2017, writing


Article published in the Graduation Book 2017 of the Design Academy Eindhoven

A country is often identified through its culinary culture, and hence food is a medium to explore the notion of its identity, its origins, its traces in the world, along with its politics. It is a medium that can close or open a border, but also give new qualities to it as a line that facilitates exchange.

Progress is driven by cultural exchange. International trade, especially in the Age of Discovery, facilitated that exchange by bringing goods from other countries or continents. The more possibilities we have to move around the world, or the more ways we find to communicate without physically moving through distances, the more exchange opportunities we have. And suddenly we discover ourselves not only surrounded by new technologies and new ways of living brought from other places ("westernisation", "americanisation", etc.) but new species, new spices, new taste. We are speaking of globalisation as international integration, seeing how food cultures affect each another in their process of formation. Knut Åsdam argues that the claim of cultural origin to a national identity seems irrational since national identity is seen as being rooted trans-historically [1]. We can recognise the same in the food culture – sometimes the influences are so interwoven with each other that it is impossible to define what is grounded where. Nevertheless, cultural appropriation takes place when it comes to foodstuffs from certain regions, even though we sometimes do not understand their origins. And it does not only say something about cultural values but also about the exchange between countries. For instance, Italian Parma ham producers still use the image of the region where it is produced even though the pigs that the ham is made of sometimes are transported there from the Netherlands – it seems to be a statement about the relationship a between the countries, even if it is rooted only in commercial interest.

On the other hand, in conflict situations between countries, food embargos, bans on import or export of food, similar to boycotting food, are aiming at manipulating the behaviour of the affected nations. They are used as a political weapon, but it has an effect on both sides that are involved in the conflict. Banning foodstuffs originated from certain countries in not only taking away the ability to sell certain products to certain markets but are also isolating those countries from the influence from the outside, erasing influences from other cultures.

Russia at this moment offers us an almost unique example of isolating its food culture: its self-imposed food embargo, an asymmetrical response to the sanctions introduced by the United States and the EU, is a statement of cultural independence, but also an opportunity for the country to strengthen its food production. However, it is not exactly clear which of those two actions is the trigger and which is the consequence. Resistance to gastronomic cultures of other countries, including top-down imposed resistance, is supported by the slowly growing phenomenon of food nativism – a nation taking pride in its tradition, often not reflecting the roots of it.

When we are talking about nativism, we are talking about the notion of a country’s religious, national and cultural identity which is defined by heritage. The gastronomic component of the country’s identity is not different. With increasing nationalism, the interest in traditional local cuisine also rises. But there is an irrationality to cultural and gastronomic identities that resembles the irrationality of nativism: it employs a rhetoric of romanticising certain historical or cultural facets while ignoring that no clear line can be made where one culture begins and another ends.

Political practices of banning taste are turned against influences from outside as well as towards redefining the "inside" of a country. Are restrictions on import aimed to limit the diversity, or is it a matter of redefining and enhancing the diversity within a country? Bruno Latour argues that the search for identity “inside” is directly linked to the quality of the “outside” connection when talking about both, ecology and politics [2]. And indeed, by maintaining distinctive traditional values, a country is able to awaken interest from the outside in its culture based on its individuality.

Standing on the edge between the age of isolation and the age of globalisation where the cultural identities tend to homogenise, we need to find a new approach to our food system – regarding both, production and consumption. We can keep unifying our culinary cultures, but we can also make an attempt of rooting it more in the local conditions.

Certain products, including cheese, have a crucial link to the geographical area where they are produced and are therefore not meant to be reproduced. We are talking not only about physical parameters of a certain location that influence the taste, but also about psychology and nostalgia that plays a significant role in constructing taste. Yet this, again, brings with it many contradictions: for instance like in the story of Tilsiter, a traditional Swiss cheese that was originally produced in an area that since 1946 belongs to Russia, and is used as a justification for some Russian cheese producers to be entitled to copy Swiss, German and Italian cheeses. Ironically, some of the productions take place under the flag of Novorossiya (the occupied territories in Ukraine), and according to one of the producers, would never be possible if not for the food embargo.

In a world where borders are closed, but the desire for globalised goods still exists, we, as products of globalisation, are going to seek for ways of dealing with this contradiction. In order to visualise the latter, design can be used as a storytelling tool to highlight and critically interrogate current urgent issues, creating worlds on the edge between the real and the non-real, showing complex relations between design fiction and reality in a scenario where food culture is a metaphor for the societal tendencies: the nativist, populist, protectionist tendencies, when people are afraid not only of immigration, but also of free trade.

We could imagine a world in which there will be a need for a new notion of food products, one which breaks away from concepts like Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical Indication, because even in the era of isolation, we will want to be able to recreate parameters of any location anywhere else in the world. The question is whether a solution for an isolated environment would be in copying values from other cultures rather than in finding significance in local distinctiveness.

In the impending age of nativism, we observe the extreme example of Russia using food as a medium to define its borders. But seeing Brexit, the Great Mexican Wall and Europe's populist movements, we cannot deny a possibility that the tendencies that are for now only articulated by Russia, could be applied to more and more countries in the near future.

[1] Åsdam, K. (2014) Nationalism: Persistence and Political Upkeep, e-flux (#57)
[2] Latour, B. (2011). Some experiments in art and politics. e-flux, (#23)

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