Aleksandra Mir

The How Not To Cookbook

By Rosalie Doubal, Glasgow, September 2009

The How Not To Cookbook
6 Aug 2009
Collective gallery, Edinburgh

Is This Collaboration?

With regard to collaborative practice, Aleksandra Mir’s The How Not To Cookbook, sits at an unusual conjuncture. Although conceived, collated and illustrated by the artist, the publication comprises 1,000 contributions from cooks from all over the world. Mir is not collaborating in the now-traditional sense – with another artist or group of artists- instead, she collaborates with her public. Although this project involves many cooks, it only involves one artist, and whilst Mir has not chosen to operate as part of a collective, the project raises questions that remain common with contemporary collaborative practices. This subversive work toys with our notions of authorship and authenticity, and most significantly, it proffers an implicit critique of the idea of the artist as a figure that stands outside of society. Judged either by its success as a public artwork that provides a departure for multiple conversations, or as a limited edition text that undermines questions of authorship and epistemology, Mir’s The How Not To Cookbook could never be accused of remaining fixed or singular.

Stemming from an interest in how we are taught, or teach ourselves, through trial and error, Mir’s project holds educational aspirations beyond the obvious and the repetitive. While your average cookbook presents recipes that are designed to facilitate immediate success, they rarely document the ways in which it can fail. By embracing the negative side of the ‘how to’ dialogue (a ‘how’ will forever be informed by a ‘how not’), Mir is entering into an infinitely regressive and delightfully obscure field of knowledge. It is undoubtedly unusual to see such imperative yet inexpert information formalised and bound. As such, this culinary tome presents an original take on the format of both the artists’ book and the cookbook.

The Mechanics of Exchange

In a bid to explore further this artistic curiosity – a public artwork in book form – Collective produced a series of events. These were designed to examine the role of public artworks in relation to the project; how it alters out perceptions of both public art and public space. In keeping with Mir’s project, and for reasons highlighted by keynote speaker Mary Ann Francis when she stated, ‘eating together offers a relatively equitable platform from which those gathered together can pursue more challenging common goals 1.’, food was involved in each event. Providing a ready means to sociality, the inclusion of a shared dining element at events such as the Porty Potluck Dinner at Portobello Community Centre, alongside entertainment such as comedy and music, encouraged discussions, contributions, and relaxed considerations of the artistic issues raised by the key speaker
At the inaugural How Not To Cook event Guest speaker, Glasgow School of Art Senior Lecturer Ray McKenzie, presented Public Space in a Private Time, an illustrated talk that lends its title from an essay written in 1990 by American artist Vito Acconci. Identifying aspects of public space and the problematic relationship that has arisen between the private and the public in urban space, McKenzie furthered an argument that suggested that these changes hold important consequences for contemporary practices of public art. He suggested that the current dominance of the needs of the private-individual over the public-self – a conceit ushered in during the Thatcher era – illustrated the extent to which our cities are designed to cater for the needs of the consumer rather than the citizen. Further to this, and perhaps posing the greatest threat to more traditional works of public art, McKenzie argued that this fact illustrates the degree to which our engagement with the city is increasingly mediated by electronic technology. He urged, ‘There are certain side effects (to the new technologies), and there are subtle changes in our behaviour, that are leading us inexorably to a place that I don’t think we really want to go. We’ve got to find ways of resisting this and a public art project could be one way of doing it.’

Whilst acknowledging that the artist responsible for The How Not To Cookbook project is working in a field that has come to be understood as Relational Aesthetics, McKenzie delineated the following definition of public space: ‘What distinguishes public space is not the fact that it’s out of doors, it’s the fact that it creates opportunities for exchange, for people to interact with each other. A public space is a place of exchange. That exchange can take a number of different forms – intellectual, commercial – or it can be a social exchange, where people come together to talk and converse, to enjoy each other’s company’ 2.

In keeping with Nicolas Bourriaud, who in his 1998 text Relational Aesthetics argues that artists are facilitators rather than makers, McKenzie views Mir’s The How Not To Cookbook as providing the potential for social exchange. He aligns this work with ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their context, rather than an independent and private space’ 3.

On Authorship

Whilst Mir’s Cookbook presents in itself a level site of exchange – a rhizomatic source of information created by 1,000 different voices – so too does the work allow for further situations of exchange to arise. And indeed, even disregarding the public events organised by the Gallery, the works course of events, both prior to and post publication, has taken such twists and turns to allow for collaboration and conversation. Contributions were collected from Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, France, Italy, the UK and the US. Regional editors and staff infiltrated community centres, residential homes, schools, clubs, restaurants, canteens and shops; meetings were held, stories were told and scenarios re-imagined. Following its publication, contributors and cooks have visited the gallery to collect their copy of the work, and the press continue to further its influence. Perhaps the most notable example of the Book’s burgeoning fruition within the public domain is the response received by Guardian journalist Alex Renton to his Word of Mouth Blog post The How Not To Cookbook. Acknowledging the Book’s imperative style, readers continue to post their own culinary anecdotes and advice in the Blog’s ‘Comment’ section – and so the work continues to morph and grow4.

Although preconceived exchanges, the Collective-organised series of cooking workshops held with a local chef, community members and support workers from Streetwork Edinburgh, are exemplary of both the continued collaborative legacy of the work, and a materialisation of the project’s conceit to learn through trial and error. Held in Streetwork’s large kitchen, the workshops provided a relaxed and informal environment in which to explore cooking methods and techniques. From week to week the group democratically decided what they wished to experiment with, and what was to be bought, brought and organised. From onion-chopping and white sauce-making techniques, to chilli-heat remedies and scallop-searing tips, the group compared and contrasted styles in a bid to find the best, and worst, methods of cooking.

In contrast to McKenzie’s approach to Mir’s catalytic public artwork, when addressing the collected crowd at The Book’s launch party, writer and artist Mary Ann Francis chose to concentrate on the authorship of The Book. Her talk, again couched in the sociability of a shared meal – each guest was invited to crack an egg into a giant omelette mix – took the form of a toast. Disregarding the series of relations caused by the Book’s existence, Francis addressed instead the series of relations inherent to the text.

Speaking at length on the connotations of this Book’s unconventional authorship, Francis argued that the multiplicity of voice to be found in The How Not To Cookbook resonates with notable recent developments in contemporary art. After drawing attention to the nuances of this work, by way of witty wordplay with terms such as ‘author’, ‘authority’, ‘expert’ and ‘experience’, Francis identified an increasing interest in the last ten years, of what she referred to as ‘social art practices’. Francis described these as ‘forms of Art that variously involve more than just one artist, and more than any number of artists.’ She explained, ’In the first instance, I’m thinking of projects that involve several artists working together (groups such as ‘Bank’, and the Danish art-group ‘Superflex’); artists working as a Collective. In the second instance, projects that involve an artist, or artists working with non-artists – which might include, as well as other ‘specialists’ or ‘professionals’, ‘the public’.

The Spaces In-Between Are Often The Homes of Nuance

Francis acknowledged that there are political nuances in terms of how social art practices’ configure their pluralised authorship. Citing emerging terminologies such as ‘participatory practices’, ‘collaborative practices’ and ‘facilitated practices’, Francis resisted positioning Mir’s project within this array, and in turn aligned the work with a text written by theorist Michael Lingner. Frances argued that How Not to Cook might be seen to be Art – of the ’post-autonomous’ kind. An artist, (Aleksandra Mir) has chosen to work with the leftovers of another discipline (the often ‘discarded’ knowledge of ‘Domestic Science’)’. This intriguing stance draws to the fore the question of whether the implied authors of the work, in this case our 1,000 international cooks, are therefore also artists. Francis solidified her position by stating, ‘At stake in this debate are complex issues of agency, systems of attribution, ideas about cultural capital and ownership and the way they pan out across different media and more acutely still, in the politics of multi-subject cultural practices.’

Whether engaging with its public as cooks, artists or collaborators, Mir’s project exhibits an enormous social appetite5. By occupying ambiguous positions – between catalyst and tool, public and private, art, and ultimately, life – this hardworking book has affected an accomplished array of social spheres. Received with intrigue, recognition, and most commonly, good humour, the inherent and acquired negative knowledge of Mir’s The How Not Too Cookbook, continues to regress and mutate.

1 Mary Ann Francis, Toast, Transcript of speech delivered 5th August 2009, Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh.

2 Ray McKenzie, Public Art in a Private Time, Illustrated Lecture delivered 18th April 2009, Portobello Community Hall, Edinburgh

3 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 1998

4 Alex Renton, The How Not To Cookbook, Posted 24 Aug 2009

5 Lars Bang Larsen has referred to Aleksandra Mir’s works as ‘social processes that are open for anyone who wishes giving the work meaning. The work of art is an exercise that operates in everyday life; a humanistic and playful organism with a large social appetite.’ MOMENTUM Catalogue, 1998.