There’s something seriously whack in the world of food. At the risk of sounding like a dolorous, preaching, harbinger of doom proclaiming that we are all going to hell in a handcart; we are in fact all going straight to hell. In a solar-powered handcart.
Picture the scene, if you will. You are slumped on your sofa, trying not to think about recessions and flu-demics. To relax you flick over to a cookery programme. You like these; they remind you of the simpler things in life. You watch the ruddy cheeked chef frolicking about in meadows, on boats, foraging wonderful looking produce from forests before cooking it all up in a kitchen the size of your entire flat. You wonder what the kids crammed into the council estate opposite must make of this. To them, it must be a bit like watching alien life-forms in space. Or how nomads must feel when sat in the desert watching Lady Gaga on MTV. Realising you’re quite peckish you decide to make something to eat, something delicious perhaps. The electric cupboard however is bare and your nearest “super” market is a Tesco Metro. Oh sweet joy. On the rare occasions you are forced to drag your sorry feet there, you have to wince past the grey flock of flying rats pecking merrily away at KFC bones like winged cannibals on the phlegm splattered pavement. You try to pretend the tired, old lap-dancing pub next door isn’t there as it ejaculates a steady stream of leering perverts, that emerge eyes a-saturated with rape after countless hours spent letching Tantalus-like over some bored desperate student trying to locate Radio 4 with her nipples. There are no organic bunches of mint by this roadside.
You avert your gaze and drink in the cute ASBO kids injecting smack in the park instead. You half expect someone to empty a bed pan onto your head from the window above.
You wander through the strip lit doors, the security guard surveys you with mild disdain, while keeping one eye on the clock as he waits for knock off time so he can go and spend his meagre wages next door. You’re bombarded with a barrage of cut price booze and crisps. Where are the artisan breads? You wonder. Where are the chickens that have spent their lives being pampered in the presidential suite of the Savoy Hotel? There is of course, no actual recognisable food.
Most of the people in here just want to get their fags, their tart juice and to get out as soon as possible. These folk don’t have the money for farmer’s markets and if they did they wouldn’t waste it in them. Why would they do that when there’s perfectly good junk food to be had with plenty of change from a fiver. I mean after all, everyone knows that burgers come from organic toddlers rambling gleefully in the English countryside…
There’s a tiny section hidden away at the back ambitiously called “fruit and vegetables”. Whenever you are forced to buy this swill it is of course inedible. The bags of “spinach” have a bouquet of sweet FA with delicate top-notes of antifreeze, the “tomatoes” are miserly, red spheres of water. In the words of Bloc Party it’s “like drinking poison, like eating glass”. It’s all dirt cheap. It’s all dirt. It makes you want to smash their windows in with those bricks of bleached and fetid flour they jokingly call “bread”.
The WHO speculates that in ten years time, food production in Africa will be halved. This is directly linked to the “pile it high sell it cheap” ethos of food fascists like Tesco’s. The thought that in our life time people will actually go to war over food and water is terrifying; all because we want to buy as much bogof fodder as possible and no one wants to pay the real price. But really, now that we’re all skint shouldn’t food waste be a more pertinent issue than ever? We all know how shameful our levels of food waste are and how we’re stuck in this dark cycle of pilfering land from the poorest of countries to provide us with food, which we then chuck away (while they starve). This sinister carnival of consumption’s also been linked to climate change. The system is wrecked and the only way to challenge this is to create alternatives.
The Feral Trade Café is more than just an art space that’s a working café, it’s about provoking people to question the way big food corporations operate by looking at the journey of the food we end up scraping into our pampered bins. I had a bit of a jaw with Kate Rich, the artist behind the exhibition:
Tell me about what you’re doing:
The Feral Trade Cafe is an art exhibition that sells, serves and displays grocery products which have all been sourced and circulated via social networks, using friends, colleagues, acquaintances, other artists, former and future employers etc as mules, to carry items intercity. Feral Trade is an experimental grocery business that operates outside commercial systems. All goods are accompanied by complex ‘waybills’ detailing the social relationships, routes travelled and financial transactions involved in sourcing and delivery – information missing from the presentation of most contemporary products. At the Feral Trade Cafe, unlike in a normal grocery outlet, the shopper is surrounded not by the spoils of choice, but the rare fruits of social relations, including sometimes uneasy ones.
What inspired you to do this?
Feral Trade has been trading groceries off the open market since 2003, sourcing & circulating basic staples such as coffee, tea & sweets. After running the project online, and in my own & other people’s hand baggage / homes / offices for the past 6 years, the Feral Trade Cafe is the first physical location for the project. People can not only view the products and their ‘biographies’ – origin stories, anecdotes of passage – but also sit down & be served drinks and foods from the feral trade range or buy groceries to take home. The locals in particular seem to love it.The project itself was inspired by the intersection of a number of things. In trading groceries along social networks I was interested in testing the load-bearing capacity of email and social connections, to see if they could handle something more substantial like freight.
What’s the most interesting food product you’ve sourced and tell me about the trajectory behind it.
The sweets from Iran are probably the most exotic. I found out about those via a Texan-Iranian friend living in Paris. She brought back a box of sweets from Iran that were just sublime – the company that makes them, Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar, doesn’t export though, due to the fragility of the product /quality concerns, so they only circulate in the luggage of Iranian diaspora. The flavours are incredible – pistachio, almond, pussywillow. So I travelled by train all the way from Bristol to Iran to locate the sweets at source, in the desert city of Yazd. The shipment of 35kg sweets back to the UK was facilitated by another Iranian friend’s cousin who is a helicopter pilot trainer in the Iranian military. One of his fighter-pilot trainee’s parents live in Yazd, they purchased the sweets & put them as freight on an overnight bus to Tehran, where they were picked up at the bus station by the friend’s cousin, then air freighted with Iran Air to the UK. Payment for the sweets travelled back along the same chain of connections
What do you do about food waste?
Well, I don’t own a fridge which is a compelling way to focus your grocery shopping to minimise waste – you just don’t have that idea that you can buy lots of perishables and store them indefinitely. It also works along seasonal lines, you have dairy products in winter.
What makes you angry (re. food)?
The corporate mediation of almost all aspects of the food chain. For instance the repackaging of what was a radical food politics into lifestyle aesthetics by Whole Foods and the like. See http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/20 for a good overview of this.
What do you think of the term “organic”?
I think it’s been massively overstretched and commodified, unfortunately. It’s privileging the certification relationship over all the other particulars of production. The tea from Bangladesh that’s in the Feral Trade Cafe is a good example. It’s USDA certified organic, it’s also produced by a company whose primary industry is manufacturing concrete electricity poles. The land they grow the tea on they refer to as ‘virgin’ land – I went there, it’s actually fallow – they say their tea plantations have restored the land from barren to verdant, but actually the reason for land degradation in that area of north Bangladesh is the (now illegal) strip mining of small stones – gravel – for use in concrete electricity poles, amongst other things. So the complex ecology of production (social, political, geological) is completely hidden behind that ‘organic’ terminology.
What’s been the hardest/best thing about doing this?
Perhaps the problem of persistence. People love novelty, but trying to maintain something long-term and concrete is the real challenge and questioning the ethical accuracy of ‘fair’ trade and organic standards has not been very popular, amongst food supply peers. The best thing about doing it is the feedback from participants,suppliers and public. My new coffee supplier in El Salvador just emailed to say that they like the concept of my business because it shows all the links in the chain, the human relationships of trade. The Feral Trade project is a public experiment – it’s open-ended, there are still many contradictions and unresearched elements in it – so it tends to provoke a rich level of engagement & response, people love to chew over the ideas, challenge and interpret them and offer their services.
How do you see this affecting people in a long term sense?
I hope it provokes them to think outside the packaging – of food products and commodity goods in general.
But I imagine that with most of the people who come to the exhibition you might already be “preaching to the converted”. How do you get this message to everyone else?
Agreed. In the short term, I’m actually looking for an invitation to set up the same kind of kind of cafe/store somewhere way more public – a high street shop front, town centre kiosk, or a temporary festival or conference catering environment. People like to buy coffee & snacks so the barrier to access the project is actually quite low. Once you’re making someone tea and chatting, the opportunity to convey more information and complexity is right there.
The Feral Trade Cafe will be open Fri – Sun 12-5pm
Unit A2, Arena Design Centre
71 Ashfield Road
London N4 1N4
+44(0)77 3700 2879
until August 7th