The Recipe Exchange, Helen Pritchard

The first thing about this exhibition that attracts me is the title: The Recipe Exchange. The word ‘recipe’ immediately makes me think of food. However, being housed in an art gallery, it has to be recipes with a twist.

The set-up of the exhibition is very similar to the setting of workshops and learning areas. There are tables, stools, monitors, video recordings showing how to do/make things, relevant books lying about, guidelines of how to fill out forms….

It does not have the usual exhibits one would expect to see in an art show. In fact if this was housed in a community centre or in a corner of a library, I guess few would take much notice of it.

On closer examination, the first room displays snapshots of people doing various things. In the second room, three videos are playing in loops. These are recordings of group activities ranging from How to Spin Wool to How to Negotiate with Landowners/Create a Footpath. There is a big round table with two Apple Macs sitting on it in the last room and on the wall is a big notice giving some tips on how to write recipes.

The gallery leaflet mentions that the space has been purposely turned into a workshop environment and The Recipe Exchange is a project that expands on the traditional notion of a ‘recipe’ which members of a community share socially.

Based on this idea of sharing and exchanging know-how, the artist and residents from two East Devon villages have organised activities and developed an online archive of ‘recipes’. I suppose therefore that this show is documentation of what has already happened and been done and, at the same time, serves as a space for continuous participation by a wider public outside the named villages.

I am a little perplexed as to how I should view this exhibition: is it a collaborative art project, or is it simply a collaborative project that happens in communities from time to time? The question in my mind at the time is: what sets The Recipe Exchange apart from, say, an actual recipe exchange group set up in a community?

I suppose The Recipe Exchange is ‘intended’ to be an art project to be led by an artist. Besides organising related activities, an online archive is also created as an open platform for dialogue, exchange/share of ideas/advice and room for further development.

However, in both cases (The Recipe Exchange and an ordinary recipe exchange group), detailed information, clear instruction and tips are expected. During the collaboration, social dialogues would take place; ideas would be shared, modified, adopted, explored; advice sought and very likely, if there are some enthusiasts in the latter case, they might also set up an online site/blog/archive for the benefit of the original group and a wider circle of online users. This de-centralises the concept of ‘an author’ which The Recipe Exchange intends to do.

The scenario of the latter case also fits in the idea of the first that the artist proposes “‘being open’ as a way of ‘being together’”.

On one hand, I believe art is a living thing, like languages, values and many other things. It changes through time and takes on different looks. It is particularly exciting and stimulating when a new idea challenges the old, evolves from the traditional and develops an independent life. In this respect, I need more persuasion from The Recipe Exchange that it has challenged the conventional way of looking at an age-old tradition and is about to take it to a new direction.

On the other hand, as someone has said, as long as it is interesting and engaging, it makes no difference to that person whether it is categorised as ‘art’ or not. This brings me to think, if art is to reflect life in its myriad of ways, is it possible to pigeon-hole it into what is and what is not art, or indeed, is it necessary? The Recipe Exchange offers something for the young and the old, not only the participants in the original project but people from the street – there is something for everyone, including me, to take home.