[Word document format here: FINAL EVALUATION MERIEL EAST]
REINVENTING THE MEAL: FINAL EVALUATION
In my Final Major Project, I wanted to challenge the conventional format of a meal. Looking into how cultural eating rituals differ around the world has led me to create a sharing platter based around Indian desserts – mithai. It would be used as an interactive decoration at celebrations – the idea is to encourage the fundamental appreciation of food, and create an inclusive atmosphere. It’s all about social gatherings, sharing, and lingering over food.
The evolution of food is a continuous process. Being an integral part of human life, both biologically and in the broader social context, the way and means by which our civilisations eat varies massively. In Western society we have astonishingly diverse sources of food from around the globe, be it the ingredients we cook with or in the act of ‘eating out’; there’s an unprecedented plethora of cultural influences in Britain in this day and age.
For me, making the initial presentation was problematic. I wanted to think a little longer before deciding on a definite route for my FMP, and so the idea communicated was very open. I also have experience in “Death by PowerPoint” as it is widely known, and so deliberately did not fill the slides with comprehensive text on any ideas or current proposals. I do feel that I rushed it slightly and could have expanded more on the theme, so endeavoured to avoid this in the final presentation by writing up some notes with prompts for me to use throughout. This has been a good method previously, as it prevents you from reading out blocks of writing from the screen, and allows you to differentiate between what you’re saying and what is shown to the audience.
Gaining feedback was far more useful than I had anticipated; it was beneficial to hear what other people picked up on as the crux of my general line of thought. Several people pinpointed the ‘rituals of eating’ as something to focus on, and encouraged me to research global specialities and ‘laws’ of mealtimes.
Development of the project was aided in the arrival of feedback from my questionnaire. As Bethan Mullard relates in her reply, one morning a friend and her watched as the entire population of the village jumped to a start, while “200 hogs migrated over the river”. Reading this, I got the strong impression that people’s lives are far more closely connected to their food than ours are. So many of us would wince, or even faint, if we had to kill the animal before eating meat for supper – it’s so easy for us, all neatly packaged up and cut to a handy size, and we can choose whichever meat we like and whenever we want it. When meat comes along in the form of 200 hogs crossing a river in Guyana, it’s a different story. It’s a rare opportunity, and they needed to seize it. For me, hearing about this from a first-hand account is really exciting, and I felt that this assisted in moving towards the aim of my project; to understand the deeper social context interlinking food and people. The knowledge that at Guyanese social gatherings the food is a social affair, and manages to feed the entire village using “a huge wok”, cooking “in huge quantities”, ties another link between my project and this primary research. It really illustrates what I wanted to incorporate in my design – a feeling of inclusiveness.
Starting out, my initial research patterns followed a course not unlike that of someone on a round-the-world air ticket. I found an assortment of interesting patches in the history of cuisine, in a number of different countries, continents, and even religions. I believe my secondary research has good breadth, and see it as a particularly strong section of my sketchbook. It comprises predominantly of found images from an extensive range of sources (including Pinterest, online) accompanied by drawing and other forms of artwork made in answer to the newly acquired knowledge. I feel my sketches are varied in quality; in an attempt to signpost those which are most relevant or most exciting to me, I have deliberately varied the time spent working on the details. As the idea generation continued, thinning out the strongest concepts meant they grew by means of multiple angles of sketching, posing problems with each, finding solutions and making decisions on which to eliminate as I went along. The two primary ideas I pursued the longest were the Swing Tagine and the Hanging Platter. The first was an idea based on Catholic Incense burners I saw on holiday in Italy, a few years ago. Huge, ornate vats are suspended from the tall church ceilings, whilst burning incense is placed inside. The smell is ceremoniously wafted through the great chasms of the building. My thought was to make something similar, but with the intention of dispersing scents of delicious food, whilst being kept warm inside. In retrospect, this would still be an entertaining notion to follow, and if anything, this is one of the only moments I would have changed in the course of directing the path of this project. Looking at the health and safety problems involved with suspending something large and heavy, from a long cord, from the ceiling of the Mandela Building’s main atrium for the final show, I can see why I dropped the idea. However, I could have worked around it and found other ways of displaying it. The second concept was the one I chose to continue with, however, the form of it changed significantly. It is actually an entirely different design to the initial drawings which depict plates hanging individually from a wheel. In truth, it is the same idea, just in a different format.
Fiona Hallinan’s piece Octopus Parlour / Salon de la Pieuvre  as part of her artist residency in Parson Paris School of Art & Design was a major inspiration. This piece captures the essence of how I wanted my ideas to be realised; it’s interactive, social, and experimental. What I mean by this is that it engages with the audience on a level that feels natural, and yet is most definitely challenging the conventional setup of a classroom or dining room. It is built around a moving element, with creates an atmosphere of dynamic instability, instigating a sense of fun and playfulness. Hallinan wanted her device to explore different ways of “creating conversation”, and by looking at how food is presented, she created something for “sharing food on the one hand, but its real purpose is for learning and sharing ideas” (Hallinan, 2015). Comparing my own work to hers, there is a clear connection, in that the central component is a hanging table, and the purpose of my project took on a similar aim to hers. Nevertheless, I feel that my breadth of research helped to distance it from Hallinan’s piece; I don’t think it is too close to hers in terms of concept and delivery.
Another strong provider of inspiration to Reinventing the Meal is Mixed Metal Castings’ Dual Bowls [Kickstarter, 2017].The grounds of this crowdfunded project are built on forming a bridge between artists in a developing country, and designers in the West. The creations themselves reflect that motive; bowls which are handmade in Kuwait by the age-old process of sandcasting, fashioned from two juxtaposing metals. It’s a visual representation of the relationship between the two collaborators, these consumer products-come-artworks come with a tangible story of forging alliances. It is often the background of a company that a purchaser buys into, in order to own a part of the journey, like a relic, from a personable story around a business – I believe this project has very viable foundations to it.
At social gatherings, often it is two or more distinctly separate networks of people, who are being briefly knitted together. The inherent training from our adult lives kicks in and we find ourselves branching out; making polite conversation, meeting and greeting the other party. The Dual Bowls again echo the notion of merging people, much like demonstrating a handshake between two separate parties; the metals are welded together and made by hand.
Mixed Metal Castings’ bowls spurred on the development in this project in a way that may not seem obvious at first. Primarily, it asserted the fundamental desire to create a piece which would be useful in providing a social platform for bringing people together. However, it was also the essence of their process which formed the idea for the second design on the underside of my own bowls – the red slip painted partway to the rim is a translation of what I personally drew from these artworks. In hindsight, the red was intended to be a little stronger and darker, but looking at how they turned out I am happy with the light brush strokes and handmade look – it gives them a human appeal, when used it may be a bonus as it would make people note the process by which the bowls had been made.
The first, more intricately designed bowls, take their surface pattern from a wide range of sketches and mark-making sections in the sketchbook, predominantly drawn reacting to the textures, colours and forms of mithai. As the design evolved, it became increasingly simplistic, and eventually followed something which was subconsciously becoming an artwork reminiscent of henna illustrations; complex patterns drawn all over the hands and arms for Indian celebrations. It was only a while after putting them in the kiln that I realised they looked quite traditional in design – this is interesting from a mental point of view, as the initial plans were not particularly conventional in terms of visual likeness to Asian artwork, and yet the final decision seemed natural.
Traditionally, Indian décor involves a warm colour scheme, red is a popular component. I wanted the platter to stand out and be noticeable when in; but simultaneously complement and match, what is one of the key intended settings. The mint-green and teal shades I chose balanced the selected red shades in a satisfying way. There is a minimal amount of detail in the aesthetic of the platter. This is another deliberate contrast, to counteract the (often quite stunning) complexity of Indian patterns and decoration.
To select a rope strong enough to suspend the platter from, I first worked out a formula involving calculable lengths on the platter (which I found to work out well in what is well known to be the strongest shape; an equilateral triangle) to determine the maximum possible tension in the cords, once the platter was loaded with 12 bowls and 12 pieces of food. The food was estimated to be no more than 100g, using cheese! It is a fairly dense foodstuff, and the largest piece which would fit in each bowl was no more than 100g. On reflection, this is not a very scientific method of estimating the maximum load, but there is a good deal of room for error here; the maximum safe load for 5mm nylon rope is much greater than the value I estimated, so I’m confident it will hold.
Experimenting in the ceramics department was a good use of time during the weeks available. I utilised the wheels a lot, and in the run-up to deciding on my final design, I practiced a lot and believe I improved dramatically due to this. It was important to have a rehearsal; the shapes created and consistencies of the clay, amongst other parts of the methodology, were processes you have to get a feel for, and it takes a bit of time. I’m glad I used it in a productive way.
Creating the 1:10 scale model I consider as a means of experimentation with the concept itself. Although, by this point I had illustrated it clearly in the sketchbook and had a lucid mental image of the setting in which my piece would ideally be situated – at a party, amongst other pieces I have designed along the way (as tangents to the main idea) – I believe I would have been better prepared for the final piece had I tested my idea out in a series of scale models, perhaps involving numerous variations in the bowl or platter design, so that I could evaluate the concluding plan at an early stage. I had easily enough drawing and trial-run pieces to work from, but the construction during the final week may have run more smoothly if there had been even more time spent in the specifying of fine points in the end product.
Playing with mark-making in the early stages of visual research produced work which I analysed and made the conscious decision to leave. Although I am very pleased with how it turned out, there was a specific part where I used acrylic paints to pick out textures and shapes from a few photographs I had copied from the cookery book ‘Word Food Café’ (Caldicott, 1999) where I chose to design something more specific to the context rather than use this artwork generated earlier on in the project. The reason for this at the time was to avoid creating pieces which looked too traditional; decorating crockery with singular, spaced-apart brush strokes is quite a popular look at the moment. I wanted to avoid making bowls that looked too related to what is produced in factories for chain stores and retailers; something more handmade and personal was desired.
Using terracotta tiles I had a go at making patterns as indents in the surface of leather-hard clay. I was particularly pleased with how one pattern turned out; by using a mixture of tools I created an array of random dents along the tile. The resulting configuration looked very traditional though, and I was trying to avoid that. In addition, the clay I used eventually would have been too thin to make depressions strong enough to form a noticeable arrangement. This is one of the reasons why the whittled bowls are not completely smoothed down; it was this part of the experimentation which prompted me to leave the stone-like texture in the surface. It gives them a more tactile appeal, yet simultaneously the underside is smooth to the touch, due to the simplicity of the texture. If I had used the correct glaze for the tiles, I would have got them back from the final firing sooner, and been able to respond to them in the final design. But having used stoneware glazes on terracotta clay, there was a moment of confusion where the glaze had not melted. The firing temperature for terracotta clay is lower than that for stoneware, so the glaze didn’t melt. I decided to try it in the stoneware kiln to melt the glaze, which made the clay turn a dark, mud-brown. Yet, I am happy with the colours and textures from the painted slips and patterns, respectively.
My Aunt Susan sent a reply to the questionnaire, later. Hers was more varied, as she has lived abroad in a number of different places – Indonesia being one closest to her heart. She related that people “only ever eat using their right hand”, as well as sending me some suggestions for Indonesian recipes I could look up. I had a go at cooking Beef Rendang and Pisan Goreng, as well as a spinach and coconut salad. It was delicious! It was also a good way of getting into the mind set of trying new things, and experimenting with food.
Following this I conducted primary research in my college group; by bringing in mithai for them to taste. It was absolutely fascinating to do; watching people’s reactions to something they’ve never tried before was amusing, but the most valuable part of the exercise was obtaining an overall impression of the sweets themselves, and how the different types either suit or offend their taste buds. I got some really interesting adjectives and descriptions from the group which I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Evaluating my own method here, I can think of plenty of ways in which it could be improved. Firstly, there may have been a bias in the room due to the fact that I asked people to openly contribute their thoughts on the mithai. Hearing what other people thought will in turn have affected what each person said, although I fully trust them to speak their minds and not be too self-conscious to express an unusual opinion! I do however believe this was also one of the strengths here; on the other hand, the openness of the discussion may have encouraged a brainstorm of opinions, and I think people found a better description collectively than they would have done individually. The group was a varying size for the different sweets, so maybe I would have been better off collecting thoughts from the public, instead – filming it, possibly. If I was developing this idea as a product or service idea to make its way onto the consumer market, I would conduct this research in different places around Britain, getting feedback from as many people as possible, and forming a map. Instead, I took from this research the general impression that the ‘Gather Round Table’ would be best suited to the Asian communities who are accustomed to mithai. Nonetheless, I maintain the belief that it is a very versatile piece; the idea is transferrable to almost any foodstuff, as long as it fits inside the bowls.
Creating the bowls themselves saw 25 being thrown in one day; I am immensely happy with that result, but looking at the correlation of quality versus hunger on the timescale, I would make some amendments to my activity! At first, they were relatively even, but as it drew closer to midday, my concentration slipped and so did the clay. Some became amazingly askew, and I was getting frustrated. After lunch, it was like I’d been doing it all my life! So, learning for next time in the ceramics department: never throw when you’re hungry.
Whittling the final bowls after drying to leather-hard consistency began with quite a few mistakes. I soon got the feel of it and managed to only break or make holes in 5. I wish I had been more careful, as any spare bowls would be good for the final piece – in case some are dropped during use. There is only one spare of the intricately designed ones, so another would have been beneficial.
The final presentation went very smoothly, in my opinion. I kept the writing on the screen brief, but not so brief as to feel empty. The information shown was essentially a drastically abridged version of the sketchbook, focussing on the key areas of research (both primary and secondary visual findings), with a short commentary on how it went and problems I encountered along the way. My sheet of notes helped enormously; by going through the presentation and making notes whilst constructing the slides, I found it much easier to communicate what I wanted to. It’s easy to forget what it is you’re intending to say when doing a presentation. I did forget a couple of things and skipped a slide at the end due to a feeling of time pressure (I was the first to present and so didn’t want to hold up the queue), but overall I was happy with the demonstration and felt that I was effective in communicating the flow of the project, Reinventing the Meal.
To conclude this project, I am going to compare the outcomes to my original brief. I have successfully produced an interactive, functioning artwork, and have succeeded in conducting the level of research and experimental preparation that I imagined. I aimed to undertake a higher level of documentation of the artistic process during this project than I had previously managed, and I believe this was accomplished well, as is shown in the ‘Making’ booklet I produced, as well as in threads of annotation throughout the sketchbook, and the weekly blog updates which were achieved. My time plan evolved and was kept up to date, but my plan did not allow headroom or account for unforeseen matters such as the ones which slowed me down. They were dealt with efficiently and the quality of work was by and large unaffected. The ‘Gather Round Table’ satisfies and resolves my own brief, in a way that is true to the title, ‘Reinventing the Meal’. On the whole I am proud of the volume and quality of work I have produced in my final major project; I’d say it’s unprecedented for me, and I hope to be as productive and motivated as I have been here in my future work.