Eye To Eyebeam: A Conversation With Stefani Bardin

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The winter holiday season has just begun, and with it come dinner parties with treats and delicacies seen only once a year. And while many look forward to the season's sweet and savory foods, few consider where they comes from. Stefani Bardin, currently an Honorary Eyebeam Resident, is not one of those people: she's consumed with the study of industrialized agriculture. The Counter Kitchen, a series of workshops she co-hosted with former Eyebeam Fellow Brooke Singer, showed participants how to emulate commercial food and sundries, minus potentially-harmful ingredients. Her current project at Eyebeam, M2A™: The Fantastic Voyage, uses pills designed to record video and sound from the gastrointestinal tract together with synthetic food scents and sound to examine the effects of eating natural versus processed food. Eyebeam intern Katherine DiPierro sat down with Stefani to talk about her love of all things gastronomical.

Katherine DiPierro: What projects are you currently working on?

Stefani Bardin: I’m sifting through all of the data accrued this summer from the human subject trial I did with Harvard Gastroenterologist Dr. Braden Kuo in which we looked at the impact of processed foods versus whole foods on the body using wireless gastroenterology devices. This is for the project M2A: The Fantastic Voyage. Basically I’m spending my days looking at videos of the inside of GI tract and watching Top Ramen and Gummi Bears wind their way through the alimentary canal. I think the videos are really arresting and beautiful – the colors, the textures, the motility.

This has been sidelined while I’m working on trying to launch a research initiative at Parsons called Food + Emerging Technology. It’s going to be an amazing program I think – the first of its kind to offer students a comprehensive, in-depth investigation of our Food System and the chance to work on art, media and design- related projects that address this exploration. We’ve already started partnering with some really great farms, soup kitchens, architects, restaurateurs, chefs, creative technologists and designers.

I also just started working on a collaborative project with Toby Heys (Eyebeam Resident Spring 2011) called Phantom Lim(b)inality where we are endeavoring to build a recycling unit for phantom limbs, in the wilderness. I should probably say that we are referring metaphorically to the amputation of the wilderness from our lives and what is left in its place is the flickering specter of a rich cultural memory of nature.

KD: Over the past few years, you’ve developed projects which offer different approaches to industrial agriculture: interventions (The Counter Kitchen), research documentation (M2A), and expose (Commodity Cropism). How did you become interested in gastronomy?

SB: I just really like food. Preparing it, eating it. Sharing it with the people close to me. It has been a huge part of the cultural fabric of my life since I was a kid. But as I’ve gotten older, mostly in the last 15 years, I have become more aware of the problems within our Food System. Industrial food (and all the mechanisms involved with it) is such a veiled, corrupt and labyrinthine beast that I have spent countless hours down the rabbit hole of trying to figure it all out and uncover the extreme lack of transparency involved with it - and I’m not even close.

So this love of food – and my current lamentation that the simple nutritive, healthy and pleasurable attributes of eating have been replaced with Frankenfood and Food as a Fashion Statement – has, for the time being, become the focus of my work.

KD: In The Counter Kitchen seminars, participants learn how to make food and sundries that emulate commercial brands, minus carcinogens, pesticides, and other potentially-harmful ingredients. Beyond TCK’s interventions (and projects by others, like Eyebeam’s own Sustainability Research Group), what are steps an average person can take to improve the quality of everyday products?

SB: I think it’s more about learning what’s in the products on our shelves and choosing alternatives. There is a lot of information being withheld from consumers. For example, under the FDA's laws and regulations, they do not pre-approve labels for food products. This is a bit insane, but there are a lot of companies (many found at local farmer’s markets) that have a small readable/recognizable list of ingredients. They may be more expensive, but most commercial products are subsidized and contain cheap and potentially harmful chemicals – so it might be more costly up front – but in the end better for the health of the consumer and the environment.

KD: Do you think it’s possible to change industrial agriculture on a broad scale, or is it the sort of issue which benefits from small-scale strategies?

SB: I’m definitely a believer in molecular revolutions. In order to bring down the monolith of industrial agriculture, we should chip away at its foundation by not buying their products, voting for politicians invested in fixing our food system and wresting power away from these corporations and most importantly supporting farmers and food producers who create food that is good for us and our environment.

Thanks for the interview, Stefani! For the latest on Stefani Bardin's current and future projects, be sure to visit her Eyebeam profile and personal website.