Last month, Sydney artist Keg de Souza held a picnic discussion in a temporary inflatable structure at Delfina Foundation in London, where she is currently artist in residence. Writer and friend Amelia Groom went along, and discussed Keg’s work, over Pimm’s and cucumber sandwiches …
So tell me about this structure
It’s made from super thin gingham blue and white plastic tablecloths. The material is so fragile that as I sewed it together it was destroying itself, which I liked, because I wanted the space to feel temporary and precarious. Once I sewed all the parts together it was attached to an electric fan so then it’s held up by moving air, and it gradually morphs throughout the day.
I know you’ve done previous works involving temporary architecture and food, how did this picnic project come about?
Well the politics of space and the politics of food are broad interests in my practice, and this particular project is a continuation of a something I did in Montreal in 2012, which looked at intersections between food, architecture and radical organising.
There were two radical kitchens that ran out of the main Anglophone universities there, and I got really inspired by the fact that they cook for the students every day but they also do these things called ‘solidarity servings’, which means that if you’re organising a protest or an activist event you can ask them to cater, and they’ll provide food if the event fits their mandate. So for instance when I was there, there were pro-choice picnics set up near this group of anti-abortion Christian men who were spending fourty days in a row demonstrating at the local park. So to have a presence to oppose that, there were these picnics with a lot of banners, and the kitchens did the catering.
And for this work in London you researched the histories of traditional English foods
Yeah, and I looked at recipes that offered avenues for talking about aspects of architecture and social space. So for example I made cucumber sandwiches because that was a way to talk about class, privilege and access to certain spaces – as you know, cucumber sandwiches were eaten by the English aristocracy as a way to assert class privilege; because they have almost no protein or sustenance, it was a statement that they could afford to eat foods without nutritional value.
You served a lot of Pimm’s too
Yes! Too much. Pimm’s was apparently invented for a banker in London’s financial district, right near the Bank of England, in the 1820s – this was also a time when there was a lot of poverty, and many slums around London… At the picnic the Pimm’s led to conversations about the histories of pubs in London, and particularly the idea of pubs as an extension of the office. In an area like this [near Victoria Station] you can walk around after office hours and see the pubs full of men in suits, and deals are still being made.
So there’s a merging of labour time and leisure time … What else was on your menu?
There was elderflower cordial, which was a way to talk about The Commons, because the flowers are often foraged. There was an Eton Mess, which is basically a squashed pavlova. The story is that a dog sat on a meringue, cream and strawberry cake at the annual cricket match at Eton College, and they ate it anyway and that was the invention of the Eton Mess. Eton is of course an exclusive boarding school where many aristocrats have been educated – and David Cameron is the nineteenth British Prime Minister to have gone there. But at the picnic I held, this dish ended up leading to conversation about unpredictability and the formation of temporary communities through happenstance …
I also made a Ploughman’s Lunch, which was actually invented by the Cheese Bureau after the war when they wanted to boost the sales of cheese after years of rationing, and I was particularly interested in the pickles and chutneys that are part of the classic Ploughman’s Lunch, because that’s a way to look at colonial histories in England. What else was there? Scotch Eggs, Victoria Sponge, bread and butter pudding … There were Cornish Pasties, which miners would take down into the mines, and with those we talked about labour, mobility and nomadic architecture, but also superstition and ritual because the pasty crusts were often left in the mines as offerings to appease certain spirits.
You trained as an architect, didn’t you?
Yup, in Perth in the late ‘90s.
Then what happened?
Well once I graduated I moved to Sydney and my sister, who was already living there, suggested that we start a squat with a bunch of people, so we did. We had about twenty people living over four shopfronts with a warehouse space, and we started a gallery and a free food café and an infoshop.
Eventually we had to campaign to keep it; we barricaded ourselves in and we put big banners out, and because it was the year of the Sydney Olympics there was a lot of media coverage. The squat was right on Broadway, one of the main streets in Sydney, so it was really public and I guess the council and the developers and the Olympic officials didn’t want any more negative imagery, so we were able to mobilise that and we wrote a caretaker lease which allowed us to stay.
Well it meant that they essentially paid us to live there but that amount would equal their public liability insurance, which would be less if the building were occupied, and then in exchange we would pay a peppercorn rent of a dollar a year.
And through that experience you shifted your focus –
Yes. It really changed the way I thought about space. It was a time of intense surveillance but also intense bonding through our community – you know, cooking free food for people every day, and looking out for one another, and having this common goal to be able to stay there but also to leave some kind of legacy, something that could be used by other people. We wrote a Squatter’s Handbook as a resource and we distributed that around – and the lease we wrote set a precedent, it has been used since, which is great. The whole experience made me think a lot about social space, and the importance of that as opposed to just the buildings. So I changed my focus away from architecture, and then I went to art school.
And you’re going to restage the picnic in the inflatable when you go to Scotland next week?
Well it will be different. I’m going back to the Isle of Skye to work with local school kids there, and to think about The Commons and try to learn about Crofting – which is Scottish subsistence farming. These kids have a huge knowledge about what can be gleaned from the land, when I went last time I asked them to draw everything they forage and it was amazingly vast – from wild garlic to thyme to elderflowers to berries to seaweeds and winkle picking on the beach and on and on.
They have a law in Scotland that is known as ‘the right to roam’, which means you can be on other people’s land as long as you’re respectful – it’s like the antithesis of the 'stand your ground' laws in the United States that say you can shoot anybody who’s on your land without permission. For this picnic I’m going to consult a local woman who is a traditional food specialist and I’m going to look into what we can forage for consumption, and then I’ll invite the kids to respond with their knowledge and their own experiences, and we’ll see what happens.
Keg de Souza // allthumbspress.net
Amelia Groom // ameliagroom.com