Deepa Bhasthi talking to writer-in-residence Chris Fite-Wassilak at Cooking Sections The Empire Remains Shop, 2016. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

You’ve joined The Politics of Food as a representative (and co-founder) of Forager Collective. Who else is involved in the group?

There are four of us in the collective. Apart from the work we do as the collective, all four of us have full time creative practices. I am a journalist, a columnist and a writer and have been freelancing with magazines and newspapers in India and abroad for many years now. Sunoj D is a visual artist. His paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations largely employ natural materials that come with attached with certain cultural references and exist within certain social contexts. His interest lies in creating a visual language of new meanings for these familiar materials within wider socio-political contexts. Babitha Lingraju trained as a sculptor and is just about to start a course in footwear technology in the city of Chennai this year. UBIK is a designer and artist and is currently also employed with the India Art Fair.

We all have quite specific strengths that we bring to the table. I handle all the writing and editing the magazine, Sunoj is the biggest strength on the conceptual, ideation side while Babitha is fantastic at production, and UBIK handles all our design requirements. These are of course not water tight compartments and we all do everything, but it helps that we come to the collective with such varied strengths.

Why did the collective feel that food was the lens through which to study and view culture?

We were all very interested in where our food was coming from and at what cost we were eating it. The more we thought about it, the more we realized how big a part food played in the way we understood and lived history, culture, politics, economics and every other sphere of society. That was how we ended up creating The Forager magazine where we try to facilitate a discourse that sees all aspects of the world we live in through food, one of the most easily relatable ideas.

Abhishek Hazra, Unbounded Mono-Tonic, 2016. Photo courtesy Delfina Foundation

During your residency at Delfina Foundation you’re looking at food myths and fads, why do you think people are so susceptible to these?

I want to say it is because advertising is more effective than it ever was before. But I am not wholly convinced that is the sole reason. Maybe it is because with the escalation of the market economy, we are consuming so much so fast that somewhere we want to slow down and eat well. Maybe it is a romanticized idea we are buying into – as if buying organic would be equal to buying a simpler life. All these of course come at a high cost and this chosen lifestyle becomes another product we end up consuming. It is all so entangled and so complicated.

You’ve invited Bangalore-based artist Abhishek Hazra to give a video-performance on the liberalisation of India.

Yes. Abhishek is working on a script that will explore the pre-history of economic liberalization in India. Incidentally, it was 25 years ago, in 1991, that India adopted an open market policy. Neoliberalism was sold as an idea that would create a Utopian state, but off late economists are readily agreeing that this certainly is not the case, nor was it possibly an expected result. I am very interested in looking at how such ideas are packaged and sold to a people. These become so influential over time that we end up consuming more the idea itself than the product it is selling.

Forager Collective, Lantana Project with Cooking Sections, 2016

You’re also involved with Cooking Sections’ Empire Remains Shop. What will you be contributing to the shop?

We will be showing chairs made of Lantana that we designed, and were made by a tribal group in rural Karnataka, in southern India. Lantana is an invasive species that was brought to India as an ornamental shrub in the 1800s. It is so widespread now and so harmful to animals, to agriculture and to the thousands of tribes that use the forests to gather many resources. The government spends millions of rupees trying to contain this weed but in vain. Some members of the Soliga tribe were trained by a research institute in Bangalore to make furniture with lantana branches. Lantana is much more flexible than cane, so we played around with the design a bit. The work the tribal craftsmen do helps control the spread of lantana. By no measure is it enough, but it is a small step nevertheless.

What significance do you see in ‘selling back’ the ‘remains’ of the British Empire?

The idea of Empire Shops was developed in the early 20th century and was intended to popularize products from the colonies in Britain. The shops never opened. ‘Selling back’ bits of what colonization left behind feels almost belatedly subversive. It is also a speculation of what the impact of this manner of retailing might have had on Britain, even though on much larger scales there existed various other trade agreements, be it in cotton or spices.

Forager Collective, Lantana Project with Cooking Sections, 2016

Have you found your research complemented by the work of any of the artists currently in residence or showing at The Empire Remains Shop?

A whole lot of them, in fact! It is very interesting how, even though we are all working on things that seem and sound so different on the surface, there are so many overlapping and interconnected areas in our research. Food, a major part of all our projects, directly or otherwise, is such an equalizer.

Finally, are there any significant books you’re currently reading?

Mythologies by Roland Barthes; To the Brink and Back – India’s 1991 Story by Jairam Ramesh; articles on neoliberalism, advertising, mass media; Lovemarks – a marketing concept about brand loyalty that I heard about just a few days ago; Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll; and lastly, some good poetry to balance my reading list!