‘Turning Tables on Research’ 

By Rob Skinner, Lauren Blake and Lydia Medland.

This week, the ‘Listening Table’ makes its public debut in Sparks Bristol, an enterprise co-created by the Global Goals Centre and Artspace Lifespace, re-fashioning a landmark retail space in the centre of Bristol to support creative communities and promote the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The table was developed with the support of the Brigstow Institute and the Food Justice Research Network to encourage discussion and debate focused on the individuals who bring food to our tables but are often hidden from view.

How do academic researchers gain insight into the ways in which activists relate and respond to communities or individuals who might not share their agendas or views? We might, perhaps, closely observe exchanges of views in public meetings, or record and analyse testimony that speaks directly to campaign issues and debates. Sometimes seeking to interact, especially on thorny topics, can be challenging. In a project that took shape amidst the strange conditions of Covid, the Bristol Researchers’ Food Justice Network has developed a novel approach to engaging with activists, artists, and members of the public around provocative and conflicting views of our food system.     

The ‘Who’s in our food?’ project was initially designed to stimulate discussion within the network itself, helping members to crystallise ways of thinking about justice and sovereignty in their work as researchers. As a collaboration between creative practitioners and academics, the project aimed to explore questions that have been central to the relationship between academic research and the arts, around the status of ‘research’ versus ‘practice’.   

We often assume that the acquisition of knowledge arises out of research, but creative practice provokes knowledge too. Art can highlight aspects of a subject not necessarily brought into focus in academic research: ‘What is interesting and engaging?’, ‘Who are the voices that you don’t normally hear’?  

Our discussions with our partners Amy, Synnøve and Pete have forced us to consider our intellectual agendas and aims within the network, including questions around labour and food production, social inequalities and health, environmental issues, and colonial legacies, histories of globalisation and ‘neo-liberalism’. Communicating these agendas to a partner outside the University sharpened our focus on the nature and ambitions of the network.  

When we sit around the dining table produced by the project, we find a familiar wooden surface, bowls and plates – everything that signals the sociality of sitting and eating. Amy and Synnøve created a series of objects that evoke the handling and sharing of food. As we move the objects, however, we are confronted with something else: rather than edible food, the sounds, voices and stories that lie behind our meals. The table creates a space in which research exploring injustice in food systems can be shared in innovative and affecting ways. But, early on in the development of the project, another possibility began to emerge: that the interactive table might also be a tool for research. 

Image credit: Paul Blakemore

The artwork, as Amy noted in one early meeting, was intended to ‘create an encounter’, and the table could be configured to manufacture tension as easily as it could be orientated towards generating feelings of empathy, or simple pleasure. As a methodological device, the table – or rather, the voices which it can invite – can be a stimulus for discussion that lays bare the attitudes, agendas and values of those that sit around it. For us, as researchers, our interactions with the table, and the voices of the sea and fishing communities that speak through it (the focus of its first iteration), have stimulated a conversation around an evolving definition of food justice. In other contexts, the table will produce a different form of commensality that in turn might reveal something unexpected about the nature of food activism, or indeed, art.  

The Listening Table will be on public display at Sparks Bristol until the 23rd March 2023.

EVENT: Food Justice and the Sea

14th March 2024 4pm-6pm

An artistic exploration and critical discussion of livelihoods and the sea

The Listening Table has a story to tell of the struggles and challenges faced by those who seek to make a living out of the sea. In its current form, it voices the frustrations and uncertainties felt by those who catch and sell fish commercially in the early twenty-first century. In our discussion, we will examine the nature of justice in the sea, drawing on our varied experiences and approaches as researchers in the arts and social sciences.

Guests will be encouraged to explore the table and its stories and then to engage in a critical discussion, provoked by academics and where their research meets the sea.

Find out more on the “Food justice and the Sea” event page

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