Chicago, Ill. (2010)—Behind every box of Wheaties stands a largely invisible system of international finance, a marketplace of buying, selling, and risk that makes Wall Street seem transparent. At its simplest level, the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile give investors the opportunity to speculate on the future cost of food, transferring risk from farmers to investors.

But the commodities market also turns tangible, life-giving crops into an abstraction, and it’s this process that fascinates artist and urban planner Sarah Kavage. “I’m interested in big systems like wastewater treatment facilities, stuff that’s around you but you don’t really think about how it works,” Kavage explains. “That was my initial interest in commodities trading. These guys are working behind the scenes and most people aren’t really aware of their profound influence on the food system.”

In order to make that influence apparent, Kavage conceived of Industrial Harvest, a massive public art project that she took to Chicago. The piece had two parts. She purchased a grain future on 1,000 bushels of wheat—an investment gamble that nonfarmers use to speculate on the future price of a commodity. At the same time, she bought 1,000 bushels of real wheat from a grain elevator, and had it milled into 20 tons of flour and shipped to Chicago where she gave it away to food banks and other organizations.

“I was trying to educate people not just about where their food comes from, but to make the connection between those fields of corn and the Board of Trade and what people are eating and paying at the grocery store,” she says. “Wheat is a good example of monocultural agriculture—humongous fields and destructive farm practices. And what you have is a commodity system that encourages those destructive practices.”

Kavage’s distribution of the flour she purchased stands in stark contrast to these abstract financial transactions. She tracked where the flour went, partly through an interactive website. “When I started the project, I wondered if anyone would even want flour. Is someone going to a food bank going to want to bake?” What she found was that food banks are under enormous pressure to feed the growing number of people in need. Getting rid of her flour was no problem. “The outcome was that it fed a lot of people.”

 

Interested in more about the intersection of art and food? Check out our related article from this issue, Art for Eat’s Sake