Learning About the World at the Grocery Store
I was asked by a non-profit art center in Indianapolis, Indiana called Big Car to come up with a project that would happen in conjunction with a city-wide festival which was focusing on food systems. The director of Big Car, Jim Walker, took me around to various neighborhoods that he thought might be good spots for a potential project. The last stop was an older somewhat vacant shopping center that contained in it a thriving international grocery store called Saraga. I was immediately excited by the Saraga environment. Indianapolis is not a place that you normally associate with ethnic diversity, but Saraga was an unexpected exception or maybe just an example of the incorrect assumption that the midwest is only white and homogenous. The grocery store is set up so that most of the aisles are identified by geographical areas–India, Mexico, Venezuela, Iraq, etc., and contain food products from those places. As I walked around the store I observed various shoppers who appeared to connect with the geographical locations named on the aisles. I couldn’t help but think how interesting it would be to hear from them directly talking about various topics related to their countries origin–politics, histories, personal stories, and of course cuisine. Over the years I’ve created a number of projects that allow me to tap into local knowledge in the places where I have been commissioned to do work. I choose to do that primarily to satisfy my own desire to learn about new things, and then I try also to extend that experience to larger publics as well through exhibitions, events, publications, etc.. Reading and watching films offers an important but mediated form of knowledge acquisition, so I really enjoy the opportunity for first hand experience and learning from primary sources. In the case of the Saraga project the way that I set things up was that I worked remotely with the people at Big Car, Jim, Shauta, and Tom, and they found local volunteers to go to Saraga and approach customers and workers to see if they would be willing to make presentations at the store about their country of origin. The volunteers then worked with the participants to create display boards depicting aspects of their countries of origin. We then held an event at Saraga called Learning About the World at the Grocery Store. It took place for several hours on a Saturday afternoon. The participants set up their display boards in a row at the front of the aisles in relationship to the geographical areas that they were representing. The event was advertised, so some people came specifically for it, others were just there shopping and experienced the presentations spontaneously. Many of the participants did cooking demonstrations or had sample foods that they had prepared in advance. After people mulled around and talked casually for about an hour we went down the row and each participant took a turn talking to the crowd about their country of origin. It is amazing how well people do when given the opportunity to present something that they know and care about, and how much can be learned from the people that are all around us.