research narratives in artistic ecology
What can we learn about our immediate environment from studying the food that is advertised, bought, sold, found or discarded? Traces of food reveal clues to social, economic and cultural circumstances of a given place. Demographic changes, gentrification, globalization, prosperity and economic recession can all be read in the price of coffee at the local convenience store, plastic wrappers on the sidewalk or the frequency of hot dog stands, bubble tea vendors or artesian cheeses. Food as a concept can also be extended to non-human urbanophiles such as rats, pigeons, foxes and cockroaches, as well as the ecological niches they inhabit. When Nicola Twilley of Columbia University’s Studio X was invited to give a talk at the BMW Guggenheim Lab she invited me to collaborate on a workshop about Berlin’s changing foodscape. According to Twilley, who has researched and written on a range of topics from the emergence of cupcake shops to chewing gum depositions as social data, “maps can be used as a spatial diagnostics, enabling food detectives to spot patterns and test correlations.” While the data we collected only scratched the surface of the already controversial circumstances of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, the workshop was meant to open people up to new ways of experiencing the urban environment and thinking about food. Given more time to collect and analyze data, the workshop methods could be adapted for scientific study on the relationship between social phenomena, individual perception, and food.
All photos by Geoff Manaugh
Afternoon workshop at the BMW Guggenheim Lab, July 2012
In a series of mails and skype calls leading up to the workshop, Nicola Twilley and I brainstormed about global urban dining trends, and food phenomena unique to Berlin, from the “holdovers” of the GDR days, to latest trends such as bubble tea and cupcakes, to the emergence of small-scale urban agriculture groups involved in the revival of heirloom root vegetables. On one of the last days of the Guggenheim Lab, we offered an afternoon workshop to explore the immediate edible landscape, or foodscape. To display the results of the workshop, we painted a large table-map of the area surrounding area using coffee and a place setting of workshop materials: data collection instructions rolled up as napkins, and paper plates and cups to collect “edible evidence”. The area of investigation stretched from Prenzlauerallee in the east, Brunnenstrasse in the west, to Danzigerstrasse in the north and Torstrasse in the south. Workshop participants separated into small groups and set out on a 45-minute food-safari around the neighborhood. Each person was given a similar map of the area and worksheets with different tasks to document the local food phenomena. Each group had one special assignment focusing on, for example, nutrition and perception, the place of origin of foods, a “junk-wild” gradient of different ingredients, and the time based availability of foods over diurnal, seasonal and decadal time periods.
Der Preis ist Heiß (the price is right) asked participants to record different prices of coffee, beer, and brötchen as well as their locations on the map. Prices ranged from 80 cents to 3.50 for coffee. Beer prices fluctuated according to their point of sale, which was generally cheaper in all-night convenience stores called “Spätis” and more expensive in restaurants. Price fluctuation could also be attributed to neighborhood boundaries between Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg and the proximity to bus stops and train stations. Surprisingly, a veritable staple of German food culture, the Brötchen, was the hardest thing to locate. While Brötchen are albeit more available in morning hours, it seemed that small bakeries, which appear more frequently in other neighborhoods, may have given way to sandwich shops, cafes and restaurants.
The “Prenzlauer Plate,” was a fun way to map the neighborhood according to the dining recommendations of people encountered on the street. Participants jotted down restaurants and cafes on paper plates, which were then arranged, banquet-style, on the larger coffee-map table back at the workshop. Recommendations included das Pfeffer, located directly on the site of Pfefferberg building complex where the workshop took place.
The goal of “Edible Bingo” was to collect photographs and “edible evidence” such as food scraps and packaging or edible weeds for categories such as sites where food could be grown or scavenged, mobile food/drink vendors, and food resources for non-humans. Examples of the five major food groups were also marked on the map using stickers. To stimulate the senses, participants were finally asked to record where they were every ten minutes, what they smelled, and if they could locate the source and character of the smells.
Further details of results, as well as archives of other awesome food-related stories, can be found on Nicola’s edible geography blog. Thanks to Geoff Manaugh for all the photos, to Nicola for the invitation to collaborate, and to all those who came out to map with us!