Interview with Jeff Hnilicka of FEAST

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As the second part of a series on art, labor, and politics, I spoke with Jeff Hnilicka of FEAST, a Brooklyn-based community dinner that funds the work of emerging artists. FEAST will be hosting their next meal tomorrow evening, February 6, from 5-8 p.m. at Church of the Messiah, 129 Russell St, Brooklyn NY. The event is open to the public. - Jenny Jaskey

What is FEAST and how did you begin?

Jeff Hnilicka: FEAST has been going on for a little over a year and runs out of a church basement in Greenpoint. There are around twenty people who help facilitate it. We come from the art world, food world, and design world, and we are connected to ideas of collectivism and immediacy - things like zines, living room dance parties, bike rides, and dinners. Many of us are also involved with Hit Factorie, an artist collective.

FEAST grew out of our desire to investigate the collapse of cultural production in the face of emerging sustainable food production systems that were successful. We wanted to ask “what is localism?” in relation to cultural production and how the structures of a farm co-op translate to an art economy. In the food world, the sustainable is the heirloom - that is the desired experience. In cultural production, the sustainable is relegated to the amateur, the “craft.” But we wondered: can you produce high quality cultural products using a sustainable model? Those were our basic goals. What developed was a dinner party, where around 300 people come to a church basement every couple of months. We ask for $10-20 donations at the door to attend the dinner, although no one is turned away. Artists propose projects over the course of the meal, and the guests select one project to fund. We vote democratically. Whichever artists get the most votes get a big bag of money with a dollar sign on it. We ask them to come back to the next dinner and present how they used the money.

I should mention that the model for FEAST is not our idea. InCUBATE in Chicago has been doing something called Sunday Soup for a long time. Other similar meals exist through Stock in Portland, Stew in Baltimore, Sugar City in Buffalo, Feast in Columbus, and I recently facilitated a FEAST in Minneapolis during a residency there.

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Sign from the May 9 FEAST

How do you select which artists to present their projects at the dinner?

JH: It is an open call, and we accept submissions ahead of time. So far we have been able to present every project submitted to us. We find that it has been interesting and exciting to be able to say, if you have an idea, you can throw it out there in an open mic environment. There is a transparency that exists in the process of presentation and selection that does not usually exist in most grant-making environments. Artists get to see all of the other proposals, and there is no secrecy to the process.

What kinds of projects are proposed?

JH: Multi-disciplinary projects are presented - everything from a painter wanting money for studio rent to a theater artist wanting rehearsal space. Lately we’ve been getting people in the social practice world. The last project was given to the collective Green my Bodega. It really varies.

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Crowd from the May 9 FEAST

Do you ever fund projects by curators or arts organizations?

JH: We haven’t had a curator win yet, but we are open to this kind of submission. Artists, art organizations, collectives, curators, anyone can apply. “The rules are…there ain’t no rules.”

Is FEAST a self-consciously “social practice”?

JH: FEAST views what we are doing as an aesthetic practice. But the framing is casual: it operates as a dinner party because it is dinner.

FEAST also hopes to serve as an investigative tool of potentially dangerous paradigms like “new urbanism” and Richard Florida’s “creative class.” We do not see this as a cynical endeavor, it is an optimistic critique.

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Food preparation from May 9 FEAST

How specifically do you see these models problematizing the role of the creative worker?

JH: In New York and urban centers, the fact that so many people are able to have somewhat interesting creative jobs makes everyone feel like their creative life is a commodifiable piece of their life: the goal is to get a cool art job, as opposed to making exciting critical work. This has definitely added to the political apathy of creatives, because they can sort of get by, as opposed to the highly romanticized version of what being a SoHo artist once was. When I spend 40 hours a week or more developing work for an institution or creating design for someone else, if I’m spending my time doing that, that [creative] part of my brain gets exhausted.

How does FEAST function as an “optimistic critique”?

JH: FEAST certainly cannot topple capitalism and the larger political structures affecting artists working today. There is value creation and we exist in a marketplace. But what we can do is personalize things a little more. We can make introductions between artists and their immediate communities. And we can demonstrate to them that their work is valued.

When is the next FEAST event?

JH: The next FEAST dinner is on February 6. For more information, please visit www.feastinbklyn.org