Tracing Backwards – a conversation with Cooking Sections
I first met Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe) while they were visiting Aotearoa in 2018. They were here to research for an iteration of The Empire Remains Shop; an ongoing project seeking to use food trade as means to illustrate the impact of the British Empire. “Empire shops” were first developed in London in the 1920s to teach the British to consume foodstuffs from the colonies and overseas territories. Using research-based methodologies like this to trace the legacy of colonisation through food systems is typical of how Cooking Sections work. Their practice seeks to uncover and question the globally-networked way we produce and consume; in doing so illuminating the political implications of our food systems. Another of their projects—CLIMAVORE—uses multiple case studies to ask the question; how should we eat in response to the various precarious conditions of climate change? For instance; how might the CLIMAVORE eat in response to conditions of drought? Polluted waterways? Arid land? Global pandemic? I was interested to talk with Daniel and Alon about how COVID-19 has exposed or amplified issues that have long been central to their practice.
To begin, how are you? Where are you? How are you coping with quarantine and the general vibe it’s created?
Hi, we’re Cooking Sections, I’m Daniel, and this is Alon, and we are quarantined in London. The lockdown here has been almost two months of staying at home. I guess we’re a bit lucky, compared to others, because here we’ve continued to be able to go outside for exercise and sunlight once a day, and more recently that restriction has been lifted too.
For us, the enforced slow-down period has been quite good—it’s opened up other forms of productivity. So we can’t complain too much.
Your practice is concerned with tracing aspects of our food systems, often exposing ruptures in those systems to talk about the impact of human intervention on the natural order of things. I was wondering if you could talk to how you see COVID-19 as both an outworking of, and a symptom of these concerns?
What has become very clear from the outset with COVID-19 is that it’s not only a health crisis, but first and foremost it’s an environmental crisis. If you look at disease outbreaks that have happened in recent years but also throughout history, they have so much to do with our environment, and the intensification of agriculture and meat production, and human encroachment on various ecologies. So, in that sense, although our practice doesn’t work directly with issues surrounding epidemiological questions, this whole thing very much centers on the larger questions that are central to our practice.
If you look at epidemics—from HIV, SARS, and others—in every case there is some sort of connection to either mono-culture, or to deforestation, or other issues traceable to forms of colonisation that have all pushed people to inhabit and farm places that they have never been before— rainforests, or other regions where suddenly we are in contact with animals, parasites and bacteria in new ways. And in the case of mono-cultures, we are creating conditions were too many animals are in close proximity to one another. So, relating this back to our practice, though we’ve not worked directly with such questions of epidemiology, there is an implicit relevance for us relating to food practices that at the end of the day are very landscape-consuming.
I’ve been thinking about the breaking points caused by the intensifying practices you refer to—how they are often weirdly poetic, in the way that they reflect back on the culture that made them.
Yeah, totally, because talking about moments of fracture; COVID-19 is materializing or making visible practices that have been going on for decades. And so in this case, the revelation occurs through the event of the virus. What’s always been important for us is to take these fractures, and trace them backwards, and to ask why, and then to begin to look for opportunities to move forward to new horizons.
This also makes me consider dominant narratives in the media like; ‘experts have been waiting for an event like this to happen’; a ‘once in a generation event’. To me, this speaks to the brokenness of our systems as well; that such narratives have an in-built, foregone conclusion element; if we live in this way, if we encroach on forests, create mono-cultures, we can expect such eventualities to bleed out from these practices.
Definitely. And we will see that happening more and more, as some people are anticipating new outbreaks due to those forms of encroachment. This might be just the beginning.
You mentioned the act of tracing backwards, asking why, and then moving forward, what is an example of this process playing out in one of your projects?
In Mussel Beach for instance, the project started by looking at the origins of Muscle Beach in Venice, California. What began as a misunderstanding in the spelling of two homophone words, eventually led us to understand the role of muscles and mussels in the historical inhabitation of the coast of Los Angeles. The bivalves took us through the displacement of the Kizh Nation, colonisation in different periods, disease, wetland draining, oil extraction, water pollution, emergence of the environmentalist movement, racial inequality, eugenics and body building. All these processes unpacked the politics of bodies being ‘fit’ for society, and how mussels and muscles are closely linked together. Mussels can indeed throw a light on a new vision for coastal ecology to address marine destruction of underwater habitats in California. They will hopefully work it out in the end.
During the various forms of quarantine enforced globally, while many systems have been halted to greater or lesser degrees, food systems obviously remain an essential service. But do you think this new context has allowed aspects of these systems to be exposed in new or more overt ways?
With the virus, we’ve heard a lot in the media about the wet-markets in Wuhan, and how contact with so-called exotic animals might have been enhancing the spread of the virus (which is all still debatable, apparently). But what has also been published is that very close to Wuhan, there has been the construction of the Three Gorges Dam that has completely changed the course of the water right outside Wuhan. So, you have to question to what extent this has also affected bats, worms or bacteria, or pushed farmers to go into other forms of trade that are now their only way of survival. All of these questions are interconnected, and what is interesting is that food practices form a major part of all of it.
If you think about all of this in parallel with the work we are doing in Scotland, we have been hearing from marine scientists that Scottish fisherman who have relied on exporting their lobsters and shrimp to France and Spain for decades, now find their livelihoods in jeopardy. All the restaurants they export to closed due to the virus; there is a rupture in the system. So the shrimps and lobsters are very happy in the sea. In this case, like so many others, the international trade market gets disrupted, to the point where these fishermen figure out that maybe they have to start selling produce locally, because there’s a demand there too. And this makes total sense, but the local demand wasn’t there before; there wasn’t an awareness to support local fisherfolk. But also it’s a case of a new willingness to source more food locally, as opposed to bringing it from the other side of the planet. All these issues and questions continue to swirl around food distribution and food consumption, but it’s also interesting to consider how peoples view of such issues have been transformed in this context.
Another example that is happening now in our current state of lockdown is certain types of grains are becoming harder to source. So in the UK, there has been a renewed interest in heirloom varieties of grains that can resist weather in different ways to what modern wheats can (wheats that were imported in the 1980’s, or engineered for a certain type of productivity, or artificially selected). So it’s some sort of… I don’t want to call it a revival… but at least an awareness about the connection between climate, weather and some of these heirloom varieties that have developed in theory over hundreds or thousands of years.
You mentioned earlier that the enforced slow-down of lockdown has opened up new forms of productivity for you. How else do you see this context shifting your practice, especially the on-location aspect of it?
With our project in Skye, we have been trying to think of alternatives to what we had been doing; performative events; collaborations with restaurants; all of which is at least partly reliant on on-site activity. So in these last months it’s been really interesting to actually expand the project remotely. We’ve been pushing different frameworks to expand the project in the short term. We’ve reached out to marine scientists that are now also willing to engage in projects like ours and rethink the way they work under this new environment. Much of this has been working with such experts to start planning and putting together applications for projects that model alternative aquaculture on the islands. These new possibilities for collaboration have come out of the fact we’ve had the time to reflect upon the project and lingering questions we had. So this is a new way of working that was always in our head, but in the past our collaborations with such experts has more been 1-1 interviews and conversations. So to actually bring a team of multi-disciplinary practitioners together to apply for funds that might allow the project to have a longer legacy has been very positive.
To zoom out a little, again, though we don’t have a specific focus on the epidemiological aspect of this crisis, it all links to the issues of climate crisis— the ecological breakdowns that we are experiencing. Therefore, the issues central to COVID-19 are completely entwined with the work we do. So maybe with this crisis, there’s a shift of the lens for us, without necessarily changing our areas of research.
You have said in the past - ‘we don’t think we provide solutions because we don’t have them. Our social and political interventions question and problematize certain situations.’ I think about this often also in my own practice; is the aim to make work that serves as actionable in some way? As manifestos? Or as laments directed at the state of things?
Yeah definitely, we don’t aim to offer solutions to contexts, but more to pose new questions. So if we identify certain situations, or certain actors that are involved in certain practices; could we offer alternative ways of thinking to that context, or offer new horizons to work towards. Or try different actions to perhaps introduce some little thing that becomes the catalyst for change. And that’s all trial and error.
Also, I don’t think that our approach is going to change anything. It’s like COVID-19; this is not a situation where it’s as simple as saying here is the problem here is the solution. But what it does do is prompt us to reorganise and change our practices and our relationship to the environment; the pressure we put on nature. Any change is made out of a million humongous and tiny actions. Questions of problem/solution miss the point in a sense, because we can continue to live the life we want and know and have, while making these small solutions or interventions to steer the direction in the same basic way we are going. I think what this pandemic is showing is that this should not be done.
Also, it’s interesting to consider COVID-19 as an intervention that ‘problematizes situations’
What does the CLIMAVORE eat in the age of global pandemic?
Thats a good question and we don’t have an answer for it yet!
But it’s a path we want to explore for sure. CLIMAVORE talks to the idea of human-made seasons; polluted oceans, drought, exhausted soil etc. So this question is very relevant to us; what to eat in a global pandemic? …we need time to find the answer.
But what is clear, is how do we think about practices that build ecologies, right? Practices that build the environment. As opposed to food practices that are forms of extraction. I think that is the key question. Again, the work we are doing in Skye looking at regenerative aquacultures of oysters and mussels and seaweeds; all of which clean the water and build ecologies. I think these types of practices are already hinting at a certain direction. I think the pandemic is a symptom; it’s not the issue itself.
We’ve talked about how the context of COVID-19 leads to renegotiation and hopefully the consideration of new ways forward, new possibilities. I wanted to ask you about certain directions that were gaining traction pre-pandemic, for instance, factory-based precision fermentation as replacing traditional forms of farming and meat production. I wonder how you view such technologies in light of your practice, and do you see the pandemic as accelerating or postponing the proliferation of such processes?
In this moment of climate crises and diversity loss, as a way to ease pressure, these technologies are fine. But again, as we were discussing earlier, such technologies represent a shift; a way to dodge the real issues. We need to develop a way of living with the environment and supporting the environment. Not just moving away from it. That would be our approach. How can we create symbiotic relationships where we support each other; as has happened for thousands of years.
In a way, such technologies are reminiscent of the insane amount of money spent on carbon offsetting—an issue we have worked on over the last few years. You have all these absurd efforts to plant trees to mitigate pollution in one part of the planet, but then you realise that, if cities just stopped polluting in the first place, the problem is gone. So, getting back to the crux of your question, there can be all these proposed solutions based on layered, technological approaches and careful calculations, to mitigate. But why can’t we go to the source and change our practices instead of externalising the problem? Stop polluting and extracting—surely this is more of a common sense place to start.
Some of the criticism I’ve read of these protein-producing future-factories point to shellfish as a much more efficient producer of protein that involves re-engaging with pre-existing ecologies rather than fabricating new ones.
Exactly, we approach this by looking at distribution systems, problems of scale, and logical ways of dealing with the landscape out there in the world. Before focusing on very futuristic, lab-made foods, let’s understand the basics; why is the soil exhausted? Why is or isn’t there enough food, and for whom? How does that food reach everyone? Going back to the case of farmed salmon, we like to see that industry as a landscape consuming practice. It’s not just the salmon, but the feed they give the salmon, which requires deforestation in Brazil to grow soy, and the depletion of anchovies and fisheries in Peru and the West Coast of Africa to make feed pellets for salmon to be consumed in the global North.
To end – I’m starting to identify two problems here; there is the rupture of systems breaking under the weight of global supply chains and intensification, and then there are the ‘fixes’; the policies, technologies and practices that look to smooth over the ruptures, potentially worsening the problems, rather than looking to the source. If COVID-19 is a rupture, where do you see opportunity for real change, as opposed to simply a range of quick fixes?
Hopeful scenarios are starting to emerge. For instance, London has recently begun to pedestrianise the city centre and give more space to humans, bikes and buses, reducing the space for cars. The congestion charge has increased in price and extent. It has become clear that air pollution and respiratory problems have played a huge role in patients to survive COVID-19. So cities perhaps realise now, or have the sufficient backup of their constituents, to take action to improve the air we breathe and the spaces we move along.
About Cooking Sections
Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe) is a duo of spatial practitioners based out of London. It was born to explore the systems that organise the WORLD through FOOD. Using installation, performance, mapping and video, their research-based practice explores the overlapping boundaries between visual arts, architecture, ecology and geopolitics. Since 2015, they are working on multiple iterations of the long-term site-specific CLIMAVORE project exploring how to eat as humans change climates. In 2016 they opened The Empire Remains Shop, a platform to critically speculate on implications of selling the remains of Empire today.