Next Wave Festival Review – Food for Thought

By Nicki Russell

In 1979, five years of work by a team of artists and friends realised the vision of Judy Chicago, and resulted in the large installation piece The Dinner Party. As part of the piece, 39 places were set around a triangular banquet table for significant women, mythological and historical. A further 999 names were inscribed on tiles on the floor beneath the table. Vulval imagery was used at each place setting through sculpture, painting and textile art on plates. The installation’s purpose was to celebrate women’s achievements and contributions to history.

The Dinner Party was as fiercely criticised for what many perceived as essentialism and further exclusion branded as inclusion (the vast majority of the names were those of white and heterosexual women), as it was lauded as a great achievement in feminist art. Although opinion continues to vary widely, the importance of the piece has been undeniable.

Food for Thought was designed as an engagement with our feminist heritage and an exploration of its contemporary meanings.

LEVEL artist collective’s founding co-directors Courtney Coombs, Rachel Haynes and Alice Lang – inspired by Chicago’s work – created an evening of discussion around a dinner table focused on “the role of women and feminism in the twenty-first century”.

Entitled Food for Thought and part of the 2012 Next Wave Festival; four dinner parties were held between 20 and 26 May 2012. With a special focus on women in the arts, a mixture of participants chosen by ballot and a few curated guests asked to bring along questions for the evening, Food for Thought was designed as an engagement with our feminist heritage and an exploration of its contemporary meanings.

But how did the reality of a group of strangers meeting to discuss feminist issues play out? The discussion for the evening I attended covered judgement of the physical appearance of women in the media; the horror that is porn/the internet; the “pornification” of our culture/standards of dress for women; and women taking men’s names in marriage.

Unfortunately a more nuanced approach to the issues facing women in the arts and media that considered factors such as class or race was overlooked. The brief mention made of a former attendee who wore a hijab and had expressed she often encountered people’s assumption that she must be oppressed, somehow quickly degenerated into a discussion of women in “the third world” being married at age three to old men, or “being killed in buckets at two months of age before they’ve even had the chance to have a life.” These statements were made to illustrate how ridiculous a dinner party chat about the politics of surnames appears within a global context.

Feminism has many forms, and the evening’s discussion represents another valid form, with real concerns.

The hyperbolic exoticisation of the Other, and simultaneous absolution of any self-indulgent focus by acknowledging one’s privilege, was as close as the evening came to a more complex appreciation of feminist issues. Given that the participants were almost exclusively white, heterosexual, middle class, cis-gendered, liberal, educated women, it isn’t surprising that their conversation reflected the dominant voice given to feminism (white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, privileged women who have issues with Rihanna’s newest music video).

However, this critique of the evening reflects the conflict between my own personal politics and that of the evening’s discussion. Since Chicago’s work was created, various groups have critiqued the piece – as well as that particular brand of conservative, outspoken, “mainstream” feminism that has essentialist ideas about patriarchy, and a prescriptive approach to the experience of, and resistance to, oppression through sex, sexuality, gender and appearance. The work of women of colour, poststructural feminists and queer theorists has gained in popularity and influence.

I may have, at times, found the conversation derivative of Andrea Dworkin and co., and not representative of the varied experiences of women, but this is only my experience. Feminism has many forms, and the evening’s discussion represents another valid form, with real concerns. The demographics of the participants ultimately reflect the nature of the project itself – an inner-city art project as part of a contemporary art festival – and are no failing of the artists.

Coombs commented that there was a significant difference in tone and content between evenings. Again, I have only one evening’s impressions to convey. Finally, and importantly, most of the women who attended expressed that they found the evening to be extremely positive and valued the solidarity they found in that space.

Food for Thought is a wonderful concept, which promises to generate ongoing output for LEVEL. The artists involved want the work to continue and become a community-based project, which is exciting and could address issues of representation. It will certainly be worth watching to see how it evolves and is harnessed by its creators.

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