The Public Kitchen & the Dilemma of Evaluating a Gesture
The next intervention the Design Studio is working on is called the Public Kitchen. It's part of larger project we are developing called “The Public: A Work in Progress.”
As public infrastructures—hospitals, water, schools, transportation, etc.—are privatized, the Public Kitchen takes a stab at going in the reverse direction. It is a “productive fiction”; it’s our experimentation with a new, more vibrant social infrastructure that can:
- Challenge the public’s own feelings that “public” means poor, broken down, poorly run, and “less than” private
- Engage communities in claiming public space, the social and food justice
- Make a new case for public infrastructures through creating ones that don’t exist
The first step of the Public Kitchen occured last fall when we worked with artist and graphic designer Jill Peterson to create what we called a “mobile ideation kit.” This enabled us to have interesting conversations with passers-by in a variety of communities, with an easy, attractive way to ask about what would be important to them in this made-up new form.
Next, we created an indoor Public Kitchen exhibit for Roxbury Open Studios. Over 100 residents, activists and artists came for a bite, took home fresh veggies, imagined new food policies, checked out architectural sketches, and added their ideas for what's possible for a Public Kitchen.
For our third iteration, we want to commission an artist and a culinary team to create an outdoor Public Kitchen—in a public space—for a week. In this way, the public will really get a “taste” of what this imagined infrastructure could add to their lives.
As is typical with these kinds of gestures, there are interconnected, but distinct intentions for this Public Kitchen: one that is an aesthetic intention, and one that is social/political.
Finding the right partners to sharpen the mechanics of our gesture such that the aesthetic and social/political intentions are so intertwined that the gesture is elegant will be a challenge. A fun one but a challenge nonetheless.
Another interesting challenge will be evaluating its effectiveness on these multiple levels.
Socially, we want the Public Kitchen to have a convivial atmosphere that contributes to the building of community in the place where the commission happens. (Currently we are aiming for Roxbury or Dorchester.)
Politically, we hope to affect how people in that community think about food and food production.
And aesthetically, we want to keep the play within Public Kitchen as analogous to public libraries, transportation, and other kinds of critical public infrastructures, without having it becoming too heavy handed of a gesture.
We are hoping to use two kinds of evaluation within our design process. One is in the form of a post-production charette to vet if our gesture seemed conceptually coherent and in alignment with our intentions.
Here we plan to bring allies from art, design, and activist discourses to critique our intervention. One of our longtime art colleagues, Judith Leemann, is helping us to sharpen our process to make this kind of a critique productive.
It is the second, more public, evaluation that is more challenging.
In order to capture the impact of the intervention itself, we’d like to hear from the passers-by who were engaged by it. Did they stop to eat? To talk? What did they think/feel/do?
This is challenging to the extent that we want to capture their reactions without tainting their experience or taking away from the lightness of the gesture. That is to say, without mucking up the magic! There's nothing like experiencing something delightfully strange and then having a survey or camera shoved at you to bring you crashing back to earth.
We will continue to think with other public artists to find creative ways to capture the feelings and conversations that participants are walking away with. (And we’re happy to take ideas!)