The broad context for this research is the increasingly informationalised context in which our food products are sourced and distributed: a proliferation of gourmet desires and additive fears, a growing consumer appetite for food miles and other metrics of provenance, and the rise of Fair Trade and 'local food' as standards for engagement with the politics of supply. This research aims to challenge these markers of equity/ethics, and collect and cultivate a broader and more complex landscape of references for food trading, beyond the overworked binaries of Fair vs Free Trade or local vs global.

The physical context for the research is the medium of food reporting, both embedded in the product (the text and imagery found in food packaging) and external (in marketing and media). It is in part a response to the substantial data gap between the ubiquity of information sharing on screens - the multiplication of news agencies, blogs and other feeds – and the scarcity of expanded, critical, documentary or contestual viewpoints in other contemporary media operating closer to the surface of real, circulating commodity culture, such as food packaging.

The research is an extension of an already active project, Feral Trade (, an actual grocery business trading goods along social networks since 2003. Feral Trade was established to develop an alternative set of protocols to Free or Fair Trade: a public experiment to test the capacity of computer-formed social networks to carry more substantial traffic, such as groceries. This research is intended to further that investigation and place Feral Trade itself in a larger context of trade methodologies.

The work takes place at the intersection of several networks: art, information and food. It uses the tools of art production and curation to investigate how our daily grocery products can be otherwise selected, articulated, packaged and delivered.

The research findings are designed for release in the cultural realm, to supply thematic information that might inform and advise the purchase plans of the individual grocery shopper or institutional catering manager.

Conversely the data is designed for reverse legibility from the other side and could form useful market research for the grocery producer or provider.


Situating the research in the realm of art is a strategy to redraw the coordinates of the common global grocery product, to restore its essential foreignness and its potential as a conduit for other experience. More practically, I am interested in the public diet of cultural entities: to assess how food and drink can be served and considered in art and cultural organisations, including their relationships with local and international food suppliers, and how this aligns or collides with the other activities and concerns of the organisation.

A particular focus is the nomad/resident diet: prescriptions for survival in the art world via nutritional suggestions for the travelling artist or stationary institution, to attempt a continuity between knowledge work and the immediate environment it takes place in.

At a daily level the question is how to unravel the clamour of often conflicting criteria that ambush the critical shopper at point of sale - your time, its sell-by date, freshness, additives, freight and its attributes, your travel to purchase it, vendor politics, packaging, localness, farming methods, labour relations, seasonality, economic impacts including global responsibility, and of course the price - with the aim to identify actionable priorities.


The central interest of this research is to take a sample grocery item or group of items into deeper investigation to better articulate its provenance. To explore the relationship of Commons to Commodity: the proposal that the commodity is the opposite of the commons as it conceals human relations except for the money relation, while the product of the commons is filled with human relations, including possibly unpleasant ones.

Expected outcomes include:

  1. Further development of the Feral Trade database and website - this research will form background / contextual material for the Feral Trade project, and will add new products to its range. Current database design and utilities to be expanded.
  2. Nomad diet: a collection of equipment, recipes and photodocumentation for maintainance of a critical diet for travelling artist.
  3. Curated grocery box. A box assemblage of items studied in the process of this research for actual consumption, limited edition, for sale and distribution at Open Sauces.
  4. Case study tracking one food commodity relentlessly to source, to explode its packaging, self-image, narratives and truth claims into actual reporting.
  5. Open Fridges. An around table discussion of the public diet of local cultural organisations at FoAM. Dietary confessions, clinical advice and plans for trading staple items between organisations.

In our general alienation from the food delivery system, food packaging is often our main means of interpreting and digesting what we eat. Consistent with the nature of groceries as commodities this information is often minimal, stupefying and produced primarily for the market - although along with the rest of the market, tempered by some force of legislation which reigns it in, such as nutritional information, ingredient listings, factory address, sell-by date etc. The forcefields of the self-regulating market play out in miniature on the food packaging, making it an ideal site for study or intervention.

The research takes food packaging as a starting point - to look at how the product speaks of/for itself and to counter those narratives, aesthetics and opinions (both the onboard information which accompanies the product to cash register, and external media such as corporate narratives) with primary research: multifaceted, locational, traceable, contextual and contestable data. This data collection will involve land journeys to trace the products to their production and distribution sources. The resulting findings will be returned to the public realm with the product, as annotated packaging, run alongside the product's official story.

The work has been conducted with a nomadic focus, using information networks built up over five years as a trader and in the course of cultural travel incurred while working as an artist. Products for study have been sourced from a range of destinations, including Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Montenegro, UK and USA. Consistent with the subject of diets for artists and art organisations, the list of objects studied is a curated selection: a non-comprehensive survey with occasional incursions into unmanageable complexity, in contrast to the proposed objectivity, clear categories, guarantees and limits of Fair Trade and other certifications.

While not providing an actionable shopping list for any particular location, the sum of findings is designed to present general conditions in the global food trade landscape that can be interpreted and extrapolated for practical local use.

  1. Recipes for Disaster: A public lecture, communal dinner and discussion around the Public Diet of cultural organisations took place during the Open Kitchens season of events at FoAM, November 2008. Ten Belgian cultural organisations sent delegates with offerings of foods from their own office fridges, to assemble a meal and share discourse over the practical and conceptual problems of food supply and service in the arts. A slideshow lecture of case studies and possible strategies prepared for the event, including catering arrangements and activities in diverse cultural contexts, is archived on the FoAM website recipes_for_disaster.
  2. Feral Hamper, a boxed collection of tracked and reannotated food products, asssembled in edition of 12. These were raffled at FoAM (also during Open Kitchens) and sold to individual collectors. The hampers were accompanied by a brochure detailing negotiations, social connections and territorial information encountered in the procurement of each product. Presentation information archived here feral hamper and at
  3. A single intensive case study was undertaken of Kazi & Kazi tea, ecofarmed in the northwest border area of Bangladesh. Visits to the tea garden and corporate HQ took place in February 2008, gathering information and images to compile a more nuanced story than is currently visible in the company brochure or on-package. The Kazi tea plantation proved to be fertile territory to study the chasm between market-oriented information and locally gleaned research around this emblematic product. 300 teabags plus 1kg loose leaf tea was purchased and delivered to UK/Belgium; repackaged and distributed with complementary research findings. A video essay that traces the source of this particular tea into almost all reaches of Bangladeshi political, ecological and economic life is currently in production.
  4. Expansion of the Feral Trade database, including a utility to output maps rendering the delivery routes of single and multiple shipments of goods (see; and a tablemat function, which assembles selected ingredients into an ingredient menu for table service, annotated with elaborate shipping information. See for tablemat prototype.
  5. Further outcomes of the research included the Nomadic Picnic, a collaboration with FoAM and gRig to serve a dinner composed of products and ingredients freighted in to Brussels in the hand baggage of travelling cultural peers. The event was commissioned by Kaaitheater, Brussels for the Burning Ice festival in January 2009. The dinner showcased socially sourced groceries - both imported exotics and essential goods procured through FoAM's own local shopping alliances, and was served to an audience of 60 conference presenters, technicians, staff, board members, friends and general public in a temporary kitchen/dining room at Kaaitheater. Documentation of the event can be found here,
  6. A Feral Trade Cafe for active continuation of the research is scheduled to take place at HTTP gallery in London, Summer 2009, as a located, physical interface to the project. The Cafe will serve and exhibit Feral Trade goods (current and retrospective); provide a local trading station and depot for the Feral Trade network; and present research and discussion around both food providence and hospitality protocols for artist-run venues. As well as Feral Trade products, the Cafe will actively solicit food producers from local social networks - family connections, artworld contacts, migrant groceries, home farming. These non-standard supply chains provide an opportunity to expand a conception of localness beyond the land-bound model of the village, to a shared set of connections and navigable routes, like the scale-free hubs of the internet. All products will be displayed/sold/served with their informational baggage attached. The product data and stock curatorial concepts will be made available as a reading menu, for inhouse or takeaway consumption. The Cafe is in part conceived as a micro-economic model: a sustainability rehearsal for broader climate changes in which other supply chains (food delivery, cultural funding) could go belly up.

As expected, the assemblage of comprehensive, instructional information on where and how to shop was not possible within the parameters of the research (or within the complexity and shifting nature of the field of research).

On the other hand, one of the motivating problems - the overload in strident truth claims and fuzzy data in the bewildering business of shopping for food - seemed to resolve itself without much further interrogation. Both in the context of Feral Trade and at the FoAM events there emerged an apparant consensus that relations with supplier, whether the goods' producer or its handler (vendor, courier etc) was broadly valued over other criteria of origin. More than an ethical standpoint this position holds strategic value when mainstream supply chains for food and other essential goods may be suddenly under threat.

Significantly, a singular shift in public focus toward the intersection of ecologic and economic concerns over the period of the project served to focus public attention on the research territory (as evidenced by Kaaitheater programming its first conference around climate change and reaction with relation to the performing arts, in January '09).

Audience response showed an appetite for criticially sourced goods, as the Feral Trade hamper raffle sold 60 tickets, with 3 hampers raffled and 9 other hampers sold separately. In other supply chain progress, as a result of the Public Diet dinner, Brussels artist studios Nadine became a new longterm client for delivery of Feral Trade office coffee.

The collaboration between Feral Trade and FoAM proved especially fruitful through the expanded duration the research enabled. As artists working with food, culture, information and open systems, there are many points of connection between our operating methods. The successful reception of the Kaaitheater dinner in particular demonstrated the potential for critical catering at the boundary line between art and business.

  • Karl Polanyi, the Great Transformation
  • Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video Catherine Russell
  • Shaping Things, Bruce Sterling
  • Black Gold (movie)
  • Bill Brown, thing theory (JSTOR journal of critical inquiry)
  • Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Sleepwalking in a Dialectical Picture Puzzle, Part 1: A Conversation with Avery Gordon
  • Feral Trade courier database

visual/sonic/tactile material generated in the research to be archived at foam

  • research_report_feral_trade.txt
  • Last modified: 2014-12-03 12:09
  • by nik