Place: Museum of Modern Art Café
Date: Thursday 3 February, 2011
I was not thrilled at the idea of having to talk to strangers. However, eating Alison Knowles’ Identical Lunch at MoMA is about social interaction, as much as it was about eating a tuna fish sandwich. Forced socialization makes me feel like I am at a junior high school dance or a funeral for a long last relative. Regardless, I wanted to put on my best face. I sat somewhere in the middle of a long table with seven seats on each side – fourteen in total. The table was a misty green color with silvery specks meant to resemble a Formica countertop from the 1950s.
The person to my right was quite bubbly and had panache for conversation. After a couple of introductory questions I warmed up to her, as she seemed genuinely curious to know more about me. I discovered that she was a corporate lawyer by day and photographed performance art at night. This piqued my interest as my dissertation concerns the intersection of performance art and its documentation.
The cafeteria was crowded. Doesn’t anyone work anymore? There were a lot of young people and old couples – I guess they are the people who don’t work.
To my left was a clean-shaven man in his late 20s or early 30s. He had a large Nikon camera and was photographing everything. Doesn’t anyone experience the world? Why are people always in a rush to photograph events? My father would always say that we should see and experience the world through our eyes and not the lens of a camera.
This reminds me of when I went with Alison to the Dorsky Gallery, in Long Island City, to see her work in an exhibition on interactivity in performance art. While we were riding the train a young man came and sat across from us wearing headphones. This quickly got Alison’s attention: “Look at that. Its like my grandkids. They have these gadgets that distract them. They never experience anything. This young man will loose out on all the details of things around him. He looses the experience of riding a train. He doesn’t notice the people around him, the texture of that woman’s coat, the color of this bag. We don’t know how to experience anymore.” Were these the ramblings of a cranky old woman or sage advice? I would like to argue the latter. I never listen to music or read on the train anymore, instead I note the smells, sights and sensations.
To left of the man with the camera was another young man with a shaved head, wearing a graphic t-shirt and Buddhist prayer beads on his wrist. I quickly judged him to be a hippy-dippy artist type and paid him no further attention. It seems this happens often. I judge then I ignore. For all I know he could have been the man of my dreams. Oh well, perhaps the next time I eat the lunch I will know better than to jump to conclusions.
Across the table to my left was an elderly couple in their late 60s. They were quite excited to be at the lunch. The wife wore a large white fur hat throughout the entire lunch.
A MoMA employee with a clip board came around and made sure that all the participants signed a form giving permission to be photographed and video recorded. It seems now I will live in infamy. All was well until the elderly couple began to raise their voices in anger. Apparently they only reserved one spot. The wife repeatedly shouted “I AM A MEMBER!” That was all it took, and husband and wife stayed to dine.
Despite a warning that the performance would begin promptly at 12:30pm, Alison strolled in with her assistant a couple minutes late. She sat across from me. She smiled with hesitation then finally, pointing a finger, “You are Harry. Great to see you.” Her smile is always welcoming. “I talked to Hannah this morning.” Hannah Higgins is her daughter with late-Fluxus artist Dick Higgins. She is a leading scholar in art history and the outside reader on my dissertation.
Alison got right down to business. She pulled out a clear plastic folder from her bag and produced a copy of her Journal of the Identical Lunch and a similar journal published by artist Philip Corner. The Corner journal is very rare and hard to come by for an affordable price. With a big grin, from ear to ear, she showed off The New York Times article by Randy Kennedy on the Identical Lunch. Who could blame her enthusiasm? Fluxus is the most underrated, under-appreciated and under-valued art movement of the 20th-century. The museum has only taken an interest in it because of the recent acquisition of the Silverman Collection – the largest collection of Fluxus memorabilia, documentation, and ephemera.
Alison made small talk with everyone, thanking them for joining. She was a very gracious hostess, wanting to know about each of her guest and why they were there with genuine curiosity. She abruptly proclaimed: “We should get started.” A young man in a suit quickly came over to take lunch orders. Everyone followed in line with Alison “Tuna whole wheat toast, butter, no mayo, lettuce and tomato.” The soup today was carrot. I opted for the buttermilk, which I have never had before. Alison informed me that there is a cheese monger at the Essex Street market that makes it fresh. Small talk like this ensuesdincluding discussion of why she chose tuna, why butter and not mayo and her grandchildren.
The tuna arrived. Alison informed everyone that this is probably the best tuna she has ever had. It was not from a can, rather made by the chef from fresh tuna that is processed and mixed with capers and olives. She was not lying, it was delicious. The butter was a nice touch. She noted that the bread could be toasted more, and I agreed. The sandwich needed a bit of crunch to it. The buttermilk had a strange acidic taste. Alison admitted that she did not care for it, either, and reminds me to try the cheese monger at the Essex Street Market.
No one devoured their sandwiches as they were distracted by conversation.
The plates were eventually cleared. Many were unable to finish lunch as it was heartier than expected. Alison had hoped we still had our appetites, because there were homemade cookies and treats to come. She explained that everyone brings something different to the lunch as no enacting of the identical lunch is ever identical. While the basic ingredients remain the same, how they are prepared always varies. With that, Alison got up and put on a paper hat. She went behind the food counter to where the chefs were hurriedly preparing meals for the entire cafeteria. With everyone watching she put a tuna sandwich in a blender with some buttermilk. After a few minutes the mixture was poured into paper cups. Alison made sure everyone gets one – much to their horror. The blended sandwich wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t great. George Maciunas had eaten the lunch this way.
Deserts were served. Alison made sure I ate this small chocolate brownie that she called a chocolate explosion. As everyone began to get ready to leave, she invited us to join her in the contemporary art galleries of the museum where photographic prints of the Identical Lunch were on display. At one of Maciunas’ annual New Year’s Eve dinners, she served an identical lunch to guests in a private space surrounded by plastic shower curtains. In this little niche, with just enough room for two people and a toaster, guests were photographed to record their reactions to eating the lunch. The polaroids were transferred to a silkscreen and the rest is history. They now hang in the museum, proudly and boldly as records of what had transpired. The lunch may seem silly from these images and barely resemble what audiences conceive of as art. But that is the power of Fluxus. The mundane, the banal, and the ordinary that is elevated for a brief moment to realm of high art. Tuna will never be the same again.
As I left MoMA, I had to grab a toothpick. The tuna was good, but I will stick to turkey and swiss cheese.