Questioning consumption | Kristina Borg

Artist Kristina Borg speaks to Teodor Reljic about her interdisciplinary project You Are What You Buy, which seeks to investigate the patterns of supermarket consumption through anthropological investigation and creative practice 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
14 February 2017, 8:20am
Kristina Borg: It is useless to complain that the arts and culture are not given their due importance if as artists we are not ready to open up to dialogue
Kristina Borg: It is useless to complain that the arts and culture are not given their due importance if as artists we are not ready to open up to dialogue
The supermarket is both a space of routine and something of a microcosm of our lives: encompassing as it does a lot of our concerns about sustenance and comfort. Do you agree with this assessment of the supermarket’s centrality to our lives, and if so, how did you go about tackling it in the various stages that that project took place?

Definitely. The project You Are What You Buy departs from a reflection on how art relates and reacts to the wider capitalist society, and necessarily to commerce. It was clear to me at quite an initial phase that this project required a move beyond the artist’s comfort zone, that is, the space of a museum, gallery or creative centre, and contextualise it in what in sociological-anthropological terms is defined as a non-place. It is a place of transience, which people frequent, yet, they remain anonymous; or the relations that are formed are temporary, for a short time and more often than not are guided by a specific function. The supermarket is a case in point. 

One of the principal themes of this project is consumption – what and how we consume. This does not solely refer to food consumption; one can also consume movies, literature and more. However, in order to reach and engage with a wider audience I felt it was necessary to work in, with and around a place of consumption that is more universal and common for all. Let’s face it, whether it’s done weekly or monthly, whether we like it or not, the supermarket remains one of the places we visit the most because, as you say, it caters for our concerns about sustenance and comfort. 

How did you decide on the structure and timeline of the You Are What You Buy project (from research stage to workshopping and finally, the exhibition and performance)? Why did you go for this approach in particular, and how did it pan out in practice? 

In my artistic practice I always give importance to research and process, which then guide and pave the way towards a final creative result, that initially might still be unclear or its form is not yet defined. Usually the process always starts off from a very specific concept that I research thoroughly and involve the audience along the way. For this reason, I prefer to call my works long-term journeys. Hence it was quite natural to me to adopt such a structural timeline for You Are What You Buy. 

Following a rigorous round of researching and workshopping, You Are What You Buy will culminate in an interdisciplinary performance and exhibition
Following a rigorous round of researching and workshopping, You Are What You Buy will culminate in an interdisciplinary performance and exhibition
Once the concept of this project became clear it was then obvious that the themes I was looking into had a strong anthropological background and this was why I invited social anthropologist Virginia Monteforte on board. Once Virginia joined this project new themes were introduced widening further the research process, while suggesting methods as to how best conduct research in a space such as the supermarket. Research was carried out at Park Towers Supermarket, St Venera, together with the help of six performers, and this involved observations as well as conversations with the clients, employees and director John Borg. Team workshops, during which we shared are findings, were at times also held on-site in the kitchen area of the supermarket itself and this proved to be more stimulating for our discussions. On a number of occasions, it was interesting to have clients interrupting our discussions asking us for directions or enquiring about particular products.  

The research findings can only make sense if they are highlighted and presented in situ, thus close the circle of more or less a year long journey. So, the final creative results will be shared with the public at Park Towers Supermarket, St Venera. 

Would you say that the interdisciplinary nature of the project is crucial to You Are What You Buy? And how do you hope that its upcoming expressions – namely, again, the performance and exhibition – will bring out some of the projects main ‘findings’ and thematic and aesthetic priorities?

Interdisciplinarity and collaboration form the basis of my practice. The themes of You Are What You Buy appeal to anyone and not just to the creative sector, so, yes, this project does require an interdisciplinary approach in order to make it accessible to all. Also, the team members come from different fields: acting, dancing, poetry, music, economy and along this journey we also had a food product developer enquiring for more information about the project. Now that the first final stage is just around the corner, the project continues to trigger more interest and curiosity. Currently I am in the process of finalising collaboration with organisations that promote a healthier lifestyle through ethical consumption.

The final results are two-fold: a performance art piece and an exhibition. I start from the latter. The exhibition at Spazju Kreattiv, St James Cavalier, Valletta from March 10 to 19 will not present a number of artworks. The aim of this exhibition is to present the documentation of the research process. In order to experience the artwork, one must visit the Park Towers in St Venera between March 10 and 17. One is invited to an alternative shopping experience whereby the main findings will be presented through a set of illustrations and wearable items that will dialogue with the supermarket space and can also be acquired through the performance art piece. 

‘Wearable art’: Items that dialogue with the supermarket space form part of You Are What You Buy
‘Wearable art’: Items that dialogue with the supermarket space form part of You Are What You Buy
Performers include Elise Ellul, Miriam Calleja, Sergio Laferla, Yandrick Agius, Norman Cristina and Zofia Sokołowicz in collaboration with dramaturg Jean-Marc Cafa’. To experience this performance there is no need for any tickets, it is not a theatrical show and there is no specific starting or ending time. It will simply follow the supermarket schedule and routine. One can stop and watch, one can interact and further activate the performance, or one can simply continue shopping while encountering different scenarios. Just as I can make use of paints and brushes on canvas, performance art includes the use of the body in a specific time and specific place reacting to a specific concept. 

You Are What You Buy also aims to challenge the function of the supermarket space: why can’t the supermarket be my playground or my living room? Why shouldn’t a price tag take up the purpose of a caption usually found hanging on the gallery wall? Hence, another aim of this project is to challenge how and where we experience art. 

Finally, would you say that more interdisciplinary projects such as these are what’s necessary for the local art scene to get a much-needed shot of oxygen and diversity – and also, perhaps, to attract more varied audiences?

An interdisciplinary approach definitely brings together different perspectives and different experiences and so, yes, it does attract a more varied audience. It could be a way forward for the local art scene to show and prove its relevance to one’s wellbeing. I think it is useless to complain that the arts and culture are not given their due importance if as artists we are not ready to open up to dialogue, exchange and distance ourselves from the luxury that one might associate with the arts. Talking about experience instead of a product might be what the local art scene needs. 

You Are What You Buy is supported by Spazju Kreattiv and Arts Council Malta – Malta Arts Funds. To support the project through its crowdfuding campaign on Zaar, log on to: http://bit.ly/2kA7Emm

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...