let them eat cake

"Let Them Eat Cake" took place outside Brighton’s Job centre – a site that also houses the law courts, the police station, and 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 Although both the social conditions (the looming budget, food bank usage) and historical reference (the title of the piece being written on a large chalkboard) were referenced within the piece, I avoided directly stating its context, justifying my actions by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.

 

The defining 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.  Rather than causing tension or confusion, however, 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. 

 

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