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Are food trucks a form of art?

Are food trucks a form of art? Some arts organizations think so, and are giving the grants to prove it.

FOOD WITH CHARACTER Yes, this is really how the Tamalespaceship guys dress.

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the question of whether food can be art (see: any article written in the past ten years about Ferran Adria and/or Grant Achatz). Thanks to a grant he’s received, Eric May might finally have the answer.

Last year, May, who owns Roots & Culture Gallery, received $9,000 from Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts to support the development of what he’s dubbed the E-Dogz Mobile Culinary Community Center. With the money (and an additional $3,000 raised via Kickstarter) he plans to purchase a trailer to hitch to the back of his truck, where he’ll sell snacks prepared in the gallery’s kitchen and stage events he describes as part block party, part cooking demo.

“We’ll have music and I’d like to open it up to other sorts of performances. So it’ll be sort of like a party wherever it goes,” May says. But he’s quick to qualify, lest that seem frivolous: “I say ‘party’ but there’s always going to be food politics involved in these projects…the idea is [to] expand and challenge people’s ideas of where food comes from and what can be sustainable food sources.”

“The act of starting a food truck in Chicago is a political act in itself,” he adds. “There’s so little of this thing here that cultivates strong communities in other parts of the world.”

The grant, says Judy Ledgerwood, chair of Northwestern’s department of Art Theory and Practice, where May is an MFA candidate, is designed to support not just new work, but also new modes of artistic presentation. “Everybody eats,” she says. “Eric’s proposal brings together his interest in food culture and art culture and takes it to the streets, and that’s what’s so compelling about it. It’s really accessible to everyone.”

Driven by a similar, if more colorful, mission, a trio of former Frontera Grill workers launched Tamalli Space Charros on January 18. Inspired by Mexican sci-fi movies, wrestling and the 20th-century avant-garde movement known as Stridentism, the entire enterprise—complete with character names and lucha libre masks—is street theater at its most absurd and culinary.

“We’re taking tamales to a new level, and to new audiences,” says the sombrero-clad leader of the group, who has asked to go by his character’s name, Aztlan Cardinal. The photographer and performance artist is speaking on behalf of the entire TSC Collective, a clutch of seven international artists who’ve appended their names to the Propeller Fund grant supporting the project. Their proposal outlines a “long-term performance art project addressing the interaction among body, food, machines, wireless poetry and the city”; the performance is based out of the Tamalespaceship, a 1978 food truck bought on eBay and blasting communiqués to the world via Twitter. It is, to quote the proposal, “an interdisciplinary business project that brings multimedia art and Mexican cuisine into a new arena where boundaries are meant to be crossed in order to explore and reinvent Chicago’s food scene through a social network.”

“We were interested in the fact that it’s marrying food and Mexican history and technology and performance all in one,” says Lauren Basing, assistant director of ThreeWalls, which administers the Propeller Fund grant. “The food is just the way to bring people in.”

Right now the whole thing is a bit of a blank canvas—literally. On a recent frigid night Ximénez and his partners shivered as they served savory tamales and guacamole out of the unadorned battleship-silver truck parked outside the Vic Theatre. One of them wore a lucha libre mask. Someday, collective members will decorate the “spaceship” with murals; they’ll stage an elaborate performance-art dinner at Kitchen Chicago, and fully articulate the connection between TSC and Stridentism, whose antielitist slogan, “Viva el mole de guajalote!” serves as TSC’s rallying cry.

Currently, though, they admit to more pedestrian concerns. “Parking is a problem,” says partner Manny Hernandez. “Once we find a place to park, it’s easy.”

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