Producing experimental culinary designs—including recipes which incorporate bats, geese, snails, bio-char and water buffalo milk—the New York-based Cross(x)SpeciesAdventure Club is driven to find solutions for improving our natural systems. Led by the Australian-born artist and scientist Natalie Jeremijenko, the club believes that environmental action is intrinsically related to our everyday actions. Mobilising food as a medium through which to critically reflect on the impacts and processes of ubiquitous and alternative modes of food production and consumption, the club seeks to offer the public new culinary experiences and ways to envision (and design) an expanded and sustainable bio-diverse future. For example, when at Cross(x)Species Adventure Club’s events Jeremijenko dishes up ‘nano water buffalo ice-cream’—‘nano’ because of the size of the ice crystals—she does so with the aim of discussing alternatives to the dairy industry. She argues, “Water buffalo milk has higher protein, lower fat and more nutrients than traditional cow’s milk […] It also has a smaller land area requirement, which would allow us to reclaim wetlands that have been taken for pasture.” Moreover, argues Jeremijenko, “wetlands are the most effective carbon sequestering ecosystems” and embody great potential for a sustainable future. Through such dishes and discussions, the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club aims to provoke its guests to critically reflect on the consequences of what they eat and the possibility of augmenting our ecosystem by way of these choices. The club hopes that urban dwellers—whether they are based in New York or other cities—will be influenced to change their consumption habits and support a sustainable future. As Jeremijenko argues, “It’s a particularly urban design challenge, to transform our relationship with the ecosystem to become a form of cultivation rather than extraction or damage.” Rather than seeing cities as sites of pollution, she seeks to emphasise and tease out their potential as hubs of environmental renewal. In her words, she hopes to “invert our cultural preconception that nature is out there and the city is not where nature is. Our cities are natural systems.” The aim here is to stress that environmental activism and change begins in the urban space, and can begin with a gesture as seemingly banal as eating.
Aesthetic/Visual: The Cross(x)Species Adventure Club aims to use its events as a means to trigger new gastronomic sensations and develop our capacity to imagine an expanded biodiversity.
Innovation/Risk (Conceptual and Technical): To produce their recipes, the chefs at the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club—Mihir Desai and Emilie Baltz—combine complex molecular gastronomy with extensive research (led by Jeremijenko).
Social Activation/Debate: The Cross(x)Species Adventure Club aims to galvanise community members to adopt different attitudes and habits regarding the food they consume and the industries they support.
Community Development: The Cross(x)Species Adventure Club is charged with the task of “creating interfaces that draw people into the environment and get them to re-imagine collective action”, argues Jeremijenko. For Jeremijenko this offers a far more complex and empowering solution for addressing the food industry’s impact on the environment than the act of being a vegan or vegetarian. Arguing that such positions are too “simplistic” and “don’t solve any problems”, Jeremijenko argues: “[such a] moral philosophical position […] reduces our sense of the capacity to redesign and re-imagine and actually use both our creative and analytic capacity to figure out how to make it better. To say ‘I’m not eating that, I have a safe moral position’ is bullshit.” As such, the aim of the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club is to capture the agency of individuals and collectives and produce alternative solutions to mainstream food industries and modes of consumptions—namely, by expanding biodiversity.
Health and Well-Being: The Cross(x)Species Adventure Club is part of Jeremijenko’s larger project, The Environmental Health Clinic. At the clinic, argues Jeremijenko:
[W]e are here to treat environmental health issues and health issues as environmental issues. I’m trying to redefine health, not as something internal—atomized and individualized and pharmaceuticalized and medicalized—but as something that is shared and external. Anything you do to improve your water quality, air quality or your local environmental health means that the benefits are enjoyed not only by you but by anybody you share the air or water quality with.
As such, the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club acts as a means to influence individuals to reflect on and engage environmental challenges through the foods they consume and the inter-related choices they make.
Habitat Provision and Restoration: Part of the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club mission is to reclaim and generate wetlands within and surrounding urban spaces. As the most effective carbon sequestering ecosystems, wetlands embody great potential for a sustainable future. However, argues Jeremijenko, “Major urban wetlands are overbuilt with international airports [for example], right where they would be most effective.” In turn, the club intends to find ways to reclaim and produce wetlands for farming water buffalo.
Attracting Investment and Improving Output: By promoting the farming of water buffalo, the New York-based club also aims to intervene in and challenge the US dairy industry’s farming practices.
OUTCOMES AND IMPACTS
Aesthetic/Visual and Innovation/Risk (Conceptual and Technical): The gastronomic experiments of the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club have captured the imagination of the public—as seen with the continuing and global success of Jeremijenko’s supper clubs and other culinary events, which have toured to Melbourne, Dublin, and Amsterdam, amongst other cities. At times, explains Jeremijenko, she has encountered some resistance. She states, “People aren’t adventurous—even the hippest coolest people are very attached to their food habits. It’s bizarre how little desire there is to experiment. That’s of course why you don’t give people any choice [with the menu].” Yet overall, Jeremijenko argues, it is not uncommon for people to claim that the club offers its guests a unique and impressive experience: one guest stated, it was, “the best food experience of my life.”
Social Activation/Debate and Community Development: The sensory experience and culinary delights offered by the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club have effectively triggered interesting conversations about food, argues Jeremijenko. She states, “there’s something to the idea that the complexity of the tastes that people are experiencing makes them open to hearing about these complex systems and processes that they would otherwise not be motivated to hear.” In turn, Jeremijenko believes that the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club has been relatively more effective than some environmental groups in getting the public to engage in debates on biodiversity. She argues:
All of the environmental groups really struggle with quantifying the value of biodiversity. It’s very hard to measure the value of biodiversity when it comes up against how many jobs a strip mining operation will create or how much power and economic stimulation another hydro-dam project will create. That’s what I think is most successful about the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club dinners as a medium, is that people really understand the importance of biodiversity when the intensity, and the complexity, and the sheer thrill of the food that they’re eating makes it so available in ways that you can never quite articulate otherwise.
In turn, argues Jeremijenko, most people who attend Cross(x)Species Adventure Club events are willing to be supporters of the subsequent phases of the project.
Health and Well-Being: The success of the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club and the Environmental Health Clinic’s aim of augmenting our eco-system is contingent on activating the community to re-design their relationship to the environment. While it is difficult to measure the success of this aim, reviews of Cross(x)Species Adventure Club events often report on their “inspiring” affect and potential to induce changed behaviours. For example, in a review of the club’s ‘Dinner of Drought and Flooding Rains’ held in Melbourne in 2012, the food critic (and (President of Slow Food Victoria) Kelly Donati argued:
It was an eye-opening meal of cross-species deliciousness, as Natalie calls it. I went home feeling energised, excited and upbeat about the future (or was it just the devilishly good 666 Tasmanian vodka left on every table?). The convivial atmosphere allowed me to connect with interesting people who might even down the track become co-collaborators in one way or another. At a minimum, there will be farm visits with new friends. This is exactly Mihir and Natalie’s intention: to create participative and connective mouth-watering art that mobilises people to think and act differently.
Environmental and Economic
Habitat Provision and Restoration: The Cross(x)Species Adventure Club has made some significant advances in its attempts to raise awareness regarding the potential of wetlands and the benefits of water buffalo farming.
Attracting Investment and Improving Output: In 2011, the club began talks with two major dairy producers Unilever (which owns Ben & Jerry’s) and Fonterra. Fonterra has asked the club to produce a report regarding the benefits of buffalo farming and dairy produce. Moreover, Jeremijenko feels positive that there is some chance of intervening in Unilever’s dairy production. As she argues, “Unilever uses the Ben & Jerry’s brand to hide an extraordinary amount of un-progressive practices […] there’s an Achilles’ heel that we can use to get in and influence a huge corporation.”
They have also met with dairy farmers. Convincing them to work with water buffalo is quite difficult, reflects Jeremijenko. “We’ve had these beautiful conversations where they start by saying ‘What the…? What on Earth are you talking about?’” states Jeremijenko. Currently, the club is organising support for the project by getting New Yorkers to purchase the buffalo that the farmers will then work with. It will allow the farmers to experiment with the idea without taking on the financial risk. As an inter-related project, the club and the Environmental Health Clinic have also launched a subscription program through which individuals will receive a different flavour of water buffalo ice cream every month. Here, the aim is to show that there is interest and a demand for the product.
The impetus for the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club derives from Jeremijenko’s belief that while reducing pesticides, food miles and carbon emissions are necessary gestures, they are also radically insufficient. “What we actually need to be doing,” she argues, “is designing food and food systems that increase biodiversity, that improve the earth’s environmental health and that proffer radically different ways to relate to natural systems.” This, Jeremijenko argues, “is the biggest challenge of the 21st century, and food is the most direct and palpable way to do that, it’s the most immediate daily issue around which to work.”
Working with food, however, brings with it a number of challenges and constraints, stresses Jeremijenko: “Food is such an accessible medium—everyone eats—but that also makes it extremely difficult.” The food served at the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club isn’t designed to be cost-efficient. Its menu is generated from a tremendous amount of research and is geared toward mobilising a larger ecological exploration and curiosity. To various degrees, argues Jeremijenko, the supper club succeeds in achieving its goal, but at the same time, it has faced several economic challenges. Jeremijenko states:
Food is populist, and inclusive—a catalyst for a bio-diverse and tasty future. I know that’s the case, figuring out how to present the project in a way that is viable, and in a way that doesn’t send me broke because, quite frankly, the Cross(X)Species Adventure Club has, is now my focus.
Correlative to the project’s economic constraints, the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club has also faced challenges in distinguishing itself from the food industry. Jeremijenko argues, “restaurants and the food industry are very different to food as art […] The [greater the] extent to which we distance ourselves from the food industry in its existing form the better it is.” For Jeremijenko, the current modus operandi of the food industry is to commodify food via the star chef phenomenon”. This reduces the concept of food-as-art to a mode of empty formalism, she argues. As Jeremijenko states, “It’s as if, conceptual art in the 20th century didn’t happen, it’s not about ideas, it’s about textures and form and that’s what you’re working against.” Moreover, argues Jeremijenko, “There’s this huge industry of cooking shows and chefs and restaurants—which I couldn’t care less about. I’m interested in food as this device for exploring how we collectively re-invent our relationship to natural systems in order to address the most challenging issues that we face.” But in attempting to find a financially viable model for her project, Jeremijenko is now keen to see if it’s possible to move beyond the one-off supper club events (and other similar events) and begin to place her products in more common everyday settings (at exhibition openings for example). In doing so, argues Jeremijenko, it will be possible to build a market for her project and more than this, it will allow her research and ideas to have a more consistent effect and resonance than is permitted by the club’s irregular events.
IMPACTS OF ARTWORK PRODUCTION
In the following comments, Natalie Jeremijenko offers a rigorous critique and analysis of the politics of “assessing artwork production” against eco-sustainability measures.
What consideration went in to the selection of materials? Was an effort made to source materials that were more sensitive to the environment?
The raison d’etre of the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club is to explore food and food systems that actually increase biodiversity and improve environmental health, that is, the adventure club is fundamentally about substantial re-imagination and re-design of urban food systems. This is inconsistent with a “more-sensitive-to-the-environment” approach and incompatible with the suggestion that minor considerations or material substitution are the strategies that work. These are just not a good measure (or any measure) of the creative resources or community concern for producing healthy environmental commons.
Was any effort made to measure the environmental impacts of the construction and maintenance of the work? That is, in terms of energy use in operation and construction, travel during the construction phase, and embodied energy and other life-cycle impacts of the materials used?
The edibles I presented were experienced sensuously and presented conceptual exploration of complex ecosystems including watershed pollutant transport, wetland bio-geochemical processes and the wondrous lifestyles of frogs among other organisms. The deliciousness of these foods, or the desirability of the outcomes I was exploring (improved urban air-quality, increased biodiversity, better human health) is not captured by these questions. The energy, travel and lifecycle analysis are not only preliminary considerations, and not only irrelevant to the considerations of creative and significant socio-ecological system design for complex urban systems—they are simply not appropriate. These parameters (travel costs, energy bills, life-cycle analysis) sound like the sorts of claims used in/for corporate greenwashing (that is, for projects that have no obvious cultural or educational value). Considering that there exists no single credible or comprehensive lifecycle analysis in the published literature in the last twenty-five years despite millions of dollars expended, to ask that lifecycle analysis practices be applied to/for cultural work is highly problematic, not least because it could undermine the capacity to consider the cultural value of the work itself.
And with respect to travel during the construction phase?
The cultural value of intellectual interchange, research and public experiments cannot be evaluated on the costs involved in putting on a lecture. This kind of question does not acknowledge that the work’s capacity helps to lubricate the smooth exchange and development of ideas and the critical focus on addressing our shared environmental challenges. This question distracts from the value of human interchange with the implication that fictional accounting and fluctuating fuel costs should be used to produce fictional ratings and stars for as-usual corporate activity. This is radically inappropriate for cultural production.
Was there any innovation in the use of materials or processes that were more environmentally friendly than the alternatives?
From my point of view, “Environmentally friendly” is a term that suggests that research, cultural and socio-ecological analysis is not required … one just is supposed to be “friendly” … to what exactly?
Is the environmental footprint of the work in keeping with the aims and intent of the artwork?
I view “environmental footprints” as a devastatingly irresponsible framework. The cultural challenge we face is exactly not to address our “footprint”. The challenge we face is to re-imagine and re-design our shared urban environments, which requires creative imaginary and collective production not the counterproductive and thoroughly boring work of measuring footprints. Footprints are necessary for going anywhere … the question is where are we going, and how do we get to somewhere where we want to be.
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