Generative Commensalism

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him... the people who give you their food give you their heart.
— Cesar Chavez

Jay, Rod, and Nathan discussing rural community health and medicine

Social sculpture requires buy-in, and that is sometimes hard to get. Countless projects start off with great intentions and end up only being symbolic rather than truly actual. Ultimately, the success of social sculpture depends on the pairing of trust and understanding--a community's trust of the artist or collaborative, and the artist(s) understanding of the needs and desires of the community. I only know I am on the road to progressive, futuring work when I realize i am out of my comfort zone--when I need to build trust.

Taking on art projects in small towns is a challenge, to say the least. Trust is critical. I have found that it is important to find a common denominator. For me, it has proven, over again, to be pancakes. I have not found anyone who does not like pancakes. The pancake dialogs began after I was introduced to other artists such as Ben Kinmont and Michael Rakowitz put themselves in unknown waters with similar projects, like Waffles for an Opening and Enemy Kitchen. I built a small, portable gas stove and put it in MAKETANK Projects. Christina and I invited people from College Corner, and then invited them to invite their friends, for guided discussions. We explained, simply, that we now live here, we want to contribute, so we want to get to know the community as well as we can to best know how to, as popularized by Karl Marx, to give from each according to (his) ability, to each according to (his) needs. It was slow to start at MAKETANK Projects, but we have had over 14 pancake dialogs focusing on various social topics and questions, such as addiction and fragility, rules and order, art's potential to create actual change, and the changing landscape of rural ghettofication.

This is more than just a meal. Yes, we do talk while we eat, but we do so with a mission to truly understand the topic at hand. The techniques we use don't feel like techniques anymore, but a contemporary sociocultural anthropologist observing from across the room may identify methods including appreciative inquiry, solution-based thinking, and inquiry-based learning. We keep markers on the table (water-based so they don't stink) and encourage guests to write down their thoughts as they come to them. This is important, as we know that when we are courteous and wait for someone to finish their sentence, we may lose what has come to mind--so write it down. After each meal, MAKETANK debriefs the "tablecloths" to best understand what was said, and what was not.

"tablecloth" from a pancake dialog

The food needs to be good as well. We ARE artists, after all. Art and food are alot alike. Both can be made well, or poorly. Both have options that will satisfy, even inspire, and some can leave you flat. I have seen both art and eaten food that simply filled me up (a recent Armory Show) without making me happy. We try to impress our guests so much that they become partners.  When there are dietary restrictions, the pancake dialogs often turn into "disk food" dialogs--sometimes pancakes just don't work. We accommodate those with lactose intolerance, casien allergies, and gluten intolerance or avoidance, and we even are happy to cook vegan (the most challenging of all because of eggs--how can you make a fluffy pancake without eggs?). In all cases, the challenge was accepted and the compliments to the chef took on the form of thoughtful, meaningful dialog and conversation. That, of course, is the point.