October 18, 2019

Food is the Next Frontier for Multisensory Art

These days when we think about multisensory experiences, our first thoughts might start to gravitate towards the audio-visual interactivity of AR and VR, but what about food? As a medium, it remains a rich but comparatively underexplored frontier if we think outside the box of cuisine and restaurant contexts, even if they’re innovative. What makes food so special and why should we use it as a mode of expression?

Why Food Might Be Getting Left Out

A New York Times article written by William Deresiewicz in 2012 argued that despite the emergence of a new dearth of literature, awards and media surrounding food and food culture that mirrors that surrounding art, our efforts to elevate our appreciation for food have only hit a cultural ceiling composed of varying layers of foodie-ism.

“But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion,” he wrote. “An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one.”

While he is correct to point out that in many ways, our obsession with food has not led to art but replaced it as a “vehicle of aspiration and competition,” we’d say there is still strong potential for it as a medium, as has been explored throughout history.

Food as Visual Medium

Let’s start with how we might come to perceive food (still discernible as food) as a visual medium:

  • Food as the subject, where it’s stylized and presented in its raw or prepared-dish form as the primary focus of the work.
  • Whole foods or images of food that are used to complete larger works.
  • Ingredients as the medium such as sculpted sugar or chocolate, and other instances where the ingredients are valued for their physical properties as a working material.
  • Consumable “almost too good looking to eat” items such as cakes incorporating strong influences from other fields such as fine art, architecture and hard sciences.

The point is that however they’re used, so long as we can discern it looks like food, food evokes an immediate understanding and intimacy whether we consume them physically or just visually. For those that understand the context behind certain foods, their visual forms become just as codified and capable of carrying nuanced messages as other mediums.

Experience and “Performance” Revolving Around Food

In the mainstream, we might be put off attempts to “say something through food” with the likes of Dining in the Dark or Ichiran’s ramen-booths-for-one some might write off as gimmicky hedonism. But if art is meant to express and change perspectives, the ability for that to happen through food can’t be ignored when we can directly participate.

We’ve written about Virgilio Martinez’ Central, which takes diners through the layered ecosystems of the Peruvian Andes as well as “Hawai’i” Mike Salman’s Chef for Higher cannabis dinner parties meant to heighten the senses while decreasing inhibitions. These and other unique concepts that are coming out of culture look to reimagine how we approach food from the dining perspective. As with any multi-sensory installation, we pay for admission to restaurant concepts that increasingly resemble galleries, where everything from the serviceware to music is curated from other artists. Here, we’re simply paying to experience the chef’s “set” that encodes history, culture, and vision through their take on genres, their trademark mix of flavor, texture and scent notes.

Even outside of the restaurant context, however, there are plenty of ways artists are exploring themes in ways that are uniquely designed around food as the medium, even if we might not label it as art right away. Take LA-based art collective Fallen Fruit Collective as an example: its Public Fruit Jam encourages strangers to negotiate and collaborate on making a fruit jam using each participant’s respective ingredients. Similarly, their Endless Orchard project allows citizens to plant, map and share fruit trees, making it both public art and social initiative.

Distilling and reassembling flavors and scents

Lastly, we see culture, constantly in search for new experiences, immersed in a phase of experimentation. Whether they’re rooted in the culinary or scientific tradition or both, globally-minded artists and audiences alike are taking to different combinations of flavors, smells, and textures, whether they’re old or new history.

It’s this deconstructed approach to the sensory properties of food — and necessarily, smell — that remains a vast playground for exploration at the individual level. They divorce our existing preconceptions around food and use their elemental flavors, textures, and aromas as emotional notes with which to assemble sensory experiences for different purposes:

  • Isolation: From trending flavors like yuzu-flavored everything to beanless coffee made by the same people behind Impossible Meat, both instances involve isolating the flavors we recognize and like while removing those we don’t.
  • Sense memory: Copenhagen-based “flavor company” Empirical Spirits seek to bottle scenes and memories through its science-influenced approach to taste and aromas.
  • Translation: Oki Sato of Tokyo and Milan-based design studio Nendo created chocolates that embodied Japanese onomatopoeic words to describe texture, effectively using food to translate meaning between formats.
  • Augmentation: Sometimes, these elemental properties are used to add an extra dimension to other art, such as Art of Bloom’s use of scent to support its recent AR exhibition in Long Beach.

The Takeaway

As we can see, food is difficult to frame artistically once it leaves the context of the farm, kitchen, dinner table and restaurant, but we’d argue that yes, it absolutely exists as art we’ve only begun to explore. Whether we get to taste it or not, food can be used as a medium of great depth and complexity as with any art.

If we were to compare it to sound, the next most powerful emotional medium we have, we have the ability to manipulate emotion through food with flavor and aroma notes, textures as timbre, the whole spectrum of color, the Scoville scale, among other factors. Combined in thoughtful ways, they record memories, encode messages, drive narratives and shape culture all the same.

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