Food acts as a universal language and in its essence it is about the moment of connection between individuals and disparate elements. In this inquiry, food and the cooking process is used as a lens to examine both tools and methods for interdisciplinary collaboration. The research occurs primarily in the studio, but also engages participants through workshops. The first was held at an international bi-annual design conference, Tasmeem, Doha in March 2013. Together, with a group of five individuals we looked at the exploration of fusion food in a group dynamic. The second workshop was held at Design Inquiry in June 2013 on Vinalhaven Island in Maine. A series of kitchen tools were made for use during the weeklong conference.
All individuals have unique and complex relationships with food, which encompasses choices they privilege or knowledge they have gathered through experience among many other factors. Everything about eating including what we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it and who’s at the table – is a form of communication rich with meaning. Our attitudes, practices and rituals around food are a window onto our most basic beliefs about the world and ourselves. (Harris, David and McLaughlin, 2005) Within that individuality, food, in it’s essence becomes a unifying element. No matter what an individual’s relationship is with food, the act of preparing and eating is universal. The cooking process then can be used as a lens to explore and construct a common language to engage in collaboration between many disciplines and environments.
The complexity of contemporary life and scale of today’s problems require many disciplines working together to provide solutions. Organizations such as Mattel, Steelcase, Boeing, Wrigley, Procter & Gamble, and the Mayo Clinic have discovered that innovation labs can be a powerful tool and useful when the desire to move
beyond barriers that were formed as a result of an assembly line like process. In these labs inventors from different disciplines gather like a swarming beehive to focus on a problem. They brainstorm and tinker with different approaches to generate innovative answers. (Weber, Holmes, Palmeri 2005) Trends towards open, interdisciplinary environments make it necessary to explore and ultimately create new sharable methods for working together creatively. Nevertheless, there are numerous challenges in working collaboratively when coming from varied backgrounds, such as devising a shared working language, objectives and outcomes, tasks and other items.
Collaboration has a long history in art and design practice however, it is an activity without substantial theory or development of process in the creative practices; it happens in an ad hoc manner. (Poggenpohl 2004) This occurs most likely because much of design knowledge is characterized by a tacit understanding of the process. Design education is based on building an implied understanding of the process, tools, systems and materials, and so designers favor operating in this mode and often have a difficult time articulating their methods and processes to others outside the discipline. A tacit approach to design maintains a sense of mystery, where intuition is the foundation, and learning is based on a master-apprentice model involving close observation and imitation. Craft is absorbed and sensibility is slowly acquired. (Poggenpohl 2009). It is evident that industry is moving towards interdisciplinary practice and so it is essential for the design profession to transition it’s knowledge from one of mysterious understanding to that of a sharable body of knowledge.
Like any type of craft based skill, cooking and design are learned only through making and critique. In this research, the cooking process is a natural model because of it’s universality to explore how a largely intuitive process can be transferred into sharable knowledge. It is with these models that designers can test ideas and understand the intricacies of interdisciplinary practice.
CASES IN ACTION: Tasmeem, Doha Qatar
The first workshop was held at Tasmeem, Doha, Qatar an international design conference on hybrid practice. Together with a group the exploration, testing, analysis and enjoyment of food functioned not only as a social cooking exercise, but also as a meta-process for collaborative strategies in art and design. Cooking together also became a means to discuss the conference theme, hybrid practice in art and design. The group was comprised of a diverse set of six participants with varying backgrounds and interests. Individual’s motivations to take part in the workshop ranged from exploring medicinal properties of ingredients, cultural identity attached to cuisine, and food writing to name a few. To establish a hybrid process we used fusion cooking as a model because diverse conference participants acted as a micro migrant influx and Qatar’s historic relationship to trade routes and nomadic populations, made it an ideal place to examine this type of food.
On the first day of the workshop each person performed an analysis of their recipe, breaking down the flavors, nutritional value, perceived context in which it would be consumed, historical significance, textural relationships, olfactory aspects, timeline, technique and methods used to cook, it’s relationship with other meals or foods. Next, we were introduced to the region with visits to the local fish, vegetable and meat markets, as well as the large supermarket for the necessary ingredients. After gathering our supplies two to three pairs worked collaboratively on modifying their chosen heirloom recipes each day. An analysis was then made as a group as to the success and failure of the modified recipe. Throughout the cooking sessions extensive documentation was gathered in the form of audio recordings, images, notes and mapping processes.
It was through cooking, analysis, discussion and documentation we were able to scrutinize hybridity and examine hybrid practice through the lens of both familiar traditions and exotic new experiences. By creating pairs in the workshop, the participants were immersed in the new methods and materials of their partners. They were also being asked to subject their own process to focused criticism. It was evident that the established process of dialogue and dissection of each participant’s altered recipe aided in transition individual knowledge from one of tacit understanding to explicit sharable knowledge.
The rhythm of creation and critique allowed for participants to move from “active” focus on process to “passive” reflection, expansion and inquiry. Each cycle ended in a semi formal meal/critique allowing for an open conversation about specific and general successes and failures as participants continued to chew on and digest a range of notions from hybridity to their own practice well after the kitchen had been cleaned and the oven turned off. “How do you make the okra crisper? Should we become generalized or specialized practitioners? How open and fluid are you within your respective discipline? Does hybridity naturally have its own structure or can it easily disintegrate into chaos? How do we place value on food? Where is the rice?” These conversations ranged from “big” ideas, to cursory commentary. This led to an appreciation and understanding of individuals in the group as well as understanding of individual perspectives, assisting in knowing not just the what and how, but also the why.
The endeavor demonstrated what participant Jessie Ulmer eloquently wrote, “this process of making not only has the capacity to create great tasting food, but it can also function as a powerful catalyst for conversation and thought. Our cooking and eating naturally gave rise to a collective Socratic dialogue, an ongoing, dynamic, largely inquiry-based conversation that reached far and wide but always returned to cooking and eating. This pattern suggested to me that, ultimately, cooking and eating is much more than the sum of its parts, particularly in the context of hybridity.” (Ulmer, 2013).
CASES IN ACTION: Design Inquiry, Vinalhaven Island Maine
The second workshop took place at Design Inquiry, on Vinalhaven Island in Maine. This is a weeklong conference that asks each of the twenty-four participants to contribute content. For the event we chose to shift the process from the act of cooking and discussion, to one that asked participants to build and or interact with four cooking tools. A cob oven and a ground-oven were made during the week. A wonderbag, a heat retention fabric bag designed to save fuel in third world countries and a still for distilling alcohol were brought to the island. Those at DI were asked to bring their heirloom recipes, similar to the previous workshop, in-order to establish a constraint in which modifications of materials and practices could be made specific to the cooking tools.
Food was again the lens to examine collaboration, and the established cooking process with the constructed tools was the means to modify our abstract comprehension of collaborative processes to that of a more concrete understanding. A striking comparison can be made between culinary practices and design because both acts are a creative process where methods both tacit and explicit are used. However, where cooking and design differ is in the accelerated pace of the cooking process. A meal is created in a number of hours leaving less time to ruminate on decisions and calling for the cook to act intuitively and creatively throughout the entire process. Cooking acts as a quickened microcosm of the design process that is easily accessible to those with and without design knowledge. The tools imposed restrictions or constraints on it’s users that required them to adapt what was normally an intuitive process to one that was more concrete or explicit.
For example, during the week the majority of participants were unsure of how to use the wonderbag, what to cook in it, or if to trust it’s function. Left to it’s own devices, the bag probably would have sat on the shelf without a guide to facilitate use. After several initial discussions between the makers and conference members, full control of the bag was given to the first tester. As others witnessed it’s use and were repeatedly surprised by how hot the spaghetti sauce was or how tender the pork roast was they were more willing to experiment with the tool. This object encouraged dialogue and catalyzed trial and error, because of its unfamiliarity. And so the tool’s users had to share knowledge amongst the group. Another instance of trial and error and shared process was revealed with the still. After initial education about moonshine participants were given the alcohol postproduction, which they found easily customizable. Combining 1-quart moonshine, bacon and 2 chunks of birch charcoal made Bacon birch moonshine. Spruce and orange rind moonshine was also made that week all for various cocktails. Though heirloom recipes were not used, bacon, spruce and orange rinds were prevalent in the kitchen and reconfigured for use as a result of ad-hoc group discussion and facilitation.
What was most significant in the weeklong workshop was the creation of an informal, but designated space where others feel comfortable in dialogue. It was evident in the first workshop that cooking, eating and washing up created a level of trust to share ideas and thoughts on the topic. This environment quickly allowed us to know each other’s skill sets and points of view. Often in collaboration knowing who you are working with, what their skills are as they related to design aids greatly in the process. (T.L. Allen and B.A.Chornyak, 2012) The cob and ground-oven both fashioned a convivial space because of the sites proximity to the barn space where people were gathering, cooking and eating. Both ovens, though only built by a select few, became an extension of the makeshift barn kitchen and as people tend to congregate around the kitchen, another gathering place was fashioned around the oven. This site created an unstructured time to ruminate on other participant’s lectures and work. The conversations were not only on the lectures but family recipes, how to cook various foods, family history, religion, and the nature of design.
Conclusion: The Universality of Food
All individuals have unique relationships with food. This relationship is contingent on numerous factors; some occurring because of physical chemistry and learned habits, others from cultural exposure or community history. Those relationships range in what choices they privilege or knowledge they have gathered through experience. However within that individuality, food in its essence becomes a unifying element. No matter what an individual’s relationship is with food the act of preparing and eating is universal. And so the cooking process has the potential to bring designers and other disciplines together to speak a common language.
Cooking is a creative, intuitive practice and learning how to prepare food or design is the result of similar educational conditions. Students gather methods and processes in both activities through prototyping, experimentation and critique. Like any type of craft based skill, cooking and design are learned only through making and critique. Through learning you individualize your methods and processes. Design thinking methods are not fixed and are changing depending on the situation. However, in this research we can look at ways to develop intuitive knowledge into sharable methods to be used, contested or borrowed. It is with these models that designers can begin to understand the structure of creative thinking in interdisciplinary practice. What this research has demonstrated is interdisciplinary environments can be formed with a universal unifying element. That formal language arises out of establishing trust as well a metaphor for relating others experiences. Those who participated in Tasmeem and at Design Inquiry were from diverse professional backgrounds, yet we were able to have fruitful discussions and debates.
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