“And The Award For Most Dead Animals Goes To…”
The eleven year old boy holding the microphone and the stage is about to announce the Birmingham restaurant who will receive the dubious honour of “Most Dead Animals”. He has also been part of the judging panel and the team who decided the award categories, along with nearly 30 other Year 7 students from Wheeler’s Lane Technology College.
This is the closing ceremony of Eat The Street, a project run by Canadian social arts innovators Mammalian Diving Reflex as part of Fierce Festival 2014. The schoolboys have visited five different restaurants, experiencing pizza and Polish cuisine, Mexican delights and Michelin stars, and sharing their verdicts with fellow diners along the way. They’ve gone through their notes and collated their opinions for tonight’s final awards, which are hosted by Mammalian’s artistic director Darren O’Donnell and managing director Jenna Winter in the Mockingbird Theatre at the centre of creative hub The Custard Factory.
Now, amid flashing lights, video projection and displays of weird and wonderful talents, the boys have their roles validated and we wait to find out what they thought…
Fierce Festival was the first organisation to bring Mammalian Diving Reflex out of Canada (Haircuts by Children in 2007) and the “social acupuncture” approach the artists take fits perfectly with the festival’s “hyperlocal” ethos of bringing international artists here to build work rooted in Birmingham. While tonight’s awards ceremony may be the publicly visible face of the project, providing an easily recognised performance event to round off the previous two weeks’ work, it is really the underlying exploration and focus-shifting over the run-up period that makes Eat The Street what it is.
During school-time, the boys took part in a series of workshops to prepare them for their visits to the local eateries. They explored the subject of “Things Kids Can’t Do”, met professional chefs to learn about food production and appreciation, were introduced to the concept of social art, and practised engaging with critical language and talking to strangers. Then they were placed into the adult world of restaurant dining.
The children were offered an insight into worlds that are usually closed to them. Various restaurant participants offered kitchen tours, culinary demonstrations and open conversations, while the youngsters were seated amongst adult strangers for their meals, tapping into social interactions and etiquettes that are normally kept at a remove from childhood experience. I ate with the group at Simpsons – my first experience of Michelin star dining – and found that, for the children and adult participants alike, Eat The Street generates a Kristevan estrangement that refreshes the mundane, and allows us to re-engage with the previously known universe from fresh perspectives.
O’Donnell refers to work that facilitates the particular blend between cultures of children and adults as post-generationalist, and expectation-shaking experiences with young people have been a feature of the Fierce programme this year. Artist Dina Rončević has been working with a group of Year 7 girls, teaching them basic car mechanics, and then setting them loose to disassemble a complete vehicle in Car Deconstructions. The Authentic Boys have run a series of Rehearsing Revolution workshops with teenagers at mac birmingham, which also displays an exhibition of their artistic outcomes. Phoebe Davis has worked with 16-17 year old girls to offer members of the public nail wraps based on influential women (Influences). In the “legitimate” art world, children are still a much-ignored minority group, but work such as this reminds us to pull the barriers of age aside, and listen to the voices of people in all areas of our lives.
As the young man at the microphone calls for a drum roll, and we all begin to tap our thighs and feet in anticipation, everyone appreciates the moment together. Adults feel childlike and free, and the kids enjoy seeing us look silly alongside them as equals.
In Birmingham, if you’re into “Dead Animals”, it turns out our recommendation is The Karczma – a Polish restaurant, whose award is for the rustic decor rather than the menu.
For the official “Best of the Best”, the critics’ choice is Manzils curry house but, for this critic’s choice, everyone here is a winner. In Eat The Street, it really is the taking part that counts, and the subtle introduction to performatives elements of our everyday lives.