Nourishment as Resilience: Meals for a Movement at Koffler.Digital

Review November 1, 2020

By Hailey Mah

How can we create the conditions for intimacy, solidarity, and nourishment while we’re apart? How can we break bread and share knowledge over a virtual table? Meals for a Movement, an online project organized by Koffler.Digital, shows us how answers to these questions might take shape. Transcending the typical online exhibition through an intimate audio format, the project’s three sound pieces invite the viewer to share invaluable space with BIPOC women artists and activists. Launched in February 2019, its works have only gained relevance since. When I first began writing about Meals for a Movement in March 2020, social distancing orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic made the project’s online format feel suited to the current moment. Then a global uprising against systemic racism and police brutality began its resurgence, and Meals for a Movement’s lessons in metabolizing resistance became more resonant than I could have anticipated.

Meals for a Movement was produced by Koffler.Digital, a program of the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto. It consists of three pieces of sound art—collages of spoken word poetry, ASMR soundscapes, and music—meant to be listened to during the meals they are named after: Morn, Noon and Night. The project was directed by Annie Wong, whose work engages with politics, diasporic experience, and allyship-building in everyday life, and curated by Koffler.Digital Director Letticia Cosbert Miller. 

The project’s web page is deceptively minimal compared to the complexity of the artworks. Each audio piece is represented by an image of a place setting, depicting a white plate with indigo designs of both flowers and symbols of resistance—a gun, a black panther, hands of different skin tones shaking. Clicking upon the plate plays each corresponding sound art in the web browser. 

Each piece is a small yet dense course, intended to be consumed, shared, and chewed upon as one goes about their day. According to the exhibition’s website, “Meals for a Movement imagines a range of feminist sentiments—indignation, resilience and solidarity—as bodily experiences of consumption and sustenance.” 

In the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns, where almost all arts exhibitions and programs have been moved online, it’s not hard to become overwhelmed with online viewing fatigue. However, the sound pieces in Meals for Movement are worth experiencing and meant to fit into the structure of your day. Rather than serving as an escape from the turmoil of the world, these artworks demonstrate tactics—speaking out, honouring the past, and celebrating ourselves—that can guide us through times of disruption.

Image: Screencap of the Koffler.Digital website from Meals for a Movement.

Morn

Morn, the first piece in the series, is meant “to be listened to upon the first hour of waking.” (1) The piece puts us into the perspective of Toronto-based poet Faith Arkorful as she wakes, processing a lucid dream. A succession of voices from the dream is heard from archival clips. First is former Attawapiskat First Nation Chief, Theresa Spence, decrying the government’s failure to protect her community’s treaty rights. Then, a rallying cry from the Spanish anarchist women’s group, Mujeres Libres, followed by defiant assertions of Hawai’ian sovereignty by educator and activist Haunani Kay Trask. Finally, Angela Davis testifies on the ongoing, violent damage of state oppression. Arkorful’s voice cuts through the layered clips, grounding the listener in disquieting verse: 


“My dreams hold no mythologies

Canada lives on a myth of generosity and politeness

It is a myth it has created on its own behalf

A myth that keeps me from ever truly falling asleep.” (2)

She reflects on her inability as a Black woman to speak out against the violent myth of the Canadian state, and her anger towards the forces that compel her into silence. The poem continues, reflecting on the everyday threat of the police state while decrying how Black people are gaslit and blamed for their oppression.

Arkorful condemns Michael Theriault, the off-duty Toronto police officer who, alongside his brother Christian, attacked Black teen Dafonte Miller so badly he lost an eye in 2016. Listening in summer 2020, this reference is even more prescient: On June 18 of this year, Theriault was found guilty of assault but acquitted of aggravated assault and obstruction of justice, while his brother Christian was acquitted of all charges. (3) Throughout, Arkorful’s voice remains measured, only adding to the weary precision of her testimony. Then, her anger is channeled into a declaration of survival: 

“Sometimes there is cure for this feeling

And sometimes while walking home, you are treated like a shadow with no body attached to it

You must make a decision

I make a decision and the decision whirlpools through me

I awake to a decision to move through these moments, to continue to move

To try as hard as I can to not let the murmur of this country drag me to sleep

I will move through this land while I wait for the flame.”

In under five minutes, she has guided the listener through a chorus of activists speaking out against violence, and given chilling testimony to her experience of being Black in Canada. Notably, the piece ends with self-validation as she draws upon her inner power in order to face the morning. Listening to words feels especially resonant and immediate amid the backdrop of increased calls for justice for Black and Indigenous lives at the hands of the police.

Arkorful’s powerful testimony on how the racist myth of Canada bleeds into her dreams and her waking hours was a reminder of my own privileges as a non-Black person of colour; a seed of truth I’ve avoided swallowing. Over the course of the day, I try to digest the words of Arkorful and those who have come before; to absorb the hard realities that she dares to speak on, rather than to just swallow.

There’s no way around it—tuning into rallying cries and Arkorful’s piercing words over breakfast is an intense experience. But listening in a period where my grip on time feels slippery, Morn was both an energizing wake-up call, and a grounding opportunity to witness those who have been speaking out all along.

Image: Screencap of the Koffler.Digital website from Meals for a Movement.

Noon

Noon, meant to be listened to during lunch, is the second sound piece in Meals for a Movement. It begins by surrounding the listener in the sounds of food preparation such as metal scraping on glass, utensils clattering and the clicking of a gas stove flame turning on. This is Annie Wong and her mother, Ming Chau Vong, preparing a Cantonese dim sum dish. The track moves from the soundtrack of cooking to Wong’s spoken-word reflections on the process:

“My mother speaks my mother tongue

A language I can only keep in my mouth 

In the form of shrimp rice rolls

I listen because I can only listen

And in an influx of aroma and memory you never mention 

The wound that blossomed on the pale of your arm

Worn like a badge bestowed by the kitchen god

Scabbed like a mother’s tattoo

An omission in the recipe.” (4)

In this intimate passage, Wong speaks of the memories and ancestors who are kept alive through the act of her and her mother making ha cheung fun (蝦腸), or shrimp rice rolls. “The recipe survives a family history of exile as a result of the Vietnam-American War, transgressing language barriers and serving as a continuous source of nourishment that has both fed and fused generations,” says the accompanying description. (5) Their act of cooking together is simultaneously a form of intergenerational connection, a record of their highly personal stories and a transmission of cultural knowledge.

Wong continues, asserting that the recipe just as much about survival as sustenance: “I say the words see yao (豉油) to hold our ancestors in syllables of survival/ These are the steps to keep from forgetting/ From going hungry,” she says, as she reflecting on different varieties of soy sauce. She places herself as an accessory to the recipe’s history, rather than its mouthpiece: “I listen because I can only listen,” she says. “I listen because I cannot speak.” 

Notably, the piece is not a recipe tutorial: it is structured as sound art; a poem. When Wong says “you,” it is addressed to her mother, not the audience. I realize that this piece is not shared with me, the listener, so that I can learn how to make shrimp rice rolls. Instead, I am invited to witness Wong’s inner dialogue, her recording of her family’s recipe as a receipt for their survival.

Wong’s recounting of the recipe is composed of sensory fragments: a mix of sounds, language, smells, and sights, rather than a recounting of steps. As a 3.5-generation Chinese-Canadian, Noon’s multisensory format makes me consider my own fragmented relationship with my ancestors’ foods. Traditional Chinese recipes are a glaring reminder of the cultural and geographical impasses that separate me from my own forebears: I cannot prepare them on my own or order them in the language they were named in. However, their familiar tastes shore up a sense of familiarity and connection to who and what has come before me.

Noon is a testament to the fortitude of Wong’s family, a form of nourishment and affirmation. Listening to it while eating lunch prompted me, in the middle of the day, to consider my own ancestral routes, the journeys that have led to where I find myself now. This piece is the least confrontational of Meals for a Movement. However, this does not diminish its relevance. Noon is an important reminder that we must remember to honour our histories as we move towards a better future. It tells us to savour moments of communion and survival in whatever shape, meal, or memory they appear in. 

Image: Screencap of the Koffler.Digital website from Meals for a Movement.

Eve

Eve, the final piece in the series, was created by Victoria Cheong, a Toronto-based music producer and vocalist who also creates music as New Chance. This track is meant to be listened to during dinner and is framed as the “materialization of the lucid dream in Morn.” Speeches from the same women activists—Theresa Spence, Mujeres Libres, Haunani Kay Trask, and Angela Davis—are collaged as they were in Morn, but this time they are accompanied by a beat, transformed into a song of resistance.

“If you experience what we live, as a person and as a woman and as a mother,” we hear Theresa Spence say, her voice punctuating through the backing track, “You would do anything to protect your children and make other people’s children your children, your people better—because the pain is too much now.” Cheong loops and distorts Spence’s final words in the song, giving space for the weight of her words to be digested as they overlap with the other women’s testimonies of the injustices they have faced.

Notably, the effect of combining the disparate voices of these women does not conflate their individual stories. We hear each of them speak to their specific experiences, holding space for their own struggles rather than reduced to platitudes. Their voices are assembled by Cheong to build upon each other, resulting in a collective energy that emerges out of their frustration. Pulsating yet abrasive, their words are stretched and sequenced as they build undeniable energy. The track’s frenetic quality embodies a raw bubbling of anger, the productive buzz of activism, and finally, a celebration of resilience.

Rather than being disheartened by these articulations of injustice, I feel the urge to move, as the track intended. I want to metabolize these women’s words into my own body, letting their anger propel me into action. The piece is intended to be listened to during a dinner party with other BIPOC women and allies, instructs the exhibition text, setting the stage for a shared experience of solidarity. Eve concludes with several minutes of instrumental beats, as if leaving space for the audience to take matters into our own hands: to vocalize, take up space, and dance. It’s a track that gives both the creators and the listeners permission to tend to ourselves and find joy as we recharge for the roads ahead.

Staying Home 

Writing this piece in the summer of 2020, it’s impossible not to consider the inescapable conditions of both the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent stay-at-home directives, as well as widespread uprisings against anti-Black racism and police brutality. Although Meals for a Movement was published on Koffler.Digital’s online-only platform in early 2019, it seems to be preternaturally primed for this exact moment of both remote experiences and renewed political consciousness.

Meals for a Movement is, at its core, an invitation to consume a day’s worth of meals alongside a multigenerational chorus of women of colour creators speaking to their experiences: Annie Wong, Faith Arkorful, Ming Chau Vong and Victoria Cheong, as well as Theresa Spence, Mujeres Libres, Haunani Kay Trask, and Angela Davis through archival clips. Following in the long tradition of shared meals as sites for building solidarity, it proves that inviting others into the domestic sphere to share a meal is both a political and personal act. (6)


Each of the works persisted in my mind throughout the day, echoing how the project’s themes —sustenance, fortitude, resilience—are woven into the lived experiences of the featured artists. From the familiar, personal space of my own home, I felt encouraged to critically reflect with these motifs, and consider: In this time of isolation and political reckoning, how can I find ways to honour the past, acknowledge the present moment, and orient my work towards a better future? Although Meals for a Movement doesn’t aim to answer these questions, it does insist that we listen fully to those at the table, sharing the anger that fuels us and celebrating the resilience that nourishes us.

  1. Koffler.Digital. 2019. Morn, Meals for a Movement.
  2. Ibid.
  3. CBC News. 2020. Toronto police officer found guilty of assault, brother not guilty, in Dafonte Miller beating case.  https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/dafonte-miller-theriault-decision-1.5627792
  4. Koffler.Digital. 2019. Noon, Meals for a Movement.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Julier, Alice P. 2013. Eating Together: Food, Friendship, and Inequality. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Meals for a Movement went live in February 2019 on Koffler.Digital, presented by Koffler Centre for the Arts in Toronto, ON.

Feature Image: Screencap of the homepage for Meals for a Movement. Images courtesy of Koffler.Digital.