Kitchen Semiotics

I was fortunate to attend a screening at school of Randy Lee Cutler’s video artwork entitled “Kitchen Semiotics,” which was in fact one of the pieces that inspired my interest in this project. Unfortunately, it is not available online, so most of the information here is filtered through my personal experience.


Cutler’s piece references and updates the well-known feminist performance art video “Semiotics of the Kitchen” by Martha Rosler, in which Rosler critiques gender roles by juxtaposing domestic objects with violent motions. The visual staging mimics a cooking show, with ingredients prepared and neatly in place and the artist facing the audience from the center of the screen.

The Video Out distribution page summarizes “Kitchen Semiotics” as

This durational performance video is staged in the artist’s kitchen where she proceeds through the alphabet consuming a food and drink for each letter. As Cutler samples her provisions, a voice over offers political or cultural information that sheds light on global food trends. Inspired by Martha Rosler’s 1975 video Semiotics of the Kitchen, this work encourages a critical consciousness of consumption.

Much like Michael Pollan’s experiment, Cutler is here grappling with the public lack of criticality when it comes to the source of their food. The call to critical consciousness borrows a phrase from Paulo Freire’s post-Marxist theory, which in turn is inspired by Marxist class consciousness.

Freire’s thoughts on modernity and critical consciousness include:

Certainly we could not rely on the mere process of technological modernization to lead us from a naive to a critical consciousness. Indeed, an analysis of highly technological societies usually reveals the “domestication” of man’s critical faculties by a situation in which he has only the illusion of choice. Excluded from the sphere of decisions being made by fewer and fewer people, man in maneuvered by the mass media to the point where he believes nothing he has not heard on the radio, seen on television, or read in the newspapers (30-31).

Returning to the apt phrase “critical consciousness of consumption,” this positions Cutler’s work as a call to action against the narrowed expert system that arises in technologically advanced societies. As in “World Risk Society,” the issue arises that explosions in available data lead to complexity beyond comprehension, which in turn trickles into a limited number of expert voices offering apparent agency in information gathering.

Cutler is directly confronting the limitations of the current media, and searching for an alternative voice, addressing the contemporary food system as one complex system amidst a complex world.

The alphabet format is effective because its tiny scattered chunks of information help build an image of a larger system by plain omission: there is no question but that Cutler leaves a wealth of information unsaid, no masquerade as a complete source. Different information is presented: Cutler mentions nutritional facts, agricultural locations, ethical trading questions, environmental impacts, future use speculation, word origins, and flavours all in same format, with no hierarchy or separation of info. This builds on complexity, suggesting depth in layers of the culinary topic as well as breadth of data.

Diverse foods make an appearance, including vitamin supplements, jellyfish, seaweed, grapes, avocado, and velveeta- at least until it is unceremoniously thrown offscreen. The combination of so many different foods in the same place at the same moment is a marvel of globalization. 


The tone and tactics in general rely on the authoritative monotone voice of the narrator and the citation of numerous statistics to lend a scientific credibility to the information. These facts lean heavily toward the negative end of the spectrum, presenting the modern food industry as a collection of issues to be grappled with. The Velveeta example- being thrown offscreen in place of any verbal exposition- clearly demonstrates a rejection of technological products. Chemical pesticides and genetic modification are raised as points of concern alongside the economic disparity between consumers and farmers of an imported product like quinoa or cocoa.

The setting of the piece defines its call to action: change begins with what items make it into a person’s kitchen. It is a personal message calling for criticality in buying choices, and importantly not limiting decision making to the input of a nutritional label but thinking about food products in a more complex and global light.




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