Learning by Doing, Performing, Exchanging, Communicating

Marjetica Potrč, Amanda Eicher, Ryo Yonami, Nuriye Tohermes & Mai Shirato

The interview was originally published in Shifter, Issue 20, 2013.

In the autumn of 2012, Marjetica Potrč and her “Design for the Living World” class from the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg (HFBK) were invited by Botkyrka Konsthall to the Stockholm suburb of Fittja, where they worked with Amanda Eicher and OPENrestaurant from San Francisco and Kultivator, a Swedish collective of artists and farmers, on the project The Common Roof Kitchen. The HFBK students designed and constructed a roof, tables, and benches in front of the Botkyrka Artist’s Residence for the Open Café. There, OPENrestaurant prepared food in exchange for recipes, stories, and ideas from the residents of Fittja’s largely immigrant community. The students also collected local breads and recipes to create The Bread Library. The goal was to stimulate discussions among local residents about a new identity for Fittja – to envision a sustainable future based on traditional knowledge and urban agriculture. The following conversation took place in Hamburg on December 19th, 2012.

Art 142 New Genres Class, UC University of California Berkeley, USA, Fall 2012

MP: We have fifteen to twenty minutes, no? Any ideas? You have a lot of ideas.

AE: Oh, yes. Well, I’ve been thinking about you a lot, Marjetica, ever since you said some time in October when we were together, “I never go anywhere without my students.” Which is probably not completely true, but I felt kind of the same. When I went back to the United States, I got a call saying, “So you’ll come back to Sweden in December?” And I thought, “Oh no! How am I going to do this by myself?” Then I realized I had a really beautiful group of students around me. I told them, “If any of you have the means and the time to come with me, it would be wonderful to have you.” And that’s how Ryo is here. So it was really you! [Laughs.] It was your way that inspired me.

MP: Back in October, I remember, you said your students weren’t allowed to work with institutions outside your university. Did I get that wrong?

AE: There are rules that prevent students from working in the real world. So unless they have special permission, a student’s work has to remain within the University. Which is nice in a way; it gives them a white box to experiment in. You know you’re not designing a house that someone will live in, but rather designing something or thinking about something in an abstract space where you can dream to the fullest extent of your abilities. But we are really trying hard to break down those walls and work in the real world.

MP: Ryo, did you have to get permission to come to Sweden?

RY: No, I didn’t. I just needed to have my passport.

AE: But I’m sure that if someone found out I was travelling with a student, and off school property, I’d there’s probably be held responsible for all of Ryo’s cuts and scratches and things like that. [Laughter.]

RY: Yeah! Be sure you don’t cause them! [Laughter.]

The Common Roof Kitchen, Open Fittja, Sweden, September 2013

MP: You know, when we worked together in Fittja, I was impressed by how minimal–nearly invisible–your actions were. In our class, we are interested in what we call relational objects. We are not into physical objects. We think that art or design is about relational objects. For instance, when my students Julia [Suwalski] and William [Schwartz] did a project about Fittja’s breads–The Bread Library–they created a whole system. But you were just exchanging something: you cooked and exchanged stories for food. It was a very extreme, nearly invisible performative action.

AE: Everything just went away at the end. I mean, in a way education is the medium, because I’m learning to cook recipes and learning about everything that goes with a recipe. You know, the culture that comes from the conditions you’re cooking under, how taste works in a different context. The people who collaborated with us were also learning about the [Botkyrka] residency and Konsthall and about the shift in their community. And I think everyone involved was starting to dream about what this relationship could do.

Art 142 New Genres Class, UC University of California Berkeley, USA, Fall 2012

NT: So the performative part of your work is important?

AE: Yes. I mean, I don’t think about it as a performance, but I always do think, well, if we do something, and there are resources like food or ideas or human abilities, and they’re going to move from one place to another, there has to be some currency of exchange. It could be money– that’s really easy–but in this case it was fun to think about what else could serve as currency.

I think in the Fittja project the medium of exchange was performance, more than even the food or recipes. We took the recipes and on the last weekend made a big meal at the Botkyrka Konsthall. Elmas, an elderly Turkish woman who had been working with us the whole time, did a performance just by moving her normal everyday life in Fittja to the gallery. What she normally does is selling little things–soap, razors, stockings or slippers. She brought everything to the gallery on the day of the meal and set up a table, just like we were setting up a table of food. And she was living her normal life, more or less, as a performance in the gallery. And we were doing our performance, which was trying to cook recipes from Fittja.

Do you ever feel like you’re performing something? Or that maybe that is the medium you are working in?

NT: Yes, I think so. What we do is sometimes very normal and basic; it’s just about how people live together and try to solve problems. I think it’s beautiful to think of it as a performative act, because when you do a performance as an artwork then you have to think about every detail. I think it’s the normal way we deal with situations; it’s maybe not normal for everyone, but for us it’s kind of normal–talking to people and then thinking of this also as part of a performative act. That gives value to the little details, which we like and which would seem unimportant if looked at without the glasses of an artist.

MP: Communication with people becomes one with the work; talking with people is just as important as the objects.

NT: Yes.

MP: As artists, we’re agents of the process–mediators.

The Common Roof Kitchen, Open Fittja, Sweden, September 2013

AE: Also, Marjetica, what you said makes me think of one of my amazing teachers, Anna Halprin. I used to attend her performance class. At one point I think someone was frozen in a stance with their hand held out facing downward and she turned the person’s hand over and said: “Now isn’t that interesting?” And the whole pose came to life and became the cornerstone for the choreography we were working on. I think the details of how you go about doing things really inform a project like the one you did in St. Lambrecht. r how we worked together in Fittja. Some of it’s natural and some of it we can talk about in words, but the way we work with people–the way we approach groups of people or individuals–is really very important in how the final feeling of the piece comes out. I think that’s probably why it was so exciting for us all to come together in that apartment in Fittja in October. It seemed so easy to talk about the way we do things, and we didn’t need to talk about it very much because we have similar approaches.

Marjetica, what do you think about that? About the ways you approach projects or even how your students approach projects?

MP: That’s a good question. Through our involvement in participatory projects with local residents in different localities, the students and I realized that we are similar to what Germans called the wandergeselle. This was a wandering journeyman who gained experience in his craft by travelling from town to town. It’s a traditional way of learning by doing. On the other hand, I am aware that we are now interested in local and traditional knowledge because we see it as a potential basis for a twenty-first century post-neoliberal way of living.

The Common Roof Kitchen, Open Fittja, Sweden, September 2013

AE: I was thinking of my classroom at the University of California and how much the walls are really part of the education there. You have your studio and you stay in it. I was wondering how it was for you this semester, Ryo, to be going outside the classroom almost every day, taking our mobile classroom to different parts of the University. We went outside to look for answers to certain questions probably once a week, with big photo scrims and a blackboard and charrette cards sometimes, or with food, or something else, to create a space where we could talk to people. So I wonder, what that was like for you?

RY: I think it’s very much based on the topic you’re presenting in the classroom. So I don’t think going outside the classroom would be valuable in other types of classes. However, in this particular class we were trying to figure out the future vision of  universities in the United States. A lot of the time, we were outside interacting with students who happened to be walking by at that time, and they would interact with us. They didn’t necessarily join in the conversation, but they would stop and listen to it.

At the very beginning, we only had some big screen stands with a series of photos taken by Ansel Adams. Most of time, students would just stop and look at the screens. They might have been listening to the conversation too, I don’t know.

After we did that maybe twice, people started observing what we were doing – not really behind the screen but listening to our conversation a little bit. Then they would walk away. At a later stage, we tried to interact with students and faculty members. We set up a cupcake table and some blackboards and then would stop people and offer them free cupcakes or soup, and in exchange we asked people to tell us about their vision for the university–our University, to be more specific. Personally, it was relatively new to learn about our subject in a way that gave us a chance to interact with people from other classes or just people on the street.

AE: I also think that the word “exchange” is a little bit right and a little bit wrong here. Because in a way it’s also a guess that this kind of exchange might already be happening. So if you put a cupcake or a question mark or something else there, things might flow in a way that we could write down, observe, or look at more closely. But each time it’s a guess that maybe these ideas are already out there and we just haven’t accessed them yet. And so I wonder, Marjetica, what questions you are thinking about now? Because you’re beginning a new project in Norway and I’m sure you probably have other projects that are generating questions for you.

MP: Every project we do together is different. Take the St. Lambrecht project, where we practiced making decisions by consensus, which was amazing because we agreed together as a group on every detail. Consensus is not like democracy, where your vote can cancel mine out. In consensus, a decision is only taken when everyone agrees. But after the St. Lambrecht project we stopped using consensus as a way of working.

Now we are preparing a project in Tromsø, Norway, where we are thinking about exercises, or performative actions. There are eight of them, from gathering around a rocket stove someplace in the open air, to dumpster diving. But what is important is that each of these actions comes with a certain kind of knowledge, such as revisiting the concept of the commons, or pushing ourselves to realize that we live in the Anthropocene Era. We have looked at the idea of exchange–the exchange of food, the exchange economy–and what participation means. We are currently reading texts by Markus Miessen, Claire Bishop, and others in order to understand more about participation. As outsiders, can we think and work with a local community to bring change? Or will we be instrumentalized? We are building an open source library around this kind of knowledge; it will serve as our foundation of knowledge for this year.

The Common Roof Kitchen, Open Fittja, Sweden, September 2013

AE: And is this new for your group? You haven’t used this kind of open source library for projects in the past.

NT: Actually, it’s like this: in the St. Lambrecht and Fittja projects we were one united group. Okay, I have to add one thing: we are a mixed group and we all speak different languages. So at one point we sort of made up our own language. [Laughter.] Which was very beautiful, but of course it wasn’t possible for outsiders to understand what we meant. If I said, “The stewardship of the land is such-and-such in Austria,” then Marjetica would know exactly what I meant but someone else maybe wouldn’t. Our knowledge was something very much within our group; it came and grew through talking. So this is why it’s so necessary for us now to have a universal framework around our work. I don’t know if this answers your question, but until now we didn’t make this knowledge understandable for everyone. [Laughter.]

MP: I think the projects also serve as a link. For me, it’s interesting that we somehow had an urge to do this because traditional studies of design don’t do this. But what’s important, actually, are all those issues that come before the project–like ethics and what your position is with regard to nature or in civilization–which have suddenly become very instrumental for what we do. So we also have to be aware of our position in the world.

NT: And this very much comes back to our group. I would say that what you did this year, Amanda–putting your class outside–I think this is also a little bit like what we are doing at the moment; maybe it’s not different at all. The difference is for the others to be able to talk to you, but there is also the difference to you that you be heard by others. So you cannot talk your own language; you have to talk in a way that is understandable.

AE: Yes, you have to grow into the project. In a way, I’m still living my own life in the project but there’s a certain point when I realize, “Oh, I’m living the project’s life now.” I think for us, by the time Friday came last week, it felt like, we’re living in a sort of combined life of working together in Fittja. And at a certain point for our class this semester, we felt like we could speak as a group together.

RY: Yeah, I think the class did a good job trying to figure out the living style of an artist. A lot of people, including me, were expecting to make a sculpture or a painting, or something like that, in an art class called “New Genre.” But it was nothing like that really. During the semester, people came to realize that art is about keeping the mind working and working. Everyone was thinking about how we could translate the vision of the university into an art piece. It’s just very difficult for most of us traditional artists, who make paintings or sculptures. We were all trying to figure out how we could make a thing. I was trapped in the thought of making an object while ignoring the fact that there were different forms of presenting art pieces, like Amanda’s work and OPENrestaurant.

We did some events and projects, such as the cupcake table and a movie night, and we were on campus trying to get people to pay attention and participate. So we were constantly thinking about projects and how to transfer our idea to the crowd. That was a new habit for us, I think: to realize that we were in an upper-level art class and should be generating ideas outside the classroom or during our break. And that was good because that is how we should be as artists, in my opinion.

The Common Roof Kitchen, Open Fittja, Sweden, September 2013

NT: And did you find a way to attract people and get them involved?

RY: My part in this whole project was to make advertisements. We had two main events. I made invitations with my own hands and sent them out to people. For the first one, I tore sketching paper into small pieces, stuck on a little chrysanthemum, and wrote the event information down in pencil. For the second big event, I used chocolate kisses, you know, the candy. I tied them with a ribbon on which the event information was printed. I think that worked pretty well; people were more willing to accept it than fliers.

NT: The experience we had was that it’s all about doing things personally. And best, of course, is eye-to-eye contact.

RT: Yes, yes.

Mai Shirato: What’s a good way to contact people? One can say, “OK, they live there, and we’re visiting.” But beyond visitors and residents, what we have in common are three big elements in life–food, clothing, and shelter. That’s it: food, clothes, house.

During the St. Lambrecht project, we collected recipes for traditional dishes. That was the beginning of building a relationship with the local community. We were strangers knocking on people’s doors without an appointment [laughter] and asking them, “Could you tell me your family recipes?” It was hard, but slowly they started to talk about themselves–not only about their recipes, but also about issues around food. Collecting recipes was a successful way to understand the local knowledge.

MP: Yes, that’s true. Amanda, what can you tell us about your exchange of food for knowledge in Fittja? You went back to Fittja half a year after your performative act. What has remained from the project?

The Common Roof Kitchen, Open Fittja, Sweden, September 2013

AE: What has remained in Fittja? Well, I think one of the really interesting things I found was that this time when we first arrived, in December, knowledge of the project was really present. The day we arrived it was already dark out and nothing was really happening, but people saw the light on and came knocking on the door–and it wasn’t people who were just passing by, it was people who had been involved in the project. They said, “When we saw your light on, we thought there must be something happening.” And so the idea of that space as a space for them was still there. People were actually thinking, “Oh, if they’re in there we must be able to visit and go inside.” I think this might be troublesome to the other artists who go there, but the sense of that artist residency as a space to which neighbourhood people can come, is genuine and real. And then I think the idea of using a public space the way that we did is also still very present. So other people might be able to make experiments like that more easily. I don’t know if they would do it by themselves, but the curiosity is there.

People’s own interest in their recipes and ideas is also still present. We had come in with the idea of making five different recipes we had been given. And we ended up with a table full of different types of food, because people kept telling us about more dishes. So I think that exchange is very much alive. I don’t know what happens when we’re not there. I think in a way it’s dormant, but it could be activated again.

Then there were other things: For example, Erik, the Slovenian guy, mentioned that he’d been thinking of us, so when he saw that things were happening in the apartment, he came to the opening at the Konsthall. He wanted to make sure we got the message to you that he says hello. He said he always checks to see what’s happening.

The Iranian photographer who hung out with us for many days became friends a little with Elmas, the older Turkish woman. He checks in on her now, and they have a relationship of solidarity in the community. So you know, even though those things are happening on a hyper-personal level, I think that it quite often takes an individual’s leadership, a leadership voice, to develop larger movements within a community. And that sense of leadership is there–even if it’s just being willing to knock on the door, is really important.

MP: Would you agree that the artist’s or designer’s role in the process is to be a mediator? Do you think that’s a good description?

AE: Yes, or sometimes an instigator. Also, sometimes I think of what William said when we were all talking together in October: “Sometimes we’re the ones who do something in a silly way that allows other people to do it in their everyday lives.” I think sometimes that’s our role.

The Common Roof Kitchen, Open Fittja, Sweden, September 2013

The interview is also published on the website of Department of Design, HFBK