• Holly Regan

Reclaiming Rot and the Art of Waste

Holly Regan explores the abundance of waste through the work of three artists

The smell of egg and scallions sizzling in umami-sweet soy sauce wafts through the crisp morning air in Seattle’s Ballard neighbourhood, a line of eager eaters snaking through the farmer’s market. Zachary Pacleb seems to be cooking six things at once, thin arms weaving Vishnu-like above the griddle where their signature tortillas swell and golden. A delicate ballet unfolds under the 10x10 tent advertising “RAMEN & TACOS,” staff passing pans over open flames and pirouetting around open coolers. Pacleb has one eye on the egg crates piling up next to the stand, structure and form unfolding in his inner view. It may not look like it, but this is the beginning of his next artistic work.

Nothing goes to waste at Brothers & Co., the mobile food business he runs with sibling Seth. For Pacleb, everything is material, and it’s accumulating everywhere, if you have the eyes to see. “I was definitely an artist before I was a chef. Food just became the medium that I worked in,” he says. What some call trash is his creative fodder, making not just other dishes but sculptures and paintings out of what often gets discarded in the act of cooking.

In fact, hovering at similar longitudes on opposite sides of the Atlantic—Seattle, London, Dublin, and Belfast—three artists are using the most visceral medium, food, to explore what culture ascribes value to, and what it throws away. Their work is reclamation and resistance, dwelling in the tension between attraction and repulsion and exposing rot in all its positive and challenging forms: the thing that is both living and dying; the tossed-aside and toxic that gets second life; the conditions we’ve come to accept in capitalist existence; microbial networks slow-growing in common space.

“Food is art, but it’s an art form that’s necessary for us to survive,” Pacleb says. “It affects people whether or not they choose to invest in it, because consumption is something everyone takes part in.” The culinary arts don’t often get their due, apart from the odd nod to white-tablecloth destinations like Noma and Alinea. Yet Pacleb’s tacos are just as worthy as what hangs on museum walls: verdant vegetables piled high, sprinkled with neon-pink pickled onions, a crisp-edged egg sending bright marigold spilling across plump beans; the biodiverse bounty and rugged beauty of his native Pacific Northwest encapsulated on a plate.

His work begins in the kitchen and continues into the studio, constantly scanning his environment for what can be repurposed; incorporating soil, seeds, and spent grains into paintings and remixing discarded packaging. “It’s just the way my brain works,” he says, “not wanting to let anything go to waste.”


Inspiration came while working the opening shift at a popular brunch restaurant, where staggering stacks of egg cartons would pile up and get thrown away. One day, his attempts to wrangle the crates gave way to curious exploration, and a new medium began to unfold. “I started pressing on [the pile] in different ways, and noticed how it folds and bends and stays structurally sound,” Pacleb says. “I just started looking at it in a different way.”


Taking the crates home, he began creating sculptures that were not only explorations of texture, structure, and form, but the way resources are allocated, designated, and used in the food system. His work appeared in a number of Seattle venues, including a 2017 show for the FoodArt Collection, aptly titled “LEFTOVERS,” where he cooked and served the appetisers for his own interactive opening.


Pacleb traces this zero-waste philosophy to his Filipino grandmother, which guides the brothers’ business to this day. He recalls formative summers in Hawai’i where his grandmother would prepare plate after plate of lumpia and pork for friends and family members, munching on pigs’ ears and eyeballs as she entertained — demonstrating full utilisation rather than frugality, the abundance that comes from using every piece. There was a “cosy, familiar attitude around food” in her presence, Pacleb says, and the brothers grew up with a rich appreciation of this creative and connective resource.


Later, Pacleb went to culinary school in San Francisco and worked at some of Seattle’s finest-dining restaurants, exploring mediums such as photography and painting on the side. In their shared commissary kitchen: “we’re sort of a regular dumping ground for food scraps from the other catering companies,” Pacleb says of the brothers’ food business. Indeed, he is often shocked to witness the amount of waste other food businesses are prepared to accept. “It takes a lot of time, energy, and trial-and-error to develop [low-waste] mentalities,” he adds. More common is discarding huge quantities of animal and vegetable matter for efficiency’s sake. Pacleb gives the example of beetroot: many businesses only use the root itself, while their fibrous, nutrient-dense leafy greens go to compost, but for the brothers, they’re a valuable base for everything from salads to broths.

The mindset of waste as inherent to efficiency is emblematic of American culture, and its impact is felt on the ecosystem level, even including social values. “This idea that we need to produce as much as we can for as little as we can so the profits remain at the top is devaluing the process and ingredients,” Pacleb says. “[Most Americans] grew up in a culture that prioritised the convenience of a meal over that ritual that was so ingrained in society beforehand.”

It manifested in the American agricultural-industrial complex that turned food from art, craft, and spiritual practice into consumer commodity. “If we hadn’t invested in these vast monocrop cultures, who’s to say that the same amount of land couldn’t produce more than enough food for the community? We’re now trying to fight our way back to this idea of a locally centred food system, and it’s hard,” Pacleb says. “Everything is seen as disposable. The people who set up these systems thought everything was inexhaustible.”


***


It’s a perspective with which London- and Dublin-based artist Avril Corroon is all too familiar. The exploitation of power differentials in capitalist culture, and specifically in the housing market, that forces many to live in rotten conditions is the premise interrogated by her inventive installation, “Spoiled Spores.” Debuting in 2019 at Dublin’s publicly funded LAB Gallery, it featured 30 wheels of cheese—made from the spores of toxic mould Corroon collected from rental accommodations in the cities where she lives, slow-growing in the darkness of high-priced urban properties.


London and Dublin, like most of the world’s major cities, are suffering a housing crisis: plenty of places to stay, but nowhere to live. As foreign investors buy up homes in desirable areas and flip them for the vacation-property market, the two-pronged dagger of commodification and gentrification has sent rental rates soaring to record highs while driving owners in a race to the bottom in quality, cutting corners and neglecting needed repairs. Mould is a major problem in these rainy parts of the world, where overpriced homes literally rot from the inside out, spawning slow-growing microbes that are often invisible, but can be deadly.


Yet the insatiable housing demands leaves most tenants with no recourse. As a result, “a lot of people have a ‘damp’ story about their negligent landlords,” Corroon says. The idea of making cheese by sampling the spores in her own mouldering flat started as a kind of surrealist wink, “with no idea how to make cheese or even if that was possible,” she says, teaching herself the cheesemaking process through YouTube tutorials. Quickly realising this work had something larger to say about the state of housing in Ireland and the UK, she began collecting samples from others, “using my own fungal network of friends, work colleagues, and word of mouth.”


Cheese spoke to Corroon as a medium for its political nature and classist implications, a symbol of the bourgeoisie and the gentrification that is creeping across the world’s large cities like spores multiplying across soggy walls. It interrogates what we train ourselves to tolerate; the tension between instinct and acquired taste. Not only did the human digestive system have to adapt to process dairy, but “some cheeses that look absolutely delicious, if you hadn't been told that this is what a high-class substance is, you might treat them with suspicion,” Corroon says. “It plays with something that is desirable because of our conditioning to accept it as desirable, but that also has a relationship to death.”


And it lent a tangible element: “The exhibition really stunk,” she says, bringing audiences into the liminal realm “between desire and disgust.” The smell was important, she adds, because “if you’re into cheese, it has an irresistible pull. But if you’re not, it can be really off-putting. Parmesan is said to smell similar to vomit. When the waiter is shaving it onto your plate, it’s lovely, but if you leave the restaurant and someone is puking in the alleyway, it’s grotesque.”


The exhibit juxtaposed such inherent tensions: attraction and repulsion, wonder and horror. Films of the mould being scraped off walls as well as of the cheesemaking process played next to the wheels that sat stinking in their cases, while displayed lists of ingredients included the astronomical rental costs for these noxious dwellings. “There's a real unknowingness to what kind of mould people have in their flats and what they might be doing to themselves in the long run, … and it can be really hidden, like behind wallpaper,” Corroon says. “There's so much miscommunication from property owners, landlords, or listing agents on how to treat it. And there's a huge amount of gaslighting that goes on, as well.”


Not much has changed since the Enclosure Acts started segmenting common lands into private property and segregating peasants from a rising ownership class as British imperialism spread across the UK and Ireland, beginning in the 12th century. This eventually gave rise to the industrial revolution and capitalist system—disenfranchising the majority, disempowering people to provide their own sustenance, and propagating networks of functional servitude.


Today, most people have no other option than to rent from wealthy property owners and cohabitate with toxic spores; in Ireland and the UK, tenants often have no recourse with those who govern their life and health like feudal lords. I experienced this myself in Belfast last winter, where I was horrified to discover a window casement hosting a flourishing colony of creeping black spores that defied household cleaners; the landlord’s only solution was a constantly running dehumidifier.


Corroon hopes her work inspires conversation—and action. “The story of it spreads, and as more people speak about the damp and their conditions, maybe this doesn't have to be acceptable,” she says. There are 13 million renters in the UK alone, and she encourages tenants to join renters’ unions, which can shift the balance of power back toward the collective; unions in Scotland, for example, have helped tenants take collective legal action, recoup illegal fees, and resist evictions.


In Carroon’s perspective, the artist’s job is to call out rot. “You can do the wackiest things with art, make an impact at the same time, and take up space that shouts,” she says.


***


Calling out from the fringes is second nature to Phillip McCrilly (Pilib Mac Raghallaigh): a Belfast-based artist, chef, and fermented food and beverage maker. McCrilly is also co-owner of FRUIT SHOP, an artist’s collective and café where the food is merely a means to a more creative end. Founded in 2020 with partners Mitch Conlon and Jennifer Mehigan, the restaurant not only provides a top-tier meal, but a platform for local artists, culinary and otherwise. The menu itself is a masterwork, infusing UK staples with international dimensionality—Gado Gado hash, Mumbai grilled cheese, miso chocolate chip cookies—while the walls boast works from local creators.


McCrilly grew up queer in rural County Tyrone, in a part of Northern Ireland known the ‘Murder Triangle’ during the ‘Troubles”: a period of civil unrest from the late 1960s to late 1990s, and still reverberating. The experience was no easy feat, infusing resiliency and informing his experiential art. “The role of the artist is [to shine] a light on something that’s overlooked or on the fringes, bringing people into the conversation in a way they weren’t before,” McCrilly says. “Food is an invitation to people to participate more directly, and there’s an embedded generosity in my practice.”

‘Gorse Wine (After John Oliver)’ (2021)

Discovering his own queer identity largely in the kitchen, McCrilly uses food and beverage production—especially fermentation—as a mechanism for discussing what society deems “deviant”; how public and private are demarcated; and who these things are really for. Studying sculpture, working in kitchens to sustain himself, and exploring his sexuality, McCrilly found that art, food, and queer identity all informed each other.


“Fermentation is a queer process; something that resists the norm,” McCrilly says. “It's inherently analog, time-based, and temperamental. It resists form, yet it's always forming.” And he involves the audience in this process of continual evolution with interactive works that combine local history with acts of radical self-nourishment.

There aren’t many opportunities for artists in Belfast, McCrilly explains; running FRUIT SHOP as a business instead of a gallery allows them to capture city council funds and grants not otherwise available to artists. They pay it back by offering pop-up and studio space, hosting visual installations, and allowing community members to sell food and other products fee-free.


“It was one of those artists’ manoeuvres, where you're trying to shift things a bit so you can get them on your own terms,” says McCrilly. “There's no commercial market to sustain our own space, so this offered an opportunity for us all to work together, seeing the cafe as an art practice where we do things our own way.”


poster for Feast of Saxifrage
‘Feast of Saxifrage’ FRUIT SHOP as part of Outburst Queer Arts Festival (2020)

The owners are also exploring an incubator program that would allow aspiring chefs to take over the kitchen, McCrilly says—if the café can survive that long. Despite rave reviews and loyal fans who regularly pack the tiny space, running a food and beverage business isn’t much more profitable than a gallery, and staying afloat remains a challenge.


Yet his most meaningful works take people out of the kitchen and into the in-between places, exploring cruising, fermentation, and foraging as "deviant" practices that shape identity in liminal space. Such statements are especially resonant in Northern Ireland, where homosexual acts between consenting adults weren’t decriminalized until 1982, with a ruling from the European Court on Human Rights; same-sex marriage remained illegal until 2019.


These attitudes have deep roots: at the same time that British imperialists were dividing common lands into private parcels in the 1500s, they were simultaneously passing laws governing non-heteronormative sexual practices, including sodomy (England’s “Buggery Act” was passed in 1533). Wealthy landowners and the Protestant church asserted increasing control over property, resources, and the people they increasingly saw as such.

When scarcity and restriction are the measures of oppression, giving is an act of resistance. McCrilly’s practice, he says, is “a protest in the vein of queer abundance.” Like Corroon, his subject matter toes the line between surplus and spoilage, pleasure and repulsion; the sweet stench of preservation that staves off scarcity, like compost’s decay creates new life. Restricting space and bodies were means of imperialist control; releasing these, even now, is revolution.

Cruising itself is both private and public, a hidden practice that involves putting oneself on display like so much unplucked fungi, ripe for the gathering. Both cruising and foraging, in McCrilly’s view, reclaim public goods and subvert narratives that say you can only enjoy space that is purchased, consume things procured through commercial exchange, or engage in socially sanctioned sexual acts—and both are celebrated by his work.

image of a performance art piece Jaunt
‘Jaunt’ a fermentation, cruising, and cycling workshop as commissioned by Catalyst Arts and The Goethe Institut (2020)

His work “Jaunt,” commissioned by Catalyst Arts and Goethe Institute, for example, led people through Belfast's historical cruising spots—documented by gay Irish martyr Roger Casement—and into the surrounding forests, where they foraged for berries and used them to create a fermented elderberry condiment in Casement’s honor. At art space CCA Derry-Londonderry, “Spiral Jetty Sauerkraut” was an interactive fermentation workshop where participants made kraut that mapped to land-art works, using salt sourced from the scene.

A recent Catalyst Arts exhibition paired queer chefs and poets, including McCrilly, for a four-course meal with a heavily fermented menu. And in 2020, FRUIT SHOP’s “Feast of Saxifrage” project for the Outburst Queer Arts Festival utilized foraged, fallen fruit and nuts from around Belfast in a menu that celebrated seasonal abundance for the queer community with pay-it-forward plates, supporting LGBTQIA+ creators.


***


“People call me a chef because I cook for people, but food just became a new medium that has this whole other impact,” Pacleb says. These artists are calling cultural, social, and even existential categories into question, one delicious—or disgusting—work at a time. Each emphasizes collective power to demand change, from restaurant owners and tenants challenging prestige to queer people who collect food off the ground and gather in parks to nourish body and soul. These are the tensions of coming together: cities can be sites of oppression and subjugation or places of resistance, where united, we break free.


Still, as McCrilly points out, “when I've talked to people and said, ‘I'm an artist and I work with food,’ there’s often a resistance, like, ‘how can art be something you eat?’ My hope is that it's … all-encompassing and all-engaging. Art and food is this really intimate, sensory thing that everyone has a relationship to, a need for, and an opinion on,” he says. “Even not caring about it is caring about it.”


“We don't think of this plate of food the same way we would a Picasso painting or something from the ballet,” Pacleb says. “It can be hard to be motivated to produce art that means something to me, but may look like trash to someone else. [But] it’ll always be part of my process to try to reimagine the materials around me into something more aesthetically appealing.”


“I think about it as a poetic weapon, in a way,” Corroon says, eyes glinting mischievously. “It’s about the threat that everybody has, collectively: [the ability] to poison the rich.”

 

Images curtesy of the artists.


Holly Regan is an internationally based writer and artist who explores the intersection of culture, underrepresented identities, and consciousness-altering substances. They received the 2022 Curve Award for Emerging Journalists from the National Association for LGBTQ Journalists and honors from the North American Guild of Beer Writers in 2021. They write a monthly column, Altered States, and newsletter/zine, The Both-Between.



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