Lunch as Performance: The Artistic Side of Tunafish


© Yi-Chun Wu/The Museum of Modern Art

When I talk to Alison Knowles, an artist deeply involved in the Fluxus movement, we talk about the weather, the recent visit of her grandchildren, and what she had for lunch. She has been performing at New York's Museum of Modern Art since January 13, but Knowles doesn't fit the stereotype of an established performance artist at all. She's joyful, down to earth, and fun—an ideal lunch companion.

And this is fitting, since at MoMA, each performance by Knowles allows 12 guests to join her for lunch and conversation at the cafe on the second floor, at one of the communal wood tables, decorated with 1950s style vinyl. The original score for the performance follows:

The Identical Lunch: a tunafish sandwich on wheat toast with lettuce and butter, no mayo, and a large glass of buttermilk or a cup of soup was and is eaten many days of each week at the same place and at about the same time.

The score does double duty—as instructions for a simple lunch, sure, but also as an opportunity to examine some everyday pleasure. It has its beginnings in the early 1970s, when Knowles was living as an artist in New York City and took her lunch breaks at a Flatiron luncheonette, Riss Food, near artist Philip Corner's studio on West 22nd Street. As the two lunched together, Corner noticed that Knowles ordered the same thing every day, without deviation.

Like a food blogger possessed, he decided to make a meticulous account of everything that came under view: the waitresses, the lunches, the menu, the regulars, the conversations. Corner decided to lunch with Knowles every day, detailing his account of everything, tasting everything on the menu. His book, The Identical Lunch, happens to be a beautiful snapshot of New York's luncheonette culture (checks vary from 80 to 85 cents).

Knowles wrote her own book, too. The Journal of the Identical Lunch was published in 1971 and holds her own matter-of-fact accounts of the lunches, alongside other artists' accounts—some submit their checks without comment, others type up pretty prose, others document their lunches in the style of a hardboiled detective story, or absurd screenplay. In my favorite, the contributor, newly separated from his wife, writes a hilarious and pathetic account of his day, centered around his participation in the performance of eating a tunafish sandwich (the eating of which, he worries, will give him urethritis).

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Forty years later, Knowles sustains the performance, even as its venue changes. And how does MoMA's sandwich compare to the old one at Riss? "It's better-quality bread," says Knowles, "and the tuna is quite extraordinary, certainly not from a can." It's no surprise then that Knowles regards the Terrace and Cafe 2's executive chef, Lynn Bound, as a kind of artist.

Bound prepares a light, modern tuna salad by cleaning and poaching the meat, then curing it gently. She tosses the fish with a mixture of olive oil, lemon zest, fennel, black olives, and capers. For the performance, Bound serves it on buttered wheat toast with a side of soup (the day I chat with her, it's carrot-parsnip) and a little cup of cold buttermilk.

"In a way," says curator Kathy Halbreich, "it's about inviting the public even closer to the artwork, and to Alison. But I also think it's really neat because it's hard to know who the performer is. Is it Alison? Or is it the viewer? I like that blurring. I like that, in a sense, it puts the responsibility in the lap of the visitor, who must participate by making meaning of what he or she sees."

Knowles's book opens with a timeless quote from a skeptic, who when told what all these artists were doing, scribbling notes at their tables, scoffed: "What's there to write about? It's just a lousy tunafish sandwich."

True (though Riss has closed and, sadly, it's impossible to now verify the lousiness of its sandwiches). But it turns out the Identical Lunch—the book, the performance, the idea—isn't the story of a sandwich. Because good food stories are never just about the sandwiches: they're about the people who make them, want them, waste them, and return for them, each day, seeking the comforting sameness of lunch, however plain.

"Lunch has that inherent quality," Knowles says. "It's the perfect example of how you can be looking at things, hard, and miss what's right in front of you."

Check MoMA's calendar for Knowles's upcoming performances, and to make a reservation. Lunch is free with museum admission, but registration is required.