'GhostFood' looks like a food truck, but its primary offerings are taste experiences of flavors that may soon be unavailable: chocolate, peanut butter and fried cod
BY MEGAN KAMERICK
If the concept of climate change seems too abstract and theoretical, ponder this: Global warming could mean losing chocolate, coffee and peanut butter.
That possibility makes me want to curl up in the fetal position and cry. I know there are far worse things in the offing owed to climate change. But when environmental crises impact some of my favorite foods, it somehow seems more real than faraway glaciers melting, raising sea levels.
But take heart and keep an open mind. Artist Miriam Simun offers an alternative to this bleak future with her “GhostFood” installation at the 516 ARTS Habitat block party. Then again, Simun’s interactive art may lead you into a deeper funk.
“GhostFood” looks like a food truck. But its primary offerings are taste experiences of flavors that may soon be unavailable: chocolate, peanut butter and fried cod. “Customers” are fitted with a device that anchors itself around the ears and rests under the nose. This contraption delivers the scent of a food while participants eat something that’s assuredly not that food.
“Olfactory senses are the ones most evolved and highly tuned,” says Simun. “For humans, we don’t have much language developed around it, so it’s often not a conscious thing.”
Simun is based in Brooklyn, and the “GhostFood” project was commissioned in 2013 by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for the multi-site exhibition Marfa Dialogues/NY. “GhostFood” was presented by a New Jersey gallery where there’s a large Portuguese population with a history of fishing. That was one reason Simun and collaborator Miriam Songster focused on cod. It’s also one of many ocean species vulnerable to climate change.
As for peanuts, they won’t disappear but they can become toxic to humans. According to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, excessive heat and drought can lead to soil fungi causing aflatoxin contamination.
And chocolate … The Guardian actually used the phrase “peak chocolate” this year. That’s because the areas where cacao beans are grown are increasingly stressed by climate change. Farming and production could be moved elsewhere, but that’s likely to take a long time; in the meantime, chocolate could become a very expensive commodity.
Then again, you could strap on Simun’s creation – composed of 3D-printed nylon and a flexible copper component – and sip milk through a straw while inhaling chocolate vapor through your nose. It’s just like the real thing. Sort of …
Simun admits it’s not necessarily an uplifting process. “The project is in a funny place where we’re creating a novel and interesting experience and also using a satirical method to ask if this is the way we want to go about dealing with these [climate change] issues,” she says.
Simun had to carefully consider the texture of the other two substances. Our sense of smell is acute, but when a texture is off, our brains know something’s not right. On the “GhostFood” truck, vegan algae protein stands in for cod, and a sticky, soy-based substance comprises the peanut butter. These pairings are meant to mimic the mouth feel of the real thing.
The “GhostFood” experience makes climate change and mass extinction feel quite intimate, and that’s the idea. “It’s a phenomenon that’s larger than our experience. So we feel we can’t do anything because we can’t wrap our heads around the size and the enormity and the time scale,” Simun says.
This is “GhostFood’s” first foray outside the East Coast, and it’s part of a larger exhibit at 516 ARTS called “Habitat: Exploring Climate Change Through the Arts.” Nancy Zastudil, curator of Habitat exhibit “Knew Normal,” says she included “GhostFood” because it challenges assumptions about the way we live and consume.
“It is art that provides a direct experience with new interpretations of and possibilities for what we think we already know,” Zastudil says. “It is visible, tangible and smellable.” She calls the contraption visitors wear to experience aromas “dining jewelry” and has included one in the “Knew Normal” exhibit. This insect-like appendage embodies the themes of the exhibit.
Environments, including the human body, become more difficult or awkward to inhabit for reasons attributed to climate change, Zastudil says. On one hand, it’s an optimistic look at human ingenuity and capacity to adapt. On the other, it’s a sobering look at the future, says Zastudil.
516 Arts’ Teresa Buscemi directs the block party where “GhostFood” appears on Sept.12. Simun’s concept struck her as a great way to spark dialog about climate change. “Having something people can experience firsthand is important,” Buscemi says. “It becomes a very personal interaction.”
Other interactive projects at the block party include artist Mark Lee Koven’s climate-controlled dome with imagery and hands-on experiences to stimulate discussion of climate change. Artist Abbey Hepner’s bioluminescent algae project prompts discussion about alternative ways to generate light.
There will be music and actual food trucks – including Food Karma, which asks that people “pay what they feel” – at the party. A project called Leftovers will serve up dishes created from unsold food from that day’s Downtown Grower’s Market. It’s certainly a better way to eat leftovers compared with scavenging in dumpsters. Then again, dumpsters may well be part of our climate-challenged future.
Megan Kamerick is an independent radio and print journalist and producer at New Mexico PBS.