Lexie Smith on Bread and the Current State of Things
Written by Paige Labuda
Lexie Smith is growing her own wheat right now. The normally Queens based artist is sequestered on a farm upstate and met with me in late April on a Zoom call. Smith works with bread, mainly. It is the tether between a lot of disparate paths of thought, of writing and inquiry, of work Smith does with her hands. These days, Smith is most focused on sourdough starter - a natural leavening agent created from flour and water and time. In late March, she put out an open call on her various digital platforms offering to mail some of this dehydrated starter to anyone that needed it. Individual packets have been sent across the globe, and Smith is doing her best to track as the culture is shared and spreads.
As this is now getting published, the world has once against shifted since the time we talked. Social media has opened space for the exchange of critical texts from the Black radical tradition, fundraisers to bail out Black Lives Matter protesters and provide jail support, primers on abolition, and beyond. Captioning a photo of David Hammons' The Orders Come From The Wind, 1993, posted on her Instagram on June 1st, Smith writes "all pales in comparison to murder, because picking a picture to put above a caption to link to a URL that directs to a document that spells out more hyperlinks- this doesn’t feel like Life." She talked about this with me about half way through our conversation - weeks before this new context for Instagram began to exist. It is an uneasy method of sharing, an unnatural platform for the sort of education that must occur, but the digital space is perhaps the most truly accessible channel for proliferation of words and direction at this time. Smith has written A Brief Primer on Why and How the American Food System Represents and Upholds Structural Racism that I implore you to read, and to pass on to others.
Paige Labuda: Your sourdough starter offer has had a sort of mind-blowing response. Why do you think so many people are drawn to this right now?
Lexie Smith: A lot of people who are really interested in making bread right now aren't doing it because they can't feed their kids. They're doing it because we are surrounded by a sort of crumbling infrastructure that always held us and made us feel safe even if it's subconsciously, and Bread is a kind of girdle. Throughout history we can witness fluctuations in our relationship to it [bread] during times of instability. It is physically a form of sustenance, but beyond that it's something that we've always had. When you don't have bread and you can't have bread it means something is really wrong. This is what we've been taught.
PL: This resurgence of bread positivity seems pretty contrary to the contemporary almost vilification of bread in mass culture (the gluten free movement...).
LS: In the last 10-15 years, when you don't have bread it's been a sign that you actually have everything else. And what's happening now is a sort of global leveling on a certain scale. The people who were able to make that choice before and decide they preferred the absence of something in order to feel secure are now going back in the other direction. When we are stuck in this very surreal cycle where we can't make things, we can't think about the future, we can't contact people and provide comfort for them and get comfort from them in the way that we're used to, Bread is a kind of proxy. It's a substitute for all of those things. There is the comfort that comes from feeling precarious and bread having historically represented sustenance and safety and also physically and literally representing that, in that when you don't have any other things to feed yourself and your family you can rely on bread. What I'm hoping is coming from this is a sort of awakening to our consumer reliance on markets when we could be doing the same thing for ourselves.
PL: So, what is bread to you? It seems like it plays a lot of roles.
LS: It is the thing that I research, it is the thing that I sort of exalt, in making it I'm constantly amazed by it. I consider it a medium in my art practice, I call it that. And the reason why it's all of those things is because it is the only thing that I have found that has the capacity to be all of those things. There's something about its specificity and its simultaneous broadness that is just endlessly giving. I haven't reached any roads end yet. I'm obsessed with Bread, obviously, maybe, but it's also the places that I end up either in my head or in books or on the Internet or in the conversations I'm having. I'm deeply interested in those things that the study of Bread has led me to.
PL: How did you get here? What path did bread take in your life?
LS: I was always baking. But I was like 'I don't want to be a baker.' There was something that I felt was actually derogatory about that term which is fascinating to me still. I wanted to be a writer, to do something heavy and theoretical and abstract. I was doing a hundred different things and I was studying a hundred different things. And Bread was the thing that I came back to over and over again. It was a way for me to hone in as somebody who was naturally pretty fractured and distracted. I needed something to pin me down and it was a tunnel I could look through and see the whole world that way. And I still feel that to be true.
PL: You have taken on this role as a provider - sending out starter, along with being a digital source of recipes for a lot of new bakers. What has that changed for you?
LS: It's been a lesson in how to be a clear teacher - a clear and patient teacher. Even when my instinct is to fuck things up and make it personal and confusing.
PL: How do you think your work functions digitally?
LS: I feel grateful to be able to reach people so that they can have the information that I'm trying to share because I don't believe in skill building and hoarding. But it is not where I want my work to live. I do not enjoy being a Public Figure. I do not enjoy being in the foreground of my work. I feel like it is most useful as a tool to help people right now. I am an active participant in the conversation, so it's given me a lot. It has allowed me to hopefully give other people a lot. But I think that it can be very flattening. People want a certain thing from digital space, and when something disrupts that it's not necessarily surprising and inspiring. It can be but it's often confusing. And I've never really had an issue with being confusing as in I'm OK with being confusing, I kind of encourage being confusing because if I'm confusing you it's like our brains stretch and compromise. There is something very uncomfortably contemporary about giving directions in an Instagram caption. And what I'm trying to share is much more complex than a caption or a post. It's dynamic and it's human, and that is lost a lot of the time. This is a physical body that we're working with - physical forms that are meant to be experienced and literally eaten. And none of us are living in an ideal world right now. But for the current moment the digital space is the best one I can imagine. And I hope that it means when this curtain is lifted, we can all live more presently outside of the digital space because we might appreciate it more.
PL: Do you think things will be drastically changed in that way because of this pandemic?
LS: We were teetering on the brink of something dangerous and disastrous which was the growing alienation of living in a capitalist market-based society that exists predominantly in the digital sphere as it is. Already we're seeing a resurgence in community-based support and behavior in general. It definitely has created a new sense of isolation. A forced sense of isolation, a very real tangible sense of isolation. Not a sort of ephemeral soul-based isolation. And we have to work to come up with new ways to build our communities. We have to slow down and engage with the present moment. And figure out what our present moment looks like. We just have more fucking time. I think that we can be sure that people are going to feel nostalgic for this time in a way, and no one's talking about that because it feels really icky and uncomfortable to say. We're all terrified because we don't have any money and we're unsafe and people are dying but there's a stillness to the moment right now that hasn't existed in a very long time. Us getting a sense of that, even if it is fleeting, will change the way that we go about communicating. But I don't know. Maybe everything goes exactly back to where it was or worse. Wouldn't that be crazy.
PL: Wouldn't it. I am really interested in the things that draw you, in memories and preferences, so I have some questions that are meant to pick your brain a bit. So - what is a piece of furniture that sticks out in your memory?
LS: I grew up with this table that was an antique toilet. It was one of these things that absolutely should have been explained to me. We had that always and it was covered in cup ring stains. I love that table so much and I don't know what happened to it. Just a decrepit wooden toilet in the middle of the living room.
PL: What's your last day on Earth meal?
LS: It's so trite to say Bread but it would be good sourdough that's been cooked on an open flame that has olive oil and really briny anchovies on it.
PL: What are you consuming - what has moved you recently?
LS: I fear I won't be able to give you a good answer. I can tell you a book that I read that the last page made me cry. It's Letters from James Agee to Father Fly. James Agee is one of my favorite authors and I was in Spain and I remember sitting having a cigar and drinking a glass of wine by myself. I read the last page and I just sobbed.
PL: It sounds kind of idyllic now, to be alone. Somewhere.
LS: I know. I'd been traveling for two years nonstop before this and I was about to stop. I just could not do it anymore. Now I need to get out.
PL: I have one last question - what are you dreaming about doing now - what is your impulse to do first when this is all over?
LS: Oh, I want to go dancing. That's what I want to do. I mean that's not going to happen for two years and it makes me want to cry. But I really love to dance.