in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
Dinner for Two:
The Public Humanities and Academia
In October 2013, an estimated 2,000 people will gather in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for a meal organized by French artists Lucy and Jorge Orta. The event, which is part of the artists’ ongoing public art project called 70×7 The Meal, provides a useful lens for examining the overlap between the public humanities and academia. 70×7 is clearly intended for public consumption (literally), and although it is not an academic project, it engages many of the values of that world.
The project began in 2002, and the Philadelphia event will represent its 34th iteration. The name of the project reflects the basic concept of the event: seven guests invite seven more to a communal meal. The artists de-centralize the task of generating a guest list in order to create an economically, socially, and ethnically diverse group of attendees. The meal is not only intended to feed the bodies of the participants, but also to challenge their minds through exposing them to a diverse group of people.
I see five principle similarities between the Ortas’ project and the public humanities. Each reveals a different facet of public projects.
1. Like the public humanities, 70×7 engages institutions and individuals.
2. Like the public humanities, 70×7 cannot escape commoditization.
3. Like the public humanities, 70×7 is about equity of knowledge, but is at times inescapably exclusive.
4. Like the public humanities, 70×7 values intellectual sustenance.
5. Like the public humanities, 70×7 is intended for the public, but arises out of a culturally exclusive milieu, and perhaps best lends itself to discussion in academic and critical forums.
Like the public humanities, 70×7 engages institutions and individuals.
70×7 expresses the tension that I think is sharply felt in both academia and the public humanities, that is the desire to reach outward while at the same time continuing to cultivate a sense of center. Some of the Ortas’ projects have featured celebrity chefs. These chefs legitimize the grassroots efforts behind the project, but in doing so, they push the event back to an established center. By now, the 70×7 meals have become an institution of their own, receiving both popular and critical attention.
Community-based projects in academia face similar challenges due to long-standing biases toward individual authority and authorship. Scholars in the humanities who are interested in engaging larger communities have addressed the skepticism of their colleagues by limiting crowd sourcing projects to scholarly communities, as seen in the DM project. Others, however, have kept these projects open to the public (see for example, Transcribe Bentham).
Like the public humanities, 70×7 cannot escape commoditization.
While the digital world expands access to free learning opportunities in the humanities, museums and other public humanities institutions must generate revenue to continue operations. We can draw a parallel between these public institutions and 70×7, which leaves material traces that are instantly commoditized; the Ortas create unique dishware for each meal that can be later bought by attendees, collectors, and galleries. These commodities turn the accoutrements of lived experience into material for capital gains.
Like the public humanities, 70×7 is about equity of knowledge, but is at times inescapably exclusive.
The Ortas’ utopic diner party resembles the public humanities in that it disperses knowledge away from institutional centers and toward economically, socially, and ethnically diverse populations. The meal brings up important issues in the organization and dissemination of higher culture outside of the institutions traditionally associated with controlling cultural capital. While 70×7 appears to be a grassroots effort, the project nevertheless requires both institutional support and public engagement with the artists. The meal in Philadelphia will be staged in collaboration with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Ortas will visit Philadelphia a number of times before October 2013 in order to involve the public in the organization and execution of the event. While the artists and the institutions with which they engage do not value exclusivity, there is nevertheless a uneven distribution of power and cultural capital among the various organizers and participants.
Like the public humanities, 70×7 values intellectual sustenance.
A current exhibition of the Ortas’ work at the Tufts University Art Gallery in Medford, Massachusetts divides their oeuvre into three sections consisting of food, water, and life. The curators of the Tufts exhibition note that the Ortas treat survival as a three-pronged issue. According to the Ortas, humans survive on a careful combination of nutrition, hydration, and life. The category “life” covers both external and internal factors. One artwork in the life section of the Tufts exhibition represents a drop parachute that delivers medical supplies, children’s toys, and shoes to the gallery space. This artwork shows that sustaining life is a matter of meeting both practical and emotional human needs. The value of the public humanities lies firmly in its ability to fulfill the life portion of human survival. The public humanities could not exist without people who believed that the humanities sustain the body as much as nutrients and medicine.
Nicolas Bourriaud’s term “relational aesthetics” provides a useful lens through which to view public art like 70×7. Relational aesthetics is a theory “consisting in judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt.” 70×7 is built around the idea of prompting inter-human relations. On the artists’ website, Lucy Orta describes her vision that 70×7 will provide a forum for human contact, resulting in intellectual and emotional stimulation: “At these communal events, a combination of the ordinary and the everyday intermingles with the provocative and debatable, as individuals, deliberately drawn from different social, political and economic backgrounds, are invited to share a meal, often leading to demanding, unusual and unexpected conversations. Here all certainties of identity are dissolved into myriad ambiguities that involve change, transformation, loss and gain, love and hate – all the dramatic but actual elements of human experience.”
The 70×7 meal in Philadelphia will raise awareness about access to food and sustainability; it will provide physical and intellectual sustenance, and it will be a topic of conversation in academic, critical, and popular forums. While the event has the potential to become commoditized and objectified by institutions, the personal experience of each participant will evade such reduction.