Food, food culture, food as culture and the cultures that grow our food

Soy story: food subculture club visits an exhibiton of Romanian otaku culture

July 9, 2006

Textured soy packaging - Romanian otaku exhibition and BBQ at Mediamatic 11.06.2006
An array of Romanian textured soy products

What could be more obvious than the fact that the noble soybean, or rather, the humble hunk of textured soy and contemporary Romanian otaku culture are inextricably linked. You already knew that, right?

About one month ago, Mediamatic hosted a most unusual food-related exhibition about the intricate and vivid world of Romanian otaku. Otaku, a once Japanese, and now ubiquitous term for fanatic, refers to the group of people that live out the bulk of their social and cultural lives in social game spaces online. Artists Stefan Tiron (curator/artist), Bogdan Marcu (artist, musician) and Linda Barkasz (cosplayer/artist) playfully offered a glimpse of the inner workings of this subculture through a multi-media installation, comprised of costumes, hacked and remade computer animations, collections of manga literature, glittery stickers, sparkles, a replica of a Romanian otaku’s room, a goodly amount of oral history and a good old-fashioned BBQ featuring about as many Romanian soy products as anyone could stomach.

Stefan soy story - Romanian otaku exhibition and BBQ at Mediamatic 11.06.2006
Stefan Tiron opens the Mediamatic BBQ and tells the Romanian textured soy story

To attempt to sketch the outlines of a living subculture through art (or the medium of BBQ for that matter) was an inspired move by curator Arne Hendriks. All the more so because in the selfsame building at the very same time, the Stedelijk Museum was hosting a flat and populistic exhibition about the role of art in online game culture, Next Level. Obviously I prefer an exhibiton initiated out of engagement with the creators of contemporary culture to an exhibition produced to increase visitor numbers amongst teenagers whether there’s a BBQ involved or not.

Curator Arne Hendricks and participating artist, Bogdan Marcu - Romanian otaku exhibition and BBQ at Mediamatic 11.06.2006
Curator Arne Hendriks and artist Bogdan Marcu converge. Sausage on the left, soy on the right

Katerina and particpating artist/cosplayer Linda Barkasz - Romanian otaku exhibition and BBQ at Mediamatic 11.06.2006
Artist Linda Barkasz tells Katerina the story of the Romanian otaku whose offline personality was in need of a boost and for whom she made this costume.

What I learned during this food subculture club outing is that although soy is probably only specifically important to these particular Romanian otaku, soy has certainly played an important role in Romanian cultural history. For realsies.
Henry Ford hits the soy plastic car body of his soy car with an axe
Henry Ford gives his soy car a whack, source unknown, image used entirely without permission

In the 1980’s, Romanian dictator Nicaolae Ceaucescu attempted to pay off his country’s debts to the World Bank by halting (food) imports to Romania. The country was to become self sufficient’ish’, especially in terms of food production. During this period, which the Romanian Otaku artists remember as young children (except for young Linda), there was widespread hunger, child abandonment and all manner of hunger-induced problems. While his folk starved to pay off the country’s debts, Ceaucescu decided to introduce an appropriately utopian foodstuff into the culture, one that would act as a beacon for its utopian future. What the heq is it about soy that just screams things can only get better? Henry Ford held soy in such high esteem that he designed a car out of it and in an enthusiastic and spontaneous publicity stunt to prove the soy-car’s sustainability, took an axe to the trunk.

Father dishes up the textured soy whilst son uses body language to communicate his scepticism - Romanian otaku exhibition and BBQ at Mediamatic 11.06.2006
At the Romanian otaku Soy Story BBQ, a father dishes up soy whilst his son uses clear body language to express his scepticism

On the other hand, if you want to be efficient about increasing your population’s protein intake, soy is a really good bet. But it wasn’t Ceacescu’s style to simply introduce a new bean and tell his people to get cookin’. He wanted a fully designed food product, a product that could represent progress and modernity. Unfortunately for the entire world, Ceacescu didn’t give the Romanians actual soybeans to play with (and from which you can make all manner of delicious foods) but an end product called textured soy, a foodstuff so highly processed and vile, that many people would rather go hungry (or build a car) than try to incorporate it into their food.

Artist Stefan Tiron remembers that in the late 1980’s, food in Romanian cities was so scarce that to attract customers, shopkeepers would make sculptures out of empty food packaging in their empty shops in the hopes of offering their customers something that resembled a consumer experience. Tiron told me that if it weren’t for the close ties that many city dwellers had with their relatives in the countryside (and for the presence of adhoc urban agriculture), the entire country would have starved to death. For those willing to bite the bullet, communinist party membership equalled access to animal protein and extremely humorous slang words emerged to describe the available cuts of meat. In a 1980’s Romanian version of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Addidas meant pig’s feet and a computer was a pig’s head.

Scene from the film Soylent Green (?) (not verified)
Unverified scene from the film Soylent Green, image source unknown and used entirely without permission

In a misguided attempt to expose the Romanian population to dystopic visions of Western culture, the underground cult film, Soylent Green (1973) was shown in mainstream cinemas all over Romania in the early 80’s. The movie’s title comes from the fictional industrial food product produced by the Soylent Corporation from plankton and soy. In the film, soylent green is essentially government produced hardtack, and one of only a few foods available. The relation between the film’s plot with the situation in the Heimatt was not at all lost on Romanian movie-goers. Angst is us!

Angst - Romanian otaku exhibition and BBQ at Mediamatic 11.06.2006
A Romanian soy patĂ© brand called Angst, sports a 1930’s German typeface and a WWII blimp!

The connection between Romanian soy history and contemporary Romanian otaku culture is a stretch, and maybe it only exists by virture of this soy story and the oral history of these particular Romanian otaku, but artists Tiron and Barkasz insist that Ceacescu’s utopian fanaticism with textured soy laid the foundations for a youth culture that would, if not so much reject the physical world, at least embrace the online one most heartily. And maybe the online environment of the contemporary Romanian otakus offers a real alternative to the lack of housing for most homebound Romaninan twenty-somethings. For many young people still living at home, an online social life is a coherent option for autonomy and could explain the immense popularity of MMORPGs (massive multi-player online role playing games) in Romania. According to Barkasz, amongst these otakus the most popular subject, even in the fantastical world of online role-playing, is food. When Barkasz breached the subject of food on her blog early this year (entries January 6 - 30, 2006, in Romanian), readers flocked to tell their stories of eating at the computer and upload pictures of computer food moments.

Homemade slivowitz - Romanian otaku exhibition and BBQ at Mediamatic 11.06.2006
Stefan Tiron hocks homemade sliwowitz, in a plastic PET bottle. Mind your eyes!

Soymallow - Romanian otaku exhibition and BBQ at Mediamatic 11.06.2006
Mediamatic folks are no stranger to culinary experimentation and embrace the notion of making ’s mores with chopsticks and vegetarian marshmallows made from… soy.

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