THE ARTISTS’ SOUP KITCHEN

HAPPENINGText: Alvis Choi

Food, art, and community are on my list of beautiful things in life. When I first learnt about the Artists’ Soup Kitchen from Toronto’s beloved artist Jess Dobkin, I was excited by the marriage of these three things as much as I felt the urge to eat. While the idea of serving artists free hot lunch in the cold winter of Toronto warms my stomach, the project is more than that.

“The project explores through cooking, food, and performance the concept of nourishment, both physical and relational. While acknowledging the extensive history of artist restaurants, the sensory experience of performance and food, and the collective experience of community kitchens, the Artists’ Soup Kitchen examines the space between art and labor and addresses the myth of ‘the starving artists’.”

The Artists' Soup Kitchen

For six Monday afternoons this winter, the Starving Artists Collective runs the Artists’ Soup Kitchen at the Raging Spoon Café on Queen Street West. Invited artists including Ulysses Castellanos, Helen Reed and Hannah Jickling, Tobaron Waxman, Natalyn Tremblay, Annie Onyi Cheung, and Swintak take turns to host the Soup Kitchen by creating work for the café environment, bringing their performance and/or social art practice to the space and merging it with the idea of cooking and feeding other community members who will go to the cafe to eat, talk and share. Self-identified artists are welcome to join and enjoy the free hot lunch while engaging in the performance work.

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At the first soup kitchen on January 9th, Ulysses Castellanos hosted a lunch inspired by American writer and cartoonist Dr. Seuss. The artist wore a bright blue spandex wrestling suit with a creepy mask and a cape while everyone else was wearing big bow ties and cat whiskers like The Cat in The Hat. Green eggs and ham was served. A video collage of Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who” and the animated sci-fi fantasy cartoon “Heavy Metal” from the 70s was projected. Meanwhile, the artist read from his favorite book Trout Fishing in America over the P.A. as people ate their green eggs and ham with horror movie music playing in the background.

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For those who are not familiar with the concept of ‘soup kitchen’, it is a place where food is offered to the hungry for free or at a reasonably low price. The concept is more commonly known in North America, as it is where the term entered the popular lexicon in the 1880s. I suspect soup kitchen is not seen as much in Asia because of the cultural difference. Even so, the saying that artists are broke is probably globally true.

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‘Artists often constitute an underserved community and much of their labor and social contribution goes unrecognized and undervalued; so many artists are among the working poor in Toronto,’ said Jess Dobkin, who runs the Starving Artists Collective along with Catherine Clarke, Manager of the Raging Spoon Cafe, and Stephanie Springgay, Assistant Professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

By bringing together gastronomical services, social need, and creative investigation into performance, art and food, the project does not only provide a space for artists to gather and mingle in the winter months when paid work is slow while feeding those stomachs, it also puts forward questions of sustainability of life as an artist towards the arts funding system.

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While the basic life issues of some artists might be urgent, it is inspiring to have a wholesome event like this one to bring the community together, celebrate artists’ work, and reflect upon the current condition. As one of the participating artists Ulysses Castellanos said, “I really like the whole event, although I don’t think that there should be a soup kitchen for artists in real life. I think we have to struggle a lot and that is good; it’s great to look back at the ‘lean years’ when you’ve made something of yourself… But I really love all the art projects, and the idea of the soup kitchen is really awesome!”

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Other menus in the past weeks include ‘Mystic Pizza’ by Helen Reed and Hannah Jickling who offered pizza crust divination readings. The setting reminded me of a high school cafeteria and the pizza was delicious. Then there was RED FOOD performed by Tobaron Waxman, and a meal prepared by Natalyn Tremblay based on the idea of storytelling.

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I am looking forward to the week hosted by Annie Onyi Cheung, who will serve lunches in miniature portion. “The project is an interactive performative exercise that asks the audience to consider the action of asking for more,” Cheung explained. “Inspired by the initial curatorial prompt of offering a soup kitchen for artists, I chose to explore the idea of class structure and the power dynamic of wanting – and asking for more, whether the desire is social, economic, or abstract.”

Artist-visitors will be encouraged to raise their ‘hand’ [an edition of 100 wooden cut-out hands with the text ‘I want more’ branded on each] to ask for more food in order to get a fair serving. I believe Annie’s week will be a good example of audience becoming participants and shaping the happening in a collective manner – which is how communities are often formed.

Documentation from the Artists’ Soup Kitchen will be used to create a printed catalogue/recipe book that includes recipes, images and critical writing about the project. For more information and updates about the project, visit jessdobkin.com.

The Artists’ Soup Kitchen
Artists: Ulysses Castellanos, Helen Reed and Hannah Jickling, Tobaron Waxman, Natalyn Tremblay, Annie Onyi Cheung, and Swintak
Place: The Raging Spoon Cafe
Address: 761 Queen Street West, Toronto
https://www.facebook.com/events/261043463949543/

For those who are in Toronto, there are two more weeks of Artists’ Soup Kitchen coming up in February:
February 6th, 2012: Annie Onyi Cheung
February 13th, 2012: Swintak
12:00-15:00, The Raging Spoon Cafe
761 Queen Street West, Toront
(Wheelchair accessible space)

Text: Alvis Choi
Photos: Jess Dobkin, Ulysses Castellanos

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