It’s not often that a blind date works out so magnificently, but in this case it did: two months ago I was contacted by C-Platform, an arts organization in Xiamen, China to organize the Food Art Film Festival with them, an event I have been organizing at the Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, The Netherlands. We didn’t know each other – they found me online through some of my writings for Artists and Climate Change!
Luckily, this was a match made in heaven and I am so grateful; through our many amazing meals and conversations about food, art, and nature, I learned a lot about Chinese culture and customs. It became once again abundantly clear that nature and culture are intricately connected. Nature influences our culture – for example, in how we use it as inspiration or as material (wood, plants for pigments, stone, etc.). But culture influences nature possibly even more. The way we relate to nature determines how we value it and how we treat it. In our modern culture of consumption, we haven’t been treating it very well, leading to all kinds of problems from climate change to pollution of air, water, and soil. We have created a multitude of chemicals to clean with, build with, even to eat and make art with – just think of photographic emulsions and paints. The problems we have created strongly affect the quality of what we eat, as well as our health and well-being.
With the Food Art Film Festival in Xiamen, we, of course, wanted to celebrate good food because we do love good food. But it is precisely because we love good food so much that we want to ask questions about how to keep it great for the future, both for ourselves and future generations. The films included in the festival ask some of these questions. For example, Chloé Rutzerveld‘s work explores the conceptual idea of eating meat grown on our own bodies. Meat production, especially beef, is one of the biggest sources of carbon emission on the planet, because of the methane released by cows. Whole tropical rainforests – the lungs of the world – are being burned down so we can grow soy to feed the animals that we eat. If we continue like this there will be no forest left, forcing us to ask questions about our meat intake. How about growing meat in labs? Rutzerveld asks: “How far are we willing to go to eat meat?” In her project In vitro Me, she suggests to grow meat on our own bodies, using our own cells. Would we still eat meat if we had to grow and harvest it from our own bodies?
Another key issue artists are engaging with, especially in light of post-colonial discourse, is the cultural history and heritage of the fruits, herbs, vegetables and spices that we eat. This question is central to the work of artists Jonmar van Vlijmen and Ronald Boer, aka De Onkruidenier (an untranslatable Dutch pun). Their artistic practice revolves around the role wild plants play in our life; they bring back the story of unwanted and forgotten plants, highlighting their medicinal, cultural, and historical value, or their value as foods.
Through artistic fieldwork, experiments, and learning from forgotten knowledge, De Onkruidenier re-interprets our relationship with plants and nature. One of the artists’ latest research topics is the relationship between sugar and salt. As part of their residency, they asked how we can evolve a salt-inclusive life. With rising sea levels, farmlands and cities are increasingly threatened by salt pollution and flooding. In their performative workshop “SWEET-SWEAT,” they collaboratively re-think the urban metabolism by connecting body, food, and landscape into an intuitive map based on our basic cravings for water, sugar, and salt. This performance is rooted in their discovery that the sugar beet – one of the most cultivated crops in the Netherlands – is able to grow in very salty soil. They were interested in the halo-tolerance of the sugar beet and traced its ancestry back to the beach beet, a sturdy beet that grows in coastal areas.
The work of solar designer Marjan van Aubel is also presented as part of the Food Art Film Festival. In collaboration with scientists and architects, she developed a greenhouse that harvests its own energy using solar technology integrated into the glass. This means that every surface of the construction is productive. The energy gained from the solar cells is used to power and maintain the greenhouse’s indoor climate, and a hydroponic system that pumps around nutrient-infused water comprising a mix of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. This reduces water usage by up to 90 percent compared to traditional soil farming.
Furthermore, new technologies in the form of pink and blue LED lights are used, promoting leaf growth and increased vitamin C levels. The light enhances and controls plant growth, allowing for a fourfold yield increase. Using these self-powering greenhouses on top of office or restaurant buildings, for example, could massively reduce global food miles.
Last but certainly not least, there is the hilarious work of artist Ben Hagari. His film Fresh introduces a hypothetical situation wherein a man, covered entirely in vegetables (yet still recognizable as human), resides in a greenhouse – the quintessential hybrid of nature and culture. He interacts with insects, machines, and other humans in encounters that border on the absurd: vegetables are turned into instruments or harvested from his body by a chef, revealing an occasional nipple.
We often speak of the problematic separation between human (culture) and nature when we analyze what’s at the root of environmental degradation. American philosopher Carolyn Merchant has written extensively on this separation, including in her well-known book The Death of Nature, in which she points to the Scientific Revolution as the moment when nature became increasingly viewed as a machine that could be experimented with and understood through reason. This understanding gave rise to unlimited experiments on animals and the objectification all non-human life. Also, the vegetable-man in Ben Hagari’s Fresh is subjected to different kinds of mysterious monitoring, leaving the viewer with unanswered questions about both human health and the ‘health’ of the food we eat. Regardless of the answers to these questions, if this is what is looks like when we stop separating human and nature, it will leave a big smile on your face.
(Top image: Still from Fresh by Ben Hagari, 2014.)
This article is part of the Foodstuff series.
Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.