As an artistic medium, food holds a particular set of challenges. Whether artists are cooking for museum-goers or cultivating for communities, the perishable nature of their materials demands the savvy of professional food purveyors and the strategy of urban planners. Artists Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark learned this firsthand after opening the legendary (but short-lived) restaurant Food in 1971. One year later, the artists printed in Avalanche magazine an advertisement of “Fiscal Facts” that quantified their successes and struggles. Over 100 dead roaches, 99 cut fingers, five floods, three city citations, one “ruined” truck, and a total income equal to their expenditures were among the less savory details. However exaggerated this list might have been, their experience is confirmed by artists working with food in the public sphere.

Planning for Bureaucracy

“Cooking is like building,” says Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz, who couples ethnic cuisine with political awareness. Since 2004, he has brought his project, Enemy Kitchen, across the nation, inviting groups to join him in conversation while cooking and eating meals based on the recipes of his Iraqi-Jewish mother. Conversations that occur over the course of preparing the foods are central to Rakowitz’s practice, but getting to that moment can be “really stressful.” Serving food to the public (legally, anyway) means surmounting the bureaucracy of food safety laws and permit requirements. Needless to say, planning the Enemy Kitchen food truck—which hit the streets of Chicago this winter as part of the Smart Museum exhibition Feast—was a slow and complicated process.

Chicago boasts one of the largest Iraqi expatriate communities in the United States. “I decided that better than opening a full-on restaurant would be to collaborate with this really rich community here and to make their presence evident and celebrated,” Rakowitz explains. Operating two days per week, the truck’s fare was prepared by local Iraqi cooks while Iraq War vets acted as servers and sous-chefs. Rakowitz observes how few Americans have actually come into contact with an Iraqi or a soldier who served in the war; the mobility of Enemy Kitchen extended this opportunity to different publics.

Chicago has been slower than other big cities to embrace the meals-on-wheels phenomenon. Food trucks are, as Rakowitz says, “a contested culture.” They’re opposed by some downtown restaurants that fear losing business, and since city law prohibits cooking on actual vehicles, all foods must be precooked and packaged, impacting freshness and taste. Fortunately, Rakowitz was well seasoned in absurd and impossible food law. For his Creative Time presentation Return, he reopened his grandfather’s import-export business with the intention of selling Iraqi dates out of a New York City storefront. To do so, he found support from the famous Brooklyn store Sahadi’s. “Being able to import something from Iraq on my own would have been completely impossible,” he says.

Applying the same collaborative strategy to his food truck, Rakowitz joined forces with the Chicago eatery Milo’s Pita Place. Working together was as much about engaging local Iraqi communities as it was about practicality. Because Milo’s was already established, Rakowitz circumvented some of the red tape of city licensing. After consulting “sympathetic” food truck owners, Rakowitz also hired a professional to outfit his vehicle to prevent problems like bacteria. “The worst thing to do is have any kind of tension build around a project because we didn’t do our research or due diligence about these things. So we’re not going to get shut down for uninteresting reasons.”

Handling Food with Care

City rules and regulations create difficulties for artists but their primary purpose is to keep the public healthy. The many dangers of perishables—spoilage, salmonella, allergies, vermin—hold true in art settings. Food can be lethal if not handled properly, and should misfortune occur, art space and artist assume legal liability. New York resident Jennifer Rubell, known for producing edible art installations of epic proportion, offers this advice: “Before making a piece of art using food, go take a basic food safety course.” As an inspiration to younger artists to take up food as a medium, Rubell suggests that “it would be interesting for schools to begin to address issues around it so that artists are mindful of the health and safety issues.”

To know the limits and idiosyncrasies of any medium requires dedication and experimentation. When it comes to food, Rubell is particularly adept. After earning a degree in art history, she studied food’s materiality and flavors at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu. In planning dinner for the Brooklyn Museum Ball of 2010, she spent months testing (and eating) some 30 different varieties of cheese for their “sculptability” and “melting qualities,” eventually deciding to make casts of her head in fontina. Heat guns slowly melted the suspended sculptures over a bed of crackers. Other decadent works by Rubell have included a one-ton pile of honey-drizzled ribs; a room-sized cell padded with pink cotton candy; a wall hung with over 1,500 Dunkin’ Donuts; and a yogurt and honey installation. “Food is a terribly imperfect medium,” she says. “If the perfect medium is bronze, which basically sits there forever, then food is on the exact opposite end of that continuum…there’s no food that’s not challenging in an art context.”

Funding Mass Consumption

Budgetary constraints play a significant role in Rubell’s choice of materials. Large-scale food presentations are costly. Many of her installations are privately commissioned for art galas. With their hefty ticket prices and big-name guest lists, these events are far from the realm of public art, although Rubell’s interests lie “almost exclusively in the broad public.” She explains: “It just so happens that in the course of my practice, the private sphere has given me unbelievable opportunities. As much as I can, I try to make those opportunities open to all viewers.” To be sure, up-front monetary support, be it for private or public events, figures greatly into what artists are able to do with food.

“Sometimes it’s better to be commissioned,” says New York social sculptor Tattfoo Tan. His gastronomic happenings, inspired by food’s ability to bring people together, include works such as Bread Rock, where communities collectively make and then “break bread.” Participation is free to the public—but no one really eats for free. In Tan’s experience, organizations often don’t anticipate the cost to feed large groups. “Let’s say that I was doing a project on pizza,” he says. “People usually think it will be cheap because it sounds cheap.” But multiply the ingredients by many mouths, and it can total thousands, excluding any stipend for the artist. While Tan has successfully funded his projects, there might be a trade-off: his artwork is occasionally reduced to catering. Tan suggests that organizations might approach artists like him nowadays with a more-for-your-money mentality because food artists are uniquely capable of providing both “an art piece and a dining experience.”

For Leah Rosenberg—head pastry chef of the rooftop Blue Bottle Coffee Bar at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—the line between artistic practice and food service is already blurred. Rosenberg likens the process of “building up” cake layers to making paintings. Cutting into one of her confections might reveal colored patterns that recall the striped works of Gene Davis. Where a painting can consume the viewer, cake begs the opposite. “A cake, to me, is a work of art with the intention of generosity,” says Rosenberg. And so she offers them up for viewers to freely devour. (In 2011, she brought her philosophy to Chinese cuisine with Jews for Dim Sum, a Christmas Day pop-up potluck on the steps of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.)

Private requests for pastries can prove oddly tough for Rosenberg. Even if hospitality is the foundation of her work, she can’t bake everything pro bono. Like Tan, she encounters “surprise” and even disenchantment when she tells patrons the price. “Audiences don’t recognize the scale and effort as with other works of art,” she says. Because people encounter food every day, naturally, they come with preconceived notions—however skewed—about its value.

Earning a living as an artist has long proved difficult for those working exclusively with ephemeral and performance media. As a possible solution, Tan entertains the idea of opening a concept store stocked with goods based on his works. “I always say to myself, ‘With all this hard work, I might as well start a business.’ In the long run, it makes sense.” Having developed a popsicle based on his Nature Matching System project (which encourages fresh fruit and vegetable consumption), he was invited to sell them at local farmers’ markets. But retail is easier thought about than done. Tan finds that food-based works often fail en plein air because “people don’t trust you,” whereas in the context of art, the public comes expecting the unusual. Additionally, supplying possible demand with competitive prices could necessitate factory-like production. “I don’t want to spend all of my time making popsicles,” Tan says.

Navigating Laws of Land

When Tan isn’t cooking food with communities he is showing them how to grow it. Mobile gardens planted in repurposed furniture and limited-edition jars of “Black Gold” compost are the stuff of his agriculture project S.O.S. (Sustainable. Organic. Stewardship.). Food production opens a whole other can of worms, so to speak.

Composting, for example, is the means for St. Paul artist Seitu Jones to raise awareness of our soil and food supplies. It was his work with perishables that led him to begin working “on the waste side of food.” His “interventions” into the food system range from installing site-specific sculpture to facilitating public tree plantings to casting seed bombs. Collards are a crop he’s particularly fond of because of its relationship to foodways and folklore in African American culture. His current endeavor, Collard Field, consists of just a tiny seed embedded into a plantable paper business card. Jones hopes that in distributing these to the public he’ll eventually generate a worldwide field of collards. Of course good soil is essential to his success. Jones is working to make change at the local level, though city ordinances can get in the way. “It’s okay to compost in your own yard in the state of Minnesota,” says Jones. “But it’s illegal to take someone else’s waste, even your neighbor’s, and compost that.” While he acknowledges the public health risks, he also argues that laws such as this typically benefit large soil suppliers (read: big agriculture).

Land laws can be overcome, however, by aligning artwork with government interests. Amy Franceschini, cofounder of the collaborative Futurefarmers, envisioned the rebirth of war-era Victory Gardens in San Francisco, and so wove her ideas about urban agriculture into the city’s developing environmental policies (see story, page 34). As a result, San Francisco City Hall now has a garden out front, symbolizing internal support for not only Futurefarmers but also sustainable urban agriculture at large. “It just took opening the door and showing the city where they could connect the dots,” says Franceschini. Rather than seeing public policies about food as hurdles, the artist considers them opportunities. “We [Futurefarmers] usually see challenges as an open door for change, or an unrealized potential. It takes more to think about improbabilities than ability.”

As artists continue to explore food as a medium, the challenges and concerns expressed here will likely endure while new ones arise. Fortunately, none so far seem insurmountable. When served with a large dollop of prudence, food-based artworks will surely have audiences hungering for more.

Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator living in Brooklyn, New York. She frequently writes on the role of food in contemporary art and visual culture. Follow her on Twitter: @nicolejcaruth.

Featured in Public Art Review #46, where this story appeared as “Art for Eat’s Sake.