By Dana Schulman
“Enjoy your post-extinction experience of soon to be unavailable flavors,” says a woman clad in all white standing at the counter of a fluorescent lit food truck. The truck is situated in the middle of campus–at the corner of the Keyser Quad, between Remsen Hall and The Milton S. Eisenhower Library. She hands me a white tray.
Atop the tray sits a small wax paper package and a white nosepiece that looks like something out of a dystopian science fiction film, with two temple pieces that loop around the ears, and a third end that circles over and then under the nose like a curved antennae with a small bulb at the end. I take the tray to table where another woman in all white clothing is waiting for me. She instructs me to place the ends of the nosepiece on my ears like glasses so that its small white bulb at the end of the antennae piece hovers directly beneath my nostrils. From the bulb emanates an alarmingly strong peanut scent. She then tells me to unwrap the package.
I pull out its contents, the corner of a quintessential peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, just like the kind my mother used to pack me for school lunches. I hesitantly bite into the sandwich.
The surreal experience described above was not the result of time travel but rather a mobile art installation called The GhostFood Truck that simulates a potential future where our planet’s food sources have been pillaged by climate change, demanding an alternative way to taste the foods we love.
The surreal experience described above was not the result of time travel but rather a mobile art installation called The GhostFood Truck that simulates a potential future where our planet’s food sources have been pillaged by climate change, demanding an alternative way to taste the foods we love. This mobile food truck is the thought provoking creation of artist Miriam Simun. The Contemporary, a nomadic art museum, commissioned the truck’s exposure to the Baltimore community in a series of stops around the city, including the Johns Hopkins campus.
The truck offers three options for its customers, including “Atlantic cod, beer battered and deep fried”, “Amazon peanut butter served on grape jelly with white bread”, and “chocolate milk with delicious cocoa from West Africa.” All three of these options include, according to TakePart, and ingredient that may be obsolete by 2050, if not sooner. TakePart is a “digital news & lifestyle magazine and social action platform for the conscious consumer.” The catch in this GhostFood operation is that each of these dishes contains substitutes for their primary ingredients made from climate-change proof ingredients. So in reality I was not biting into “Amazon peanut butter served on grape jelly with white bread”–but rather a soy substitute and jelly sandwich. This is only a textural substitute, however. An olfactory substitute is provided by the nosepiece, which releases the approximate aroma of the food being consumed.
The textural substitutes came about by experimenting with climate change proof foods, using and testing different formulas until they settled on the most accurate representation. The olfactory substitutes were developed by Monell Chemical Sense Center in Philadelphia who had a basic “flavor composition” on stock for these three common scents.
But how can just texture and smell replicate taste? According to PubMed Health, what we attribute to taste is in fact a combination of the “the qualities of taste” perceived by the taste buds present on the tongue, oral cavity and throat (among other places) and the “smell, texture and temperature” of the food. GhostFood accounts only for the smell and texture (except in the chocolate milk where sugar is added). Because “the ‘coloring’ of taste happens through the nose,” the olfactory simulation from nosepiece accounts for the most crucial aspect of taste by mimicking the expected flavors of the substitute ingredients. Combined with an almost identical texture the “GhostFood” neurologically simulates the presence of the real food by tricking the smell receptors in our brains. However, the substitute is not detected by the taste buds leaving a flat synthetic flavor. It is an eerie illusion of the real thing, hence the name GhostFood.
It is not just the separation of senses that catches the audience off guard. The appearance of the truck is equally as striking and eerie. It’s a food truck meeting I, Robot.
It’s a food truck meeting I, Robot.
The name “GHOSTFOOD” is perched atop the truck in a bold white sans serif font. The truck has a mysterious glowing quality as if reflecting a light from an unknown source and expressionless men and women dressed in all white attire and buzz around the truck looking to interact with customers, who inquisitively stand a safe distance from the truck until a brave onlooker decides to approach. The whole atmosphere is described perfectly by Dr. Elizabeth Rodini. “It’s sort of a glowy weird truck that draws people in like moths to lights. They hover outside a little bit.” These striking sensorial features are a staple in Simun’s work and a testament to her philosophy on art as an experience.
Simun has a deliberate presence and often speaks in billowy sentences, communicating her thoughtful process expertly to the listener. She is not trying to trick anyone into thinking they are eating the real thing. She knows that most people will sense the difference. “I was interested in separating out those experiences and making them evident to people as well as creating a space for disconnect where you have to work for the sensations.” This is not the first time Simun’s work has dealt with this idea of changing a common human experience with food we take for granted. Her specialty is creative disruptions which is described on her website’s bio as “objects, documents and experiences that that poke, provoke, and re-imagine existing systems.” According to Simun, her work “deals with issues around ecological themes and the trifecta of nature culture and power and how they affect one another. I understand technology and ecology to be two ends of the same spectrum.”
The influence of technology, ecology and culture in her work is perhaps best exemplified in one of her first projects, The Lady Cheese Shop, which sold cheese made from women’s breast milk. Simun was especially interested in why food made from the female body is such a taboo and why, in the wake of the movement for locally grown food, “do we not turn to the animal in our midst?” Unsurprisingly this project made some people very uncomfortable. But according to Simun, “it is productive to be uncomfortable because comfort can often lead us to the issues we have now.”
These projects are just as much a learning experience for Simun as they are for her audience. The process behind her work is very much a learning curve.
“Most of my work starts with an inkling or idea [such as] ‘I should go kill something. I eat meat everyday,’ and then only through meeting people who are experts in their own way and spending time in whatever those places are that the complexity of the work emerges.” Her work and creative disruptions in general provide an opportunity for people look at their role as a human in the larger system whether that is ecological or cultural. “Questioning assumptions is a human responsibility. I am living in systems that I cannot extricate myself from, so I should at least try to understand them.”
There is no one intended response to her work: rather, Simun expects responses to vary from person to person, experience to experience. She sees the message behind her projects as open-ended, meant to provide a sensorial experience and create uncertainty. But from there the audience is responsible for their own interpretation. She does hope, however, that her work raises questions that we often take for granted.
Another unique feature to Miriam’s work is its focus on food. Why is food as a sensorial experience such a provocative subject that allows us to ask these questions more so than any of the other senses?
“Food is connected to everything and everybody is an expert on food. A threshold is crossed when you appropriate something into your body beyond seeing something and this raises the level of vulnerability in this interaction,” she said.
It is this universal connection that makes food such a powerful medium, which helps accomplish Simun’s goal to reach as many communities as possible with this provocative experience. So how did the project reach Hopkins specifically?
Dr. Rodini is the director of the Program in Museums and Society minor. According to Dr. Rodini the minor is “an interdisciplinary program that focuses on the history, theory and practice of museums broadly defined.” According to the Programs in Museums and Society website the Program is meant to “introduce undergraduates to the institutions that preserve, interpret, and present material heritage.”
The Program’s connection with Simun and GhostFood began last spring when she met with the director of The Contemporary, Deana Haggag. “I went to talk to her mostly to see if we had some more internships for students, but she was so awesome and we had such a good talk that I thought she would be a great instructor.” To complete the minor, students must complete a practicum course, meaning they must partake in a class that works hands on with a local museum’s collection, exploring the history of the exhibit and working side by side with museum curators to develop an “educational resource” for the Baltimore community. This may include researching histories or physically assembling the exhibit’s layout. Every project has unique expectations for the students. It was Haggag who suggested GhostFood, The Contemporary’s upcoming commissioned project, as the class’s core focus. She suggested that students have not only a hands-on role in preparing the truck for its Baltimore tour but they should also be trained and used as the active performers on the truck at all of the Baltimore sights. This was the first practicum course of its kind that Dr. Rodini has seen in her 11 years at Hopkins. Practicum classes most commonly work with an exhibit years in the making so this was really the first time a practicum class would be not only performing and actively executing an artist’s work, but even experiencing the result of their work while the class was still in session. According to Dr. Rodini this opportunity is unique to working with The Contemporary because for contemporary art exhibits “one year up is the max, if it is a year and half it’s not contemporary.” The mobile aspect of the GhostFood truck was also new ground for The Program in Museums and Society.
Haggag has a very personable demeanor and is enthusiastic about her work. She co-taught the class with Simun and two other colleagues at The Contemporary. The class consisted of 18 students from many different disciplines, which helped spur interesting and diverse conversation. According to Haggag “They read everything from art texts to science texts to understand the history and implications of the truck so that they looked at it as both science project and an art project.” The class also prepped for set up, determined location sites and rehearsed for the performance. “It has been incredible to train students as performers and it has been interesting because they are not professional actors, it has been open and beautiful.”
Nicole Ziegler, a senior majoring in art history with a minor in Entrepreneurship and Management and Programs in Museums and Society, was one of the 18 students taking the GhostFood practicum course. The Programs in Museums and Society was why she decided to apply to Hopkins. She decided to take the course because she needed to fulfill a practicum requirement but also because the contemporary genre was new to her. It was also the unique performance based aspect that she found most interesting, especially since she is most accustomed in engaging with art as a concrete form.
“Engaging with art that was defined by process, completely about going through an experience and engaging with people was definitely beyond my academic repertoire. It was cool to expand in that way, to experience it through the side of production,” Ziegler said.
In terms of the actual performance, her favorite site was Lexington Market, which was hectic but also the most interesting because she got to talk to people from different backgrounds and from all over Baltimore.
Ziegler has seen a number of varied reactions but what stuck out most to her was a common reaction to the “chocolate” milk.
“People got upset with the milk one. They kept bringing up the fact that chocolate melts in your mouth like that was so important to them,” she said.
GhostFood’s chocolate milk is just milk with sugar added so it did not fully capture the unique memorable texture and feel of chocolate milk. It is Simun’s intentional use of foods that we as a society are most nostalgic about that has created such a powerful reaction to the truck. Reactions about a future without certain foods tends to be stronger if the foods we have to consider losing are the ones that have been the most present in our daily lives.
An Art F City review by Michael Anthony Farley commended GhostFood on its non-patronizing approach to direct the public’s attention to climate change. He highlights the success of GhostFood as its “ability to embrace a sense of absurdist futility”. It is Simun’s peripheral approach that allows for both emotional and intellectual reactions to the problem at hand. The performers remain relatively silent throughout the process only explaining what GhostFood is and how to use the mask. This allows for an open and honest conversation on the audience’s part. The average person goes into the experience without any knowledge of what GhostFood is and why its there. Only after the experience does the attending performer ask what the customer thought about the foods and how they would feel if this was the only way they could experience these foods in the future.
In a question and answer session after the truck came to Homewood campus Simun laid out some of the questions that she was considering while designing the experience. “Does extinction matter if we can simulate an experience of the species?” she asked.
Is there really anything at stake if technology can save us from a failing environment? These are the questions that might pop into your head the next time you eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch or chocolate candy at Valentine’s Day.
After I bit into the sandwich I let it sit for a minute considering both the texture of the half masticated food in my mouth and the strong peanut butter essence emanating from the futuristic nosepiece covering my face. I was immediately reminded of the Disney movie WALL-E where men and women rode around on hovercrafts going about their daily lives in this seemingly unfamiliar environment. It was a scary image and not one that I entertained for long, but nonetheless it made me think. I looked up at the woman dressed in white across from me. “What did you think about your experience?” she asked.
To answer her question it was interesting that something could seem so familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.