Student Reflections: Natalie Doonan on Breakfast, Lunch and a Doggy Bag: A Food Praxis Session

The author of this post, Natalie Doonan, was one of the participants in “Breakfast, Lunch and a Doggy Bag: A Food Praxis Session,” a workshop in the CEREV Exhibition Lab in January 2014 led by Toronto-based Palestinian artist Basil AlZeri and David Szanto, Concordia Individualized Program PhD student and Vanier Scholar in performative gastronomy.

On January 23rd, I participated in “Breakfast, Lunch, and a Doggy Bag: A Food Praxis Session with Takeaways,” led by Toronto-based artist Basil AlZeri and food and performance scholar David Szanto in the CEREV Exhibition Lab. The takeaways were multiple: social connections, tasty treats, creative ideas and artistic references. Before the workshop even began, fellow participants referred me to the book Four Fish by Paul Greenberg, to performance artist Lynette Hunter and to the work of Sonja Zlatanova, who will be creating a menu inspired by major figures of feminism as part of an event celebrating La Centrale’s fortieth anniversary. The workshop was choreographed with great care, including its staging. The exhibition space was arranged with four tables to accommodate four sitters each. We were each asked to bring a food item. This was clearly a social space.

The event was organized in four parts. We began with introductions by each person in the group, which included undergraduate and graduate students and professors from Concordia, McGill and UQAM, as well as local artists. This was followed by a presentation by Szanto about the exhibition and performativity of food, and a slideshow by AlZeri introducing his artistic influences. This helped to contextualize relationships between food and performance. It was also a great way to understand AlZeri’s work, as a prelude to his artist talk, scheduled for the following day. Before introducing the workshop activities, Szanto asked that we each take a few moments to consider an “intention,” question, idea, or word that we wished to investigate over the next few hours. We wrote these down on two cue cards, keeping one and giving him the other.

The praxis session included three group exercises. The first was “Two Truths and a Lie”, which involved each of us presenting the food item we had brought to the others at our table, and telling two “truths” about it, and one “lie”. The others had to guess which was the lie. This revealed all kinds of uncertainties and contradictions inherent in the food we eat. I used my food item as an opportunity to consider a project I am currently working on for Hedonistika, a food and robotics festival coming to Montreal this May. When I pulled out my decanter and small cups, the others at my table oohed and aahed and expressed gratitude at having chosen the best seats. Presenting my deep red liquid, I said that it was:

1) dry
2) imported
3) made by me

No one guessed that #1 was the lie. They sipped the drink and thought it tasted “soft” like “nectar” and described it as “floral” — totally unlike what they had expected. They were especially shocked when I then revealed that what they had assumed was wine was actually corn syrup and water with food colouring. My research and artistic practice is about the ability of taste to disrupt expectations or to defamiliarize everyday experiences. This was a fun way of exploring that idea. I had written “sweetness and power” on my cue card. My work for Hedonistika is about sugar, and this was a helpful exercise for figuring out how to provoke analytical connections between “sweetness” and “power” through playful experiments. This resonated with the work of documentary filmmaker and Concordia professor Liz Miller, who was also in my group. She recently screened King Corn in her Food and Film class. In the film, a hair-strand test reveals the director’s body to be literally made of corn (mainly corn syrup).

Next, AlZeri guided us through a slideshow-brainstorming activity, in which we generated at least 60 ideas for food art pieces in 30 seconds each. Then Szanto asked us to choose something on the table that is edible. He instructed us to stop talking. He said “close your eyes… Now eat and listen…………………………………………(this continued)………………………………………What do you hear nearby? Farther away?” and “How long is a minute when your eyes are closed?”

The session ended with more takeaways. We left with the doggy bags containing: a spoon, a piece of cheesecloth and cotton string, and a mason jar. Szanto explained that: “all are intended as invitations to some kind of food action, whether more familiar, less familiar, or always re-iterated. The Syrian crackers in the wax paper are to draw your attention to the less-violent histories of Syria, and in the eating, to perhaps remind you of the millions of displacees and what they are–and are not–currently eating. The little spice package is something that Basil found–a package of six ‘international tastes’, including Asian Fusion, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Spiced Meat. He thought they were funny, as you might.”

The careful organization, humour, and aesthetic engagement of our hosts were deeply appreciated.

Natalie Doonan is a performance and multi-media artist, curator, writer and educator. She is pursuing a PhD Humanities at Concordia University. Natalie is founder of the SensoriuM, a collaborative performance art project. Her work was included in the 2010 Winter Olympics, the LIVE Performance Art Biennale, and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Natalie has upcoming work in Hedonistika, a food and robotics festival to be presented by monochrom and Elektra in Spring 2014.

Other Links

Center for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence