Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Meat Market

Chef-turned media personality Anthony Bourdain has made a career of bringing far-flung food culture onto our most closely held screens. He has built his brand by articulating the anti–Olive Garden for viewers anxious about the authenticity of their culinary practices. The hidden treasures he reveals on his shows—the best Vietnamese street vendor’s pho or delicate Colombian arepas—are difficult to access, the menus of the restaurants to which he treks look intimidating to his anglophone audience, and the food itself often doesn’t even seem appetizing—all the better to foment his brand’s air of exclusivity, always the handmaiden to authenticity.

Now, as Stephen Werther, Bourdain’s business partner, told the New York Times, “people want Tony’s show to come to life.” Never mind the fact that Bourdain does go to real places with live people in his show. What Werther is describing as “coming to life” is not any single thing from a Bourdain show but the relationship between subjects of the show and Bourdain’s seal of approval that holds it all together. Bourdain Market, set to open in about two years on Pier 57 in Manhattan’s Meat Packing district, purports to deliver exclusivity and democracy at the same time by putting remarkable food vendors all under one roof, thus consolidating all the hard work of curation and discovery and saving consumers from having to do any of it.

Up until his decision to open a market, Bourdain’s entire business had been capturing exotic dining experiences for television. Bourdain Market, like the World’s Fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries, will invert this business model by bringing people from around the world to a humongous food court so that they may “do” culture. It will provide what Bourdain calls a “democratic space open to and used by all,” a place where “wealthy and working class alike” can congregate in what promises to be the largest food hall in the city. Patrons will munch on prepared foods from both world-renowned and obscure restaurateurs on common tables and select the finest meats from butchers and fisheries. “Think of an Asian night market,” Bourdain tells New York Eater, as if that is a stable and widely understood reference for Americans, before clarifying that it means “eating and drinking at midnight”—something that could just as easily be said about a TGI Fridays. It will be a place that is “transparent and authentic”—unlike, presumably, the nearby Chelsea Market, once a public market by and for New Yorkers, now mainly a tourist destination. (...)

Authenticity is, for marketers and some cultural commentators, what objectivity is for scientists. It masquerades as an absolute, ascertainable quality inherent in situations when in fact it is a function of many contingencies, including subject position, social structure, historical happenstance, economic forces, and cultural norms. While objectivity relies on the expertise and training of scientists who follow certain procedures, authenticity is a product of cultural expertise with its own set of semi-arbitrary rules. Cultural experts are ordained with the power of finding and selling authenticity on the assumption that it exists somewhere, outside the self, and with the right training it can be discovered.

Just as adherence to objectivity is a necessary prerequisite for scientific “truth,” authenticity can seem to anchor taste judgments in some pure transcendent realm beyond the influence of social strategy or economic expediency. Though the aura of authenticity may seem like a matter of the aggressively unique thing in its “real” place, as when Bourdain boasts of tasting exotic foods that “you can’t find anywhere else in the world,” it is actually created in the space between the consumer and the consumed. For Walter Benjamin, aura is born of our desire to bring things closer, to experience the original outside the bounds of technological reproducibility. This desired closeness is two-fold: spatial and emotional, measured in distance and human connection. (...)

Pier 57, the future home of Bourdain Market, is a strange place to anchor a multimillion-dollar argument for the absolute existence of authenticity. The market will be connected to the High Line, a park built on the raised railroad tracks that once carried freight around the docks and shipping piers of the Meatpacking District. The High Line represents a new kind of fun complex that preserves past industrial history as a quaint tourist destination, in which the pieces of decommissioned track compliment the native flora. Bourdain himself, in his latest show The Layover, gives the High Line a minute-long commercial where he calls it “distinctly strange and beautiful,” but he says it with none of the passion and romance he reserves for a well-constructed hot dog. The High Line, through plaques and tour guides, informs visitors that what they are seeing is simultaneously a conscious selection of flora that was endemic to Manhattan Island prior to urbanization and the nostalgic preservation of an industrial infrastructure prior to New York’s latest wave of gentrification. Both of these combine in a mise-en-scène of New York City through different scales of time. There is even a small amphitheater suspended above the street, so that visitors can stare at unfolding city life as if it were theater.

This is all antithetical to Bourdainian authenticity, which he frames as a matter of direct accessibility and individuated distinction. In his shows Bourdain has nothing but disdain for the carefully posed and self-­consciously displayed. Everything that, for him, is contained in “the hipster” is a profane act of showmanship, not craftsmanship. To have a truly authentic experience one must identify something as authentic and then take the leap of faith to literally consume it. You put your trust in a local with whom you can imagine you have some sort of noncontractual relationship. Those relations are authentic; tour guides are irredeemable.

But what is Bourdain to his shows’ audiences and the patrons of his future food market, if not their contractually hired tour guide? If Bourdain Market is supposed to make the content of his show—the authenticity of hard-to-access food—“come alive,” then what it will sell is more about the proximity between products (I get to sample elk meat right before finding out what a papaya tastes like) than the food itself. Yet if this is the case, then anything in Bourdain Market must lose a portion of its aura, as papaya and elk are not endemic to the same region, nor the hinterlands of Manhattan. The authenticity of any particular product is negated in favor of sustaining the authority of Bourdain as judge, jury, and executioner of authenticity.

By making it physically possible to access foods from around the world, Bourdain Market will let you choose the scenarios for your own food-centered reality TV show. And just like a reality TV show, Bourdain Market will run roughshod over particulars in its restaging of the real. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the New York Times article that announced the project, a short writeup that required three corrections, including one for the artist’s rendering of the future market that contained fake Chinese characters.

As Benjamin and Baudrillard warn, it is impossible to consciously create an authentic experience. The friction between Chelsea Market, the High Line, the conceit of Bourdain’s own shows, and his new market reveals the hypocrisy of the entire project: Bourdain Market is as authentic, transparent, democratic, and open as basic cable TV.

by David A. Banks and Britney Sumiit-Gil, The New Inquiry |  Read more:
Image: uncredited