The cartoon fox known as Ed Fornieles, it turns out, has a human avatar. Those familiar with the artist’s online animated identity know that the themes of cultural positioning, social anxiety and peer pressure are hallmarks of the concepts explored in the ongoing narrative he posts across a range of social media. The man behind the fox is perhaps best known for a series of high-profile performance works including Animal House, a kind of flash mob manifestation of the tropes of the college frat party in Yinka Shonibare’s project space in London Fields in 2011.
More recently, Fornieles has produced a voluminous and controversial ‘sitcom’ using Facebook as a platform. The work, Dorm Daze (2011), reflected the internets’ tendency toward excess, self-effacement, grandiosity and even brutality and, in Fornieles’ own understanding, it became a window into the capacity for art to “consume narrative” by demonstrating the ways in which the events of the IRL world are quickly subsumed and remixed by the appurtenances of internet culture.
I meet Fornieles in a cafe on Potsdammerstrasse in Berlin as he prepares for an exhibition called Die Geist: Flesh Feast opening at Arratia Beer on April 28. We found a quiet table in the back, beyond a silent piano, and talked about food. Meat is bad, for people and for the earth. Bread is bad for some people. Bread is good for other people. Carbohydrates are much maligned. Vegetables are something like deities in material form. Fornieles drops a few of the lemons from his tea into my ginger tea and takes out a few slivers of ginger for his. We’re both learning. Food has been much on Fornieles’ mind as he shifts the focus of his recent projects back into the material world.
In his forthcoming show, Fornieles will present the ingredients for meals from a range of different popular diets along with a brief description of the possible health, social and professional advantages that diet may confer on the person following it. Interested parties may purchase the meals for 15 Euros and begin their new life that same evening, should they so choose. As we were making our way through our respective lunches, I ask Fornieles what he thinks the major issues will be that the event attempts to raise, given his recent transfiguration into the cartoon world, the idea of anything as pre-internet as food being a subject for an exhibition seems a bit off brand.
Fornieles is someone who thinks about his answers carefully, and so there’s a period of silence as we listen to our respective cutlery scratching out uneven rhythms against our plates, but he can become as animated as his vulpine alter ego when he finds a fertile intellectual pathway. The questions he says he wants to explore with the show relate to the way food becomes a starting point for a much larger set of social and cultural expectations and how imposing a dietary regime on one’s self changes that person both physically, emotionally and culturally. And so we were off, the results of our chat are below.
Your Berlin show focuses on the way diets function as instruments of ideology, could you discuss in more detail how you understand this relationship?
Ed Fornieles: I think you can take the term ‘you are what you eat’ incredibly literally, on a nutritional and cultural level. The objective of looking at self management and diets specifically is to expose this process and hijack it in some way. “No grains, no government” is a phrase that Toban Wiebe came up with and that is is very much emblematic of some self management diets. These are a strand of diets that have developed over the last ten or fifteen years positioning themselves as being counter to “state-sanctioned” ideas of health. Diets like Paleo and Bulletproof tend to appeal to a kind of anarcho-libertarian sentiment, they are tailored to appeal to highly individualistic types who are wary of big food and large government. There are a lot of terms that these communities use, both to define their own diet community and to characterise people outside of it, for example in the language of the Paleo and Bulletproof communities, the average American diet is known by the acronym “SAD” meaning “Standard American Diet”. And SAD is seen as a mechanism for control fueled by the vested interests of the industrialized food complex.
That’s one side of the story, but there’s also an element to the process of dieting that says we can create this idealised image of the self that we strive towards and that these images can become oppressive; they can cause anxiety.
In describing diet regimes as ideological and exploring this ‘anxiety’ you describe, could you discuss the ways in which you see dieting ideology as being gendered? For most of the history of ‘mass-market dieting’, the audiences were women implicated in a structure of heteronormative patriarchy. While those mechanisms of repression remain very much in place, do you see the way the branding of dieting is changing in gendered ways?
EF: Aspects of food and diet culture have been gendered almost in the same way that clothing has been gendered. They have been used to reinforce existing gender roles and norms and, at times, this has been hugely damaging. The diet landscape is changing, but it’s also just replaying some of the same dynamics.
The ‘market’, as you say, is expanding; for example, diets like Bulletproof and Paleo are predominantly aimed at men in terms of the way they’re presented, so there’s an imperative to create new markets and it’s normally done through developing languages which foster self-objectification. What is common among all diets is that they promise something; the body is framed in a way it can facilitate, provide, or generate acceptance, efficiency, love, or whatever. And, when you talk about ideology in relation to food, it gets very tied up in these promises, desires and values; and some of these are more deeply implicated in the process of gendering than others.
This gender norming is also present in the way products like Soylent are presented as making you super efficient and putting you in this extremely productive state, but there’s a crucial difference in the case of Soylent. It’s not so much related to gender as it is to the ideological frames we talked about before. Soylent sells itself as being about sustainability and being a product that can “Feed the World”, so there’s this idealistic, utopian quality to it, but if you scale up something like Paleo, it’s not a diet that would be sustainable for the world. It would actually only be possible to the diet of a very small elite.
I’d see the issue in terms of gender is muddy in relation to Bulletproof and Paleo as it is primarily aimed at the knowledge worker, the archetype they envision is the entrepreneur who asserts their inner will over external hurdles with efficiency and ease. This ideal is, in the abstract, a non-gendered form, but the tech culture it derives from is ‘bro-y’, and the main personalities connected with these diets are also mainly men. When you enter Bulletproof’s website you feel its inherently bro-y nature. For example, there is one terrible interview with the guy who wrote The Game [‘pickup artist’, Neil Strauss] and the founder of the diet, David Asprey. It really makes you cringe, like, “David what are you doing?!”
Ultimately, my purpose with this project is twofold: to critique the culture of self management diets in some meaningful way, and to repurpose aspects of it for my own use, salvaging or reformatting what I can to strip it of some of its most pernicious ideological baggage.
Could you speak about the way you feel the dynamic of dieting creates this dialogue of anxiety and how agency relates more broadly to the question of subjectivity? I ask this because there is a lot of discussion related to your work which considers the ways in which individuality is performed, understood or manipulated by the projects you develop.
Do you feel that by using the diet as the subject matter of a body of work—literally, one might say—the ‘manipulative’ aspect of the work reaches a deeper level of intimacy?
EF: If you think of a diet as a kind of technology, a kind of primitive version of biotech or genetic engineering, then you think of it as a dynamic between inputs. You have the person who internalises the logic of the diet, the expectations of the diet, and then you have the contents of the diet itself, the food and its chemical structures, and then those chemical structures affect the physical body in which subjectivity is performed, so the feedback loop is basically literalised, and internalised.
It’s interesting to think in terms of manipulation, because someone or something at all moments of the day is trying to manipulate you. They are trying to affect what you think about, what you want, how you want it, and for how long. The intention of many of my performative projects is to try to create platforms which expose this, and then sidestep it, or offer alternatives. This is why it’s important that I make my position clear at the outset. For instance, in this project my engagement is very light, I am pointing to these diets and self-management culture and saying ‘this is what I think is interesting’, ‘this is what I think is potentially useful’, and ‘this is what I think is problematic’. From that starting point, I leave it to the viewer to make their own mind up, to enquire further or set aside the ideas I’ve raised.
Do you feel that the diet potential for creating anxiety can be mitigated by the sense of agency the individual exerts in deciding to start a diet? Social expectations surely play a huge role in determining those choices, no?
EF: Absolutely, social expectations have an important part to play. The independent moment of decision-making is informed by a range of pressures, many of which are social. These social pressures have the potential to both generate anxiety and to assuage it. They also drive us forward, underwriting each decision we make. This project attempts to draw attention to these pressures. In fact, a lot of things I’ve explored in other works dealt with the way community groups either define or police self-identity, its construction, and, then, later, its interpretation.
Are you at all concerned that people might see this as not taking a position, of being somewhat ‘agnostic’ about the consequences of the context a work might be creating, particularly a context which is so intimately connected to an individual’s life as their diet?
EF: I think there’s a need for an artist to engage with what is prevalent in our culture, and, often, in terms of art production, you see a stance that is that of a critic or even an internet troll, attempting to deconstruct the themes in a culture, but I actually think it’s important for an artist to experience and engage with those themes and ideas as much as possible, because they are so perversive and completely integrated into every aspect of our lives.
To get back to what we were just talking about in terms of community building, I think it’s important for an artist to build the ideas of the future and to actually create platforms around which people can organise, or which they can use in their lives, because, increasingly, the ideals on which our societies have been built are completely inadequate to the culture that’s emerging. I think to just take a critical stance and stand outside of things is disingenuous, an artist needs to try to make contact with these ideas and determine why they resonate. The works that an artist creates using those ideas can be very important in defining the way such ideas are seen and what is seen to be valuable about them.**