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GhostFood: a Taste of Your Foodie Future

Artists Miriam Simun + Miriam Songster have teamed up to bring a taste of the future to the streets with GhostFood: a food truck dishing out a menu centered on three familiar foods facing extinction—cod, chocolate, and peanut. This participatory performance piece, commissioned by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for Marfa Dialogues/NY, is designed to promote a dialogue around climate change by imagining how we may come to eat in the not-so-distant future when our favorite foods are in scarcity.

GhostFoodLogo

When we eat, what we are actually “tasting” is the synthesis of taste, smell, and texture—a fusion that collectively creates the food’s flavor. Drawing from this basic physiology, Simun + Songster have designed a 3D-printed headset that dispenses specially manufactured fragrances that—when combined with an edible textural analog—conjure up a taste + flavor reminiscent of these endangered dishes. So as you munch on flaky cod-substitute, your nose is fed the fragrance of the fish. On fashioning this future dining experience, Simun says:

We are creating this experience where you’re eating these foods, but you have to wear this special device and you’re not eating very much. It’s this interesting thing—an instant nostalgia for what you have right now. Because we welcome people into this near-future experience where this is the way you eat peanut butter or this is the way you eat cod and this is the only way it’s available.

With prices on the rise, foods that were once cheap mealtime staples are experiencing the economic effects of scarcity. But behind the ever-increasing price tags lie real-life species that are under ecological threat as their habitats have turned hostile. The GhostFood menu draws from at-risk species across three ecosystems: ocean, grasslands + rainforest.

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Overfishing aside, our climate-changed oceans have created uncomfortably warm waters for cod—nearing the top of cod’s livable temperature range—while changing currents have led to depletion of their nutrient-rich food sources. Up on land, seasonal changes in rain + temperature patterns have created prime conditions for toxic molds to flourish on our favorite crops, including corn, wheat, and peanuts. And with rainforests bearing the burden of deforestation, drought, and rising temperatures, the world’s cocoa supply is also at risk as cocoa trees are unable to beat the heat, not to mention the rise in disease and pests due to devastating disturbances in ecological order.

By creating this fundamentally different // highly ritualized dining experience, GhostFood innovatively takes these species off the supermarket shelves, challenging tasters to place each food in its ecological context. As Songster explains:

Certainly there’s an intention for this experience to have some emotional resonance—and hopefully through that resonance people are able to think about the species from an emotional perspective. We’re giving people this very hands-on, me-centered experience of eating and smelling—because it doesn’t get more personal and self-involved than actually eating. And yet we’re also hoping that the emotional impact of the experience will allow people to step back and actually think about the species as not just food.

The quasi-apocalyptic aside, these foods were carefully curated based also on their place in the North American diet—each dish made all the more poignant + pungent by its familiarity. Interestingly, the fragrances of these dishes are fed directly to your nose, appealing to your olfactory sensibilities, which are intimately tied to memory. The region of the brain responsible for sensing scent—the olfactory bulb—is actually a member of the brain’s limbic system, which plays an important role in long-term memory + emotional life. Songster adds:

There’s a historical memory in the experiences of eating these foods, which makes them more meaningful for people. But it also creates a little bit of friction between what you’re eating now and what you remember eating. We’re mimicking these foods, but we’re not necessarily trying to create an exact replica. We know that there is going to be a gap there and that gap is part of what this opening is about—to ask, “What is it like to eat this way?” And to think to yourself that it’s sort of the same, but it isn’t really the same—there’s something both exciting about it being different, and also maybe sad about it being different.

But beyond the emotional, this familiarity supplies a necessary frame of reference for this out-of-the-ordinary culinary experience—a gastronomical anchor to our present-day // everyday reality. By simultaneously imparting excitement for possible foodie futures to come, while providing a taste [or lack thereof] of what diners stand to lose, the GhostFood experience distills the conflict that comes with progress. “Augmenting reality and simulating things is a popular way to go in terms of technology today,” Simun notes. “So all of that came together into this device that would use our olfactory sense to compensate for the species that we are losing due to other decisions that we make.”

GhostFood scent-sensing headset device: "There’s a certain interest in biomimicry—looking to nature to think about models for how we can build different technologies: what if we were inspired by an insect's way of sensing smell—and also sensing the world—to create this device that is wearable and also maybe beautiful?"

GhostFood scent-sensing headset device: “There’s a certain interest in biomimicry—looking to nature to think about models for how we can build different technologies: what if we were inspired by an insect’s way of sensing smell—and also sensing the world—to create this device that is wearable and also maybe beautiful?”

 

Given the basic physiology of flavor perception, creating effective food + flavor combinations posed an interesting challenge. Early in the project, Simun + Songster consulted with scent experts at the Monell Chemical Sciences Center, later teaming up with flavor + fragrance company Takasago to engineer the GhostFood aromas evoking the flavors of these phantom dishes. Songster laughs, “When we went to meet them they had some of their bigger perfume brands on display—for example, Victoria’s Secret. Meanwhile, we’re asking them to do the smell of fish!” Creating the GhostFood flavors posed an interesting challenge for the group based on the physiology of flavor perception.

An inevitable consequence of any simulation is its imperfection—its ability to only approximate and not replicate the real thing. And, to me, that is the real beauty of GhostFood’s design. Food fragrance is typically perceived both through the back of the mouth—retronasally—and directly through the nostrils—orthonasally. In fact, certain odor molecules—including chocolate—activate different parts of the brain depending on whether they are delivered through the mouth or through the nose. However, the GhostFood device only feeds scent through the orthonasal route, creating an interesting neurological // physiological experiment, while viscerally highlighting that GhostFood is indeed a simulation of a well-known + well-loved epicurean experience and not the real deal as we know it now.

Perhaps most exciting of all is GhostFood’s unique take on the edible future that goes beyond our favorite sci-fi forecasts for the future—those bare-bones // on-the-run pastes + pellets. Instead, Simun + Songster creatively re-imagine the future of not only our food, but also our culture, highlighting how the innovations of a very tangible future stand to re-invent the rituals of hearth + home. Simun shares:

In a way it is sci-fi because we’re using 3D-printed technology and we’re using signs and the language of the future. But in other ways we’re doing the polar opposite: we’re making eating even more complicated and even more sensorial and even more multi-faceted than all these other dominant visions of what food is in the future—where it’s just a pellet or a paste or an injection and you’ll never need to eat again—which only look at the role of food in human life in a very singular, small way.

For a firsthand taste of the future, find GhostFood in a street-parked food truck near you! On what to expect, Simun slyly mentions: “We have GhostFood staff that we’ve hired to run the truck… our food is unique so our staff is trained in a special way too. Just as we imagine eating to be different in this GhostFood future, we imagine service to be different also.”

ghostfood-trailersketch

GhostFood makes its premiere at Pop Up Place for DesignPhiladelphia 2013’s benefit launch party // October 9th 6-9 pm. And be sure to catch the truck as it hits the streets for Marfa Dialogues/NY: October 11th 6-10 pm, October 12th 12-6 pm, and October 13th 11-4 pm @ Gallery Aferro, Newark, NJ // October 15th 6-8 pm @ Robert Rauschenberg Project Space, New York, NY.

Talking [Body]sense

Sophia PolaroidAs part of an ongoing personal exploration into art + the artistic process, and in preparation for the second ArtLab event, I sat down with actor // performance artist [and co-founder // creative director of arts company Our LadiesSophia Treanor to talk about her creative process. As a result, after my conversation with Sophia, I felt compelled to share some of her insights and experiences, as well as some of my own thoughts following our discussion.

As a starting point, can you talk about how your creative process begins? About how you begin getting into your creative body and mindset?

Attention and focus is the very broad methodology of beginning to compose a piece. That is, attention and focus to my own inner life—my intuition and my impulses—which for me personally are synonymous with the experience of living in my body … There’s this drastic difference between how I’m usually experiencing my day versus if I do some form of bringing all of that awareness into my body. I feel like my emotions, my intuition, my impulses of expression are embedded in my bones and muscles. So when I bring awareness to the experience of living inside my body, it feels like I’m waking up my entire spirit. It feels like my cells are actually changing and my brain is working differently … like my cells are literally waking up from being asleep and spider webs are clearing off my brain. Whether it’s pain or pleasure or ecstasy … it’s the holistic experience of being your body. That cellularly you are alive.

How does this inward sense of attention and focus in your practice change your relationship to your body and its impulses of movement?

Sophia TreanorOnce a teacher told me that every single impulse that you do not execute is stored … I experience that as being true in that the tensions in my body—my preoccupations—are where my work often starts … from areas that seem [to be holding] things that I’ve tried to quiet in my daily life or things I have shame about. There are definitely [parts of my body] that tighten up the fastest when I’m not in my creative practice. These are the places where I feel like it’s a problem that I’m not creating—I get physical pain from stagnation in those same areas. And then usually they’re the first places to warm up.

For me a big area of attention is my esophagus—the throat and the vocal chords producing sound and breathing. It feels like a blockage there and constriction … Often, a really big part of me trying to create work is going in and ironing into the crease. Instead of trying to go around the tenseness [in your body] or massage it, you go into the experience of it. You move into it in a way that almost makes it more extreme than it is. Or just to feel it as much as you can and work into the pain of it. Work into the meaning [of that tenseness] rather than backing off … so that you can transform it … It’s a mixture of art and therapy.

So how do you learn how to recognize that tenseness? Is it a sort of subconscious sense of understanding of what your body wants as you move?

sophia treanorI feel that creative impulses are existing all the time, which include physical impulses [of what I] could be doing right now if I wasn’t in a public setting and thinking about being appropriate. That is, submitting or tapping into what I just call a stream of impulses because they’re unending. They’re happening all the time, but the more I practice devoting my attention to them, the closer to the surface it is in my subconsciousness. So the easier it is to go into.

But then there’s also this beautiful duality between [on one hand] following these impulses … like what am I doing? Here I go I’m moving this way … And [on the other hand] really putting your focus on what you’re doing and asking your body what does it want? What feels good? I think moving on impulse and moving with focus can be combined into this really ecstatic thing.

Has there been a piece of work in the last year that has really affected your practice or your work more generally?

Sophia TreanorFor me, it was Einstein on the Beach. It is made of 20-minute segments and each segment is really repetitive in itself … It gives the audience the tiniest thing to watch for a very long time—tiny art. It made me look at sameness as a very dynamic thing … About how closely can you listen to one thing. How closely can we listen to the inner workings of our subconscious? Our body? Our intuition? And I think this is about attention … About sitting with something long enough to see subtlety and sitting with a repetition enough to take a different kind of journey.Because [a repeated action] will always change because nothing that is live or organic can happen the same way more than once … watching the same thing happen over and over and over and over again let’s you see the subtlety of the changes. That repetition as a singular event can tell you something about the entire group of repetitions. It gives you the ability—if you can keep your focus on it—to garner tons of information.


Being someone who almost exclusively occupies her head space, I have seldom given much thought to what it means to turn your awareness inside yourself, or what it takes to send your consciousness into your body. After our interview, Sophia was kind enough to show me how she brings her body and mind into her creative practice by moving into different parts of her body through a body scan. Afterwards, I went home and gave it a whirl, excited to get this body high she spoke of. Suffice it to say that even in the privacy of my own room, I felt extremely awkward and completely confused about what to do with myself. Why?

Part of the problem, I think, goes back to this idea that Sophia mentioned of “appropriateness”—about how we are conditioned to hold back many impulses of movement because they are deemed inappropriate for social life. This conditioning is rooted in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which weighs outcomes, forms judgments, and controls impulses + emotions. As we mature to adulthood, our pre-frontal cortex keeps track of the consequences of our actions to evaluate whether or not we should follow through with our impulses through a cost-benefit analysis. Because humans don’t exist in a social vacuum, our idea of what is okay to do and what is not are intimately tied to the reactions of others. So if mid-conversation you decided to roll around on the floor and someone looked at you funny, your pre-frontal cortex would make you reconsider the next time you felt so inclined.

Even alone in my room, my body just couldn’t shake what 24 years of appropriateness training had engrained into my mind. Instead, shedding these impulse-control mechanisms requires practice—an intentional reappropriation of certain impulses as being emotive // efective // meaningful rather than strange and inappropriate. This sort of contextual reconditioning requires a specific kind of attention + focus not only to what is happening at your pre-frontal cortex, but also to consciously drawing on other senses like the inner sense of the body’s position in space [proprioception], the sense of our body’s relationship to objects surrounding us [the body schema], and the body’s sense of motion [kinesthesia].

To tap into her body, Sophia rather amazingly has mastered her mind in a way that I had never before considered. What’s even more remarkable is how she translates this mastery into making art that moves on every conceivable level. Watching her transition to her creative practice was like watching a switch flip, almost as though her brain was rapidly re-wiring to take on this utterly expressive persona.

For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. This post marks the first in a series of conversations with artists. Stay tuned for more!!

Photographs by Maryam Zaringhalam.