How We Work: An Interview with Nick Jirasek

February 5, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by A.Martinez

Nick Jirasek is a food artist and founder of underground food entity Guerrilla Smiles. He has worked with Tony Fitzpatrick, Links Hall, Redmoon Theater, Linda Warren Projects, Hauser Gallery, Ensemble Dal Niente, High Concept Laboratories, and more. Nick has a strong love of Malort and makes a mean pork shoulder. I got to ask him some questions about who he is, what he does, and his exciting presence in the arts scene.

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A.Martinez: What is your definition of a food artist and what you do?

Nick Jirasek: A food artist is one who uses primarily comestible materials to create, explore, or challenge ideas.  I work professionally in this capacity at exhibition openings, private events, the streets, house-parties, underground dinners, performances, pop-ups, talk-shows, and screenings.

Martinez: You are a self-trained- how did you develop your skills?

Jirasek: Immersion. There are seemingly unending resources, documentation, and wisdom surrounding food. Everyone wants to talk about it, wants to teach you the ‘right way to do it,’ to share the ritual of eating with you, the most authentic place to buy kielbasa, the healthiest diet, the ethical diet, the best place to eat carnitas. Once I had the feeling that being a food artist is what I wanted to do, I made it my entire life. Some of the learning has been traditional in cooking under trained kitchen professionals, but most of it has been in acute observation and guerrilla learning tactics. I’ll sound like a broken .FLAC if I say the internet has been a tremendous resource, so I’ll say it’s been invaluable. That of course means the usual suspects of e-books, Youtubes, and blog trolling, but also some harder to find fountains of information in more underground and illicit venues of the www. Once one is cognizant of basic technique, cultural/ethnic culinary tradition, and flavor pairing, is when some cooks then begin to hone their craft or get the fuck out; an Italian chef mastering the different regions of Italy, travelling to the Piedmonts to study centuries of tradition in Agnolotti, or a trade-school dropout in search of Tru. They begin to specialize based on their talents, their genealogy, and interests. But, I’m not interested in specializing my edible journey. I want to continually challenge the ideas and traditions of food while building a vocabulary of how to articulate that comestibly, socially, and literally.

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Martinez: Who and what is Guerrilla Smiles and how long has it been around?

Jirasek: Guerrilla Smiles started as a social project about 6 years ago; to simply spread smiles in unexpected places and unexpected ways that would serve to beautify our lives and the lives around us.

I was a worn-out, director of food and beverage at Chicago’s 4th tallest building, the John Hancock. I worked a ridiculous amount of hours. The dreams at night of P&L’s, and the commute home down Chicago on the 66 bus was the cherry on-top of the soul sucking sundae. One day someone at the Hancock had ordered what must have been nearly a hundred gold, helium filled balloons and thrown them in the loading dock after the party was over.  I grabbed all the balloons and walked down the street, handing a floating ball of gold to anyone and everyone that would take them. People like balloons, or maybe just the color gold more than I had thought. I was overrun by would-be gold-diggers by the time I made it to the McDonald’s on State street. At that point I walked to the middle of intersection and released the remaining bouquet of gold into the sky. Similar projects came in weeks following like cashing half my paycheck at the currency exchange in quarters and handing them out, then throwing them in the air and off bridges. Safety became an issue.

Around the same time my good friends Claire Molek and Erin Babbin were starting a gallery practice called Studio1020 (later theStudio and thisisnothestudio).  Building on the ideas put forth on the street, I pleaded with them to seize the opportunity of the ubiquitous gallery food & wine table.  The idea was simple; to mirror the displaying artists’ work aesthetically or thematically in comestible form. This way the dialogue of what the artist’s message was, was literally palatable and hopefully led to broaden and ease the discourse.  Through the past 5 years, a changing cast of cooking professionals, artists, and friends have helped carry on this mission from private dinners of 9 to public events of 900.

Martinez: The Break The Bread series focuses on your collaborations with visual artists at galleries around the city. How do you choose what artists and galleries with which you’re going to collaborate? Or do they choose you?

Jirasek: For the vast majority of gigs, the artist, gallerist, or curator approaches us. Guerrilla Smiles does not advertise, has no website, and uses social media sparsely as a means to communicate. That is to say, we truly relish our underground disposition. My time with Studio1020 afforded me a great opportunity to interact and network directly with interested parties, interesting artists, and share lots of ideas through food. It all started from there and kind of naturally branched out by word of mouth. I have, in special situations, approached artists I want to work with and am looking forward to doing so more in the near future, as well as producing independent original work.

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Martinez: What is the process of trying out new dish?

Jirasek: I kind of have an ongoing list of techniques, ingredients, serving vessels, equipment and ideas I’m waiting for the right opportunity to try. When it seems appropriate, I get to try out new stuff. In general, the basis for everything I make is a new dish as every exhibition or performance is new. There is some safety in knowing my control of flavor is adept, my technique is solid, but conversely an exciting trepidation in knowing that this dish has components I have done before, but altogether is completely new.

Martinez: What is the biggest revelation you’ve had about the way you work?

Jirasek: One needs to be aware of their work patterns and not sabotage their opportunities. I don’t like asking for help, and no one will ever work for me for free.

Martinez: Is shopping for ingredients an important part of your creative process?

Jirasek: Extremely. I devote at least an entire day to shopping for an event that can completely change the menu. The Green City Market is a staple and only occurs on 2 days of the week. But generally I go to local specialty stores and markets that take me from 113th to Skokie. This process of traveling all around the city, of breathing in the lifeblood of our diverse culture, of interacting with ethnicities whose only commonality with me is Chicago and food, is probably my greatest inspiration. It’s not dissimilar to the interaction I have with people on the night of an event. Most ‘food people’ will disagree with me on this, but I’m less interested in the local food movement and more interested in small, local family businesses, and traditions in Chicagoland.

Martinez: What is your favorite ingredient to work with?

Jirasek: Celery or Popcorn.

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Martinez: Guerrilla Smiles has a dish called Oak Street Beach. Describe this dish and how it came about.

Jirasek: Oak Street Beach started as dish for a thisisnotthestudio show featuring artist Xiao Tse at High Concept Laboratories. Tse took upwards of a thousand pictures from the concrete pavement of Oak St. Beach’s shore, facing the lake and narrowed it down to one piece that combined around twenty of the most discerning shots. It is essentially a deconstructed soup, with the broth held separately so as not to affect the aesthetic and textural integrity of the dry ingredients. The dry ingredients are held in a ten ounce clear plastic glass. The sand is a combination of ground peanuts, cashews, and maltodextrin.  The grass is julienned wild ramps. The trash is a candied ginger chip. The fish is a rice flour fried smelt. The towel is a soy and turmeric based spring roll wrapper. The wet ingredients are suspended above in a fitting five ounce plastic glass, rimmed with suntan lotion that is garlic mayo. The Lake Michigan water is a kombu dashi. The eater is instructed to take a small mouthful of the dry ingredients and wash it down with a swig of the wet ingredients, going back and forth in a double fisted affair like they are swimming, until they are finished.

The service of Oak St. Beach was very much so inspired by a dish put forward by Michael Carlson of Schwa at Redmoon Theater’s Spectacle Lunatique 2011 called “Walking Through the Forest.”

Martinez: You were born and raised in Chicago and this has a strong influence on the food you make. Are there any other cities or cultures that you either look to for inspiration or are inherent in your work?

Jirasek: I think Mexican food simply got everything right. We obviously have a large population of Mexican-Americans in Chicago, and benefit greatly from the cornucopia of ingredients, flavor, and culture they have imbued upon us. Aside from that, I took great inspiration from my time cooking in Panama City, whose flavors are a great amalgamation of the diverse foreign cultures who have occupied the area and the local flora and fauna. I look forward to delving into historical American First Nation culinaria as a geographical inspiration, and look forward to marrying Filipino and Czech food with acidic flavors.

Martinez: Food-wise, what do you think are some exciting places or events happening around the city?

Jirasek: I think The Plant in The Back of the Yards is going to be a blueprint for metropolitan farming worldwide. Asado Coffee’s recent expansion plans and concept of ‘nano-roasting’ is next level. Smalls BBQ is the kind of approachable, forward thinking neighborhood restaurant that Chicago has lacked to put it on the level of NYC. Floriole’s baguettes are worth lining up for a la Paris when they come out fresh at 11am everyday. Three Aces is what every gastropub should strive to be. I also think we’ll see a boon in quality independent food writing like Graze, Middlewest and whatever Anthony Todd has up his sleeve.

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Martinez: What is your favorite Chicago-style food? And where’s your favorite place to get it?

Jirasek: Chicago’s hot dog is unmatched. Though not all the classic ingredients are included, Gene & Judes’ can’t be contended with because of the volume they go through and the freshness that entails, and fries like woah. Gotta go with underdog Chickie’s for beef because their giardiniera is only quickly cured and crunchier. Salerno’s for pizza because the true Chicago slice is thick crust and party cut.

Martinez: What does Guerrilla Smiles have lined up in the coming months?

Jirasek: In the great tradition of former Redmoon Theater Development Director Sean Kaplan, we will be curating the amuse-bouche portion of the upcoming fundraiser Spectacle Lunatique, outfitted Guerrilla style, primarily by the underground supper clubs of Chicago. We are in post-production for the next episode of our Break The Bread series with OnTheRealFilm for last year’s THAW fundraiser for Links Hall, as well as designing a menu for a soon opening southside cafe with one of Chicago’s champion contemporary artists.

Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, food-related or not that you think of often?

Jirasek: Don’t crowd the pan. When it rains, it pours. Be safe, be strong.

All photos courtesy of the artist.

A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.




Episode 334: Kelly Kaczynski

January 24, 2012 · Print This Article

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This week: Philip von Zweck sits down to talk with artist and educator Kelly Kaczynski.

GO CHECK OUT HER SHOW AT THE COLLEGE OF DUPAGE-GAHLBERG GALLERY! I heart the Gahlberg Gallery.

Kelly Kaczynski: Study for Convergence Performance (ice)
Jan.19 to Feb. 25, 2012

Study for Convergence Performance (ice) is the second work in a series that seeks to conflate the artist’s studio as a performative site of production, the space of display as the reception of image, and landscape as site for epic but apathetic metaphor. It uses the devices of the theatrical stage and the green screen; both of which operate as a “non-space” that allows the conflation of multiple contexts or sites. She uses imagery from landscapes that shift in time, such as bodies of water including glacier fields. The title of the piece refers to Robert Smithson’s idea of “the range of convergence between site and non-site” whereas the land from the originating site is placed in the container of the non-site. In Study for Convergence Performance, the site of origin and the sign of site converge as they transpose in a collapse of time.

 

Kelly Kaczynski is an assistant professor and assistant chair in the Department of Art Theory & Practice at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern University.  Kelly is a sculptor and installation artist. Her work, while existing in a temporal-spatial platform, is deeply materials based. She received an MFA from Bard College in 2003 and a BA from The Evergreen State College in 1995. She has exhibited with threewalls, Chicago; Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago; University of Buffalo Art Gallery, NY; Rowland Contemporary, Chicago; Triple Candie, NY; the Islip Art Museum, NY; Cristinerose/Josee Bienvenu Gallery, NY; DeCordova Museum, MA; 123 Watts Gallery, NY; and the Boston Center for the Arts, MA. Kaczynski’s work was included in the Boston Drawing Project at Bernard Toale Gallery, Boston. Public installations include projects with the Main Line Art Center, Haverford, Pennsylvania; the Interfaith Center of New York; the Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston and the Boston National Historic Parks; and the Boston Public Library. Kaczynski has taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and University of Chicago.




‘Art of the Steal’ Plays at Block Cinema This Wednesday

March 8, 2010 · Print This Article

The Art of the Steal, the much-discussed documentary film about the controversial struggle over the Barnes Foundation’s extraordinary collection of Impressionist works of art, will have its Chicago premiere at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art this Wednesday evening. Located in Merion, Pennsylvania at the explicit behest of Dr. Albert C. Barnes himself, the Foundation’s collection is now slated to be moved to downtown Philadelphia, a decision which has caused a national uproar.

The film screens this Wednesday, March 10th, at 7pm at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, IL 60208. Tel: 847.491.4000.

Here’s the blurb and the trailer from the film’s official website:

“In 1922, Dr. Albert C. Barnes formed a remarkable educational institution around his priceless collection of art, located just five miles outside of Philadelphia. Now, more than 50 years after Barnes’ death, a powerful group of moneyed interests have gone to court for control of the art, and intend to bring it to a new museum in Philadelphia. Standing in their way is a group of Barnes’ former students and his will, which contains strict instructions stating the Foundation should always be an educational institution, and that the paintings may never be removed. Will they succeed, or will a man’s will be broken and one of America’s greatest cultural monuments be destroyed?”




AfriCOBRA and the Chicago Black Arts Movement

February 15, 2010 · Print This Article

I’m looking forward to checking out afriCOBRA and the Chicago Black Arts Movement later on this week. The exhibition is open for a very short period of time – February 12th through March 17th, 2010. I myself have trouble seeing shows early on in their run, and find myself scrambling to see stuff the week before it closes. Don’t be like me.  Here’s a short preview video put together by the organizers at Northwestern University’s Dittmar Memorial Gallery.

Dittmar Winter ‘AfriCOBRA’ Exhibition Opens to Public Feb. 12 from Northwestern News on Vimeo.




Sarah Sood: Taking the Emotional Pulse of the Blogosphere

June 29, 2009 · Print This Article

I was leafing through my alma mater’s quarterly magazine over the weekend and, while intending to flip straight through to the Class Notes and Obits like I usually do, I found myself absorbed instead by a fascinating profile of Pomona College Assistant Professor (and Northwestern University grad) Sarah Sood, a computer scientist whose research focuses on the emotional content of the blogosphere.

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Sood is interested in connecting people via the stories they tell. For the past six years, she’s been designing programs that enable computers to identify the emotional components of blog-based narratives. The results thus far have produced Buzz, a search and retrieval system that mines blogs for interesting and emotionally compelling stories.

If you’re a Chicagoan, you may very well have seen Sood’s work in 2005 when for a period of one year Buzz was displayed in the lobby of the Second City Theater. Taking the form of a multi-media theatrical installation, it presented four talking-head avatars, each of whom related stories derived from Sood’s research. A description of the project can be found on Northwestern University’s Infolab website, excerpted below:

“Buzz is a multimedia installation that exposes the buzz generated by blogs. Buzz finds the blogs which are compelling; those where someone is laying their feelings on the table, exposing a dream or a nightmare that they had, making a confession or apology to a close friend, or regretting an argument that they had with their mother or spouse. It embodies the blogger with virtual actors who externalize these monologues by reading them aloud.”

Click the image below to be taken to a demonstration clip from the installation:

Buzz Demo

Buzz Demo

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Sood also used the Buzz retrieval system to explore emotional reactions to Chicago landmarks (click here for demo):

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Chicago Buzz

While installations like Buzz provide entertaining diversions, Sood’s next project promises to be far more rich in its possibilities. She is developing an “emotional-state search engine” that will seek out web content driven by one of six emotions: happiness, fear, sadness, surprise, disgust and anger. Writer Lori Kido Lopez, who authored the aforementioned profile of Sood, points out that the Buzz-based emotional search engine “is vastly different from a typical search engine.” Lopez explains,

“If you put the words “happy” and “Obama” into Google, the sites that pop up include information about Obama’s White House happy hours and a mix tape called “Obama’s Happy Ending”—neither of which have distinct emotional content. Sood’s goal is to be able to search for content about “Obama” but also to be able to specify that the stories are emotionally “happy”—and actually be able to come up with a list of articles where the writer is feeling joyous about the topic of Obama. These stories might include topics like the euphoria and love surrounding Obama’s family, or excitement toward his message of change.”

Sood hopes to have the website ready for public use by the end of this summer. I’m already thinking of emotional buzzwords and topics to pair them with…the possibilities are endless.