TAKE: Act without shame.
LEAVE: Share without condition.
WHATEVAS: Trust without apology.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the influence Gaye Chan has had on the arts community in Hawai‘i. As chair of the department of art and art history at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, she has prodded countless students to pursue their ideas, identities, and conceptions of art. In her own work, she interrogates what it means to engage in dynamic communities, testing the boundaries of politics and economy. She confronts what those in the art and academic worlds consider normative leadership styles. She throws the most interesting potlucks in Hawai‘i. She has gained enough followers on Instagram to denote a letter: 14K and counting.
At the first public Digger’s Dinner, held in March 2014 at the Commons Gallery in the heart of UH Mānoa, all of Chan’s recent experiments regarding art and community were tested. A proponent of rules in art, Chan laid out the requirements for participating in the potluck: “Participants’ contribution must be primarily made from ingredients that they have either grown, hunted, fished, foraged, bartered, found, been gifted, or stolen. Digger’s Dinners are exercises in recreating the commons, where food and knowledge are freely shared. Participants will be asked to introduce their dish and where the ingredients came from. Any leftovers will be freely distributed the next day.”
Most participants were game to the rules of a potluck in an academic art gallery. But there was a big difference between the event and often stuffy contemporary art shows: People were happy! The space was packed with current and former students, university people, defiantly non-university people, and members of the community who had heard about the party on the radio, read about it in the paper, or were tagged in an Instagram post. In lieu of an art show, when the tropical heat makes a joke of layered fashion and kitschy sales of Hawaiiana make contemporary art sales feel like a struggle, contributors stood in a long line to share their recipes and the myriad ways of overcoming the rules. Of course the sound system was a jerry-rigged art contraption that didn’t work, but no matter, the food was delicious. Some questions went unaddressed over the microphone: Is this a potluck or an art show? Is this an attack on capitalism or a promotion of locally grown food? An incitement to petty theft? Chan, the orchestrator, seemed happy with the ambiguity. “An elderly woman came up to me during the event and showed me the newspaper clipping from the arts section of the paper,” she she remembers. “She told me, ‘This is the party I’ve been waiting for my whole life.’”
“Participants’ contribution must be primarily made from ingredients that they have either grown, hunted, fished, foraged, bartered, found, been gifted, or stolen. Digger’s Dinners are exercises in recreating the commons, where food and knowledge are freely shared. Participants will be asked to introduce their dish and where the ingredients came from. Any leftovers will be freely distributed the next day.”
The idea for the Digger’s Dinner developed organically over the last several years of Chan’s artistic practice. Years prior, Chan and her partner, Nandita Sharma, a professor of sociology at UH Mānoa, lived and worked out of a home in the Enchanted Lakes neighborhood of Kailua, where they began to call their communal art/sociology/anarchy experiments “Eating in Public.” In a strip of grass abutting a fenced-off lake for Enchanted Lake residents, they planted papaya trees. Weeks later, they engaged in a public, old-school battle via signage in front of their trees with the reluctant groundskeepers who were employed by the landowner, Kamehameha Schools. Eventually, the papaya trees were cut down and the fence extended out to the sidewalk—the public space lessened by two feet. But not all was lost: Two weeks after the trees were felled, the Enchanted Lake neighborhood assisted in creating a communal garden near where the trees had stood. “Most of us are suburbanites and don’t know a thing about farming, so there were crazy ways of harvesting,” she says. “We eventually put signs up on how to take, what herbs are used for, even recipes.”
It feels fresh, but Chan is careful to explain that she is not engaged in neologism. She is continuing the work of those over the last several centuries who have challenged capitalism’s capacity to ensure equitable lives. Blending the anti-authoritarian and the academic, Chan cites 17th century commoners as her inspiration: serfs who were pushed off communal land at the outset of the private-property revolution and became farmers engaged in activist planting. As private-property owners divvied up plots and divested those without inheritance of land, public terrain became increasingly ornamental, unconnected to the necessities of food, water, building materials, and heating. Some of the displaced farmers formed the Diggers, whose signature act was to plant edible foods on their recently expropriated land. “We’re not exactly continuing the work of the diggers, we are the diggers,” Chan says. “We are continuing the same project: the return of our commons.”
Eating in Public includes other projects with similar reach. For the last several years, members have built seed stations and placed them in public places throughout Hawai‘i and abroad: schools, libraries, community centers. By last count, there are approximately 880 seed sharing stations located across the islands. There may be more, created by autonomous cells of diggers. An online gallery tour shows them to be quite cute. Painted with hokey plants, plastered with stickers, they are the opposite of what might be considered contemporary fine art, the type of thing a fine artist might use as inspiration.
By respecting this existing culture, Chan and her loose group of collaborators have highlighted the capacity of contemporary art to cast a light on the practices of ordinary lives. For local reference, one does not need to reach back to pre-contact Hawai‘i to find communities who bartered goods and services outside of modern capitalism. Most folks do some sort of trade: babysitting for a ride for a dinner for a place to crash for a week with friends. The barter economy (or hook-up economy) is the social lubrication of personal debt that ties many of us to each other, especially in lower socio-economic and artistic communities. Today’s Hawai‘i is also filled with the types of people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider themselves contemporary artists: hula dancers, aunties who make costumes for hālau, uncles who work on sustainable gardens, and crafters who fill Honolulu’s Blaisdell Arena for annual fairs.
For Chan, Eating in Public is only a portion of a life in contemporary art. While on sabbatical during 2013 to develop her work and spend time with her ailing father, she took to Instagram. A lifetime of thinking about photography, content, and composition was at play immediately. Taking note of musician John Cage’s ideas considering the boundaries of art, she devised a couple for herself: no filters, nothing but pictures from her phone. Before long, a discarded orange peel on cracked asphalt became a metaphor for depression, a defaced political sign became a symbol for protest, and countless images of people showed life as it is in Hawai‘i and the places she travels. “I like to take photos of nothing,” she says blithely of what may be the medium that has made her most famous. A closer inspection reveals that the images are in sets: a series of fence images, a series of fruits, a series of people covering their faces awkwardly, plenty of coincidences, another medium with which to test theories of art and community.
There is a danger in giving some definition to an individual who is adept at defining her own work. As an ideating leader in a community of artists, it can be said that she is concerned with delimitation—the ways to transcend the boundaries created by political, economic, and aesthetic systems. In a TEDxHonolulu talk last year, Chan concluded with a directive: “If you like our ideas, contact us. Better yet, don’t contact us. Take them and run as far, smart, and fast as you possibly can.”
For more information or to keep up with Chan’s projects, visit nomoola.com.