What does it mean to eat in a neoliberal world? How are our food choices shaped by global infrastructures, particularly those constructed by the British Empire? And – most importantly – in what kind of space can we engage in dialogue and critique these structures usefully?
These were a few of the questions posed by Cooking Sections (artist duo Alon Schwabe and Daniel Fernández-Pascual) in their research project and public installation The Empire Remains Shop. The programme ran from August to November on Baker Street, collaborating with a wide range of artists and researchers to deliver a busy and interactive agenda of talks, exhibits and other events.
The initial inspiration was a series of ‘Empire Shops’ planned in London in the 1920s – a marketing project to make food products from the colonies available and well-known all over Britain. Interestingly, these stores never opened. But the ideologies that conceived of them pervaded the imperial world, and, so the Empire Remains argues, still fester today. What is left of the Empire in our food, our political systems and choices, our societies and environments?
The project straddles art, performance, geopolitics and many other disciplines and research perspectives. It took place on several levels, literally as well as figuratively, consisting not only of an interior exhibition space at 91-93 Baker St, but also of a ‘Shop Window’ downstairs at the contemporary art gallery and workspace The Koppel Project, bringing the project out of the museum and into the street. In early September, it showcased a large pink Caribbean barbecue/steel drum hybrid by contributing artist Blue Curry, and musicians and enthusiasts came daily to play on it. During Frieze week, the window became a makeshift spice shop where drag artist Shahmen Suku (or rather, his female alter-ego Radha La Bia) enticed passersby with his performance of creating lime pickles.
These investigations do not just entertain or delight the senses – they require a much sharper engagement, while still putting wit and playfulness at the centre of their critique. The first thing you noticed on entering the installation was ‘Under The Sea There Is A Hole’ – several hanging dining tables with large holes carved into them, mapping out the sinkholes that have transformed the landscape of the Dead Sea. On a number of unforgettable evenings, guests sat at these tables and dined on a ‘Climavore’ menu that envisioned a new kind of diet responding to sudden climatic and ecological shifts like drought, desertification and ‘invasive’ species. Nothing amusing about climate change, but the Empire Remains strikes a clever balance between poignancy and, simply put, fun.
Working at The Empire Remains Shop was a far cry from a typical arts internship. From researching banana plants to speed-peeling shrimp, tasks were diverse and challenging. More than anything, it was cheering. Amidst the political tumult of 2016, the Empire Remains offered a more positive exploration of how facts and meanings are constructed in our ‘post-truth’ world, and an animated community space to ask questions big and small.