World – On a cargo bicycle converted into a traveling taco stand—complete with solar oven and rocket stove—artist Nance Klehm rode through the back roads and margins of Copenhagen, Denmark. While exploring gardens and back alleys, she gathered food. As soon as she had enough foraged, bartered, and donated ingredients to start cooking, she made homemade tortillas and tacos and handed them out for free. The catch? She asked recipients for stories, which she recorded, about “land, migrations, homescapes, dinner tables, and persisting eros.”
Thematically, Rambling Range (2006) is linked to Klehm’s urban farm, which she operates in Chicago. Through eco-educational workshops, food-foraging walks, seasonal food preparation, and a variety of food-sharing events, her public art practice exposes people to natural processes that offer strategies for survival. But the mobile cart—along with the shared food and stories of the Denmark project—served as a vital medium to provoke audience reaction. “The spectacle and the intimacy of the offering made through Rambling Range delighted many and scared off a few,” she says.
Klehm is one of many artists using mobile food carts in participatory public art practices. The idea isn’t exactly new. Nearly 30 years ago in Seattle, Washington, for example, artist Cris Bruch began to create sculptural pieces and street-based performances from shopping carts. In an early street performance called Vegetable Currency (1987), Bruch dressed as a waiter and used one of his mobile metal cart sculptures to create a roving cooking performance that involved frying and serving onions in Seattle’s downtown streets.
More recently, artists have been engaging in field research, social organizing, community rituals, public interventions, educational workshops, audio documentation, and performance art with their mobile works—and serving up food and information along the way. Here are a few recent innovative works.
Corn Tortillas: Protesting GMOs
In her ongoing street performance project El Otro de la Tortilla (2006–present), Tijuana-based artist Claudia Ramirez uses tortillas to show that the medium is truly the message. Using a portable tortilla machine as a printing press, she serves up tortillas stamped with political messages about genetically modified corn and the corporatization and security of our food.
“In the wood of the press I carved a pre-Hispanic seal of a type of corn found in Veracruz,” says Ramirez. “Since the tortilla is our main food item, the connection that can be made with people is fast. When people see me printing tortillas they approach to ask questions and that’s when the dialogue begins.”
For El Otro de la Tortilla Ramirez collaborated with activist groups like Greenpeace and Zapatistas to design, create, and disseminate materials to create networked local street actions. Not only is the project mobile, it uses minimal resources. “A kilo of tortillas, roll and ink, and that’s it!” says Ramirez.
Ice Treats and TwinklePop: Connecting Communities
In 2007, a little ice cream truck named Lucci rocked the car-crowded streets of Los Angeles and San Jose’s Zero1 Festival with a new genre of ice cream truck music called TwinklePop. A public art project by Nancy Nowacek, Katie Salen, Marina Zurkow, and collaborators, Karaoke Ice attracted audiences to its delectable frozen treats and twinkly renditions of popular tunes like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Superstition,” and “Heart of Glass.” Not only that, Karaoke Ice was a mobile karaoke bar; Lucci was accompanied by a dancing karaoke MC, Remedios the squirrel cub.
For Karaoke Ice’s visit to Los Angeles, the project’s team worked with Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) to design a route with stops in Watts, Leimert Park, Hollywood, Koreatown, and downtown. Creating a shared experience in these disparate neighborhoods, Karaoke Ice enticed audience participation with free frozen snacks and a mobile stage. A wide variety of performers took the bait, including a family with a rehearsed song, a New York rapper who happened to be walking down Hollywood Boulevard, and the residents at an assisted living community.
“Karaoke Ice was a direct challenge to the common perception that there is ‘no public space’ in Los Angeles,” says Carol Stakenas, executive director of LACE. “In reality, the city is framed by islands of pedestrian culture fractured by the expansive network of roads and freeways. This project used the freeways to become a mobile connector to invite the public to co-create neighborhood portraits while sharing refreshing, flavorful ice in the summer heat.”
Edible Plants: Foraging Urban Terrain
Mobilize: The Portable Pantry was a roving public art cart created by artist Emcee C.M., Master of None. “I used it to collect rosehips, crabapples, pine needles, holly leaves, chokeberries, bayberries, and a few other things growing in New York,” he writes. “I was learning how to identify plants, cook jams, preserve food, and prepare different teas, in order to throw Wild Tea Parties.”
The artist has also worked with Bronx-based Hatuey Ramos, whose EAsT Harlem project investigated solutions to the lack of access to fresh food in East Harlem, where the Mobilize cart offered a foraging tour of public parks to help people identify and gather edible plants. Information about where to find fresh food gleaned through community outreach was used to create an EAsT Harlem map identifying East Harlem’s local gardens, farmers’ markets, bodegas, delis, green carts, supermarkets, and community-supported agriculture projects. The map was printed on paper, cloth shopping bags, and online for people in the neighborhood to use.
Supporting Street Food Vendors
In 2010, Cleveland Public Art (now known as LAND Studio, standing for landscape, art, neighborhoods, and development) developed the Public Art for Food Carts Program. Its goal was to support the City of Cleveland’s Sustainable Street Food Pilot Program by pairing artists with vendors serving affordable, healthy food.
“At first, we envisioned artists coming up with elaborate art creations for the food carts to draw attention to the various operators and to add a new strain of art and color to the streets,” says Vince Reddy, project manager of the food carts program. “It quickly became apparent, though, that what the operators—especially the new operators—needed was not the assistance of fine artists but the assistance of graphic artists, who could help them establish a visual identity.”
While LAND Studio is wrapping up its involvement in the project, the rising popularity of Cleveland-based food trucks has created a new controversy. There’s an increased sense of competition within the culinary business community and many local restaurants have started to feel the heat in terms of attracting a customer base. As a result, the city is now dealing with a new set of concerns regarding vendor permits and zoning.
Such issues can be tricky to negotiate. In 2010, the City of New York attempted to create a law that would have given the city the power to suspend permits to food vendors if they received two citations in a 12-month period, and to revoke the permits of those who committed three violations.
As an artist, media educator, and advocate for the rights of street vendors and lower income workers, Marisa Jahn responded to this situation with Ticketing Jessica Lappin (2010), a choreographed street per-formance that included the distribution of cleverly designed mockups of actual city citations. The project—a collaborative effort by Jahn, REV (her nonprofit arts organization), the Street Vendor Project, and the Urban Justice Center—organized a diverse community of street vendors and encouraged them to advocate for themselves.