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Catherine Schwalbe-Bouzide’s Corn Party: Intent and Reception of Social Art

Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine,” originally posted January 14, 2011.

Robin Dluzen

Bouzide and her husband Paul at the Corn Celebration

For my recent articles on “Art and Food,” I very simply split the nominated local artists into two groups: “Food as Media” and “Food as Imagery.” I found myself stuck as to which category a certain nominated artist should be in, and that artist is Cathi Bouzide. As her practice involves both literal food, as well as pictorial representations of food –most notably, corn– I found it fit to take Cathi up on her offer for a studio visit in order to discuss the intersection of art and food, and also where she sees her own practice in relation to this topic.

I came into Bouzide’s Lillstreet studio with my short-list of questions, knowing full well that the conversations we’d have would be more interesting than whatever I had thought up for the interview. Though to start, I dived right into the question that always comes to my mind when I come across a practice like Bouzide’s, in which the artist engages the public in a social context as the “art.”

In relational art, (find Nicolas Bourriaud’s definition here), though I’m not interested in questioning whether its successfully “relational” or not, I do wonder about the intention of the artist and whether the work is actually successful in its reception by the public. I mean, do relational artists feel as if they are truly entering into people’s real lives and engaging with them on an equal level, or is the artist a sort of strange intruder with a conceptual “artsy” goal bewildering to the eyes of the public?

The Bay View Well

The Bay View Well

I first referenced Bouzide’s project “Potable” in which she brought 100 handmade ceramic cups to a freshwater well still in use by the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in order to give them away to whomever came by to gather water, and share this communal experience with them. I asked Bouzide whether this seemed like she was taking part directly in these people’s lives, or was she performing? Was she a spectacle? How does she approach these projects, and how do people receive them?

First, to my relational art reference, she replied, “I just sort of make and let everybody else call it what they want,” and explained that works like “Potable” are more like “creating events around nothing.” Citing her parents’ fondness for entertaining in the home as Bouzide was growing up and her other profession as a recreation therapist in long term care, she explained that she doesn’t feel as if she is completely taking part in the non-art-world lives on an equal level, nor does she feel like she’s ‘performing’; the artist sees this part of her practice as organizing an event, something similar to hosting a party, perhaps. She’s inserting herself, bringing something of her own, and inviting people to attend, learn and enjoy.

Not that performance has no place in Bouzide’s practice; in her four-year growing/art installations (in collaboration with her corn husband and fellow artist Bill Friedman), the urban farm project, the subsequent harvesting, and the “Corn Celebration,” the artist created these events out of the ordinary, mid-western notion of ‘corn.’ During the “Corn Celebration,” the neighborhood was invited to enjoy all kinds of corn-themed activities, like a hairdresser designing Corn Rows, the artist’s husband and good friends grilling fresh sweet corn, corn chowder from First Slice Pie Café, and corn muffins from the neighborhood Angel Food Bakery, along with The Cornettes: Advocates for Urban Agriculture telling corny jokes and corn facts. In this case, Bouzide explains that “I don’t really perform, others do it…Seemingly without me.”

Bouzide's Jars from the Oregon Tilth Project

Bouzide's Jars from the Oregon Tilth Project

As our interview went on, I began to feel like a total jerk as phrases like ‘relational aesthetics’ and ‘post-studio practice’ fell out of my mouth and Bouzide courteously brushed them off; my art-school conceptualisms never seemed to quite fit into the equation. “I don’t really care what I call it, I just have to do this thing!” she explained. I asked about her traditional, craft-based ceramics practice and her larger social events often existing simultaneously in the same project, to which she replied, “I do like making things still,” though she often gets out of the studio and chooses when to have interaction with the public.

Bouzide cites her friend Theaster Gates as someone whose large, socially-engaged projects incorporate a variety of art practices, from place and space, to community happenings and collaborations, to craft-based objects and bona-fide, fine-art conceptual cred. “Give me some meat, give me some substance here to help me think,” she said, acknowledging her and Gates’ shared emphasis on the object and the craft, as well as the conceptual aims. (Bouzide is making plants to collaborate on a vacant lot garden with Gates’ Dorchester Project.)

One truly remarkable aspect of Bouzide’s practice is her ability to create interactive, light-hearted events out of serious topics, like commercial agriculture, genetically modified foods, and the global fresh water supply. For example, for an event in Oregon, Illinois (while she was a visiting artist), Bouzide gathered soil from different commercial farms in hand-built clay jars, then invited the farmers to a party where they were to guess which jar contained soil from their farms, solely by touch and smell: a form of Midwestern Terroir.  Through this project, the agricultural community was able to appreciate the importance of soil contents, while simultaneously delighting in the game and socializing with one another.

During our two-and-a-half hour chat, Bouzide and I bonded over our shared backgrounds in chicken farming (hers urban, mine rural), and drank tea and well-water left from the “Potable” project out of her hand-made clay cups. And true to form, my host insisted that I take my cup home with me.