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Food Cosmogonies: Inês Neto dos Santos’ culinary world-building

We talked about the transformative power of food with Inês Neto dos Santos, who runs the online course Food Cosmogonies with artist Nora Silva, which positions food at the center of world-building processes and aims to establish deeper connections between species and cultures

Interview: Ecem Arslanay

Inês Neto dos Santos, Ponto de Orvalho, 2022. Photo: Vera Marmelo

In this enlightening interview, we delve into the profound intersections of food, art, and culture through the lens of Inês Neto dos Santos, a visionary artist who sees food as a fundamental building block of both personal and collective histories. We explore the transformative power of food from ancient social contracts to contemporary agricultural practices and discover how food shapes our memories, relationships, and social structures. The conversation traverses the intriguing landscapes of food cosmogonies, ethical consumption, and the rich symbolism embedded in culinary traditions. Highlighting innovative projects like Friends Who Ferment and the collaborative Food Cosmogonies course, we uncover how dining can serve as a dynamic platform for intellectual exchange and cultural expression.

Inês Neto dos Santos, who completed an MA in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art and a BA in Graphic Design and Illustration at London College of Communication, brings a multi-disciplinary approach to her practice, moving between performance, installation, and social sculpture—a concept borrowed from Joseph Beuys. Her work delves into the socio-political, cultural, and ecological dimensions of food, emphasizing collaboration, generosity, care, and togetherness. Recent research has focused on fermentation as a metaphor for our multispecies existence and the regenerative qualities of beans. Inês co-leads the online course Food Cosmogonies with artist Nora Silva, which positions food as central to world-making processes and aims to foster deeper connections across species and cultures.

Inês Neto dos Santos, Friends Who Ferment, 2023, Peformance in collab with Aquela Kombucha.

Photo: Joana Sousa

How do you believe food shapes us, both particularly in our personal experiences and spectacularly across collective contexts? For instance, James C. Scott contends that once we domesticated grains, they started domesticating us. How does your exploration of food reflect on these dual dimensions of personal and shared human experiences?

Food truly is a building block of the history of the world —as you say, both at a personal level, shaping our individual memories and fostering relationships (as Carolyn Steel puts it, “I hunt, you cook” is probably the oldest social contract in human history) as well as on a wider collective context, shaping the land we exist on and feed from. Our relationship to agriculture has impacted our way of life to an extraordinary extent —the human shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer truly changed our social structures and general ways of living (some say for the worse!). It is also in food that we may find a common ground —across cultures, eating remains the ultimate cultural expression, regardless of what language we speak.

Since March 2021, you've co-led the online course Food Cosmogonies with artist Nora Silva. The course intriguingly positions food as central to the world-making process, exploring fascinating trajectories such as the relationship between food and queerness, the historical attachment of magic to culinary practices, and envisioning alien or future foodscapes. Could you share more about the inspiration behind the course and highlight some key insights or revelations that have emerged from exploring these diverse intersections within the realm of food cosmogonies?

The course Food Cosmogonies arose from mine and Nora Silva’s desire to create something we felt the art world was lacking —a food and art space. Having gone through the same higher education experience in the Arts, we observed how food was rarely taken seriously as a subject or even a material within fine arts and, even sometimes, design. We wanted to create a space where food practices could be positioned as fundamental within the arts and humanities, and propose that the world is, in fact, made of food. In the end, we wished to create the course we always wanted to enroll in, but could never find. Now the course has grown and transformed into an even more ambitious one, an Alternative MA in Food & Art —a non-institutional course re-positioning a view of the world through food. Through our own extensive research and that of our invited guests, we have come to prove our theories as well as discover new ones —that food is pervasive, present at every corner of history, part of every stone and root that builds the world we live in. From the symbols of food within origin stories (the sacredness of corn for the Mayas and Aztecs, the controversial apple of Adam and Eve, etc.), to its presence as a “proof” for witch hunting in the Middle Ages (“witches” were often accused of stealing milk by mind power alone), to the connections between table manners and social class… Food is truly everywhere we care to look.

Left: Inês Neto dos Santos, Friends Who Ferment, 2023, Peformance in collab with Aquela Kombucha. Photo: Joana Sous

Right: Inês Neto dos Santos, Friends Who Ferment, 2023, Peformance in collab with Aquela Kombucha. Photo: Joana Sous

Etymologically, "symposium" refers to a gathering where people drink and engage in social and intellectual activities, since in Greek “syn” means “together” and "posis" means “drinking.” Your distinctive culinary projects that blend dining and knowledge evoke the spirit of the symposiums in 5th and 4th century BCE ancient Greece. Could you elaborate on specific instances from your practice where the act of dining served as a dynamic platform for intellectual exchange or the acquisition of knowledge? How do you envision the intersection of dining and knowledge shaping the narratives of your unique culinary creations?

Since I started weaving food into my art practice, I was very consciously trying to facilitate conversation and exchange around the dinner table. I was hoping (and still am) that the familiar setting of the table could provide guests/participants with enough confidence and ease to discuss and tackle subjects they might not discuss normally, often topics that may feel overwhelming such as the climate crisis, ecological practices, equitable food futures, and health. At my recent performance “Friends Who Ferment,” I devised a dining performance where fermentation was at the center - considering it as a fundamental practical skill/process to our survival, but most of all as an important metaphor to consider the importance of collaboration, community, and reciprocal acts of care. At the table, I provided not only food but also snippets of my own research through spoken word, sound, table setting, and sculpture. Food IS knowledge, and I believe that gathering around it - as well as eating it - may provide us with important and unexpected pathways for knowledge sharing and creation. After all, eating is at the base of being human.

Food is the ultimate paradox—vital, fatal, and casually mundane. We've sneakily claimed the top spot on the food chain, but our gourmet choices come with ethical baggage. As a vegetarian, how do your culinary projects navigate this landscape of ethical dilemmas in food production and consumption?

In fact, I am not fundamentally vegetarian —even though I commit to a mostly vegetarian diet and art practice. I am interested in how we can learn from the symbiosis of plants (across species, but also in connection with soil), in order to better (re)build our own human relationships (both within and beyond our own species). Learning about agricultural practices such as the Three Sisters planting methods (where corn, squash, and beans thrive together symbiotically, needing very little intervention) drives my interest in plant-based eating and influences heavily the food which permeates my art practice. I don’t rule out meat or animal product consumption completely, but I do believe they should exist as an “extra” on our plates (much like Dan Barber explains in his theory of the “third plate”), and that their production should be within a circular, symbiotic farming system —far away from the intensive production we see today.

As we consider ethical gourmet choices, alternative methods to traditional meat production, including concepts like the satirical Ouroboros Steak, which suggests human cells to create a self-renewing meat product, are gaining attention. How do you envision these innovative and cruelty-free approaches, including lab-grown options and beyond, shaping the future of the food landscape?

As much as these “novel” options seem attractive, I am one of those firm believers in the powers of regenerative agriculture and land practices. I believe we must truly re-engineer our relationship to consumption (of food and beyond) and move drastically away from “everything, anywhere, anytime” approaches (a de-growth practice, one might call it) in order to heal our relationship to the planet. Creating yet another product so that we can keep wasting 50% of our food as we do now seem truly unsustainable to me —just another way to kick the problem away from us into future generations.

Left: Inês Neto dos Santos, Las Mecias, 2023

Right: Inês Neto dos Santos, Ponto de Orvalho, 2022. Photo: Vera Marmelo

Do you exclusively craft culinary experiences for humans, or do you incorporate non-humans in your work beyond being ingredients? Inspired by the concept of Asàrotos òikos —an Ancient Roman mosaic portraying banquet aftermath for uninvited guests like mice and birds, who feed on human residue— how do you explore the interconnectedness of nonhuman and human existence in your culinary creations?

Non-humans have long featured in my work. For many years, I have extensively researched fermentation as a metaphor for our multi-species existence. Our own human bodies are multi-species terrain, as we are able to breathe, digest, sleep, think much due to the work of microbes existing in our guts, mouths, the surface of our skin. Simply being at the table with other humans becomes a communion with microbes and other non-humans —I strive to bring this to the surface in my work.

How do you approach sourcing ingredients locally, and how does this commitment to local produce influence the narratives embedded in your culinary creations?

Sourcing local ingredients is fundamental in my work. As I deal mostly with food and food-related materials in my art practice, embedding myself into whatever place I find myself in becomes paramount. What grows where, and when (and by whom)? These are permanent questions I take with me wherever I go. Understanding a place means to eat it, too.

What are some key influences or sources of inspiration that have shaped your perspective on food, both as a cultural artifact and as an artistic medium?

I am influenced by traditional agricultural practices which are millennia-old. By modern thinkers such as Michael Pollan, Sandor Katz, David Zilber, Douglas McMaster, Kelly Donati, Mercedes Villalba, Carolyn Steel as well as all the participants who have integrated our Food Cosmogonies courses. Simply observing the seasons, the changing of colors and flavors in markets around me, learning about practices such as agroforestry and companion planting… It all has had a huge impact on the way I think and create artworks.

Inês Neto dos Santos, Walk&Talk, 2019. Photo: Sara Pinheiro

Your projects often involve collaboration and cultural exchange. Can you share a memorable experience where cross-cultural collaboration significantly influenced the outcome of a particular project?

My short residency and project at Walk&Talk Festival in Azores in 2019 is one such example. Despite the Azores forming part of Portugal, these islands and their culture much differ from the mainland. Learning from local cuisine and food traditions, as well as local wild plants and weather patterns, much influenced the work I presented at the festival and had a lasting impact on my practice today. Learning from the landscape in Bømlo, Norway, whilst I co-created costumes for LAND, a project by dance artist/choreographer Anna-Lise Marie Hearn, was also an important cross-cultural exchange between myself and the natural environment - we foraged for plants, lichens, rocks, and soil in order to create colors with which to dye costumes for the fantastic project that is LAND. Seasonality and site-specificity of materials completely influenced our outcomes!

During Mesa (2016-2018), you delved into the intersection of food and art. Reflecting on this unique venture, how do you believe the symbols, metaphors, and re-tellings employed in the project contributed to overcoming, discussing, or better understanding contemporary issues or emotional states? Furthermore, how has the legacy of Mesa influenced your current perspectives and approaches to artistic collaborations?

Mesa was my way of beginning to weave food into my art practice, as I graduated from my Masters in Visual Communication. It was also a great excuse to contact artists and creatives I admired and ask them to collaborate with me —in this way I grew my network and made many new friends. The project often offered a space to discuss the fragility of the art worlds, the validity of food within the art space, and how it (food) can help us understand the world. Mesa was a seed I planted which is now fruiting in the rest of my work.

Left: Inês Neto dos Santos, The London Open 22. Photo: Sam Nightingale

Right: Inês Neto dos Santos, Sourdough Jacket, The London Open 22. Photo: Sam Nightingale

Given your expansive practice and projects, how do you see the concept of “social sculpture” resonating with and influencing your creative endeavors, particularly in the realm of food, art, and collaborative experiences? Could you share specific instances where the principles of “social sculpture” have played a pivotal role in shaping the impact and outcomes of your work?

When describing my work, I borrow the term “social sculpture” from artist Joseph Beuys, who employed it in his public, participatory works. His approach was that anyone can be an artist and that big collective movements can be described as social sculptures of some sort. As my work often deals with the participation or involvement of others (whether collaborators or “the public”), I see my art practice reflected in the term “social sculpture.” It’s present across all my practice, whether more or less clearly, making it difficult to pinpoint any project in particular.

How do you envision your audience interacting with your food-based art? Do you have specific goals or desired reactions from those who experience your work?

I think my hopes are similar to any other artist’s: that the work may leave a lasting impression, that it might drive change no matter how small, that it will make the audience think about and discuss topics they never did before. I hope whoever encounters my work leaves feeling full, challenged, refreshed, connected, grounded, and full of questions to ponder on.

Looking ahead, what are some of your aspirations for the future of your practice around food? Are there specific projects or themes you are excited to explore in the coming years?

I am truly excited about the Alternative MA in Art&Food we are developing at The Gramounce, the collective which I co-direct with Nora Silva. It feels like a much-needed space to discuss the importance of food within our life systems and its validity in the arts. We are working towards growing the MA but also expanding the work that we do into other realms, which is truly exciting for me. I am embarking on a research position at the University of Antwerp Fine Arts Department, researching fermentation and multispecies ethnography via my art practice, which (besides being a new mother!) will keep me busy for the next year.


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