BY Jane Black in Profiles | 15 AUG 19
Featured in
Issue 205

Eating at the End of the World

From climate-resistant menus to colonial desserts, Cooking Sections ask us to think again about the ethics and economics of the food on our plates

BY Jane Black in Profiles | 15 AUG 19

The debut dinner at Climavore’s Oyster Table in September 2017 required special attire: Wellington boots and a mackintosh, certainly; fisherman’s bibs if you happened to have them, because the 150 guests were destined to get at least a little bit wet.

The Oyster Table is not a restaurant but literally a table, made from metal cages in which oysters are grown. It sits in the bay of Portree on the Isle of Skye. While the tide is high, the structure is covered by icy water in which oysters thrive; at low tide, it transforms into a community table – a space for conversation, workshops and tastings that focus on creating a climate change-resistant alternative to the intensive salmon aquaculture that dominates, and endangers, Scottish waters. On this night, the tide washed out around sunset and camping lights were hung at the table’s base, creating dancing reflections in the water. The guests, including artists, fishermen and philanthropists, sipped kelp-infused local whiskey and ate sea-forest crackers and, of course, oysters.

Cooking Sections, Climavore: On Tidal Zones, 2017–ongoing, installation view, Isle of Skye. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Colin Hattersley

The Oyster Table is one element of an ongoing project on Skye initiated by the London-based artist duo Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe). In addition, they have worked with chefs in local restaurants to remove salmon from their menus, created recipes that showcase climate-friendly ingredients – think sea lettuce scones with pepper dulse butter – and built a culinary apprenticeship programme for high-school students that places them in partner restaurants to act as ambassadors for climate-friendly eating. The work on Skye is part of the duo’s larger Climavore (2015–ongoing) project, a long-term initiative that envisions new seasons of food production and consumption in response to natural and manmade changes to the landscape.

Cooking Sections describe themselves as ‘spatial practitioners’. They have one foot in the art world – the Skye project was initially commissioned by the Creative Scotland-funded arts organization ATLAS – while also attempting to intervene practically in local and international politics and economies. As a journalist who writes about food and sustainability, I regularly see projects that try to promote eco-friendly crustaceans and local food sovereignty. In New York, for example, the Billion Oyster Project aims to restore New York Harbor by planting, yes, one billion oysters. (Just one of these bivalves can filter around 200 litres of water each day.) But Cooking Sections’ work is visual, often stunningly so – as the Oyster Table proves. And it is far more conceptual than the typical NGO initiative. Cooking Sections ask knotty questions – on Skye, for example, how ‘good’ is job creation if employment comes at a steep environmental cost? The goal is not necessarily to come up with cost-effective or politically palatable answers but, rather, to raise awareness and bring communities together to find solutions.

Cooking Sections, Offsetted, 2019, installation view, Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Columbia University, New York. Courtesy: the artists and Columbia GSAPP; photograph; James Ewing

Fernández Pascual and Schwabe met as postgraduate students at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. An interdisciplinary programme, research architecture begins from the idea that space is inherently political. It investigates the ways in which architecture has been used for economic or political gain, most often to the benefit of powerful states and corporations and at a cost to the environment, individual citizens and, in particular, marginalized communities. Forensic Architecture, the best-known group to come out of the programme, was nominated for the 2018 Turner Prize for a body of work that assembles counter-evidence to state narratives in cases that have included a US drone strike in Pakistan and the killing of a Bedoin man by Israeli police forces. (Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a Forensic Architecture researcher, has been independently nominated for the prize’s 2019 iteration.) The output of research architecture, The Guardian noted in a recent article, is ‘as likely to be presented in an international court as in an art gallery’.

Fernández Pascual and Schwabe’s school project was a film, created along with three fellow students, that showed how US authorities employed the threat of climate change to relocate a village of indigenous people in Alaska. Their work as Cooking Sections has always been rooted in place – beginning in London with a project looking at the impacts of British colonialism. The Empire Remains Shop, which was located at 91–93 Baker Street from August to November 2016, was the culmination of a three-year research project tracing the legacy of colonial trade routes on global land use, financial systems and consumption patterns. It’s heady stuff, and perhaps most simply explained through the intellectual spur for the project: a traditional recipe for Christmas pudding.

You can probably imagine the basics: currants and apple mixed with spices and plenty of booze. Yet, one version of the traditional holiday dessert was created with more than flavour in mind. A 1928 recipe, attributed to King George V’s chef, included 17 ingredients from 17 colonial outposts: the currants were from Australia, the cinnamon from India, cloves from Zanzibar, sugar from the West Indies, rum from Jamaica. It was an official effort to boost intra-empire commerce and create a sense of the average Brit’s ownership of the empire. Over time, however, the market has shifted from place-specific ingredients to ones with deliberately obscure origins. Today, it is more economical to change suppliers according to national conflicts, weather events and labour disputes without telling customers. In other words, shoppers and eaters continue to be manipulated to enrich international businesses. 

Cooking Sections, The Empire Remains Shop, 2019, installation view, Junction Works, Birmingham. Courtesy: Grand Union; photograph: Tom Bird 

If The Empire Remains Shop investigated food’s global supply chain, Cooking Sections’ next project, Climavore, shifted the spotlight to where food is produced. On Skye, its work has offered an alternative narrative to the assumption that only big aquaculture – in this case, Norwegian salmon farms – can create jobs. In Sicily, as part of Manifesta 12, Fernández Pascual and Schwabe (in partnership with a team of agronomists) built stone enclosures for citrus trees as a way to reduce the need for irrigation. The structures, based on an ancient technique developed on Pantelleria – an island without any fresh water – create microclimates: the thick stones absorb humidity from the air and condense it into water droplets to feed the trees. The question was whether parts of Sicily could liberate themselves from irrigation by modernizing and improving on historic practices of watering without water.

One of Cooking Sections’ most fascinating projects was made for this year’s Future Generation Art Prize, where it was awarded a Special Prize. The installation, currently on show at Palazzo Ca’ Tron in Venice, is an archive of soil-related artefacts – including photographs, maps and soil samples – first displayed in Kyiv, in the underground chambers of the city’s Bessarabka Market. The location was notable as the first refrigerated storage for food in the city and less well-known as an impromptu morgue during the Holodomor famine, which killed around 4 million people in Soviet Ukraine between 1932–33. While most exhibitors displayed their work in the national museum, Cooking Sections chose this site to raise questions about how Ukraine’s nutrient-rich soil has been, and continues to be, exploited: in the 1930s, by the Soviet Politburo, which fatally exacerbated a below-average grain harvest by setting impossible requisition quotas for Ukrainian farms; today, by corporations who strip the soil for sale in international markets. As part of the programme, Cooking Sections also worked with local lawyers to draft a series of amendments to Ukraine’s Land Law that declares the soil’s value to people’s livelihoods and its ‘right’ not to be exhausted. The document is being circulated among scholars and political groups but has not yet been introduced.

Cooking Sections, Climavore: For the Rights of the Soil Not to Be Exhausted, 2019, installation view, Future Generation Art Prize, Kyiv. Courtesy: Pinchuk Art Centre

Here, as in every Cooking Sections project, collaboration has been key. ‘We are not oyster fishermen or citrus growers or lawyers,’ said Schwabe. ‘But we bring people together with different expertise to have discussions across political and environmental horizons.’ To that end, Cooking Sections have issued an open invitation to institutions, collectives or individuals to open their own franchise of The Empire Remains Shop. The first appeared in Birmingham in June. Another is underway in Auckland. A permanent Climavore station is planned for Skye.

As Fernández Pascual says: ‘We use the art world as a platform to start a conversation. But it doesn’t stay there. The goal is to mobilize a series of actions in collaboration with residents and communities that bring change.’ The food system is so complex, so tangled, it is hard for individuals to see how they can make a difference. Cooking Sections point a way forward. 

Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe) are a duo of spatial practitioners based in London, UK. Earlier this year, their work received an award in the Future Generation Art Prize and was exhibited in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Venice, Italy. Upcoming projects include ‘CURRENT:LA, Food – Los Angeles Public Art Triennale’, USA, opening October. In 2020, they will have solo shows at SALT Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey (April), and at Tate Britain as part of ‘Art Now’ (June).

Main image: Cooking Sections, What Is Above Is, What Is Below, 2018, installation view, Giardino dei Giusti, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: the artists

This article first appeared in frieze issue 205 with the headline ‘Eating at the End of the World.’

Jane Black is a food writer who covers politics, sustainability and trends in healthy eating. She is based in Washington. D.C., USA.