Intimate Kitchens: Sharlene Bamboat Interviews Basil AlZeri

Sharlene Bamboat: Your work is very interactive, in that there needs to be an audience to activate it. Can you tell me why this is important to you?

Basil AlZeri: Yes, that is correct. I believe that the audience’s role is not only to activate the work, but also to witness it and become part of it. That is when an audience will have further responsibility than being “just spectators.” Having more responsibility means delving into the works, thinking about them, discussing them, and experiencing them with different senses, feelings, and personal reflection. I would like to call the audience “participants” with their own free will and interest, or more precisely, “guests.”

When you have guests over at your place, you would normally converse and discuss different topics back and forth, and you hope they show up with a plant, a bottle of wine or they would offer to wash the dishes, no? I like guests to feel comfortable, equal, and not only to witness the process and the making of the work, but also to consume, taste, and discard it – literally shit it out when they are done. The idea of the emancipated spectator has been a rich and a challenging issue for makers, artists, writers, poets, etc. to expand the dynamics of that relationship for the last decade. Guests/participants grasp the idea and realize how much power they have to build a work, contribute to it or even stop and interrupt it completely. Whether it is a site-specific and ephemeral installation, a performance in real time or public art work, it is more enjoyable to work with people rather than work for them.

Alzeri

SB: As you know, the work I produce with Bambitchell is somewhat similar in that we rely on audience members to bring their own experiences to the work. What are some of the challenges you face in doing so, especially because your physical body is front and centre to the work itself?

BA: Relying on audience members to bring their experiences is the most thrilling aspect of making the work. I rely on people to technically make the work or complete it (if there is such a thing as a completed work); I never really know what to expect or even imagine. The most beautiful thing about taking the risk and trusting guests is that I cease to assume what people know or think. The challenges can be positively surprising or the complete opposite. Sometimes you spend so much time and energy making an interactive or social work that turns out to be less effective at tapping into what most people are interested in. What if no one shows up or participates? They had better – that is what I call community support J! You might have to spell it out for them, hopefully without a mounted text on the wall.

SB: If I were to categorize your art practice, I would use “Social Practice” to describe your body of work. Do you think of yourself as a Social Practice artist? If so, why is this the “type” of art you have chosen to work in? How do you negotiate between theme and content when you are creating a new piece?

BA: Some of the work I create stems from the things I do, think about, and collect on a daily basis. Whether it is a clipping of my facial hair, Skype conversation with my family, or the dried herbs hanging everywhere in my kitchen. These slowly move toward what starts to be called art objects, installations, and performances for anyone and everyone who is interested in witnessing, seeing, participating, and discussing them publically. It is almost comforting to put most, if not all, of your cards on the table. I think it is so common that you translate your life into your practice. I am a very social being and that translates into the work I make; I invite people, facilitate projects, initiate conversations, and feed everyone. The urge to make social work, for lack of better term, stems from the constant need to be part of a society rather than being considered an outcast. I both love and despise the idea of the license given to artist to be the “mad outsider.” I think the urgency of making these works can dismiss this license and reverse the artist’s role into one that is significant and impactful.

I am also constantly shifting between mediums and project ideas to try to pin down a definitive description of my practice. But why not? I am not against it. It is a natural effort – it is sense of responsibility that I have as an artist and art worker. I do it because it is the best way I can manifest my ideas.

SB: Your work speaks to the connection between food and art. Could you talk a little bit about that? Specifically “The Mobile Kitchen Lab” and “Dinner Party Performance Series.” What do you see as the relationship between your art practice and food? Why do you use food/eating/consumption as a way to speak about politics?

BA: Sometimes I think that I started using food as a reflexive medium, or as an entry point to invite more people into conceptual or intangible practices. Everyone eats, cooks to some degree, needs food on a daily basis, and sits around and shares meals with family, friends, significant others, etc. So it is this thing that feels opposite to conceptual contemporary art, because it is so accessible and familiar. But then what do I do with it from there? Do I use it as a medium, a material, a performance prop, an evolving sculpture? And that is when I start to blur these lines between food as subject or object; is it either one of these or both?

I also really love working with food because it is extremely familiar and closely handled by most people, which completely obliterates the preciousness of objects in museums and galleries and the value that is usually placed on such objects. I have been asked by a number of organizations and performance art festivals to create meals for these events as art projects. At the end of the day, they want nice, filling, tasty meals that are not too expensive.

The Mobile Kitchen Lab (T.M.K.L.) is an ongoing series of food-based performances that negotiates issues of generosity, labour, and land exploitation between authenticity and appropriation, private tradition and public archive. The project is particularly concerned with how these interplays manifest cross-culturally. Guided via Skype by my mother, Suad, I cook a traditional Palestinian meal for the assembled audience. Cooking it takes several hours, and as I cook, the private conversations of the guests combine with the didactic culinary dialogues that my mother and I conduct in Arabic.

T.M.K.L. universally acknowledges nations that have been strategically appropriated. I foreground Palestinian cultural cuisine as it manifests in everyday familial acts of sustenance and tradition, where I can perform and stand behind the work to include other nations. I also embody the role of the trivialized and unrecognized laborer long occupied by mothers, slaves and marginalized minorities. To date, I have presented this project in Mexico City in 2012 at EX Teresa Arte Actual Museum of Contemporary Art, in Toronto in 2013 at Xpace Cultural Centre/FADO, and at VIVA ART ACTION in Montreal in 2013. Each installment of the series is site-specific. The menu is designed in advance to appropriately respond to the community served.

For the project’s inauguration in Mexico City, my mother suggested that I cook Mujudarah, a simple, popular, and affordable dish. The dish is officially called the Nazareth Mujudarah because it originated in the city of Nazareth, which is famous for being the city of Jesus’s exile from Bethlehem. The museum that hosted the project was a repurposed church and convent. We thought that the dish’s history would complement the museum’s, and make a link between the origins of the dish and the prominent Catholic culture in Mexico City. My presentation of the project in Toronto consisted of a performance installation as well as two-day cooking workshop with Suad. The workshops afforded audiences the opportunity to learn to cook authentic Palestinian recipes in an intimate environment. For the iteration in Montreal, I cooked different recipes each day for the 100-120 attendees of a five-day performance art festival. I did this completely behind the scenes. Consequently, I performed and presented publicly “T.M.K.L EXTENDED” on the sixth and final day of the festival. The Mobile Kitchen Lab was also presented in PERFLINK in Santiago, Chile in 2013, Concordia University Talk Series in 2014, and most recently at Owens Art Gallery/Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick.

In “The Dinner Party Performance series 2007-2012” I produced an everyday social and survival activity into an interactive event. These performances were Mezze-style dinners in which I presented the guests with an array of Palestinian recipes in tiny dishes resting on top of my body. Lying facedown on the table, the uncomfortable shifting body of the cook became an antidote against the commodity fetishism of foodie culture. The latest “Dinner Party Performance” piece was developed and presented at the Don Blanche Residency in 2012 and 2013.

SB: Your work acknowledges the ways in which certain labour practices are gendered. How does your art practice, which exists very publicly, address the private role of cooking and food preparation historically inhabited by women?

BA: Given my interest and practice dealing with work, workers, food, and labour recognition, I started to think of how to personalize these works. I thought of asking my Mom, Suad, to guide me through traditional Palestinian dishes via Skype, while presenting The Mobile Kitchen Lab and bring her UNDER-RECOGNIZED and UNDOCUMENTED expertise on cooking to the forefront. When my Mom appears during the performance, she is usually projected on the largest surface in that space, our conversation in Arabic is projected through the speakers, and her commands and instructions will have to be followed. I thought of bringing this “common” practice, asking mothers and grandmothers how to make certain dishes, from private spaces to the public and share it with whoever is interested in learning about the dishes, culture, and historical events connected to that food and the bodies that make it.

I have presented The Mobile Kitchen Lab: Shore to Shore in Sackville, New Brunswick in September 2014, and as part of You Are What Eat, You Are, a symposium and group public project with the Owens Art Gallery/Mount Allison University. Some of the most interesting post-comments were that they felt that they learnt a lot about me as a person and as an artist after witnessing my personal dynamic and interaction with my mother, Suad.

SB: Laila El-Haddad was recently in Toronto for the Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF) speaking about Gazan food, history, and culture. Could you speak a little bit about that in relation to your art practice?

BA: Yes! I met Laila El-Haddad in Toronto recently; she is a powerhouse who is extremely eloquent and knowledgeable. I recognize the importance of her work in terms of researching, documenting, and archiving Gazan/Palestinian cuisine, and her role as a journalist, activist, and cook. I think El-Haddad’s research and published book will become an imperative reference source for my continued food-based projects. I find it extremely interesting and poignant to introduce and discuss the Palestinian plight, history, culture, and current situation in relation to food, ingredients, and resources. Although we approach the topic differently, there are a lot of parallels in the work we do.

Image Credit: Guy L’Heureu. The Mobile Kitchen Lab: Extended, 2013 VIVA ART ACTION, Montreal 

Sharlene Bamboat is a Toronto-based, mixed-media artist. Shaped by a queer framework, her work calls into question narratives of citizenship and nation building. Through a re-examination of history, Bamboat elicits tongue-in-cheek performative videos and installations to question our contemporary moment marked by colonialism and neoliberalism. Bamboat regularly works in collaboration with artists and academics. Her most regular collaborative partner is artist Alexis Mitchell, and together they form Bambitchell. Bamboat’s work has been exhibited internationally. She is on the programming committee of the Pleasure Dome Film & Video Collective, sits on the board of VTape, and is the Artistic Director of SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre). www.sharlenebamboat.com and www.bambitchell.com

Basil AlZeri is visual artist working in site-specific/real-time performance art, public installation, food-based, and educational projects. AlZeri’s work has been exhibited in Toronto (FADO, Nuit Blanche 2011, Whipper Snapper Gallery), Quebec – Montreal (Fait Maison 14, VIVA! ART ACTION, SBC Contemporary Art Gallery Montreal), Ottawa (Ottawa Art Gallery/Creative Cities Conference), Mexico (Transmuted International Performance Art Festival, Performancear O Morir), Santiago, Chile (PERFOLINK International Performance Art Festival), and Sackville, New Brunswick (The Owens Art Gallery). Upcoming projects will take place at 7A11D, Toronto, and The City Of Ottawa, Ontario Scene 2015 – Community Art and Social Engagement program. www.basilalzeri.com