“Theories and Practices of Community Engagement” + “Hearth”

As a student and a citizen, I am excited to delve into Kitchen Lab because I am passionate about finding ways that design can form community and activate positive change in our world. Innovative design can create new and healthy modes of community interaction and engagement, subverting traditional patterns, processes and structures that fail to bring us together.

The complicated realm of the kitchen is specifically loaded with potential for ways to us share our stories, our resources, our skills, our traditions, our successes and failures, our needs and desires, our gifts, our time and more.

We political, design-based social innovators who investigate concepts of community-engaged art ought to remember, then, that when we discuss these terms (especially with respect to food and the kitchen) we are talking about human beings relating to each other in intimate, complex ways. Back in February the Walker hosted a brainstorming session for Kitchen Lab, and participants wrote down their associations with the “kitchen” on a collection of sticky notes. Terms like hearth, home, satisfaction, fear, mystery, tradition and all sorts of isms came up.

Associations with the idea of "kitchen"

Much later, I was working on the course outline with the Kitchen Lab team and I started to wonder about our language in the project description. We wrote that we are “re-conceiving the ingredients, structure and function” of the kitchen, and the syllabus went on to present phrases like “theories and practices of community engagement,” “experience design,” “socially engaged art and design,” and “qualitative and design research methods for socially engaged art and design.” That all seemed very academic and heady (albeit super interesting) and somehow distant to some of the things we wrote down on our sticky notes way back when—words like “hearth“.

These theoretical terms and more visceral associations with the kitchen are not mutually exclusive, of course, simply different vocabularies. Reconciling them will be part of the coming challenge. I hope that the speakers we’ve invited to talk to the class will be able to address some of the more complex experiential/cultural/historical aspects of “the kitchen” within the context of our students’ design process.

I also look forward to discussing all the ismssexism, veganism, imperialism, etc.—and asking what it means to have a crew of academically trained, primarily young and probably well-intentioned white people tinkering with/redesigning something that has deep and deeply different meanings to a lot of different people.

Needless to say, I’m excited to put in my two cents and see what products, processes and experiences come out of the Kitchen Lab.

Things Are Getting Busy

With the public launch of the Walker Kitchen Lab in about 10 days, things are getting busy.

Emily Stover, Erin Garnaas-Holmes, Derek Schilling, Anna Bierbrauer, and Rebecca Krinke have been working with Patrick McKennan in the University of Minnesota design shop preparing prototypes of the containers that will be the basis of the Kitchen Lab.

Betsy and Carl are doing their best to keep both the research and studio components of the project moving forward (developing interview questions, rubrics for the studio work, observation themes), as well as working on their Kitchen Lab event for the evening of June 21 (more on that next week).

And Susy Bielak has been tirelessly contributing everywhere, while also managing all of the necessary groundwork at the Walker Art Center.

Over the next 10 days, we’ll begin to post more and more on the project: what’s going to happen from June 18 to the 29th, the various motivations behind the project, and our hopes for how the project will move forward after the 29th.

For starters, below are some images of the Kitchen Lab container prototypes. There will be six of these. Each will be organized around a different food issue or theme, and will contain various tools, ingredients, and instructions for its use. Precisely what those issues and themes are, and what’s designed to express them, will be developed over the course of the workshop.

Introducing the Walker Kitchen Lab

Not the Walker Kitchen Lab, this is Julia Child's kitchen as installed at the Smithsonian.

The kitchen has changed. Over the centuries, it has evolved from a fire pit and a flat stone into an elaborate place for storing, making, and eating food. But in recent years, notwithstanding the rise of “the foodie,” it has devolved, for many, to little more than a microwave and a sink. We eat out or on the run, and when we do use kitchens, prep work has been outsourced to backroom workers making convenience foods, as science and technology streamline food production from field to table.But go to any gathering or party, and you’ll know exactly where guests and hosts will be hanging out. During a two-week residency at the Walker, Carl and Betsy DiSalvo explore the inevitable pull of the kitchen as a social space: a place for sharing knowledge, culture, and community.

The Atlanta-based duo—designers and researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology—are expanding, in part, on their “urban foraging” workshop held last summer at Open Field. In unpacking a constellation of kitchen issues, from organic farming to urban food deserts, that daylong project included forays into downtown Minneapolis’ skyways, farmer’s markets, and storefronts to source materials for a shared meal.

This June, the DiSalvos focus on reconceiving the kitchen: its ingredients, structure, and functions. Teaming up with University of Minnesota scholars and students, they will consider that space from an array of vantage points: studio art, landscape architecture, food systems, urban planning, design, ceramics, public health, cultural studies, theater, engineering, and more. Participants will design and build a new kind of kitchen—a mobile, modular “lab” that can be set up anywhere. They envision a public place where people congregate for experiences with food, and in the process spark new kinds of social interaction and civic engagement.