I went to a performative dinner hosted at Annas on August 1, 2019. I paid $17.00 for the ticket to eat art and food in the gallery space in East Pilsen. Even though it had a dinner component, I wasn’t expecting a lot from the food because the emphasis in the description was on the interaction between strangers and loss rather than on the culinary experience. I was, however, looking forward to the performance itself by the artists Caroline Dahlberg, Mariel Harari, Azalea Henderson, and Maggie Wong.
I have always wondered if an audience member were to become an accomplice in a performance, would it make the experience of watching less uncomfortable? Unlike other mediums, performance has the added element of vulnerability and palpable tension between the viewer and the artist. With this dinner, I wondered whether inviting an audience member to perform with the artist divides discomfort equally between those present. This was the first time during a performance I experienced a feeling of impairment instead of discomfort.
We were instructed by the co-founders to “hold our words inside of our mouths” for the duration of the dinner. In addition to remaining silent, we were also asked not to use our cell phones or leave the room for the duration of the event. The loss of control over how much or how little I could engage with this event washed over me. The baseline conditions of this event were so simple yet they disarmed me. Now that we had thrown out normal social etiquette at galleries like talking to each other and posting on social media, there was more opportunity for complete surrender to the dinner. The conditions in the room were beginning to feel restrictive and otherworldly—like when you walk into the closet and end up in Narnia but quickly realize you can’t walk back out to reality immediately.
A palpable curiosity and mystery surrounded the meal. The setting was designed in a way that a person could see only as far as one other table (not all the tables) because of a wall separating us. This wall on both sides was painted beige with a mural of maroon, olive green, muted blue, and peach blobs that were squished against each other.
Curiosity was one of the primary social rules driving the experience. Instead of simply receiving information, as participants, we needed to actively seek an experience. With slight hesitation I dipped my hands into the bowls that were placed inside the holes (perhaps representing yolks) on our egg-shaped tables, to find the water mixed with essential oil.
There was a nervous energy as everyone focused on the scenes unfolding before us. As a result of the assigned seating, slowly, but surely, I started to hold expectations from the food. The table setting, the dim lighting and the hints of being served food in courses meant it wasn’t all about the interaction. The dinner was directed to be more like a restaurant experience rather than an art event with food to accompany it. A menu card with a participant’s name, a travel-sized bag of water and a thin sheet of plastic were the only table setting made available to us. We were all given little towelettes that expanded when we dunked them in water. The first course was served to us in our hands: a gelatinous mixture of gin, Citronge, bitters and chia seeds. Using eye contact and hand gestures, everyone quickly learned how to consume the shapeless food being served to us. Next came a singular carrot dumpling. With each course, I felt increasingly discombobulated. The third course was a selection of flavored blobs served sometimes fast, other times slow, spread all over the table. I could taste blueberry, something bitter, hints of cream, berries, and tomatoes but I couldn’t tell you which blobs were made of what flavor. The artists–servers came to each table and dropped the food in front of us. I couldn’t decide whether it was offensive or exciting to be served food so sloppily. Along with the blobs we were also served eggs in different sizes and colors: a mini deviled one, a blue rubbery one that had been soaked in vinegar, and an empty eggshell.
At this dinner, the twelve participants both watched and performed; the discomfort was present but it was being passed around. For instance, after being served blobs of food, the table next to us was given a loaf of bread with a string running through it and our table got the string end while the other table got the bread. The artists used poetic language to deliver instruction and rhetoric in place of spoken language around the meal. Think of this piece of bread as a metaphor for the discomfort in the room. We as a group first watched one person struggle to comprehend what to do with the bread and then soon it would be our turn to struggle and be watched. It wasn’t on cue but each of us had our moment of discomfort and learning. No time was allocated for self-reflection or discussion, it was a purely experiential and all the dialogue was most likely internal. Despite being part of the performance I had very little insight into where the work was coming from and where it was destined to go. Ultimately, the discomfort was not divided the way I imagined it: in equal or unequal portions between the audience as a whole and the artist, it was passed around in varying quantities.
Nothing had a definite configuration except our bodies and the thrill of engaging with work was momentary. We couldn’t use words or images to process the work nor our phones to capture the moment and reflect at a later time. Once all the dishes had been served, the artists instructed us to leave in a single file. As we exited the gallery, we received dessert: a small circle of cake. Once the dinner ended, guests milled about and exchanged experiences trying to decipher the meaning of things.
I wish I could tell you how the food tasted but the lack of shape was so disorienting that I don’t have a verdict. I can tell you that after I left the gallery I felt gooey and viscous inside. All of my notions of food and consumption had changed over the course of the dinner. At the end of the invitation, there is a question directed at the participant: where does the yolk pool inside your body? To that, I want to say it pools as words, like the ones in this letter, outside of my body.
Until next time,
A yolk, suspended, ran from July 12- Aug 4, 2019. This dinner took place on Aug 1, 2019, at Annas Projects.