Interview by E.C. Feiss and Karisa Senavitis
E. C. Feiss Can you talk about why you initially turned to food, and what about food was generative for your practice?
Claire Pentecost Well, I had been doing work examining the institution and the structures of imagination that negotiate our relationship with the rest of the natural world. I was looking at zoos, natural history museums, wildlife parks, and the romance of the American aborigines. Creative Time invited me to submit a proposal about genetic engineering, which was changing our relationship to the rest of the natural world. I started looking into it around 1998, and I realized that everything was very promissory, like, “in the future, we’ll do this, and this and …” and we in the US were literally eating it. It had already been approved then. It was being used commercially. I started looking into the food system, and it’s like a thread, there’s no end to it. It was so complex and so opaque, and so controlled by a few big players. And it involved everything. Almost any issue, whether it’s cultural diversity, international trade, our relationship to what we are doing to the environment, our energy, our transportation … all of these things. I realized it was a great issue, because it’s really inaccessible. In 1998 no one wanted to talk about it. They just thought it was too depressing. It made them feel powerless that they would learn about these awful things, and not know what to do about it. So, in that time, and since then, the whole scene has changed. People want to talk about it. It has many, many outlets and platforms for discussion and education.
ECF One of the things you said — that it was already happening, that there wasn’t a discussion: that’s one of the things that we get from Policy. It presents itself perhaps as generated in a democratic government, but somehow, it’s always already happening.
CP I hadn’t thought about policy – qua policy – before you asked me to think about it. Of course it’s on a continuum with the law – with regulation – and the ways the law is interpreted and effectively realized. So, the way that it turns into something that affects our daily lives, a lot of it is extralegal. Something like genetic engineering in our food was submitted to a regulatory regime, and I’m not sure where we draw the line between regulation and policy. No one was quite sure what regime it fell under. Was it the Environmental Protection Agency, the USDA, the Department of Agriculture, or the FDA? And different aspects of it were purportedly being overseen by different agencies. But you don’t divide up a genetically modified crop that way. You know, it has effects on the environment, and it has effects when we eat it, and it has effects on the economy.
So they approved it, and they did some very significant things. One was that they called it substantially equivalent to traditional breeding. So, that phrase, “substantially equivalent,” meant that it didn’t need any other kind of regulation. And they also called it GRAS, Generally Recognized as Safe. And this also meant that it didn’t have to be subjected to certain protocols of scrutiny. And the FDA that was regulating in terms of our health didn’t do their own research. They just reviewed research submitted by the corporations that wanted this approved. And of course this was an error of the kind of neo-liberal revolution that started with Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s regulatory reticence. There’s a video shot of George Bush Sr. touring a lab at Monsanto, and saying, “Regulations? See me? I’m the anti-regulation guy.” And this was before these wonderful products were actually introduced to the market. So, they don’t do their own research, and their own scientists reviewing the literature and making recommendations were ignored or repressed because a lot of them were actually much more cautious and suspicious of the kind of data that was being provided by the corporations. So, this is a case where policy is concerned, and you asked me about hierarchies, the privileging of industry, that policy is basically designed to support the goals of industry. When I first started looking into this, they did do a kind of an, “uh-oh … this is getting out, and people are upset. We’ll have a series of hearings. Public hearings.”
A long time ago I was a community organizer, and the style of organizing I did was to use the kind of structures that were in place for citizen participation but really flood them with people. So if there was a hearing about a utility rate increase, something that is just very pro forma – or transport of nuclear waste through the city, or something like that – and no one really expected many people to show up, we would organize crowds of people to come in and testify. This kind of structure is an example of something that organizers and activists will often try to use, if nothing else, to generate publicity. And so, there was a series of hearings – there was one in Chicago I went to. There were strings of people testifying, or submitting comments publicly, orally. This is where I met all the people I would start to work with, who had been thinking about this. We made a grassroots organization out of that – which suggests how something like a hearing, which otherwise is not gonna make any difference can serve a function of helping people who are oppositional find each other and share information and ultimately strategize. But this had come out of the newspaper because it was a trade issue. That was the first little news about our genetically modified agriculture, because Europe and Japan did not want our commodities. Which is just interesting because it’s another example of how something like food – there’s this long concatenation of places where it touches the field of like policy and law. It’s the trade, and health, and environmental regulation, and then, it affects the practice of science.
ECF “Generally Recognized as Safe.” These functions of expediency: Policy has certain forms, which are expedient, which basically function to bypass contestation of any kind.
One of the things we take from Harney and Moten is an anti-reform politics. A politics that doesn’t believe in reform, because Policy is already open to what reform is. The notion of Policy as a form of bio-political governance that organizes populations, and so always has the same effect, which is to instill risk for the populations it addresses. In a sense, the notion of reform is a complicated one. Because on the one hand, you could have an effective reform which mitigates some of the risk and some of the effects of that policy. Like, you could have GMO food labels, right? But how much does that do? It then also comes to stand for a kind of transparency or how a stakeholder consultation perhaps worked, when we know that it hasn’t. So, that’s how we think of reform, and then we’re trying to think of what would be an intervention into these processes, the processes of expediency that you’re talking about.
CP Yeah. I’ve heard these arguments a lot, on different topics. The reform versus what? is the question. Granted every so-called reform takes us to another level of problems that need to be solved I think of this more in terms of capitalism, the machinations of capitalism, versus governments. Of course, it’s hard to draw a line between them. Our government exists, basically, to service elites, and their activities. There was this 1967 British comedy starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore called Bedazzled. It’s about this guy – some schmuck, you know – who runs into the devil, and he gets seven wishes. And so every time he makes a wish, there’s something that he didn’t specify, and the whole thing is flipped. So he technically gets his wish, but he finds himself in an impossible situation, right? Like, there’s this object of his desire, this woman, and he’s like, “I want to be alone with her on an island …” da da da, whatever. And then, “ding!” he gets his wish. And they’re both nuns in a super-strict convent. You know, so it’s always something like that.
And I feel like this is the process of reform and change under capitalism, because it’s so protean that it’s like, “you wanted that? Okay, we’ll give you that. But it’s gonna be like this.” And you never imagined the way that they could like deform your aims. And this is what Chiapello and Boltanski talk about. What we got from the aesthetic demands of the 60s was more individual expression, we got it in spades. But the social justice demands were jettisoned. Anyway, yes, reform is flawed, but the way I think about it is that we’re trying to change a culture. In the example of food, what are the values that dictate what decisions are made? Well, one is convenience, which is strictly because it’s servicing a precarious work situation, where everyone is just trying to get what they need every day so that they can do all this work. One of the things I’ve noticed with food is that nobody wants to be told what to eat. It’s a deep autonomy issue. And, you know, maybe one of the earliest fields of power struggle. And so, what we have to work towards is creating a demand for something different. Like my own eating habits, I started finding out all this stuff, but I couldn’t change my habits right away. It was a long, slow process because there’s all this attachment. And so … how do we start to elucidate a vision of what is a good life based on completely different priorities?
ECF We’re interested in the relationship of the visual, or the question of the visual in relationship to these processes. So I wondered if you thought about the relationship of these two realms of vision, in terms of these processes. Also because you’re someone who deals with images?
CP It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, and not just in terms of transparency but the whole gesture of unveiling, which critiques of representation operated as, moved along through this gesture of unveiling, of exposing. And the problem is that’s what critique does. So you unpack: why are things the way they are? And who wins and who loses? That’s all very good and important, but it has a limit. You know, because you can get to the stage where you made the newspaper and you can dissect everything in there, and then you’re like, “and? I mean, it’s not that it’s not necessary; it’s just that it’s only a step.
And the thing is that it is seductive, because it can give you these gains. It can give you a sense of being on top of a kind of mask. Even this labeling issue with GMOs, I think both sides presume something about it and we don’t know if it’s going to happen. Like, the activists think that, “well, if we’d label it, people won’t buy it.” At least it’s a first step. And the people who are selling it think: “if we label it, it will scare people.” And it will undo all this strategy of “it’s just the same; why should it be labeled?” If you label it, it’s saying it’s distinct. But we don’t know if it would make any difference at this point, national use of labels could have no effect whatsoever. And so then you have to go much further. In November of 2013, I was in a public conversation in Montreal with a PR person who worked with Monsanto. It was a very rare event because they don’t want to have a conversation in public with their critics. It’s not in their interest. But this happened. It was called “bridging the gap” or something like “getting beyond the polarized issues.” You know, “we’re gonna have this public conversation and we’re gonna get beyond the current impasse”
With me was a representative from Greenpeace, and on the side with the Monsanto representative was a scientist, who maintained that there’s no problem with the genetic modification of foods. And the thing is, the conversation has to go so deep, because there are all these scientists who say, “it’s fine, look, it’s just fine.” And then you have to get into a critique of science as a social phenomena, as one that is subject to economics, and a culture that affects certain kinds of conformity because if you step out of the line, you will not be doing science because you won’t get funding. You know, you’re doing some kind of science that nobody cares about. You know, like about the hermaphrodism in frogs, which is caused by endocrine-disrupting pesticides.
ECF You keep talking about the word “culture.” You also were saying that culture is more subtle. And I was interested in your use of that term: how you conceive of subtly to this question of culture.
CP I think part of what I’m talking about is sort of like Bourdieu’s idea of habitus. Humans make an environment within the environment that enables us to thrive, hopefully. And there are all these practices that reflect preference, desire, negotiation of need, appetite, sociality, and aesthetics, which is a category I refer to as very large. And these factors that we can kind of parse out determine the quality of our daily life, and how we negotiate both our needs, our surpluses, and our relations with each other and other life.
Something like food: Is it an expectation that you would cook your own food? Or is it an expectation that it serves all the needs of eating to constantly have someone else make your food? So that has to do with aesthetics, and a panoply of other considerations. There’s your labor, time, sociality.
ECF The time is interesting because the other part of Harney and Moten’s text that we don’t talk about is planning. They juxtapose policy with planning. The notion of planning is what is done in the undercommons. Planning is like this ongoing process of communal decision-making; it doesn’t necessarily have a pattern.
CP It’s not formalized.
ECF No. Not formalized at all.
CP When I read it, policy – this chapter, was not the one that grabbed me. But I’m glad to have my attention turned there. But at the same time I don’t know if I see it that way. So much is of course in the name of our safety, as you’ve pointed out. Food safety. But it’s very discretionary. Like, safety doesn’t cover confined animal feeding operations, and all the threats that that poses to people’s health, and animal health. But rather, it’s more on a granular level: like inspection, like, I can’t sell you food unless I have a permit and a certification. But there are all these informal economies in which people have benefits: like “I’m gonna have fried chicken and make some salads, and people are gonna come to my house and pay 5 dollars.” It’s like a rent party. Now, is that planned as a way for people to redistribute resources? Basically, it’s a redistribution mechanism. I don’t think it’s planned. I think it’s resourcefulness which is custom. You know?
Karisa Senavitis But there’s stuff you’ve been writing, too, that’s going beyond custom. Like the idea of the soil-erg, is this future cultural paradigm. And when you were speaking about the Monsanto experience and the scientist and his silo of expertise, I was imagining you being there, talking about the soil-erg.
CP Yeah. One of the things we haven’t talked about is imagination, and it’s something that very much interests me .Can we make our imaginations supple, or flexible, and nimble? And because I think we do need to imagine things – as they could be different, from how they are now. You know – so that we’re not confined to a rather grim set of alternatives. Because that’s how things are often presented to us. Like, “oh, nice idea, but it’s not practical.” And so I guess I’m interested in, in my own work, what kind of imaginative excursions can we take, that then can shift our sense of what’s possible. ‘Cause I think that’s something art can do: little shifts. We all walk around with this more or less unexamined sense of what’s possible. To shift that frame a little bit, so that you have a sense, “well, it doesn’t have to be like this.” And it sounds utopian, but I think that utopia is actually something that exists in all of our heads. It’s a kind of fantasy that is in the back of our heads, that’s part of what we get up for in the morning. And if we’re not really thinking about our own utopia, or one that we agree with other people about, we are living someone else’s. Right now, most of us are living a neo-liberal utopia. Which is just disastrous. It does not contribute to our thriving.
So that’s a digression, but I do think that it is relevant – I mean, you asked me about the soil-erg. I’m not really proposing that we make a currency out of soil. But what if we thought about all the different ways we could assign value, symbolize value? What would it change? What if we really did value healthy soil as much as we value oil petroleum. And then you start getting into all kinds of problematic questions. I’m not proposing it as a solution. But rather, a way to energize our ability to move to a different vantage point, and possibly different field of action.
ECF What you’re talking about makes complete sense, we do need to imagine other possibles. Your brain is produced by processes of some allegiance of governance and capital, like, it’s produced by the power relations that you live in, like, your understanding of possible? So, I think in their thought, like the closeness of – to what controls it, or what organizes it.
CP But it’s a reacting formation against. Even what it is a reaction formation against. You know, is informed by those things.
ECF So, I guess I’m trying to get around this idea that it’s not just about language. It’s not just about language, but what else is it?
CP No, I don’t think it’s just about language at all. But I also don’t think – and correct me if I’ve misunderstood you, but it sounds like what you’re saying is that we are so much a product of a certain set of relations, and we can never get far enough away from these thing that have made us. Thinking like that, where does that take us?
ECF Right. But I think that’s what is so difficult to access.
KS Like an undoing of yourself.
CP Well, it’s like a staggering gate. You know, like you’re staggering between the things that have conditioned me, and then the parts of me that refuse that. Where do those come from? You know, it’s sort of like this problem that used to come up in relation to Foucault. Like, the world that Foucault painted at a certain time disallowed the possibility of a Foucault. You know? If we were so produced through this discipline, and then through governmetality, etc, how do you account for being able to get outside of it and think it? Or … do we think, “well, Foucault is really not so outside as we would like to think.” Then he wasn’t, in a lot of ways. Especially as we get further and further away from it, and we have critiques, like the feminist critique of Foucault. But that’s what I mean by it’s like staggering. It’s a very uneven process. It’s kind of spastic, it’s not coordinated. Or it’s like the Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of deterritorialization. We find ways to deterritorialize from all these things that are familiar – the things that constitute your territory, but then you have to reterritorialize, because you can go too far. Because if you go too far, you’re on your own. I mean, you depart from the social fabric.
And I’m not saying everything links – that everything in history led to progress. I’m very suspicious of all the things that have been called progress. Like … women – I mean, for the huge, vast, majority of historical time, women were less than human. And somehow, I live in a time and place where I can think myself fully human. How did that happen?
ECF And also, what is the governance of that? Freedom of that – of this very real sense of change, or liberation? What organizes that, somehow? I keep thinking about, for example, that you can’t separate feminism, second-wave feminism, from temporary work contracts. You can’t. The rise of women into the workplace: I read this article about how the contemporary temp agency was created at that time for women who wanted to work. What we are trying to account for by using this notion of policy is a regime which allows us to think about ourselves as products of the history of the social movements of the mid-20th century.
CP But we’re both a product of the movements, their demands for change, and the status quo’s response to that. You could also say the more flexible work schedule is also a product of the revolt against the company man, the rigidity of workplace reality. What came with the flexibility is precarity. Did it have to be that way? You can have flexibility without this degree of precarity. It won’t serve the market in the same way. It would be a different social contract.
ECF How do you see your work acting in relation to these questions – why did you take the route you took – because clearly it’s a political act for you.
CP I got tired of doing work that was exposing or unveiling. I wanted to do something more prefigurative.
I wanted to stop obsessing about the global industrial food system, and look at other ways of addressing it : I got into other kinds of farming, and inevitably, I got to soil. And that opened up a whole range of things, and I think at the same time personally I was eager for more material engagement with my work. Because it had been very discursive, all in images and in writing, and I got interested in the question of form. How do you take a research-based practice, and then transform it into something we might call art. The category of human activity is not the same as writing a paper or explaining something. It is another kind of communication, and another – it’s just a whole other orientation. A lot of it circles around the question of form. You know, how do you either take an inherited form and change it, or borrow a form from a whole different realm of human activity, and invest it with something different than it would have in its original context.
ECF We have been thinking about policy forms; that’s one of our big questions. How these might be forms that aren’t discursive only. Like the example of X:, policy form has an expedient quality, which functions to constitute and move policy along. But then how can we think of this form as material, as not only discursive?
KS Such as the infrastructure that precedes the discursive qualities.
ECF And the kinds of infrastructures that are made in policy processes. Tell her one of the stories about working on public health policy within a global corporation. That’s a good story.
KS In the global public health policy I’ve been involved in, there are strategies where it’s about the optics of the situation, so it might be a group of white men deciding on the specifics of the medical access but during the roll out they’re creating opportunities for women and people of color to join them on stage, hold the microphone and participate in the announcement, and this actually takes the form of a “fireside chat” where there’s a projection of a fire on the wall, and there are hundreds of people coming together from different parts of the organization for this event that is meant to have everyone feel like their voices are heard and considered. Everyone is seated in a circle within a giant hotel party room, and they are served champagne and marshmallows on sticks to “roast” in the “fire.”
KS This was the situation that was orchestrated for people to ask questions and challenge the direction the company was planning to take, and you couldn’t help but feel ridiculous. While I think the people who came up with idea really thought they were breaking down hierarchies and creating a more relaxed conversation the experience sent the message that nothing was really going to change from this one hour end-of-the-day activity.
ECF We both had these surreal experiences where the policy processes we were involved in would have formal instantiations, that were part of its movement or functioning.
KS There were these rooms for meetings called “global connects,” where it’s like Skype, but it’s a really expensive form of video conferencing, so the positioning of the screens and chairs has you feel like you’re all at the same table together, but you’re in different locations around the world. So these are part of the infrastructures that allow for policies to be formed and approved, by making the situations for interaction more affective, where you’re feeling like you’re really with somebody. Of course, you have to be part of an office or branch that’s outfitted with one of these “global connect” rooms in ordered to be included in these dealings. So at the same time that a few are provided the feeling of being drawn closer together it’s at the exclusion of more and more.
ECF In my case, I started thinking about this question of form in terms of artistic form within the public art commissioning work that I was involved in: for example, at what point is an artistic form being used over and over again? One form was an artist going into a building, a senior center, for example, also a audio visual work – which is interesting in relation to your discussion of wanting to move away from discursive art making.. But at what point does that artistic form become a policy itself? Because it’s rolled out systemically.
CP Some of that is the engagement of a form so effectively as to present a premature social consensus, or notion of inclusion. Your first example, about who gets to hold the mic and what kind of setting is provided for the presentation of Policy. And an attention to forms that facilitate certain processes. Also it’s a whole territory in design. You know, like the office spaces that facilitate collaboration. One can then ask, “are these forms opportunities for intervention?”Do we give Policy a different kind of access or leverage point if we intervene?
KS I am interested in this Monsanto meeting you mentioned. I was just interested in the conclusion of that, or what your takeaway from that was. Because that’s also what we’re trying to address with the symposium. This “bridging” situation: what actually came out of that? Or was it just a symbolic gesture?
CP I can really only say what it did for me, which was that it clarified the different grounds or arenas in which the debate moves. There was one point at which Trish, the Monsanto rep, said: “well, we’re not even talking about science anymore.” And then this mandate to “stick to the science:” that becomes where the debate is located. It’s just a very simple question, “is this gonna make us sick or not?” And then there is a corralling of scientific ideas, like evidence: “if it was making us sick, we’d see it.” Well, why? How would we be seeing it? On the other hand, I kind of don’t care about the science. Why do we have to have it?
The scientist, he was sitting next to me, and he was such a gentleman; he just didn’t care. I mean, he was supporting Monsanto, and he said very conciliatory things. He leaned over to me, and said, “you know the Art Institute is one of my favorite museums?” Because you know, I teach at the school of the art museum. Just completely non-related stuff. In the audience, I don’t think anybody’s mind was changed. But for me, it did help me think through more of where is the debate?