Re-actionary practices through food

An exploration into socially engaged art & design

Words by Evelyn Leveghi

The last three decades have seen a new extraordinary blooming of collaborative, open and participatory projects which are redefining disciplinary boundaries. By crossing through art, design and architecture, creative professionals such as eating designer Marije Vogelzang, food designer Martí Guixé, artist collective Panem et Circenses, urban designers Raumlabor Berlin and performers Weeks&Withford are questioning the norms while offering original perspectives on food, manifestly in a relational way.

“Nobody can change the world with a meal,
but each meal, in its infinite accumulations,
has the potential to change the world, even if in a small way.”
[Lucy Orta, artist]

In the rich texture of these ‘relational practices around food’ [3], a very interesting aspect comes out: in a common ground betwixt ‘Social engaged art’ [4], ‘Relational design’ [5], participative architecture and activism, it is possible to pinpoint a set of collaborative practices which feature a re-actionary approach through food. Thus suggesting that nourishment could act as a strong vehicle for encouraging the development of critical thinking.
In addition to make people - even strangers - gather around a common table, food has the strength to closely affect cultural, political and social concerns - acting at the same time as a litmus test of contemporary society’s changes and as a sociability trigger.
We have collected here four projects that offer a diverse overview of current ways of prompting re-actions through food.


Concept: Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A
Date: Since 2010

“Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict.” At the same time a take-out restaurant and a public art project, Conflict Kitchen was born from the minds of two art professors at Carnegie Mellon University, Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski.

The menu focuses on one nation at a time, rotating every three-five months - according to geo-political facts - and it is accompanied by a related educational programme, which includes “events, performances, publications, and discussions that seek to expand the engagement the public has with the culture, politics, and issues at stake within the country” and therefore “uses the social relations of food and economic exchange” to achieve that social goal.

Since the opening the restaurant has presented food from - and spread the culture of - Iran, Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Palestine, Venezuela and Haudenosaunee Confederacy.



Concept: Franca Formenti
Location: Varese, Italy
Date: Since 2015


“The food industry generates the greatest business in the world today.” From that clear and strong statement and awareness, Franca Formenti has grounded several art projects in which food is the key-issue to develop a critical thinking - “food for thought”, in every sense. Her work and approach is definitely a form of ‘artivism’, where being an artist and an activist are two components of the same social and cultural mission - a way of thinking and acting in the art field, through food.

From “Foodpower” (2007), to “Identità affamate” [literally ‘hungry identities’] (2012), Franca Formenti seeks to explore and foster a consciousness on food choices and consumption, through ‘shaking’ and ‘disturbing’ art performances. Back in 2015, inspired by “Conflict Kitchen” and by the 1970’s project “FOOD” by Gordon Matta-Clark, she opened Zona Franca [‘free zone’] - a trans-disciplinary project that explores different forms of research in the fields of arts and economics.

A take-away restaurant characterised by the use (almost illegal) of ancient seeds during the day, Zona Franca transforms into a space for unconventional, critical and socially-engaged art during the evening. With the ongoing “Occupy the kitchen!”, Formenti proposes a cycle of food performances, talks, book launches and other food-related activities in cooperation with a network of ‘Food Riots’ and artists that have food as their own research focus and that explore it in a (re)active, social and relational way.


Concept: Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert (and others)
Location: Sanpatong, Thailand
Date: Since 1998

Located few kilometers away from Chiang Mai (North of Thailand) in the tiny village of Sanpatong - an area affected by rural exodus because of the growing number of floods - The Land Foundation was created by the two Thai artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert “to cultivate a place of and for social engagement.” Condemning the concept of private property, since its creation in 1998 the community-driven project aims at encouraging “discussions and experimentation.”

Conceived as a free space, The Land tries to protect the precious equilibrium between the local and fragile ecosystem and the intervention of humans - by following Thai farmer Chaloui Kaewkong’s philosophy and agricultural techniques.

Progressively re-activated and turned into a self-sustaining living environment, The Land Foundation - which initially was an abandoned and sterile field - now produces 1.000 to 1.500 kilos of rice each year. As part of the experimental project, the harvested seeds are shared between the participants and some of the local families suffering from AIDS.

Parallel to its agricultural activities, The Land Foundation also acts as a free and unconventional space for art production, where international creatives - such as Dutch collective Superflex, American artist Arthur Meyer and Thai artists Prachya Phintong and Kamin Lertchaiprasert - are invited to develop in-common facilities, as a kitchen and a community center.


Concept: Lucy + Jorge Orta
Location: Diverse locations
Date: Since 2000

Mainly focusing on the power that food has to enhance civic responsibility through conviviality, over the last 20 years the artists-duo Lucy + Jorge Orta developed a peculiar fascination for the subject. After a first performance in 1997 entitled Dans le même panier (In the same basket), in 2000 the duo launched 70x7 The Meal - a the series of “community-driven banquets that encourage spontaneous interaction, centred around the ceremony of dining and the need for food consumption”.

The first of these ‘Acts’ (as they are called) took place in Dieuze, a French town marked by conflicting local communities. Here the artists were asked to organize a dinner with the goal to create social cohesion. “We invited the whole town to come and dine along a 500-metre long table, on which we placed limited edition Royal Limoges plates that were enamelled with our drawings and the wishes of the town’s inhabitants collected in the 18 months prior, which was amazing.” Inviting at first a small number of guests and asking them to invite others, the act of creating the event happened through human interaction and the artists played mostly the role of enablers. The event was so successful that the duo was encouraged to organize even bigger rendez-vous (they are now at the 39th edition).


[1] Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics. Dijon : Les Presses du Réel, 2002 [Orig. ed. L'esthétique relationnelle, 1998]; [2] Blauvelt, Andrew, Towards Relational Design., 11 March 2008; [3] Leveghi, Evelyn, Pratiche relazionali del cibo. Milano : Postmediabooks, 2015; [4] Helguera, Paolo, Education for Socially Engaged Art. Jorge Pinto Books, 2011; [5] Blauvelt, Andrew, Op. Cit.

1_Conflict Kitchen, Iranian takeout, relations © Conflict Kitchen; 2_Conflict Kitchen, Venezuelan takeout © Conflict Kitchen; 3_Zona Franca - Occupy the kitchen! Project’s cover image, 2015 © Franca Formenti; 4_The Land Foundation, Rirkrit Tiravanija preparing food at Hong Kong Art Basel 2016, a fundraising dinner for The Land Foundation, 2016 © Philip Huang; 5_70 x 7 The Meal, act XXXIV, Lucy + Jorge Orta in collaboration with Mural Art, Philadelphia, 2013, Photo © Steve Weinik;

Published: 27 Fev. 2017


#Newcomers #Food #RelationalDesign #ReactionaryDesign #FoodRevolution #FoodHappening


About the author
Passionated by design and food, Evelyn Leveghi studied design at the Politecnico di Milano (Italy) and majored in "Relational design" at Abadir Academy, Italy. In her first essay - "Pratiche relazionali del cibo" - published in 2015, she explores the connecting potential of food.
Visit her website for more info about her work.

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