Art and Food Symposium window into how society views eating

Being able to reconnect ourselves to others through the act of sharing food and to the practices employed in food production can be one of the many possible options available in the lives of humans.

The many food-related initiatives in Dunedin demonstrate an awareness of such issues, linking people from the academic world to urban gardening groups, to the retail sector and faith-based organisations, in an effort to realise improved access to better food.

One opportunity to consider the way we think about food and related issues, such as foods' production and consumption, has been provided by the Art and Food Symposium, which was recently hosted by the School of Art and the University of Otago, and which attracted international speakers who presented papers on topics related to the main theme of art and food.

The papers referred to art (both as object and practice) as a powerful tool to better understand reality and our societal values.

In providing a unique perspective on a common everyday aspect of life like food, such events offer us the chance to think about human nature and the way we perceive and construct our lives as individuals and as members of society.

In this case, it also provided the opportunity to reflect on issues relevant to New Zealand, its people and economy.

Among others, two papers captured a contemporary issue of great importance to food and society in Dunedin; both being concerned with the meaning we attribute to food and the practice of eating, seen through the lens of artistry and art.

The first, "Future Food: fiction and reality", presented by Emily Gordon, focused on how our relationship with food is portrayed in futuristic science fiction films and "how much we actually know about the food we eat and whether popular culture, and in particular fictional film, can increase our understanding of it".

A selection of snapshots from movies released in the 1970s helped the participants to envision (past) expectations around food in the future and to compare them with the current cultural and political setting.

The movie Soylent Green, for instance, depicted a society where overpopulation and overuse of resources would lead to increasing poverty, food shortages and social disorder.

How far are we, in modern days, from that picture?

The second paper, "Commensality in Contemporary Practices", presented by Prof Leoni Schmidt, posed compelling questions concerning the efficacy of practices such as commensality - or eating together as a social act - in "creating new value systems" and potential new sets of linked social structures and institutions.

How do we (re-)negotiate meaning for such human practices in an era concerned with the potential non-sustainability of food resources?

Negotiate, in this sense, is a means to adapt to contingent situations and to ensure the appropriateness of human agency within society, to participate in the world "out there" as active citizens and not as reactive subjects.

Where do sharing food and practices of sustainability intersect?

Are we "really" in dangerous positions about food, its safety and its security?

In times of relative economic stability, seeing the agricultural production system as unconnected to consumption and other aspects of social life allows us to calculate a gain in modern economic terms, in which social wellbeing is generated by money. During periods of crisis and economic instability like the one in which we are living, it could however, reveal a hazard difficult to manage. A production system detached from consumption denies a very human part of an act essential to human life.

Cinzia Piatti is a PhD candidate from Italy who is researching local food cultures. She is pursuing her PhD at the Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago.