Generous generalists

Posted Aug. 30, 2013 by Maja Kuzmanović

'Changing the world will always require action and participation in the public realm, but in our time that will no longer be sufficient. We'll have to change the way we live, too. What that means is that the sites of our everyday engagement with nature - our kitchens, gardens, houses, cars - matter to the fate of the world in a way they never have before.'

- Michael Pollan, Cooked

This quote from a book about cooking resonates perfectly with the reasoning behind our Family in Residence programme. As a cultural organisation, we are meant to be active in the public realm, but along the way this has proven not to be sufficient for us. We wanted to make our way of life and work an experiment in world-changing, or in FoAM's vocabulary - world growing.

One of the consequences of a globalised society is that a lot of us are uprooted from our biological families and find ourselves creating family-like structures elsewhere. FoAM has grown into such an entity over a decade of working with likeminded people, most of whom are immigrants, expats, cultural refugees, global nomads, mindscape explorers and transients of many other flavours. Working together is only a part of FoAM is about. We became a guesthouse, where our friends, and friends of friends, come and stay for a night or two, or a month or two. The core team spends a lot of time hosting, preparing meals, listening to people's troubles, cheering their successes and of course cleaning up after the guests have left. We invite collaborators to our homes in the evenings and weekends, so the work never stops. As with any family, the group dynamics are, well, dynamic… what is a happy family one day falls apart the next into a hive of exhausted parents, naughty children, estranged uncles, eccentric aunts, explosive conflicts and drunken celebrations. It's all a part of life that doesn't translate into the rows and columns of an auditor's spreadsheet. However, as Pollan says, how we live matters to the fate of the world, and as a cultural operator, we see it as our role to explore ways of living and working as creative processes. Researching and producing 'eco-art' or 'social design' or other forms of resilient culture is not enough if we continue to produce them in conventional ways - where an arts organisation hosts artists who produce the works, for example. At FoAM we prefer to put the artwork, the artists and all the elements that make up the arts organisation itself into the same pressure-cooker of daily life, and see what comes out.

Another factor that made us start the family residency programme is that 'The Artist' has many different forms, aside from the romantic species of nonconformist individual in their garret. We work with many couples who operate as a collective unit (think of Tale of Tales, Performing Pictures, Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, Symbiotica and several others). This isn't surprising really - most of us care greatly about the work we do, and if we can share it with someone we love, we can not only live together, but also create, plan, grow, as well as divide the burdens, support each other and make difficult decisions - at home and at work. The line between life and work becomes very blurry, which is a mixed blessing that needs continuous negotiation (or complete surrender). An extension of many couples (who may or may not still be together) are children. While couples are still accepted in many residency programmes, families with children are usually not. Whether because there are no facilities for kids, there isn't anyone to take care of them, or they are seen as an obstruction to the 'serious' creative process, as in the corporate world children are often excluded from the 'work' of their parents. But what happens when 'work' can't be constrained to a neat nine-to-five job, and when the funds aren't sufficient to pay for kindergartens and nannies? Surely the creative sector is an ideal place to explore alternative forms of life and work that can bring children back into the warp and weft of creative life…

In 2009 when potential artist in residence Alex Davies asked shyly if he could still do the residency if he brought his partner and two-week-old baby along, there was no question in our minds - the more the merrier, we said to him. Of course, having Alex, Ali and Luka in the workspace for several months necessarily changed the living and working dynamic at FoAM in Brussels. We hung around much longer than usual, we came to institute Sunday Lunches, Dumpling Hour, Silent Time, Winter Solstice and New Years Eve, all happening in the same space as machine-art experiments, EC reporting and public events. Most of the time the studio resembled a living room with baby stuff, books and electronics scattered everywhere; but when needed we'd all roll up our sleeves and make it into a dead serious meeting room. We were so encouraged by the experience that we decided to make it into an official part of our programme in Brussels to welcome at least one family per year. In 2013 we have three, starting with Lies and Adriaan Declerck.

Lies and Adriaan were at FoAM Brussels for a week in August and have offered us a new experience: the residents came to FoAM with a specific purpose to get to know us better and to 'serve' us by cooking lunches for a week (an approach inspired by the idea behind the Greek term leitourgia, which originally meant 'servant'). Lies wanted to explore what it would be like to be a "generous generalist" in our studio and in return become a part of the FoAM family, at least temporarily (we now hope the relationship will last long beyond the one week of their residency). Lies cooked from cookbooks in FoAM's library, and invited a librarian to help us catalogue it better. She learned to improvise in the kitchen using flavour pairing principles she put in practice by cooking for more than a dozen people - FoAM and our guests from the Vooruit, Timelab and the Beursschouwburg. Most days Lies cooked with Rasa, a mistress of improvisation in the kitchen, while I cooked with two-year-old Adriaan, creating a gibanica, a savoury Balkan pastry and perfect dish to make with toddlers. On the weekend, we cooked for Lies and Adriaan in our homes.

When Lies would cook or read, one of us would take care of Adriaan, involving him in the daily routine of the studio: drawing on the blackboard, gardening, testing coloured markers, welcoming guests… He was keen to help and we were keen to play. In the process I got everything I needed done, and instead of piling more work on my plate I would spend time drawing trams with 37 wheels and police cars with giant sirens on balloons. We organised our week to include tasks that could be done in short blocks of time, with meetings and concentrated work being done while Adriaan was sleeping. It all flowed without too much effort and proved (yet again) that the family residencies are worth doing. What has made this residency unique (so far) is that Lies and Adriaan instantly became a part of the organisation and our daily life. They didn't arrive with 'their own project' that we would help them with: their project was to help us. Instead of the energy going primarily one way (from the organisation to the artist), it flowed in many directions at the same time, and at the end left us energised.

Both Lies and I were reading Cooked and comparing notes and quotes. Even though we were planning to make the book more central to our lunchtime discussions, having it linger in the background and contextualise what we were doing was enough:

'Above all else, what I found in the kitchen is that cooking connects. Cooking - of whatever kind, everyday or extreme - situates us in the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side and the social world on the other. The cook stands squarely between nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation. Both nature and culture are transformed by the work. An in the process, I discovered, so is the cook.'

- Michael Pollan, Cooked