Think of some of your favorites foods, the kinds you routinely crave, dream about. Can you feel the unctuous texture of otoro (fatty tuna belly) or taste the complex notes of a dark chocolate truffle? Are you nursing the phantom pizza burn on the roof of your mouth, creamy burrata still clinging to your palate? Now imagine that you’ll never eat any of these things ever again.
All you’re left with are the brief traces of an irretrievable culinary experience, a rich but fading sense of smell. That's the premise behind GhostFood, an art project recently performed outside the Robert Rauschenberg Project Space in New York, that poses a bleak future expunged of ecologically threatened foods. Meaning no more sashimi or sushi, no chocolate-laden desserts, no imported ingredients—though pizza should still be around, lest the world be truly lost.
Conceived by artists Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster, GhostFood reengineers the act of eating by amplifying the olfactory dimensions of each extinct food. The project, says Simun, "imagines how we might continue to taste foods" once their production has been rendered unsustainable by environmental disaster. It does so through a technological appendage, a minimal headgear that extends the senses.
To experience GhostFood is to participate in a highly choreographed art performance. The artists were careful to calibrate each step of the tasting procedure according to a finely tuned ideal. First, approach the ordering window of the GhostFood food truck, and place your order from an unsettlingly limited menu: cod, chocolate, or peanut butter. A member of the trained GhostFood staff will then serve you the tasteless morsels and hand over a head device, all the while guiding you through the precise method of consumption. Pop one of the placebos—or "edible textural substitutes"—in your mouth and enjoy.
What happens next is a high-concept switcheroo. "The taste experience works by inserting direct olfactory stimulation into your eating experience," Simun tells Co.Design. "The device emits the scent of cod while you eat a food that simulates the texture of cod, only made from climate change-resilient foodstuffs." The scents were formulated by Songster, whose work frequently incorporates the sense of smell and how it's linked to the space of the everyday.
For her part, Simun devised the concept and the general rules of the game. She was drawn to food as subject matter when she began taking an interest in its diverse material culture. "I find the culture around food such a telling and fascinating embodiment of our relationship to nature," she says, "of our social values, and our embracing of technological possibilities."
While GhostFood is wedded to urgent environmental concerns, the project isn’t without its lighthearted delights. GhostFood goes down easy, just like freshly shucked oysters, ladles of Sunday gravy, or a bowl of umami-enriched ramen. It’s a splendid gustatory show that doesn’t pretend to solve any of the problems it concerns itself with. Or just maybe, adds Simun, "The thought of no more edible chocolate is frightening enough to make you take an environmental action."