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~ Esther Choi, Author of Le Corbuffet
Flipping through the pages of New York architecture historian/theorist and artist Esther Choi’s collection of recipes, one can’t help but question the real message behind the thought provoking project. In 2015, inspired by the discovery of an elaborate menu designed by Moholy-Nagy for Walter Gropius, German architect and Bauhaus founder, Choi embarked on a social experiment “to defuse some of the pretense surrounding the gastronomic and artistic cognoscenti. The “pun-inspired” recipes in Le Corbuffet (Prestel, 2019) “attempt to play with humor as a form of resistance, by twisting idioms in art, food and design, and playing with perceptions.”
DLISH had the pleasure of interviewing Esther Choi about her views on food, art and design and the pivotal roles they play in our Neoliberal society today. Choi speaks about the current situation with COVID-19 as well as her hopes and concerns for the future.
Mona Bavar: Why architecture? Was it a gateway for food art?
Esther Choi: I did a PhD in Architectural History and Theory after pursuing my MFA in Photography as the result of following a long trail of intellectual and creative curiosities. I am trained as an historian and theorist of architecture, but I consider myself professionally an artist, first and foremost. I tend to work in many mediums for exhibition-based works and engage with different modes of scholarship, but ultimately I see both image-making and writing as co-extensive of the same intellectual activity.
I used food as a medium in this project in the same way that many artists and designers have used food as an aesthetic medium and/or design tool to address broader concerns. In this sense, I don’t think of myself as a proponent or practitioner of "food art” per se.
MB: You have said that food carries meaning and can be used as a medium to probe questions of cultural value. Given our consumption/capitalistic society and globalized cultural values, what meaning does food carry for you and what questions does it bring up for you?
EC: Food is a complex topic which raises many questions for me, perhaps too many that can be addressed in the space of one answer. In the book, I sought to identify analogous forms of privatization taking place in the arenas of art, food and design, and how these sectors of cultural production have become increasingly inaccessible, often under the pretenses of “curated” experiences for privileged audiences.
More broadly though, globalization, as an outcrop of neoliberalism, tends to render aspects of food production abstract and unseen by wealthier consumers—in terms of (often outsourced) labour practices and the effect of food production on the environment-at-large. This masks enormous problems of inequality in the supply-chain dynamics of how food is cultivated, manufactured and distributed.
MB: Does the word "consumption" carry a vulgar/repulsive meaning for you?
EC: I don’t personally classify consumption, broadly defined, on moralizing terms. I think consumption, like most acts, is multifaceted; there are various dimensions to understanding its relationship to labour practices, systems of power, distributions of wealth, the “environment” at large, and so forth.
MB: Is your work in Le Corbuffet meant to evoke questions about our behavior towards consumption - better yet our over consumption - in a capitalistic society?
EC: Yes, but the project seeks to enact critique through a more projective and participatory lens, rather than strictly through negation alone. By disseminating narratives about art and design works that don’t merely reinforce their market value, and scripting possible experiences that can lead to other interpretations of these works, the project seeks to propose a model of what the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has referred to as “consumptive production”, which, in his view, exceeds a Marxist paradigm into more creative outlets.
MB: Food and the rituals associated with it - dining, celebrating, mourning, etc. - can break boundaries and serve as a tool for bringing people from all social classes, race and backgrounds together. In your opinion, do today's food rituals breakthrough social, economical and cultural classes, or do they help to reinforce them?
EC: I think your question presumes a false binary of either/ or, when food does both. Although food can be used as a tool to break down ideological barriers or perceived differences amongst cultures, it can also reinforce them when culturally appropriated. Too often do I see a fascination with South Asian and East Asian cuisines in North America and the UK, for instance, but rarely does this fascination translate to a concern amongst mainstream, liberal audiences for the social, political and economic issues that affect the people from which these culinary traditions arose. When cultural traditions or rituals—culinary or otherwise— are celebrated but divorced from their social histories and geopolitical contexts, often a kind of colonial logic is at play. Yoga, turmeric lattes and the probiotic benefits of kimchi touted in today's “wellness dogmas” are prime examples of this.
MB: You say that Le Corbuffet adopted the format of the cookbook to explore how rituals can provide a space for play and invention - to question how and why it is that we do the things we do. With today's fears, social distancing, and draconian lockdowns, we are all being forced in one way or another to rethink our rituals and to deeply question why it is that we do the things that we do. Have your rituals and your reasons for doing the things that you do, changed under these circumstances? How?
EC: The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many issues for me, particularly as an East Asian woman in North America during a time when East Asian communities are facing racist scapegoating and often violent discrimination around the world. The relative silence around this issue on the part of the media and elected officials has been a source of ongoing anger and frustration for me. Whether that’s directly changed my relationship to my rituals, I’m not sure, but it has caused me to reflect a great deal on the many migrations in my family’s history and my own identity politics through an intersectional lens.
I could never understand why my father insisted on stocking up on toilet paper or canned goods well before the pandemic. I knew rationally that it was the result of growing up in austerity with relatively little money, and the trauma of having lived through wars — common aspects of many immigrants’ stories. But I think I have a newfound appreciation for how and why some of these habits formed and more respect for his desire to protect his children from experiencing scarcity.
I’ve found myself cooking more Korean food, too. That may be more out of a desire to craft some semblance of comfort during this stressful time, but there’s a kind of inherent resourcefulness that I identify with Korean food, which seems useful when we are being forced to think more about safety, sacrifice and survival. The ethos of many dishes is to pickle, salt or spice to preserve foods; and to make hearty meals with simple, available ingredients. There’s a kind of predisposition to stretch a budget and avoid food waste, which I appreciate very much.
MB: Food, design, and art can be a common ground, bringing society together and breaking norms and barriers. Do you believe this to be true? If not, what needs to change? How would you wish for society to live together?
EC: This is a big question. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought further awareness to the inequalities and cracks in our social systems around the world. My hope is that by holding up a giant mirror up to the socio-ecological inequalities in play, this moment might, at the very least, bring about the realization that a return to a neoliberal economic system is not possible. Imagining other possibilities of more equitable social and ecological frameworks is not an uninteresting proposition— it’s wildly exciting. I wish we focused more on working collaboratively towards these aims.
If we are to learn some lessons from this moment of social and bio-political divisiveness, I can think of two propositions: First, hate is not the enemy of equality — it’s silence and the false permission it grants to remain apathetic towards injustice. And secondly, instead of constantly operating as individuals, we need to think more relationally about how we can use our resources, relative privileges and skills to build experiences and platforms to ensure the commons remain available to all. From healthcare to clean water, education, housing and food, the pandemic has identified the grave inequalities in all of these sectors.
MB: Given current events and the economic uncertainty that awaits us all, especially those in the food & hospitality industry, do you think that there will be a rethinking of the food culture - privatization, privilege and consumption?
EC: I sure hope so. I think we need to approach all hardships in life as opportunities to learn, grow and, most importantly, act in more thoughtful and respectful ways.
MB: How are you dealing with lockdown and social distancing? What message do you have for our readers during these times of uncertainty?
EC: I had to apply for unemployment insurance as a freelancer, for the first time in my life. I’ve been working since the age of 15. I won’t lie by saying the economic impact of the pandemic hasn’t been stressful. Yet I try to feel gratitude for what I have and the fact that I am even privileged enough to be in isolation and socially distancing. My family and friends are in good health and for that I am eternally grateful.
When I read of the conditions in Gaza, for instance, where freedom and resources were already restricted before the pandemic — resulting in a situation where they had 65 ventilators for a population of 2 million — the unequal distributions of the world can make me spiral into a dark place.
My hope is that we will use this time to draw awareness and empathy for our neighbors, whether it’s our elderly community members down the street who are unable to get essentials, or our friends across an ocean who are dealing with trying circumstances. But most importantly, I hope this time will compel us to collectively raise our consciousness and translate that awareness into actions to fight for justice and equality. Whether that results in sharing an article about an issue you care about on social media, or slipping a note under your neighbor’s door, I think every single action contributes to an energy of love and understanding that always has an effect, even if it isn’t immediately visible.
MB: Do you have any new projects coming up?
EC: I have a number of projects— including two exhibitions and a community-based project that attempts to address the pressing issue of income inequality in a small American city—which have been suspended due to the pandemic. So during this time of self-isolation, I’ve been working on a collection of essays that explore architecture’s relationship to climate change and the globalized financial system— one of these essays was published late last year. My hope is to turn these essays into a book with other, related outlets that might be more visual such as a series of videos, photographs or a film.
MB: What was your favorite recipe in Le Corbuffet to work on?
EC: Each recipe brought with it its own joys and challenges.
Click here to learn more about Esther Choi and her work.