Fancy dinners don't often take place on construction sites. But under the metal scaffolding at the future home of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), there's an elegant table covered with a white tablecloth, set for eight and topped with hydrangea-and-thistle bouquets. Working on counters made out of packing crates, artists Mary Ellen Carroll and Donna Wingate calmly chop butternut squash for a risotto as they discuss the makeshift heating system.
"When we first got here yesterday, there were only two space heaters—they were about as effective as someone holding up a cigarette lighter and blowing on it," says Wingate. "Fortunately, the construction foreman came up with the idea of using tarps to block the wind."
Behind the blue-plastic tarpaulins, which section off the temporary dining room, Carroll and Wingate are preparing a dinner for eight guests, all involved in the arts: Harvard professor of English Homi K. Bhabha, actor John Malkovich, photographer Abe Morell, ICA director Jill Medvedow, conceptual artist Ann Carlson, and architects Liz Diller, Ric Scofidio and Charles Renfro, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who designed the new ICA building.
Carroll and Wingate have done this kind of guerrilla cooking before. As part of an ongoing project called Itinerant Gastronomy, they have served a meal to construction workers on the Goethals Bridge, between Staten Island and New Jersey (contending with 30-mile-an-hour winds), and another on the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway track that runs down Manhattan's West Side.
Carroll has a long-standing interest in food and its social aspects. About four years ago, she organized a day at the Apexart exhibition space in New York City during which six different groups of people prepared six different meals. That's where she met Wingate. "Later I invited Donna to a dinner party and she just started helping," Carroll recalls. Friends encouraged them to open a restaurant, but instead Carroll asked Wingate to collaborate with her on Itinerant Gastronomy, which she started work on back in 1990. "This is not so much about art with a capital A as it is about the process of taste and dislocation," Carroll says—juxtaposing the familiar (food) with the unfamiliar (a dinner party on a bridge, a railway track, a construction site).
For the ICA event, Diller, Scofidio and Renfro show up an hour or two before the other guests. The ICA is the first building they've designed in the United States—their most famous projects, including the mist-shrouded Blur Building at the Swiss EXPO 2002, have largely been overseas. A cantilevered structure that juts out over Boston Harbor, the ICA will have gallery spaces walled in translucent glass planks, lit at night to create a vast luminous box. For the moment, though, the only light comes from naked bulbs strung on wires. The architects are proud of the ICA but more than a little nervous about attending an event in the unfinished space. "Architects and food at a construction site equals indigestion," says Diller. "We're always looking for details that haven't been executed correctly."
Before sitting down, guests sample the potato crisps topped with horseradish crème fraîche and smoked salmon as Carroll shares her Itinerant Gastronomy vision with the group. "We want to create unexpected situations for people that are centered around food," she says, "to expose the cooking, the food, the people and the location to one another. Here in Boston, we leave it up to you to figure out why you are here."
"Is that an existential question?" John Malkovich asks. "I'm not so good with metaphysics." Soon the guests are discussing the event as it happens around them. "I think that this is a totem meal," Bhabha says. "The food we share will link us as a community of art lovers, people lovers, writers, thinkers and artists who come together to eat this totem meal and to create an experience." But Abe Morell is more wary: "It could be something perverse—performance art is unpredictable. They could give us raw liver to eat. You never know."
Instead, Carroll and Wingate serve a creamy oyster and salsify chowder with bacon and a little jolt of cayenne pepper. The menu will use only local foods, they announce, hence the focus on seafood. Not true, Renfro interrupts; he flew from New York City to Boston with the salsify in his carry-on bag. Everyone laughs. "Okay, that's the only nonlocal ingredient," Wingate admits.
As at every Itinerant Gastronomy event, photographers thoroughly document the meal, poking their cameras in everyone's faces. But the diners handle it with aplomb as they heap praise on every dish—the luxurious butternut squash risotto with its salty strips of crisp pancetta, the pan-fried fish served on smooth parsnip puree, the cheese course from Boston's Formaggio Kitchen. When the huckleberry sorbet sandwiches come out, Jill Medvedow stands to make a toast. "This is the first performance at the new ICA," she says, "and the first community gathering..."
Liz Diller cuts in, "On an illicit site!"
"And with transgressive artists who make us feel comfortable!" Bhabha finishes.
Claire Barliant is an associate editor at Artforum magazine.