I said I was doing a Social Potluck project and proceeded to say that Social Potluck is a philosophy. How can it be both? The reality is that I want to do a number of projects that use the Social Potluck Philosophy and this initial project should have its own name but unfortunately I haven't decided on one yet. I was thinking about "Dinner with an Alien" as a response to some righteous ethnography I have been forced to read but I'm not married to it which is why I'm sticking with Social Potluck Project.
By using the Social Potluck philosophy I will be creating a project which exploits, celebrates and tests the truth of the Social Potluck statements because, you know, I could be wrong.
As mentioned earlier the Social Potluck project is an "interactive performance project, community building project, community arts project and community food project" all rolled into one. Putting aside intent and philosophy for a minute let me tell you the structure I am planning to test out over the next few months as my first official Social Potluck project.
The Structure for "Dinner with an Alien" or "Dinner with Strangers" or "Planet Paprikas" or "As yet unnamed Social Potluck project"
Step 1. I will barter with local farmers and suppliers to get enough food for the project.
Step 2. I will arrange for a location through barter (hopefully).
Step 3. I will host a series of five dinners for up to ten people at a dinner. These dinners operate as performance and research. Participants will be chosen at random from a list of potential volunteers. Everyone who comes to the dinners will pay for their meal by telling one story. I will record this story digitally (sound only) as it is presented to the group. These are the "official" stories. After all the stories have been "collected" we eat dinner. During the meal any conversation or stories that are told will be not digitally recorded but I will be allowed to use them (what I can remember regardless of whether I remember correctly or not) for Step 4. The mealtime stories are the "unofficial" stories.
Step 4. After the five dinners I will take all the "official" stories and combine them with all the "unofficial" stories along with the stories of where the food came from and create a performance based on the stories, themes and my experience at those meals (perhaps from the perspective of an alien –the kind that come from another planet).
Step 5. I perform my show for everyone who participated in the dinners along with their guests. There is no financial cost to attend but they must pay with some kind of dish or food item resulting in a giant potluck after the show thereby completing the cycle of food for stories.
That's the general idea.
The Intention for "Dinner with an Alien" or "Dinner with Strangers" or "Planet Paprikas" or "As yet unnamed Social Potluck project" is…
Step 1. Through offering goodwill and effort rather than just money I hope to build a relationship with the local area farmers and merchants. Ideally I want them to know that they are a part of this project since what we eat is an integral part of lives. By knowing the story of our food we can reengage with our community through the pleasing, ritualistic, practice of eating. These goods are no longer commodities but integral parts of our cultural and social network (I suspect many farmers know that). I will be giving their stories a platform along with the participants at the dinner.
It would be remiss if I did not mention that what we eat at our tables is just as important as what we say. We are what we eat just as we are our stories. Cheeseburger Doritos anyone?
Step 2. The location means delving into the world of commercial businesses, realtors and legal bylaws. Where we shop, where we go out to eat and the limitations put on commercial food production says a lot about who we are and what we value.
Can one legally give away food anymore? Has generosity been curtailed by a fear of lawyers? How can a project that exists entirely without money changing hands function in our market based economy?
Step 3. From a community member's perspective I am interested in who lives in, travels through, or visits my community. The easiest way is to have them over for dinner; it is what I did when I moved to new house and has proven to be one of a handful of good ideas I have had. I hope others feel the same way. I also get the sense that by learning more about who lives in this community our attachment to it grows as well. This has been my experience so far in all the research I have conducted for my other projects. To some extend I want to share, in a generous and supporting environment, the opportunity for members of this community to learn more about who else lives here. I acknowledge this is purely arbitrary since each meal is only with 5-10 people who participants may or may not know but that is intentional because if the meals were larger the chance to share a particular experience as a group, especially something as intimate as a meal, would be lost.
From a performance perspective I am interested in the difference between how we present ourselves officially versus unofficially. By asking for a payment of a story I am asking for an official story, that doesn't mean "official" in the sense of what is dictated but rather the kind of story we feel comfortable telling in front of strangers. I tell people to tell the story that their spouse/lover/friend or family is sick of hearing because it means it is well rehearsed. Usually those stories are the kind of stories told again and again around the table. Now is the time to share it with a fresh audience. Some people are comfortable telling embarrassing stories about themselves; others may want to tell a folk tale or family story. Honestly, it doesn't matter what story is told because no matter what is chosen it is relevant. If participants want to tell someone else's story that is interesting to me and my research. In the end, these stories act as fodder for the conversations that occur when we sit down to eat.
Once the official part of the evening is over everyone can sit down to dinner and conversation. It is my sense that the ritualistic aspect of sharing food builds trust and comfort. It is a chance to discuss the official stories or begin other topics completely unrelated to stories. It is not my intention to direct conversation but rather watch, observe and participate. Will the stories told be different, will participants behave differently than when they are presenting in front of a group rather than a table? I don't know, that is why I am exploring with this project.
Step 4. How do you tell a community's story? How can you summarize 5 evenings of stories, endless conversations with farmers and business people into a pleasing piece of entertainment? I don't know. I am hoping to rely on themes, excellent material and a tonne of energy. This will be the creative challenge of the project. I will keep you informed as to how that goes. I am trying not to pre-write as that would defeat the entire project.
Step 5. I am indebted to everyone who participates so it is essential that the first performance be for them. It is their story, they deserve to be the first ones to see what it inspired. Since they purchased a meal with their entertainment it is only fair to offer them the same deal. I will offer them a show in exchange for a meal. In this case a potluck as, honestly, my performance will be a potluck of stories. I believe it is only fitting to end the project with generosity and communal celebration. Perhaps down the road if this format works and I believe the performances have marketable value they may be performed again but should they be performed for money (to help fund further projects) or should they always be for food?
So, that is the project. What do you think?