Food as Evidence of Colonialism and the Capitalocene



Since 2013, Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe) has been examining the histories of colonialism and the geologies of capitalism through the prism of food. In this interview, we ask them about the research and installations they have developed.

Article published in The Funambulist 31 (September-October 2020) Politics of Food. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Could we start this conversation with a few definitions? How do you define “food,” “cooking,” and “cuisine?”  

COOKING SECTIONS: Food became a very important tool for us since the moment we started working together back in 2013 — basically a tool to understand a landscape at large, not only from the perspective of growing, consuming or organizing territories in different ways, but also through political struggles behind power regimes. Through that lens of edible produce,  we use food as a way to explore some of these questions, and imagine scenarios or alternative futures. Of course it relates to cooking, the act of mixing all of these ingredients in a more figurative or literal sense, but it was also important for us to bring multiple disciplines in that understanding of landscape, space or the built environment. So that’s why we thought with Cooking Sections we could start other methodologies that could combine all of these different approaches. 

In the past year, we have been reading about the history of food production in France, in particular two books; one is Rebecca L. Spang’s The Invention of the Restaurant (2000) and how the restaurant came about; a class differentiation in society within post-industrialization and modernity if you want. When cuisine became “a thing”, especially for certain elites, that materialized in space of the restaurant as invented in Paris — bouillons restaurants, a place to have a concentrate soup to restore the body. The word “restaurant” was popularized then as the place to restore bodies, but we like to connect that to more present conditions and think of the restaurant as a place to restore ecology and all possible organisms as well, not just human bodies. 

Cooking Sections Funambulist (3)
“What Is Above Is What Is Below.” /
Installation by Cooking Sections in Palermo (2018).

The second connection is Emma C. Spary’s Feeding France, 1760-1815 (2014), which explores two approaches. One is, again, how to feed the elite, and the other how to feed the popular masses, especially around the time of the French Revolution. And that is when you need to start thinking about how a nation-state needs to produce sugar to fuel workers at a time when Caribbean sugar was no longer available because of the Haitian Revolution. The nation then became invested in inventing alternative sugar sources, in the case of France, from domestically grown sugar beets. So that is the other side of cuisine, as a national project launched when colonization and imperialism starts to crumble. 

LL: You are part of the few artists and designers who can explain their practice in one clear sentence. In fact, you write that Cooking Sections “explores the systems that organize the world through food.” We’ll talk further about some of these systems but could we remain within the abstraction of a definition for the moment with you telling us more about the extent to which the world is organized through food? 

CS: It is not groundbreaking to think that the world is organized through food, as everyone consumes it several times a day (hopefully). And yet, the way we use it provides us with a tool to understand the different territories around production systems, large-scale infrastructures, transoceanic transportation, forms of livelihood… Alongside, you can actually also understand pollution, soil exhaustion, climatic changes, as well as class and racial inequalities among many other things. So in a way, food systems start conveying all different factors that, for us, are relevant, or at least interesting, to understand the capitalocene. In our practice the spaces that result from such complexities can be first critically used to tear things apart, which is sometimes easy. What is challenging though is to start thinking of interventions to keep things together, forms of action that can start modifying bits and pieces along the food chain to understand the implications of any of these disruptions and potentialities. 

LL: Your project “Empire Remains” examines “the contemporary history of imperial fruit, sugar, rum, cocoa, spices, and condiments.” Could you consider a few of these items or others and retrace their colonial lineage and exploitation?