Art veterans know that the standard formula for a biennial or triennial is a sprawling show crammed with the newest and hottest emerging artists, plus a few established figures and a wildcard or two. Such events present themselves as the definitive statement on the moment, even as they often rely upon the recycling of well-trodden curatorial tropes. However, the second edition of Los Angeles’s public-art triennial, CURRENT:LA FOOD, offered something distinctly different. It scattered works throughout the city, taking on the common yet compelling topic of food as its theme. Through all kinds of installations, performances and interactive projects, this unconventional triennial brought to the fore the many ways that food effects everything else that occurs in life. It was a show that presented the kind of experimentation one more typically sees in a healthy artistic practice than an exhibition.
Running for most of October, into early November, this second edition of CURRENT:LA presented public art in the most expansive sense—not as a sculpture in front of a museum that people pass by, but as something intimately interwoven into the city. With Asuka Hisa and Jamillah James of the local Institute of Contemporary Art as its lead curators, and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs as its main funder, the show involved interactive events at 16 public parks or spaces, and it brought viewers-turned-participants from all over the area, who almost always ended up with at least a little something to eat.
It was an egalitarian affair, in other words, and importantly, one that felt welcoming to newcomers to contemporary art. It was also ambitious in scale, with 15 commissioned artists and 15 public programmers, including organizations like Across Our Kitchen Tables, which offers skill-sharing symposiums on food-based work; Los Angeles’s Sustainable Economic Enterprises, which partners with farmers markets, public schools, and CalFresh EBT (the state’s food stamp program), to help spread access to healthy and sustainably grown food to more and more people in LA; and a “super” market called SÜPRSEED, whose self-described aim is to “end America’s ‘food apartheid.’”
With so many sites, artists, and programmers participating, summing it all up is a tall task, but a few highlights can show the interconnected and varied perspectives that were on view, and how they dealt with critical questions and conditions facing both California and the United States. Labor was central to the show, and its links to immigration, identity, history, nutrition, climate, and sustainability came out in a number of different ways from project to project.
The artistic collaborative Nonfood, an algae-based product company spearheaded by artist Sean Raspet and writer and researcher Lucy Chinen, installed an algae bioreactor on the grounds of an out-of-the-way Westside ranch. Here visitors could see the environmentally sustainable crop being farmed as it doubled in size every 24 hours. At certain events participants could harvest some of their own, attend edible workshops where participants learned to substitute algae and other sustainable plant-based proteins into familiar recipes, and co-mingle at a seed-themed educational picnic.
Also looking at sustainability concerns, but with an entirely different approach, were Carolyn Pennypacker and Annie Gimas, who used a public park in Van Nuys for a collaborative performance titled ALL AGAIN. The piece incorporated choral hymns, group choreography, found object installations made of aging fruit, and sculptural columns and baskets made of plaster to bring an enhanced and poetic awareness of the inevitable waste inherent within consumption. Like several of the projects in CURRENT:LA FOOD, it was a reoccurring performance that also provided a unique opportunity to use its site as an ongoing community composting hub that will likely continue long after the triennial.
Other pieces took a more historical approach, by touching on fields like geology and agriculture, as in the highly interactive work titled Mussel Beach, by the British duo Cooking Sections. Having been assigned Venice Beach as their point of intervention, the artists homed in on the famed weight-lifting area Muscle Beach. While researching its past, they learned that the Venice marina has long been a critical area for a particular California mussel species that is now seriously threatened due to longstanding environmental degradation. The duo carved out a route for their viewers that allowed them to see and experience all of the quintessential features of the coastal area. Retooling the now ubiquitous headsets offered at large museums for easy walk-along listening, Cooking Sections drafted an audio track to guide viewers through the beach, piers, boardwalk, skate park, workout areas, and eventually the rocky cliffs that the mussels cling to as they filter seawater. While they enjoyed the sea breeze and watched the locals buff up, an almost-robotic-sounding female voice asked its listeners to consider their own muscles and their surroundings, and pointed out the sights, adding in historical and agricultural facts where relevant. There was a hidden symmetry here, with the mussels exercising their valves to ingest nutrients and filter out pollutants and plastics, while the bodybuilders and “modders” were pumping iron and binging on green smoothies and protein shakes. That culinary touch inspired the artists to offer visitors mussel tacos and mussel-infused shakes that were lightly briny, frothy concoctions that straddled the ever-so-popular divide between savory and sweet.
Still other artists took the food brief to the public in unusual and inventive ways. Nancy Lupo installed a series of 16 benches titled Open Mouth, whose 32 rounded elements reference the number of an adult’s teeth. Open Mouth enveloped the entryways and exits of part of the bustling Pershing Square in downtown L.A. and used both the border created by the configuration of the benches and the activated space therein to consider the symbolic metabolism of the city, brought to life through staged performances and readings.
Similarly sculptural was — Imperishable, Jazmin Urrea’s Judd-esque clear plinth structures filled with crushed-up dark red Flamin’ Hot Cheeto dust that smeared and crackled as it continued to soak up the sun’s rays throughout the duration of the exhibition.
Not everything took such an oblique approach, though. For New Shores: The Future Dialogue Between Two Homelands, which was set in the centrally located Barnsdall Park in East Hollywood, Max La Rivière-Hedrick and Julio César Morales produced a weekly series of evening picnic gatherings that featured foods prepared on different themes and with ethnic histories that celebrate those immigrant communities that thrive in the neighborhood, including Korean, Armenian, Thai, and Mexican. The artists also invited special guests to share readings, poetry, music, screenings, and performances whose underpinnings further tied food to the cultural narratives woven into migration.
Why do a food triennial now, and why in L.A.? The world is getting fuller, and hotter, and we are seeing more droughts, fires, and floods that directly threaten crops and livestock, and that imbue individual food choices with political concerns. The city felt like an ideal place for it. Long stereotyped as the land of Del Taco and In & Out, it is home to the ever-flourishing cuisines of countless immigrant communities, and it has a burgeoning food scene at seemingly every price point. As for CURRENT:LA FOOD’s own finances, it appeared to be light on its feet—making a lot out of a little. There were none of the big-budget spectacles that so often dominate these events. It showed how a major exhibition like a triennial can function as something other than a donor-and-collector-oriented capitalist venture. Instead of a hulking display intent on minting markets for new artists, it operated in a fleeting, experiential mode, asking people to get together, to talk, and to eat.