As part of The Perch’s continuing mission to promote a platform for social exchange, a recurring series of dinner symposia are hosted at the space. The evening is designed and organized by a member of The Perch to facilitate a creative frame for discussion to occur in, with each dinner taking a theme that guests are asked to engage in the form of conversation, gesture, etc.
In For Everyone a Garden (taken from Moshe Safdie’s 1974 book of the same name), artist and Perch collaborator Greg Ruffing asked guests to discuss their individual relationships to Utopia — a conversation framed by Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone” and his assertion that the interactions of the modern dinner party are just one example of a TAZ. This dynamic was intentionally muddled by the decision to serve each of the evening’s ten guests a unique meal different from all the others.
As a reflection on the night, below is a conversation between Greg Ruffing and Collin Pressler on The Perch’s symposium dinner For Everyone a Garden on April 19, 2014.
Collin Pressler: Can you talk a little bit about your interest in Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” and why/how you realized this as a Perch dinner symposium?
Greg Ruffing: I’d had a basic awareness of Bey’s works and ideas for a while, having come across some of his art and writings thru research into anarchism and radical politics. I wouldn’t say that I fully agree with all of his ideas, even the TAZ is a somewhat flawed concept itself, but I do think he’s had some influence in modern philosophy and political thought. I first came across his notion of “Temporary Autonomous Zone” thru a 2010 interview he did in e-flux with Hans Ulrich Obrist. In that interview, Obrist asks Bey to elaborate on and/or give examples of a TAZ, and while Bey remains elusive/reluctant to define it, he does talk about the dinner party as a potential form of a TAZ saying “Nobody tells you what to do at a good dinner party. Nobody gives orders. Nobody collects taxes. Its an experience of giving and being given to, of filling the body and emptying the mind, having good conversation and good wine and so forth,” so I felt like I could run with that very basic explanation, and then see how we (The Perch) could expand on it, taking it in some different directions.
CP: Interesting. Certainly there are a number of exceptions to Bey’s utopian read of dinner — I think we talked a little about the weight of tradition, the inevitable prominence of etiquette, etc., during the planning stage for this dinner. How was dinner? Did fore-fronting the TAZ actualize it in some way?
GR: Yeah definitely some exceptions, especially in the way that The Perch dinner symposia operate. First and foremost, these dinners often bring together a group of guests who might not know each other – and might not even know The Perch. So right away you have common notions of obligation, etiquette, and deference coming into play. It was interesting to see how the dinner began, with everyone meeting each other casually over a drink before appetizers came out, and everyone trying to figure out who we (the dinner participants) were, why are were there, and how people and ideas and the symposium linked together. But I think the atmosphere throughout the evening ended up being really awesome. It seemed like a lot of people connected with each other on a very basic yet powerful human level. Many times during and after the dinner, a lot of guests commented on how the overall conversations were really thoughtful and insightful. We didn’t really waste any time with small talk. We had a really awesome group of participants who brought great thoughts and ideas to the table.
CP: Can you talk about the structure of the evening? Guests were asked to literally bring something to the table, correct?
GR: Yes, so spiraling somewhat away from the TAZ concept, I was more interested in what Bey called “the always ongoing revolution of everyday life”, which we can perhaps look at in the context of modern society and global capitalism. And it seemed to me that any notion of the “revolution of everyday life” might pertain to our individual and collective attempts to conjure and create some more idealized political and/or social systems. This brought me to the more specific concept of the dinner: Utopia. So the guests were prompted toward conversations about Utopia, to share their own personal thoughts and ideas about what Utopia might mean (and/or might look like) to them. As part of that dialogue, the guests were highly encouraged (though not required) to bring an object, image, text, etc. with them that they felt related to their ideas about Utopia.
CP: Was there an obvious commonality within the group, or were conversations disparate?
GR: Well, my assumption is that we all had at least a basic amount of overlap in terms of general social/political ideas, probably mostly being in some variety left-of-center, which might’ve actually been a shortcoming of the symposium, although I don’t know how much of that could’ve been specifically predicted in advance. Regardless, I was really fascinated by the wide array of each person’s interpretations and expressions of Utopia. Which I somewhat expected, but maybe you can never really know how wide or narrow a spread of definitions you’ll encounter. For example, one of the things we talked about was the notion of struggling: the everyday struggles that we all endure in life, and perhaps the extent to which we either “choose” to struggle or, on the opposite, strive to minimize those difficulties. And so that conversation eventually led to talking about our everyday struggles within a capitalist society. I posed the question to everyone: perhaps capitalism is part of the problem? This elicited a wide range of responses.
CP: Any memorable answers?
GR: There were a few pretty quick answers that yes, capitalism is a large part of the problem, and that the solution might entail some radical reconfiguration of that system. Others were more reticent, saying that capitalism seems to be the best model we have available and that maybe a more reasonable solution would be to work within capitalism but to do so more sustainably (for example, with greater economic stability and equality of opportunity like had historically existed in this country).
CP: Can you speak a little more to the social dynamic of the dinner? Were there notable personalities or backgrounds that were especially useful in conversation?
GR: People’s experiences and thoughts about Utopia steered the conversation in many different ways, and often far beyond those initial experiences that we had thought about when compiling the guest list. Also, it was fascinating (and frankly kinda refreshing) to see that some guests, despite having distinctly complex or complicated experiences in navigating through everyday life, really ended up looking more internally or closer to home for their Utopian ideals: heartfelt notions about family, loved ones, cherished friends, spirituality, etc.
CP: The Perch is an ostensibly arts-oriented collective — how did guests not necessarily involved with that element handle the arts connotations or precedents active in that space? Is this mix of local personalities an indication of The Perch’s future works? How interested are you in expanding the scope of The Perch’s programming?
GR: I guess there’s a number of art-related topics that inspired the creation of the For Everyone a Garden event, but yes, you’re right, the topics and conversations really traveled quite far away from the confines of art itself. I think this particular group was pretty diverse in terms of relating to “arts connotations”. While some of the guests were not working artists in any way themselves, they definitely had strong connections and friends in the visual arts. Others guests were writers, teachers, or working in non-profit. And still, some of the guests were arts administrators or current/former gallery directors. So I feel like everyone probably had at least a little bit of experience with the arts, and regardless, each person seemed intrigued and compelled (or at least, let’s say, not repulsed or turned away) by some of the conceptual aspects of the event. And more importantly, I never really got the impression from anyone that our conversations fell too far off the deep end of cryptic or esoteric.
Returning to the structure of the participants, yes it was really important for us to go beyond just including other working artists in the symposium. I think this event was partially successful in that way, but could also continue to improve on expanding the audience and voices who contribute to the conversations. In general, maybe these dinner symposia should strive for a particular kind of balance. The Perch is not a humongous space, which can be a plus in terms of creating a really intimate setting for dialogue, but of course at the same time obviously limits each dinner to however many people we can comfortably fit at the table (which is usually around ten people at a time).
For me personally, the notion of expanding audiences is of paramount importance. I’m really frequently troubled by the mystification and/or vibes of exclusivity that tend to hover around the arts, either from audience perception or from actual actions within the art world itself. I think we’re all painfully aware of how narrow the typical art audience tends to be, and how sharply divided it often is in terms of income, education level, social class, etc. (I could ramble on about this forever, but instead I’ll just say that there’s already been extensive research and writing on this topic by the likes of Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke, John Berger and many others who detailed it more succinctly than I probably could). And I know Matt is tuned into concerns about participation and audience as well, as I’ve learned through many conversations with him and from seeing how he has broadened his artistic practice into other channels and audiences besides objects on the wall and traditional gallery settings. But again, we also should keep in mind that this problem of (and potential solutions for) audience engagement needs to be examined within the context of the larger art world and art market, and the society as a whole.
CP: I know the design of the menu was intended to gesture towards the problem of individual taste / sensibility; with each pair of guests receiving a unique meal for dinner. Did these little reminders of issues of individuality and / or autonomy affect the way guests behaved at dinner?
GR: A few aspects of the event were designed to play with notions of autonomy, again looking somewhat at Bey’s ideas. For example, each of the primary guests we invited were asked to then invite one further guest of their own choosing. Guests were also encouraged to share or exchange food if they wanted.
The appetizer was a sampling of apples and cheeses, and each of the dinner participants received a unique plate with different apple and cheese combinations, but with the suggestion to swap and try whatever flavors appealed to them (or get rid of any flavors that didn’t appeal to them). This was also the implemented case for wine: each guest was given their own unique type of wine different from the others. For the main course, each pair of guests received a unique entree, and so we carried the same offer of exchange with those, too. I think many of the guests were curious about other foods that weren’t on their plates, and were interested in swapping. I remember one guest traded away a fried egg because she doesn’t really like eggs, and I also gave some roasted potatoes to someone in exchange for a baked avocado.
Inspired by our dinner symposium title, the overall menu was entirely vegetarian, which turned out well since many of our dinner guests were vegetarian anyway. The menu also took a little bit of influence from historical ideas about intentional communities, collectives, co-ops, etc. (such as the Kibbutzum in Israel), who’ve sought a more self-sustaining form of communal living and have frequently been based around an agricultural production balanced between cash crops versus sustenance crops.
In the end, the menu was really intended to point to some of the complications of individual autonomy. The guests were not told in advance what foods would be served, and were not permitted to “order” particular dishes — upon arrival they were simply given a small menu that listed all the ingredients being used throughout the evening. It was our kitchen crew that was given the autonomy (with the help of a black curtain dividing the kitchen) to decide how those ingredients would be combined, produced, and presented as final entrees, and to whom they were served, without any direction or instruction. If our participants wanted to have a more ideal dinner, then some collaborations or compromises needed to be made with the other guests.
CP: And your lasting impression of the evening, if you could summarize?
GR: As I mentioned, its nearly impossible to predict how it would unfold, so I didn’t really have any major expectations. Asking a bunch of strangers to come to a semi-random space in Pilsen to create dialogue on some rather serious topics can seem kinda daunting. But we had an amazing group of intelligent and inspiring participants who contributed great ideas. I think one of the biggest things I took away from the evening, and had been very eager to experience, was the wide variety of interpretations of Utopia, and how they were all influenced by economics, politics, social justice, community, family, inner emotion, psychology, and many other factors. But that variety of interpretations also means that we didn’t necessarily come to any general agreement about what Utopia could be on a massive scale — which reminds us of how difficult Utopias are to achieve.
Greg Ruffing is a writer and visual artist in Chicago. He is the Director of The Perch’s Dinner Symposia program.
Collin Pressler is a writer and arts facilitator living and working in Chicago. With Sixty Inches From The Center’s Tempestt Hazel, he is the Perch’s Co-Curator of Exhibitions and Events.
Matt Austin is an artist and educator living and working in Chicago. He is the founder and director of The Perch.
The Perch is a Chicago-proud platform for sharing ideas through the publishing of books, coordination of symposium dinners, and other efforts inspired by the potential and importance of free learning.
Connect with us at thechicagoperch [at] gmail [dot] com or #thechicagoperch.