In residency at Jan Van Eyck Academie from April 2019 to May 2020, Joélson Buggilla e Jorgge Menna Barreto developed a project that short-circuits the surface of the page, the surface of the table and the surface of the earth.
Deprivatizing the Digestive System
“Your skin covers about twenty square feet. Your lungs, if you were to flatten out all the tiny air pockets, could cover hundreds of square feet. And your intestines? Counting all the little folds, some scientists estimate that your gut would blanket thousands of square feet, vastly more expansive than your skin and lungs combined. What you eat may very well be your primary interface with the outside world.”
Dr. Michael Greger
This week we did not go to the supermarket and we barely used the kitchen in our homes. Eating and dealing with food stopped being a personal matter and became part of a larger system as Joe and I started to work in the kitchen of Jan Van Eyck on a daily basis. From 9am to 3pm, we have been committed to preparing lunch for the residents, staff and occasional visitors. This week, as we are still on coming-back-from-holiday mode, we served around 30 people each day, also catering for coffee and some sweets. That number should increase from next week on.
Even though Joe and I had been part of a restaurant project before, during the 32 Biennial of São Paulo in 2016, this week felt relatively new for us. At the Biennial, we were not always directly involved in the kitchen, at least not everyday. Another difference was the scale. At Restauro, we were serving from 100 to 400 lunches a day. Our relationship to the people who came to eat then was more impersonal, as the hectic atmosphere did not allow for many in-depth interactions. At the Jan Van Eyck Academie, the pace of the kitchen work is much slower, which also generates room for reflection. Writing about the process has thus become a way to digest the experience.
The idea of “deprivatizing the digestive system” is not new for us. We have been using the expression to discuss issues related to food choices in the contemporary world. Many times, we use our personal tastes to justify what we eat. Frequently we divide foods into categories of “the ones I like and the ones I don’t”. Our sense of taste is often residing in our mouths. We say we like something when it is pleasing for our taste buds, when our tongues and mouths like the texture or crunchiness, and even sound may play an important role in our chewing satisfaction, as our ears are so close to our jaws and may also find pleasure in what we eat.
Our sense of taste is built culturally and very much centered around our personal experience. And that is when the contradictions begin. It may well happen that something that I love eating may come into a fight with the rest of my digestive system, but the seconds of pleasure in my mouth justify for the sacrifice of the body in trying to deal with something that is unfriendly to my metabolism. Our mouths are thus many times detached from the trajectory of food in our bodies. I love the taste of wine, but my liver has a hard time dealing with it. I can drink and “pay the price” though, after all, we were also taught that paying can reverse damage.
We could also think about the trajectory of food before it arrives in our mouths. Our sense of taste does not usually consider how that food was grown, how it was transported, if it had and environmental impact or if it causes suffering to other species. Our eyes cannot reach such vast landscape and we miss out on the complexity of growing food, as the system we have created has also produced strategies for erasing that complexity and its dead ends. The meat that is on my plate was bought at a supermarket in a very neat package. So neat that it is able to erase the perverse industry of animal farming and the environmental impact behind it, such as its relation to the deforestation of the Amazon forest and the climate crisis.
Gut view: this picture was taken by placing the camera at the height of the stomach. It features the food lab on a Saturday, August 17, 2019.
In school, we learned the digestive system begins in the mouth and ends in the anus. Isn’t it time we begin considering all that happens before the mouth bites into a piece of bread? Shouldn’t we try to redraw the digestive system so that it begins on the land, including all the complexities that may be involved, all the species and kingdoms that take part in the dance that results in that product?
Deprivatizing the digestive system has been the way we refer to this alignment and coming to light of the processes that occur beyond the mouth, cultivating a sense of taste that is not based solely on self-satisfaction, but that can also be inclusive of the many stories that are interwoven when we say we like a certain food. Can we also say we like the way it was grown, how it was transported, how it relates to our cells, and what becomes of it once it leaves our bodies?
And how do we see the relationship between art and food? Certainly, it is not in the aesthetics or how the food is displayed, which is usually the easiest answer: making food beautiful to our eyes. The idea of considering food in the expanded field is much more related to shedding light on processes which have been rendered invisible than on the pleasure we may get out of the visuals of food display. The beauty of illuminating the stages which have been made invisible is also related to image creation and language, and thus concern art. How we talk about food, how we draw the digestive system, how we “see” the food relating to our guts and cells is also of interest to art.
Taste, then, which is a word much used in the art field, in this case becomes something more than a personal matter. It is here treated as an open problem, to be discussed, evaluated and dealt with collectively. That became clear this week for us, as we did not address our hunger as a personal issue. The fact that we were part of a cooking team, with Sasja Uisser and Claudia Bos, in a kitchen that is not “ours”, feeding more people than just the two of us, complexified our experience of food to the point of considering that taste and our digestive systems should be a public matter, interpersonal, interspecies and deeply political in its privileged relationship to the outside world.
Photos of the Open Studios 2020