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Artist Marjetica Potrč's 'The Invisible Lunch' Attempts to Reenvision Public Space

Fresh fruit and radical thoughts at the Slovenian-born artist's one-day installation at the New Museum's Ideas City Festival.

by Rachel Signer
13 June 2015, 5:20am

Table top at 'The Invisible Lunch' by Marjetica Potrč in New York City. All photos by the author

One recent afternoon in May, I sat at a 100-foot-long table in New York City's Lower East Side to eat lunch with a group of strangers. The event was The Invisible Lunch, a one-day installation, part performance piece, part "design solution," as its organizers termed it in their press materials. On the table were melons and fresh bread, pomegranates and plastic jugs of water. Piles of sunflower seeds had been placed next to stacks of surveys and unsharpened pencils.

At one point, there was a loud cracking sound that made us all jump. A group of other participants had picked up the lightweight wooden table and dropped it atop a melon, popping it open—a practical if somewhat startling design solution to the problem of no knives.

Food has been both a medium and a subject for artists, since the days of still-art paintings. Contemporary artists like Andy Warhol and Terrence Koh have played with food as an instrument of popular culture. Warhol's Campbell soup print is more a commentary on packaging, than on what's inside the can. At the New York Art Book Fair at PS1 in 2014, Koh's team handed out apples imprinted with "nothingtoodoo," as well as chocolate chip cookies.

New Yorkers may also recall Gordon Matta-Clark's 1970s FOOD, a pop-up restaurant staffed entirely by artists, in SoHo, that lasted for three years. A recent article in the New YorkTimes reflected that FOOD was "more of a utopian enterprise than a business," a place where cooking was "kind of a performance"—although the menu featured serious items such as Matta-Clark's "oxtail soup, roasted marrow bones, and frogs' legs." Lori Waxman writes in Gastronomica that "afterward, [artist] Hisachika Takahashi drilled holes through the bones and strung them together, so that diners could wear their leftovers home." It would be difficult, even in a dissertation-length work, to generalize about the reasons why artists use food in this way—but one supposition might be that food is a nexus of just about everything: socioeconomics, environment, public health, aesthetics, and ethnicity.

'Public space has been privatized, and we need to redefine the public,' Potrč said.

Nonetheless, aside from the fact that this was all facilitated by the New Museum as a part of their recent Ideas City festival, it wasn't clear that what we were doing was particularly artistic until you examined the stack of papers on the tables. Was it a survey? A manifesto? The questions were written in a jaunty, lyrical way, like a prose poem. "What do you call the space between public and private? Is private-education power? Who squats today? Does fashion matter? How much is Central Park worth? Is it still worth that after you sell it?" The unsharpened pencils sat atop the papers—but the organizers weren't pushing people to take the "survey." Nothing was particularly pushed. It was just about the possibility of sharing food, and what such an activity could lead to.

The menu had been quite intentionally curated, explained 26-year-old Nuriye Tohermes, an art student from Germany who co-organized the installation. Opening the melon is a conversation starter. The sunflower seeds take time to eat, so you have to sit. The pomegranate is like a combination of those two. And the bread—a large rustic roll—naturally implied sharing. She said they had gotten the food from "the Chinese markets."

Marjetica Potrč (center) with students at 'The Invisible Lunch' in New York City

The Invisible Lunch was led by an artist-architect named Marjetica Potrč, originally from Slovenia, now living in Germany and teaching at a fine-arts program in Hamburg. The New Museum had commissioned Potrč and her students in a "social design" class to replicate a project they had previously done in an Austrian village of about 500,000 people. The students had installed many long tables in a central area to generate new ideas on how to use public space. It was one of many projects Potrč has led that explore the potential of public space, often incorporating food-related elements like gardening. Now, in New York City, the group had decided to focus their experiment on the issue of affordable housing, and they would use the setting to zero in on people's personal lives, their neighborhoods, and their communities.

Tohermes linked this approach to a concept spawned from the French radical philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who is associated with the revolutionary spirit that took hold of Paris in May 1968. He spoke of être gauche, meaning "to be left," said Tohermes. There's a French play on words, here: to be "left" as in left over, left behind, but also to be Leftist, politically. The undertone here is: How does one identify, geographically—with oneself, with one's town, with one's country?

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"It's a question of how you place yourself in the world," said Tohermes. "In the Western world, you start with yourself."

Potrč and Tohermes emphasized the connection between personal life and public space, as the core idea behind The Invisible Lunch. Equally stressed was Potrč's desire to pass on a legacy of radical thinking to her students. Potrč spoke of her motivation for creating projects investigating public space, mentioning the neoliberal paradigm that emerged over time between 1968 and 2008, and the possibilities created by the global financial crisis that began that year.

When people learned I was a journalist, they flipped roles and started interviewing me. Where did I live, and was it affordable? How did I make it living as a writer in New York City? Wouldn't I benefit from marketing myself better? Had I read this book, by so-and-so, about how to convince clients of your worth? But writing isn't a commodity, I responded, conscious that I was defending myself to the philosophers and radicals of 1968—as if assuring them, This society of the spectacle isn't total, even in 2015.

Meanwhile, two sisters and one's boyfriend from the Bronx were enjoying breaking melons for people and handing them around. A serial start-up entrepreneur who owns no clothing but three suits and seven shirts was chatting with a woman and her son, who had recently graduated with an architecture degree from Berkeley, and with one of Potrč's students, 24-year-old Francisca Concha.

"I was skeptical at first that we wouldn't get people to talk in such a personal way, but people have actually been really open," said Concha. More than a few people voiced that oft-repeated though still-sometimes true observation: "This would never happen anywhere but New York."

Nuriye Tohermes with participants at 'The Invisible Lunch' by Marjetica Potrč in New York City

"I'm inspired by community organizations," explained Potrč, who is 62, steely-eyed, and full of energy. "Also, there are ideas about doing public housing in a different way, like community land trusts." Potrč mentioned the cooperative housing she lives in, in Berlin, which was built around the 1970s—and how this trend is being reborn now. This may be true in Germany—in fact, Nuriye Tohermes said she lived in a loft with 11 people. But in New York City, the artist lofts of recent years have increasingly been shut down, dissipated, overtaken by developers.

"Public space has been privatized, and we need to redefine the public," Potrč said. This means creating more opportunities for dialogue and participation—"conversation from below," she called it.

Questionnaire and seeds from 'The Invisible Lunch' by Marjetica Potrč

Sitting at the long communal table on Rivington Street, scooping watermelon with my hands and hearing strangers talking with others strangers about their personal lives, I remembered the days of Occupy Wall Street, when people sat around in a public park in Manhattan, sharing stories about the cruelties of capitalism. In this setting, financial debt, housing, education, abuse, and sadness all became topics for common discussion.

What results from these types of discussions is difficult to measure. But for The Invisible Lunch, measurement is beside the point. Here wasn't a workshop to educate or empower, nor was it direct action. Here was lunch, to feed people who had come to a festival with a hunger for ideas. It was a more gentle kind of a provocation: "How do you open this melon? How do you survive in NYC? Why do you like your favorite bodega?"

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More than aspiring to elicit answers to those questions, or even to be "art," The Invisible Lunch was an attempt to lend some visibility to our invisible private lives, by bringing them out in a public setting.

"The thing about the sunflower seeds is, you leave traces," said Concha. She gestured to a pile of leftover shells and watermelon smudges that had stained the table. In a few hours all this would be cleared from the street, but the questions would remain.

Rachel Signer is on Twitter.