After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Explain how creative process can be crucial to learning and discovery in food studies research.
- Identify the advantages of developing sensory perception of the environment, and also the reasons for maintaining distance.
- Express the possibilities and the pitfalls of extending taste and touch through new media.
- Create a work that communicates the ways in which a plant nourishes the world.
What might it mean to walk or to eat artfully? How might approaching these seemingly mundane actions through the framework of art (or with aesthetic intention) transform the experience of everyday life? This text describes the development of a sensory tour that uses walking, tasting, touching, and viewing to transform environmental perception. Beginning from the premise that art can re-orient and even change perception, the project described below encourages its participants to re-imagine a public place.
Coney Island MTL is a tour of the St. Lawrence River in Verdun, Montreal. It takes the forms of both a website (featuring an interactive map with a series of 360-degree videos) and a series of walks in the waterfront park. Through a combination of embodied actions such as walking and tasting, and immersive experiences like viewing videos in a virtual reality (VR) headset, participants are invited to re-imagine this place from perspectives. In what follows, attention is directed to the creation of the work, rather than the finished piece. This is because the process itself raises questions about the limits of human perception and about the responsibilities of humans toward other species.
In my performance and multimedia work, I create scripts based on the of walking tours. My interest in this kind of script comes from past experiences in the tourism industry, especially as an art gallery tour guide. For many years, I have been interested in tours as a way of telling stories in and about place. Walking tours and taste tours are two of the most popular ways in which people are first introduced to places. Think about beer samplers featuring local microbrews or charcuterie plates with artisanal meats and cheeses meticulously presented on a brilliantly designed menu and sensuously described by the server. Consider the haunted pub crawl or the famous restaurant that requires reservations weeks in advance. These are carefully crafted stories about place, designed to appeal to consumers through all of their senses. Unlike these tours though, the one that I describe in this chapter is not made to encourage consumption in bars and restaurants. Instead, it lures participants to a more ambiguous space, a place of spectacular views, punctuated by weeds that thrive in contaminated earth.
Hiccups and Roadblocks
Over the last decade I have presented more than twenty-five free, artist-led tours and tastings in and around Montreal. These have included activities like dumpster diving and for wild edible plants. This is always a tricky business, since foraging can be dangerous without proper training, and there are many food safety issues to consider. However, I encountered particular roadblocks sometime around 2017, when I started to work in the waterfront park in Verdun, a Montreal borough that is located on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. The first hiccup came when I began proposing ideas for transforming the waterfront weeds into edible concoctions for public events. This was a problem for two reasons: first, the municipality prohibits consumption of any plants that grow in this park, since it is a human-made area literally constructed from garbage: backfill extracted during the construction of the Montreal metro in the 1960s. The concern is that plants growing in potentially toxic soil could be detrimental to human health. A related concern that is not specific to Verdun is that certain plants, whether or not they are growing in toxic soil, are noxious for humans. Milkweed is one relevant example, since the latex in its pods pose a threat to some people. On top of this, plants can easily be mis-identified and thus cause poisoning.
The second snag in my plans for taste tours along the river had to do with a specific plant that grows there: Phragmites australis, or common reed. This is a Eurasian perennial reed grass that has made its way to the banks of the St. Lawrence after hitching a ride on trade ships that travel through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The plant has been widely identified as a threat to biodiversity as it is hardy, spreads easily, and crowds out other plants, while also eliminating animal habitats. The common reed thrives in full sun and flourishes in the conditions created by a warming climate. Long, silky hairs sprouting from the top of six-foot-tall stems sway in the breeze, dispersing tiny seeds as they flow. The non-profit organization Nature-Action Québec has been engaged in what seems to be an uphill battle removing common reed stands on Verdun’s waterfront. A biologist trained me to perform this removal operation, but it is very easy to propagate the seeds while doing so. Some biologists from Nature-Action Québec were thus understandably against my idea of sharing common reed decoctions with the public, fearing that this would encourage people to cut the plants and increase their spread. Others thought it was a good idea to do this as part of a workshop that would teach people about the threats posed by the plants.
What is the Place of Humans Here?
These complications surrounding human consumption of so-called wild plants offer rich opportunities for examining the negotiation of . The construction of a dike along the waterfront in the early 20th century prevented seasonal flooding, thus allowing people to settle in Verdun. At the same time, the dike eradicated the habitat of other species, for example fish spawning grounds. Later, a park was created beside the St. Lawrence, bringing humans into closer contact with the river ecology. Through urban planning, the waterfront has been shaped and embellished using potentially toxic stuff (the backfill mentioned above), in order to encourage human connections with ‘nature’. The risk posed by toxicity means that barriers must be maintained between this stuff and human bodies. It is paradoxical that the waterfront park was created to bring pedestrians and swimmers into a more intimate relationship with a river that itself is also perceived as a threat, and which must be held at a distance. What do these tell us about ? Should we get closer to nature, developing our awareness of plant, animal, and insect life, or is it preferable for us to maintain a respectful distance?
Foragers and dumpster divers observe a semi-official ethic of restraint. There are common rules of practice that have been developed within these communities to preserve the well-being of others, both human and non-human. For example, it is commonly agreed that you should never take more than you need, and always leave enough for other people, and in the case of plants, for their continued thriving. This ethic emphasizes the well-being of communities, rather than privileging individuals. Furthermore, it challenges consumers to consider food landscapes from more-than-human perspectives. Harvesting milkweed, for example, has an impact on pollinators that depend on this food source. This means that in harvesting milkweed, we may be privileging human tastes over more pressing ecological needs.
The notion of is gaining traction over stories that place humans at the top of the food chain, or in competition with other species (and with other humans too, for that matter). What relationships and responsibilities do humans have toward other species? Foraging and dumpster diving are practices that challenge the dissections that we try (and fail) to perform between ourselves and the world. Rather than approaching weeds or discarded food as waste or as trash, foragers and dumpster divers treat these as valuable sources of nourishment. In my proposal to serve decoctions of common reed, I intended to bring tasters into a more intimate contact with these plants, literally making plant and human one through the act of consumption. In my process of developing tours in Verdun, however, I eventually became aware of the fact that approaching an environment as an edible landscape can lead to outcomes that are beneficial to humans but detrimental to plants. Sometimes the best thing we can do for local ecologies is to leave them alone.
Tasting with the Eyes
Given the ethical issues surrounding feeding common reeds to people during taste tours in Verdun, I wondered how else the intimacy of tasting could be imparted. The waterfront park and its pedestrian paths were constructed to enable panoramic views featuring the St. Lawrence River. Condo developments on Nuns’ Island, which is part of the borough, are likewise designed for all-encompassing views. This desire to take it all in—but from a distance—is what philosopher Michel de Certeau called a “God’s eye view,” which he contrasts with the intimate connection with the city experienced through walking in densely developed streets. De Certeau describes walkers as artists, who create poetry in the ways that they move through space. They “make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. It is as though the practices organizing a bustling city were characterized by their blindness.” Unlike the all-seeing eye that apprehends the totality of the city at a distance, walkers experience places only in fragments, but close up and sensually.
Is it true that landscape as a comprehensive vision is incompatible with intimacy? Current research in the field of virtual reality (VR) is aiming to prove that panoramic experiences, even as mediated through a VR headset, can produce sensations of presence, and illusions of embodiment. In other words, these media can produce a felt sense of being there, embodied in a place. Some artists and researchers are trying to develop techniques for tasting in simulated environments to enhance the sense of embodiment. This is a question that I have been exploring in recent work. I have been creating 360-degree stories about the relationships between humans, plants, and animals along the waterfront in Verdun. These stories are based on interviews and fieldwork there. The videos are accessible from an online map, and I have also been screening them during live tours through the park (see Figure 1).
From the Safety of a Headset
If video can, as philosopher Laura Marks argues, create a “tactile, or haptic visuality,” extending the sense of touch through vision, can the same be true for taste? Food scholars Allison and Jessica Hayes-Conroy argue that “food is never ingested by itself,” and that taste is rather a biosocial process. If this is true, then visuality can also be a significant factor in consuming foods and environments.
The 360-degree videos in Coney Island MTL offer immersive views of the river ecology in Verdun. Each of the videos in the series adopts the point of view of a different animal, plant, or insect. In one video, the viewer is hovering in a milkweed patch, experiencing the environment from the position of a monarch (see Figure 2). Another video plunges the viewer underwater, offering the viewpoint of a fish (see Figure 3). These more-than-human perspectives have the effect of destabilizing human subjectivity and habitual ways of experiencing the world. In this era of climate catastrophe, it is crucial that we develop new ways of perceiving and imagining this shared world.
- What do municipal restrictions on eating plants that grow in the waterfront park suggest about more-than-human relations and responsibilities in this place?
- What are some of the advantages of developing sensory perception of the environment (for instance, through taste), and in what circumstances is it more important to maintain distance from plants, animals, and insects that may be tempting to eat?
- What are some examples of technologies that allow us to touch and to taste otherwise imperceptible parts of the world? What are the possibilities and pitfalls of these tools?
Go outside and find a nearby plant. Create a work (photograph, drawing, video, poem, prose, etc. ) that communicates the way(s) in which that plant nourishes the world.
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Davis, H., Turpin, E. (Eds.). 2015. Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies. London: Open Humanities Press.
De Certeau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkley: University of California Press.
De Certeau, M., Giard, L., & Mayol, P. 1998. The Practice of Everyday Life Volume 2: Living & Cooking. Trans. T. J. Tomasik. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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Hayes-Conroy, A., & Hayes-Conroy, J. 2010. “Visceral difference: Variations in feeling (Slow) Food.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 42 (12): 2956–2971. https://doi.org/10.1068/a4365
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Tsing, A.L. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
a concept that re-orients and widens perspectives beyond human-centred concerns; shifts human awareness toward the experiences of plants, insects, and other animals.
the organization of a story that follows and/or includes specific elements; e.g., the elements of a tour include a visit to a place, a series of stops, and commentary by a guide.
harvesting wild plants for consumption.
(self) one’s own distinct identity, as differentiated from bodies that are perceived to be separate entities (other).
interactions among humans and non-humans that draw attention and care to the ways in which our actions affect others and vice versa; non-humans may include entities that are often understood to be inert, such as rocks.
a sense of self defined by characteristics understood to be uniquely human; see also subjectivity.
a quality of relationships that involve mutually beneficial exchange; similar to trust, accountability and respect.