Three Mile Meal was organized by The Sense Lab in collaboration with the Design Studio for Social Intervention. The following article, “SenseLab goes the distance with Three Mile Meal,” by Melora Koepke, appeared in both the online and print editions of the Montreal Gazette on August 21, 2013.
MONTREAL – Though we live in an age where information is constant and ubiquitous, how much do we really know about our own neighbours?
The artists and philosophers at SenseLab, a “laboratory for thought in motion” at Concordia University, think that finding common ground is more important than information exchange.
Through Three Mile Meal, its public event this weekend, SenseLab is inviting people in three adjacent neighbourhoods — Outremont, Mile End and Park Extension — to explore their curiosity about each other through artistic and social means. The event takes place over three days at three sites, where three versions of bread — challah, dosas and crêpes — will be served by members of Friends of Hutchison in Outremont and community leaders in Park Ex. (The Outremont food will be kosher on Friday and Sunday, and the Park Ex food will be halal.)
The public kitchens will be linked by mobile “lack-of-information booths” — adult trikes with spice-, seed- and drink-distribution capabilities that will circulate between the sites, and will connect the sites via handlebar-mounted iPads that will share video linkage throughout the three-day event.
The hope is that this event can bring people together who might not otherwise socialize, as a starting point to discover common ground and foster future collaborations.
“I actually believe that information exchange does nothing to help community building; all it does is give us the courage to deal in generalities,” said SenseLab founder Erin Manning, who holds a Concordia research chair in philosophy and relational art and is a professor of film studies and studio art at the university.
Manning started thinking about these issues a few years ago when she attended community information meetings related to condo developments in Griffintown.
“There was plenty of (data) being disseminated at the meetings, but all the information we were given wasn’t actually helping us gain the tools we needed to address the questions we wanted to ask about that neighbourhood’s transition.”
Manning, who lives in Outremont, has also recently been moved by issues on her own doorstep, related to the misunderstandings that have occurred between Hasidic neighbours and other residents of the area.
“We’re not all the same, but we all share the same curiosity about one another,” she said. “So how do we learn to live with each other, and to communicate, without reducing everything we know about each other to a cultural common denominator?”
SenseLab conceived Three Mile Meal in collaboration with the Design Studio for Social Intervention, a Boston group with a rich history of combining design with social activism. (It has produced a successful public kitchen in its hometown.)
“As a participatory installation artist, I’m interested in creating conditions for people to feel comfortable about interacting with art; food is key because it’s a great way to draw people in,” Manning said, adding that Three Mile Meal is in no way a “foodie” event, though she’d be pleased if the event sparked a neighbourhood recipe exchange, for example.
SenseLab, which Manning founded in 2004, is a collaborative workspace for artists, academics and students from around the world, based in Concordia’s Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex.
Last spring, SenseLab received the prestigious $2.95-million Insight Grant from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Manning says the grant has been a “shot in the arm” for Immediations, a SenseLab initiative that will cement a network of collaborators from 11 international universities, as well as 17 community partners, and will fund major events in Australia, Europe and North America over the next seven years. She also says that by the time the year-long, 300-page application process was completed, they had pretty much decided to do the work whether they got the grant or not.
The hyper-local Three Mile Meal is SenseLab’s first public event since the grant was received, and thus is both a celebration of a new phase of SenseLab and an initiative that the group hopes will spark alliances with community members, artists and activists.
When The Gazette visited SenseLab last week, finishing touches were being added to the “lack-of-information booths.” These elaborate and fantastical creations look like they may or may not function as intended, but are definitely interesting enough to attract attention and encourage people to interact with them. (Hint: this may be their actual intended function.)
Booth-builders worked under a quote from philosopher Bertrand Russell that could be taken as a sort of credo for SenseLab’s non-bureaucratic, open, collaborative environment: Russell advises students to adopt “neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy” when studying philosophers — basically, to keep an open mind.
Mindy Pollak, the 24-year-old Hasidic co-founder of Friends of Hutchison (and borough councillor candidate in Outremont on the Projet Montréal ticket), had also stopped by SenseLab to check out the booths. She’ll be working at the Outremont site on Friday and Sunday.
Pollak said she was intrigued, if initially a bit perplexed, when Manning contacted her about collaborating on the event.
“The idea sounded incredible, and I thought it was great that she wanted to work with the community,” she said, while admitting that she couldn’t quite visualize what the lack-of-information booths would look like before she saw them.
But she added that the overall concept was perfectly clear.
“As a community, we’re very used to the experience of people not understanding what we’re about,” she said. “So the lack-of-information idea makes a lot of sense to us.”
Three Mile Meal takes place Friday, Aug. 23 to Sunday, Aug. 25 from 2 to 5 p.m. at three public kitchens: in front of La Boutique du Fleuriste, 1011 Bernard Ave. W., Outremont; next to Fruiterie Mile End, 5686 Parc Ave.; and in front of Marché Ogilvy, 400 Ogilvy Ave., Park Extension. The lack-of-information booths (Spice Bike, Drinks Bike and Farm Bike) will circulate between the sites on all three days.