From Algae Bars to Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Current:LA Food Explores the Politics of Eating

View of Jazmin Urrea's installation Imperishable, 2019, at Current: LA.


Current:LA, a monthlong public art triennial in Los Angeles, presented by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and led by curators from the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, moves art out of museums and galleries and into neighborhood parks throughout the city. The theme of the first edition, in 2016, was water—LA’s foundational resource, diverted from the lush Owens Valley to fuel urban growth a century ago. This one, which runs through November 3, is about food. Each of the fifteen sites hosts a temporary, site-specific sculpture or installation, all of which are newly commissioned. The works are periodically activated by thematically related performances, workshops, talks, and demos, often organized in conjunction with community groups, as well as public meals. Served in temporary environments, these meals are akin to pop-up restaurants.

Like painting or drawing, cooking is a craft, but what we eat is bound up with political questions. Our diets are determined by race and class, and the food industry has a profound impact on human health and the environment. While a number of the installations engage with these themes seriously, the triennial’s various meals tend to do so superficially, often by illustrating that the basic need to nourish has been in some way corrupted, or belaboring the obvious fact that cuisines are reflections of cultural heritage.

At Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in South Los Angeles, Jazmin Urrea erected Imperishable, a monument to junk food consisting of six identical, eight-foot-tall rectangular monoliths arranged in a circle, like Stonehenge. Each is filled with thousands of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Flamin’ Hots, which were invented by a Mexican-American Frito-Lay janitor who now calls himself the “godfather of Hispanic branding,” have a special resonance in South Los Angeles—a poor, predominantly Latino area where diets are dominated by salty, caloric snacks bought at corner stores and liquor stores due to a lack of full-service supermarkets. In Imperishable, the Cheetos are displayed in transparent plastic structures with wooden frames and concrete bases—the stuff of cheap construction, recalling decades of broken promises to boost the economy of the neighborhood formerly known as South Central through redevelopment and urban renewal. The snacks are manufactured to last for months before becoming inedible; inside the sculptures, they don’t rot, but crumble and disintegrate, smearing grease along the Plexiglas. Urrea’s monument to intractable poverty is a piquant rejoinder to the usual feel-good efforts to “expand access” to healthy food.

No city can solve that problem on its own. Food is a globally connected, multitrillion-dollar industry, where the currents of commerce flow right over acts of local resistance. Activism focused on agriculture, the base of the food system, has larger, more profound impacts—sometimes literally downstream, as in the case of efforts to protect soils and watersheds. Artist duo Lucy Chinen and Sean Raspet are among the few participants in the show to present themselves as farmers—or growers, in industry parlance. At a horticultural center in West Hills, they erected a small bioreactor to demonstrate the culturing of algae: the proteinaceous green bacteria often seen in ponds and lakes polluted by farms. Algae could be a sustainable alternative to animal livestock because it doesn’t need much to grow—just sunshine, nutrients and water.

Chinen and Raspet, a former flavorist at Soylent, are the makers of the Nonbar—an energy bar derived from a blend of three algae, including spirulina. They say algae can revolutionize the food industry, but as is typical of Silicon Valley-backed future foods, the Nonbar doesn’t reimagine eating, but disrupts it. Often, these products represent a total failure of imagination. Take, for instance, the emerging field of cultured meat, where entrepreneurs are wielding a god-like power—growing muscle tissues, practically out of thin air—to make chicken nuggets and hamburgers. The Nonbar, however, is more unusual—it stands no chance of replacing the protein we currently eat because it tastes so bad. Each dense and chewy bite is dominated by tapioca, and has a lingering chalkiness that reminds eaters of the difference between status quo and sacrifice. It is the taste, however repulsive, of reducing global emissions.

Much of the work in Current:LA is literally food. At Barnsdall Art Park, bordering the tony Los Feliz district, the collective Los Angeles Eats Itself hosted lunches for an imagined disaster: a mega-earthquake. The meals were based on prepper staples like hardtack flour biscuits, military MREs and Datrex bars, and fermented sauces and vegetables. Only one dish—a concoction of Spam, ramen noodles, and dehydrated potatoes—acknowledged the reality of disasters that are already happening, every day, in food deserts. The thought that if earthquakes, wildfires, and other natural disasters become commonplace, the yuppies picnicking in that gorgeous hillside park would have to eat more like poor people was otherwise completely elided, making the meals a lost opportunity for satire.

There were a few exciting exceptions—namely the London-based group Cooking Sections’s Mussel Beach, a playful, site-specific 24-minute audio walking tour of Venice Beach that reveals how the boardwalk’s fitness freaks are entwined with a population of bivalves hidden from public view. Once plentiful, freshwater mussels now cling to a final stronghold on the rocks, threatened by the effluvia of urban development—like, for instance, the growth hormones used by the weightlifters who work out in the open-air gym. The tour notes that “beefing up” is, historically, a crisis reaction of white men, desperate to reinforce their supremacy over immigrants and women. The phrase also alludes to cattle, and the untold amounts of manure and feed fertilizer that run off into rivers and streams. Mussels suck that up and clean the water.

Like Chinen and Raspet, Cooking Sections advocates for a more sustainable food system. But their answer isn’t a consumer product. It’s a secret. Like donning the special sunglasses from the sci-fi film They Live (1988)—which revealed to those who wore them that Los Angeles’s ruling classes were actually aliens—putting on the headphones shows us that Venice Beach is a transhistorical, trans-species ecosystem. When not indulging in cheeky, punny digressions about the nutritional content of shellfish, Mussel Beach intermittently pulls off a neat trick, one elusive in much of Current:LA. Instead of reproducing food, it reproduces what the best food does—surprises us, delights us, opens new vistas. It is a discovery.