Would you like sprinkels with that?
A consideration of VERBureau’s exhibitions 'Pokey Hat' held in Glasgow from the 8-25 April 2016 and 'Who Owns the Cone?' held in Brooklyn from the 19-21 February 2016.
The word 'decoration' holds within it a duality that creates an interesting dichotomy in which two seemingly opposing definitions exist together in the same place. Decoration can mean both a frivolous adornment, or a medal given to confer honour; it is both light-hearted and a highly significant display in one word. This same duality can be seen in food too: it is fuel for the body, essential to our very existence and a solution to a basic need, whilst at the same time it is a source of great indulgence, both in the resources that people spend upon it and the place that it holds within our cultural landscape – it is part of our socio-political exchange. This tension is not a negative one, but rather, a productive point of exploration. The tension highlights places within our society (however large (and) or small, essential (and) or decorative) where the frameworks that keep logic and language neatly aligned are a little more flexible than we may have initially assumed. Here, in the slippery points of definition, the potential for other possibilities of thought or action begin to open up.
These spaces of blurred linguistic boundaries give rise to a much more exciting and interwoven dynamic of being, and can be useful vehicles in which to explore the seemingly stable paragons of society, highlighting how they may not be as secure as previously imagined. It is through this type of movement that a thorough and creative questioning can lead to unforeseen conversations, collaborations and outcomes. It was ice cream that became our rover to do precisely this kind of probing and engaging during the last two exhibitions curated and organised by VERBureau: 'Who Owns the Cone?'2 in Brooklyn, New York February 2016 and 'Pokey Hat'3 in Glasgow (the latter show being part of the Glasgow International, April 2016).
'The Glasgow Ice Cream Wars' that took place in the 1980s were an early point of interest when researching for ‘Pokey Hat'. The absurdity of these real-life events that involved serious crimes such as murder, drug pedaling, arson and false imprisonment, being connected with something as whimsical as ice cream began to dominate our conversations. We started to see many strange and contradicting characteristics within this culinary device, the same paradoxical nature found within the word 'decoration' is at play within ice cream too: it is simultaneously strongly connected to childhood and innocence as well as being highly sexualised within advertising and popular culture, it has both a relation to the LGBT community (for example the Ben & Jerry's campaign for equal marriage opportunities) as well as a place within very 'traditional' familial scenes, it is a leisure pursuit and a serious corporate machine, it can involve highly technical processes as well as very basic methods of preparation, all within the same figure. In the idiosyncratic case of Glasgow, it is both connected to serious organised crime and fun family outings to the multiple cafés that populate the city.
Another socio-political element that made the topic of ice cream in Glasgow so fascinating was the fact that it is connected to the Italian heritage of the city: it enabled many families that emigrated from Italy in the 1890s onwards to establish a competitive business in order to support their new life in the city, as well as helping them to integrate into the community and in turn weave an Italian narrative into the Scottish city's history. The expansive associations of the seemingly simple ice cream provided a framework for VERBureau to explore the wider socially resonant topics of immigration, social formation, childhood, sex, human memory, LGBT, crime and education. Using the ice cream as a lens for social and political exploration does not reduce these larger topics to something divisible and digestible but rather enables a reconsideration from an unexpected perspective, challenging assumptions and providing new insights.
The Brooklyn exhibition 'Who Owns the Cone?' began with a strong connection between the city and the frozen treat, that of Elizabeth Irwin - an openly lesbian, Brooklyn-born pioneer of progressive education who used a local ice cream parlour as a tolerant and neutral meeting space to establish her non-conformist educational institution The Little Red School in 1921, which approached learning with a more individually-tailored method. We took inspiration from this social, community-forming element, which came through in both the configuration of the exhibition and in the works on display. Local Brooklyn-based artist Kaloyan Ivanov created a discursive and physical space with his participatory piece ‘Void Simulacrum’ that, together with Carrie Gooch's audio ‘Ice Cream Memories’ and Rachel Sharpe's video piece ‘Exchange’, culminated in a space of discussion and exchange that encouraged audiences to form their own communities within the gallery, listening in corners or debating in the ‘Void’. Topics discussed covered a wide variety of subjects, from ice cream itself, to education, accents, family misunderstandings, hopes for the future, the presidential elections, trust and the politics of balance.
This use of ice cream as a social catalyst both in the formation of the exhibition and the works within it, continued in the Glasgow exhibition, 'Pokey Hat'. Taking the Glaswegian slang for ‘ice cream cone’ as the title, we encouraged the artists, who were from a variety of backgrounds
and at different stages within their careers, to use research packs that we had compiled presenting a history of the city in relation to the simple cone. Works such as Cooking Sections’ 'The Next Invasive is Native' embraced the city physically by placing unique plant flavoured ice cream in particular cafés in Glasgow, getting people to explore the city whilst also considering the parallels between sensationalist newspaper coverage of 'invasive' plant species and the
current situation with immigration. An events programme was curated alongside the exhibition that included a storytelling workshop, film night and panel discussion so that different groups of people, from those visiting for the festival to those who lived in the city or worked in the cafés, could meet and conversations could develop.
The variety of ways that the artists responded to the research packs, to the exhibition thematic and to each other was a celebration of the abundance of scope within the seemingly frivolous subject of the ice cream cone, and a championing of the uniqueness of the cities in which the exhibitions took place. It highlighted that if you go slightly beyond the logical you can be faced with positive unexpected results, where cross-fertilisation is encouraged, collaboration is dynamic and manifold, and people can think in more multitudinous spaces and spheres such as that of ‘decoration’. For VERBureau, in a time when society feels like it is becoming more closed, obsessing with boundaries and control whilst being less accepting of difference - it is the fueling of understanding, of wanting to explore the duality within all situations and of questioning presuppositions that we feel is important to foster and facilitate.
Storytelling Workshop, organised by VERBureau as part of the exhibition Pokey Hat April 2016. Image courtesy of Verbureau photograph by Harrison Reid.Go to footnote reference 2.
The title is a playful nod to the many cities that claim to have invented the ice cream cone, of which New York is one.Go to footnote reference 3.
Pokey Hat is Glaswegian slang for the 'ice-cream cone', specifically an ice-cream cone with a wafer triangular base/handle, akin to a hat.Go to footnote reference 4.
Blythswood Café, Maryhill, Glasgow circa 1960. Image courtesy of the Cocozza family.Go to footnote reference 5.
Window Display at Jaconellis cafe, Brooklyn 2016. Image courtesy of VERBureau photograph by Elizabeth Hudson.Go to footnote reference 6.
Cooking Sections, ‘The Next Invasive is Native’ 2016. Installation shot at University Café, Glasgow. Commissioned by VERBureau for ‘Pokey Hat’ at Glasgow International April 2016. Image courtesy of VERBureau, photograph by Harrison Reid.
Harriet Wiseman is a member of VERBureau, an independent non-profit curatorial collective that produces interdisciplinary projects across the UK and abroad. Their key aims are to foster collaboration, support artistic practices sensitive to the current socio-political climate and advocate open discussion. They are committed to providing valuable opportunities for the artists and other practitioners that we work with, and maintaining a non-hierarchical organisation that runs on consensus-based decision making. The collective members are based in Glasgow, London and Moscow. VERBureau is: Nella Aarne, Elizabeth Hudson, Rachael Smith, Olga Stebleva and Harriet Wiseman.