Aleksandra Mir

Toast

Mary Anne Francis
maryannefrancis.org, Edinburgh, August 2009

The How Not To Cookbook

Script of speech delivered to launch How Not to Cook - a compilation of contributions initiated and organised by Aleksandra Mir with Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, at Princes Street Gardens, 5th August 2009.

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Ladies and Gentlemen. Diners. And cooks. And Authors.

I am honoured and delighted to have been invited to this launch as an After Dinner Speaker. And yes, I am indeed, something of an expert in the field that brings us together today… though I had no idea that my reputation for culinary disasters had spread all the way from London to Edinburgh – by way of smoke signals, I suppose.

But let me just say – as I said to the man in uniform who turned up outside my door one day, - "my activities in the kitchen don’t usually result in the attendance of the fire-brigade".

(DO NOT attempt to cook haricot beans and work on your thesis at the same time – there are some forms of writing that never go well with cooking.)

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At the end of my speech I’d like to propose that we Toast How Not to Cook – metaphorically, of course. DO NOT attempt to cook this book.

So my speech takes the form of giving you my reasons.

I hope it goes without saying that there are many fascinating aspects to this project, but this evening I’d like to focus on the book as a particularly fruitful intersection of cooking and writing (certainly more fruitful than my own). I’d like to focus on the authorship of How Not to Cook – via three broad points.

But before I do so: what do I mean by "authorship" here? Well – how it came about; its origination. Which necessarily involves "authors".

You [To audience].

Or some of you. I hope.

With my first point, I’d like us to think about the issue of authorial identity. And to begin with, the question: how many authors does it take to make a book?

Conventionally – with books – the answer is "just one" (or "one will do"). We talk about an "author’s signing" and indeed, we have to ask: how would Waterstones cope if it had to accommodate 1000 authors? And how, indeed would the flyleaf of the book accommodate all those authors’ signatures!

But that said, some types of published writings seldom have one author – scientific texts, for instance. And I have just been reading an article on Collaborative Knowledge (and its pros and cons) that mentions an academic paper in a Physics journal that has 291 authors! And it also notes that a project that ‘presented evidence for the existence of the top quark’ involved 450 physicists… (And no, that’s not the cheese… I think.)

But as How Not to Cook proposes: "Do not forget that cooking is an art not a science".

Quite. And as with cooking so with Cook-booking, or cook-bookery. How Not to Cook is very much exceptional – with its 1000 authors - in the broad terrain of arts-related authoring.

And yet: this multiplicity becomes slightly less unusual if we slide from "arts-related authoring" to the authorship of Art. For the multiple authorship of How Not to Cook resonates with notable recent developments in contemporary art.

In the last ten years or so, there’s been an increasing interest in what I like to call ‘social art practices’.

What do I mean by this term?

Well, forms of Art that variously involve more than just one artist, and more than any number of artists. 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’… anyone.

And here, I’m compelled to mention Anthony Gormley’s 'One and Other', which is a very good example of one form in this emerging movement, and shares much with How Not to Cook, including the ambition for its number of participants – which in both cases reaches into four figures. Yes, I’m putting the book on a plinth!

Either way, art becomes more social by involving "others". (I would never say that art is not, in some way "social").

And as an aside: the fact that food is often involved in these projects is something well worth exploring. (Tonight we have food both as "idea" – in written form – and as material – our supper.)

For sure, eating together does not entirely neutralise cultural and social differences. The question of which end you crack your eggs – larger or smaller – would in some contexts, lose you your head. Well - at least it would in Lilliput, as Gulliver discovered on his travels.

But – for reasons of cultural agreement, eating - "in the West" - often serves as a ready means to sociality. Eating together offers a relatively equitable platform from which those gathered together can pursue more challenging common goals, which as such, might be regarded as forms of ‘social justice’.

In more philosophical terms, following the French thinker Jacques Ranciere, we could say that eating - is a relatively accessible-to-all "distribution of the sensible". We all have to eat and our culture recognises this as a sociable practice.

(Ranciere’s phrase "the distribution of the sensible" has been used to describe the "law" that "parcels out" "places and forms of participation in a common world". (Rockhill).

As such, "social eating" facilitates social art practices, which can also be seen to seek "re-distributions of the sensible" - equality of access to art and its attributes. But because, as Ranciere notes, different forms of the sensible – "aesthetic forms" – do different political work, there are political nuances in terms of how social art practices’ configure their pluralised authorship.

And there is an emerging terminology to refer to these – that include terms such as "participatory practices", "collaborative practices" and "facilitated practices". However, where we locate How Not to Cook in these must be saved for another day, not just for reasons of time, but also because – in conclusion of my 1st point - I want to identity its significance with the larger significance of social art practices per se - as quantitatively, more inclusive forms of authorship.

My 2nd point in support of my Toast stays with the subject of the identity of the author - or as we’ve established, authors. And argues that the authorship of How Not to Cook is remarkable in another, related way. For certainly, when ‘authorship’ connotes ‘authority’ – these authors are not conventionally authoritative.

This unconventionality is twofold:

First, we expect our authors (by and large) to be experts. So we expect history books to be written by historians, medical text books to be written by the relevant specialist and…. Cookery books to be written by Cooks – professional ones.

(Moreover, with a number of these genres, we don’t just expect professional expertise in the content of the book – but professional expertise in the form of the book – writing. People comment on the quality of writing-cooks’ writing: they talk of Elizabeth David’s "terse" prose. And an Amazon review of Nigel Slater’s Real Food says that "The writing style is familiar, enthousiastic, sensual and easy to read."

Now, with fingers crossed, and hoping that the eggs don’t start to fly (in my direction), I would hazard that the writers of this book are not, by and large, professional cooks. (I’ll leave the issue of writing to one-side, short as the contribution are…)

Why do I wager this? Well, for one reason, I assume that professional cooks would not warn against throwing pasta at the ceiling to see if it’s cooked (there are no less than five such injunctions in the Pasta section) … And that’s not because they think it is indeed, the thing to do – but rather because they’ve left such amateurisms way behind.

But let’s remember the absence of "the expert" is what I thought made How Not to Cook interesting. For it reminds us that there are some areas of human activity in which all of us, to varying degrees, have adequate knowledge… - in which we are sufficiently "authoritative" - however we have come by that authority! Cooking is a very good example of this, and an example of how "‘professionalisation" can rhyme with "alienation". Or it might, if it implies that only those who earn their living in a given area are to be taken seriously – as "experts".

The think-tank Demos has very recently approached the other side of this argument in their publication Expressive Lives, with the notion of "according dignity to the everyday creativity of ordinary lives" – to quote the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins.

As a last note on this point, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that the term "expert" derives from the Latin word for "experience" which is related to "experiment", and that another remarkable feature of How Not to Cook is its subtle – and highly political – triangulation of these three terms.

Which brings me to the other, closely related way in which our authors are unconventional as "authorities".

How Not to Cook is further remarkable in challenging our expectations of what an author knows – in one very obvious way. The title is the key to this. Very little knowledge formalised via publication embraces the negative to the extent of How Not to Cook. And this is fascinating territory for all sorts of reasons.

In the first place, it reminds us that knowing how to is generated in a dialogue with knowing how not to. Error informs success. Or at least, error productively digested. And yet, this knowledge is seldom acknowledged – publicly – in print.

But, at the same time, How Not to Cook raises the question of where "knowing how not to" ends. WhileHow Not to Cook is definitely useful – I learnt a lot from reading it – seriously, having always put salt and oil in my pasta-water – the question is: has it exhausted the terrain?

For instance: should I also know not to put certain types of salt – rock salt? - in my pasta-water? Should I not use more than, say, a gram? Should I not wear my glasses when adding salt (in case they get steamed up and I can’t see what I’m doing)? Should I not cook unless I’m wearing an apron, perhaps a boiler suit – and protective goggles, if not glasses? And should I not cook unless I’m wearing gloves to protect against splashes of boiling water? And unless I’m wearing rubber-soled shoes to protect against electric shocks (you never know…) And a face-mask might be topical…

You get my drift, I hope… this is an infinitely regressive field.

By forcing the question of knowledge – (and at the heart of this project are some fairly serious points about ‘epistemology’) – into a negative form and hence, both unfamiliar terrain (and absurdity), How Not to Cook also asks the question: when is knowledge adequate? When do we know enough?

The idea of "negative knowledge" in this project has another yield – which is one I find especially exciting, not the least as it yokes the idea of authorship as "knowing not to" to the possibility of this work’s identity as art. Which is my third and last point for this Toast.

I see that Aleksandra Mir has suggested:

"By making our guilty failures public we may even be creating an original and subversive form of art, rather than simply be aspiring to obvious and repetitive results".

I don’t know her reasons for this claim – but I’d heartily concur with her.

My reasons are based on an argument I made while writing about Superflex (the group I mentioned earlier), and specifically, their art-cum-engineering work ‘Supergas’.

This, as its names suggests, was a device for generating energy from dung. Superflex collaborated on Supergas with civil engineers, and first installed it for villagers in rural Tanzania. I argued that its use of refuse was emblematic of its disciplinary identity.

For, one of the Superflex crew had remarked that ‘Supergas’was art because it took up where Aid agencies left off (none thought the project was viable). And I contended that it was art yes, because it was ‘not-Aid work, or civil engineering proper’, but also crucially, because artists had chosen to work with this disciplinary left-over.

And I referred this to a text by theorist Michael Lingner to argue that this was "post-autonomous" art – art which did "social work" but on art’s own terms.

Likewise, 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 left-overs of another discipline (the often "discarded" knowledge of "Domestic Science").

And the question that this raises is: are her "authors" therefore, also artists?

This is where the project gets more fascinating still, not the least because "artist" and "author" function in different ways in our culture. 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.

As much as I’d like to elaborate on these, I am here to give a speech, not a lecture. And as I promised - to propose a Toast, and I know that if my speech gets too long, the Toast will get burnt.

So Ladies and Gentlemen, please join with me in raising your glasses to this remarkable achievement: How Not to Cook.