Taking the Smart Museum’s Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art as inspiration, yesterday’s Symposium of Hospitality at the University of Chicago featured an entire day of lectures, discussions, events, and performances of “hospitality.”
Immediately upon our arrival, we were greeted with spoonfuls of slatko, a syrupy, sweet strawberry jam traditionally served in Serbia as an expression of welcome. The brief interaction of sampling the slatko was part of Ana Prvacki’s The Greeting Committee, a piece that immediately introduced symposium participants to the roles of host and guest, greeting and hospitality.
After sampling the slatko and perhaps overstepping our own welcome by gorging ourselves on the breakfast pastries, the day’s program began with a panel on Radical Hospitality. Hannah Higgins, of University of Illinois Chicago, discussed the role of pasta and Italian food through history and culture, from its depiction as peasant food in Strega Nona, to its association with Bohemian life in early 20th century America. Erika Dudley continued the discussion of food and its varied meanings, speaking about the Dorchester Projects and repurposed abandoned houses becoming pavilions for discussion. The Dorchester Project, which aims to bring creative renewal to a south side neighborhood, serves watermelon, chitlins, and other soul food in a revived space, encouraging conversations “over the food of black people.” This theme of food-propelled dialogue was continued in the next speaker, Amy Mooney’s discussion about Potluck: Chicago, another project designed to bring Chicagoans together over meals. Mooney, too, spoke of shared space, advocating for reciprocity, and the social imagining of the city.
Despite the morning panel’s inspiring and wonderful examples of community and shared eating, the afternoon would remind the audience that it is wrong to assume that hospitality is inherently open and positive. Following Alison Knowles’ debut of Identical Lunch Symphony and lunch from Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen and Eric May’s “E-Dogz” Mobile Culinary Community Center, the afternoon progressed with a panel on “Being Bad.” The panel featured videos by artists Ana Prvacki and Michael Rakowtiz, in addition to remarks by art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson, MCA curator Dieter Roelstraete, and artist Laura Letinsky. In an eloquent, amusing, and haphazard video shot on a handheld camera in Afghanistan, Michael Rakowitz spoke of the inherent antagonisms present in his work, revealing the complications of eating delicious food that is fraught with political turmoil. What followed Rakowitz’s video all became very confusing. Letinsky walked the audience through her compelling photography practice, but hardly referred to the panel’s theme as well as hospitality. Matthew Jesse Jackson cynically suggested that art is futile in the current state of the world (while Letinsky nodded along). Roelstraete, who forewarned the audience of “rambling” before he even began, discussed the political roles of the enemy and the friend, using theorist Carl Schmitt as a point of departure. While each panelist made insightful and interesting remarks, we became increasingly confused about the topic of the panel, exchanging puzzled glances and whispering “what is going on?” to one another. By the end of the panel, we had decided to briefly excuse ourselves from the symposium to hear Hannah Feldman’s talk at the MCA instead.
What the Being Bad panel did embody, was the murkiness of what contemporary art is today. By the Q&A session at the end, I realized that I no longer knew what contemporary art was, and the innumerable contexts and lenses through which it is discussed were too convoluted to discern. Letinsky, too, hinted at this amorphousness, when she commenced her talk with a slide composed entirely of random words used in graduate art critiques earlier that week.
The symposium also made me aware of the latent problems of hospitality. Although the word implies warmth, reception, and neighborliness, the symposium highlighted the issues of class and categorization that are still embedded in hospitality. This problem of exclusivity was especially apparent in the symposium events that were designed to bring people together. During Alison Knowles’ performance, the audience sat in quiet reverence, before quickly tasting single-serving cups of her blended Identical Lunch and moving on to the real meals located outside. There was no sense of conversation or camaraderie. Later in the evening, when we returned to attend the symposium’s conclusion of Soup and Bread, a weekly tradition at Chicago’s Hideout bar, there was similarly little sense of community and togetherness. The gallery directors sat with their peers, the professors with the professors. Being the youngest attendees, no one took initiative to speak with us, and did not offer much warm reception when we tried to insert ourselves into conversations. (We also unsophisticatedly discussed the best way to beckon Dieter Roelstraete over to our table for an embarrassing length of time, but he chose to stand by himself, before eventually joining a table of gallery directors.) While the food was delicious and the event extremely hospitable and enlightening, there still existed a dilemma of restriction and social boundaries.
By the time Soup & Bread had started dwindling down, the courtyard of Logan Center had been overrun by well-dressed undergraduates for UChicago’s annual FOTA launch party. Homemade soup and bread were replaced by arty platters, everyday attire with cocktail dresses, Alison Knowles’ symphony with bright lights and a makeshift runway. Where a figment of hospitality had existed moments earlier, nothing remained but the provisional canopy erected earlier in the day to shield participants from rain.