Feeding Dangerous Ideas: Cathrine Kramer and Zack Denfeld
Cathrine Kramer and Zack Denfeld founded the Center for Genomic Gastronomy (2010), an artist-led think tank examining the biotechnologies and biodiversity of human food systems. The mission of the Center is to map food controversies, prototype alternative culinary futures, and imagine a more just, biodiverse and beautiful food system. Cat and Zack are dedicated to the advancement of knowledge at the intersection of food, culture, ecology, and technology. The Center presents its research through public lectures, research publications, meals, and exhibitions.
The following is a transcript of the conversation between Cathrine Kramer, Zack Denfeld and Zane Cerpina in June 2017, Dublin.
Zane Cerpina (ZC): You are working with somewhat dangerous food ingredients in your projects: radiation, pollution and even bringing extinct species back to life just to eat them again. Do you consider your artistic practice to be dangerous?
Cathrine Kramer (CK): Our work doesn't necessarily deal with dangerous materials, but dangerous ideas instead. We try to challenge how people see the world and how they see themselves. Our projects can make people uncomfortable, but we don’t pick a side in what we bring to the discussion. People often ask: “Are you for or against genetically modified foods?” As soon as you pick a side, you shut down the conversation. Instead, let's all have a discussion together.
Zane Cerpina (ZC): What is the most dangerous thing you have done as artists?
CK: We breathe polluted air every day! Well, we can mention our Smog Tasting (1) performance where we harvested concentrated smog by whipping egg whites and to bake cookies. We had a funny interaction on the street because we did it as part of a public festival. There was a woman who came by, and after tasting the cookie, she said to Zack, “Oh, my throat hurts! I thought you were abstract artists.” We replied, “No, we are realists.” She seemed to understand and not be too angry about her scratchy throat.
We harvested concentrated smog
by whipping egg whites
to bake cookies
ZD: We are very keen on being material-accurate whenever we can. If we are feeding smog to people, we want to have the actual chemicals there. We want to have people confronted with the reality of that material. We are always striving to have that aspect in our work. When Cat was making a meal as part of the Art Meat Flesh (2) event, she, with her colleague, prepared human breast milk ice cream and served it to the audience. It was not enough to just serve simulated human breast milk as it was also crucial that the person gave permission to use her body to feed others, and had to integrate the need to pump extra breast milk for eaters other than her child into a daily routine.
If we are feeding smog to people,
we want to have the actual chemicals there
ZC: Do you think that your projects Smog Tasting and Cobalt-60 Sauce (3) possibly can break the taboo of seeing these ingredients as inedible?
ZD: That was one of the criticisms we had to deal with: “Why are you even talking about GMOs? You shouldn't even talk about them!” or “What do you as an artist, know about this topic?” But we are focusing on gastronomy which is the art of collecting, assembling and cooking food. Gastronomy is an art and has to take seriously uncomfortable topics and materials and to be open to the range of subjectivities and preferences that exist.
CK: I almost hope that the concept of smog tasting becomes normalized because it is an invisible ingredient we didn’t think about before. For example, we could imagine a future where recipes include modifications for both high-altitude and high ppm levels. Aeroir, the unique atmospheric taste of place affects how we eat, what we eat and how we experience the flavour.
ZC: Food is a very sensitive topic, very personal. Can you talk more about what reactions you get from the audience?
CK: Only two people have thrown up.
ZD: Yes, which is a great reaction! For one hung-over audience member, the smell was too strong, and he got sick, but another person at the Art Meat Flesh event could not overcome the anxiety when the lab-grown meat was served. I think they got quite physically ill and that is not an experience you hope for, but I think it is good to know that one possible outcome can be a sense of pure disgust.
It is good to know that
one possible outcome can be
a sense of pure disgust
CK: Quite often people get very excited, and they want to know more, want to talk about these topics more and want to explore other ways of thinking about these issues. There is a hunger for having these conversations.
ZC: Any dangerous idea that you haven’t talked about yet?
ZD: I guess it is a dangerous idea that we haven't fully articulated yet - the idea of culinary eugenics. We have this terrible history of human eugenics, especially in the United States - where racial ideology was and is deeply mixed up with scientific theory and historical practices for deciding what kind of humans should live, die, or reproduce - based on their “genetic fitness.” Emerging technologies potentially allow for the more precise selection of genes in humans, rather than the much blunter “selection” of people. The debates between bioconservatives and techno-utopianists are starting to mix up normative ideological positions on the political spectrum. Food politics are a strange parallel conversation to debates over human genetic engineering. Almost all the food we eat has been selectively-bred, domesticated, and increasingly may also involve mutagenesis, transgenesis, CRISPR and speed breeding techniques. But the resurgence of xenophobia and fascism thought the U.S. and Europe has a bizarre culinary dimension. In the US you can see advertisements for open-pollinated seed varieties on conservative media. Reactionary “Blood and Soil” ideologies have often romanticized the rural and tried to define what is “authentically” local. It is unclear how concepts of re-localization, gastronomical preservation, food innovation and emerging biotechnology will all relate to each other in five years’ time. How will anti-corporate, ecologically minded food justice advocates relate to the more deeply reactionary foodies? Will we see racists ideologues advocating for the revival and consumption of “traditional” recipes and ingredients and the growing of “pure” non-hybrid cultivars? Things are getting very strange around the edges.
The idea of
ZC: And hunger for extinct species?
ZD: In our project De-extinction Deli (4) we asked if it is likely that some humans will eat the species that we revive using de-extinction techniques. We ate some of these animals to death the first time around, has human nature changed that much in the meantime? These are cultural, not scientific questions, but they are dangerous because we feel very uncomfortable about admitting that the generations before us ate whole species to death. As an example, 6 billion pigeons in the United States were hunted to death for their feathers and their fat. We have improved a lot as a species in past two hundred years, but would we make the same mistakes now?
Humans will eat the species
that we revive using
ZC: Maybe we should genetically modify our bodies to eat in different ways in the new age of the Anthropocene?
ZD: I guess we have already been genetically modifying our bodies in a lot of ways. Scientists are looking at a lot of intergenerational changes right now and how our bodies have changed over a short time. But you can see that we have always changed our bodies if you look at our gut microbiome. People are always modifying themselves based on what they eat.
People are always
based on what they eat
CK: And we are only at the very beginning of understanding what role the microbes in our guts play. As we learn to understand that, I think there is going to be a whole lot of new ways to modify ourselves by modifying our guts. That is exciting!
(1) Smog Tasting is a work by The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, using egg foams to capture and harvest air pollution. Smog from different locations can so be tasted and compared.
(2) Art Meat Flesh was a TV-Style cooking competition including two teams of philosophers, scientists, chefs and artists battling in a TV-style cooking competition for supremacy over a remarkable secret ingredient. The event took place at V2_, Institute for Unstable Media.
(3) The Cobalt-60 Sauce by The Center for Genomic Gastronomy is a barbecue sauce made from common mutation-bred ingredients.
(4) The De-extinction Deli by The Center for Genomic Gastronomy is a fantastical market stand that is designed to highlight the emerging technologies, risks, and outcomes of the growing movement to bring back and possibly eat extinct species. http://genomicgastronomy.com/work/2013-2/deli/