Social Food: Emi Uemura interview

Emi Uemura is a Japanese artist currently living in Beijing. This weekend she held the “Country Fair” at the shop at Vitamin Creative Space in Caochangdi. Country Fair brought together farmers, community activists and artists in a friendly, festive space where information, experience and perhaps most importantly, food, was shared. Emi’s “daily activities” have worked to bridge a gap between art practice and sustainable development in the world primarily by using food as a starting point for discussions about the social issues it impacts upon. This interview took place while she was preparing for the Country Fair and gives a little background to her overall working process and how she sees her activities fitting together – both with the artworld and with people who have no connection to art.

Japan, Canada

Edward Sanderson: Can you give me your background? You were born in Japan? How did you end up in China?

Emi Uemura: I was born in Japan and grew up there, going to College in Sapporo to study English Literature for two years and then transferring to the University in Halifax, Canada,

I went to Halifax to study spoken English first of all, and while at the University I took Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology, which still influences my thinking. Around that time, I started to meet students from NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) and began engaging with art, social activities and changing eating habits, After graduating from the University, I went back to Japan, worked for a year, then went to Frankfurt, Germany.

Germany, China

ES: What was Germany for?

EU: At this time, a couple of my friends attended Städelschule, a school in Frankfurt, so I was simply curious to experience living in Germany with a group of friends. I was not an official student at the school, but I sneaked around and attended their lectures, film screenings and especially their cooking classes. And did some small projects while I was there.

ES: When would that have been?

EU: 2005–2007, for two and half years. And I think that was the time I was really influenced by the relations between space and food. Even though it was a small school they had a chef and a huge cafeteria where the students and teachers sat together and eat. I found that quality interesting, that in front of food people are very open and have discussions. I think from that point on I wanted to be working with food.

Then I went back to Japan again for two years and I consciously worked with food. The artist Fuyuka Shindo and I had a collaboration unit called DUET♪. We started catering and organizing food events and projects. At this time, I was working with the Sapporo Artist in Residence programme, and I learned the importance of long-term processes for producing work and engaging with people. I’ve now been in Beijing since the end of last year, because a friend of mine is living here and again, I’m looking forward to experiencing a different culture.

Seed Bombing

ES: Maybe you can talk about some of the things that you’ve done, like the Bento boxes, the Chain Letter Dinner at “also space”, and the seed bombing. I’d also like to ask about your work with Elaine Ho’s HomeShop. There’s an informal group of people around that, and you work together on certain things. Perhaps saying you work together is too much of a structure – it’s an informal, friendship thing, so the seed bombing, for instance, is a kind of joint effort.

EU: This year the HomeShop is working with the theme of “ballsy”. Elaine told me the meaning of “ballsy” in Chinese relates to courage (in English this works too) but also sprouting seeds. I mentioned to her there’s this technique of seed bombing and why don’t we put that together with this meaning of “ballsy”? It’s a kind of spontaneously happening activity where I have less consideration of it as a formal or informal project of the HomeShop.

One of the great things about the HomeShop is if you’re making an action in front of the space people come over – it attracts attention. A neighbour, passerby and regular kid visitors will come and have a conversation and exchange; this kind of social context can otherwise be difficult to have in Beijing.

For me, HomeShop is more a friend’s house than having to do with an institution (whether Elaine agrees with this fact or not) and I think that an interesting element is each person has a different approach and consideration towards HomeShop, and—literally—this place functions as home and shop in that sense.

Chain Letter Dinner1

ES: And both Elaine and you were involved in the also space2 show, at C-Space?

EU: We did the Chain Letter Dinner. I received an email, a chain letter of recipes from a friend. Usually I ignore chain letters, but I was doing the Bento Delivery project, which involved cooking everyday and I thought: “Why not?” I was excited about receiving recipes too, that’s not a bad exchange after all. One of the people out of the 10 I sent it to was Elaine and she was so excited about it! And the 8 recipes I received were all from Elaine’s friends – so we figured that somehow her friends were really active in this situation. At that time also space was happening, so we thought why don’t we realise these recipes at the space?

We just copied all the recipes and emails and put them up on the wall in the kitchen of C-Space. We also announced on the also space blog that we are cooking at a certain time. I fixed two or three recipes and Elaine also fixed two or three recipes. We made cheesecake and chocolate moose, tofu omelette, pizza, and kimchi rice. So we were the chefs or cooks.

But also space2 in itself had an interesting quality about it, people could go anywhere in the gallery and hang around in the residential area, and at one point this guy came into the kitchen and we just started cooking together.

ES: Who was he?

EU: I don’t know. Some random guy. And we were making cheesecake together. And before it was finished he just disappeared. I worked with Elaine and Reinaart Vanhoe (the curator for also space2) based on friendship, and at the same time I have respect and trust toward how consciously they work with people and space in certain contexts and social situations.

Bento Delivery

ES: Well let’s go back and talk about Bento Delivery then. We’re going back in time here, the Bento boxes were actually the first time I came across your work, although I didn’t know it was you then.

EU: Bento Delivery happened over a period of three months, from the end of March to the beginning of June 2010.

It was collaboration with Vitamin Creative Space. We talked about the food situation of China and figured that we could work with food delivery systems. The shop at that time was located in Jianwai SOHO, a large commercial/office district in Beijing’s CBD where people working in the offices often order in food at lunchtime. So we decided to work with this, using lunchtime as a possibility for intervention in space and time, to go into the offices with our Bento – instead of people coming into the gallery. So this was not just about the food, but the act of bringing it to them. We also included some small ‘zines contributed by artists or other people about food – poetry, pictures or drawings. And we used Bento boxes made out of bamboo, which is reusable.

ES: Did you make them or did you find these boxes to use?

EU: We searched for bamboo box makers in Beijing; the other part of this project is concerned about micro economy and that production money should go into local people. However, bamboo is a Southern product and we could not find a local source. So we found them on the Internet. This part did not work out and we compromised with this solution. Other aspects, like the wrappers, are made of recycled fabric, with my own stitched patterns on them. I collected the fabric from some people in Beijing who had leftover material. Over the three months I delivered to around a hundred people. Five people a day three days a week, bi-weekly for 3 months.

ES: That’s a lot of work. It was popular then?

EU: Yeah!

ES: How were people finding out about this?

EU: We made flyers and gave them away in the CBD area. We limited the delivery space to the CBD area where the shop was located, and also around where my house was, in Tuanjiehu. Other areas would have been too difficult for me to get to, because I wanted to do the deliveries myself whenever I could.

ES: Were you making them at your house?

EU: Yes.

ES: And most of the people were in the office blocks in Jianwai SOHO?

EU: Actually it varied. Many people ordered from Jianwai SOHO, but other orders came from Central Park area, Capital Library on the South Third ring road; Chaoyang Park area; and Dongdan, close to Wangfujing. So the CBD area expanded a little and all the time I was biking around, like other delivery people. Some people ordered from Wudaokou, but “No way!” I had to refuse.

These random orders were from the shop’s Douban3 network, where you can publicize events, and where we announced this project as well. Actually most of the orders came through Douban, interestingly from people who actually didn’t know about the shop and were just curious about my bento – they just thought the shop was a restaurant and I was the owner.

ES: So their only connection to the shop is through you at this point?

EU: Yes, I really liked this twisted reality.

ES: So why would they be connected to it on Douban? Through someone else?

EU: They get mailed if there is an event added. So once the shop put up this event on Douban, about three thousand people got the message. And if you wanted to join the event or were interested in it, you clicked a button. And when you do that I think all your friends are informed.

So our announcement was: “Homemade Bento delivery, between April 21 and May 20, inside of CBD area. We are doing delivery of home-made Japanese food. Everyday five people will be delivered to.”4 I didn’t manage the orders, staff at the shop did and it helped me not get emotionally involved in the selection. I have a tendency to not refuse the order.

ES: It filtered through the shop to you? You just got a name and an address, like Pizza Hut or something?

EU: Yes, exactly. I got the information and cooked, made the bento and delivered.

But an important part of the project was that I communicated and exchanged with customers as a delivery person, asking them questions about food, office work, and who they are. By doing so I tried to break the regular routine and associations of their lunch and lunchtime. I was trying to do this project on a very personal level. As I expected, sometimes they would refuse to let me into the office, and I had to use a different elevator, and there was no engagement at all with the customer; but at other times, I had a lot of interactions and conversations took place.

ES: So the people you deliver to were expecting to get the delivery from you as an artist?

EU: Not necessarily. But yes, some people who were familiar with the intention of the project treated me as an artist and often conversations went smoothly because we both knew what was happening. In this case, I stayed longer and ate lunch with them, talked more in-depth on food issues and any other common interests.

There were actually two different types: some people were really looking forward and waiting for me, and some people were just waiting for their food. Another aspect is that staff from the shop would sometimes do the delivery, like Michael Eddy, Zhang Jun, Yi Lin and Zhang Wei also delivered to places, so they played a role and expanded their social situation. And this was not intentional, but developed from occasionally demanding help that I needed because of not being able to manage time for the geographical spread. Michael and Zhang Wei offered as helpers at first, and they found interests in the outcomes of exchanges with the customers, so other people were also involved.

ES: When you were in the offices, you were doing research. What kind of information are you interested in? How people work and live?

EU: It was like research, but I liked thinking of the visit to the office as if the relation of gallery person and audience had been switched – so, I visited the office as if I was visiting an art space, looking at office desks and plants as installations and displays. Just interested in how business people use space for the people who spend half a day of their life there. One dotcom office was interesting in how they created an open atmosphere, no partitions between desks, a lot of plants, a bar lounge area, lunch time presentations, a loft&ellips; what few partition there were, were glass. They were working with space as a whole, instead of cubicles.

ES: OK. How they’re projecting themselves, presenting themselves. And this research ended up in a book, as drawings and a report?

EU: Right now I’m working on digital format of documentation of Bento Delivery. Every week when I finished the deliveries I made a drawing diary in analogue format which was originally presented at the shop during the project period. But for a wider audience to share and discuss the project, I’m making it into digital format to present on its own website and Douban again so that we will be starting another conversation, hopefully.

Mobile Container Garden & Calendar Restaurant5

ES: Related to that, let’s talk about the Calendar Restaurant. I feel the Bento Delivery seems very developed as a project, and the Calendar Restaurant is another well-developed project.

EU: They are related in how they both deal with current food and social issues. Mobile Container Garden uses container gardens on wheels to move around. Calendar Restaurant is a restaurant that only opens when the products grow in Mobile Garden. They are at the shop in its current location in Caochangdi.

In this Caochangdi space, the shop is located in an art context where the building complex is spatially isolated from the local village. When I saw the space, I found it difficult to do a project there, because of the lack of liveliness. However, when I saw the courtyard area, the idea of a garden and growing vegetables came about to decorate the space. And the idea developed wheels so that the garden could move around to make a new path (or at least a new standpoint), to take a route for the regular visitors and also as a friendly welcome for the passersby (if any) and local Caochangdi people.

So originally it was a Mobile Garden, and Calendar Restaurant developed from that. I had had an idea for a long time that I wanted to make a café where people can order coffee and once an order has been placed, from that day I go to Colombia or wherever and start growing coffee, and maybe in 5 years I can make this one cup of coffee!

ES: So the Mobile Container Garden is in the polystyrene tubs that you can see outside the shop now?

EU: Yes. Styrofoam is cheap and we can get tubs made from it at the vegetable market. We collected twenty-five used Styrofoam containers and decorated them with colourful tape (which was a technique learned from the local budget couriers’ use of materials, and which I used for my delivery box in the Bento project). When I was making boxes, people came around and started working with me – the kids and some old men from around here, as well as staff from the shop – they all came down and started covering boxes with tape patterns. Everyone designed spontaneously and it just happened as an activity without major significance, It happened as if playing at a playground, something attracting people and just disappearing again.

Soil and fertilizer came from the “Little Donkey Farm” where I am currently participating for farming. They showed interest in this project and donated the organic soil and fertilizer. They also gave me some seeds. Other seeds I found in the flower market; and from Zhang Wei (the director of the shop) – her Grandpa is farming in the Northern part of China and she brought back some seeds from him, so we planted all these seeds. It started on July 13th and the idea is the vegetables will grow until October.

Calendar Restaurant only has five dishes: vegetable garden pizza, cucumber salad, snow pea mint soup, 20days radish, and mung bean sprouts. From the third week of July I’ve been cooking sprouts every Friday. You can make sprouts in 3~4 days (I did not grow beans for it). In October the other 3 menus should be ready. 20 days Radish will be ready this week, but only four are growing!

ES: Out of how many?

EU: I planted twenty or more. But local kids in Caochangdi pick them sometimes. And perhaps the weather is a problem, I also planted some summer vegetables too late – anyway, my enemies are small local kids!

ES: But there are some things that are growing?

EU: Coriander, carrots, lettuce, snow peas, beans, cucumbers are fruiting, tomatoes, eggplants are blooming, lots of leafy greens, basil and mint. Some have already been retired, strawberry, green pepper and red pepper, chives.

ES: So you have a menu, but the menu is based on when each ingredient will be ready, it’s divided by months.

EU: Presenting the idea that growing vegetables takes an amount of time that people normally don’t appreciate when they purchase them from the grocery store – it becomes just an exchange of money and products. Here, I simply show that it takes time.

ES: There’s a real sense of cause and effect in this. You get a real relationship to the growing process. It’s not just that you go into a restaurant and there’s a list of things that you can get all the time.

EU: The Calendar Restaurant is the opposite of a regular restaurant where you are served immediately; in this restaurant the customer has to wait [laughs]. Unfriendly restaurant.

ES: It’s forcing you to think about what you’re getting. Like the bento boxes, but the customer gets more involved in the process of production and delivery. The bento boxes are about delivery, and this is more about production, forcing the customer to appreciate what they’re getting and when they’re getting it.

EU: Mobile Garden and Calendar Restaurant are presenting the process of production and are very connected to my current practice of farming. Oh, and I’m organizing a Country Fair on September 18. This project arises from Mobile Garden as a platform, with three to five farmers coming in to sell their produce and consumer’s unions coming to discuss issues around urban agriculture and food. My friend who shares the plot at the Little Donkey Farm is making dumplings for Calendar Restaurant. She was like: “Hey Emi, I’ve got so many chives now, so I’m going to make dumplings for Calendar Restaurant!” – it’s a very friendly takeover of my restaurant, I am excited! Most participating farmers are practicing CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), working with networking and delivery systems. However, still there are big gaps between farmers in technical levels and also many of the consumers do not know how to receive natural food products. This Fair is for people to share opinions about local organic produce and discover the way to support local farmers.

I think the shop can be a platform to distribute their ideas and also to create networks. I have found there are not many places to discuss the issues around food with customers, there is no direct communication happening in Beijing as far as I know. It would be interesting if artists would talk with farmers about creative approaches.

Daily Activities

ES: I wanted to go a bit broader now. Is Beijing a good place for the things you do? Or are you just doing things and seeing what happens?

EU: I never think too much about the significance of Beijing. The difficulty is not speaking Mandarin or knowing Chinese and Beijing culture, this is the huge wall to get over when doing anything, and always having to be helped and depending on others. But I’m catching up on daily basis. For my project, it does not matter so much about the location, however, I have to say that the Bento Delivery and Mobile Garden came up as a reflection of social issues that I perceived in Beijing. I did not come to Beijing for Chinese cultural interests or those specific to art practice, but I would like to see what I can do here and see what happens.

ES: But the kind of work that you do reacts to particular situations you’re in and the things that you’re interested in – I guess it’s not about Beijing per se, but about what you want to do and what you can do in a particular situation, what opportunities come up. You’re working with those opportunities rather than going somewhere because it has a particular benefit. For instance, how did you meet Elaine Ho and how did the projects with HomeShop come about?

EU: That kind of question always confuses me. I guess how you see what I do with Elaine makes it a project, but for me so far, I do things (like seed bombing) as activities with friends on a daily basis. And that is understandable that we have different ways of contextualizing situations. However, I found that when many of the people I meet in Beijing do something together it becomes “working” together, which is a little too much for me; perhaps Beijing is a city where people come and go all the time, many people just want to do some “project” during the short period of their stay. Anyway, I met Elaine through a friend of mine, and we just hang out lot. But nowadays, we talk about “work” or “projects” (finally I can use the word!) that we will perhaps realize in future, so we’ll see.

ES: At the beginning of our interview you were talking about how you became interested in making artworks – relating them to food and cooking. Well, given your ambivalence to formalising your activities too much, I wanted to ask how you see that as being “artwork”? What’s your relationship with artwork?

EU: To a certain extent, it is an artwork/project (Bento Delivery, Mobile Garden, Calendar Restaurant) that produces a platform where I can explore the relations of individuals, different social groups and networks with the intention of mixing them together. Often, this is intentionally happening in art contexts where I find less limitation of expression for an individual’s practice. I am not talking about commercial art, more about alternative, non-commercial situations here. Also, in some way, from another perspective, my activities do not have to be considered as artwork if people don’t think so – it is their decision. I guess I have mixed feelings in myself about categorizing my work as art But it is true that I’m trying to be active in between art and other social situations. For example, farming and growing vegetables is about relating to people in the community, this quality is really important for me. These people are very, very straightforward and believe in certain things and I find that I can be in-between and bring these two sides (art and farming in this case) together. I believe that art and a creative aspect will change people’s perspective a little bit into a better way of understanding reality.

ES: OK, so after the Country Fair? What’s in the future?

EU: I will work towards urban agriculture and relations to art and society, also with food and space. I’m currently working at the Little Donkey Farm outside of Beijing where November will be harvest time. Also, I’m going to participate at Grizedale Arts in England where the art space also runs a farming operation. Then, I would like to realize Calendar Restaurant in a real situation, not an art space, so I have to listen to potatoes for my direction!

Emi Uemura was interviewed by Edward Sanderson at the The Bookworm, Nansanlitun Lu, Beijing, on 31 August 2010. Interview edited by Edward Sanderson and Emi Uemura.

  1. http://www.ourwork.is/alsospace/2010/04/chain-letter-dinner/ #
  2. http://www.ourwork.is/alsospace/2010/05/chainletter-recipes/ #
  3. http://www.douban.com [Chinese social networking website] #
  4. http://www.douban.com/event/11798662/ #
  5. http://ourvitamin.taobao.com/view_page-9804492.htm #
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Social Food: Emi Uemura interview by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International