During the lead up to this second installment of the Venice Biennale Performance Programme, we are releasing a series of conversations between Aaron Cezar (Delfina Foundation) and the participating artists.
Episode 2 of Delfina Foundation’s Interviews series features artist duo Cooking Sections.
Aaron Cezar: Your projects as Cooking Sections are highly research-driven. While they differ in outcomes, you seem to consistently take a similar approach to them. Can you speak about your methodology and the influences behind it?
Cooking Sections: Cooking Sections was born to use food to understand how space is built. This is perhaps the common thread that cuts across our projects, trying to explore the different environmental or geopolitical frictions that determine the ways humans and more-than-humans inhabit the planet. Our practice is indeed highly research-driven and the conversations, interviews, and readings shape our working methodology and approach in each project we undertake. In that sense, the methodology has to be shaped and created for each context we work in. When developing a project on watering systems in Sicily or a project on ocean pollution from salmon farms each demand a specific approach and language.
AC: Your work has increasingly centered on subjects related to the environment, often appearing to be trying to challenge dominant narratives, perceptions or approaches in this regard. What drew you to this area of interest?
CS: From the beginning of Cooking Sections, questions around the environment have been a fundamental concern for us. It underlies all of our early work for The Empire Remains Shop but perhaps in recent years, it has become more apparent. There is a parallel line to draw here for the sense of a climate emergency that is looming above us at the moment. It is something that the planet has been experiencing for decades but while marginalised communities have always been the ones most affected by pollution and extreme weather events, now it is something that is only starting to reach everyone. For the past years, we have been working on a project titled Offsetted, which culminated last spring with an exhibition at Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, GSAPP, Columbia University in New York. The project explored and displayed 40 tree specimens that portrayed the ways trees have been valued in New York over the past centuries. At a wider level, it critically explored the mechanisms that enable the global north to offset its carbon emissions and pollution counting on the obligation of the global south to cleanse the atmosphere through its forests. Working in collaboration with the Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund, we wrote an amendment for the New York City Legal Code to grant rights for trees not to be used as carbon offsets so that we deal with our environmental guilt at the source of the problem. In that sense all our work tries to understand and challenge contemporary concepts around ecology and the environment that in many cases just promote the further circulation of capital, rather than rethink and change our actions and practices.
AC: I want to ask you about two of your long-term projects which has gained a lot of critical acclaim: The Empire Remains project, which partly came out of your residency at Delfina Foundation and CLIMAVORE. These projects appear opened ended and ever-evolving with wide-ranging outcomes, including installations, exhibitions, books, workshops, performance, lecture-performances. Can you talk about your sustained approaches to projects and your differing presentational forms?
CS: Over the years two main things have become very important for our practice one is a question around impact, what is the project doing? The second is what is a project’s legacy? We are all aware that the art world has also entered a space that demands constant production. That has great advantages as we are surrounded by ever increasing perspectives, stories, and experiences from all over our planet and beyond; yet at the same time, we question from an environmental point of view what happens to all of these ideas, materials, and projects when exhibitions close or performances end. CLIMAVORE is one of our long term projects that questions how we eat as humans change the climate. Since 2016 we have been creating a series of installations, interventions, workshops, and discussions on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, to challenge intensive salmon aquaculture and the dead zones it is creating; instead, we are developing alternatives CLIMAVORE aqua-cultures for the island. The project investigates how to shift a cultural ecology and economy and how do we also work with cultural institutions, corporations, businesses, and people to change their practice over time. It is a lengthly process that requires continuous work.
The Empire Remains Shop is a platform that we initiated in order to speculate on the possibility of selling the remains of the British Empire back to London. It was modeled after Empire Shops that were envisioned to sell products of Empire across the UK in the 1920s and never opened. The project ran for 3 months in a building on Baker Street where we invited 40 contributors to create installations, performances, lectures and dinners to respond to remains of Empire today and it was a culmination of a 3 year research process that indeed started at Delfina Foundation with The Empire Remains Christmas Pudding.
AC: In addition to the outcomes you yourselves present, you also on occasions relinquish control and allow others to take them forward. With the Empire Remains Shop you have invited franchises, for example. Can you explain why this has become an important element in your work?
CS: When The Empire Remain Shop came to a close in London we were questioning the legacy of the project and how it could continue to live and evolve on its own. Working with various models we became quite fascinated by the franchise model and its origins, especially Marth Matilda Harper and her hair salons that were intended to enfranchise women by making them independent business owners in the late 19th century. Of course, today franchises are mostly about disenfranchisement, places where workers’ rights are controlled by multiple subsidiary companies and multinational brands are removed from caring for any workers’ rights. When we published the book about the project we developed with Guest Work Agency legal consultancy a franchise agreement that wraps the book and makes it an invitation for institutions, collectives, and individuals to open their own franchise and question the remains of Empire today in their own geography. The first franchise opened in May 2019 by Grand Union in Birmingham and there are more to come! We are quite interested to see how other voices and forces take our projects, work through them and give them a new life. We suppose it’s another way of environmental thinking.
AC: Finally, could you describe for us what you will be presenting as part of the performance programme during the final week of the Venice Biennale?
CS: For the performance programme at the Venice Biennale we will be presenting a performance lecture about the CLIMAVORE project in Skye. It traces the history of the construction of salmon as a colour and a fish and how it has become dominant in the waters around Skye but also on land and at sea
Cooking Sections’ performance at the 58th Venice Biennale of Art is part of the programme commissioned by Arts Council England and co-produced by Delfina Foundation and the Biennale as part of Meetings on Art.