We spent nearly four days with the artist Jorge Menna Barreto and his guests learning about `food and ourselves´: different strategies for producing it, different ways to think about what we eat, how it is produced, why it is important to think of food as a system, among other issues.
On Thursday 30th October, Jorge opened up his theoretical interest around site specificity, and how Turning a Blind Eye opens up a space for the exchange of knowledge. Building on a history of land art and concepts employed by artists such as Robert Smithson, he understands eating as sculpting landscapes when we take into consideration the chain of production which dramatically alters the surface of the planet.
The cultivated species of plants which make up the majority of the ingredients we eat are what he called ‘domesticated’ – having been bred to produce high yields, be infertile, and be dependent on pesticides and fertilizers.
This we heard from the organic farmer Fernando Ataliba. His farm Sítio Catavento in São Paulo State. He explained that organic farming wasn’t just the negation of these damaging technologies – growing food without pesticides, with chemical fertilizers – but that the first conceivers of organic farming came from a period when pesticides weren’t used industrially, as they are now. He cited Rudolf Steiner from Austria, Masanobu Fukuoka from Japan and Albert Howard from England – all working throughout the first half of the twentieth century – as pioneers of the modern organic farming movement. That organic farming is about an understanding of the inter-connectedness of life. Of needing to be ‘in symphony’ with nature; to understand and respect its laws and how precious it is. That, for example, fungus is a means of eradicating low quality plants from the cycle of food production. If they are too weak is withstand a fungus attack, they are not good enough quality to be eaten. But also that it indicated other problems, and so calls for an approach which doesn’t only treat the symptoms (such as contemporary use of fungicides) but means one must observe and learn what the root cause of the weakness is.
He also spoke about the ‘green revolution’ that occurred after the second world war – the technological, industrial, political and economic shifts that revolutionised the mass production of food. This, he argued, resulted in the displacement of many people from their land. In Brazil, small scale farms producing a variety of different foods – enough to feed themselves, and sell to buy products they couldn’t produce at home – were replaced with large scale, monocultural plantations and farms. A simple way of putting it would be: People couldn’t survive, lost their farms, and immigrated to cities for work. Coffee and sugar cane plantations, on the other hand, already existed on a super large scale.
He also told us about the landless movement – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra – the political and social movement for people to return to their old land to farm again. There was a revival of this from the 1990’s too, but by the descendants of those farmers.
The next day, back at the Bienal, Jefferson Mota gave a presentation about wild edibles – plants that grow, often considered to be weeds, which are edible. We walked through the park and picked berries and he showed different wild edibles. We spent the afternoon with Leandro Lopes, who guided us with botanical drawings. “You haven’t seen it until you’ve drawn it”. We studied some plants and leaves we’d collected and sat on the ground floor of the Bienal looking and drawing and looking again.
We were then brought together, blind folded and asked to open our mouths, with the question “Where does this come from?” Elaine de Azevedo and Neka Menna took us through a blind tasting of various different foods, asking us to think about the production process, where the plants grew, and how were the workers in the process treated. Elaine and Neka told us about the importance of being suspicious about what we put in our mouths, and they advised us never to close our eyes when eating – as a metaphor for being more conscious about the systems of production that affect, at the end, our whole life. “What is healthy food? Is it healthy when the farmers and workers are exploited? When the land is polluted?” Neka Menna had prepared an amazingly delicious organic dinner of variety of dishes – black rice salad with coriander and beetroot, a beetroot juice, sesame cracker bread, roasted cauliflower deliciousness, and acai paste…So So good… and exotic…
And on Sunday we returned to the Bienal for a presentation from Fernando Ataliba, who expanded on his knowledge of organic farming, and another talk by the agroforestry farmer Adilson Gonçalves who lives in Barra do Turvo, to the south of Sao Paulo. He explained how farming practices had changed radically in the area – from 100 families growing corn and rearing pigs, to some 15 families (the rest having become bankrupted and having to leave) to currently over 110 families employing agroforestry methods – a variety of types of produce, grown in the forest in harmony. Their diets improve, the economic model is more sustainable, and the culture of the farmers and their families has blossomed as they collaborate and support one another. He impressed upon us the importance of learning, of observing, and of sharing knowledge.