Unsettling the table

In an ongoing project titled The Golden USB, Montreal-based artists Richard Ighby and Marilou Lemmens invite us to consider how we understand our world through the lens of commodification. Reflecting on the ability of commerce to break down borders, the artists explore the relationship between global, earth-bound capitalism and the frontier of outer space. As our economic paradigm draws the entire world into an orbit of capitalist circulation, Ighby and Lemmens imagine interstellar capitalism as the logical extension.

As Ighby and Lemmens discussed at a recent artist talk at the Owens, The Golden USB is a trade catalogue: a list of all objects, processes, know-hows and creatures that could be traded with extraterrestrials. Representing the process of appropriation, where objects and experiences are transformed into exchangeable commodities, the artists sample the world through filmed performances and physical specimens. Ighby and Lemmens catalogue a pile of salt, the concept of a shower, construction materials and Latin American literature.

Through sampling, recording and indexing, Ighby and Lemmens also perform the work of taxonomists, articulating the order of a world fit for sale. Their catalogue defines categories: Things Found on the Ground; Things Not Yet Touched by the Mild Boredom of Order; The Way of Cooking Particular to María José Jaramillo. Ighby and Lemmens actualize a worldview in which everything we are, do and eat as human beings is defined by the possibility of being traded.

In one video, Ighby and Lemmens register the knowledge of an Ecuadorean chef by recording her prepare a guinea pig for barbecue, clean crabs and select herbs for tea. Her work is systematic, recorded without narration in a large, empty room, evoking the de-personalized cooking demonstrations that might appear on Buzzfeed Tasty.

But, the title of this sample, The Way of Cooking Particular to María José Jaramillo, asserts that it is the chef herself – her embodied knowledge, her social context, her customs and beliefs – who is being rendered available for exchange. Commodification breaks down the relationships between culinary knowledge and eating practices, land and community. Ighby and Lemmens’s performance reveals commodification as a process of abstraction  – a cutting-out of the part from the whole, where the whole represents a limit to trade.

Traded on a market, culinary practices are deprived of their connections to ecosystems, cultural context, interpersonal relationships and daily rituals like grocery shopping, feeding others, composting leftovers. Sampled, appropriated and deprived of context, the commodity becomes absurd, stripped of the meanings possible only in relation to human life.

The commodification of an entire culinary practice, embodied in the chef, reveals the precariousness of meaning in global capitalism and its worldview. The Golden USB asks us to reconsider our own lives, beyond our culinary practices, to break down the logic of commodification — to see the phenomena that resist abstraction from the contexts that give them meaning.

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