On February 7, Oakland-based artist Lexa Walsh brought together twelve individuals for a home-cooked meal and recipe exchange to facilitate conversation and community. Called Meal Ticket, the public event was held in conjunction with Make Things (Happen), an exhibition I organized featuring 45 artist-created activity sheets, which is currently on view at Interface Gallery through March 1. Afterwards, I was inspired to ask Lexa more about her practice.
Christine Wong Yap: At the start of Meal Ticket, you mentioned a key concept of your practice. Can you describe “hospitable democracy,” and how it came about?
Lexa Walsh: A few years ago, I took a great class with Havana-born, New York-based artist Tania Bruguera for Portland State University’s (PSU) Art and Social Practice grad program. She insisted we all find key words to describe our practice that would be new word combinations in the end, like her use of “Useful Art” (Arte Útil). I searched for something that could describe my diverse practice. In the end, I realized most of my projects try to be hospitable and make democratic spaces for participation and collaboration—for amateurs and experts, artists and laypeople—in the form of conversation, songwriting, critique, meal sharing, resource sharing, etc. Voila: Hospitable Democracy.
CWY: When I think about my experience of Meal Ticket, I realize I came away with three things: beautiful food, an uncommon exchange and dialogue with a stranger, and ephemera (a recipe book and a screen printed placemat). What is the significance of each of these elements to you?
LW: Each Meal Ticket differs depending on the context. In this case, it was pretty simple: the joy and essence of sharing a nice meal, the role of the host as curator of an experience (both sensorially with the food and experientially with the conversation), and then the recipe exchange as a conversation starter. Through the discussion of recipes—a set of instructions—we discuss our cultures, families, and belief systems. I propose we are all equals and become a community in the temporary utopia of a luncheon, and through the cookbook. Community cookbooks have a long legacy as collective memoirs of place and culture that help identify and celebrate communities. They have given voices to voiceless individuals; they published many women for the first and only times in their lives. For Meal Ticket, the cookbook is mainly for the primary audience: the diners. When I do a series of meals, all participants become part of that community.
It gets really interesting where the context is more political, with seating charts and recipes spanning social, cultural, and financial boundaries. Two examples are at Portland Art Museum—a series of 12 meals with all levels of staff sharing meals in the boardroom—and in New Smyrna Beach, FL—12 meals that had to be moved around to accommodate a racially diverse but segregated town. Meal Ticket is most effective in contexts where barriers need to be broken down.
As for the placemats: I am trying to make stuff again after a five-year hiatus from making objects!
CWY: You’re currently an Artist in Residence at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. It was once a fairly traditional printmaking studio; now it welcomes many media and practices. What inspired you to make objects—and specifically, prints—again?
LW: I stopped making objects after an amazing 2009 studio visit with Nashville-based artist Mel Ziegler, who suggested my objects were “accessorizing” the real essence of my work. I have a background in sculpture and performance, so I had no problem challenging myself to a “year without objects.” That turned into five years, until I realized my practice consisted of emails and meetings. I wanted to get back to that feeling of making. Since I’d mostly been outsourcing printed ephemera, I thought it would be fun to get into the craft of making multiples. I’ve been having a really hard time, though! What does it mean to make an image or an object? Why bother? What are the stakes when dealing with craftsmanship? These are questions running through my head now, as I am simultaneously enjoying making objects.
CWY: The placemat bears something like an epigraph for the meal. It ends by affirming that “failure is always an option.” What do you hope to convey?
LW: I love failure! Failure is a place from which to move forward, to learn, to experiment, and to get sidetracked in potentially interesting ways. I have gained a lot from failing. I know a lot of artists and others who fear it, but I think we should embrace it.
CWY: In addition to being an artist, you work as a chef. These skills clearly help with your food-related projects. In what other ways does being a chef parallel artistic activity—say, as a facilitator of socially-related projects? Yet providing food is also related to providing a service, suggesting a different type of relationship to participants. How do you think about these parallels and relationships?
LW: It’s funny because I refused to combine food and art until my second year of graduate school. They just were separate for me. I had a great Graduate Assistantship as Program Caterer. Everyone wondered why I wouldn’t start incorporating food into my practice. The first Meal Ticket was born from that pressure.
It is so true that chef skills are useful, because as a social practitioner, I basically plan events as my practice. It’s good to have skills such as organization, time management, hospitality, etc. Service is always a part of my practice, but so is facilitating and curating.
CWY: You, as well as others, recommended several PSU alum for the expanded version of the project in Oakland: Ariana Jacob, Betty Marín, Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed, for example. I’m curious about what seems like a small world of social practitioners. In what ways is this emergent field establishing conventions? What do you see as the most exciting frontiers?
LW: I’m not sure there’s anything unconventional or new from this ‘emerging’ field—there’s so much tied into both art history and the practices of a variety of fields, into which we dip our hands, such as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, Mierle Ladermen Ukeles’ Maintenance Works, Adrian Piper’s Calling Cards, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, Fluxus, Group Material, Allison Knowles’ Salad, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food, and the contemporary Erwin Wurm. There are many people I look back to for my own practice, as well as to envision the larger field.
What seems interesting is when or when not to call it art. What are the benefits? What avenues can be traversed by calling it art and vice versa? I think artists are doing great projects in fields like disability/accessibility, museum education, and activism. For example, Vancouver-based Carmen Papalia, another PSU cohort member, addresses accessibility in museums with a tour in which participants describe the work to him (he is visually impaired). Projects by Los Angeles-based collective Machine Project and Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light program inject the once-unthinkable into museums: scholarly play, dancing, cheers, music, debates, wrestling, sleepovers, plant babysitting, orienteering, celebrating immigrant labor, and more. I think it also gets interesting when artists collaborate with people from other fields. Some of the most exciting artists are those who have worked in other fields before identifying as artists.
Lexa Walsh’s Make Things (Happen) contribution is an activity sheet that describes the Meal Ticket process. You can download it or pick one up at Interface Gallery through March 1.