Karla Diaz is an activist, artist, writer and one of the founders of the artist group Slanguage Studio. A couple of years ago, she got interested in the prison food system in California and in particular in the prisoners' ingenious strategies to overcome the culinary flaws of the CDCR cafeterias.
It turns out that prisoners create their own recipes using the limited list of ingredients they can buy either from the jail commissary or the vending machines. The men also design kitchen tools using whatever is available to them and make some unconventional mixtures of ingredients to create their own unique flavours.
Diaz asked friends serving time in prisons in California to send her their own food recipes and collected them for a print on demand book called Prison Gourmet.
On a documentary and curiosity level, Prison Gourmet is a kind of culinary version of Prisoners Inventions. But Prison Gourmet is also a performance in which the artist addresses the politics of food and incarceration by reproducing prison recipes devised by inmates.
I contacted Karla Diaz and she kindly accepted to answer my questions about Prison Gourmet:
Hi Karla! How did you get the idea to make prison recipes?
This idea first came in a meeting I had with my mentor, Manuel "Manazar" Gamboa who was an L.A. poet and playwright. He died in 2001. Manazar spent 17 years of his life in a California prison and after being released from prison, he dedicated the rest of his life writing and teaching writing to others. One day, he shared with me one of his favorite prison recipes-- a tuna casserole with potato chips and dipped pickles. I was so intrigued by the taste of this recipe, the combination of flavors, the process, and Manazar's story. I wanted to recreate this recipe and share it with others. It was not until 2010, that I had the opportunity to do so. My brother had gone to prison and I became more actively involved in the prison food system. I was amazed on the limited choices of food-packages that prisoners could eat. They are saturated with salt, oil and high cholesterol. There had been a few food strikes by prisoners demanding better food conditions. At the same time, I became aware of alternative food recipes that prisoners were eating. These recipes are made from food items that prisoners get to choose from their commissary food items. It's not the cafeteria food. They choose these food items and combine them to make their own recipes. I also learned that some of these recipes are done collaboratively. In a prison system, that tends to isolate and segregate people by race. I was so intrigued by the idea that food recipes were a means of unity. I decided to make this performance called prison gourmet, emphasizing the term "gourmet" and giving value to the prisoners as self-taught chefs.
What does (or did) the Prison Gourmet performance look like exactly?
In 2010, I was asked to participate in "Let Them Eat LACMA" a one-day event of collective performances organized by the art collective Fallen Fruit, that happened at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Prison Gourmet was originally a three-hour, one-day performance recreating recipes from California prisoners. The performance not only gave audiences free-samples of the recipes but also guided audiences through the process of which the food was made. This process is very important because prisoners make these recipes with limited cooking tools for instance, some prisoners use plastic bags, towels and t-shirts instead of pots and pans. The original Prison Gourmet also included a notebook with some of the letters with the recipes and general information on the California prison food. In 2014, Prison Gourmet was part of the exhibition "Around the Table: Food, Creativity, Community " at the San Jose museum of Art. I was glad to expand on the performance and make a full-length video of the recipes, a book documenting some of the recipes, a performance recreating one of the recipes and answering audience questions, and an installation.
How did you get prisoners to share these recipes with you?
I asked prisoners that I had a relationship with or friends that had a loved one in prison. Looking back, I don't think I would have gotten much response if I approached the prison institution officials. I've tried that approach before and have gotten a lot of paperwork, delay, red tape, censorship and no response. Also, you have to understand that prisoners have a different relationship to the police authorities and the amount of information they share with police. From what prisoners have told me, sometimes information whether it be written or in images can be used against them. It could be a simple letter or phone number, or an image that can be used against them. Prisoners had to trust me. And that is a very big responsibility as an artist. To keep that trust. Working with many different communities in my work, I've learned that this is one of the first most important things to build.
I'm also curious to know more about prisoners' cooking experiences: what kind of ingredients and cooking tools do they have at their disposal? And do you know where they cook? In their cell or do they have access to a kitchen?
I think I answered this a little bit earlier. The prisoners use limited tools at their disposal--essentially what they have available to them in their cell or what they can trade or access without permission from the kitchen. Cooling pans and pots take the place of trash bags and bath towels or t-shirts.
Could you give us some examples of creative uses of prison ingredients?
Yes, of course. One example of an interesting creative use of an ingredient is strawberry jelly. For example, in a recipe for orange chicken, a prisoner uses strawberry jelly with sugar, water and the powder drink Kool-Aid to make the orange sauce. Prisoners use pork rinds as a substitute for chicken. It's incredible how visually the strawberry jelly looks the same as the orange chicken sauce.
I suspect that Prison Gourmet is about more than just food. So which kind of issues are you exploring during the performance, how do you manage to engage the public into the discussion?
Yes, Prison Gourmet is more than just about food politics. Its about human creativity, even in the most limited of conditions. It's also about freedom. What I mean by this is that for prisoners, food consumption is not about taste. One day, I wrote to a prisoner asking him why he had made this recipe for orange chicken. I thought he really liked the taste of it. He replied that it wasn't so much the taste of these ingredients put together but that it was the memory that this created for him. Every time he made it, he remembered being home with his daughter. It meant freedom. It meant being home with his family. I also think about the impact this has on food culture, health and its context. You look at the prisons in the united states and there is a high rate and disproportionate rate of people of color (young men in particular) that are currently incarcerated...they are making alternative food practices that they learned from their culture from their memories living in their neighborhoods.
What now seems like a hipster food to eat like Korean-tacos, prisoners have already invented long ago. Taste is about remixing and remembering who they are on the outside world. It means tasting that bit of freedom....
By no means is my intention to comment on prisoners' crime or punishment. I am no one to judge this or is interested in that. I say this because there have been many audiences that have made comments that prisoners deserve to eat bad food. I try to engage audiences throughout the performance by allowing them to ask questions. To facilitate dialogue and exchange, I also keep a journal for audiences who want to comment on the recipes directly to the prisoners.
Prison Gourmet is also a book. Do you sell it? Where?
Yes, Prison Gourmet is also a book. I have self-published a limited edition of these and they are published on demand by emailing my studio website at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please make sure you write Prison Gourmet on the subject line. The first edition was published with the help of the Mexican consulate via the facilitation of the San Jose Museum of Art.
Here's my -as usual- very belated and -as usual- very enthusiastic review of the GAMERZ festival which took place in Aix-en-Provence so many days ago i refuse to count.
«The liberation of the game, its creative autonomy, supersedes the ancient division between imposed work and passive leisure» May 17, 1960. Excerpt from the Situationist international manifesto.
The 10th edition of the festival celebrated thus the death of passive leisure in the hands of games and art as well as the transformation of the compliant consumer into a creative user and abuser of technology. The exhibitions across town also investigated how the digital environment impacts and disrupts people's development at conscious and unconscious levels (cognitive, social, psychological, among others) and looked at how these often invisible adjustments can be harnessed in alternative social, economic, political or ecological practices.
The result is a free exhibition that proved, once again, that a digital art event can be both highly entertaining and smart. But the one thing that strikes me the most about GAMERZ is that, year after year, the festival manages to uncover and select young artists whose work i would otherwise not know about. And they are pretty good at spotting talents. The portfolio of artists like Labomedia, Antonin Foruneau, Jackenpopp, Maxime Marion & Emilie Brout or Paul Destieu has gone from strength to strength ever since i discovered their work at GAMERZ.
Here's what the 2014 edition brought us (and there's more to come):
Spectra, by Lucien Gaudion, is a vinyl printed with a chromatic circle, like the picture discs that were so popular up until the 1970s. As the record needle travels around the vinyl, the sound spectrum of each colour is made audible, from its lowest to highest frequencies, by a reading cell scanning the surface.
Each of these artworks exploits the concept of LikeJacking Spam (a kind of spam targeted at social network) but by sharing their source code, the artists want to stimulate empowerment through poetic/activist/humorous perturbations.
If one subtracts what the eye can see from what the ear can perceive, what remains of our perception of a given place ? What does our body become when it's not anymore the actor of our perceptions?
These are the questions at the origin of Adelin Schweitzer's exploration of the notion of dichotomy. The artist was showing two pieces where natural and artificial perceptions play with and against one another.
Dichotomie #Eyeswalking is made of two videos that document Schweitzer's walk in the snowy Canadian landscape. One gives a traditional, horizontal view of someone walking and is shown on a (traditional again) video screen. The other is shot from above, from a bouquet of balloons he is carrying along. It is screened inside a pedestal and you have to bend your head and watch inside goggles to watch that perspective. Constantly looking up to the wall screen in order to compare the two perspective is irresistible but if you stick to watching the perspective from above, it almost feels as if your body is pulled up and the scene is unfolding below your body.
Flat earth society takes readings from the stylus of topographic radar, cuts them into vinyl and then plays them back with a stylus.
The Viridis game is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in which humans owe their survival to spirulina, the "green counterpoison". But what makes the game interesting is that it gives players the possibility to collaborate with the farmers on the daily management of the real spirulina farm. Players can convert their points into daily tasks or items, vote in referendums about the cultivation of spirulina, etc.
More images from the festival:
Loooots more photos over here.
I finally made it to the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente (park of living art) in Turin and visited Vegetation as a Political Agent. The exhibition charts a history of the plant world, by looking beyond the biological and exploring the political and social implications of vegetation. And it is pretty much as exciting as i had hoped.
Plants are not as neutral and powerless as we might think. For example, they played a particularly important role in the 17th and 18th centuries, when navigators and 'explorers' sent to discover the world ended up annexing the land, colonizing populations and looking for ways to exploit the financial potential of new plant species (culminating in the spice trade.)
At the other end of the spectrum are individuals and communities which, from the 1970s on, have been using plants to resist, revolt and defy. The exhibition tells their story through documents that date back to the first ecological revolutions, specially commissioned projects and contemporary artworks.
The show opens with the mural Zapantera Negra in which Emory Douglas (Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the 1980s when the group disbanded) brings together the Black Panther movement and the Escuelita Zapatista supporting the rural working-classes in Chiapas. Douglas modified one of his famous posters Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed people of the world (1969) by turning a rifle into a corn plant, symbol of Mexican populations.
By placing plants in the context of territorial control in colonial and postcolonial periods, RozO's When vegetation is not decoration is perhaps the work that best encapsulates the exhbition. On a larger-scale, vegetation can become a tool to manage a territory or, conversely to support resistance against foreign control. The installation, made of archive material housed inside a temporary architecture of bamboo and palm leaves, illustrates contrasting uses of vegetation in history:
First, black and white photos taken by the French army in the mid-1950s show the French army harvesting wheat in Algeria. They are protected by elite soldiers and armored units.
These images clearly depict the exploitation of land for the benefit of the coloniser. Aside from the word "Algeria" written on the grain sacks, it seems that we are witnessing a French cereal farming region. Here vegetation is clearly used to assimilate and acculturate. Vegetation is employed by the attacker and coloniser of a country or region, to deterritorialize its inhabitants. Rendering the natives foreigners in their own land was a technique that frequently used by colonisers. In the 20th Century, following the invasion of Poland, Nazi Germany implemented a wide-reaching process of "Germanisation" of the territory, to render it German.
On the other side are stills from Chien thang Tay Bac (North West Victory), a documentary filmed in 1952 by the Viet Minh military forces during the war against French occupation. The images demonstrate how Vietnam fighters used topography and vegetation as a weapon. Instead of traveling through the road infrastructure, the soldiers used pathways that allow them to avoid detection by the French occupiers and instead of using the traditional bamboo rafts to cross rivers, they built bamboo bridges that were almost impossible to detect as they were positioned 10 centimetres under the surface of the water.
Roundup Ready Crops are genetically engineered crops that have had their DNA altered to allow them to withstand the active ingredient of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Farmers who plant these seeds must use Roundup to keep other weeds from growing in their fields.
Members of Critical Art Ensemble prepared an artificial plot of land with RR herbicide, and challenged people to try and grow something in the enriched soil. The result of their efforts is depressing, it illustrates better than any essay the reason why the herbicide's nickname is 'killer exterminator'.
The most fascinating work in the show for me was Adelita Husni-Bey's timeline of English 'green' movements between 1987 and 2004 as seen through the radical and underground zines they published. Before the widespread use of the internet, zines and magazines were the only way to spread counter-information, controversial ideas and research.
Dan Halter planted a colony of Mesembryanthemum, a flower originally from southern Africa which is considered an alien species in many other parts of the world. Once in full bloom, the plant forms the famous icon of the Space Invaders video game, suggesting thus a very literal take on the idea of invasion. Excepts that this time, the colonization is upside down: it's African invaders that are about to colonize Europe.
Fernando Garcia-Dory brings to our attention George Chan's models of Integrated Farming and Waste Management System. The IFWMS involves a closed sustainable cycle in which matter and energy flow within the productive unit, increasing yields to meet the demands in food and energy of local populations while at the same time guaranteeing the sustainability of the ecosystem.
This revolutionary model, called Dream Farms, is as yet largely unknown.
Claire Pentecost's series of postcards document the artist's research in Mexico where she discovered that transgenic maize is illegally cultivated. Working with grassroots organizations in Sierra Juarez di Oaxaca, she catalogs the OGM plants and portrays them on postcards that are then distributed to Mexican farmers in the hope that they will help stop the contamination.
More images from the exhibition:
Vegetation as a Political Agent was curated by Marco Scotini. It is on view at the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente in Turin until 11 January 2014.
(available on amazon USA or by ordering directly from RIXC via e-mail: rixc @ rixc.lv.)
Publishers RIXC Center for New Media Culture and MPLab, Art Research Lab of Liepaja University write: Techno-ecological perspectives have become now one of the key directions in contemporary discourses and are part of a larger paradigm shift from new media to post-media art. A range of practices which were once subsumed under terms such as media art, digital art, art and technology or art and science, have experienced such growth and diversification that no single term can work as as a label any more. Traditionally separated domains are brought together to become contextual seedbeds for ideas and practices that aim to overcome the crisis of the present and to invent new avenues for future developments.
This is the 2nd volume in the Acoustic Space series that continues to build a 'techno-ecological' perspective whereby new artistic practices are discussed that combine ecological, social, scientific and artistic inquiries. Edited and published in the context of the exhibition Fields, it makes a perspective its own that sees art as a catalyst for change and transformations.
This 300+ page publication is a collection of papers by artists, curators and academics. The texts are mapping contemporary practices in art & technology but they also had the specific function of providing a framework to the Fields exhibition that took place in Riga last Summer. The show investigated the place of contemporary art practices in society and the role artists can take not just as generators of new aesthetics but also as catalysts of active involvement in social, scientific, and technological transformations. The publication is as deep and as wide-ranging as the Riga show was. Its content also echoes many of the current conversations that makes media art such an exciting field to follow: DIY culture vs 'black box' technology, digital archiving, continued influence of early locative art, funding models for the digital culture, reconciliation between sciences and humanities, etc.
Here's a far from exhaustive list of essays i've enjoyed reading:
In Slow Media Art - Seeing through Speed in Critiques of Modernity, Kevin Hamilton and Katja Kwastek applied the ideas of the slow food to Media Art. The slow media art works they presented share a 'deep engagement with sensation, duration, and speed.' I like the concept because it proves media art detractors that there is more to media art than the quest for innovation and sparkly spectacle. The examples of the genre selected by the authors of the paper include YoHa's magnificent coal-fired computers and Esther Polak's Milk Project.
In Stridulation Amplified: An Artistic Research of the Bioacoustic Phenomena of Leaf-cutter Ants Using the Turntable, artist Kuai Shen Auson shares what he learnt from 5 years working on and exhibiting 0h!m1gas , an installation that harnesses the relentless activity of an ant colony into a DJ scratching performance.
In Ars Bioarctica. Five Years of Art & Science Work by the Finnish Society of Bioart at Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, Erich Berger and Laura Beloff draw lessons from their five years of experience organizing art&science collaborations in sub-Arctic environment
Michel Bauwens's essay Evolving Towards a Partner State in an Ethical Economy looks at the free software industry and defends the idea that society can learn something from the politics of this value creation model and that of a 'P2P' state might emerge from these social practices.
In Contestation and the Sustainability of the Digital Commons, Eric Kluitenberg reflects on the outcomes of the Economies of the Commons, a series of conferences that focused on how sustainable models could be identified for creating and maintaining public online media culture and knowledge resources. The final part of his paper charts various revenue models that can sustain commons based initiatives in the digital domain.
I learned about the existence of anticartographism in Gavin MacDonald's text Moving Bodies and the Map: Relational and Absolute Conceptions of Space in GPS-based Art in which he walks us through the short history of the use of GPS as an artistic medium.
In Bird, Whale, Bug: The Reasons for an Interspecies Music, composer David Rothenberg tells about his experience of working with bird song neuroscientists, playing music with animals and even bugs and his findings about how a musical approach might lead to better understanding and respect for 'natural' sounds.
About the FIELDS exhibition: FIELDS, positive visions for the future, Ghostradio, the device that produces real random numbers, Sketches for an Earth Computer, POLSPRUNG (POLE SHIFT) - Devastating Experimental Set-ups, On the interplay between a snail and an algorithm.
Image on the homepage: a performance by Cécile Babiole at the FIELDS exhibition.
It's almost 2015 and i still have to write reviews of a couple of festivals i've visited over the Autumn. The first one that was languishing in my draft is the very smart, very socially-engaged and exciting Survival Kit festival in Umeå, Sweden. The event explored the theme of local and global survival through the lenses of visual art, music, food, discussions and lectures.
How can we look at issues such as ecology, economy and human survival at large? And on a more personal level: how can I navigate as an individual in this new and complex world?
Wherever we look, there is a feeling how being disconnected, of living in the midst of uncertainties regarding our economic and political systems, social structures, and ecological future. The Survival Kit Festival looked at what can be done to regain some control. The artists and activists selected don't stop at denouncing what is wrong with society and the world at large, they also document or implement small, practical solutions that might ensure our survival. These experiments go from building a biodome with an aquaponic system for fish and vegetable cultivation to converting a parking lot into a collective garden. From proposing a new currencies for culture to inviting the public to a cup of chaga mushroom tea.
I had never been to Umea. It's a small city and it was pissing rain all along. Yet, i found that place amazing: strong leftie values, free wifi on public buses, a culture of veganism and cheerful cut-out figures greeting you at the entrance of supermarkets:
Also i slept inside a prison cell. So what was not to love?
Here's a small selection of the works i discovered at the festival:
In 2001 Joost Conijn spent the Summer riding a car he had built himself through Eastern European countries. The car is made out of wood, it runs on wood and because the world economically runs on oil, the artist wasn't going from petrol station to petrol station (like we normally would) but from rural area to rural area with no specific destination nor itinerary.
His objective was to use the plywood-clad vehicle as a ploy to generate unexpected situations and meetings across the road. The film of his expedition shows people in small villages guiding him to local saw-mills, offering him spare wood and inviting him to a picnic.
Conijn's film is screened inside John Ola Söderberg's caravan. I really REALLY like that one, it is simply a caravan made out of a caravan.
Siri Hermansen's films shows what might emerge from complete despair and devastation. The festival was screening two videos that document the survival strategies developed by local communities and individuals who have chosen to live in Chernobyl and Detroit.
In Chernobyl Mon Amour, the artist follows two state-employed guides who take catastrophe tourists, journalists and scientists to the exclusion zone of Pripyat, a city built for the families of power plant workers and evacuated at the time of the disaster in 1986.
In the interview, they talk about their fondness of the area. One of them even describes how he believes that his body is now accustomed to the radioactivity and how, after five years in the zone, his body actually gets ill when he enters the normal world. They both stay longer and longer periods in Chernobyl, ignoring the breaks their doctors advise.
They add that if you look around, it appears as if the whole nature is thriving in this radioactive environment. More and more animals are moving into it and vegetation grows unrestrained.
To them the zone offers a unique situation of hope, freedom and possibility within the hardships of Ukrainian society, and they describe Chernobyl as their "paradise".
In the other film shown in the gallery, Land of Freedom, Hermansen follows the members of The Yes Farm, an artistic/activist community that moved from San Francisco to Detroit where they repaired and settled in one of the city's many abandoned buildings. The members of the collective see Detroit as an opportunity to explore new ways to live a more sustainable and socially-conscious life, through farming, gardening and a return to skills that the Fordist economy made obsolete.
If the earth was destroyed, Gunilla Bandolin would start building up the whole survival process with a bee-hive. Bee hives provide you with honey and pollen, the bees would pollinate the few plants that subsisted and new crops would grow. A beehive also produces surplus warmth, and thus cheap, retrievable energy.
It is a prototype like this, or the beginning of it, that I have tried to create in this exhibition. I want the bee-hives to be made in a transparent material and preferable place them in a shopping centre to remind people of the conditions of our existence. It is calculated that about 70% of what we have on our daily plates is dependent on pollinating insects.
Artist and art manager Kaspars Lielgalvis proposes the use of a new culture currencies as a possible solution to the situation of funding culture which has suffered greatly from the ongoing financial crisis.
This new medium of exchange, called Non-convertible Culture Currencies, would be used only in the cultural context. The first Culture currency - Dobžiks is already in use since March 2012 as a valid payment for entering events at the Totaldobže Art Center in Riga. There is a plan to create a worldwide network of those organizations that will accept Culture currencies and use Culture currencies as a payment for work which is done in cultural field and in most cases is paid too less.
Other works and images from the festival:
Isabelle Fremeaux, John Jordan and Kypros Kyprianou, Paths Through Utopias (trailer)
Isabelle Fremeaux, John Jordan and Kypros Kyprianou spent seven months on the road visiting eleven Utopian communities across Europe, documenting a parallel universe where money is worthless and private property has been abolished.