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Hugh Pocock

The MICA professor on food systems, ecology, and the "Baltimore Food Ecology Documentary" project

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A still from "Baltimore Food Ecology Documentary"

"Baltimore Food Ecology Documentary"

Brown Center's Falvey Hall, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m.

Over the 2009-'10 academic year, Hugh Pocock led a class called the Baltimore Food Ecology Documentary (BFED) at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Pocock, a MICA foundation faculty member in general fine arts and video, has long held an interest in the natural world and human interactions with it--his 2009 My Food My Poop exhibition abstracted his energy consumption, measured in the difference in mass between what he consumed and what he eliminated as waste ("What Crap," Art, Aug. 12, 2009)--and he has taught courses in sustainability at MICA, such as the 2010 Summer Urban Farming course ( The BFED course was a partnership between Pocock and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which was aimed at "supporting a course that produced a video and also an experience for students to be immersed in the food system of Baltimore," Pocock says by phone.

The yearlong course demanded that the nine MICA students enrolled spent the first semester researching how food gets to the plate in Baltimore and the complex issues surrounding that journey--food production, food distribution, the dietary problems resulting from food iniquities--and the second semester producing a documentary video. "It was a content-based course that then drove the technical skills to communicate what they know into a digestible, time-based video," Pocock says.

The result, the half-hour "Baltimore Food Ecology Documentary," is a Baltimore-specific exploration of the ongoing food discussions that have creeped into the American culture and consciousness over the past decade. The students interviewed local foodies--such as John Shields, the Gertrude's chef and lay regional food expert; Southwest Baltimore food activist Joyce Smith; and Greg Strella of the Baltimore Public Schools' Great Kids Farm--visited commercial food and seafood processing/distribution hubs in Jessup, explored how and what reaches corner stores in neighborhoods with no easily accessible large supermarkets, and, in general, delivered an incisive, well-researched, and persuasively argued look at where the food Baltimoreans eat comes from.

City Paper caught up with Pocock by phone to talk about its production and community engagement.

City Paper: Were the students coming into the class already interested in the subject matter?

Hugh Pocock: Yes. It was advertised as a class that would focus on local food issues, so the students who came in were really charged to learn more. One of the nice things about teaching a thematically based class is that students really want to learn. And they were a fantastic group of students that then really drove the documentary. They took over the voice of the documentary, the viewpoint. They took over the story-making aspect of it. And they also then coordinated the shooting and the editing process.

CP: That's cool, because it covers a great deal of ground, and I can only imagine how much information was gathered during that semester of research. How was the process of getting it down to a half-hour single piece?

HP: That was the most extraordinary part. We wound up, at the end of the semester, with this enormous quantity of information. And each aspect could have been turned into a documentary unto its own. But they really wanted to attempt to show the whole network of food. That was what they wanted to try to explain and depict in the video rather than just try to focus on one aspect. So they spent weeks in a classroom around a dry-erase board networking this thing out. And that's really the hardest part, to show a flow of information.

CP: That's hard enough doing it when it's just one person in the author's seat. I can't imagine doing it by committee.

HP: Yeah, there was a lot of discussion. And it takes longer. Some of it is also the experience of how to work collaboratively, how to make equitable decisions, and how to then create roles. Some people took on some things more than others. Some students were more engaged with camerawork and some students were more engaged with editing and some students were more engaged with making the music and the animations. So they took on different parts. But the decisions on what the videotape says, this trail of experiences, was a fairly consensus-oriented process.

CP: What's your read on how the students feel about the end result? Are they happy with it?

HP: I think, yes, they are. I think they're now wondering how good it is-they're all so close to it that it's hard to gauge. I think that they're also pleased that they've come out with a tangible result that they can use for lots of different reasons. They're able to screen it and talk about what they've learned, because they're now, each one of them, somewhat experts on how food operates in Baltimore and a city like Baltimore-how it gets here on an industrial basis and how it gets produced on a more local basis. They know the problems with food iniquity in a post-industrial American city. They know all sides of the issues.

CP: What was this experience like for you? Did you have an idea what sort of result was going to come out of this process?

HP: It was a little scary, because I didn't know what was going to happen. As a teacher, I really feel it's important for students to have ownership of what occurs, but the risk there is that maybe nothing occurs. So there's not much curating but more trying to maintain a sense of flow and a lot of facilitating discussion around what it is that we're doing with this experience.

We had a tremendous amount of help from the Center for a Livable Future, where they visited us numerous times with research that they've conducted on diabetes and on nutrition and on food deserts, which is what they are really focusing on. And then they also introduced us to many people in the community-food activists, grocers, corner-store owners. So they really facilitated a lot of our immersion into Baltimore-and that is the difficult part of teaching a course like this. We like to be engaged in the community, but how we're engaged in the community is another question.

CP: I'm sure. Sometimes just building a relationship can take some time.

HP: Yeah-how do you walk into a corner store and start talking to them about what they sell and why? But having an introduction helps a great deal.

CP: In my limited exposure with your work, I get the impression you've always operated with an awareness of the ecosystem and natural resources. How did that interest begin for you?

HP: Well, for me it's another way of approaching how energy flows through a system, and food is a confluence of the caloric energy and the use of fossil fuels and its interaction in society-how those are consumed and distributed. So I'm fascinated to get further into it. And if I can be part of students learning more, I learn more.

For me, it's part of this confluence of education and artwork where we get further into this network of food and resource use and our interactions with it and how industry and individuals engage with this thing we have called the natural world. But we're learning that it's just our world that we live in. CP: I'm glad you brought up that confluence, because for me one of the exciting things about following MICA for the past decade, and especially the past five or six years, has been watching the school's commitment to community engagement and practical applications of creative labor. How did that develop-I mean, I think it's always been there, but it's really come to the fore in recent years. Is that the result of faculty interest? Is that the result of an administrative directive? Is that the result of recognizing the needs of Baltimore as an urban environment? Is that the result of a growing student interest in community-based art? HP: All four. It's faculty-driven-the faculty develops curriculum. Students enroll and promote a deeper understanding of what the curriculum needs to be. And the administration has been really responsive to the need for MICA to be more part of Baltimore. And there's been a long-standing Department of Community Arts at MICA, but now I'm developing a concentration in sustainability and social practice at MICA. And then there's also in development a graphic design concentration in social design. So there's really quite a bit going on in different tracks on how to approach the porosity between Baltimore and MICA. Students can learn a great deal from living in Baltimore and, also, we have the opportunity to actually learn how to be of service to the cities that we live in as artists and designers. It's sort of like a perfect match.

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