Artists Laurie Beth Clark and Michael Peterson have taken their style of performance art from the coffee shop to the dinner table.
Clark and Peterson, also known as the artistic duo Spatula&Barcode, coordinated a series of café performances in 2013 as part of that year’s Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Café Allonge, as it was called, involved one-on-one meetings between the public and artists in places like Cargo Coffee, Café Zoma and the now-closed Electric Earth Café.
This fall, Clark and Peterson are back with a three-part project called Foodways. As Spatula&Barcode are the current artists in residence in the Central Library’s Bubbler at 201 W. Mifflin. Their residency and accompanying public dinners run through the end of the month.
“We’ve always used food in our work because it instantly transforms the social situation,” said Peterson. “The Foodways project is really the first time we have made food the topic of what we’re doing.”
Clark and Peterson are partners and professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she in the Art Department, he in Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies.
Food, like the arts, can connect and transform people. Foodways aims to look at how, through a series of dinners, questionnaires and conversations. They want to know how food migrates with the people who make it, and how larger, sometimes unseen systems affect what appears on our dinner tables.
That isn’t in service of creating art. It is the art.
“All of the Spatula&Barcode work is about building connections,” said Clark. “There’s never going to be a project that doesn’t have that quality in it.”
For several weeks, the Bubbler on the Central Library’s first floor has been decked out with jars of grains, beans and spices. Clark and Peterson temporarily renamed it the Community Research Kitchen, and they post responses to each of their questionnaires on a whiteboard near the library’s Mifflin Street entrance.
When people walk in, often the person who greets them is Sigrid Peterson (no relation), a library studies masters student and the “Foodways librarian.”
“I’m trying to get them comfortable,” Sigrid Peterson said. “I care about what you eat because I care about food and how it governs people and their lives and politics … how it can make their lives filled with joy or filled with suffering.
“The library is a place of support and not judgment.”
ChanSchatz, as the artists are known, solicited responses from Madisonians with a variety of jobs and interests, asking complicated questions on a series of worksheets.
At the Bubbler, Clark and Peterson ask questions like “What would it take for everyone to be food secure?” “Why is it wrong to waste food?” and “What are the social forces that cause or allow food culture to migrate?”
Food — what we eat, why we eat, where and how — can be an extremely fraught topic. They don’t want to call any of what they’re doing education because “that has a one-way quality to it,” Clark said.
“We’re trying to set up social situations,” she said. “It’s fine if we just put a thought in motion.”
On Saturday mornings, Clark and Peterson pick up ingredients at the farmers’ market and prepare a simple feast of soup, salad and homemade sourdough bread for fellow artists, food folks and friends.
Dinners open to the public (with reservations) are set for Monday nights. There will be a potluck on Oct. 24 with community experts and an open discussion about the project at the library on Nov. 14 at 6:30 p.m.
“What we are trying to do is real life,” Peterson said. “We leverage the concept of art to get to do it. We’re looking for conversations between people that we might not even be in, but information is moving in channels that didn’t exist before.”
Spatula&Barcode talk with library patrons and ask them to fill out questionnaires about food security, shopping and who they eat with at home.
“We love doing a project that changes your relationship to where you live,” Clark said. “The library is a very socially complex environment … one of the most culturally diverse, where people from a lot of places in Madison’s cultural and economic spectrum meet.”
People have drawn pictures of imaginary personal chefs and written about being homeless. Some have shared dreams about community garden plots, free buffets and having more time to cook.
Others reflected about how “we’re really lucky in Madison.”
“We have an embarrassment of choices in Madison,” one person wrote. “But I do wish there were no food deserts. Everyone deserves high-quality, fresh, affordable food nearby.”
The Bubbler residency represents just one third of the full Foodways project. There’s also “Feeding Farmers,” part of the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial at the Museum of Contemporary Art, with the aim of connecting artists and farmers. Some of those dinners will be visible from State Street in MMoCA’s glass lobby.
“Every Saturday we go to the market for five hours,” Clark said. “We try to be seen by the farmers we’re working with, make introductions to artists. We try to shake as many farmers’ hands a week as we can.”
The third piece is at the university. The newly formed Food Studies Network, a Borghese-Mellon workshop funded through the Center for the Humanities, brings together people from across disciplines for food-centric workshops and events.
And Foodways itself isn’t new, just new to Madison. Clark and Peterson returned at the start of the semester from a lengthy sabbatical, during which they took Foodways to Darmstadt, Germany and Melbourne, Australia.
In Germany they focused on the literal movement of food and created maps with people. In Australia, they explored how people talk about food.
Here at home, they want to shine a light on food systems, discussing certain aspects of food culture without judgment.
“A lot of systems research says fast food is a bad system and farming is a good system,” Clark said. “Or, small farming is a good system and mass agriculture is a bad system.”
“We’re really interested in people feeling like their own taste in food is valued, their own ways with food,” Peterson said. “I’m really interested in how you make your coffee with your fancy grinder and your organic beans, but I’m also interested in what you order at McDonald’s.”
The artists have their own ideas and may agree with some of the library’s more progressive patrons. But they don’t want that to distract from the rest of the work.
“We’re not interested in teaching people how to eat better,” Clark said. “We hope that someone is doing that, but that’s not our job.”
Spatula&Barcode's work may evolve, as questions come up during the course of conversations. It may also move. Meadowridge Library has a kitchen, Peterson said, and they could do work there.
"We think of the library system as a great way to connect with an even more diverse set of participants," he said.
In the meantime, visit Spatula&Barcode at the library from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There are only 12 spots for each of the dinners, but they are free — "simple but free," Peterson said.
"There's not an 'amateur cook in residence' at the Bubbler program, there's an artist in residence program at the Bubbler," Peterson said. "Some people find validation in being told that what they're participating in is art, so the frame is useful.
"But there are many parts of it we probably do less well than a food professional. ... We're very much amateurs at pretty much everything, and the word 'art' lets us get away with that."