Lunch Against Work: Almoço Contra o Trabalho took place over November 2018 at Instituto Procomum LABxSantos Brazil, the first iteration of an ongoing artistic-research project. Organized around a series of collectively prepared plant-based meals, the project proposes to investigate plant knowledges and arts infrastructures so as to develop narratives, ethics and habits that are proper to an era of food crises, extinctions and intensifying inequality and authoritarianism. In Santos I was fortunate to meet and collaborate with the very skilled and inventive artist and cook, Diego Andrade. Over this time I kept a blog, which I will continue to develop alongside the project: www.blogagainstwork.life Having had some time to reflect on my experiences in Santos, three ideas that emerged during my residency continue to resonate: ‘Contra o Trabalho’, ‘Social Security’ and ‘Food +’.
Contra o Trabalho
I was amused as the phrase ‘contra o trabalho’ became a meme around Procomum, attached as a suffix to a range of activities including napping, smoking cigarettes, playing guitar and attending meetings. Almoço Contra o Trabalho addresses the idea of work in several ways. In times of creeping authoritarianism the project questions who or what are we working for? In this historical period of ‘late liberalism,’ as philosopher-anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli calls it, we live and work in a world which is designed to return value to an elite group of people. The project’s first outing in Brazil was significant because it occurred immediately after the October presidential elections as a far right, anti-communist government was readying to be installed.
Occurring every Wednesday afternoon Almoço Contra o Trabalho purposefully intervened in the ‘regular’ working week, inviting the Procomum community to spend time socializing and experimenting with other people and species (specifically plants). In doing so, I thought we might lessen the pressure of socially-reinforced expectations and habits that bind us to systems of exploitation and alienation and rather re-kindle relationships in the world.
Of course, not all of us are subject to a regular working week. Procomum’s LABxS is located in the downtown working class neighborhood of Villa Nova. Walking the streets populated by mechanics, lanchonetes, copy stores and vacant lots, there are clearly those who are at work and those who are without. One quiet afternoon when I was alone in the building the doorbell rang. Opening the portal window, I came face to face with a man who immediately began to speak to me.
Although I struggled to understand him, it was clear that he wanted some money and peering behind him I saw that he had dropped a trolley load of debris in front of the door, obstructing the sidewalk. Gesturing towards the mess, he asked for two Reals to clean it up. Why pay him? Because it’s a funny scheme! Because he’s only asking for two reals! It could be an effective anti-gentrification measure— as long as people keep paying him, the streets will never be totally cleaned up. In time the neighborhood might learn about him, piece together his story and come to adore him — raise him to the status of local icon and recount his peculiar occupation as folklore.
What can we learn from him? Intentional or otherwise, there is some irony that this lo-fi strategy of a local entrepreneur mimics what occurs on a much larger scale. Afterall, when industries and corporations cause ecological damage it is not unusual for these same organizations to be consulted about how to best manage it. So, rather than being held accountable for the harm they have caused, large multinationals are often paid to service the problems that they have engineered. Is there something community-focused arts organizations, such as Procomum, can learn from this too?
I found that the lunch events Diego and I hosted could become quite hectic. We would often start preparing before midday and people would often appear all together an hour or two later. Energy levels would suddenly rise, some things would get cooked others would be left to the side. Hungry, people would eat whatever was around. Things got a little chaotic, which I liked. It did not make sense to me to try to formalize the events or insist that people sit down to eat. I preferred it to be improvized and self-organized.
Sadly, without having a good grasp of português my participation was limited. Nevertheless, I learned from the Procomum community that they were pleased how the events activated the kitchen, an infrastructure leftover from the building’s prior occupants, a soup kitchen Prata de Sopa. In time, Diego discussed with me some ideas he wanted to develop around a social kitchen. It would bring together people who wanted to cook but had nowhere to do so, people who wanted to cook with other people, and people who didn’t know how to cook but were interested to learn. We talked about setting it up in the streets, perhaps drawing on methods like Santo Hacker Club’s sidewalk pizza oven and learning from the resourcefulness of activist cooking collectives who fuel mass actions and sustain occupations.
I can’t be sure, but I like to think Almoço Contra o Trabalho sparked some community awareness and support for Procomum. In my notebook I labelled such efforts to develop solidarity via sociability ‘Social Security.’ As I learned from visiting the Cozinha Ocupação 9 de Juhlo in São Paulo, community support (and art capital) can offer precarious organizations a degree of protection.
The idea of ‘Food +’ has been developing since I left Brazil, as an attempt to deconstruct and reinvigorate everyday acts of cooking and eating. Food + is more than just eating to live, but it is not an elite form of food knowledge or snobbery. I am not overly concerned with tradition, and indeed during Almoço Contra o Trabalho I often emphasized experimentation and sociability over expertise. It’s not about recipes, or thinking about food in terms of ingredients or resources, but rather about how making food choices and developing ethics around cooking and eating transforms one’s habits and behavior and draws one towards like-minded people, enabling friendships and alliances.
Global food systems based on industrial farming practices, uneven and weak labor regulations and shaped by corporate interests are neither ecologically or ethically sound. While it may not be practical to withdraw en masse from these systems, it is possible to work critically within them and with intention. For example, animal rights activists have suggested that while it is not realistic to expect people the world over to suddenly become vegetarians or vegans, it is possible to decrease the level of industrial killing. Such discussions have lead me to think about how world powers have developed modern societies to accept and normalize certain forms of violence, such as structural economic inequality, allowing them to intensify. Thus, pursuing alternatives to perpetuating cycles of violence would imply deploying strategies of non-violence.
I learned a simple lesson in solidarity at a climate justice camp in the Netherlands last year. During an assembly someone suggested that if an action group was arrested and one of the members could not speak in Dutch to the police, then noone should speak Dutch. Similarly, if anyone who was arrested couldn’t eat the McDonalds meals that the police would most likely provide, then everyone should refuse them. Afterall, meals should be acceptable to all who are at the table. Following this precedent Food + could also be understood to nourish political practices.
The spiritual aspect of Food + is as a means of rekindling relationships in the world, but I want to clarify my use of this somewhat loaded word. I am not so concerned with religion, although it is undoubtedly for many a significant spiritual practice. Rather, I am interested in food prepared with care, attention and intention. As such, cooking and eating could be understood as a ritual practice. It can at times be mysterious, for instance one might not know what they are cooking but by being attentive they can be confident in the process. As such, Food + can also be perplexing and like este samba no escuro it is sensual, experimental and open to possibilities.
Photo of Avineda Paulista São Paulo by Maria Des Neves.
Many thanks to Victor Sousa for translations.