Other Investigations: Eric May

I met Eric May when I was a work-study student in the kitchen the very first summer I attended Ox-Bow, the summer after my first year of undergrad at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (just about 5 years ago now). Since then, I have returned to Ox-Bow a couple times and have attended numerous exhibition openings at Roots & Culture where Eric is usually to be seen serving beer, wine, and sometimes home-cooked snacks from behind the counter in his kitchen which opens into the gallery. Not mentioned in Eric’s artist statement or bio is his role and history as a DJ. Every Friday night at Ox-Bow, you will be sure to find Eric not on the dance floor but behind the turntables at the weekly costume party. This summer, while attending Shannon Stratton’s Party As Form class at Ox-Bow, I was lucky enough to hear Eric give a history of his experience as a DJ, complete with photos of old costume parties from Ox-Bow’s history and a mixtape playing in the background. It seemed only right to ask Eric to put together a playlist for Make Space to be posted (below) along with images and writing about his work.

E 2 Tha Z 2, Flyer for Piranha Club #3 with Jonathan Zaragoza and E-Dogz, 2012
E 2 Tha Z 2, Flyer for Piranha Club #3 with Jonathan Zaragoza and E-Dogz, 2012

On exploring food in his work:

“My work explores relationships with food—where it comes from, who is producing it, and how we eat it. Through cooking, writing, and hosting participatory events and public interventions, I hope to arrive at a heightened awareness of the meaning of food and its practices.

Food is inherently social, so my practices strive to provide a catalyst for engagement and conviviality while often approaching subject matter that has a weight of social consequence. The practices of cooking and eating are undeniably central to our lives and thusly are an easy-to-pick-up conversation topic that transcends social differences. A sense of service runs throughout my practices, which began in my professional career in food service. The form of service naturally became a comfortable way for me to engage with audiences about issues of food production and consumption.

In some works, I examine progressive food sourcing such as foraging or re-evaluating invasive species as potential urban food sources. These projects confront preferences and prejudices towards certain foods and suggest a shift in cultural attitudes toward a sustainable, common sense relationship with food. Other works challenge dominant power structures that serve capital gains over collective health and well being. Whether addressing the industrial junk food diet of the public school student or the denial of a last meal to a prison inmate on death row, my work addresses institutional systems that impair a just diet for all peoples.

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In my recent work, I focus on cultural heritage– the traditions, the stories, and the evolution of cuisines. These projects document and celebrate cultural histories, such as Hot Mix: An Exploration of South Side Foodways, a research, exhibition, and food event-based project, which proposes that the South Side of Chicago has a unique culinary history that reflects the movements of populations over time in the region. As a native South Side Chicagoan, this project reflects my own personal cultural traditions from my German ancestry to the hot dog stand fare I enjoyed in my youth.”

On his practice:

“I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, within striking distance of both decent taco joints and wooded ravines alike. My undergraduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago led me first to the big city and then to a forested, idyllic hamlet called Ox-Bow in western Michigan. My summers at Ox-Bow have taught me invaluable lessons about love, work, and community. I’ve stuck around ever since, working as a dishwasher, a cook, and since 2004, the chef. It was always a challenge for me to find a similar spirit of fellowship in the city, which led me to the conviviality of Chicago’s burgeoning alternative art space scene. Equipped with the stove I learned to cook on, a gaggle of talented buddies, and a pretty primo location, I opened Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center in 2006. After burning out in the studio and returning to the kitchen time and time again to express myself, I realized that I better start figuring out how to frame my cooking as art and I found this language in the MFA program at Northwestern University. I now run a theoretical food truck called E-Dogz from which I celebrate street food traditions and develop mongrelized recipes. In 2011, I began the Piranha Club, a monthly dining situation for which I collaborate with chefs from both the art and food worlds to explore provocative ideas about cuisine.”

Download Eric May’s MAKE playlist here!

  1. Loaded / Primal Scream
  2. Double Dutch / Malcolm McLaren
  3. Magdalena (Exclusiva Gales) / Erick Rincon
  4. Rumours / Sepalcure
  5. Inspector Norse /Todd Terje
  6. Countdown / Pulp
  7. I Wonder If I Take You Home (feat. Full Force) / Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam
  8. A Daisy Chain 4 Satan / My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult
  9. Knock Me Down / Red Hot Chili Peppers
  10. Torn Apart (feat. Rita Ora) / Snoop Lion
  11. Collard Greens (feat. Kendrick Lamar) / Schoolboy Q
  12. Smoke Again (ft. Ab-Soul) / Chance The Rapper
  13. Tan Leather / Action Bronson
  14. She a Go (feat. Spinn & Taso) / DJ Rashad
  15. Heartbreaks + Setbacks / Thundercat
  16. Bank Head (Extended) [Prod. Kingdom] / Kelela