Fermenting Futures

On a drizzly Sunday, driving from Arbroath to Huntly, Aberdeenshire, the landscape changed from urban seafront to lush rolling hills and tree-lined A-roads. Time takes on a different rhythm in these parts and it is hard to not feel the histories of the land seeping through the air. Despite the damp raincoats and muddy shoes, I was in for a treat. The Gathering Table was a series of meals prepared by Scottish-Iraqi artist and chef, Kawther Luay, during her residency at Deveron Projects over the past year, that are intended to perform and frame research undertaken about the local food histories. From practical workshops and regular foraging walks, Luay invites collaboration with human and more-than-human actors into her work’s production or, as she puts it: ‘ingredients become characters to tell their stories of how they came to be known (or hidden)’.

Divided into three distinct ‘acts’, Luay wove the narratives of the land through both its present and past ecologies, Scottish folklore, local agricultural knowledge, archival research, and her own mixed heritages and cultural influences, where each meal took place in a different location close to the characters’ respective homes. Sheltering from the rain, under a tented canopy, in a picturesque agro-forestry small-holding under Tap O’Noth hill and interwoven between courses of variously fermented young cheeses for the first act, Milk, Luay and collaborator, artist and writer, Fionn Duffy (who made the vessels from locally foraged wild clays), read their traced stories of agriculture and production through from 19th-century local newspaper clippings, anecdotes from archival accountants, poetry and their own writings. While we ate, mounds of ‘Dream Cheese’ (a yoghurt-based strained cheese) hung in gently-swinging cotton sacks as a centrepiece, dripping into shankleesh and kashk (Middle Eastern cheeses) which we each later shaped into balls by hand, covering them in crushed dried seaweed from the local coast, for an unknown future diner. Act two, Grain, focused on the region’s main commercial form of sustenance barley, which has both shaped the landscape in Aberdeenshire and the local diet, and followed its fermentation and other preservation techniques through trade routes, cultural exchange and migration. The final act, Clay, took place on the banks of the River Bogie, drawing together cheese, yoghurt, and fermented and sourdough cultures, cooked directly on glowing hot bisque-fired vessels on burning embers.

For Luay, as with other artists working with it, food is inextricably linked to hospitality. Since Gordon Matta Clark, Carol Gooden and Tina Girouard’s artist-run restaurant in the 1970s and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s pad thai in 1990 there has been a steady stream of artists committed to working with food and its hosting potentialities. Delfina Foundation has been running its Politics of Food programme since 2014, now spanning five seasons and a multitude of artist contributors. However, the ethos of hospitality, sharing and care are often out of kilter with the political structures that form our daily realities. As I write this, The Bibby Stockholm, the UK’s new asylum-seekers containment site, is being moored at the Isle of Portland; a floating steal reminder of our inhospitability and of global territorial divisions and inequality of access to resources.

In recent years, there has been a marked turn towards artists not only working in food but more specifically to forms of preservation and fermentation. More broadly it had been adopted in trendy food circles (Noma in Copenhagen, arguably the world’s most influential restaurant, has had a specialist fermentation lab since 2014) and, as the emptying shelves in the supermarkets have testified to, many of us were drawn to making our own sourdough loaves, kimchis and kombuchas during lockdown, a sign perhaps of a desire to invest labour into the foods we eat, into the tactility of making them and the slow wait of molecular transformations ­– devotions of time normally refused to us by the daily grind of Late Liberalism’s hourly demands and its disconnect with local and global ecologies. Simultaneously, this has aligned with the enthusiastic embrace of cultural discourse around the microbial communities that we are both part of and host to. As Ed Yong elegantly describes in his book, I Contain Multitudes, ‘Every one of us is a zoo in our own right – a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world’. The sourdough starter gifted to me by my father, is different to the mother jar he still has in his fridge; mine has collected into its being my specific environment, my Margate kitchen with its sea air and overgrown snail-ridden garden, while his continues to accumulate North London suburbia. Populations of domestic fridge-based cultures that soared during the pandemic’s lockdowns suggest a desire to get up-close and to collaborate with the unseen communities that surround us: when the global situation outside is terrifyingly uncertain, we return to more primal, grounding roots.

Decay and decomposition have long threaded through art history: think of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1490 and 1510, or Michelangelo Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, c1590, and, more recently, the life-cycles of the swarming flies in Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years, 1990. This lineage sits distinctly separate from the more common history of memento mori: decay is not a putrifaction into nothingness or a finite end, but a process of becoming, or as Iranian philosopher and writer Reza Negarestani has put it, through decay ‘the solid entity is taken over neither by integrated life nor death, but by irresolution’. In a lecture at Goldsmiths in 2006, Negarestani described it as an architecture with no differentiation between physical, living and non-living entities and conceptual socio-pollical formations, arguing that all structures are always in a process of undoing, decaying into something else and only momentarily perceived to be wholesome, ‘in unimag­inably twisted ways’. Later developing this in his now seminal book, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials of 2011, Negarestani examines the politics of decay as an ‘undercover softness’ that evades consolidation. He positions decay in opposition to perhaps more romantic approaches of planetary ecological entanglement that have been embraced by contemporary art discourse in recent years by, for instance, Lynn Margulis, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, where composting and decomposition are seen as a processes of return within the holistic cycles of nature: deconstruction, disappearance, deliverance and rebirth. Instead, Negarestani argues that decay acts in order to indefinitely postpone death and absolute disappearance. In decay, ‘the being survives by blurring into other beings, without losing all its ontological registers’; it doesn’t wipe out or terminate but, on the contrary, it keeps alive. He is writing specifically from the context of the middle east, where political and societal ‘rot’ as he describes (or ‘anti-creationist creativity or perversion’) creates an intangible substratum to society: ‘by degenerating all aspects of formation, decay ungrounds the very ground upon which power is conducted, distributed and established.’ The decay therefore becomes an autonomous building process. The turn towards art-food practices working with fermentation can be positioned against this backdrop of decay as a political device, sharing much of the processes of deconstruction and degeneration. Like decay, fermentation is similarly a process of survival inherent in all organic life, extracting energy from the molecules that it breaks down. However, to consider fermentation is to introduce a resolutely different trajectory through the processes of decay: to ferment is to excite, to create effervescence and vivacity. As we roll our shankleesh balls in our hands, Luay explains, ‘Cultured, curdled, and fermented characters collide at different points in their existence, transformed through time, technique and the elements’. Through the transformation of ingredients, fermentation creates and holds space for new cultures to form: human, microbial, bacterial and fungal. Fermentation is a process of agitating agency.

Fermentation as a storytelling strategy is also at the heart of Palestinian artist and chef Mirna Bamieh’s practice and her on-going live art project, Palestine Hosting Society, 2018–. Exploring the politics of disappearance and memory production, her staged dinners and interventions draw on farming practices and intergenerational legacies, she seeks to bring back displaced Palestinian culinary recipes and traditions from the brink of extinction. A nation of farmers, the Palestinian occupation and the forced expulsion of the diaspora has severed the population from their historic connection to the land, and with it, the knowledge of the Palestinian kitchen has been eroded. Furthermore, within the Palestinian territory, the restriction of movement between regions means that localised recipes are now severed from one another: ‘Food has the power of movement that most of us as Palestinians don’t have.’ More potent than simply dining, this act of producing Palestinian foods becomes an act of reclaiming self-sovereignty. Laid out in the abandoned shops of the Old Al Jubail Vegetable Market, her live installation Sour Things, 2022, for the Sharjah Biennale drew attention to the different moments of the fermentation processes, and to the traces, whispers, waiting periods, changing weathers and socialities that feed into these varying ferment, while in the matbakh (kitchen) new products continued to be made throughout the exhibition. Comprising drawings, ceramics, text, video and as well as these fermented foods, Sour Things centred fermentation as a method for ‘sharpening our propensity for listening, learning, caring and becoming more attuned’. Navigating the fine line between decay and preservation, Bamieh’s determination to prevent further erasure by passing on the recipes becomes a powerful act of resistance. Each fermented food evokes notions of death, rebirth, fear, relationships, community and ecosystems that work with time to create transformation; fermentation becomes a metaphor for ‘zooming into the microworlds of encapsulated multitudes to reconsider life, cities, people, relationships and occurrences’. It is in the bubbling of Bamieh’s fermentations, that Negarestani’s thesis comes to the fore in actuality: within these fermented foods are survival and perseverance, relinking a diasporic population to their lands.

These food practices operate in two overlapping planes, in the close-up, personal, guttural and bodily, as well as in the realm poetic political critique. To ferment is to bring intent to the table, metaphorically and actually. As writer and food activist, Sandor Ellix Katz, astutely observes in his book, The Art of Fermentation, resistance can occasionally be ‘dramatic and public, but most of the decisions we are faced with are mundane and private. What to eat is a choice that we make several times a day, if we are lucky’. The crux of Luay and Bamieh’s practices is an interest in harking back to a more sustainable way of eating and benefitting from the land. Fermentation and perseveration of food is a tradition deployed across the globe out of necessity as sustenance when faced with scarcity; a necessity that is still vital and must be registered as part of the solution to returning to more ecological, low-carbon footprint local diets. As Katz argues, these cumulative choices we make about food have profound implications: we can choose the role of consumer led by the mass markets, or we can ‘merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators’. Luay, Bamieh and others working in the intersection of art and fermentation, offer up opportunities to resist not only cultural hegemony but also the subsequent culture of mass marketing and commodification, working holistically with the environment: looking at the past to preserve the future.

Beyond food practices the ethos and the desires held within fermentation seeps into other forms. Evoked in works such as Seeping, Rotting, Resting, Weeping, 2021, in which Candice Lin uses fermentation processes to create the indigo dyes for the fabric of her tented hosting structure intended as a blueprint for interaction and participation within the installation: a multisensory environment that encourages erotic tactility and communality between bodies, fabrics and objects. While on the one hand this represented post-pandemic longings to meld our bodiliness with other bodies, the work also reflects the processes of fermentation through a more critical lens, where one organism encapsulates another, referencing anthropologist Michael Taussig’s definition of ‘the space of death’ that binds ‘the culture of the conqueror’ to ‘that of the conquered.’ For Lin, forming the indigo dyes by hand was also a way of recognising a space of death inside the organic process of indigo which relies on feeding the bacteria which hasten the decay of organic matter – such as urine, broth or old fruit – and, by extension, the death toll of workers in the indigo plantations in British-ruled India. Fermentation-as-enveloper carries through into the cultural contact points of colonial legacies and trade routes that intermingle in Lin’s objects, for example, a hand-printed Japanese katazome design incorporates Portuguese and Dutch trade logos, or the Nigerian adire patterns that are peppered with the Union Jack or motifs of the British crown. When indigo is fermented, it is sometimes referred to as an live being, ‘a child, that needs to be put to bed’ or to rest under the bedcovers. The work considers how we are enmeshed through fermentation—culturally, historically, environmentally, and cross-species–through both erotic/caring acts and extractive/violent interaction.   

Singaporean artist Kent Chan, talking about his work around the idea of the ‘Future Tropics’ also described it as a fermentation process. Taking form in the months of pandemic lockdowns, and the separations, divisions and commonalities it exposed, his work Warm Fronts, 2021–, is a series of transmissions from across the tropics that ‘tap into electronic music’s long-held associations as forms of futurist statement’. Working with musicians remotely from different regions of the tropics – Guillermo from Brazil, Makossiri from Kenya, Kaleekarma from India and Gabber Modus Operandi from Indonesia – broadcast rhythms and the shared sensory climatic energy of the tropics, the prickling heat on moist skin, connected bodies in distant locations. The Tropics cover almost 40% of the Earth’s surface area, and it is projected that by 2050 more than half of the world’s population will live in the region. Apart from Singapore and Australia, all 106 countries with tropical zones within their borders are classed as developing economies. Now that, as a result of global warming, tropical conditions are expanding into an ever-wider band circling the planet, Chan suggests that, having lived with precarity for centuries under the conditions of colonial extraction and its legacies, tropical regions can offer an expansion of our geoclimatic imagination as we move towards a post-climatic world. Chan speculates whether, once climate demarcation is absent, there will be a collapse the delineations between geopolitical regions allowing us to focus on the commonalities. The musicians of Warm Fronts create a digital melting pot – what Chan calls a ‘solar and sonic alliance’– where kinship is formed through the fermentation of shared histories and colonial ghosts present in the humid heat, allowing new possibilities bubble to the surface.

As one final example, a few weeks ago, while sipping a malt-based fermented liquid in a favourite London pub, Indian artist Sujatro Ghosh described his exhibition, ‘Prosaic Elegy For Hungry Streets’, where ‘sensation, violence, scarcity and abundance are summoned into a delicate recipe’. During the Bengal famine of 1943, it is estimated that more than three million people perished due to starvation, disease and displacement in the wake of catastrophic weather, wartime disruption of food distribution and the abject failure of the British colonial administration. Basing his work on the still-present legacy of this catastrophic history – considered to be one of the most devastating man-made events of the 20th century – and having held extensive interviews with survivors of the famine, Ghosh proposes that the idea of starvation positions food not just as a site of nourishment, but also of memory, longing and a sense of injustice. In one of the exhibition installations, The Museum of Desire, mason jars filled with preserved and fermented foods are offered up as ‘a clock that keeps cured, spiced and marinated time’. These suspended and carefully transformed foodstuffs (recipes donated by the famine’s survivors) aren’t just strategies to plan for an unknown but trepidatious future: they are filled with dreams and desires that seep into one another, nurturing new alliances and forms from the precarious present. While history, both metaphorically and actually becomes an edible sustenance, each jar evokes a different moment, specific context and family history of its maker. Channelled through ‘the time of waiting and succour’ they become proposals, dreams and desires for the future. Negarestani would likely argue that it is in these spaces of the Bengali Famine, Palestinian Occupation, pandemic lockdown or global climate catastrophe that the processes of decay separate themselves from the ‘transgressive war machines of termination, annihilation, tragedy and violence’. He argues that power requires a ground in order to turn into a formative power (power of law, the State, religion, etc), therefore ‘decay incapacitates the ground by which power is instrumentalised’. The differing approaches to fermentation by the artists explored here, however, do not seek a position that operates outside societal structures and time. While they refuse the tools of instrumentalised power, they find ways to circumnavigate them, make them visible and sustaining, both allegorically and practically. Writing in the context of the Occupy movement, Judith Butler astutely declared that, ‘For politics to take place, the body must appear.’ Now in the context of global ecological urgencies and the societal breakdowns that ensue, this can – and must – be redeployed. The ‘body’ need not be a singular human though, but instead can take the form of unveiling and making visible the communities (human and non-human), infrastructures and biomes that we depend on. Butler’s declaration to bare a visceral, tangible reality in plain sight, can be seen in these artists’ strategies of fermentation, as they expose the micro-relations that surround us. Furthermore, fermentations are not an exact recipe but ones which necessitate us putting the anthropocentric to one side, to collaborate with the often-unseen structures that surround us, have formed us and that we are part of (microbial communities, historical legacies and otherwise). Fermentation practices are imbued with care and attention to the minuscule shifts and changes of their particular context. While decay can pull the rug out from under the weighty pressure imposed by the power structures that dominate contemporary life, introducing what Negarestani calls the ‘misadventures of matter’, fermentation encourages a dialogue with the vivacity of this matter and actively seeks the formation of new futures. Fermentation creates new allegiances, collaborations and continuously morphing structures. It is an active agitator, forging new paths. To quote Katz once again, ‘humanity is desperate for transformation. Our way of life is proving to be unsustainable. We need to reimagine how we live our lives. Now more than ever, we need the bubbling transformative power of fermentation.’