Fermentation, Art and Gender: a conversation with S. E. Nash
S.E. Nash is a visual artist and fermentation practitioner. He talked to me about his art, his interest in fermentation, and about how they relate to feminism.
Where did your interest in fermentation come from?
From cooking. I realised at a certain point that I was cooking and working in the kitchen as a daily practice - sometimes more than I was able to be in my art studio. I also had a job in beer. At the time, in 2006, the craft beer movement was really young, so I was introducing New Haven, Connecticut to fancy Belgian beers and craft beers. My fascination with taste, flavour, and fermentation started there. But I didn't figure out how it would translate into my artistic work until 2014. That happened with sourdough. I read Michael Pollan's book "Cooked" and in that book is a description of Sandor Katz, the fermentation author. I became fascinated with Sandor because Pollan describes him as this magician of fermented foods, and it sounded really alchemical and romantic. And there was a sourdough recipe in that book. So I began a sourdough starter in New York, and my wife got me a microscope, so I started looking at the culture. And I was awed with the simplicity of being to macroscopically see the activities of microbes. That was a whole world of awakening. Even though I'd been into beer and fermented food for a time, the fact that there were these minute organisms, invisible to the naked eye, all around us, was such an important realisation to me. It was the idea of being able to see something that was previously unavailable to perception that captivated my interest.
What was artistic about these microbes for you?
For me, art is a personal exploration of invention. In the studio I'm constantly trying to figure out new ways that materials can work for me. It doesn't have to be some ground-breaking discovery in the world, but personal discovery is the thing I'm always trying to do. Essentially, it's play. It was that sense of play with flour and water and the simplicity of it, and the idea that I could show a child that, and share that fascination with that action... Fermentation seemed to me as a material.
And then it became a social material. I left my job and went to study fermentation with Sandor Katz after making that sourdough. I went to this community where Sandor Katz lives for three weeks, a queer intentional community called 'Short Mountain'. I used that residency as a way to understand how food and fermentation would be incorporated in my work. That experience was very social and collaborative and collectively generative. First of all, there were twelve residents from different backgrounds. Then there were people coming by bringing eggs, or people working on the property. And that sense of community shared there was really special and something I really wanted to bring back to my work.
"The social and collaborative aspects of that way of interacting with fermentation in my work is one of the things that connects to a feminist position in my mind."
That resulted in the idea of having vessels of food fermentation that would sit in the environment of a sculpture. I started creating sculptures that would house a vessel or somehow interact with a vessel and those would ferment in the gallery but would be connected to social events. The first was a kimchi demonstration. There were a number of sculptures there that were eaten at the end of the presentation. The social and collaborative aspects of that way of interacting with fermentation in my work is one of the things that connects to a feminist position in my mind. Although I'm the author of the artworks, there are other inventors, other intersections of inter-dependent communities at play in making the work, in making fermentation, and I usually want to include other people doing those things. I want to highlight the activities in people's kitchens going unrecognised, because someone in their kitchen isn't called a chef, or artist or scientist, they don't have that kind of authority.
So why is it especially useful to focus on such microscopic processes as a way into feminism, which is about systemic dynamics?
Well I'll start from a personal perspective. I'm transgender and within the last couple of months have come out as a transgender man. I was identifying as non-binary prior to that. And microbes really helped me see some of that. That's because when I was researching and reading about microbes, and their reproduction and microbial communities in terms of chromosomes, and if we are 50-80% microbe to human genes, that to me was a way of taking gender somewhere else. Somewhere that could reshape our definitions of a body, of idealised bodies or binary bodies. I think it's somewhat in that; that it fractures the idea of the whole body understood in the way we have always understood it. This idea of being multiple, of being comprised as an organism of many things, gives us a different language with which to understand the body. Microbes provide really important actualities that can be used as metaphors but are also real and scientifically based. They help us shift the ideas of bodies in concert with language and with what biology is.
"Microbes provide really important actualities that can be used as metaphors but are also real and scientifically based. They help us shift the ideas of bodies in concert with language and with what biology is."
Have you seen people's ideas about biology change through their engagement with you artwork?
Food and engagement are a social lubricant and people can become less afraid just by chatting about the art. When you show someone, say, a kombucha scoby, and they understand that you're showing them a living thing that's fermenting, people who haven't seen fermentation before might be a bit grossed out by the idea. And that visceral reaction tells us a lot about people's reaction to something that is a bit unfamiliar. A scoby looks a bit fleshy, a bit bodily, it has a skin-like translucency. The initial point is for people to see the fermentation and see the non-living sculpture next to it, and to start to draw connections. They start to think about the categories we take for granted. What kinds of things do we imbue with life or a certain kind of materiality? So even if on a base level people are seeing the activities of microbes, this already makes them question certain values they have or didn't recognise they had, like being grossed-out or being uncertain about eating something that someone else made because it didn't come in a package or wasn't made in a commercial kitchen...this instilled fear about ingesting things that seem like a foreign substance. That idea of something being foreign takes different forms - from the thing you're eating, to the idea of who made it...there's a lot of complex navigation in having people try fermented foods. It's about testing boundaries -that's the entry point. And then we can start to talk about some of the other qualities that fermentation can conjure, like embodied knowledge, like gender variance and gender non-conformity. So they're all breadcrumbs leading to big ideas.
"That idea of something being foreign takes different forms - from the thing you're eating, to the idea of who made it...there's a lot of complex navigation in having people try fermented foods."