Art

What It Means to Talk About the Food Deserts of LA

Projects in the Current:LA Food triennial point to the fact that the city funding the event has often contributed to food injustice through its unequal distribution of resources.

This is the second installment of a two-part piece on the triennial Current:LA Food. Read the first installment here

“Food Group: The Body Palms” (© Ry Rocklen 2019)

LOS ANGELES — On October 19, the New York Times published a baffling article with a cringe-worthy headline: “Drawn from Poverty: Art Was Supposed to Save Canada’s Inuit. It Hasn’t.” It posited that Inuit art was “all the rage” in Canada’s art market, then wondered why art makers still struggled to afford to eat and live in the northern community of Cape Dorset. Since the article’s publication, residents of Cape Dorset have pushed back, among them Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who called the article “poverty and trauma porn” on Twitter. It also reflected a disturbing misreading of art’s relationship to poverty. Even in major, central cities, many art makers — including some successful ones — live near or below poverty lines, their creativity perhaps contributing to their quality of life in some ways but not exempting them from a system in which art translates as market capital only for a lucky few.

Art isn’t necessarily here to “save,” but it can still make helpful ripples in conversations around issues that art alone can’t solve — including the conditions that make living and eating difficult. Current:LA Food, the second city-sponsored, city-wide Los Angeles triennial, tests the ways in which art can speak to issues surrounding food, its origins and availability. Each of the 15 installations, spread across Los Angeles public parks, takes food as a subject in a city where rising housing precarity goes hand in hand with increased food insecurity.

The Department of Cultural Affairs organized Current:LA Food with the curatorial advice of Jamillah James and Asuka Hisa of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) LA, and independent curatorial consultants Lauren Mackler, Diana Nawi, and Marco Rios. The triennial lasts for just one month, too little time for even the most committed viewer to fully experience each of the installations, and includes workshops about foraging, breastfeeding, and bread making, among other topics. With a few exceptions, the installations are modest, sometimes dwarfed by their surroundings — such as Nonfood’s algae-growing greenhouse at the scenic Orcutt Ranch — and always dwarfed by the immensity of the subject, especially given that the city funding the event has often contributed to food injustice through its unequal distribution of resources. Los Angeles County has the largest food insecure population in the nation — a 2010 study cited land use requirements and slow city processes, as well as inadequate public transit, as deterring grocery stores from opening in dense, lower-income areas of the city. These areas also have high populations of cheap convenience stores and fast food restaurants, partly because both initially secured their hold on the market by opening in areas with limited resources.

“Food Group: The Body Palms” (© Ry Rocklen 2019)

At Palms Recreation Center, a small park located in the dense Westside neighborhood of Palms, Los Angeles-based artist Ry Rocklen installed a bronze sculpture of anthropomorphized junk food on a metal picnic table near a tree. He has also staged weekly performances on Sundays, and given the park’s small size, it would be difficult for even a visitor on the opposite side not to notice the singing actors dressed in oversized food costumes. The performers all played “handheld foods” — a taco, pizza slice, cupcake, fries, popcorn, and a pixie tangerine — and were very much aware of their identities as mass-produced junk food. As the Taco acknowledged, “we are the ghosts of metal and machine, a group of foods forged in blood, sweat and tears.” (The other foods sighed after Taco said this.) Later, after a dissatisfied, planted audience member points out that their “little Food Band or whatever” contributes to “diabetes, malnutrition and all sorts of health problems,” the handheld foods further acknowledge their dark side before celebrating the organically grown pixie orange for being the group’s “first whole food.”

A few miles east, at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, artist Jazmin Urrea, herself based in South Central Los Angeles, has built five plexi-enclosed, rectangular towers of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which stand in a circle, like a junk food Stonehenge. Urrea, whose installation is placed near one of the city’s food deserts, intended for the work to comment on limited access to nutritional food. Like Rocklen’s performance, it’s colorful levity mimics the seductive quality of food packaging, although in Urrea’s case the minimalism of her structures and their formal arrangement makes the Cheetos almost unrecognizable as something edible.

Jazmin Urrea, “Imperishable” (© Jazmin Urrea 2019, authors: Panic Studio LA, copyright: City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs, CURRENT: LA FOOD ©)

On October 19, as part of Current:LA, founder of the affordable, mobile fresh grocery service SÜPRMARKT, Olympia Auset, hosted an event she called SÜPRFEST, bringing vegan food vendors from around the city together at Leimert Park Plaza. Auset has previously brought her grocery tent to the park where Nari Ward’s “Jack Totem,” a towering found object sculpture made for the triennial, now stands and would continue to do her work with or without Current:LA, but it’s a credit to the triennial’s organizers that it folded into its programming activists who do food justice work in the city (including SEE-LA, Los Angeles Food Policy Council, Across Our Kitchen Tables).

Auset prefers the term “food apartheid” to the more passive “food desert,” as it better points to the role city stakeholders and governments have played in creating the problem. After all, South Los Angeles was once full of farmland. Michael Queenland’s Current:LA installation sits where the city’s Agricultural Park once was. The park, founded in 1872 in part to encourage newly arrived landowners to take up farming, showcased local produce: corn, wheat, oranges. When its founders foreclosed on the property only seven years after opening, the new owners took advantage of the fact that the park lay just outside city limits. They hosted horse races, opened saloons, a hotel, and bathhouses known for prostitution — all of which thrived until the city grew around the park, and Angelinos began to complain. By 1913, Agricultural Park had become Exposition Park, a rehabilitated, over-landscaped destination defined by a rose garden.

Michael Queenland, :Untitled” (© Michael Queenland 2019, authors: Panic Studio LA, copyright: City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs, CURRENT: LA FOOD ©)

Queenland’s untitled sculpture sits low to the ground surrounded by roses — it would be difficult to even find if not for the four orange Current:LA banners flanking it. It is a bronze cast of a blue, yellow, and white rug with geometric patterns. Little bronze cheerios are stacked on the rug, resembling tiny replicas of ancient monuments as much as they call to mind the leftovers from a child’s game. Queenland spent the afternoon of October 12 distributing native plants that he had grown from seed. While he could not plant them there in the rose garden, a place from which many native plants were once banished, the gesture represented one small rebellion against a very long history.

Current:LA Food continues at various venues throughout Los Angeles through November 3. 

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