[March 23 2017]
Jen Monroe‘s “Color Meals” weave art and food into unforgettable events, fully immersing participants into a culinary and symbolic atmosphere. Here Jen Monroe discusses the fourth installment of the series “White Meal” as she prepares for the final dinner “Red Meal” this April 22nd and 23rd.
ELISE GALLANT — Your color meals are culinary artistry, can you talk about ways that you want to celebrate or challenge our cultural relationship to food?
JEN MONROE — I love that food is a really confrontational medium with which to make observations about things that are broken. For example, suggesting a dietary plan to anyone comes with a whole host of assumptions about lifestyle, economic status, ability, time, access, and priorities, and it seems to me that nutritional advice is often pretty arbitrary and malleable, with ideas about what is “right” to eat changing from minute to minute. There’s no such thing. Eating monochromatically is, to me, that absurdity pushed to its limit. It’s also a joke about food culture and our obsession with instagramming food — food as an aesthetic, or lifestyle signifier, rather than sustenance. Monochromatic food seems like a logical limit of food as an aesthetic object. It’s pretty extreme, like a neurosis made beautiful. Or if you think about it too much, which I do when I’m preparing the dinners, the idea of eating monochromatically starts to feel more sinister, more dystopic. At the same time, eating is pleasurable, color is pleasurable, and my hope is to make pleasurable settings in which people can ask questions about consumption.
ELISE GALLANT — Can you explain some aspects of white as an aesthetic that you brought into the meal? White is often associated with cleanliness, pureness, transcendence, innocence etc.
JEN MONROE — Absolutely, all of the above. I was thinking a lot about advertising and packaging, which I think exploit white more than any other color. White backgrounds and bright white lighting are used to make things look expensive or high-tech, or to suggest purity, wealth, a good life, a clean hospital, a MacBook, an expensive car. It’s used as a default color, which, aside from having some more generally insidious implications, also suggests that white is always trying to sell you something. Those ideas were easy to translate into “fancy restaurant” aesthetic — heavy white china, white linens, orchids. I tried to bring it into the food itself too: edible flowers, heavily stylized food, some dishes that were over-the-top sculptural, or even too pretty to be appetizing. At the beginning of the meal I served everyone little white biotin supplement pills, which are supposed to give you pretty hair, skin, and nails.
ELISE GALLANT — Can you talk about some of the humor in the meal?
JEN MONROE — I wanted to play with white being used as a high-tech or “science” color, so I decided to serve food directly out of an incubator. The obvious choice was something egg-related, so I made Chawanmushi — a savory Japanese egg custard— served in eggshells. When guests walked in they were handed an eggshell out of an incubator filled with egg and chicken, which for me was sort of a “chicken or the egg” joke as well as a small reminder of where food comes from, of the animal and human labor involved.
For the sushi course, served on an iPhone, I wanted to play with ideas about luxury and food. Sushi has turned into a pretty ubiquitous American signifier for luxury, and since the 80s restaurants have been doing increasingly funny things like serving food out of nontraditional vessels and putting gold leaf on food to quite literally show that it’s expensive, so I wanted to push that even further. The most outlandish and expensive plating option I could think of was to serve food on an iPhone, so I did. I bought dummy iPhones that looked and felt really real, and plated a deconstructed white tuna sashimi on them. As soon as people were served food on a phone, they immediately took out their phones and started taking pictures…
ELISE GALLANT — What did Sarah Kinlaw‘s performance mean for you?
JEN MONROE — Sarah is a dear friend and collaborator who has performed at all of the color meals thus far. I’m a huge fan of her work and I trust her, so usually we’ll just talk about the concepts that I want a certain color to represent and she’ll take it from there. At the time she had just started working on a solo music project, so I was thrilled when she wanted to perform a song at dinner — I thought it lent a sort of David Lynch, dinner theatre aspect to the meal. She also did a short movement piece, which incorporated some of the themes of advertising, buying, and selling for some of the piece she was even holding her laptop.
ELISE GALLANT— How did you design the atmosphere of the dinner? For instance you projected a video loop of advertisements, baby faces, and ASMR videos.
JEN MONROE — I made a video loop that was projected during dinner, all from footage I found on YouTube. The YouTube digging process is really fun–you start out looking at car commercials and then you end up taking 3D rendering tours of a hospital in Florida. I combined clips that I felt represented that aspect, of “white as sales pitch.” It was mostly commercials, although I might have given a little bit too much screen time to Maria, who is the reigning queen of ASMR. As a beautiful, immaculately made up woman who sells empathy and relaxation to the masses, she was ideal.
I made the playlist lean heavily on very synthetic, shiny, slightly futuristic music — things you might hear in a pristine, brightly lit hotel lobby. I covered the table in white pill capsules and white orchids, and I put a white noise machine in the bathroom. When guests sat down they were given oshibori, chilled towels for washing your hands and face before eating, both because they feel good and because they were a nod to the idea of cleansing and purity. It was meant to be a bit too much.
ELISE GALLANT — Explain some of the history of the color meals
JEN MONROE — A few years ago my sister and I both read J.K. Huysmans‘s À Rebours, and we loved the scene in which the protagonist throws a funeral banquet for his lost virility. He’s an aging, slightly insane aesthete, so it’s a really decadent dinner in which all the food is black. We decided to have our own black dinner for some friends, and from there we branched out into other colors. I eventually took it outside of the apartment as ticketed events, and from there the project got increasingly elaborate.
Interview Elise Gallant and Photo Elise Gallant, Rachel Fick, Steven Acres and Walter Wlodarczyk