Cooking the Commons

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The English etymology of the word ‘leftover’ referring to excess food was first used in the late 19th century. The context of its use coincided with progressive forms of food storage industrialisation (i.e. invention of the fridge, then tupperware, then seram wrap, then microwave, then doggy bag). It also manufactured with it a general public excuse to routinise choreographies of consumption and its other: waste. Today, ‘leftover’ is assigned as a (generally pejorative) value to food that we have failed or forgotten to eat. Its notion has become a semiotic by-product of modern time appropriated by current and still dominant agencies of neo-liberal capitalism. While the culture of leftover and its cooking are considered mundane, often invisible and ignored; they can also be peripheral documents of human disempowerment: of our persisting malaise with the processes of production that has gotten out-of-hand. In rural areas where people are still in touch with the processes of self-sustenance, leftover does not really exist, or it is simply all there is. Like in the little village where my mother was born, leftover is referred to as tada, something that one leaves behind for the next cycle of usage, and hence intrinsically forms part of the circular economy of living.

Serendipity, like leftover, is another loose fiction. Both are notions of time, a signification of value born out of a happening. It synthetically frames as fortuitous an accident, meaning a constellation of circumstances emerging beyond rational intentions. It is not the pure experience itself rather its afterthought that colours a pure memory into a fictive narrative. Leftover and serendipity represent a spectrum of value that is activated by human moral (non)agency.

In this global age of transition that cries out for solutions towards crises of excesses and failed distributions (i.e. consumerism, passive spectatorship) that our previous paradigms have firmly solidified, how can a practice as simple as the renewal of perspectives towards ‘leftovers’ be a pretext for rehearsing sustainable and micro-political modalities of democracy (human empowerment)? This project is an ongoing investigation into the undercurrent psychogeographies of cultural production, focusing on deriving a philosophical learning practice of researching with what we call leftovers and cultivating conditions that rehearse and produce what we call serendipities. Through an improvisatory process of performing with / cooking (leftovers) that relies on the rubrics of learning by doing and making something with what is already there, I set out to facilitate the creation of choreographic architectures I call nowhere kitchens as discursive unfinished platforms for re-cooking persisting paradigms of design and choreography into renewed and renewable thresholds of knowledge.

Research Question

The threshold being for Agamben ‘the experience of the limit itself’ (67), how could inhabiting margins of ‘leftover states’ become liminal spaces for rehearsing strategies for a subjective polysingular human agency? When successful neo-liberal schemes and leftover old world traditions have cultured many citizens into spectatorship and arrested their capacity to use intuition in having a hand with their own spectacles, how do emergent social possibilities involved in ‘cooking together’ and its derivative philosophies produce platforms of dialogue and open learning that serves as observatory of the commons? This research is about bridging connections between practical experiences of artistic creation (cooking & eating) and its theorisation that can nourish other disciplines and facilitate fresh structures of collaboration (digestion & rumination) that expands beyond food.

Cooking as a daily practice is a declining urban ritual. This scenario has much to do with normativized choreographies of living: it takes time to cook and our modern designs have been shortcutting its process to the bare minimum. And while there is a resurgent popularisation in media of food and the canonisation of high profile chefs as the current trend of celebrated Artists, these only flirt towards a re-spectacularisation of food that has all the tendency to separate the citizens “from both the capacity to know and the power to act (Rancière, 3)’ within their own relatively unspectacular kitchens. Leftovers are archives of modern notions of time that is synchronic with the devaluation of the citizens’ daily choices. They attest to the wasted margins of consumption that have subjected people into a deeper and more spiritual crisis of passivity. Could the notion of leftovers be redeemed not as a limiting border but as a threshold of opportunity?

The idea of cooking the commons manifested three years ago as a DIY art project Foodleft involving cooking with leftovers. While residing in Madrid during the height of its economic crisis, it became an auspicious opportunity to enact such an intuition. Inspired by a curiosity to occupy intimate spaces of a ‘public’ that was (is) collectively living it, the project was created as an enquiry into the subjective notions of crisis through the simple act of cooking in people’s homes. It invited participants to inhabit ephemeral states of uncertainty. The practice evolved as an itinerant performance that occupied any given context: museums, academic conferences, congresses, aseemblies, festivals etc. Sustained renewals of this ritual created for me an evolving ‘leftover philosophy’ and brought me to the premise of cooking the commons: while indeed too many cooks spoil the broth, perhaps it could open an opportunity to create a whole new something else, something else that is yet to belong to official categories.

Within a practice-as-research frame, I set out to perform an expedition to explore ‘this whole new something else’ applying intuitive knowledge that can be summarised as ‘cooking without a recipe’. I present these micro-political kitchen processes as artistic collaborative explorations from which to develop precarious technologies of cooking to forge new collaborations that can have deeper macro-political outcomes.


During my M.A., I became passionate with contemporary theories on nomadism. Through my dissertation where I examined cases of performance artists and their negotiation with shifting identities, I came across the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Rosi Braidotti, and Guy Debord. Later on, I did a 10-month Practice-as-Research Master program in Madrid and during this period, my interests grew towards developing cooking performances. This brought me to critical theories towards socially-engaged art practices from Nicolas Bourriaud, Claire Bishop, and Shannon Jackson. Nowhere Kitchen situates itself along these web of knowledge and proposes a fresh perspective of social engagement from a most unlikely source (leftover improvisations).

The choice of leftovers as departure point to engage in art practice relocates the notion of rehearsal as performance. It is about producing participatory processes that are “directly incorporated into the living attitudes” (Rancière, 4) of those involved. Nowhere Kitchens hence are as much performances as they are rehearsals of living that maps an observant kind of researching together and relies its efficacy upon failure and redemption. It’s basic rubric entails a nomadic attitude that empowers one to improvise with the given situation. The term ‘nomadic’ represents a performative aspect of learning-by-doing “that allows for otherwise unlikely encounters and unsuspected sources of interaction of experience and of knowledge” (Braidotti, 6). Whatever transpires in these conditions serve as an invitation to the ‘advent’ (Badiou, 122) of the incalculable serendipity.

The artist, according to Joseph Kosuth manifests its theories in praxis; an ‘anthropologist engaged…that depicts while alters society’ (in Johnstone, 182). An artist-as-anthropologist’s work breathes on ‘a dialectical relationship with the activity’s historicity and the social fabric of present day reality’ (183). The ‘artist’ in question does not pertain to a special kind of person, but to any person becoming a special kind of artist. And the ‘anthropology’ in question does not pertain to the pursuit of the exotic, but what George Perec neologised as ‘endotic’, an anthropology that we can consider our own, ‘one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others’. Within these frames, nowhere kitchens are rituals that activate knowledge-in-progress as actions and discourses towards empowerment. nowhere kitchens are designed as lightweight experiences that open up the palatable possibility of inhabiting palpable universes lying in between the mundane and the spectacular, between leftover and serendipity. Within this in-between, we investigate the ontology of knowledge itself and re-assess our notion of the human (homo sapiens) as one who can cook (homo coquus), not only its food, but also its own future histories.

Berlin, 2014. Last edited August 2015

By Pepe Dayaw

performance artist and choreographer from the Manila, based in Berlin / Brandenburg

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