Art and research duo Cooking Sections expands project to save Turkey's water buffaloes

The team has collaborated with Royal College of Architecture in London and Community Jameel to place the threatened species in the spotlight

One of two projects funded by the the three-year Climavore x Jameel collaboration will study the water buffaloes in Turkish wetlands endangered by a major development project. Photo: Deniz Sabuncu
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In a new partnership, the artists and researchers known as Cooking Sections have signed a three-year agreement with the Royal College of Architecture in London and Community Jameel.

The collaboration, titled Climavore x Jameel, will allow Daniel Fernandez Pascual and Alon Schwabe of Cooking Sections to focus on two large-scale projects analysing how climate change is affecting the food we eat and the way we grow it.

“With Climavore, we're looking at the new seasons of the climate crisis, and how we adapt the food infrastructure to them,” says Fernandez Pascual. Instead of spring, summer, autumn and winter, or dry and rainy seasons — which are now losing their traditional dates and temperatures — the pair have identified new “seasons”: periods of drought, oceanic pollution and soil depletion.

“The idea for Climavore x Jameel at RCA is to develop long-term projects that enact change and leave a certain legacy or a continuation after a biennial or an exhibition closes. Climavore creates a framework that then takes over and then continues the work in the local context. It’s building food infrastructure.”

Fernandez Pascual and Schwabe met as students at Goldsmiths, University of London and started working together as Cooking Sections in 2012. Combining art and activism, they identified food as the means through which social, cultural, and political vectors of climate change come together.

While ideas of varying one’s diet and eating local have become increasingly common, what is particular about Cooking Sections is how they use the food chain to access a cultural and political network — which is one reason the ecologically minded duo are sited, perhaps counter-intuitively, in the art world.

“We wear many hats because we think it is conceptually interesting to not to be constrained by discipline,” says Fernandez Pascual. “But also because of the opportunities and collaborators that wearing many hats can bring. In the art world, you can bring in certain kinds of partners and then you use the agency of museums to have a voice in questions around ecology or food production.”

For their most famous project, Salmon: A Red Herring, the pair investigated the damage caused by salmon farming, from the chemical they (and ultimately we) ingest that turns them an artificial shade of pink, to the lice that grows within the salmon farms and leeches onto other fish in the ocean. As a result of their work, which they showed at Tate in 2020, they pressured the food supplier for all Tate venues in the UK to stop serving salmon on its menu — and ultimately took salmon off the menu for 20 cultural sites across the UK.

“More and more we are thinking about how we create system change,” says Schwabe. “This is also where sometimes the art world has its limits, because it's very good at reflecting and talking — but how do we break away or expand the possibilities to get into the crux of the system?”

The RCA and Jameel collaboration will allow them to hire two permanent researchers, in addition to their existing team, who will all be based at the London institution. The partnership funds two two projects in particular: Monoculture Meltdown, in which they are investigating the effects of drought and intensive agriculture, and Water Buffalo Commons, looking at the water-buffalo wetlands that have been drained for development in Turkey.

The water buffalo are semi-domesticated animals that are a major source of food and labour for the people living in the wetlands where the European and Asian sides of the country meet. Their milk provides traditional foodstuffs — such as muhallabeci, a sweet yellowish dessert; kaymak, clotted cream; and sutlac rice pudding, sold on in Istanbul — and anchors the culture of the area.

Their territory, however, is now doubly threatened: first by the drying of the wetlands that is also endangering water buffaloes in the Iraqi marshes, and secondly by a $10 billion canal proposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The infrastructure project would bisect the European side of the country and allow shipping companies to bypass the Bosphorus — expanding the amount of traffic and, crucially, allowing the Turkish government to charge fees for passage through the canal. The Bosphorus is considered international waters.

However, critics say the canal would also decimate Lake Durusu, which provides a fifth of all drinking water for Istanbul. It would also run through the Thracian wetlands, devastating the ecologically rare lives of villagers and their unique traditions. During the Ottoman Empire, many of the buffalo herders migrated to the region from Bulgaria, bringing with them their songs, dances, and folk costumes.

Water Buffalo Commons began in 2021 at the Istanbul art space Salt, where as part of their exhibition Climavore: Seasons Made to Drift, they dug a wallow for the buffaloes outside the city and used the extracted clay to produce thousands of pots, which they exhibited to call attention to the potential damage from the proposed Istanbul Canal.

The following year, they were chosen to participate in Istanbul Art Biennial and leveraged this invitation to support the vulnerable buffalo herding culture further. In late September last year, they held a water buffalo festival outside Istanbul, bringing together the local villagers to celebrate their unique traditions of this area on the European side — all held together by the herding buffaloes for their milk.

Under the new collaboration, the Climavore team will return to Istanbul and reopen the muhallabeci milk shop that they developed as part of the biennial, making it into a permanent storefront. The team are are also working on creating a network of restaurants that will promote the products, giving the herders a long-term source of income and bringing visibility back to the complicated nexus that creates these quintessential Turkish desserts: buffaloes need to roam free in the wetlands in order to create the milk, and for them to do so, the size of their grazing area needs to be preserved.

Monoculture Meltdown, which will be in Southern Italy, likewise celebrates non-industrial forms of farming. As drought becomes more common in the area, the Climavore team will work with local farmers to integrate crops from existing dryland climates globally — diversifying their food production and working across several planting and harvesting cycles.

“What is interesting for us is how we work on ecological time,” says Schwabe. “How do we adapt and transform different kinds of spaces to tackle different inequalities? In order to do that, we had to set up this kind of infrastructure because the cultural space we work in many times is not equipped to do this kind of work right here.”

Updated: April 22, 2023, 7:04 AM