Between 2007 and 2009, Chicago artists Philip von Zweck and Kevin Jennings hosted Fryvalry, an annual cook-off between a vegetarian and a meatetarian, each behind a deep-fryer. The general public was invited to bring something for one of the two artists to deep-fry, then eat it.
Here is an informal conversation between the two about the project.
PvZ: Like most good ideas, I think the Fryvalry started as a joke. Kevin and I were in grad school together at the University of Illinois at Chicago and somehow it came up that we both owned deep fryers…
KJ: It seemed to be this funny opportunity to invite a broader group of people into a project. When you’re frying and the oil is hot you wind up either making too much food or experimenting. Frying food is just fun to watch and listen to. With more people involved, there is no down side. Even a horrible food experiment is fun to share. That inclusiveness has a lot to do with the broader project Philip has been working on. For my part it was an opportunity to get people engaged in competition. At the time, my work was focused on that.
PvZ: Right, I was really interested in participation because at the time I was concerned with authorship and commodity. I was working on projects like Temporary Allegiance, which is a public sculpture, a flag pole that anyone can sign up to fly anything on for a week at a time that is located on state land (UIC) so it works as a state-sanctioned, free-speech platform. But just prior to that Kevin did this really amazing project where he made a regulation arm wrestling table and challenged the faculty and our classmates to arm-wresting matches.
KJ: Other people could have their own matches, and there was a chart to record the outcomes too. Watching matches between other people was really entertaining, their facial expressions, guessing who was going to win, seeing people really trying. These were people you would never imagine in that type of physical battle. The spectacle quickly became more important than wins or losses, or anything else. In a similar way a lot of Philip’s projects gained momentum from individual contributions, but you could also step back and look at them as a whole.
PvZ: So that was the sort of work that lead to the Fryvalry, which is an event where you bring it, we fry it, you eat it. While we both own deep fryers, I’m a vegetarian and Kevin isn’t. The whole thing started as a discussion of the sorts of things we liked to fry and, I think, the general opinion that being a vegetarian is limiting and unfun. I mean, it is to an extent limiting, [and] there are lots of places where I won’t eat fried food because of the other things they fry in that oil, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t tons of interesting options and possibilities. And I think just through the discussion of “what do you fry?” we stumbled onto this idea of doing an event that could bring people together and let them participate but also try to make it fun and, I’d say, pseudo-competitive more than really competitive because everyone wins with fried food.
KJ: That’s right! Anyone who participates is a part of the conversation and makes the project work. I’ve seen so many people stare in amazement at something they would never eat come out of the fryer and get enjoyed by others. That’s important. Sometimes a meat eater, if asked whether or not they are a vegetarian, will answer that they will eat anything. The Fryvalry can put that to the test. One of the most beautifully disgusting results from either fryer was a breaded and deep fried head of lettuce. Anyone who witnessed that went home a winner.
PvZ: Dan Anhorn’s head of lettuce was pretty amazing, and I guess you could call it disgusting, but I don’t think it is disgusting on like, ethical grounds, more so on a pure, gut level. I think one of the most disturbing things I saw go into or come out of Kevin’s fryer was the tube of liverwurst, just slit open and squeezed in. From where I was standing (at my station) it came out looking like gravel— just little fried chunks of who knows what. Really off-putting. To be clear, though, there is a requirement that what goes into the fryer has to be edible, and the person who wants it fried has to at least try to eat it; but the goal isn’t for people to render perfectly fine foods unpleasant through the frying process, it is to provide a forum for people to experiment, to attempt to reimagine, even in a small way, what they can do with food. We provide the infrastructure— fryers, a few different batters, and condiments; we cut things up or peel them as needed; we fry it up. It allows people to play.
KJ: People ate that liverwurst with a spoon out of a bowl like deep-fried meat cereal. When it broke up in the fryer, I had my doubts, but I tried it and didn’t mind it at all. We keep a list of all the food that goes into the fryers so participants’ contributions can be noted and others can see what’s already been fried. There is always interest in all the other foods that have been fried and some people have a desire to stand out on that list. That plays into the competition, too. It’s not just vegetarian vs. meatetarians, one-upmanship plays into the project also.
PvZ: Right, we’re interested in what can be done, what people will come up with. I know I’m biased because I’m a vegetarian, but I do think that side is more creative; the meat eaters are so limited by needing to include meat, in the end they just take everything slated for the veggie fryer, wrap it in bacon and think they’ve reinvented the wheel!
KJ: Pseudo competitive? Right… I admit that the vegetarian side usually has a longer list at the end of the night. I am biased too, so I would say the meat eaters are more likely to go home full and happy. But we’re both on the same side when it comes to the focus of our work. We talk a lot about the relationship between art and art audiences. The Fryvalry has been really successful at making our audience into accomplices. That’s been a shared interest. We want to somehow implicate viewers in the process, or the concept, or the politics of the artwork. Sure, it’s kind of silly when you have on a chef’s hat and you’re about to drop a handful of battered gummy bears into hot oil, but someone came with that food, and they want to see and taste what’s going to happen. At the Fryvalry people share food, keep an eye on the entertainment of fryers, and talk about why they eat what they eat. It’s all deep fried so no one can get sanctimonious.
Philip von Zweck is a painter and artist who lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. Recent projects include two-person exhibitions with Andreas Fischer at HungryMan Gallery, San Francisco and Important Projects in Oakland. Solo exhibitions and projects include Performa 11 at INVISIBLE-EXPORTS, New York; NADA Hudson/INVISIBLE-EXPORTS; The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; 65GRAND, Chicago; Gallery 400, Chicago; three-walls, Chicago; and Medicine Cabinet, Chicago. He received his MFA from UIC and BFA from SAIC. He hosted and produced the weekly radio show Something Else on WLUW from 1995-2010 and ran the living room gallery VONZWECK from 2005-2008. Currently he is Founding President and C.E.O. of Thornberry, producer of the world’s finest door stops.
Kevin Jennings is an artist and teacher who lives in Chicago. Solo exhibitions of his work were shown at VONZWECK and Second Bedroom. He regularly participates in collaborative projects and group exhibitions at sites around Chicago including the Hyde Park Art Center, D Gallery, Manifold, Antena, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. He received his MFA in 2004 from UIC. He currently holds the position of Director of Innovation at Thornberry.
All images courtesy of Philip Von Zweck and Kevin Jennings.
Get the artists’ recipe for deep-fry batter (3 ways) here.