Connecting Art, Food and Nature – Jorge Menna Barreto

Posted on 8 May 2019 by Liverpool Biennial

Jorge Menna Barreto, Restauro (32 Biennial De São Paulo), 2016. Photo: Joelson Bugila

Jorge Menna Barreto, Restauro (32 Biennial De São Paulo), 2016. Photo: Joelson Bugila

Brazilian artist Jorge Menna Barreto creates site-specific projects which investigate our delicate relationship with food, society and nature. Asking audiences to engage through the act of eating, he questions complex environmental issues relating to our unsustainable dependence on a global food system. Here, Jorge discusses site-specificity, the importance of collaboration and his appetising plans for LightNight 2019, giving us a taste of things to come for Liverpool Biennial 2020.

On Site-Specific Art and Food

My interest in site-specific art and practices – both as a scholar and an artist – dates back to my time as an undergraduate at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. Since then, I’ve been considering the notion of site in all its complexities: from its historical and architectural layers, to the ecological aspects and the species living in it.

During my research, I came across the idea that food can be a privileged mediator in the relationship between society and the environment. What we eat is one of the main landscape modifiers in the world today. This is very visible in Brazil – as soon as you leave the city, you see the landscape being transformed by sugarcane and soya bean plantations. It’s very present and very frequent. The impact of this is not just visual. For example, the decreasing biodiversity directly impacts on the quality and amount of water available to us.

On Collaborating Outside the Art World

The first time I collaborated with people outside of the art world was during my postdoctoral research at Santa Catarina State University. I worked alongside a biologist and an agronomy student, which opened a whole different world for me. It created many different narratives for the way I look at site. There was one site visit that we did together, where we went to the park for a project that I was doing, and for me, the grass that we were looking at was just… long. A green surface. Whereas, they were able to identify twelve different species of edible plants. The idea that they could read a space with a completely different perspective was completely mind-boggling for me.

Jorge Menna Barreto, Restauro (32 Biennial of São Paulo), 2016. Photo: Joelson Bugila

There is a Brazilian artist I like a lot, called Ricardo Basbaum, who created a way to define artists who are simultaneously an artist, farmer, educator... he calls them 'etc.-artists'. You would have an artist-artist, a full-time artist with a studio-based practice, and then you have the ‘etc.-artists’ who are also something else. It’s interesting what he says about the ethical implications of that; it’s not just about crossing the border in the name of art and acting irresponsibly in other areas. It’s about understanding the specificities of these other areas and acting accordingly. When you go into another field, you’re much more of a listener than a talker at first.

On Dandelions and Local Produce

My idea for LightNight is to work with site-specific food that relates to Liverpool, then give it a little twist by making a site-specific ice cream. We wanted to create something festive, something that people easily relate to, so we came up with a flavour of ice cream that is not in the stores… yet! Working in collaboration with local restaurant  Maray, we are creating a recipe using dandelions that grow spontaneously around here. We are using a specific part of the plant – the flowers’ pettles.

Wild edibles are an amazing way for people learn about site-specificity because they grow spontaneously and tell you the story of a place. They are not cultivated and grow because of the present conditions without the need for intervention. I think it’s a very interesting way to connect to the earth, when you start eating whatever grows spontaneously around you.

Drawing by Marcio Diegues © Jorge Menna Barreto

The food system as it is organised today can be very troublesome. Unless you are growing your own food, it’s very hard not to view food as something you must buy – a product – especially if you live in the city. As far as I can see into the future, I don’t think we can expect a complete change in the way we are growing our food. We are still very dependent on cities. But change is possible if we have more awareness of where we get our food from and who we support. For instance, we have a lot of power when we decide whether to shop at a supermarket or the farmer’s market. 

Join us for LightNight on Friday 17 May 2019 when you can taste Jorge’s dandelion ice cream for free as part of Liverpool’s one-night arts festival. The artist is also developing a new work for Liverpool Biennial 2020 which fosters our sense of belonging and relationship to nature.