A Seat at the Table
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A Seat at the Table

Seitu Jones at The Community Meal, presented on a half-mile-long table in St. Paul on September 14, 2014. Photo courtesy Public Art Saint Paul

The metaphor of the table evokes images of folks coming together to break bread, to discuss personal and political issues, and to cultivate an atmosphere of community. For artists Seitu Jones and Theaster Gates, the table is more than a metaphor; it’s also a medium. In the Twin Cities, their tables are provoking dialogue about systemic reform, in local foodways and cultural institutions. Can these conversations actually effect change? Or is the change the conversation itself?

Seitu Jones’s The Community Meal

For the past eighteen years, Seitu Jones has lived and worked in Frogtown, a historically Eastern European neighborhood of St. Paul. Today, the area boasts the city’s greatest racial diversity, with significant African American, Hmong, Vietnamese, Somali, and Mexican residents, and a wide range of eateries that reflect its population. By most accounts Frogtown is a low-income neighborhood, and its residents have some of the typical signs: high rates of Type 2 diabetes, lead poisoning, and asthma. Frogtown is by no means a “food desert,” as is popularly assumed of areas where residents face economic difficulties and diet-related illnesses. Jones calls Frogtown a “food swamp” instead, explaining that it has a mixture of foods that are not always of the best quality. Residents frequently pass his Victoria Street studio on their way to purchase groceries at the local mini-mart. Troubled by this sight, Jones decided to intervene by throwing his work in their path on Sunday, September 14.

The Community Meal. Photo: Andy King

With the support of Public Art Saint Paul, Jones staged Create: The Community Meal, a half-mile-long luncheon in the middle of Victoria Street. A host of community partners helped to grow, cook, and choreograph the meal that took 400 volunteers to realize. “The Community Meal,” said Christine Podas-Larson, president of Public Art Saint Paul, “is a beacon to the nation about how we behave as a civic body.” Three hundred tables stretching north to south, from University to Minnehaha avenues, came together to form one massive platform around which some two thousand guests gathered. The scene was surprisingly diverse across age, race, ethnicity, and class (negating my preconceptions of Minnesota), yet I was told by my companions that the project had engendered the speckled vista before me and didn’t accurately reflect the neighborhood.

In preceding weeks, Jones and volunteers were out knocking on doors, inviting Frogtowners to take the first one thousand seats at the table. It was only after those spots were filled that others were invited to take the remaining seats. At my table sat three African Americans including myself and two young Frogtown residents, who were recent transplants from Omaha, and two white Midwestern art aficionados—one, an employee of the Walker, and the other our Table Host, a neighborhood resident and self-described “public community artist,” who was charged with guiding our discussion about food and food justice. As we helped ourselves to soy-glazed, free-range chicken, locally grown green beans, collards and lettuce, black beans and rice, cornbread, and apple juice, our Table Host asked, “Where do you shop for food?” Painfully aware that we were all from different places, geographically and economically, our conversation felt forced, awkward at times, but also edifying as we discussed grocery shopping at Walmart, co-ops, and the food privileges of the one percent. The question “What do you share?” led to an exchange of organic gardening tips and laughter about top-secret family recipes. The meal ended with the hardest question of them all: “How can we change the food system?” Edible gardening at home, having more public discussions about food, and changing food law and policy were some of the ideas that we put on the table.

Among menu items at The Community Meal: soy-glazed, free-range chicken, black beans and rice, and cornbread. Photo courtesy Public Art Saint Paul

Conversations about how we eat are mainstream these days and food is cause célèbre. But as Al Jazeera recently reported, the food concerns articulated by Michael Pollan and Alice Waters may “speak primarily to the concerns of middle- and upper-class people,” neglecting issues that The Community Meal attempted to bring to the forefront. Frogtown is a microcosm of a larger problem across the United States, where people living on low incomes, especially people of color, face the daily challenge of accessing and affording fresh and pesticide-free foods, which tends to correlate with lack of access to food education. Healthful eating isn’t simply a matter of making different choices; it’s about having those choices to begin with and knowing what to do with them when you have them.

Food surveys conducted by AfroEco, Jones’s environmentalist collective, revealed that over half of neighborhood respondents were “intimidated” by whole foods because “they had forgotten how to cook.” A goal of The Community Meal was, as Jones told me, to demonstrate “what a healthy meal looks like.” Was a three-hour meal enough to influence how guests at the table are cooking and eating right now? One meal, of course, cannot rectify the inequities that shape our food system. So what then is an ephemeral art project about healthy eating capable of doing?

For Jones, The Community Meal was one part of a long process, falling somewhere in the continuum of his “holistic” practice that includes Frogtown Farm, a work in progress. Located on Victoria Street, the vision for this five-acre site is to be model space for “green and sustainable inner-city living,” where people will learn to grow and cook their own food. “My work is really based on trying to leave my community more beautiful than I found it,” Jones has said.” And so he applies his backgrounds in art and landscape design to shaping this space of togetherness and resistance. “Change,” he said, “is a lifelong challenge.”

The Community Meal. Photo: Andy King

The Community Meal has many art historical precedents and appellations. For example, Joseph Beuys and the concept of social sculpture; the Make a Salad and The Identical Lunch performances by Fluxus artist Alison Knowles; Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cooking performances, often called “relational aesthetics”; Lucy + Jorge Orta’s 70 x 7 The Meal, an ongoing series of elaborate dining experiences; and Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen, which we might now refer to as “social practice,” an increasingly contentious label in the lexicon of contemporary art. Jones says, “There’s really no name for the work that I do.” In speaking with me, he reminisced on his involvement in the Black Arts Movement, which, in concert with the Black Power Movement, sought solidarity among creative practitioners. “No one ever told me [the Movement] ended,” Jones said somewhat jokingly, but suggesting that its activist organizing tactics are still at play in his work.

In some ways The Community Meal resonates with the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren Program, a grassroots intervention that addressed daily food needs. Panther chapters across the nation cooked and served breakfast to tens of thousands of impoverished urban youths, providing what the state did not. In the process, they raised public awareness about poverty and food injustices. In a 1969 internal memo former FBI head J. Edgar Hoover wrote, “The Breakfast for Children Program represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”

Free Breakfast was not a militant act but an affectionate one, and according to the book Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs, it presented children with a powerful consciousness-raising visual: “They will see someone outside the structure of their own family working in their interest and motivated by love and concern.” While preparing volunteers for The Community Meal, Jones said, “What I’m asking you to do is this: Embody the spirit of changing the food system and the spirit of love. This is a gift of love that we are doing.”

In the end, the spectacle of The Community Meal took a back seat, I think, to the dialogue generated by participants and the memories and messages inscribed on their palates—something that can’t be quantified, that transcends a table.

Theaster Gates’s Holding Court

The Walker Art Center is making efforts to bring Minnesotans to another table—See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court by Chicago-based artist and urban planner Theaster Gates. Made of wood salvaged from an inoperative public school on Chicago’s South Side, Holding Court was created in conjunction with the Armory Show for which Gates was the commissioned artist in 2012. He used Holding Court as a sort of open office in the center of the art fair, allowing visitors to access his normally private conversations with curators and collectors about money and value. Tables are also a cornerstone of Gates’s earlier work, Soul Food Pavilion, where sumptuous dinners are the jumping-off point for discussions about African American histories and cuisine. “The dinners give me an opportunity to leverage ritual, to ask hard questions,” says Gates. Without food to mitigate difficult conversations, however, we enter into a less savory dynamic.

Installation view of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, with Theaster Gates’s Holding Court, a table made using salvaged wood from a shuttered Chicago school. Photo: Gene Pittman

A palpable tension now surrounds Holding Court, which arrives at the Walker following a challenge to the administration to be more inclusive. “We are calling on The Walker Arts Center to recognize their exclusive practice of not intentionally involving historically marginalized groups at the table for this occasion,” reads an open letter dated October 29, 2013, motivated by last year’s screening of 12 Years a Slave and a dialogue with its director Steve McQueen. The writers go on to request “a public conversation on art and social responsibility as it relates to the artist and art institutions,” and to assert that Black people “continue to be denied access to tables carved from their own wood.”

The Waker’s capacious galleries elevate Gates’s modest materials (the table, plastic school chairs, and small chalkboards) to grandeur, and as the entry piece to the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art sets the tone of being a space for gathering and learning. At the kickoff meeting to discuss programming, the Walker’s senior curator of cross-disciplinary platforms Fionn Meade and community coordinator Robert Smith III were joined by, among others, artists Nate Young and Caroline Kent of The Bindery Projects, and Roger Cummings of Juxtaposition Arts. Meade outlined a schedule of high-profile artists invited to activate the table—Ralph Lemon, Ben Patterson, and Coco Fusco—framing them as “conversations centered on artistic practice and ways of working in contemporary terms.” This prompted one woman to ask about institutional voices and who exactly these conversations are intended to engage.

Can Holding Court get outside of the inner circle? YouTube videos of Gates performing the piece at The Studio Museum in Harlem, where it was last shown, convey the camaraderie between the artist and his audience, which largely comprised the staff of notable New York arts and cultural institutions. Gates was preaching to the choir, putting on a show for his fans. Smith acknowledges a similar dynamic at Lemon’s lunchtime conversation, but believes that the schedule of “community generated” events will be “very different” from the rest.

Ralph Lemon (at left) with Walker staff and community members at Theaster Gates’s Holding Court, September 17, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

Smith has the responsibility of further activating Holding Court by inviting Twin Cities artists and organizations to hold their own programs at the table. Artist and writer Amoke Kubat brought in her project Tell Me Something Good: Northside Pop Up Museum on October 4 and 5, inviting positive stories about life in North Minneapolis juxtaposed with a collection of resident art and keepsakes. Poet and activist Andrea Jenkins will lead a discussion about the transgender body. And US representative Keith Ellison will join a panel of stakeholders to discuss the role of cultural institutions in lesser advantaged communities. Although not yet confirmed, discussions are underway about taking a piece of Holding Court to Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis, a gesture toward breaking down the boundary between the Walker and its publics. “Some of the people inside need to go outside,” Caroline Kent wrote on the chalkboard. “And some of the people outside need to come inside. And it might be uncomfortable, but it’s good to be uncomfortable sometimes.”

It’s tempting to assume that “bringing people to the table” means that barriers have been broken, that change is on the horizon. But the table that connects us is also, as Hannah Arendt said, an object that keeps us separate, allowing us to maintain some distance. Smith, whose position ends after Radical Presence, sees his work with Holding Court as a possible means to closing this gap: “My hope is that this opens the door for future collaborations between people in the community and the Walker.” Whether a strategy of engagement will be sustained remains to be seen.

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