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  • Megan Arney Johnston

Entgrenzung/The Dissolution of Boundaries: Conviviality, Memory and Storytelling in Contemporary Art

DISH: An Artistic Cook Book by Su Legatt


Art. Food. Gathering. Sharing. The ritual of coming together to eat has long been a point of human connection. Communities are built and sustained physically, spiritually and psychologically through food. DISH, a socially engaged art project by Su Legatt reflects how important—urgent, even—connecting with others is today. A simple idea with an intentional socially engaged process, DISH is a poignant, nuanced artwork that exemplifies the German word Entgrenzung, or the dissolution of boundaries in art through conviviality, memory and the act of storytelling.


According to the website, DISH was a series of potluck dinners focusing on mining rural Minnesota culture by sharing and recording personal moments that collectively define the region’s diverse culture. Participants brought a dish and recipe card to share at the event where Legatt gently guided the discussions around a series of questions about Minnesota and rural culture.


A quintessential American meal, potlucks, or “pot” and “luck,” may have come from the Native American communal word “potlatch.” As early as the 16th century, the word was used to explain an event where food was provided to unexpected or uninvited guest, for example, they got the luck of the pot. Today, a potluck is a communal meal where guests bring their own food to be shared. Most historians consider it to have originated in the 1930s during the Depression. In Minnesota, potlucks are engrained in the DNA of our memories. They recall family, church, friends and work gatherings; a coming together to connect, share stories and celebrate community. Interestingly, the custom also transcends political affiliations, economic status, religious orientation and all other social demographics. Through 11 events, 150 people, 80 recipes, 115 photographs, 13 recordings and this cookbook, Legatt took one of the most traditional Minnesotan ideas of food and reimagined it as contemporary art.


Conviviality and Memory in Socially Engaged Art

Legatt has long been interested in social practice, conviviality, and shared memories, and this project embodies that practice and those ideas. What does it mean to be socially engaged? Why is this way of working so relevant and urgent in today’s world? How does DISH connect so easily and readily with its participants? Socially engaged art practice, or social practice, is an approach that focuses on the creation of art through experience with an emphasis on process and connecting with audiences. It is intentional community collaboration, contextualization and engagement. Social practice is not an art movement, medium or new construct in contemporary art. Rather, social practice is a reflection of the contemporary social condition, or, as noted curator Nato Thompson (2012) explains, “ways of life that emphasize participation, challenge power and span disciplines ranging from urban planning and community work to theatre and the visual arts” (p. 20).


This kind of artwork is about audience participation, community engagement and shared expertise. Conviviality is often found in socially engaged art because there is an openness to dialogue and broad engagement in this practice. By definition, conviviality relates to, or is occupied with, feasting, drinking and good company. Legatt’s work engages in a kind of rural good neighborliness, or social conviviality. “I have long been interested in how communities coalesce, how people recall memory, and the conviviality and connection of food. This art project aims to unpack these ideas,” Legatt explains. Situated social interaction in a community can be seen in DISH, a series of participatory art events that brought a diverse set of people from a community together to eat and share. DISH allowed for an affected community gathering based on connection, memories and sharing stories. Affect theorist Erika Doss (2008) explains: there is “a cultural shift toward public feeling, toward affective modes of knowledge and comprehension” (p. 37) that blends physical experience and emotional response, which in turn are perceived as substantial and genuine.


The events were gatherings of communities based on location, work or other coming together. Communities, by definition, can be based on living in the same place but can also be organized around a particular interest or characteristic. There is fellowship with others, a sharing of common attitudes, cultures, interests or goals. Most communities have shared memories. The DISH events took place in Mankato, Madelia, Fergus Falls, New York Mills, Hutchinson, New London, Detroit Lakes, Hallock and St Cloud, all rural communities with a growing diversity of people. As a result, the events reflected a diverse cultural inheritance, the storage and transmission of information by communication, imitation, teaching and learning. Legatt explains, “I was interested in exploring MN culture, particularly rural culture, and the idea of cultural inheritance as opposed to material inheritance.” This cultural inheritance is reflected in the multiplicity of dishes and recipes shared at the events. Culture is the customs, arts, social institutions and achievements of a social group. We can see a place’s culture through the food served and through a cultural inheritance that is transmitted by people through action.


Culture and action often take the form of memory, and there is a strong corollary between memory and the making of art. Discussing our memories is an action that can alter perceptions because it directly challenges our psychological barriers. “Boundaries are false constructs so having conversations dissolves them,” adds Legatt. It is through participatory structures and performative elements that people are engaged. This is one reason DISH is so vital—it engendered a connection among those who participated. And, I would argue, that those who later see the photographs of DISH will relate to this community connection as it draws them into the work. Doss (2008) describes these types of “works of art [as] the physical and visual embodiment of public affect.” The works become “repositories of feelings and emotions that are encoded in their material form, narrative content” and use “the practices that surround their production and reception” (p. 11).


Participation, Performative and Food in Art

The second important conceptual thrust in this work are the participatory and performative aspects of DISH. Artworks of this nature are part of art history but also provide a process for poignant and timely projects today. DISH is a combination of creative engagements—there are socially engaged methods and processes, a formalist approach to photography and a performative element. The combination of participatory and performative aspects in DISH mean that through the artwork, the artist draws out a reciprocal generosity and is, therefore, given meaning by the audience. “Generosity exists in exchanges, like conversations, and within temporal experiences shared by a social or communal body, which are conceived as art, crafted by artists, through these generous acts might not look like art, or in fact be art but become art-like moments” (Jacob, 2014, p. 271).


In performative artworks there are trace artifacts left after a performance, and Legatt collected several for DISH, audio recordings, photographs of the potluck dishes, and recipes. There is a tension between these traces—what is the artwork? Is it the potluck itself? The dialogue? The recipe cards? The images of food? The collected memories? What is important to record, recall, exhibit? I believe what makes DISH a quietly elegant and poignant project is that the artwork is all of these traces.


There is a long history of depicting food and feasting in art, from ancient Greco-Roman art through the Medieval and Renaissance periods through to Dutch still life portraits, Cezanne’s fruit arrangements, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, Dieter Roth’s conceptual Staple Cheese (A Race) and feminist artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. The symbolism of food cannot be underestimated; it recalls wealth, lust and consumerism as much as it implies conviviality and community. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was the first modern era artist to consider food and feasting as art, and he created artworks out of gatherings. Marinetti’s work inspires contemporary artists as they use food to make statements—political, feminist, economic and social. He believed that food preparation and consumption were part of a worldview and also published The Futurist Cookbook. As part of DISH, Legatt also created a publication—to disseminate not only the experiences and photographs of the potluck but to commemorate this kind of work and a rural worldview. The similarities are uncanny.


Legatt cleverly recalls a number of contemporary artists working with food especially in relation to social practice. For example, Legatt was inspired by the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who, in 1969, wrote Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969! Proposal for an exhibition: “Care,” 1969. In it Ukeles combined development and maintenance. The first associated with the male-dominated avant-garde and the latter with domestic work. Ukeles incorporated the concept of maintenance in many installations. In DISH, there is also a connection to the feminist ideals found in the domestic—women are often the ones making food for families—but Legatt decoupled women from food, fastening us instead to memory, meaning and connection as well as reimagining of rural communities. Legatt explains, “There’s a philosophy in photography regarding the power of the object and those installations [by Ukeles] expanded that thinking for me. It made me want to find a bridge between the photography as document/object and the object itself.”


Food and conviviality also plays a role in performative socially engaged works, for example, in the work of Suzanne Lacy and Rirkrit Tiravanija. In 1983/1984, Lacy created Whisper, the Waves, the Wind. In that work, she worked with a group of women in Southern California who were over the age of 65 to produce a series of events where they sat at tables to discuss their lives, relationships, hopes and fears. Like Lacy, there is a connection to process and perhaps a bit of the tableau vivant in Legatt’s work—the living picture of a group of people engaged in a process. The poignancy of the participants’ authorship challenges the role of the artist. I think Legatt is comfortable in this role. The artist adds that “I am mostly drawn to [Lacy’s] way of working. She’s more focused on the process and the goal rather than the original intent of the expectations of others.” For both Lacy and Legatt there is a considered act—one of storytelling, gathering and sharing, empathy and exchange.


Another artist worth noting is Rirkrit Tiravanija, a social practitioner well known for his 1992 work Untitled (Free) at the 303 Gallery in New York. The artist converted a gallery into a kitchen where he served rice and Thai curry for free. This is an important historic work in socially engaged practice. What’s interesting in relation to Legatt’s work is not the inclusion of food, though that is comparable, but it’s that both artists directly challenged the artist’s role and authorship in the process and the artwork. However, unlike Tiravanija, only three of 11 DISH events were held in galleries, which reflects Legatt’s interest in reaching people in a more relative and communicative place. In social practice, we meet people where they’re at and work with that. But Legatt goes deeper. Social practitioners prioritize process and participation, so it makes sense that location became a vessel rather than a statement of mediation or consumption. “Acknowledging, identifying, meeting the audience face-to-face, we begin to eliminate the barriers of distance, difference, and power that anonymity otherwise allows” (Jacob, 2014, p. 270). Legatt, by dismantled the hierarchy of art and the gallery, effectively decentered it and reimagined the boundaries of art and creative participation. In turn, audiences can reimagine their role. This is why Legatt’s DISH is so important for those of us working in socially engaged practice today.


Formalist Readings Reimagined as Reciprocal Generosity

The third conceptual element is how a formalist way of looking at these works as portraits adds sophisticated nuance to the project. Analyzing a work of art from a formalist perspective means we look at form and style. We consider the elements of art (line, shape, color, texture, space, etc.) and the principles of design (balance, unity, proportion, movement, etc.). We need to consider the history of art too, including the movements and genres of art such as the portrait and labor.


DISH is part of the genre of portraiture. In photography, portraiture aims to capture a person, personality or group of people. There is usually a posed element as well. In DISH, the photographs serve as a form of portraiture, formally and symbolically, connecting the dish back to its creator, forming a collection to honor the individual efforts gathered for a community experience. They are also an artifact of the performance in a way that is personal and evocative. DISH is so nuanced, so complicated, so interesting. The connection between the legacy of traditional photography and genres with socially engaged methods allows for a highly relevant viewing experience. This is completely intentional. Legatt explains, “I was training in a traditional studio practice, in primarily photography, but I quickly grew tired of telling my own story and became more interested in other people’s stories. I started to incorporate a wide variety of methodologies to acquire stories, document stories, and then to disseminate and share the story.”


DISH is also about the formalized looking of female domestication. How do we see what we see and how is it presented? Here too we can recall the work of Ukeles. Her groundbreaking work I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day is one that Legatt describes as a performative-orientated process instrumental in her thinking. In this work Ukeles offered 300 maintenance workers some authorship of their own lives and actions, as well as what she describes as “the Duchampian freedom to rename something, to switch something.” This work makes visible otherwise hidden and essential labor, which is rarely respected as important work done by diligent workers. The making of food is domesticated (read female) labor. In this way, Legatt is celebrating not only female memory but also labor. It’s important to note, however, that while many of the participants were women, there were also men. And though not a feminist work, DISH prioritizes female labor.


DISH is performative as an event and as a gesture of reciprocal generosity. For Legatt this is represented in the shared authorship of the work, which became vital to the project. She wants the photographs and this book to honor that co-creation. As Jacob (2014) says, “To give and to help; to provoke, catalyze, and enable; to be of service, to be responsible, to better and to improve, to contribute to betterment; to give food…to give ‘voice’” (p. 273). In this deceptively simple conceptual piece, Legatt invites the participant to interact with contemporary art in a sociable way and blurs the distance between artist and viewer. You aren’t viewing the art, but are part of itmaking the art as you eat and talk with friends or new acquaintances.


This project sets out to bring people together for intimate exchange and to archive these private moments. It reflects a complex and complete understanding of the Minnesotan identity. Memories are signposts of our identities and communities. The moments that make up DISH allow for new connections and the strengthening of existing networks. “Opening the process of art-making to others previously held at a distance is demanding. It involves inserting them into the process and being accountable to them, while they—having become thoughtfully and constructively engaged—become accountable to us and to the art. It is not a passive giving and receiving, and responsibilities exist for each party involved. But the dialogue that is engendered—whether art or part of the process of making—is evidence in that experience of art, we all have something to gain. The more openly and generously we listen to each other, and encourage other perceptions, the more we will hear, and the greater the work of art will resound” (Jacob, 2014, p. 273). DISH is about community building, sustainable living and food. It is also an artwork within communities and with others, one that is conceptually embedded in conviviality, the quality of being friendly, memory, and the act of storytelling.


Megan Arney Johnston is an independent curator, museum specialist and educator who uses socially engaged curatorial practices centered on fundamental questions about art and its display and mediation. Arney Johnston is a noted specialist in social engagement, having coined the phrase “slow curating” (2011). She holds a PhD in Museology and Curatorial Practice from the University of Ulster, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Curatorial appointments include institutions in Europe and the United States, where she has produced more than 330 exhibitions over her 25-year career. She has written dozens of exhibition catalog essays and articles for academic journals in addition to presenting on social practice and radical museology at numerous national and international conferences. For more information, please see slowcurating.com.

Citations:

Erika Doss (2008) The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards a Theory of Temporary Memorials. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


Mary Jane Jacob (2014) “Reciprocal Generosity” in What we Want is Free: Critical Exchanges in Recent Art, Ted Purves and Shane Aslan Selzer (eds). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.


Nato Thompson (2012) Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991–2011. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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