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Geneviève Sicotte’s Vital Signs offers a journey into an ‘imaginary food museum’

Concordia professor unveils a digital literary exploration of the cultural and affective meanings of what we eat
June 10, 2020
Geneviève Sicotte: “I’m interested in broadening our perspective and reminding us about the rich, manifold meanings that food can have.”
Geneviève Sicotte: “I’m interested in broadening our perspective and reminding us about the rich, manifold meanings that food can have.”

Geneviève Sicotte has long studied the cultural and affective meanings of food. In her research, the Concordia professor of French studies investigates how these meanings are expressed and developed in literature. More than a simple substance used to fuel the body, food can take on a myriad of meanings.

“Extreme contrasts are already at stake when it comes to food: satisfaction and lack, pleasure and danger, appetite and disgust,” she says. “It is enmeshed in our personal history and in our intimate emotions. It is integrated into our cultural, social, economic and political codes.”

These are some of the angles from which Sicotte explores the meanings behind food in her new research-creation project Signes de vie / Vital Signs

Digital literary work

Offered in both French and English, Vital Signs is a collection of micro-poems, vibrant videos and reflective essays that aim to uncover the “secret language” of food that emerges throughout life.

Sicotte says: “I wanted to use the format of a website and try to transform it into art.” The work is organized in three virtual “rooms”. It begins with minimalist visuals poems before moving to more discursive narratives through videos, and ends with written reflections.

Image from Vital Signs | Photo by Michael Smart Image from Vital Signs | Photo by Michael Smart

Food and biography

The principal part of the work explores the personal and cultural significations of food at various stages in the narrator’s life. One video recounts the experience of gathering raspberries as a youth. Elsewhere, the narrator describes the fantasy of stopping by the bakery to buy bread before running off to join the circus. Another story touches upon the disturbing links between consumption and death.

Vital Signs explores themes such as family relationships, the senses and consciousness, and the cycles of life. In some moments, foods serve as analogies and metonyms for emotions. In others, foods are the symbols of life-defining events.

“I like to think that these themes can resonate with others’ experiences. Your first relationships to others and to the world are reflected and constructed throughfood.”

The virtual world and the senses

Sicotte discusses the relationship between food and the digital realm. “We are living in a world where many of our interactions are virtual — in various senses. Even with food. We look at cooking videos on YouTube. We search for recipes on websites. There are positive aspects to this, but we also have to be conscious of our relationship to the material world. Our contemporary way of life can estrange us from the material,” she notes.

“In this work, I explore a paradox: I use a virtual representation — a website — to bring viewers to an awareness of the material world. I want to remind us to appreciate our senses.”

Sicotte adds that we’re not always taught to trust our perceptions, to trust that there is knowledge there.

“I want to reflect on this and renew our valuation of the senses. This is part of the reason for using images and sound as well as words.”

Dark flavours

Sicotte also addresses the implications of food as a fad.

“Food itself has become popular. People turn to ‘food porn’ for pleasure and as a compensation for hardships. That’s understandable. At the same time, in reality, food can be linked to sad, difficult or even repulsive emotions. It tells pleasant stories, but also troubling ones,” she explains.

“When we think about food exclusively in terms of the comfort it offers, we’re missing something. I’m interested in broadening our perspective and reminding us about the rich, manifold meanings that food can have. My work may shock some viewers if they only expect a comforting experience. But I think it proposes an experience that can touch many eaters. And in the end, there is a positive resolution, an appeasement that is also something I wanted to share.”

Check out
Signes de vie / Vital Signs — a food-oriented digital literary work by Concordia French studies professor Geneviève Sicotte.

Don’t miss the virtual launch event (Zoom and Facebook Live) in collaboration with 4TH Space, Thursday, June 25 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.


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