendor, courier etc) was broadly valued over other criteria of origin. More than an ethical standpoint this position holds strategic value when mainstream supply chains for food and other essential goods may be suddenly under threat.
Significantly, a singular shift in public focus toward the intersection of ecologic and economic concerns over the period of the project served to focus public attention on the research territory (as evidenced by Kaaitheater programming its first conference around climate change and reaction with relation to the performing arts, in January '09).
Audience response showed an appetite for criticially sourced goods, as the Feral Trade hamper raffle sold 60 tickets, with 3 hampers raffled and 9 other hampers sold separately. In other supply chain progress, as a result of the Public Diet dinner, Brussels artist studios Nadine http://www.nadine.be became a new longterm client for delivery of Feral Trade office coffee.
The collaboration between Feral Trade and FoAM proved especially fruitful through the expanded duration the research enabled. As artists working with food, culture, information and open systems, there are many points of connection between our operating methods. The successful reception of the Kaaitheater dinner in particular demonstrated the potential for critical catering at the boundary line between art and business.
visual/sonic/tactile material generated in the research to be archived at foam