The Immersive Performance of Ile Flottante: Hungry Voyeurs and Floating Diners

Doug Fitch with Mimi Oka

To Cite this Contribution

Fitch, D. and Oka, M. (2016). The Immersive Performance of Ile Flottante:  Hungry Voyeurs and Floating Diners. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 3.

Where there is food there is performance.  Rituals have evolved surrounding the preparation, deployment and consumption of nourishment.  With repetition, rituals become tradition.  Tradition comes with expectations and sometimes, in the effort to satisfy expectations, the original intent of the ritual is lost.  By playing with the expectations surrounding what we have come to take for granted, we begin to question the rules we thought we lived by.  Rituals involving the consumption of food can be useful as a medium through which a consumer society can see itself more clearly.

The Orphic Feasts were multi-sensory banquets designed to bring focus to the active moment, ephemeral as it necessarily is, and how, when all the senses are engaged, memories are enriched.

Starting in 1995, fellow sustenance artist Mimi Oka and I created a number of performative artworks on the theme of experimental dining.  Asking what might happen when the attribute of edibility is applied to the expressive realm of art-making, we orchestrated a series of so-called Orphic Feasts, named in homage to the Orphists, a little-known group of painters who had taken on abstraction as a subject to express the “pure” act of painting.  In the way they had chosen the medium of paint to draw awareness to how color and form are perceived by our sense of vision, we wanted to address how, through our many other senses, we consume and process the world around us, particularly in an ocularcentric, consumer society.

From the outset, we spoke about celebrating the immaterial, fleeting and experiential aspects of art; or the dematerialization of the art object.  When you look at a painting in a museum, you don’t own the painting but you can “own” the art in it by appreciating it. It is yours – your experience. The image of that painting will be with you forever once you have “consumed” and “digested” it.

Our original intention with the Orphic Feasts was that they would be preserved solely as individual memories retained by the participants, so the first ones were not really filmed or photographed.  However, since we could only accommodate a few people at a time, we realized we could reach a greater audience if we could somehow “encapsulate” the essence of a moment. We began conserving artifacts redolent of the experience, reliquaries that might trigger the imagination of someone who hadn’t been present at the feast. We stuffed detritus and leftovers, edible and not, into Mason jars and labeled them Orphic Preserves.  Eventually, we acknowledged that the image of 300 people dining around a single table in a picturesque village in France; a photo of an underwater tea party or a film capturing an exploding dessert were documentations which each had a power of its own, and for those who weren’t there or for folks in the distant future, these could spark an imagined version of our events the way a single black and white picture of, say, Hugo Ball dressed in cardboard at the Cabaret Voltaire, or a snapshot from F.T.Marinetti’s Futurist restaurant (the Holy Palate) moves us today.

It was in the spirit of trying to capture moments from our own parallel universe that we began to design Orphic Feasts to be filmed and photographed.  The Ile Flottante was the first one where we carefully considered the setting, lighting, camera angles and certain costume elements (elegant dress, straw hats) with regard to a final image and a film.

Ile Flottante means floating island in French.  It is also the name of a comfort-food dessert involving poaching egg whites in crème anglaise.  We decided to make a play-on-words and build an actual floating island on which ile flottante, (and many other edible variants of that pun) could be properly enjoyed.  This naturally involved constructing a donut-shaped table that could support twenty-four people as they floated in a river.  The river we chose happened to run through the middle of a small village in South West France called Bergouay-Viellenave that just happened to have an ancient Roman bridge spanning a waterfall, which just happened to have a little turret that would become a makeshift kitchen for our special guest chef, Marc Felix. Working with filmmaker Jonathon Judge and photographer Matthew Monteith, we designed the whole event to be seen through cameras.  While this was happening, our cameramen also documented the entire process of planning the event, preparing the food and building the table – and this act of documenting the “making-of” changed everything.  By simply being watched, the act of preparing became a kind of performance. Something like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle seemed to be at work here: the cameramen, by recording, had an effect on the behavior of the “quanta” – who was, in this case, us. One effect was that we really really really wanted to get things right.  It wasn’t just about the moment anymore – we were doing this pro infinito!

I have often thought about the differences between film and live performance.  Perhaps the main distinction is that while live performance (or theater) reflects a sense of mortality (in that live performers do something during which they could, for example, suddenly die on stage, (thus “break a leg” = “good luck” in theater-speak)), film is concerned with immortality.  Once something has been filmed – it is that way permanently – even if the actors have actually passed away!  So, when you capture “real life” on camera, it becomes something like a performance, but not prepared as one.  A certain self-consciousness is often captured, which might not have been present had the camera been absent.  One is caught trying to be “in-the-moment,” but the authenticity of that moment can be compromised by film’s promise of posterity. (I suppose the success of reality TV is rooted in the exploitation of this particular quality.)  But for us, one result of having the cameras trained on the whole process was that the roles of performer/ spectator/participant/filmmaker/diner all began to merge.

One objective of the Orphic Feasts was to encourage a conscious awareness about the preparation and the presentation of food and to stimulate mindfulness, or reflectiveness about what nourishes us in general.  Since food has undoubted value in feeding us, we liked how that value could have power as a metaphor in the realm of art/performance. The way food nourishes the body is analogous to how art can nourish the soul.

Originally, Mimi and I had imagined the Ile Flottante as a project where just the two of us would float down the Adour river, passing various towns, conceptually and artistically connecting them with one another – or attempting to – by stopping and celebrating indigenous food specialties as we went.  We were thinking of it as a performance whose aim was to draw attention, in a Huck Finn sort of way, to several things going on at the time: a recent river clean-up and the gradual return of salmon to the Adour ( salmon used to be plentiful, returning to spawn upstream, but with overfishing and pollution the numbers had dwindled dramatically), an effort in some villages to restore charm with an eye toward tourism, (which often felt driven by an emergent, Disney-esque, simulacrum sensibility) and a growing ambition to promote a side of contemporary culture barely seen in France outside Paris.

However, we couldn’t really figure out how to promote ourselves as performers rather than just “beholders” as we drifted along.  Actually, we were inviting the towns to perform for us and our job as performers would be to act like spectators, drawing attention to (by paying attention to) not only what made each town special but also how they were connected in ways they themselves had come to take for granted.  We wanted to show what these small towns had to offer in a fresh and exciting way and started making proposals to local mayors and other pillars of society.  But very soon, doing that started to feel like “work” and since these towns were not supporting us to do any such “work,” we decided to have “fun” instead.  And thus, the Ile Flottante – which required an enormous amount of work, got made – but made by the kind of work that didn’t feel like work.

We did not know it at the time, but as the Ile Flottante – and all the Orphic projects – evolved, food (or: “the edible medium”) emerged as a catalyst for shifting traditional role distinctions, primarily between performer and onlookers, since we all became both.  At the Ile flottante, the floating diners were performing for those watching from the bridge just as the folks on the bridge were performing for those at the table.  Cooking became a performance; the turret kitchen acting as a little theater where housewives cooked alongside chef Marc Felix while villagers looked on.  The villagers, seen through the lens of the camera crew, were performers as well.  And, from time to time, people traded places.

The table was a water-bound stage with a very permeable “fourth wall”.  We installed a device called the eelevator (designed to bring live-caught eel up from the table to the kitchen, then, once cooked, back down to the table. This enabled the eel, when it arrived upon the table, to be considered Eel flottante. The eelevator (eel ex-machina) was a theatrical device – a prop – which had the effect of breaking through the performative barrier, connecting spectators with performers, children, animals and cooks, although on some plane everyone was in all categories at the same time!

There was a theatricality involved in the whole thing as an image. It was intended to be beautiful and interesting of course, but it absolutely had to be practical.  And because people’s lives were at stake, we even set up an LLC and took out an insurance policy to protect ourselves from liability issues in case someone died in the water.

As a designer and thing-maker what I brought to the Orphic Feast projects was my training in art, puppetry and performance.  I took on the technical challenges of engineering a table that would safely support 24 people.  It had to be constructed in one place and launched in another.  As an experienced chef with a deep curiosity about comparative cultural histories, Mimi focused on the cuisine design and the nitty gritty of making surrealist food in a kitchen that could be served from a rowboat. We both shared a background in theater and did time at cooking school, but our different perspectives and skill sets encouraged us to break through the boundaries that tend to separate mediums into rigid categories. We built the table and all the props, tailored a special, round tablecloth, and procured straw hats to visually integrate the diners.  Along with Marc Felix, we prepared the food, which had to be delicious but also safe, in spite of its being served far from the main kitchen where most of it was prepared. It also had to deliver a message: that what we eat and how we eat it can help us recognize and question the template of our lives. We considered the event to be a Gesamtkunstwerk – or rather, since it was also nourishing – a Gesundheitkunstwerk.

But even after having invited people from all over the place, and telling many locals about it, when the day arrived, we still had no idea how many people would actually show up – or where they would be coming from.  We didn’t know if there would be any audience other than the cameramen.  The only thing we did know was that once we started doing something like this people usually appeared.

What had prepared us for this, was an event we had created two years before the Ile Flottante, called la Baguette Enorme en Gala, which brought together 300 people from a different village in Southwest France around a 45 foot long loaf of bread stuffed with all the accoutrements for dining (cutlery, plates and fabric napkins) along with chickens, lobsters, blueberries, peppers, cans of foie gras and bottles of pickles.  Villagers were invited to bring something and whatever they brought we baked into the bread. After parading the giant loaf through the village streets, it was devoured in the courtyard of an 10th century Benedictine monastery.  Guests found their dinner as an edible archeological dig, en croute.  Although we had not designed the project to be documented, the event was filmed and photographed.  The presence of the crew and the cameras changed the dynamic of the endeavor, but it was not until we saw the film about la Baguette that we knew we wanted to “stage” future events.  We knew that images of the Ile Flottante would allow the ephemeral performance – what was consumed during it and all the preparations that went into making it happen – could become theater for a future audience.

Biography of Doug Fitch
Biography of Mimi Oka