Blogs Field Guide Susy Bielak

Pick Your Persona: A Cindy Sherman Ball

On January 31st, the Walker hosted a fantastic event inspired by the chameleon-like work of artist Cindy Sherman, whose 35-year retrospective of identity-bending photographs is on view in the galleries through February 17. Working in collaboration with fashion designer and curator Emma Berg and Mother Paris Legion (aka Vision Model Management booker/stylist Xavier Rucker), we […]

On January 31st, the Walker hosted a fantastic event inspired by the chameleon-like work of artist Cindy Sherman, whose 35-year retrospective of identity-bending photographs is on view in the galleries through February 17. Working in collaboration with fashion designer and curator Emma Berg and Mother Paris Legion (aka Vision Model Management booker/stylist Xavier Rucker), we staged our very own ball. The response was overwhelming.

The Ball scene sprang from the GLBT community in New York in the 80s, and combines high fashion, drag, dance and vogueing. The myriad characters Sherman conjures through self-transformation in her photographs were the perfect inspiration for the event. The local ball scene in Minneapolis has more recently gained momentum, and through conversations with Xavier Rucker and House of Legion, we realized that a ball could intersect beautifully with questions around drag and performing identities in Sherman’s show. “Pick Your Persona: A Cindy Sherman Ball,” invited members of the ball community and general public to participate in runway walk-offs based on categories responding to Sherman’s various bodies of work, including “High Society Butch Queen in Drag,” “Movie Vogue/Femme Fatale” and “European Runway.” (see full description here).

Here’s a small sample of the night.

If these photos whet your palette, you can see and read more here or here on vita.mn or the Star Tribune, or watch a brief video on MMSP-TV.

Emma Berg, Xavier Rucker/Mother Paris Legion, and Susy Bielak, photo by Gene Pittman

Emma Berg, photo by Gene Pittman

Emma Berg, photo by Adan Torres

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Egypt Legion, Photo by Adan Torres

Photo by Adan Torres

Photo by Adan Torres

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Photo by Adan Torres

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Cooey Legion, Photo by Adan Torres

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Xavier Rucker, “Mother Paris Legion,” Photo by Adan Torres

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Photo by Adan Torres

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Melissa Heer, photo by Adan Torres

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Bobbi Dazzle, photo by Gene Pittman

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Photo by Gene Pittman

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Richard Moody, photo by Gene Pittman

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Father Milan Legion,  photo by Adan Torres

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Mother Paris Legion, photo by Adan Torres

Photo by Gene Pittman

Sir Rajah Legion, photo by Gene Pittman

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Photo by Adan Torres

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Photo by Adan Torres

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Photo by Adan Torre

Alternative Labeling: Jane Addams visits the Walker

Picture twenty museum professionals sitting at a board room with their eyes closed, mouths full of chocolate and listening to the mellifluous voice of a French chocolatier telling us how to taste it. How to listen to it and hold it in our mouths. How to warm it, how to feel its character of flowers, […]

Picture twenty museum professionals sitting at a board room with their eyes closed, mouths full of chocolate and listening to the mellifluous voice of a French chocolatier telling us how to taste it. How to listen to it and hold it in our mouths. How to warm it, how to feel its character of flowers, earth, honey.

While it’s chocolate in particular that we’re tasting, we’re being reminded of what it is to savor.

“Now that we’ve had sensual chocolate experience, I’ll tell you a little about where I work and how we have made what was once a dusty historic house into a hothouse for embodied learning, a site that brings theory to praxis, encourages activism around social justice and once a month, screens radical sex films followed by passionate dialogue.”

And so begins the day at the Walker with Lisa Yun Lee of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.

I invited Lisa to the Walker to help us think about animating our own spaces and collections. We first met last fall, when I saw her present as part of the panel Working with People: Facilitating Critical Engagement and Collaborative Practices in Urban Design and History at Imagining America. I saw her again during Dangerous Ridiculous, a session about risk-taking during the conference in Minneapolis for the American Alliance of Museums. In each case, she gave one of the most compelling presentations from the conference. We had the chance to spend one-on-one time together in Chicago last May over what turned out to be a My Dinner with Andre-kind of meal, talking about gastronomy, basketball and poetry, civic work, the performativity of language, building archives of the commons, and diversity in museums.

Since last spring, our cross-country conversation around museum work has continued and evolved to more deeply address embodiment, pleasure, participation, and issues of language as they play out in cultural institutions.  Lisa’s directorship of the historic landmark—the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum—has been recognized as an exemplar in programming and interpretation internationally. Through her prior work at Hull-House and other projects, including as co-founder of The Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council (an organization dedicated to creating spaces for dialogue and dissent and for reinvigorating civil society), Lisa has modeled her research and writing about museums and diversity, cultural and environmental sustainability, and spaces for fostering radically democratic practices.  Lisa has recently stepped into the role of Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which includes museum and exhibition studies, Gallery 400, the contemporary art museum on campus, and the Hull-House Museum.

Lisa Lee

Lisa Lee

My goal in bringing Lisa to the Walker was for her to share some of the extraordinary work she developed at the Hull-House, namely, the Alternative Labeling project,  for us to consider some of the parallels between our work, and to spark our own speculative thinking around interdisciplinarity and interpretation. Beginning with savoring chocolate, her visit was a foray into pleasure, politics and perception in a museum context.

Susannah Schouweiler, editor for mnartists.org, describes the visit below.

—Susy Bielak, Associate Director of Public and Interpretive Programs

* * *

“Engagement” is a near-universal aspiration in organizational conversations about mission, and no wonder: The term is such an appealing catch-all, hitting a sweet spot for nonprofit and commercial ventures alike, vaguely signifying relevance, public value and participation, the common good.  Attractive as it is, though, “engagement” is a slippery notion, one whose finer semantic points and “best practices” are damnably hard to pin down.

Lisa Lee’s recent presentation at the Walker Art Center addressed just this issue as part of a series of internal discussions about the nature and scope of “the interdisciplinary” with the center’s “Interdisciplinary Work Group” (a small group of curators, scholars, educators and programmers).

As Lee makes her presentation to our gathered group about the rich programming and outreach undertaken with the community in and around the Jane Addams Hull-House in Chicago, the way she describes her museum’s approach to cultivating engagement and interpreting their collections for the public is itself telling.  Her language is open-ended, centered on arenas of inquiry and collaboration, on process and transformation, rather than the usual issues of historical “fact” or effective display and education, per se.

There’s good reason for that. “There are two conflicting notions of culture and how it operates in society. On the one hand,” she says, “there’s the model of aesthetic supremacy: of determining what is delicious, what is excellent, what is a good and true pursuit to have, and then attempting to make that accessible to the broadest group of people.”

“But we prefer another, broader way of thinking about culture,” she says, “one that rejects a fixed idea of culture for a more dynamic determination that involves constant creation,  re-creation and intermingling of ideas. Or, as T.S. Eliot would say, ‘Culture includes all the characteristics of people.’”

“For our work at Hull-House” she explains, “we subscribe to the idea that everyone can determine what is beautiful, for themselves; that culture is a product of mixing, adding, conversing. And so, in that spirit, we try to challenge our own tastes and sensibilities by inviting outside groups to contribute. In fact, most of our programs are community-curated.”

Such a collective ethos seems only fitting for a historic site like the Hull-House. Jane Addams, along with her longtime partner Ellen Gates Starr, founded the “settlement house” in a densely populated, near West-side Chicago neighborhood in 1891.  At the Hull-House, a diverse population of educated, reform-minded residents – many of them also immigrants – worked and lived together, developing a wide variety of educational and arts programs, trade union groups, cultural events and employment services geared toward the low-income immigrant populations who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. In the 1890s, those urban communities included newly arrived Polish Jews, Germans, Italians, Irish, Greeks, Bohemians, and Russians; after the turn of the 20th-century, African-American and Mexican residents joined in at the Hull-House as well.

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Delegation to the Women’s Suffrage Legislature Jane Addams of Hull House
(left) and Miss Elizabeth Burke of the University of Chicago, Chicago Daily News.

Part of the task of the site’s museum now, Lee says, involves rethinking past conceptions about Hull-House and, more broadly, about Chicago history. And that involves re-evaluating the ways we create and present to the public stories about things and people we think we already know. We need to go further, she urges, to extend our inquiries outward and tap those community resources for the sake of unearthing those narratives we never even thought to look for.

Lee asks us to consider the question: “What does it mean to be a ‘public’ institution?” We need to think more expansively about the terms involved, she argues: “A ‘public’ is not a homogenous thing but many, always changing heterogeneous things; it’s a social space created by the circulation of discourse and language, always in the process of being called into being.” As an example, Lee says, we need look no further than Fox News. She argues the right-leaning cable news network isn’t so much giving a “public” information it needs; rather, Fox News actively takes a hand in creating a certain kind of public in the stories it finds and chooses to tell. The public is not timeless or a-historical. “You shape a ‘public’ by naming it;” and what’s more, she says, “we need to acknowledge our roles and responsibilities in creating the ‘publics’ all around us.”

* * *

Lee describes herself, as, at essence, a Marxist literary theorist and German studies scholar (her academic work includes a book for Routledge on philosopher Theodor Adorno). As such, she laughs, her work is always informed by a Marxist’s persistent anxiety about commodities. She explains, “Things and objects are so readily commoditized in our society, that their labor and use is masked. Things and objects tend to stop us from becoming fully human; particularly when we objectify our fellow human beings.” So, she says, “I have this theoretical clash working in a museum and dealing with the artifacts of material culture.” For inspiration on resolving that internal conflict, she says she’s turned to philosopher, Bill Brown, of the University of Chicago, and his Sense of Things. Specifically, Brown’s “thing theory” outlines an understanding of objects that includes not just a story of their consumption, but of how we think about ourselves; in this way, our things are understood to be sublimations of our desires and utopian dreams.

Considered in this context, Lee says, museums and the things they hold “become the storehouses of our memories. Our things refuse to let us forget; if we really pay attention to the stories our objects want to tell us, historical amnesia is impossible.”

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Jane Addams’ Travel Medicine Kit and Terri Kapsalis’ Alternative Label
at The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, 2011. Photo: Rachel Glass.

If we’re willing to interrogate, on an ongoing basis, the objects we as museums hold in public trust, she says, “if we ask different questions of those objects, and ask our surrounding communities questions about them, we’ll find ourselves telling very different stories than the ones we think we already know.”

As an example of such a community-activated investigation, Lee describes a collaborative exhibition at the Hull-House, looking into the story of Vice Lords gang in turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago. For the project, museum curators worked with current-day Vice Lords to excavate their history, to uncover historical documents and in so doing to tell a larger story of the criminalization of gangs in the city.

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Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative
Vice Lords at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum.

She cites another such community-curated project on the history of home economics and domestic science. The museum’s investigation into the subject began, she says, with a deceptively simple question raised by some of their community partners from a Latino domestic workers’ union. They asked: “Who cleaned the Hull-House?”  And so, the museum looked into it. As they pored through house records, they discovered the site’s housekeeper was one Mary Keyser, an important reformer in her own right who was at Hull-House with Jane Addams from the beginning. “All the evidence of her significance was there in front of us,” Lee says, “but because of her role as a domestic worker in the house, we’d neglected to see it.”

She goes on, “Museums have always been the way that the ‘1%’ have re-inscribed the experiences of culture at large. But how can we use these institutional spaces and leverage that cultural clout to tell more nuanced stories about the other ‘99%’? This sort of work has proven a great way to challenge meaningful interactivity in the museum’s exhibition space.”

In a museum setting, so much of that storytelling happens by way of labels. In fact, Lee describes herself as someone “obsessed” by them, calling labels, “part of the great democratization of museums” by providing public access to information about the objects therein, without the necessity of buying a companion book. The task, Lee argues, is to take a lesson from, say improv performers – to see the museum didactics and interpretive materials we in museums create to accompany and elucidate the objects on public view as prompts, a place from which to begin investigation rather than one which gives the final word.

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Bielak and Lee in the midst of a workshop in Walker galleries.

Lee offers this quote from Susan Buck-Morss: “Facts should inspire imagination rather than tying it down. The less they are subsumed under the fiction of secure knowledge, marshaled as proof of a predetermined and authoritative thesis, the more truth they are capable of revealing.”

To put it a different way: What if museums were to create open-ended, even oblique labels for their objects, reflective of a working assumption that, when presenting materials and objects for display, one can expect the “right” understanding of those objects to be fluid; that the meaning and significance of objects will be transformed by the experiences and perceptions of visitors, as well as the museum staff members who’ve framed those objects for public exhibit.

Lee says: “I think it’s wrong to assume that we, in museums, don’t have opinions about the objects we hold; but it’s also wrong to pretend there’s an omniscient mind, rather than a person, behind the label we use to describe those objects. We don’t want to shut the interpretive process down [with our ‘educational and interpretive materials], we want to open it up.”

Exercise: What if we re-imagine labels as something other than didactic statements? Cy Twombly insisted captions for his “Peony Blossom” paintings be rendered in haiku. Let’s try that: Go into the galleries and find a piece of artwork on display; write a label for the work in haiku form. Like Emily Dickinson, try “telling it slant.” Leave the description open-ended; try giving just 50% of the information – just enough to prompt the reader further into the piece.

Seen that way, truly meaningful public participation and engagement with a museum’s objects, artifacts and cultural collections center on a question Lee raises at the conclusion of our talk. “It comes down to this,” she says. “How do we enable people to decide what is true and beautiful for themselves? How do we, as museums, allow for multiple truths, plural cultural experiences?”

And what kinds of new opportunities might arise – for our civic institutions, our historic sites and our art museums, for how we knit together our evolving communities – if our understandings of where we’ve been and to where we might be headed could be opened up in this way? What if our consistent focus shifted to facilitation of such dynamic, transformative, cross-sector conversations?

Living Classroom and Open Field: An Interview with Marc Bamuthi 
Joseph

In the spirit of public exchange, the Walker presents Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an online and print book examining our three-year experiment in participation and public space. This essay comprises a chapter of the publication, which will be released online in its entirety. On August 18, 2011, the Walker hosted Living Classroom, a […]

Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Classroom, August 2011

In the spirit of public exchange, the Walker presents Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an online and print book examining our three-year experiment in participation and public space. This essay comprises a chapter of the publication, which will be released online in its entirety.

On August 18, 2011, the Walker hosted Living Classroom, a daylong gathering exploring the question, “What sustains life in your community?” Activities ranged from games of dominoes with artist/activist Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses, and a community walkabout — a tour and conversation about animating public space led by local architect Marcy Schulte — to a program of table tennis matches, karaoke, and a slide show with photographer Wing Young Huie.

The Living Classroom was born out of conversations around a monthlong project with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a spoken word/theater artist and educator dedicated to building and supporting creative ecosystems. The residency was part of the Walker’s ongoing relationship with the artist that also resulted in the co-commission and debut of his interdisciplinary performance work red, black & GREEN: a blues at the Walker in March 2012.

On an early site visit, Joseph and collaborator Brett Cook introduced his ongoing project Life Is Living — a series of eco and art festivals launched in urban parks nationwide that bring performance, intergenerational health, and environmental action to a number of artists and community organizations. Their visit left a residue of excitement and questions: Why would community-based artists and organizations want to produce an event at the Walker? Why would a project focusing on under-resourced communities be situated there?

The partners decided that the majority of the residency should take place off-site, and that projects about specific communities should be sited in partnership with local grassroots organizations. Workshops, professional development sessions, and a block party took place in several neighborhoods.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph performs in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, August 18, 2011

For the component at the museum, the framework of Life Is Living met the values of Open Field. The collaborating partners created a day that emphasized dialogue and mutual learning. Joseph talks about this process with Susannah Bielak.

Susannah Bielak: Your catalytic question for Living Classroom is, “What sustains life in your community?” Will you answer that question for yourself? What does sustainability mean to you?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: What sustains life in my community? Well, always the people, and the animal instinct to survive. “Sustain” is an interesting word because the fact is, my community, which for the purpose of this conversation I’ll characterize as the African American community in Oakland, California, is actually leaving. That city is a place where death, education, and the level of incarceration are functioning at an unsustainable rate. So, you would think that what sustains life are the people who are doing their very best to turn those factors around — soulful, artistic, creative healers and creative problem-solvers sustain life in Oakland. The means of creative problem-solving keep changing. Some of the problem-solvers are farmers and food activists. Some are artists and athletes. Some are just good dads or good moms. But the creative healers sustain life in Oakland. They sustain life in my community.

Bielak: We’re at a juncture where institutions are asking themselves about their relevance to the cities and communities in which they live. How do you see Open Field and the Living Classroom as related to the question of community sustainability and relevance?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Classroom, Augsut 2011

Joseph:I think that the Living Classroom is populist and popular education at its best, but located at a specific site. What I love about the Living Classroom is that it invites a curated sample of organizations and artists  to reveal and inquire about the best practices toward provoking thought around sustainability. So much of our discourse is about saying, “I have an idea. I’m going to communicate this idea to you.” This discourse instead is about creatively finding ways to ask, to provoke, and to invite people into the conversation. To me, that’s a reflection of our Freirean pedagogy and it’s also a reflection of good politics and city management, where policy development is predicated on this invitation into the conversation. That’s what’s great about Living Classroom.

Bielak: Something we’ve learned from Open Field is that a platform for the public’s participation and collaboration requires structure and maintenance in order to flourish. As a self-described catalyst, what armatures do you build around participation, particularly for a project about sustainability?

Joseph: I am one of a class of what I call empathic intellectuals, which means that my discourse, my way of being in the world is based on energetic reciprocity. The word “armature” implies brick and mortar, steel and glass. But the primary structure that I build is energetic and emotional — finding a way not only in my own practice, but implicit and integrated inside my artistic fields of inquiry to generate safe space.

Whether we’re talking about the formal or informal classroom or the performance space, growth happens inside a safe space. This might be indicated through iconography, through fields of play, or through certain kinds of music. But I really think it’s the energy we ourselves carry that plays a role in this safe space. There are rigorous intellectuals who are lousy teachers because they don’t know how to orchestrate an environment for the interchange of information. Part of the whole strategy is to be intentional about safe space.

Bielak: It’s interesting that you called out the word “armature.” When I think of armatures in the context of this discussion, I think of soft architecture—the social structures, human work, and relationship-building at play in organizing. I see this integrally at play in projects such as Living Classroom and Life Is Living. What kinds of networks have you been part of, inquired into, and engaged with catalytically through this work?

Spoken word artist Tish Jones performs as part of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Open Field residency

Joseph:I think this goes back to the thesis of the work that we’re doing — the ecosystem — which hopefully mirrors the grand design of nature, in that the more diverse we are, the greater chance we all have for survival. We are interdependent.

Part of what I strive to do inside of the performance space, and also inside of an organizing model, is to 
prioritize a sense of interdependence. Sometimes 
that looks like the Living Classroom, with all the activities and participants. Sometimes it looks like a poetry slam for youth, where there’s a scaffolded development process for the young people, community participation on the audience level, and the integration of an institution such as the San Francisco Opera House or the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, for example.

Again, I think it’s my performance background and belief that as curators we’re not just responsible for locating objects in space, but we’re also responsible for communal experience. And that’s something I derived from my friend Ken Foster, who talks about communal experience being fundamental to the success of arts practice. Similarly, such experience defines the success of an organization. There are going to be some bumps in the road, emotional and logistical, but at the end of the day, if we have provided safe space for as many participants as possible, I think we’re doing our job right.

Bielak: A phrase that we’ve been using in relationship to Open Field is that of a “cultural commons.” While we don’t explicitly use the term safe, a driving principle of the project is to create a space where people want to be, and might really want to share. I’m wondering how you interpret the cultural commons, and what you might see as its value?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Classroom, August 2011

Joseph:I love the phrase “cultural commons” because part of its value is both physical and nonphysical in terms of its occupancy of site. I think it’s fantastic, and also speaks to democracy. The idea of common ground or middle ground is different from compromise, which implies that there have been concessions made, whereas commons, or the common ground, implies a space where everyone’s ideas are welcome and preferred, if not prioritized. So I think that it’s a great phrase, politically, socially, and artistically, and might be something that I adopt to talk about what we do, because that’s really what it is.

Bielak:Life Is Living is a truly ambitious and multidimensional project that maintains a high degree of performance, including graffiti battles, youth spoken word, dance, and music. Here in the Twin Cities and at the Walker, the Living Classroom was far more about process and conversation than performance. Will Open Field and the process of the Living Classroom influence your artistic practice? Specifically, do you think the emphasis on the dialogical will influence you?

Joseph: Part of my arts manifestation is to reveal the process. There have been times at Life Is Living festivals when folks have asked me if I was going to perform. I would tell them that I am performing, that I don’t have to be rhyming or doing choreography to be inside of my artistic manifestation. The piece that’s going to come here to the Walker next year is evidence of that ideology — that we can reveal the  arts process as the object of a performance, or the object to be viewed. All that being said, the Living Classroom is also performative. It’s performance of culture; it’s performance of process. It’s also aesthetically beautiful.

Kite-flying on Open Field as part of the Living Classroom, 2011

The past few days, let alone my almost four-year relationship with the Walker, have introduced me to a certain vocabulary and to characters on the street that have placed me inside a context that will very much find its way into the finished product of red, black & GREEN: a blues. When we were in development with the break/s here about three years ago, there was something about the relationship between the education and community programs department, the performing arts department, and the visual arts program that made me want to create a work to fit in the middle of all of them. That’s what red, black & GREENis, and what I think the Living Classroom is.

Bielak: When you came in April, you sparked our citizenry with the question, “What sustains life in our community?” It seems like the way you worked on this residency was to plant a powerful seed, leave it alone, and return to encounter the flowers growing out of the residents. Is this a typical practice?

Joseph: No, it’s not a typical practice either for me or for the field. I would hope that it becomes more commonplace — this kind of active listening, quick turnaround, administrative dedication, and sacrifice. I think the current practice is for institutions to relate to an artist’s ideas in the codified form of object, and to present a platform for those objects to live. But I love the way that the Walker has absorbed, at least for a time, an artist’s process and integrated it into its own practices and processes.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Rick Lowe play dominoes on Open Field, August 2011

(Kitchen) Lab Notes

Grounded in studies of food, design, culture, social practice, and engineering – to name just a few – the Walker Kitchen Lab Collective spent the last two weeks questioning, defining, creating, researching, prototyping, discovering, experimenting with and trying to determine the nature of the kitchen. Tonight’s “Kitchen Lab: an Unveiling” at Walker Open Field from […]

Grounded in studies of food, design, culture, social practice, and engineering – to name just a few – the Walker Kitchen Lab Collective spent the last two weeks questioning, defining, creating, researching, prototyping, discovering, experimenting with and trying to determine the nature of the kitchen. Tonight’s “Kitchen Lab: an Unveiling” at Walker Open Field from 6-9 pm, invites you, the public, to come interact with, play and explore the many Kitchen Lab toolkits that have been created by the collective.

What’s a Kitchen Lab toolkit, you might ask? Physically speaking, it’s a box inside which you will find objects, utensils, ingredients, instructions, etc., etc., relating to various themes or ideas about the kitchen, the hearth, food culture, and beyond that encourage play.

I’ve gathered some tasty tidbits from the Kitchen Lab collective’s daily documentation about their process and projects, research and development,  and personal reflections on the many Kitchen Lab speakers and workshops. So let theses musings, illustrations, questions and ideas pique your interest (and perhaps your appetite) for what’s in store for tonight’s unveiling!

Excerpts from the Kitchen Lab Collective’s Daily Documentation:

-fondue is a highly social experience

-p.s: we also tried melting the cheese in the oven!!

-it was a relationship with food that I previously didn’t even think to bring to this class

-In the spirit of Kitchen Lab and inspired by a number of talks (but Amanda Lovelee in particular), I’m proposing the Kitchen Lab Jam

-Alright, end of the documentation-dry-spell for the Scent Box.

-Go go go go, and then pass or fail. But we can’t fail. So let’s just keep going.

-Speaking of containers, I would like us to agree on some language around describing the containers.  Are they Kitchen Lab Experiments? Kitchen Lab Projects? Kitchen Lab Activities?  Kitchen Lab Cabinets?  Pantries?  Appliances?

-This pragmatic perspective of the business of being a chef and opening a restaurant provides another perspective to our understanding of the landscape of food.

-Wee wire baskets hang off the pegboard to hold our smaller smell miscellany for your perusing pleasure.

-I think the Open Field is asking some of the same questions I am.

-how do we reconcile “mobile” and “hearth”?

-A pure, simple concept can strike through all of the complexity and expose the heart of what we want to say. What is this heart, this question we’re asking of our audience?

-post-it note brainstorming

-I liked that people were jumping from group-to-group making suggestions and the Flat Pack began to have that studio feeling where you just ask a question out loud to the room in general and someone will usually answer it.

-Reflective, insulating material!  Could you get more perfect than that?

-Making the invisible visible. Social sculpture. Beloved community. Humanizing.

-the flow of how people worked and where they sat was not what I expected

-I woke up early today to get to Ax-Man

-Because the containers relatively un-kitchen-like it’s hard to imagine them working as a kitchen.

-Two people (at separate times), after hearing my complaints about less than enjoyable bites, became determined to create a meal that I would enjoy. (They failed to do so, but I appreciated the effort.)

-Food is clearly great for participation–talking over a spread of free food tends to dismantle barriers to casual conversation.

-the value of humor

-Sympathy and vulnerability lower our socially defensive barriers and allow us to relate to each other and build community.

-the Alice in Wonderland scene with the bottle labeled “Drink Me” and cake labeled “Eat Me” prompted us to think about the role of the senses as bodily, and the role that the senses have in making associations to place and memory in the kitchen

-Our main goal through this project is to teach the community the alternative ways to cook and serve in a new form.

-I needed to be reminded that it is not enough to write that an audience was “engaged,” but write how, why, what were they doing that indicated so.

-We don’t have to introduce people to every single tea culture, that’s not the goal of the project, but just introduce them to something new.

-the goal for good instruction-writing is to have sympathy for the reader, shift your domain to theirs, enter their shoes and imagine how they may understand your words or images.

-memory, instead of note-taking, is the best kind of filter in determining what information is really important

-When someone cuts something in half, the other person chooses their piece – all these years, and I thought mine was the only family who practiced such a ritual.

-functional kitchen, full cycle, policy.

-unbeknownst to me, I have been sorting out  my Food Biography.

 

Walker Kitchen Lab: the City Pantry

Our Kitchen Lab project, the City Pantry: A Cabinet of Scents and Memories, is wading its way into thick description. We’re in the midst of smell. Collecting it, translating it, containing it, writing around it. In the last three days, we’ve gone to dozens of yard sales, chain supermarkets, co-ops, ethnic food markets, and hardware […]

Just a *few* of the scents we've been working with

Our Kitchen Lab project, the City Pantry: A Cabinet of Scents and Memories, is wading its way into thick description. We’re in the midst of smell. Collecting it, translating it, containing it, writing around it. In the last three days, we’ve gone to dozens of yard sales, chain supermarkets, co-ops, ethnic food markets, and hardware stores on the search for canning jars, peg board, bungee cords, scents and memories. We’ve concocted smells ranging from the backyard to the river, to the gas station. We’ve also invited friends and strangers to collaborate in the process of writing the city through its scents.

Wednesday, my collaborators Sara N. and Jimmy went to two St. Paul landmarks—Candyland and Midway Bookstore. The guy at the bookstore told them that he couldn’t smell the books. What he did smell was asphalt, the exhaust, tar, cigarettes, and the busy intersection.

The City Pantry's internal architecture, waiting to be filled with scents and memories

Friday, Sara and I went back to St. Paul, first to Ax-Man with Jimmy, then to Grand Avenue. Stogies on Grand was to be the first of several stops, but was as far as we made it. Sara’s friend Jessica was working that day. She unscrewed almost every jar in the store in the process of walking us through tobacco and memory.  Over the bridge of her glasses, Jessica schooled us: “You take a cigar like you take your coffee. If you like it black, you’ll like it more intense.” Some of the tobacco bites with fermentation. It’s peaty—a deep scotch undertone that gets to your gut.

Jessica pinched a ½ teaspoon into her left palm, rubbed it with her right palm, and bruised the tobacco as if muddling herbs.  She told us the first time she smelled cherry tobacco she couldn’t stand it. Then someone bought some and took it into the smoking room. As he lit his pipe, Jessica was transported to memories of her grandfather. This was his smell.

Each story about smell calls up other smells.

Jessica’s memory called up one of my own—the first time I smelled pipe tobacco in a schoolmate’s house in the middle of Pennsylvania. The estate was filled with opulence and middle-school awkwardness. The smell was grounding—a soft, round olfactory cushion.

Fresh scents from the garden

I find myself increasingly attuned to smell, and brainstorming the olfactory.
How do we recreate the scents of
Spring rain
Hot asphalt
Garlic when it seeps through the walls
First love
Pollen in the spring. Honeysuckle.
Grandma’s house.

Jimmy and Sara stopped at the co-op to buy spices in bulk.  Among the teas were tiny dried tea roses. Saccharine, pungent and reminiscent of Victorian parlors.  Upon return to the studio Jimmy paged through a musty old book, Sara unwound a rope of black licorice, and the roses seeped through the plastic bag.  Out of these actions, the smells mingled to evoke a Midwestern grandma’s house. After that, for each member of the collective, they fanned the book, and held out the tea roses and licorice while participants waved their noses before the objects.  For most of the collective, it was uncanny.

What memories/places/people/times might these scents evoke?

Yet it’s interesting that not all scents are universal; in fact, they call up uniquely personal and evocative recollections.  Thinking about grandma’s house, I remember my paternal grandmother’s house in Mexico City. Abue’s house was the smell of moth balls, tomato and onion simmering on the stove, overripe fruit, and wood. Later, the tenants.

Come on down to Walker Open Field Thursday night from 6-9 pm for “Kitchen Lab: an Unveiling” and play with the City Pantry as well as all of the other Kitchen Lab projects that explore ideas such as heat, water, and curiosity. Hang around for an Acoustic Campfire performance by Mixed Precipitation’s cast of Picnic Operetta!  As a collective the Walker Kitchen Lab has been researching, developing, prototyping, discovering, exploring, questioning and philosophizing what a kitchen is and what it can be. What would you put in your Kitchen Lab?

Mammaw’s Creole: Walker Kitchen Lab considers the stealth power of smells

By Betsy DiSalvo One of the Walker Kitchen Labs in development by the collective right now revolves around the smells of the kitchen. This brought me back to my childhood kitchen and smelling Mammaw’s Creole. One of my cousins sent this recipe around last year just after my grandmother died. Nora Mae (Garbarino) Cart was […]

By Betsy DiSalvo

One of the Walker Kitchen Labs in development by the collective right now revolves around the smells of the kitchen. This brought me back to my childhood kitchen and smelling Mammaw’s Creole.

One of my cousins sent this recipe around last year just after my grandmother died.

Nora Mae (Garbarino) Cart was my Mammaw, and despite the Italian and English sounding name she was Cajun. She spoke Cajun French before she spoke English. At a young age she married a man from a few towns away and went to live there for the remainder of her life. It was in this town, Iota, Louisiana, that she raised twelve kids on big pots of Shrimp Creole, Jambalaya, and Crawfish Etouffee.

When I think of these foods, when I taste them, or when I stir my roux in a cast iron pot, I think of Iota, my mother (who was considered to be the best cook in the family), and what it means to own this odd ethnicity. I mean just stirring some fat and flour – a simple but tedious task – makes my kitchen smell just like Mammaw’s. Those smells make me think of that humid little town where, from my childhood view, the men always had a beer in hand and the women were always cooking and cleaning. It isn’t all warm and fuzzy nostalgia. Like anyone’s memories of a big family, some are funny or sweet and others are still infuriating.

To me, the smells of the kitchen are so specific in ethnic foods. They are things that become so engrained in your life that you don’t even notice them until you loose them for a while and then they come back. In this way the power of smell is stealth. I hope the Kitchen Lab “Smell” project becomes something that brings back these kind of strong memories for the participants. Connecting to art is as much about the memories and histories that we bring to the work as it is about the artist intention. Because of this, smell seems like a perfect provocateur.

Come down to “Kitchen Lab: An Unveiling” at Walker Open Field on Thursday June 28, 6-9 pm, to experience, test out and play with the “Smell” Kitchen Lab as well as the other Kitchen Lab modules currently in the works by the Walker Kitchen Lab collective-in-residence.

Walker Kitchen Lab’s Amuse-bouche, a Game of Flavor and Feeling

By Betsy DiSalvo Last Thursday evening, the first of Walker Kitchen Lab’s two public projects took place on Walker Open Field. Taking its namesake after the French culinary term amuse bouche that literally means “mouth amuser,” this activity played with this concept that allows chefs to demonstrate their approach to food through a bite-sized “meal” […]

By Betsy DiSalvo

Last Thursday evening, the first of Walker Kitchen Lab’s two public projects took place on Walker Open Field. Taking its namesake after the French culinary term amuse bouche that literally means “mouth amuser,” this activity played with this concept that allows chefs to demonstrate their approach to food through a bite-sized “meal” that is traditionally served before the first course.

The Kitchen Lab “Amuse-bouche” invited Walker Open Field and Target Free Thursday Night attendees to create their own one-bite meal representing a little bit of Minnesota with an artfully crafted game of flavors. Carl and Betsy DiSalvo developed this game to engage the public in thinking about representations of ideas in different sensory food experiences, and to reflect on their community.  It also serves as a prototype and model for the Kitchen Lab Collective and their series of experience-based Kitchen Labs for use on Walker Open Field during this residency.

Dryness and sweet taste profiles were used to help recreate the feeling of the 9 PM Minnesota summer sunset.

With placemat/game board in hand, each participant selected two “taste cards” and one “phrase card.” The taste cards have one-word taste descriptions like “sweet,” “sour,” or “umami,” while the phrase cards have short phrases holding special relevance to local Twin Cities residents, such as “Fireflies in a jar,” “Algae on a lake,” “Slush in your boot,” and, of course, “Minnesota nice.”

Players then selected ingredients from their two taste card profiles and created a new one-bite meal that best represented their phrase.  After finding the perfect recipe for their phrase, we asked them to make three one-bite meals: two to share and one to add to the Artist Collection along with the recipe.

A wide variety of food and taste were provided and visitors brought their own to share.

One family of four spent over 30 minutes making their one-bite meals.  Their final product, recreating the feeling of the first day for shorts after the long Minnesota winter, was a skewer of marinated tofu, mint, raspberry, and lemon. A mother with her teenage daughter and friends came from Ham Lake (about a one hour drive!) just to play “Amuse-bouche” after seeing the event in an e-mail blast. She thought it sounded “intriguing and fun” and even though the game was crowded when they first arrived, they were happy to wander around the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden for an hour or so before returning to join in the activity. After creating their own, they found themselves reading all the recipes others had created in the Artist Collection — and of course sampling them too — until we closed things down around 9 pm!

"First day for shorts" recipe and one-bite meal

This “Amuse-bouche” Kitchen Lab is just one of many prototypes that the members of the Kitchen Lab Collective are in the midst of creating during their two-week residency at the Walker. At this point there are at least four more Kitchen Labs — with working titles of “Oven,” “Water,” “Tea,” and “Smell”– that will be ready to prototype by this Thursday night’s public project, “Kitchen Lab: an Unveiling.” Come on down to Walker Open Field from 6-9 pm to test out and play with the collective’s creations.

 

 

 

 

The 40th Sleep Position: WE HAVE A WINNER

June 4th marked an explosion of arts activity in the Twin Cities—the eve of the all-night, city-wide nuit blanche Northern Spark festival. At least one invention came out of the spectacular event—a 40th Sleep Position. As part of Nightshift, the Walker Art Center’s contribution to Northern Spark, we partnered with McSweeney’s Publications, author Evany Thomas, […]

June 4th marked an explosion of arts activity in the Twin Cities—the eve of the all-night, city-wide nuit blanche Northern Spark festival.

At least one invention came out of the spectacular event—a 40th Sleep Position.

As part of Nightshift, the Walker Art Center’s contribution to Northern Spark, we partnered with McSweeney’s Publications, author Evany Thomas, and artist Amelia Bauer to bring to life their book, The Secret Language of Sleep: A Couple’s Guide to Thirty-Nine Positions.

Many of the 4,500 people who came through the Walker between 9pm – 6am on June 4 tried on some of the positions printed as larger-than-life illustrations. They also had a chance to enter into a contest for a 40th Sleep Position. Some highlights from the night include the Supported Dreamer (most acrobatic), Bow and Arrow (sleeping grace), Gordian Knot (conceptual star), and Dominating Bear (as slapstick as a sleeping position can come). See more of the positions here, http://www.flickr.com/groups/1662795@N24/

From an array of these and other ingenious positions, Amelia Bauer and Evany Thomas have selected the “T-Square” as their winner—a pose developed by sisters Jenny Immich and Rebecca Immich Sullivan.

Jenny, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, enjoys hedgehogs, medieval archaeology, Lady Gaga, and Russian literature. Rebecca, currently pursuing a Masters in Divinity at Luther Seminary, enjoys running and watching TV show marathons. The “T-Square” is, in fact, a position employed by Jenny when she has the urge to sleep in an “L” (which happens often).

Amelia and Evany both leaned immediately towards the T-Square. Why? Amelia explains: “Perhaps it is because I was raised by an architect father that I first fell for the T-Square. It s a simple but perfect pose. One body shapes itself into what actually appears to be a cozy position, and uses the other body to align itself. It’s something of an odd-couple’s pose. There’s a “straight man” in this story, paired with an odd-ball. And yet, look how perfectly they fit together! I’m going to try out the T-Square will napping on a square-shaped pic-nic blanket in the grass.”

Evany says: “Although it’s too early to draw any official conclusions, preliminary sciencing seems to indicate that the T-Square is in fact the long-sought-after daytime pose, the true oasis of stolen afternoons and gray Sundays. Amelia and I must conduct our own field studies and data-crunches before we can confirm these early findings, but we expect to have a fully ratified classification to share within the next week or so — clear your calendars!”

We urge you to try to T-Square for yourselves, and stay posted for Amelia and Evany’s write-up and illustration for this winning pose.