Meals as Hypothetical Assemblies
Research format Improbable Assembly, response by Inga Reimers
In the following response, I will look at participation and modes of assembling not from an art-based but more from an art-informed ethnographic perspective. I will give an insight into my research project on collective eating and cooking, where assembling and collaborating are both subject and prerequisite. For me, becoming an associate in the artistic-academic postgraduate programme Assemblies and Participation was the beginning not only of a process of intense research but also a process of self-discovery as an ethnographer. As a new member of the group, I expected of myself to work and think like an artist. While struggling with this self-imposed role in the beginning of the programme, this struggle eventually led me to refine my self-conception as an ethnographer. Combining (performative) arts with an ethnographic approach opened up an experimental space. For example, I did not only define my research field as something that one discovers and explores, but also as a laboratory where I set the frame and create experimental settings (Reimers 2018). This started with the need to develop a research and presentation format where, in my case, sensory perception and sensory knowledge were crucial for assembling people and ended up in exploring meals as a situation and practice of research1.
In my research, I participated in and observed numerous situations where eating and cooking as a collective practice were linked to subjects such as collecting money, discussing the notion of neighbourhood or welcoming refugees. I was then asking myself what kind of added value initiators of such events and projects believe is created through collective eating and cooking. One central finding of my research is that a strong narrative is required to assemble people to a setting where it is not obvious beforehand exactly what is going to happen. The initiators, just as the participants of these events, relied on presenting the activities of eating and cooking together as an anthropological constant, for instance by repeatedly mentioning that people have gathered to sit around the fire since the Stone Age. Appealing to this common ground made potential participants feel safe and motivated to take part. By assembling people to a meal, the respective hosts were not only organising this setting but also doing community and hospitality2 in performing the transcultural consensus that meals are social situations par excellence (Liebsch 2011).
In one of my case studies, this transcultural knowledge was used to welcome refugees and facilitate encounters between people from different cultures by eating and cooking collectively in mixed groups of refugees and locals: Make the World a Better Plate (or Über den Tellerrand/ÜdT) is an initiative that propagates a society “founded on social cohesion, mutual respect and inclusiveness, and in which all people are treated as equals.”3 Community meals are one of various activities that the ÜdT initiative employs to reach that goal. Although the ÜdT network quickly grew in size since its foundation in 2014, it can still be described as a small initiative, gathering in groups of up to 25 people during a single cooking session. Even though language partnerships or friendships developed out of these gatherings, for most of the participants they remained singular events where community was performed rather than built. But this casual, playful character of the events also had the potential to include people who had not been previously involved in working with refugees. Clearly, the world envisioned by the ÜdT network has not materialised yet. However, by pretending it existed during the sessions, the participants could develop an idea how this world could work and what it could feel like.
I also used this realisation in experimental dinner settings I hosted to test hypotheses that arose from my case studies.4 Here, I asked: What if eating and cooking are not (only) the subject of research but research methods themselves? In these settings, I was highly dependent on the participants’ collaboration as I invented a laboratory with certain rules and tasks that differed from everyday eating and cooking. Participating in a meal where parameters such as customs and table manners had been modified in order to be researched was not always as funny as the participants had expected beforehand. In one setting on the interconnections between eating and memory5, I expected the participants to prepare a pasta sauce and narrate their memories connected with the sauce to their neighbours at the table while they were feeding the sauce to them. Some of the guests experienced this task as unreasonable and refused to participate in this part of the event. At this moment, I recognised that the success of my research hinged on the people taking part in these events and that therefore they were co-researchers rather than mere participants. They all had their own (situational) agendas from doing me a favour or being interested in my research to having a nice evening and chatting with friends. Here, my ethnographic-interventionist approach offers the possibility to cope with moments of supposed failure by staging moments of tension and/or irritation as central moments of knowledge production. This is crucial when dealing with everyday routines as they are not easily verbalised and, thus, difficult to observe (Reimers 2014). These situations of irritation are not only important as part of the field observations but can also be used intentionally to test hypotheses and question the research design in the research dinners.
As this experimental approach is still not worked out very well in (ethnographic) practice, there is a lot of work to be done. To conceive of ethnographic research as art-based or at least art-informed can be very helpful in order to go beyond the borders of ethnographic methodology. This includes, inter alia, the question why people should join such research settings, and how we as researchers can encourage them to do so.
According to my studies, providing a comfortable space and atmosphere for the co-researchers that is not based on an academic habitus but on everyday knowledge and practices (such as eating and cooking) helps to facilitate participation in the respective research setting. As a side effect, providing a meal and a cosy atmosphere is also a way of acknowledging the co-researchers’ efforts and conceptualise research as a situation of ludic practice.
1 As the title (Eating with/as a Method) of my PhD project indicates, I did not only research meals but tried out collective cooking and eating as a method itself. For more information see the project’s website: www.taktsinn.org‘
2 Doing community/hospitality’ refers to the notion that both are rather done in practice than fixed concepts, following the idea of “doing gender” (Kessler & McKenna 1978) that has been applied to other fields such as “doing culture” (Hörnig/Reuter 2015) or “doing community” (Wagner 2016).
4 The settings, which were titled Taktsinn, are documented on the project’s website: http://taktsinn.org/dokumentation.
5 http://taktsinn.org/dokumentationen/dokumentation-taktsinn-ii/ (accessed 11 August 2020).
Hörning, Karl H./Reuter, Julia (ed., 2015): Doing Culture, Neue Positionen zum Verhältnis von Kultur und sozialer Praxis. Bielefeld: transcript.
Kessler, Suzanne J./ Mckenna, Wendy (1978): Gender. An ethnomethodological approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Liebsch, Burkhard (2011): “Grundformen und Spielräume einer Kultur der Gastlichkeit”, in: Alois Wierlacher (eds.): Gastlichkeit. Rahmenthema der Kulinaristik. Münster: LIT-Verlag, pp. 31–44.
Peters, Sibylle (2016): “Calling Assemblies. The Many as a Real Fiction”, in: geheimagentur/ Schäfer, Martin Jörg/Tsianos, Vassilis (eds.): The Art of Being Many. Towards a new Theory and Practice of Gathering. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 35–48.
Reimers, Inga (2018): “Ethnographie als Perspektive, Experiment und Grenzgang”, in: Hinz, Melanie/ Kranixfeld, Micha/ Köhler, Norma/ Scheuerle, Christoph (eds.): Forschendes Theater in Sozialen Feldern, Theater als Soziale Kunst III. München: kopaed, pp. 71–79.
Reimers, Inga (2014): “Ess-Settings als Versammlungen der Sinne, Zum Problem der Greifbarkeit sinnlicher Wahrnehmung”, in: Lydia Maria Arantes/Elisa Rieger (eds.): Ethnographien der Sinne, Wahrnehmung und Methode in empirisch-kulturwissenschaftlichen Forschungen. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 75–90.
Wagner, Andreas (2016): Doing Grassroots, Die Organisierung von Communities in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit. Wiesbaden: Springer.