By Aga Wielocha
On a regular basis, the Institute Materiality in Art and Culture (IMIKUK) at the Bern Academy of the Arts (HKB) organizes a lunch for employees and friends at the Buffet Nord, the school’s iconic canteen. Activating Fluxus project team decided to use the June edition of the lunch as an occasion to experiment with enacting one of the classical Fluxus performative pieces — Alison Knowles’ Identical Lunch (1967). The aim of this undertaking was to experience first-hand and collectively reflect on the complexities of bringing a work that was first performed in the 1960s into the contemporary context.
Identical Lunch consists of consuming the same meal — a tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast with lettuce and butter, no mayo and a large glass of buttermilk or a cup of soup of the day each week at the same place at about the same time. The piece originated in Knowles’ habit of eating regularly the same lunch at Riss Foods – a diner in the Chelsea neighbourhood in New York. This routine was as a way to find a space to think and “revive her creative energies” outside of her home governed by her young twin daughters . This custom had been observed by another Fluxus artist Philip Corner, who proposed to formalise it into a performance and a “meditation they could investigate together”. Each artist participated by eating the same combination of ingredients tuna fish, buttermilk, soup, and so on at any locale for as long as each wanted to keep performing the score.
As time passed by, Knowles decided that the piece works better as an event-score which can be offered to others for interpretation and invited other artist-friends, among them George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams and Shigeko Kubota, to perform the score at their leisure. Over the course of the meals, Knowles collected various documents from these performances, such as receipts, notes, drawings, letters, and photos and published them in 1971 in the Journal of the Identical Lunch . Philip Corner would go on to publish his personal experiences with the book titled The Identical Lunch: Philip Corner Performances of a Score by Alison Knowles . Since then, Identical Lunch has been performed by Knowles publicly on many occasions in different parts of the world, often as a formula for a social event in institutional contexts. In 2011, for instance, the artist was invited by the Museum of Modern Art to enact it in its Café 2 as a part of historic performance series .
But how does Identical Lunch play out its identity as an enactment of a historical event? In a video produced by Smart Museum in 2012, Knowles reflects on the impossibility to recreate the typical American lunch menu in different cultural settings: “You would think that in Germany you can find a whole wheat bread. No! The best we could do was a whole wheat baguette. […] In Asia, I did not even try. I had pictures to show, and then I would enjoy what was regional for them. So what connected it to the [Identical] Lunch, was that they could get me a regional tofu soup […] as my lunch had been regional to me”. Furthermore, following Knowles’ call to perform and interpret the initial score, the Identical Lunch resulted in several creative corollaries. The most iconic variation was that by Maciunas, who suggested blending all the ingredients together into a kind of milkshake . The 1976 artist book More by Knowles features another version of the score titled Blind Lunch, which turns the meal into a variation on a children’s game and a teamwork exercise . In 2012, at the invitation of Smart Museum Knowles took Maciunas’ proposition even further by staging Identical Lunch Symphony performed as a concert where blenders were used as instruments . The blending of Identical Lunch ingredients was ‘directed’ by Knowles and the outcome was then served to the audience. Although multifarious tweaks of and variations on the score offer an abundance of possibilities for (re-)enactment, we have decided to peruse the initial idea of eating the same lunch together.
Accordingly, the first step towards staging the IMIKUK take on the piece was to think about the menu. Different options were considered, including a recreation of the look and taste of a typical 1960s-NY-diner sandwich and obtaining original, canned Campbell soup as a side dish. A historically accurate reconstruction of the ingredients would be certainly a novel experience for the non-American participants born in the 1970s and 1980s and coming from different culinary cultures. Nonetheless, after considering the needs of vegetarian and gluten intolerant members of the Institute the decision was made to choose a present-day menu that HKB employees would consume daily in the Buffet Nord. The restaurant, whose motto is “conscious consumption is a commitment against the exploitation of people, animals and nature” suggested the flatbread wrap as an epitome of the everyday, cheap, simple food comparable to what was a tuna sandwich in the 1960s. The final choice was Çiğ Köfte wrap – an Anatolian dish prepared with bulgur mass, tomato, cucumbers, onion, parsley, various spices and pomegranate sauce. Homemade Ayran, an Altaic and Turkish drink prepared from fermented milk, was served as a substitute for the buttermilk. Unsurprisingly, many conversations around the table were revolving around the nature of the event. Could one call it an iteration of Identical Lunch, despite the definitely non-regional character of the menu? Is the artist’s presence essential for the work to be realized? Can we say that by reinterpreting the score and adapting it to the current context we are perpetuating Identical Lunch for posterity? To what extent can one drift away from the original instructions and still assign the performance the identity of Identical Lunch? Can our enactment be classified as an art piece? And if yes, who is the artist? Although the experiment failed to provide direct answers to any of those questions, its success lies in their collaborative formulation. We truly enjoyed thinking about what the work is while having the same lunch sitting around a table and enjoying each other’s company.
P.S. The Çiğ Köfte wrap with the Ayran by Buffet Nord team was truly delicious.
- Woods, Nicole L. 2014. “Taste Economies: Alison Knowles, Gordon Matta-Clark and the Intersection of Food, Time and Performance.” Performance Research 19 (3): 157–61.
- Knowles, Alison. 1971. Journal of the Identical Lunch. San Francisco: Nova Broadcast Press.
- Corner, Philip. 1973. The Identical Lunch: Philip Corner Performances of a Score by Alison Knowles. San Francisco: Nova Broadcast Press.
- Alison Knowles: Identical Lunch. 2012. The University of Chicago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tWVa0MlaEY, accessed May 25, 2022.
- Chamberlain, Colby. 2022. “Food for Thought. Colby Chamberlain on Alison Knowles.” Artforum, 2022; accessed May 20, 2022.
- Kennedy, Randy. 2011. “Art at MoMA: Tuna on Wheat (Hold the Mayo).” New York Times, February 2, 2011; accessed May 20, 2022.
- See: George Maciunas, Drawing for Alison Knowles’ Identical Lunch (1971), collection of MoMA, NY.
- Knowles, Alison. 1976. More. New York: Unpublished Editions.
- Alison Knowles: Identical Lunch Symphony. 2012. Smart Museum of Art. https://vimeo.com/42623133, accessed May 20, 2022.
- Capper, Emily. 2012. “Planning the Identical Lunch.” In Research Blog for “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art” at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. Chicago: Smart Museum of Art.
Responses from the participants
I thought it was a very good idea to organize a joint research lunch again and this time even combine it with a performance. The concept of identical lunch is also very interesting to me personally, as I am a creature of habit anyway. Even if I work in home office, I usually only have a handful of meals to choose from. I either get something from the Ethiopian, the Syrian, or the Indian takeaway. And if I do cook something myself, it’s usually scrambled eggs, lamb salmon with mashed potatoes and tomato-mozzarella salad, or a curry with chicken and vegetables. Only it never occurred to me to define this as a performance until now. I thought the Turkish wrap we had at our performance was delicious. Even if we decided against tuna for reasons of sustainability and it would not have been available at Buffet Nord anyway, since they generally don’t offer sea fish, I would have preferred to reconstruct the performance as authentically as possible, i.e. with a tuna sandwich and buttermilk or soup. As a conservator, I prefer the original and authenticity is very important to me. But this is just my personal opinion. Nevertheless, I found our identical lunch very interesting and would welcome it if we could repeat it regularly in the context of further joint research lunches.
I felt a bit guilty while eating the identical lunch, because I don’t like tomatoes, so I avoided them. It made me wonder: Am I really eating the identical lunch, if it’s not quite identical? A similar thought arose at the beginning of the meal, when I saw people using a knife and fork to eat. This seemed absurd to me – a wrap is always eaten with the hands – but I didn’t want to be stand out or seem uncultured, so I, too, used my silverware to eat. This had the advantage, however, of making it easier for me to avoid the tomatoes.
I found it interesting to reflect on the whole thing on a meta layer / to see how the conversation quickly turned into a self-referential discussion about the work itself. I was wondering if that happens automatically (if it happens to Knowles and the people she shares a meal with too), whenever you come together in this context, because you are aware that you are in a sense reperforming a piece of art? Anyway, apart from that, it was just nice to eat together, and the lunch was great.
The lunch was an excellent experience—a social, collaborative, participative and interactive coming together. It was a multi-sensorial act of care. Although the lunch was clearly not identical with Alison Knowles’ Identical Lunch (1967) that gave raise to our gathering, this issue concerned me less. Instead, I was stroke by the interstices and the in-betweens. I was attentive to the affects, smells, sounds and tastes that leaked through the obvious and that remained—a firm sediment of the supposedly ephemeral performance. I was impressed by the multitude of inter- and intra-actions, and the way how this event brought me back to Alison and her peers. I felt a deep bound with them—with the places of the historical lunch in Chelsea NYC, with all the actions, ideas and gestures that took place then, and over time. I felt that we, too, here, in Bern, became a part of a larger narrative, a story that is yet to be fully told. Perhaps then, the question of identity—whether in the titular The Identical Lunch or via the conservation’s identification as a practice concerned with the same, the identical, the materiality “real”—might give way to a broader and deeper reflection about what we do and who we are as carers—stewards, curators and conservators. No doubt, the evental works like Identical Lunch instigate a rethinking of our presumptions about care in a larger system of conservation as care-full thinking.