Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
“Activating the City,” a new exhibition in Seoul, looks at how the distribution and consumption of food shapes urban areas across the globe.
There’s a lot to unpack on the topic of gastronomy. That’s the nebulous term for the study of the equally hazy phrase “good food,” and it’s spawned multiple subcategories like molecular gastronomy, gastrodiplomacy, and urban gastronomy.
That last category piqued the interest of the Seoul-based curator Bora Hong when she was asked to guest curate a exhibition on gastronomy for Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. “Activating the City: Urban Gastronomy” features over a dozen interactive projects—including live roundtable discussions with notable chefs, plus designs for portable kitchens and bikes—from artists and community leaders.
There’s a heavy emphasis on street food culture, with installations looking at the ubiquity of food carts and street vendors despite their murky legality, and how communities are taking food mobility into their own hands. Other pieces also explore the intersection between food, art, and space. The show digs in to how ordinary citizens shape cities through the distribution of food.
A citizen’s approach to food mobility
The first leg of Hong’s research for the exhibit took her Helsinki’s annual Restaurant Day festival, billed as a food carnival where “anyone can open a restaurant.” That led to the exhibit’s first project: a series of interviews with community organizers who are helping to make food more accessible in the city.
In the video above, Hong’s former intern Joosung Kang chats with Timo Santala, the creator of Restaurant Day. The event is a way for people to experience running their ideal pop-up food business. For just a few days each year since 2011, at a local park or a street, Santala invites people of all backgrounds—from entrepreneurs to food enthusiasts—to come up with a restaurant concept and operate it from start to finish. Participants decide what and how they want to sell, be it from a bike or stand or food truck, and what their hours will be.
“You can try out something that wouldn’t be commercially viable or would be too crazy for a business but suddenly, it can turn into a business,” Santala says in the video, adding that it helped turn his sister’s baking hobby into a functional catering company.
The event is as much an event to bring the community together as it is a medium to highlight the city’s heavy regulations of food trucks and pop-up restaurants amid escalating rents. “For you to actually rent a restaurant, a coffee [shop] space, or a store space, it’s very high cost—especially in the center area where most of the customers are,” Santala says in the interview, adding that in just two years, the city of Helsinki went from having just one food bike to more than 20. “The biggest change in Helsinki is that … people have much more of an open attitude of what you can do in the city and in the public space,” Santala says. The Restaurant Day movement has since spread to over 75 countries as far away as Mexico, Ukraine, and Tanzania.
How artists hacked New York City’s food culture
In some ways, Restaurant Day bears a resemblance to a provocative, 1970s-era project called “Food.” Hong’s exhibit brings back a 1972 film about the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark and his experimental artists’ collective restaurant in New York City’s Soho neighborhood. It served affordable food for the city’s struggling artist community, and did so with flair. Guest chefs and artists served up sushi, bone marrow, and rabbit stew. The dinners themselves were an art installation, too; one gathering involved participants wearing the leftover bones from their soup as jewelry.
The project ran for three years as an alternative to the typical New York establishment. But as it grew more popular, with artists but also the wealthy, it became just another eatery—one that didn’t profit. The themes and ideas ran counter to mainstream culture of the ‘70s, but as the New York Times noted, the restaurant pioneered the trends that define much of the city’s current culinary scene:
But many of the vaguely countercultural ideas fostered there — fresh and seasonal foods, a geographically catholic menu, a kitchen fully open to the dining room, cooking as a kind of performance — have now become so ingrained in restaurants in New York and other large cities that it is hard to remember a time when such a place would have seemed almost extraterrestrial.
The public service of street vendors
The artist Jorges Mañes Rubio is known for using art to comment on communities that have been overlooked by the rest of society. Among his most recent projects, for example, is a traveling museum attempting to change the way the design community views slums in India. For Hong’s exhibit, Rubio highlights the pervasiveness of street vendors and their contribution to cities, despite the fact that many operate illegally.
“I see street food stalls and street food markets as one of the last and most interesting and necessary appropriations of public space in our cities,” he tells CityLab in an email.
Street Food Lighting projects videos of food carts and open-air restaurants from countries like Morocco, Italy, and China onto the museum’s walls. In the original project, which won him second place in the 2012 Dutch Design Competition, these projections were spread out through the alleyways of Eindhoven, once considered the most dangerous city in the Netherlands.
Rubio’s videos carry the message that street vendors do more for the city than just serve food. “Their light and environment make our streets a better place,” he says. “We are all equal when we eat at one of these places. We become part of … a very basic human exchange around the most authentic and basic food from each culture or city.”
Designing for food mobility
As cities move toward a car-free future, bikes have become one of the preferred modes of transportation—a versatile and low-tech tool for urban sustainability. For the Korean artist Jongbuhm Kim, though, bicycles can do much more. As part of his Lifecycle project, Kim redesigns bicycles and customizes them to the needs of different professions, from painters to green activists to baristas. The “Bici Coffee,” which is part of Hong’s exhibit, features a mobile cafe that can be wheeled from one street to another and easily set up. It features a wooden box attached to the end of the bike, which carries all the necessary equipment—mugs, a sandwich board, coffee bean grinders, and beans—and can turn into a small table.
Often, endeavors like this get lumped into the hipster culture that’s as adored as it is despised. But Hong says labeling today’s food scene as a hipster thing is sugarcoating a real problem. “It's actually rooted in the problem of low incomes and [high] real estate,” she says. “You just can't have your own land anymore and loyal customers all the time.”
“Luckily,” she adds, “we have these brilliant designers and youngsters who use this as an opportunity instead of [a point of] frustration.”
“Activating the City: Urban Gastronomy” is on view at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, South Korea, through March 19, 2017.