(In a Forest of Signs)

Let them eat cake page

"Let Them Eat Cake" took place outside Brighton’s Job centre – a site that also housed the law courts, the police station, a pub/park notoriously used by the homeless, and the American Express building - the city's largest private-sector employer. Due to the rise in food bank usage and food waste initiatives that occurred in tangent with this project, I was drawn to the idea of distributing food as an artistic act, considering the social complexity of charity as a pertinent analogy for the issues of autonomy, community, and the hierarchical actor/spectator divide that this research had been exploring. Playing upon Marie Antoinette’s infamous declaration, “Let them eat cake!” (itself a popular example of the potential naivety/duplicity of the philanthropic position), the work involved handing out slices of ‘budget’ supermarket cake to the visitors of the site’s various conveniences, on the morning of the first Conservative budget in 19 years. Although both the social conditions (the looming budget, food bank usage) and historical reference (the title of the piece being written on a large chalkboard) were referenced within the piece, I avoided directly stating its context, justifying my actions by simply telling people I had some cake, and wanted to share it with the community. In this way, the work could be considered as a simple act of kindness, a critique of charity, or a patronising affront – conflating as it did the unemployed and the criminal with the French peasants of Marie Antoinette’s time. This resulted in a situation wherein to ‘get’ the work was to be insulted, while ignorance was to be rewarded. 

By problematising the thin line between supporting and patronising its community, I had initially considered that this work, though not sonic per se, would be defined by the very vocal conversation that would no doubt erupt during its undertaking. However, of all the interventions it was Let Them Eat Cake that most challenged my presumptions regarding the community it addressed. The de- fining characteristics of the site’s users – unemployment, criminality and substance abuse – bring with them a wealth of connotations concerning everything from class to cultural intelligence. The popular image is that of a community that is habitually poor, lacking education and ambition - a fact that probably seeped into my own expectancy that the site’s inhabitants would either not recognise the work as art or would be incensed by any confusion it raised. And yet, for all my presuppositions as to art's power to foster communitas, I found in this work, more than any other, that communitas was already present. Rather than causing tension or confusion, my presence was nearly universally welcomed, even by those who found the venture strange, or acknowledged its political undercurrent with a wry smile. Indeed, even those who might otherwise have been hostile – such as the young man I met about to be sent to prison at the law court – engaged with my sharing as if the eccentricity of the gesture was nothing but an expected part of the already apparent eccentricities of the site itself: merely another story, one more thread in the many concurrent narratives that define its location. 

Anthropologist Victor Turner suggests three conditions for communitas: breach, crisis, and redress (Turner, 1988). The first indicates a breach from existing normative social conditions or relationships within the community, the second a crisis that follows, and the last how that crisis is redressed by the adaptation of the old, or creation of a new, community. If my interventions seek to explore such communitas, they do so by enlivening a momentary breach in socio-normative behaviour, entering their participants into a period of (moral, perceptual, cultural) crisis. With Let Them Eat Cake, this same pattern occurs: I commit the non-normative act of handing out cake, hoping that passers-by will enter into a period of crisis wherein their expectancies are not met or are exceeded, and from which they can reassess the space we share. The reality was somewhat different, however. The peculiarity of the act failed to achieve any level of crisis within a community that seemed already resigned to instability – that is, already engaged in a perpetual state of crisis. What is more, my work was not treated as trite or redundant by its community, but as fittingly absurd. Perhaps we can infer from this that the diverse population that inhabits the city’s job-centre, law courts, and less-reputable pubs, is already in a cycle of breach/crisis/redress, a position that leaves them open to these same qualities in the art event. Rather than being destabilised by the breach of sense that the non-normative act brings, the artistic construct mirrors a cycle they are familiar with - even if the form itself is markedly different.
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